Sweet Molly

Agnes Tennenbaum

Looking back at my early childhood is like looking through a kaleidoscope that projects not just the variety of shapes and colors but images, too. I was lucky enough to spend a great part of my childhood with my grandmother, who enriched my life in so many ways, taking me to the movies for the first time, to theaters, concerts and ballet. She triggered my imagination with colorful, fascinating stories about her journey to New York, in far away America, where she had gone to live as a bride, and of the variety of people she had known there-the people who named her “Sweet Molly.” I have only to turn the kaleidoscope to see her, barely 17, standing with her handsome husband Ira at the rail of the ship that was carrying them to the New World.

They made an attractive picture. Molly was no great beauty, but even then she had something very unusual about her if you cared to look into those amber eyes that sparkled with fire and seemed to challenge the world. She was a petite, well-shaped girl, with light brown hair. Ira, tall and dark, sported a well-waxed handlebar mustache and was dressed in the high fashion of the 19th century.

They had left Hungary following their wedding; some people said Molly chose Ira because he was willing to leave family and country behind to take her to America. It was well known by all that she wanted to escape her strong-willed and domineering stepmother. At any rate, they now were on their way to the New World, and could consider themselves lucky. Because they traveled first class, they didn't have to experience the terrifying misery of Ellis Island.

Upon arrival they settled in one of the tenement houses on the east side of Lower Manhattan, quite a contrast to the sparkling clean town they had left in Hungary, where every street was like a park. One would think that Molly would be unhappy in the densely populated tenement house among the dirty streets where the foul-smelling garbage was picked up only occasionally. On the contrary, she felt a certain kinship with her fellow immigrants who came from all over the globe to make their home in America. She even managed to learn some Italian, Russian and Polish. Like most Hungarian Jews, Molly did not speak Yiddish, but in her new neighborhood she picked up some Yiddish words as well. She exchanged recipes with the women and smiled shyly at the men. Day after day, the tantalizing, delicious smell of cooking and baking drifted out of her kitchen, and her neighbors were invited to sample her food.

Another of her gifts was her great knowledge of medicinal herbs, which made her a welcome member of the neighborhood. She could cure chest colds, stomach aches and ague, keeping away the doctor whom her poor neighbors could hardly afford. It was during this time that they began to call her “Sweet Molly.”

Ira, on the other hand, did not fare so well. He could hardly make ends meet. Without their families' constant financial assistance, they would have been destitute. One of four sons from a well-to-do family, Ira did not fit easily into the working class. Each letter he received reminded him that, while he was struggling, one after the other of his brothers had become successful professionals. One was a doctor, one a lawyer, and the other had become a rabbi.

A few years of the unending financial pressures of life in America, and the additional responsibility of a family with a baby daughter, finally became too much for Ira. Shortly after the birth of their second child, a son, they returned to Hungary where Ira soon was hired by the railroad.

Life became much easier, but Molly felt a great sadness and in the stillness of the Hungarian night she let her tears flow. As she cried silently into her pillow, she longed for the land she had loved so much. In spite of the dirty streets and the overcrowded tenement houses, she missed her New York neighbors and secretly wished to raise her children in America.

The years brought eight more children, and while the youngest was still in diapers, Ira was struck down by a mysterious illness and died. It was up to Molly to raise her ten children. She was still young, but who would marry a poor widow with such a brood? She had no illusions about her predicament, and the years that followed were a constant struggle for survival. Nevertheless, her children grew up to be decent citizens, and one by one they got married. As they became successful they took care of her needs, and she no longer had to struggle.

The final vivid images through my kaleidoscope take me to the war years. It was 1944, and Molly was nearly eighty years old. Her hair was done after the latest fashion. She wore nail polish and fine clothes. Her mind was sharp and her body still youthful. Untouched by the hardships of her life, her amber eyes still glowed with the intense fire of her youth. When the German tanks rolled through the streets of my hometown, when the Hungarians refused to let her and her two American-born children return to the United States, when they rounded up my whole family, stripped us of all our possessions and put us in the ghetto because we were Jews, the only person who took all the degradation and suffering calmly was Sweet Molly, my grandma.

The last time I saw her was June 16, 1944. The airless, filthy cattle train arrived at one of the worst concentration camps in Nazi Germany with its degraded, ill-fated cargo. We had been in separate cars on that train, but I saw her gingerly getting off, and I ran to her. I did not want to cry. I only looked at her. After the perilous journey, she looked very tired, but she held her head high. Her back was still straight.

She was about the same as usual – only the fire was gone from her amber eyes.