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.

48 thoughts on “The Small Embroidered Dress

  1. Jen, this truly brought me to tears. My family is the quintessential European mish-mash; on my mother’s side, two generations of Polish Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. On my father’s, two generations of Brownshirts and SS Officers. I have both Star of David patches and journals from Auschwitz and Nazi miltary uniforms to someday show my children to teach them that despite the pain and hatred of the past; years later two survivors could step forth from the shadows, find love, and create a new reality free of hatred and segregation. Although I was raised Christian, my children and I light a menorah each Hannukah in remembrance of the ancestors we lost that taught us about strength and dignity in a time of confusion. I don’t blame my father’s relatives for their role in the Holocaust; most of them were young and confused teenagers under the control of a powerful and charismatic man. They are no more to be blamed than any soldier in a time of war. In the words of the Bible: “They knew not what they did”. I feel ever blessed to be the result of what Hitler and his ilk detested: the joining of two divergent cultures and religions that have gone forth to shed (I hope) some light and joy on the world. Much love, my P-Town sister. :)

    • Jen, I don’t even know what to say other than to tell you that I’m so moved by what you wrote. Moved to tears. And so very thankful that you shared your family’s history. (I read your comment out loud to my husband and he too is, just, wow.) The world works in mysterious ways and I truly think the two sides of your family were brought together for a reason. Have you written about this? If you haven’t, you have a very important story to put on paper, my friend. I’ll be the first to buy your book! XO to you, my P-town girl.

  2. I often write about hands, how they can be used as fists. Or how they can be open, palms up, for offering.

    Hands can hurt or protect.

    We have to choose how we use our words just like we have to think how we use our hands.

    Your mother sounds like she was wonderful. And I need to read that book!

    • Renee, (How do I get make the accent over your e?!) I love, love, love what you wrote about hands. There’s so much potential bad and for good. I spent a long time today looking through family photos examining the way different family members had their hands positioned. It was really fascinating. Lots of love there.

      I would love to hear your thoughts on the book (it is written for a YA audience, published by Scholastic). XO

  3. Lady, your writing is amazing – you have such a gift :) I feel blessed to know you and your family. Thank you for sharing your lovely poem and the beautiful thoughts about your mom.

  4. See, just what I’m talking about…can make a sailor blush and yet can still bring a such warm emotion to my heart. You’re a pretty cool chic! I’m happy to be getting to know you!

  5. Oh, Jen, your words, thoughts, pictures and memories of both your WONDERFUL MOM WHOM I LOVED WITH ALL MY HEART and your refections on Lola’s amazing life are so moving. They touched me to the core and your gift of beautiful poetry with which you honored Lola and all those whose loving hands touch others literally and figuratively gives me shivers. Your talent and heart are a treasured blend to share with others and I am so lucky to know you, love you and read your writings that are so full of deep thought and emotions. Keep writing, sharing and please stay in touch. Love, Elaine

  6. Amazing post- I love the pictures of your mom especially and the way you wrote about your hands! Made me miss my own mom being halfway across the country :) She sounds like she was a wonderful woman.
    xo

    • Breann, You are so sweet (and, I know, sassy!). Hold your mom’s hands and get all those great mom squeezes when you are visiting her. Take lots of pictures. She’s lucky to have you. And I bet she’s pretty amazing herself. XO

  7. Oh wow, I just came over b/c you shared my Cowboy the dog story. You sure returned the favor. So moving. I love your poem, but i love most of all that you want to share the comfort of your mother’s hands with the fragile place left in Lola.

  8. Love you KvetchMom. This is indeed a wonderful story followed by your beautiful poem.

    I will print this and send it to Uncle Lou as I did your letter to your Mom. The first picture of my baby sister Brona is one I took on a sunny day as we walked across the Strawberry Mansion bridge; this with my Brownie Kodak camera. I’m going to see ef I can find the rest and will send them to you.

    Aunt Edee

    • Hi Aunt Edee, I love you! Thank you for telling me more details about the picture of my mom. It’s even more special now that I know the location of the bridge & that you took the shot with your Brownie Kodak camera.

      Hugs & kisses, J

  9. What a wonderful memory of your mom and her hands. I lost my dad four years ago to brain cancer. I was telling a friend yesterday that one thing I really think of and remember about my dad are his hands. The hands he hugged me with, cheered for me, and guided me with. They weren’t particularly pretty hands- small and hairy like some men have. I guess it may also be that I have similar looking hands to my dad (minus the hair) that make me think of his. I aspire to the be the inspirational person to my children that he was to me. I can still remember him using his hands to animate his stories with and to hug me to let me know he was proud. Beautiful hands are a tribute to parents who used their hands to love and guide their children with. I hope some day that my children will think of my hands as beautiful. Thanks for your inspirational words.

    • Hi Jenny, I’m so sorry you lost your father. I know that pain all too well. I hope that all of those wonderful memories you have of him, and the example he set for you, is of some comfort. I love what you said: Beautiful hands are a tribute to parents who used their hands to love and guide their children with. I’m sure your parents will remember you with great love!

  10. Thank you, once again for sharing such an important part of all of our lives. We all need to remember the sins of the past and the hands that help us through them.
    My sister often tells me that I have our mother’s hands, something I treasure hearing because I don’t remember the look of her hands. I do remember the work they did for me: sewing every Halloween costume, making every meal herself, holding me when I sneaked down and climbed in bed with her, even though that meant having no room in her own bed because I was probably too old and tall to be there, making crafts and praying for me. My mother’s hand and heart were one and I try everyday to live what I have learned through them.
    (I will get that book right after I’m done with the ones I am reading now – thanks for the recommendation)

    Lucinda

    • Lucinda, You are such a lovely writer. Your mom sounds like she was a wonderful person and clearly you take after her. It’s so special that you have your mom’s hands. <3

  11. This is so beautiful. And this, “Her hands could describe the depth of her affection, the size of the sky, the amount of love in a kiss.”, I loved. And how true about our mothers’ hands.
    I’m going to have to get that book – it sounds incredible.

    • Heidi, Thank you so much for reading! It is an amazing story, just like so many of the other stories of children who made it through the holocaust without their parents. The courage of Lola’s mother and grandmother really gets to me. FYI: The book is written for kids (which I feel makes it all the better).

  12. That is so beautiful. Your words are such a tribute, both to your mother and to Lola. I hope my kids will feel like that about my hands one day. Though they’re not beautiful.

    • Hi Angela, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not sure that my brother thinks my mom’s hands were anything to write home about. I’m sure your kids will remember all of the wonderful ways you loved them. Love them. You know. XO

  13. Hello – I just came across your post – how beautiful! My mother is Lola Rein Kaufman. I will certainly share this with her.

    Every day I am grateful for my mother’s guiding presence and for the remarkable relationships she has with my daughters. Sorry for the loss of your mother. Sounds like you lost her too soon. May her memory always be a blessing to you.

    • Hi Deborah,

      Thank you so very much for commenting on my post. Please share my gratitude to your mother for her bravery. Speaking about her childhood memories must be painful and yet she has shared her story and that is so very important. Your mother’s experiences have touched me deeply. I’ve been reading the book she published with Scholastic to my school-aged children and still find myself compelled to write more poetry about her. Clearly the love of her grandmother and mother are very much alive in how close she is to you and your daughters. Many blessings to your family.

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