Guatemala and me

Guatemala and me

When I woke up in Guatemala City, I looked out the window. We had arrived late at night, so this was my first view of our surroundings.

What I saw literally took my breath away. When I booked the hotel, I had no idea that it sat adjacent to a huge monument, set alongside a little pond, in a lovely park erected in tribute to Israel. There, directly beneath our window in Central America, was a giant Magen David, a marker commemorating Israel’s 50th birthday, and a stone plaque with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Several large and immaculate flags of Israel were flying proudly aloft.

Bruchim habaim to Guatemala! Quite a welcome indeed!

Our delightful cousins Ariel and Elsa gave us a personal and fascinating tour of Guatemala City, which was home to his branch of our extended family and approximately 1,000 other Jews. Their hospitality was generous, perceptive, and also lots of fun. We will never forget our incredible fish dinner in the midst of the jungle, surrounded by giant trees, balmy breezes, and cheerful birds, a place we never would have discovered independently even with the wonders of Tripadvisor and Google. They chauffeured us to visit family members and made us feel at home in a place that had been a distinct but distant part of my life.

Further binding us was the unreal six degrees of separation story. My sister’s good friend in Herzliya, Julie, another English teacher, turned out to be Ariel’s sister! Until our trip to Guatemala this puzzle piece had not been put into place. Serendipity yet again!

And how did this tale unfold? How indeed!

A letter from Guatemala was in the day’s mail. That was not a typical delivery at our Newark home. Quite extraordinary, actually. It was in the mid 1950s, during my adolescence. Guatemala City was not a place where people we knew lived. Did you know anyone from there when you were a kid? Our family lives had centered in Poland, in Augustow and Bialystok, until our grandparents migrated to America in the early 20th century. By the 1950s, our contemporary lives were in Brooklyn, Queens, Newark, and Parksville. Suddenly — Guatemala? We didn’t even know anyone in Pennsylvania or Connecticut. Who was writing from Central America?

Pop had the answers. He lived with us on Aldine Street from the 1940s, when his adored wife Peshka succumbed to years of hard work. The letter was from his sister, someone whom I eventually met and called Tante. She lived in Guatemala City, where she was very rich and had very many children. Pop knew all that, but none of the rest of us had ever heard any of it.

We learned fast!

When Pop left Europe, already a married man, he was father to two little boys. He headed for America to evade the Polish draft and build a new life for his little family. It never occurred to any of us to ask if he had siblings or parents in the old country. Not very wise of us at all. But apparently, somehow, quietly, he kept track of their lives.

Thus the letter arrived from Pop’s sister, already an elderly woman. She was having back problems, and the orthopedists in Guatemala suggested surgery. Being a Jewish woman of means, she knew she would need to travel to America for the operation. Somehow, she also knew that her brother Yitzchak, our own Pop, lived conveniently near the Newark Beth Israel Hospital where the world renowned orthopedist Dr. Henry Kessler and his very able associate Dr. Saul Firtel practiced orthopedics of the highest standards. Pop and we actually lived a short walk from the famous hospital. How lucky!

The letter was a request, written in Yiddish, which somehow Mom could read very well. Mom could also read Spanish quite well — but how was Tante to know that? Tante wanted to come to Newark and be treated at Newark Beth Israel. She would be accompanied by one of her six children. Could they stay with our family? For as long as it took?

Yikes! My father would have been destined for sainthood if he had been Catholic. He immediately said yes to this somewhat inconvenient request. We were already a family of five living in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Where were the extra two going to go? Dad put me in the living room, on the couch, for a full year as it turned out! But my sister kept her own bed and she, in fact, was the unlucky one. She shared a room with Tante, who, according to my sister Janet’s reports, was a lively sleeper, always in motion, snorting, snoring, and accompanying her dreams with all sorts of other unattractive human sounds. Luckily, we found a room for Paula in one of the other apartments in our family-occupied four-family house.

I remember heading for the airport in Dad’s car to pick up Tante and her beautiful adult daughter. I had imagined a tearful, joyous reunion between Pop and his sister, something straight out of a trashy novel. As we drove, I asked Pop why he seemed so unhappy. Perhaps, I thought, he was filled with nostalgia for the bygone days at home in Poland and the family lost to him. Not at all. I will never forget his reply in Yiddish, which translated to, “I never liked her when we were kids, and I won’t like her now.” How prescient he was.

They never got along at all during the entire sojourn in New Jersey. The only peaceful times were when she was in the hospital. It was a long year.

We all were paying the price for the visit. The recuperation was smooth, but Tante was not discharged to Guatemala for a very long time. It fell on Mom to do the extra work. Cooking. Cleaning. Caretaking. Companionship. The rest of us were living uncomfortable lives; sharing the bathroom with two extra people contributed greatly to the inconvenience. But it was a also a big mitzvah, so we treated them in the Jewish tradition of hachnasat orchim — welcoming guests.

My mother added an additional job to her already overburdened existence. She would find a match for Paula. I will never forget Paula. She had brilliant natural red hair — a trait shared by everyone in that family — incredibly smooth white skin, and a lively personality. She was stunning and charming but, despite Mom’s best efforts, no match was ever good enough for Paula. She eventually returned to Guatemala, still single, and one sad day, years after she had left Newark, she was crossing the street when she was hit by a bus and died.

There are more tales from Guatemala to share. I’d like to tell you about Willie, and Jake the Snake. Another day. Hasta mañana.

I can be reached at

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog wars

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