My mother, z”l, had a ketubah. It wasn’t much to look at. A not-very-fancy-affair, it was handwritten on a piece of legal-size yellow paper by Rav Zalman Sorotzkin rabbi of Lutsk, Poland — my mother’s home town. Two witnesses from the community signed it and that’s all there was to it. I found it folded up in the bottom of a dresser drawer in my parents’ bedroom when I was a kid playing amateur archaeologist.
I wasn’t impressed.
It was many years later when I heard this story from my father, z”l, that I understood dit a bit more.
My parents were married just before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. They moved to my father’s town of Trochenbrod/Lozhist. The ketubah remained with my mother, as was the custom then and now. Unlike ketubot today, it was not meant to be displayed. My mother kept hers with her at all times and guarded it carefully, as some women still do.
Good thing, too, that she did. Not long after the invasion and division of Poland, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin. My mother happened to be in Kiev at the time on a field trip with a group of local teachers (she was working for the local board of education — or whatever the office was called) and had taken her ketubah with her, not risking to leave it out of her sight. Meanwhile her husband, my father, who was a sharpshooter in the Russian army was ordered to prepare to move to the front – in the opposite direction.
God had other plans and my father was sent back home. So he boarded a Kiev-bound train – still in uniform — to find his wife. For weeks he tried to follow a trail that was growing colder and colder, believing his wife would probably have gone east to get away from the approaching battlefront. His search took him to Baku, Azerbaijan, where, as a rabbi, he found shelter in the Jewish community in this city on the Caspian coast. He elected to go onward, still searching, until he found a place of refuge in Fergana, Uzbekistan.
After two years of searching, stopping Polish refugees who escaped from the war to sk about news from home, wondering if he would ever see his wife again, he finally received word that a small group of refugees from Volhyn, his home district, had just arrived in Fergana in search of family and “lanzleit.” With the address of the home in which they were staying in his hand, my father ran to meet them and find out whatever news he could.
He walked up the front steps. He knocked on the door. The door opened and standing in front of him was the wife he hadn’t seen for two years.
The ketubah she had taken to Kiev was still with her.
They set up home in Fergana and stayed there until they received news that the war was over. My older sister, Shulamit, was born there. A few years later my other sister, Ida, was born, this time in a DP camp in Austria. I was born 5 years later, in November, 1952, just about 11months after my parents finally settled in America.
All through those years, that ketubah never left my mother’s possession. However, I can’t remember the last time I saw it. Sometime around my father’s death, I think.
Today is my mother’s first yahrzeit is May 3rd, the 11th day of Iyar. Yahrzeit a time when we think about the legacies, memories and images of those we loved. Each of us in the family has his or her own, a mental or physical keepsake we carry with us.
From my mother I have memories of her singing, her amazing cooking, her manic fussing over us and her generous hospitality. I have recordings of her, a few videos, and photos of her surrounded by her family. Unfortunately, I do not have the ketubah. I hope I find it again someday. But I do remember what it looked like and what it meant.
Much like I remember my mom.