Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Life through the eyes of the 'normal' child


Local resident and Congregation of Reform Judaism member Cindy Halpern's family memoir is unlike any other book I have ever read. Not only does Halpern tell her story of being the only "normal child" in her immediate family, her mother's memoir is told "through" Halpern. Both memoirs are brilliantly written in first person.

"The Normal Child" begins with Halpern's memoir. She was the third child in a family of four children. The oldest, her sister Anita, had mild retardation and was cruel to her and often tried to attack her. Halpern's two brothers were diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, a condition that is terminal. Halpern was the only "normal" child.

However, Halpern quickly ascertains that she is not normal. "You can't come out of this normal," she said. "What is normal? You are the person you are because of all you went through. In some ways, it's made me a better person."

Her parents saw her brothers' MD as an obstacle to overcome, not to be defeated by it. Their struggle with this devastating disease made all involved stronger.

Halpern's writing is superbly creative. Toward the end of Halpern's memoir, she poignantly records watching her mother die: "The sun was going down, and as it did, a shadow past over the portrait of Mom that hung on the wall. An artist, also interned with her at Fort Ontario, had painted that picture of Tina Korner when she was 23. But now as the shadow cast darkness over the painting, Mom began to breathe heavily. I saw the muscles in her neck strain, then there was no movement at all. Mom was dead."

In the interview, Halpern shared that her mother was very confused at the end of her life, perhaps suffering from dementia. As Halpern sat with her, she realized her mom was distressed.

"Mom's calling me home," yelled Halpern's mother. "You're stopping me from going to my mom!"

Halpern said that no one else believed her mother. They all said she was just confused. But Halpern believes that you have to take a person's actions at face value. She believed her mom. "Mom," she told her, "if you want to go back to your mom, I won't stop you."

"You've got to go where the patient is whether you agree with it or not," Halpern said in the interview.

At the completion of Halpern's own story, she begins her mother's memoir-what she thinks her mom would say.

"Don't consider which view is correct. They both tell the truth in different perspectives," Halpern states in the transition to her mother's story.

"It's not me, these opinions aren't mine," said Halpern of her mother's portion in the book. "I truly forgot that this was me writing and believed it was my mom writing."

It is interesting to find that as I read her mother's memoir, even though it is Halpern writing, I came to believe it really was her mom's thoughts and feelings about the events that happened in her life.

Halpern's mother,Tina Korner Chernick, grew up in Vienna. She studied to become a doctor. She spoke five languages.

"Because I was a Jew and a girl, I had to be the best," Tina wrote.

In Vienna when the Nazis came, Tina was kicked out of school. She was considered inferior, not worthy of an education, because she was a Jew. Disheartened, she overcame all her obstacles based on words of wisdom her mother told her: "Tina, you walk one foot in front of the other. You can never go back, only forward."

Tina survived the war, hiding from place to place one step ahead of the Nazis. At the war's end, she met American journalist and photographer Ruth Gruber, who at that time was a United States government official helping displaced persons. Gruber taught Tina English, then Tina helped others learn English. Gruber also escorted Tina and many other Jewish refugees to US Army base Ft. Ontario. While there, she met Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tina's medical training was not for naught. It prepared her to be a mother to two sons with MD and a mildly retarded daughter. All the trials Tina went through made her a strong woman, strong enough to be able to give the word allowing two of her children to be taken off life support-something no mother would ever want to do.

Halpern continued the same first-person style in her second book "Mr. Chernick's Office," which contains the memoirs of her father (who helped liberate Dachau), brothers and sister.

"It's not 100 percent accurate, but I gathered all the pieces of the puzzle" Halpern stated. "It's not perfect, but I think it's damn close to being."

Not only does she capture each family member's thoughts, the book personifies each individual through the various font sizes and styles. For example, when Halpern wrote her older sister Anita's story, she used a bold, all upper-case font, which reflected mildly retarded Anita's loud and brash manner.

Her brother Russell, who was first to be diagnosed with MD, was very intelligent and graduated from college and lived to age 23.

Why would someone who knew he was going to die continue his education?

"Living in the moment now," Halpern explained. "Being in school affords you friends. You are not staying home alone. You are learning things you may never use in life, but just the idea it's giving you quality life right now!"

Her younger brother Stuie, who was closest to her and called her Ella (for Cinderella) only lived to be 15. Today MD patients can live to about 30 years of age.

There is a spiritual side to her stories. Each memoir continues fluidly beyond death.

"I feel like they are looking out for me," said Halpern.

In her own memoir, Halpern tells about a terrifying plane ride. A bird had flown into one of the plane's engines and the plane had to make a difficult landing. Halpern "felt" her parents on both sides of her. "They were saying, 'It's not your time yet.'" Halpern wrote.

"I could see them! I thought, did I black out?" Halpern said in the interview.

Each parent also wrote in their memoirs about that experience-how they each comforted her, and it was believable.

Halpern also shared in the interview that at one time when she was critically ill, she saw dead relatives from Treblinka surrounding her. "I didn't know who they were at the time, but they had odd clothes."

Her mother showed her a picture of one relative who had perished in Treblinka. Halpern recognized that person as one of the people she had seen.

Why did Halpern want to write this book?

She is the only survivor of her immediate family. Her grandson, Scott, encouraged her to write.

"You have to do it," he told her. "This is my legacy! You have to do this for me!"

Not only did Scott encourage her, at only 11 years old, he took over all the technical details of publishing a book: editing, formatting and publishing.

After Scott's encouragement, Halpern wrote the book non-stop in two days. In her description of the book on the back cover, Halpern admits the book has many grammatical errors as she did not have an editor or proofreader. As an editor, at first I found this frustrating. But as I continued reading, I could overlook the errors and became absorbed in Halpern's story-much like getting to know a person. We all have flaws that are forgivable as the jewels inside each of us are discovered.

Mike Fink, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, wrote of Halpern's book in The Jewish Voice of Rhode Island and Southwest Massachussetts, "[I] read it cover to cover, fascinated and impressed and very much under its spell."

Halpern also stated that she doesn't want her family to be dead, "so I write about them."

"The Normal Child" and "Mr. Chernick's Office" are available on amazon.com.


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