By Irene Frisch
Although my own mother has been dead for a long time, I remember her vividly, always with great love. Yet, on this Mother’s Day I am thinking about a woman who never had children of her own; a woman who touched my life with her strong and loving hand, a woman who risked her own life to save mine.
Our story began 65 years ago in our little city in Poland. My mother, a young housewife at the time, took her baby son for a walk in his stroller. Little did she know at the time that this would be the most important walk of her life. On her way to the park, she was stopped by a teenaged peasant girl.
“What a beautiful baby,” the girl exclaimed. “Can I play with him?”
This was music to the ears of a young mother, who adored her chubby firstborn.
“Surely,” she responded. “What is your name and where are you from?”
The girl was about 15 years old, blonde, with two long braids, smiling blue eyes, and a perky nose. She was barefoot — her only pair of shoes tied together and hung over her shoulder (as shoes were to be saved and not worn). In her hand she carried a colorful kerchief tied into a bundle, containing all of her possessions.
“My name is Frania,” the girl replied.
She had come to the city looking for a job in a household. While she spoke with my mother, she shook the rattle, made faces and cooed at the baby. It was obvious that she was quite smitten. My mother, who was generally not one to make hasty decisions, somehow made up her mind at that very instant.
“You have found a job right now,” she said, and took the girl home with her.
This was a time when hiring help was less complex than today. People trusted each other and small town life was easy, with no media to frighten anyone with reports of outrageous crimes.
And so, Frania became a member of our household. She had been orphaned at the age of five. Her mother, a poor farmer and widow, was left with little land and many children. The children had all started working at an early age. Frania started her first job at age six tending the geese of a wealthy farmer. Although her formal education ended at this point, she never ceased to learn. She was observant and gifted with both natural intelligence and a great deal of common sense. Although she was illiterate, she developed into a capable young woman who was well-equipped to deal with any situation she found herself in.
Frania was part of our household for 14 years, witnessing the arrival of my sister and then me. All that time she was extremely devoted to us and remained convinced that “our children” were the smartest and the most special. A devout Catholic, she instilled in us her faith and fear of God. In her own simple way, she taught us right and wrong. Her values were high and her code of ethics strong, supported by tales of her youth and by examples from village life. She gave us all the security in the world and would have easily won the approval of today’s child psychologists. During World War II she did not hesitate for one moment to save our lives, although it meant endangering her own, devising the most outlandish tactics in order to outsmart our persecutors.
Many years later, already old, she was reluctant to accept our help, afraid that she might deprive us of something. Today, dear Frania, I hope that you are in your much coveted and deserved paradise. I hope that you have learned to read and that, as you read this tribute, you are happily sharing it with your neighbors and saying “our children did it again,” as proud of me now as you always were.
Irene Frisch lives in West Hartford.
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CAP: Frania in 1974