Saturday, November 8, 2008

In Memoriam

Mary Baran/Roza Kluger

Dear friends,

I am very sad to tell you that my mother died in Montreal on Wednesday, October 22. The night before, she watched "Tootsie" (for the umpteenth time) with Angela, a caring staff member at her nursing home, and they laughed uproariously. On Wednesday she was well and cheerful, read a magazine, and enjoyed every last bite of lunch. Afterwards, she lay down for a nap on a golden fall afternoon, and had a fatal arrhythmia. She was 87.

I have spoken of her in the context of our recent revelations and my history with her in that regard, as well as my first reactions to the discovery. I wanted to tell you a little more about her and her life, and how much of what I value in my own life I learned from her. She was born on March 11, 1923 in Przemysl, Poland. She was an outgoing, vivacious, very attractive and intelligent young woman growing up before the war. She learned many languages fluently, English, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Russian, German, Italian, French, ancient Greek, Latin and, I recently discovered, Hebrew and Yiddish. (My uncle just gave me her book of off-color Yiddish jokes, where I found a number of grammar corrections in her hand). She played the accordion amazingly, dancing with a big 120 bass Scandalli like it was made of paper. She was also a virtuoso whistler -- she had practiced under the covers at night when she was a child. She was close to her handsome and gentle brother, Zygmunt, two years her junior, and to her parents, Dorka (Halpern), an incomparable cook, and Bernard Kluger, a powerfully built machinist with an almost Zen aura of peacefulness. The family was not deeply religious, but they observed the holidays and traditions of a Jewish household.

Mary was eighteen when the war broke out, but still went to Lwow and studied medicine until the Germans invaded Russia. She returned to Przemysl where she was interred in the ghetto, and did forced labor. She met my father Jakub Cytryn around this time, a civil engineer whose mother's brother was the revered David Guzik, JDC Director in Poland. Around the time of the first set of Aktions she and her parents escaped with forged documents and new identities, surviving the war by hiding in a dirt floor hut owned by a Polish man named Sawitzki in Mogila (outside of Krakow). She supported her parents by bicycling many kilometers every day to work in a tobacco factory. Zygmunt survived the war, too, fighting with the First Polish Armored Division under General Maczek that became part of the First Canadian Army. Many other relatives were lost in the Holocaust. My father was the only one of his large immediate family who survived.

After the war, Mary lived with my father, now known as John Baran, in Silesia, where she ran his construction office. I was born in Zabrze in 1947. In 1949 we emigrated to Israel. We fled Poland with almost no possessions, but Mary would not leave without our enormous black Giant Schnauzer, Peter, a German messenger dog whom she rescued at the end of the war when he was about to be shot by the retreating army. Peter was undoubtedly the only Nazi-trained dog to make Aliyah. Later Peter drowned off the beaches of Tel Aviv, and my parents walked up and down the sand for weeks looking for him.

We emigrated to Montreal in 1951, and Mary taught Kindergarten and finished a
Ph.D. in Classics. She worked hard, raised me, struggled with anxiety and
depression, and also struggled in a sometimes difficult marriage. My father's
war experiences had wrought their damage on him, too, but she was devoted to him for life.

She was a natural teacher, and had immense patience, with me, and with the hundreds of Kindergarten students fortunate enough to start their school careers in her "magic kingdom" of a classroom. She taught me to love learning, and to
approach the world with intellectual curiosity. She taught me to love music, not just passively, but with hands-on gusto. Even when she stopped recognizing people and didn't speak, she could sit down at the little keyboard in her room and play through a Gershwin tune, in time and with all the complicated chords. She taught me to fall madly in love with animals, starting, of course, with Peter. She had a wicked sense of humor, and even when rendered non-verbal by Alzheimer's, she'd make sight gags with small props. She taught me to find humor in the detail of everyday life. And she tried to teach me, not altogether successfully, to be "a mild judge of others," as her beloved father Bernard had put it.

Like her father, Mary had endless stories and sayings, an "apropos" for every occasion. When someone proposed an activity she had decided not participate in, she would say "Include me out!" I hear myself using the phrase now and then, in her intonation. After a long, complex life, Mary included herself out. I feel the loss even more keenly having just found a large piece of her life she had successfully hidden for so long.

-- Roma Baran


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