Start of Main Content

The Promise

By Charlene Schiff

I brought her home and had a difficult time finding the right place for her. At first, I put her on the couch in the living room. She disturbed me there—she was too prominent. Now she sits on a bunch of pillows in the corner of the living room where she seems comfortable, content, and not demanding.

Forty-nine years after the very first doll, this one greets me every morning when I walk into my living room. Bittersweet memories rush in, even though this is a different doll.

The year was 1939. It was time for the semiannual shopping trip for clothes. Mama usually outfitted my sister and me before Passover and before the High Holidays. I came home from school on a lovely spring day, had some cookies and milk, then we set out to go shopping. Mama told me to put on clean socks as we were going for new shoes as well.

We stopped in one of the shoe stores and after trying on a number of shoes, we selected a pair of lovely light brown shiny shoes. As we walked out of the store, I glanced at the adjacent window display. What an enchanting picture. In the window was a floor-model Singer sewing machine and behind it sat the most beautiful mechanized doll in the world. She sat on a chair, her big blue eyes opened and closed, her blond long hair framed her lovely face in golden ringlets. She wore a pink ruffled blouse with puffed sleeves, and her arms and hands moved back and forth—I stood mesmerized.

Mama watched in amazement. I had never been interested in dolls. I was a tomboy. She looked at me lovingly and said, “You like this doll, don’t you?” “Oh yes, Mama,” I replied. “I’ll get it for you, my sweet child,” she said. She went into the store while I admired the window display. After a few minutes, she came out and said, “This doll is not for sale—I’m so sorry.”

We continued with our shopping. My attention switched to pretty spring outfits, and by the time we returned home, I didn’t think much about the doll. A few days later, Mama told me that she spoke with the manager of the Singer Sewing Machine store and he promised to sell her the doll in a few months when the display would be dismantled. “So you see, I’ll be able to keep my promise to you after all,” Mama said. I went back a number of times to look at the doll, which I already considered mine. For me as a child, summer was relaxing and carefree.

I remember traveling to the consulate once more with Papa, Mama, and my older sister, Tia, and returning again without anything definite regarding our emigration to America. Then came September 1 and World War II. Eastern Poland, including my town, Horochow, became part of the Soviet Union. The Singer Company display disappeared overnight. We had barely adjusted to the Soviet occupation when Hitler broke his agreement with Stalin and invaded eastern Poland. My town was overrun almost immediately. With the arrival of the Germans, all our dreams and expectations for a normal life were shattered. In the first days, the Germans burned all our synagogues, Torahs, and prayer books. They took my father, along with other Jewish leaders, never to be heard from again. The rest of us were herded into a ghetto, where everyone over 14 years of age was ordered to slave labor. I still had my mother and sister, and their love compensated for all the horrible conditions.

When the ghetto was liquidated and I lost them both—that’s when my difficult task of survival started. Somehow I cheated death, which was always one step behind me. By the end of the war, there I was, all alone, a childhood lost, my entire family and friends gone. The burden of my sole survival weighed heavily on my soul. My new life in America became a great challenge. I worked hard to become Americanized. I met a wonderful man whom I married and my married life started with my becoming a military wife.

In 1988, my husband Ed, our son Stephen, and I visited Poland. After a traumatic trip to my home- town, we ended up in Warsaw, in an open market where I spotted a pretty doll. I bought it. She was not to be compared with the beautiful doll from the Singer window display. But she was lovely—a constant reminder of what might have been.

©2011, Charlene Schiff. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.