I’m always intrigued by the paths that spark an author’s first novel. For me, it was being an expat in Hong Kong with no job, no family, and almost no friends. For Laura Morelli, it was the conventions of academic scholarship that made the history of art dull and inaccessible. For accomplished chef, Cathy Lewis, it was the discovery of a tattered suitcase containing a worn red journal that belonged to her father and mementos from his six-week trek in 1933 through Europe with his Boy Scout Troop on their way to the 4th World Scout Jamboree held in Godollo, Hungary. Her father documented in his journal that while on the way to the Jamboree, in Vienna he met a 16-year-old German Hitler Youth, a former Boy Scout. After conversing with the young man her father wrote, “I found him to be a fine fellow.”
That discovery made Cathy wonder: did this young man turn out to be one of Hitler’s Wehrmacht responsible for the death of millions, including her own relatives? Ultimately it sparked Cathy to write The Road We Took.
With the rise of anti-Semitism around the globe, I am reminded of my mom’s journey to Panama. That sojourn led to a new life in the U.S., one she had never foreseen. Her life began in South America. My mom’s father was a bit of a nomad, relocating their family around South America during the early years of her life.
My grandparents escaped Poland in March 1919, leaving all of their families behind. The Polish border town of Baranovichi had suffered occupations by Russian and German troops, causing political upheaval and instability. Anti-Semitism was on the rise there as the constant presence of German or Russian troops contributed to the atmosphere of biased hatred.
My mom’s parents had family living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it was there that they married and began their family in 1924 with the birth of my mother, Matilda. In January of 1944, at age nineteen, my mother moved from Quito, Ecuador, to just outside of the canal zone in Colón, Panama. She moved into a simple Panamanian flat and began her new life.
She found gainful employment as a translator teaching Spanish to officers at Ft. Sherman, the U.S. Army base there. Ft. Sherman was located on the (northern) end of the Panama Canal, directly opposite Colón. Matilda Silverstone met Captain Raymond D. Lewis of Rochester, New York, at the officers club on base. It was there that their courtship unfolded.
After a whirlwind romance, they married in July of 1944, while the war in Europe raged. Both my parents confessed to “love at first sight,” and it was kismet.
The U.S. Army granted my father and his bride a two-week leave after their wedding.
My dad decided the best way to celebrate their marriage was to bring my mom home to Rochester to meet his family, but the trip was delayed by a few months due to government red tape. Once cleared to travel, the newlyweds boarded a U.S. Naval ship, anchoring at the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, where my mom set foot on American soil for the first time. The U.S. Army provided transportation to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and from there, a train took them all the way home to Rochester.
Unbeknownst to my father, his father published a wedding announcement in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle stating that the captain had a whirlwind marriage to a “Matilde Perla,” the daughter of an Englishman and a Spanish-American woman,” which was an outright lie. My mother’s maiden name was originally Zilberstein, but at some point, her father anglicized it to Silverstone.
The intention seemed evident to my parents, rightfully outraged by this willful obfuscation. My grandfather was ashamed that not only did his firstborn marry an immigrant but a Jewish immigrant. My mother’s family was orthodox and furious that she married a “goyim.” The marriage did not get off to a good start, having neither in-law’s blessing.
That was just the beginning. My mother was beautiful. My father was under the assumption that his family would receive his new bride with open arms. They would love her as he did and be kind to her in his absence once he returned to the base at Colón. As it turns out, that was a false hope.
My father’s sisters resented my mother’s beauty and “power” over my father. They discounted my parents’ love for each other, believing that my father made a gigantic, ill-informed mistake. The expression of animosity came in the form of a letter written by my dad’s younger sister. She accused my mother of using her beauty to charm my father, labeling their relationship “juvenile,” based solely on physical attraction.
His family warned my father to remind his wife not to speak of her background or history.
My father returned to the base at Colón, while my mother lived on the top floor of her in-law’s home. Imagine being barely twenty years old, married, without her husband, in a new country, away from her family, while living with a family that despised her. Those wounds never healed; they were a specter, haunting her throughout her life.
Mom was naïve as to why her new family was rejecting her, but they were cowards at heart like most bullies. They ignored her, eschewing her very existence.
My grandfather was put in charge of the finances to be doled out to her, as she had no bank account, my father thinking it would be easier to have his father handle the money. How embarrassing for her to ask for money for personal items-my grandfather expected a detailed account of how she spent every penny. Mom lived with her new family for a year and a half. Not once did my father’s two sisters or brother ever ask her to go to a movie, shopping, or a meal. Eventually, my grandmother warmed to my mom, but she was the only family member who did.
My mom busied herself with language classes and American history lessons at a local high school. It was there that she heard the pejorative sentiment of hatred toward Jews, blaming them for the world’s many ills, even World War I. Jewish jokes were a daily staple spoken by students and faculty. Despite that, she tutored students in Spanish, making money to keep her from having to beg her father-in-law.
She wrote her husband every day, never speaking of her ill-treatment. She did not complain to my dad, but that suppression came at a cost to her health and emotional well-being. Until my father returned home from the war in January 1946, my mother lived a solitary life, lonely and skeptical of her supposed family and new country.
Honoring my mom through writing has helped me to grapple with the reality of anguish and pain she endured. On her behalf, I press on to sound the battle cry illuminating the message of how senseless hatred can destroy a life, a family, a world.
Thank you, Cathy, for sharing your family’s story. Prejudice and hatred based on differences such as religion, ethnicity, or skin colour should have no place in civilized society. I hope The Road We Took will illuminate many hearts and minds.
The Road We Took by Cathy A. Lewis ~~ In 1933, before World War II, and the Holocaust, the world was unaware of Hitler’s plans to exterminate millions.
Author Cathy A. Lewis discovered a tattered leather suitcase containing her deceased father’s journal documenting his six-week trek through Europe in 1933 while on his way to the 4th Boy Scout World Jamboree.
Inspired by her father’s historical recount, The Road We Took is the four-day epic tale of a desperate group of Jewish citizens attempting to escape Nazi-occupied Germany.
Fascinating characters come together in a narrative of extreme courage, budding adolescent love, and their fight for survival.
Life in Germany will never be the same as Hitler and the Nazis advance their propaganda campaign, to systematically murder the Jewish population.
And this was only the beginning.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.