My 98-year-old mother died last week and I’m waiting to feel something. I watched family and friends cry at her funeral and I listened to their outpouring of love and accolades for the remarkable woman my mother was. To a person, they spoke of how loving and generous and talented Ilona Engel Fuchs was — and yes, that she was also forceful and insistent — how much of an impact she made on them, how they remain in awe of how she survived Auschwitz at great odds, and how she rebuilt her life multiple times with flair, energy, and optimism.
I sat there quietly, gripped by cognitive dissonance. The woman everyone knew was all those things they described. She was a resilient survivor, a gifted dressmaker and teacher, a devoted friend. But with me, her other side overshadowed it all. Early on, as a Jewish child in postwar Hungary, I knew my job was to take care of her emotionally, to mitigate her suffering from before I was born. I spent a lifetime doing that while also bearing the brunt of her relentless criticism and control. It often felt as if nothing I did was ever enough, or good enough, though I do recall seeing her happy at times with the outfits I wore, and she did take pride in my accomplishments. But regrettably, I am now hard-pressed to recall more than a few positive moments together over more than six decades.
I rarely cried when she picked on me; depression was more my style. I knew she had to win and I had to surrender in what always felt like a life-and-death struggle for her, no matter the issue.
I once overheard my father plead with her, “Ilona! She’s almost 50 years old! When are you going to stop dictating what she should do?” Later he apologized to me, saying “I am so sorry she treats you like this.” But after Dad passed away, she said, “Your father said I should be nice to you since you are so sensitive.”
She did not value this trait. Being sensitive was a luxury she could not afford to survive the Holocaust. In fact, once when we were talking about Auschwitz, she stated matter of factly, “You would never survive.” Perhaps she’s right, but at least I can say I survived her, albeit with scars.
Six years ago, for two blessed weeks, I had the mother I always wished for: kind, calm, appreciative, going with the flow. She had fallen and broke her hip, then suffered a cascade of near-fatal medical complications. My brother and I took turns staying with her in the hospital and then in rehab to be her advocate. It was painful to watch her suffer, but it was also a period of relief, for she was too sick to do battle with me. Once she started recovering, she was back to her true self with me, which for all of us was, ironically, a good sign.
I learned a lot from my mother and inherited her creativity and resourcefulness, for which I’m grateful, and I do feel good about having been the consummate dutiful daughter, despite her wrath. Perhaps I did a public service by being her emotional caretaker: It may have been what enabled her to make such positive impacts on others. Yet this mostly feels like reparation payments, for I, like many children of Holocaust survivors, remain collateral damage.
Remarkably, my mother and I never stopped loving each other. As I stare at the dwindling light in the tall, blue shiva candle graced with a simple Star of David, I am coming to accept that I’m not filled with the same sorrow and boundless reservoir of love I felt when my father passed. I loved her, I admired her, I felt sorry for her, and I did as much as I could for her. And what I am most grateful for is that I have the kind of warm and supportive relationship with my own kids I wish I could have had with her.
May her memory be for a blessing.