We Want to Live!

This Saturday night following Shabbat we reconnected with the world.  We turned on our phones, our computers; we looked at the news and at Facebook and Twitter.  And then we wished we hadn’t:  3 innocent Israelis dead, 1 fighting for her life, massacred by a terrorist beast while waiting for guests to arrive to celebrate the birth of a new grandson earlier that day in the Israeli yishuv of Chalamish.

We are all tired of terror, violence, hatred, murder.  Instead of “Never Again” it seems to be “Again and Again.” And Again.

Which is why, only 2 hours before I heard the horrible news, I am so glad I attended a lecture in our Galilee village by Hadassah Chalamish, an Israeli psychologist and 2nd generation member of that terrible club:  Holocaust survivor. (The unsettling coincidence and significance of her last name, Chalamish, as being identical to the location of the terrorist attack,  would be apparent only 2 hours later.)

Hadassah told about growing up in a home where her mother, Esther, simply refused to talk about her personal survival story during the Holocaust.  It was the elephant in the room, whose presence was always felt but never identified.  As a little girl, she knew only that she had to be Good.  She couldn’t be anything else, lest it upset her mother, and then the guilt – – guilt that she didn’t understand but strongly felt – – would overwhelm her.  Hadassah always felt guilty, even if she didn’t know why.  Even though she wanted to, she never cried, not after her mother admonished her, “You’re crying for that?  That’s nothing!”  There was simply a no-tolerance policy for crying, no matter what the reason, even if she fell down and hurt herself or someone said something unkind.  It seemed to Hadassah that her feelings were never validated; she was made to feel guilty for feeling anything at all. Hadassa loved her mother, but she wasn’t sure she liked her.  Esther was determined to rebuild her life, move forward, and lock away the past; she held too many secrets.  And she would protect her daughter Hadassah no matter what.  There was no point in discussing the War.  Esther knew only that she would never allow what happened to herself, happen to her daughter.  There was a lot of anxiety every time Hadassah was out of sight.

Mealtime was always a source of tension.  Hadassah had to finish everything on her plate.  No. Matter. What.  Food – – portions were large – –  became a battleground, yet ironically Hadassah realized she had a tremendous, irrational fear of being hungry – – a sentiment she lives with to this very day.

One day a few years ago, Hadassah got a call.  It was Yad VaShem, Israel’s largest, most famous Holocaust museum.  They had located a diary that might have belonged to her mother’s cousin, who had perished shortly after liberation.  The cousin, named Rywka Lipszyc (Polish spelling of Rivka Lipshitz),  had been with Esther in the Lodz Ghetto.

This was the first Hadassah had heard about Rivka’s existence.  She was upset that her mother had never told her about Rivka, who was only two years younger than her mother.  It turned out that they had been holed up in the Lodz Ghetto together; were then deported to Auschwitz together where they shared a bunk; worked in a satellite camp laying heavy sewer pipe, digging in the frozen dirt with their bare hands under whips and worse; had miraculously survived a death march together; and were liberated together from Bergen-Belsen.  And yet Esther was so traumatized by her past that she could barely remember Rivka’s name, and had absolutely zero recollection of what Rivka looked like.

When she began writing the diary, Rivka was only 14 years old.  Two years before, her parents had been murdered by the Nazis.  She and her surviving younger brother Ahron and sister Tzipora had been taken in by her grandparents, as had her now-orphaned cousins – sisters Mina, Esther, Chana.  The grandparents soon died of starvation in the ghetto. Rivka’s little brother was rounded up with hundreds of other children and exterminated.  When the five girls arrived in Aushwitz, Rivka’s youngest sister, Tzipora, 12, was sent to the left and marched straight to the gas chambers.  The four surviving girls managed to make it through the war, although Chana, the eldest, died on the day of liberation.   But I am getting ahead of myself.

