This year, the first after my mother’s death, seems to have proceeded as a series of events marking her absence. The first Rosh Hashana without her, the first Hanukka, and, most recently, the first February, the month in which we celebrated her birthday, my birthday, and my daughter’s birthday.
As Passover approached, it evoked for me the scent of the flowering trees near my childhood home in Jerusalem, the colorful display of carpets and household items hung from neighboring balconies to be thoroughly aired and cleaned, the happy and frenetic pace that pulsed in the spring air before the holiday.
For over 20 years, the rhythm of my life in New Jersey has been marked by visits to Israel to be with family for the holidays, especially Passover. Reading in the Haggada that in every generation there are those who try to annihilate us and celebrating our delivery from slavery to freedom is poignantly personal for our family, the family of two Holocaust survivor parents. The persecution of our forefathers is intertwined with the murder of my parents’ immediate families and with their own persecution and slavery under the Nazis.
Shortly after Passover, we mark Yom Hashoa. Time flows, weaving together celebrations and commemorations of past and current catastrophes, survival and rebirth.
One of those celebrations, not so long ago, was my younger daughter’s bat mitzva in Jerusalem. There, against the breathtaking backdrop of the Old City, our loved ones gathered from all corners of the country. In Hebrew that belies the fact that she was born and raised in the United States, my daughter chanted her parsha. Beloved Israeli songs were sung by the children and grandchildren of a handful of Holocaust survivors, our voices merging joyously.
Looking around, I saw the multitude of adaptations born of our national fate and the paths of our personal fates, reflecting the surprising twists and turns of life and love.
Next to my daughter was my 92-year-old mother, beautiful and proud, who through so much suffering had kept her radiant smile.
My mother’s father was a medic in the Austro-Hungarian army. Killed in action, he left behind a pregnant young wife. Thus began the life of my mother — Marta Rosenberg — marked with loss and bereavement. My young grandmother married a good-hearted, poor widower with two sons and moved to his little town, Przemysl, on the border with Ukraine. After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the border ran through the middle of the city along the river San.
“On their stomachs they crawled to come to me,” recounted my mother innumerable times, speaking of her younger brother and sister, who were sent to summon her home from her workplace the day the Nazis crossed the river. “‘Mother said you should come home,’ they said, “but I said I could not leave work; I would come home later. That was the last time I ever saw any of them,” she would tell me; the searing pain in her voice never faded.
The past surfaces
The torn and tattered seams of our parents’ lives are still noticeable in the fabric of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives, and the past surfaces in unexpected ways.
“A question from Przemysl,” I read on my computer screen in New Jersey one morning.
“My name is Magda,” the e-mail read. “I am the granddaughter of Ignaz.” She went on, as if I had no idea whom she was referring to. “Your mother used to correspond with my grandfather. We would be very grateful if you could tell us how she is.”
I did know who the writer was, and who her grandfather had been. In fact, I knew a lot more about him than she did.
Magda had just found out that her grandfather was born Jewish, that he was a Holocaust survivor. Until then, she and her brother, both in their 30s, knew their grandfather as a Polish patriot, an intellectual who was active in Solidarity, the movement that brought down communism in Poland.
I knew that Magda’s father had found out about his father’s Jewish origins a few years earlier. My mother corresponded regularly with Ignaz ever since leaving Poland after the war. He stayed, adopting his “fake” Christian identity and marrying the Polish Catholic woman who had helped him during the war. My mother told me that when Ignaz was dying, he wrote her a last letter, telling her his wife had promised to destroy all documents and photos related to his Jewish identity and keep his secret forever.
Their son Andjei walked into their home the night Ignaz passed away and found his mother about to burn the documents. And so a son learned that he had actually not known the man who was his father. Following this discovery, Andjei found my mother’s letters and wrote to her, requesting that she tell him about his father’s past. My mother, possessing a phenomenal memory, made him an audiocassette, talking about Ignaz’s experiences during the Holocaust, and the family they lost.
Ever since that initial contact, Andjei had written letters to my mother, telling her news of his family and children. My mother shared these with me, and through the years I have grown familiar with the lives of Magda and Marcin, who did not know we existed. That is, until they found my mother’s cassette.
Immediately after they listened to my mother’s story, Magda and Marcin consulted the Internet, oracle of our time, and found my name. The longing for the family they had not known brought them to Jerusalem for the bat mitzva, to meet my mother, the last person alive who had been part of their unknown family past. Magda and her brother are not Jewish, according to the Halacha. However, when we visited Yad Vashem together in Jerusalem, we discovered that according to the Nazis’ race laws, they would have been defined as “second-degree mischlings” — Jewish enough to be included among those targeted for extermination.
At another table at the bat mitzva sat the sons of Markus, my mother’s cousin, who survived the Holocaust after fleeing to Russia because of his communist leanings. He married a Russian woman, Olga, who converted to Judaism; the family immigrated to Israel with their three sons. The youngest was killed in the Yom Kippur War.
My mother passed away in February, two days before her birthday, and was buried in Jerusalem on her granddaughter’s birthday.
I muse about the passage of time, the vagaries of life, identity, and feelings of belonging: to family, people, and country. And most poignantly, about survival, resilience, and the all-transcending nature of love.