Unbreakable Bonds: A Journey of Strength, Family, and Self-Discovery

Manuscript Type
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
A young woman must find inner strength to care for herself and others, and redefine what family means. She faces adversity and a new world as she loses those that care for her, and ultimately must decide whether she can depend on herself rather than family. Based on the true story of my grandmother.
First 10 Pages

Grodno, Russia, 1904

Celia stood on the threshold of the elementary school exit anxiously scanning the playground. She barely noticed that she was partially blocking the doorway, didn’t notice the children bumping in to her. Every muscle was tensed and her fists were clenched at her sides, she was concentrating on the crowd in the play yard. A wide grin spread across her face and her hands relaxed as she spotted her brother Sam, and she threaded her way through the crowd until she reached him. Mostly mothers picked up the children, but Sam wasn’t the only big brother. He came to fetch her every day since their mother was working. He was with a group of boys each waiting for a younger sibling. Celia grabbed his hand and ignored his friends. He waved to the other boys as they made their way through the school yard to the street. It was autumn and the crisp air and falling leaves hurried them along.

“How was your day?”

“Ok. We sang a song for the headmaster.”

“I hope you mouthed the words, you can’t carry a tune at all.”

Celia laughed and gave Sam a shove, and they ran to the end of the street.

“No Hebrew school today. Do you want to go home to Mama or come with me to do the shopping.”

“With you.”

Celia knew Sam wasn’t surprised, she always wanted to be with him. He didn’t mind having her tag along, even when his friends teased him about always bringing his little sister. People were often amused by how well spoken she was. She rarely played with children her own age, and spending so much time with 11 year old boys definitely impacted her behavior. Of course Sam and Celia squabbled like normal siblings, but they really were good friends.

The cobbled streets of Grodno were crowded in the late afternoon gloom. They picked their way around the horse droppings and dodged the carriages, and made their way toward the quieter Jewish section of the city. They walked through the main square, holding their noses as they passed the non-kosher food stalls with the smell of cooked sausages. When they reached the large wooden Synagogue that marked the beginning of the Jewish part of town they slowed their pace and Celia began to skip at Sam’s side. This part of town was home. The going became slow as they were greeted by other children and friends of their mother. Several times they stopped to chat, but never for long. Everyone was in a hurry to get home before dark.

Celia skipped along next to Sam, humming the song she had performed in school that day. Her brown hair contrasted with his darker curls, but there was a strong family resemblance. Both had round faces and deep dimples. Both had brown eyes that crinkled almost shut when they smiled. Mama said that Celia, Sam and Rivtche, the oldest, looked like their father, while the others looked like Mama.

During the short walk to the market stalls Celia chatted away, unaware of Sam’s pensive mood. Celia was happiest when she was with Sam. With Mama so busy it was Sam that she turned to for comfort. She felt safe and cared for, she knew he understood her struggles and cheered her successes. She copied his mannerisms and even had a little cap that used to be his that she insisted on wearing. Little girls didn’t wear caps in 1904, but she didn’t care. Celia just wanted to be cared for, and that was Sam’s job. At 11 he was the man of the family, with Papa gone and Morris in America.

They reached the first market stall, and Sam began to work through Mama’s list.

“Hello Madam.”

“Hello Sam, Celia. Do you hear from those pretty sisters of yours?”

“They are doing well. Eva is working in Uncle Green’s pharmacy, and Jennie is working for a milliner in New York.”

“You tell your Mama I said hello. What can I get for you today?”

This was repeated at each stall until they had purchased all that they needed. Bread, fruit and vegetables, and today there was even a chicken. Sam carefully doled out the zlotys and kept track of the costs so that he could tell Mama exactly. At the last stall Sam bought a kichel for the two of them to share. They sat on the curb and licked their fingers so as not to miss a crumb. Celia snuggled up to Sam as they shared the last bites.

Finally they started toward home. Celia was dragging a little, carrying the bundles.

Sam slowed down to match Celia’s pace. He took a few more of the packages and took her hand.

“Did Mama read Morris’s last letter to you?” Sam said it casually but Celia could tell this was important.

“Not yet.”

“He wants her to send me to New York to live with him and Yetta. He says they have enough money for my tickets.”

“She won’t!”

“She’s thinking about it. Imagine living in America! They even have a room just for me, and a big grassy yard for the children.”

Celia stopped walking and nearly dropped her bundles. She stamped her foot and stared at Sam.

“Sam, no!”

Her face reminded Sam of her temper tantrums when she was younger, and he thought he’d better change the subject. Celia pushed the thought of life without Sam to the back of her mind. Mama would never let him go, she didn’t need to worry. Mama needed him to take care of Celia, she wouldn’t let him go across the ocean without them.