Throughout their time in the ghetto, the diary was Rivka’s only refuge.  The diary,  in which she wrote nightly, was the sounding board for her pain, her starvation, her observations, her questions, her faith and never-wavering belief in God, her hopes, her dreams, and her disappointments.  She was devastated when her teacher, a woman she idolized, cheated the girls of a potato when doling out rations, keeping it for herself.  Look what hunger does to a person, she cried.  When her cousin Esther sneakily took a scant teaspoon of jam for herself, she felt completely demoralized and betrayed by Esther’s moral failure. And yet, this young girl found the good in people, and found that when she was starving – – she was tortured by constant thoughts of food – – she could be grateful for living for yet another day, and thanking God for everything good that he bestowed upon her.

Before the Nazis herded the girls from the ghetto into cattle cars for Aushwitz, they were told they could take one item with them.  What to choose?  What was most precious?  Some of the girls chose a memento, a photo, an article of clothing.  Hadassah held on tightly to her diary.

Still clasping the diary when she disembarked from the cattle car, she made it past Mengele’s selection and was told to strip, leave clothing and anything else behind. Her head was shaved, her arm tattooed and she was disinfected with her cousins in a large shower room.  Her diary stayed behind in her bundle of hastily discarded clothing.  From there it was carted off to “Canada,” the place where the Sonderkommando hauled all the belongings of Jewish arrivals to Auschwitz.  There it was sorted, and anything of value was either secretly pocketed by camp Nazis (or sometimes by Jewish slave labor sorting everything in Canada, to be exchanged later for a morsel of bread) or sent back to Germany.

But this was only 5 months before the end of the war, and by then it was clear Germany was losing the war.  In a frenzy, they stepped up the pace of their killing machine; the sheer output of goods and bodies overwhelmed even the Nazis’ well-oiled system.  The bundle of Rivka’s clothing, with her diary, sat untouched and unsorted in a huge pile of flotsam in an Auschwitz warehouse.

Rivka and her cousins Esther and Mina were long gone from Auschwitz, walking the tortuous miles on a death march until they ended up in Bergen-Belsen.  Aushwitz, meanwhile, had already been liberated by the Russians.  A non-Jewish Russian woman doctor by the name of Zinaida Berezovskaya was traveling with the liberating troops.  She stayed on at Auschwitz for 9 months following liberation, treating the sick and trying to save lives under brutal conditions with a bare minimum of supplies,  teaching survivors to sit up, eat, and walk again until they were strong enough to be moved to sanatoriums for more extensive rehabilitation.  One day she went into Canada – – the storeroom – – in search of warm clothing and supplies for her patients, and she stumbled across Rivka’s diary.  It was written in Polish – – a language the Russian doctor didn’t know – – but she recognized that it might be something important, so she took it for safekeeping.

During the post-war chaos, the good doctor forgot about the diary, although she stored it in her suitcase.  It returned with her to Russia, and every few years she would remember it but never knew quite what to do with it, so she did nothing.  Sixty years went by, and then, the doctor passed away.

Meanwhile, the three remaining girls – Rivka, Esther, and Mina – were near death; the hard work, utter starvation, beatings, disease and deprivation having taken their toll.  Slowly, Esther and Mina began to recover enough to warrant being sent by the Red Cross to a sanitorium in Sweden.  Rivka had been sent to another hospital after liberation, and they had no idea where Rivka was located.  Before they agreed to be sent to Sweden and still terribly weak, Esther and Mina were determined to find Rivka.

And then one day they heard that she was located in a different hospital in a different location.  With her last remaining strength, Esther went to the hospital to visit Rivka.  The doctor showed her to Rivka’s room, where she lay unconscious and dying in the hospital bed.  The doctor told Esther there was no hope; that Rivka would be dead in another day or two.  So Esther made the difficult decision to leave Rivka, and returned to her sister Mina where she reported back.  The train was leaving for Sweden and if they weren’t on it, they would possibly have to wait weeks for the next one.  So Esther told Mina that they were getting on that train, and that there was no chance that Rivka would survive.

