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Memoir Writing

This page features a creative writing piece submitted by participants of the Adult Services Department's Memoir Writing Group. Stories and opinions of individuals are not necessarily those of the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.

For more information, contact Shari Berman.

"Dreams and Reality" by Zina Shafer
February 25th, 2018

Part 1

How I did not become a piano player.

            For as long as I remember, I loved music and songs. As a seven-year-old, I would entertain my parents by sitting on the floor in front of a chair. The chair was an imaginary piano. I was the pianist and singer, and the songs were in an imaginary French.

            When I was nine years old my mother decided that it was time to fulfill my dreams and enroll me in a music school to learn to play the piano. My mom came from a very poor family, and in her life, her dreams were never fulfilled, but she wanted to make sure that her little girl would have all the opportunities she never had.

            The problem was my parents could not afford to buy a piano. The music school was far away, and I would have to travel there by tram. This did not stop my mom. She arranged with a neighbor who owned a piano that I would come at scheduled times to practice my musical assignments.

            I took the entrance exam to the music school and was admitted. The start of the school year was in September, so I had several months to wait. In the meantime, in my elementary school, all the children were given a test for tuberculosis. My results of the test showed an infection.

            My parents were upset and tried to figure out how this had happened. They came to the conclusion that I must have caught the infection from a house guest in our apartment. Several weeks before a friend of theirs from before the war stayed with us for a few nights. He did not know anyone else in our town. I slept with my parents in their bed while he used mine.

            Nobody knows for sure how I got that infection. The pediatrician decided to send me for several months to a sanatorium to get treatment and to recover. When I came back home it was already winter. The stay in the sanatorium was beneficial. My health improved, and I was not the skinny kid I was before. However, I missed the start of the school year in music school.

            My mom was concerned about my health and did not want me to travel by tram in the cold season. My dream of playing the piano fizzled.

Part 2

How I became a pharmacist.

            My father died when I was in tenth grade when I was fifteen years old. After a three-month-long fight, he succumbed to cancer at 46. My mom was totally devastated because she adored her husband. My dad was a wonderful man, energetic, optimistic, and resourceful. His favorite saying was, “For every problem, there is a solution.” My parents were partners in making all important decisions. My mother relied on my dad’s judgment, and he usually took the lead in planning our lives.

            There she was a widow at 43, with only an elementary school education to provide for two children, fifteen and nine years old. She worked as a clerk in a rental office and made little money. She had no family; her brothers and sisters died during the war. It was hard and lonely, and she turned to me for support. We discussed every day’s decisions, and we became more like partners that loved and trusted each other.

            It was the school year 1957-1958, and I was in the eleventh grade at that time. Throughout my elementary and high school years, I had good grades in all my subjects, but my heart was in liberal arts. I loved history, languages, and literature. I was an obsessive reader. There was never a question that after high school I was going to college. At that time college in Poland was tuition-free, and all I had to do was pass an entrance exam.

            The time had come to pick a major. When I told my mother that I had a hard time choosing between journalism, law, or the Polish language, she was quiet for a long time. When she answered, she told me that she did not approve of any of those three choices. She said, “The Polish language is the base to perform any of those three professions you mentioned, and you don’t know how long you’ll live in Poland.”

            I was shocked. We never talked about leaving Poland even when my father was alive. Even so, there were after the war several emigration waves of Jews from Poland to Israel, but my parents never considered that idea. My parents believed in building a Jewish life in Poland since this was their homeland for generations. In their naivete, they bought into the unrealistic communistic theology of fraternity and equality and hoped that the existing for centuries antisemitism could be eradicated.

            Those lofty, long-held beliefs evaporated when the future of her daughter was being decided. At that moment my mother’s life experiences, lessons of history and pragmatism took over. I did not like what she said. My optimistic nature did not want to accept that somebody else can control if I stay or leave Poland. My mom said, “There may come a day when you’ll have to pack your bags and leave.” I was hurt and sad and I felt disappointed, but I trusted her enough to take seriously her opinion.

            I knew how much she loved me and that she had my best interest at heart. I told her that if I can’t pick my own path, I will let her pick my future profession. Of course, she wanted me to be a physician. It didn’t matter to me. I agreed and applied to take an entrance exam to the Medical Academy. I took the two-hour train ride from my home town of Walbrzych to the college town of Wroclaw. The exam was very competitive; for every spot, there were ten candidates.

After several weeks, I received a notification that I was not accepted and that I should come to the Academy office to take back all the documents that were submitted. My mom and I took the train together. In the office, the clerk looked at my exam results and said that I had a very high score and missed being admitted by only a few points.

She informed me that the same exam was also given at the pharmacy college and that with my score I would certainly be admitted there. The pharmacy college was part of the Medical Academy in a different part of town. We went there will all the documents, and I was admitted on the spot. In September of 1958, I started my studies to become a pharmacist.

The next several years were very hard. I had to force myself to immerse in a subject in which I was not that interested. The educational methods at the college were pure memorization of data. On top of that, the attitude towards students was hostile with a total lack of respect. On our first day of classes, we were told that fifty percent of us will not go on to the second year. The only reason that I persisted and graduated was the fear of disappointing my mom. Those hard college years were also years that brought a lot of happiness.

I developed a lifelong friendship with Ania Drimer that in many ways changed my life, but that will be another story. I met and married my husband Alex, and in 1965 delivered a beautiful baby girl. After college, I worked for almost three years as a pharmacist before leaving Poland. I did not dream of becoming a pharmacist, but I discovered that mine was a noble profession.

It was satisfying to help people in pain and discomfort and see them recover from illness. Communicating with patients and developing friendships with coworkers were the best parts of the job. Looking back, I am grateful that I listened to my mom’s advice. Having dreams but acknowledging reality are part of life.

Zina Shafer Bio: 

I was born on March 29th, 1941 in Borysow, Belarus. At that time it was part of the Soviet Union, a country. My parents escaped after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. When I was three months old, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and we were again on the run. The next four years we spent in Kyrgyzstan. After the war in 1946, my parents returned to Poland where I spent my formative years. I graduated from college in 1965 with a master’s degree in pharmacy. I emigrated with my husband and my 3-year old daughter to the U.S. in 1968. In March 2018 we celebrated 50 years in our adopted country. I worked for 35 years as a pharmacist and retired in 2002. I have two grown daughters and two grandsons. I live with my husband, Alex, in Burke, Virginia.


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