Grodno, Summer, 1906

Celia was so high up that she could see the red top of the wooden Shul several blocks away. The boys were running and laughing, oblivious of the long drop down just a few feet from where they were playing. The flat part of the roof shimmered with the heat of mid-day. It wasn’t the ideal playground for children, but in the middle of the city it was the best they could find. From high up on the roof the children could see the city of Grodno, from the tenement-like building underneath them, to the grand houses high on the hill. The roof was a scary place, but Sam was always there. Except that soon he wouldn’t be there. He would never be there again, and the cold ball in the pit of her stomach would not let her forget that he was leaving forever.

“Celia, pay attention, you’re in the way.” Iosef shoved her so that she almost fell. He was taller than Sam, and his shirt was tailored to fit him perfectly. Celia looked to Sam for his usual protection, but he didn’t even notice. She scowled at Iosef and moved away.

Sam was her closest friend and protector. He was a stocky boy, solid in both appearance and manor. You could depend on Sam, and all the boys knew it. He had her same brown eyes, although his were often crinkled in amusement while hers were usually serious and worried. His face was rounder than hers, with the same dimple in both cheeks when he smiled, which was often. At 6 years old, Celia was still allowed to wear the short skirts that little girls wore. But they were heavy and tripped her up, today even more than normally. She was hot and uncomfortable, in addition to the fear that made her chest feel tight.

Mama often left Sam in charge of her while she worked. He took her to school and picked her up after. He allowed her to follow him everywhere he went. The boys were not happy about this, but he made them put up with her. He even seemed to enjoy having her tag along most of the time. He was the ideal big brother. His teasing was gentle and he was cheerful and kind.

Sam’s friends raised and raced pigeons. Celia was scared of the pigeons and the roof where they lived but overcame the fear to be near Sam. They were often up on the dirty roof. Sam would make sure she was well away from the edge and would always keep an eye out for her while he played with his friends. She wasn’t allowed to join in the play but she could listen and play nearby. None of the other boys had to watch out for younger children. Sometimes they ordered her around, but Sam wouldn’t let them really bully her, so she didn’t mind. His best friend was Iosef, he had the most pigeons. Today Iosef and Sam had two favorite pigeons and were competing on who could send a message fastest to the boys on a neighboring roof. Celia heard the laughter as they read what was written, so she knew the messages were naughty.

“It’s my turn, Celia bring me that bit of paper.” Sam didn’t usually order her around, Celia looked up in surprise.

“Ready boys? Here they come!”

Iosef and Sam released the pigeons, and all of the boys yelled, rooting for their favorite one to come in first. Celia was momentarily distracted from her funk to join in the cheering.

Sam hadn’t told the boys that he was leaving. He had seen how isolated other boys had become once people knew that they were leaving. Sam had told Celia not to tell, and it took every ounce of her brain to remember not to tell. It was all she could think about. Usually she loved the sweet air on top of the roof, and would pretend that she was a pigeon carrying an important message for Sam. But today her wings wouldn’t flap and her smile wouldn’t grow. The roof felt dirtier and hotter than ever. The boys teased her endlessly, they could sense she was a sourpuss and were meaner than normal. They were running around in their knickers and loose tunics, surefooted in their thick boots. Celia was wearing her favorite lacy blouse that normally made her feel so grown-up, but today it just felt too tight and made her hotter.

On the way home she whined at Sam, she couldn’t believe he was so cool about his impending departure. They weaved between horse pulled carts and crowds of people heading home for the evening. The smell of the horses blended with the oily scent of fried food from the vendor’s carts. Celia didn’t notice the smells or the noise. Grodno was somewhere between a big city and a large town, and the end of the day bustle was in full force as they headed home. They passed friends of Mama and their older siblings, and everyone greeted them. The Jewish part of town was full of grown-ups watching out for them, and Celia rarely left that part of Grodno.

“Sam, don’t go to America!”

Celia moved closer to Sam and grabbed his hand tightly.

“Don’t be silly, I can’t wait to go.” Sam wiggled his hand free and moved so that there was a little space between them. “Morris says I’m to go to a big school and that I’ll learn English in no time. He lives in a big house with plenty of space for his boys to run and play. You and Mama will come along soon, as soon as they can save up the money for two more tickets. You’ll barely have time to miss me.” Sam rarely showed his impatience with her, but today he didn’t want his happiness dampened by her sadness.

“Won’t you miss Iosef and the boys? Won’t you miss me and Mama?”

