The Small Embroidered Dress

As a small child I loved my mother’s hands. She had long, elegant fingers and smooth, rounded fingernails that she often painted dark red. I loved how gracefully she folded her hands in her lap when listening to someone speak, and how animated they became when she was telling a story. Her hands could describe the depth of her affection, the size of the sky, the amount of love in a kiss.

My mother as a child

Those hands could arrange flowers, write a letter in long, slanted loops, help me glue sugar cubes together to make a school project. When I was sick, my mother’s hands smoothed my hot forehead, made long strokes up and down my back, caressed my flushed cheeks. And when I was well, her hands would tickle me under the chin and arms until I erupted in laughter. Those same hands held me up when I was weak from chemotherapy and reassured me after the complicated birth of my daughter.

Hands for holding

I was lucky enough to have my mother and her beautiful hands for forty years. And in the final weeks of her life I was able to hold and kiss them and tell her what a gift she was to me and everyone who knew her.

A few weeks ago I came across a book did a double take because the picture on the front cover so closely resembles a picture I have of my mother that was taken when she was a young girl. The girl pictured on that book is Lola Rein Kaufman. I have not been able to stop thinking about her since that day.

Lola is a survivor of the holocaust. When Lola was a very young girl, her mother was murdered by the Gestapo. Lola’s grandmother made the decision to entrust her granddaughter to the care of a Ukrainian woman who was forced to hide Lola in a dirt hole beneath a barn for many months.

For the entire nine months that Lola was hidden in that dark hole, she wore a small white dress that her mother had lovingly hand embroidered with flowers. Lola survived the holocaust and now lives in New York, has grandchildren and a home that she describes in the book The Hidden Girl (with coauthor Lois Metzger) as full of light.

The dress that Lola’s mother adorned for her is now part of an exhibit called Silent Witness in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The following is a fascinating talk that Lola gave with Lois Metzger in April 2009 at the New York Society Library.

Since learning about Lola I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother’s hands. I’ve been wishing I could somehow share my mother’s hands with Lola and comfort that part of her that will always be fragile.

The only way I know how to do this is through words, and by sharing the story of Lola and her dress. I hope that you will connect with her bravery and be inspired to use your hands  to create love and art and all good things. Lola’s story moved me to write a poem.

LOLA REIN’S DRESS

The embroidery at her neck
is the steel rail laid as blind hem
along the countryside.
The green chain of stems
sewn at the sternum
is the suture knitting a wound
linking red flower mouths,
and the bluebottle skin of bodies
packed in cattle cars.
Her mother’s fingers bind silence
to the child’s lips as they crouch
between the mud walls of a barn.

When she draws the line
of history, she traces her
mother’s backstitch,
the fine needle of memory
that passes through cloth,
hands sunk into the grain
of yellow fabric, boning
the ribs, cracking
the lice. She remembers
the ditch of hunger, the walls
of shoes, the broadcloth
of burning sky, and always
the dark hole in a vegetable cellar
where a small girl hides
in a hand sewn dress.