“Of course I will, but I’ll make new friends. You and Mama will join the rest of us in no time.”

Celia was near tears. She was almost running to keep up with Sam’s fast pace. He was usually so patient with her, but today his excitement was palpable.

“But Sam, do you even remember Morris? Who will take care of you? You were little when Morris left for America.”

“Morris left just before Papa died. I was older than you are now. How could I forget Morris, he’s my brother.”

“Why can’t me and Mama go with you? Mama just wants us all to be together, you’re making her so sad!”

“You know why. There isn’t enough money for two more tickets for the train and the ship. They all know Mama is sad, they’re doing what they can.”

Sam remembered when they had moved from the village of Zhaludok to Grodno, from the small town to the big city, but Celia had been a toddler. Maybe change was easier for him. Grodno was all she knew and America was impossible to understand. Her imagination couldn’t take it in. She barely remembered the older children, although they were made real by Mama and Sam constantly discussing them, and by the letters and postcards that arrived weekly. They were more like characters in her books, imagination rather than memory. But Mama’s main aim in life was reuniting with her children, and Celia felt that goal in the core of her being.

When they first arrived in Grodno after Papa died, Mama was always busy trying to support them. Eva and Jennie helped.

But it wasn’t very long that they were all together. Soon the older ones started to leave for America. First was Morris. He was visiting Uncle in London when Papa died in 1900. Uncle didn’t want Morris to go back to Russia, since he was old enough to be drafted at 21 years old. For a Jew to be drafted was an awful thing, he would need to serve for many years, be forced to eat non-kosher food and would be pushed to the front in any battle. Morris went to New York. Soon letters began to arrive about the New World. It wasn’t easy, but eventually he began to do well. He found a job in construction where hard work was rewarded and not speaking English wasn’t much of an impediment.

Life in Grodno was hard. Pograms (organized slaughter of Jews, often with the encouragement of the government and police) were taking place all around, although not yet in Grodno. But there was always fear.

Mama’s sister sent for Eva and Jennie. Soon Rivtche, the oldest, and her husband Aaron and their four children left for America.

And that left Celia and Sam alone with Mama. Poor Mama lived for the letters and postcards. The postcards came often, with tiny writing covering every inch of paper. Mama would read them over and over, reading them to Celia and Sam until they could recite them from memory. They described the voyage over, the strange new language, the funny clothes and different ways of talking and acting. Sometimes the letters would include a photograph.

Morris got married and purchased a house. He had been in America for 6 years now, and his English was good enough that he could interact with clients at his building firm. He wanted Sam to come while he was young enough to learn the language with no accent. Poor Mama, the thought of letting her little boy go! It took a lot of letters, but eventually Mama agreed. Sam was excited at the thought of adventure, it was hard for him to understand Mama’s heartbreak. And he probably didn’t think about Celia at all until it was time to go. Sam was 11 years old when he left in 1904. Imagine saying goodbye to your 11 year old son?

Sam leaving was the end of Celia’s world. At 6 years old she would need to get herself to school, find her own friends, do her schoolwork alone. She still would have Mama, but Sam was her rock and she couldn’t imagine not having him to take care of her. Mama had always taught them to rely on family above all else, but how do you do that if your family is on the other side of the world? All Celia wanted was to be cared for, Mama was too busy. Sam was her everything, and the world without him was a scary place.

The day finally came for Sam to leave. The agent had arranged for Sam to travel with another Jewish family from Grodno, and they had their own good-byes to say at the station.

“Sam, will I see you soon?” Celia clutched at his trousers, not wanting to let him leave.

“Of course, we’ll all be together before you know it.” Sam leaned down and gave her a tight hug, an unusual show of affection for him.

Mama continued with the stream of instructions she had been giving him for weeks, with do’s and don’t’s for the trip and messages for the family in America. Celia wished she would stop, she just wanted to run away with Sam and end this awful day.

“Mama I know! You’ve told me everything a hundred times. I promise I won’t eat any traif and I’ll be careful.” Sam was anxious to begin the journey.

“You must listen to Morris and his wife. Be a help around the house, be patient with the children – I know you will.” The tears were squeezing out of the corners of Mama’s eyes, no matter how hard she tried to contain them. She didn’t want the children to see her cry. She turned away, and Celia finally had her chance.

She threw herself at Sam, but he was looking around for his friends.

“Please don’t go Sam, I don’t want you to go.” She knew it was too late, but she couldn’t stop herself.

And finally the train was boarding, and everyone had one last hug. Sam picked up his suitcase and climbed aboard. Celia looked at the ground, no more tears to cry. She held Mama’s hand and tried not to think about tomorrow.