The doctor’s granddaughter, Anastasia Berezovskaya, by then living in San Francisco, went to Russia to clean out her grandmother’s apartment after she died.  It was there she found the diary, and like her mother, took it for safekeeping.  It stayed in her closet in San Francisco for many years, but it always nagged at her.  Finally, she thought she would write to museums dealing with the Holocaust in the United States.  They recommended she send them the diary for evaluation.  “I didn’t want that.  I realized that it must have been very important if my grandmother kept it all those years, and I was afraid I’d never see the diary again if I would send it away.”  But then the Holocaust museum in San Francisco contacted her, asking to meet with her.  “That’s what I wanted:  I wanted to speak with someone face to face, to be sure that they would revere and care for the diary as my grandmother had.”

In fact, the researchers at the museum were floored.  Here was a complete account of a young girl’s experience in Lodz Ghetto, written with such eloquence and brilliance that it seemed impossible to have been written by someone only 14 years old.  Could Rivka be alive?  Or the 3 girl cousins?

Rivka had not signed her name in the diary, and identified the others only  by their first names.  How the museum identified Rivka Lifshitz as the author is a story fantastic and miraculous in itself which I won’t share here.  But following some clues worthy of a best-selling detective story, when they looked at Pages of Testimony online at Yad VaShem, they were able to find Rivka’s two girl cousins, Esther and Mina, and there was a phone number and address in Israel.

And so Hadassah, visiting her mother, picked up the phone that day when Yad VaShem called, and was told of the existence of the diary.  Hadassah was so excited!  She had so many questions!  Her aunt Mina was talking non-stop.  But Esther, Hadassah’s mother, withdrew.  She uttered not a sound and didn’t want to talk.  Could it be that Rivka was alive?

After much research over the following months, they found that Rivka did indeed survive the war.  As she applied for a visa to Palestine, not knowing that her sisters were in Sweden and would eventually end up living in Israel.  Ever the writer, she wrote down some thoughts on her visa application.  Now 15 years old, she expressed her gratitude for surviving so she could bear witness, but more than anything she remarked on what a blessing it was to be a Jew.  Can you imagine any other people, so beaten down?  Yet she witnessed miracles!  She felt life was a tremendous gift, and she said the thing that made her experience unique was that – –  unlike any other people who may have gone through this – –  the thing she learned most from her terrible experience was the importance of love.  She felt that her Jewish soul gave her the ability to love, and to experience hope, and to appreciate and make something of life on behalf of those who succumbed, and to know that unlike her captors, her humanity was never lost.

And then, a dead end.  All trails leading to Rivka ceased.  It is believed she was unable to recover her strength and died alone before making her way to Israel – – no one knows how or where.

When the sisters found out this bitter news, Hadassah witnessed a horrible scene.  Mina screamed at Esther.  “It’s your fault!  You should have never left her!  We shouldn’t have gone to Sweden!”  Mina seethed with resentment and blame.  And Esther shrank further into herself, silent.  Guilt?  Remorse?  Self defense?

Only silence.

Months later, Hadassah planned a giant celebration for her mother Esther’s 90th birthday party.  There would be a new generation of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews attending.  All the relatives were asked to write a page of greetings and blessings for Esther, which they would assemble into a book of mementos.

But much to her surprise, Hadassah found she could not write a thing about her mother.  She hit a wall.  She could not think, or even feel.  She wished her mother well, but she had nothing to say.  Hadassah, who is a psychologist by profession, realized she was angry.  Angry that she had to bear so much responsibility as a child and as an adult to be the perfect daughter.  Angry that her mother never talked about her past.  Angry that Hadassah wasn’t even allowed to cry.  Angry that she was angry,  She felt so much guilt for having such negative feelings about her mother, after all her mother had been through.

One afternoon she was sitting with her mother, children and nieces and nephews discussing the plans for the party, when the nieces and nephews asked Esther to tell about her experiences during the War.  Hadassah was shocked when suddenly, for the very first time, her mother began to talk.  She didn’t look at Hadassah; she didn’t acknowledge Hadassah; but she talked and talked and talked.  Even though the trauma remained and she said she still couldn’t remember what Rivka looked like, she was able to talk about her experiences in the ghetto, in Aushwitz, on the death march, and at liberation.  Hadassah couldn’t believe it, but she was too intimidated by years of guarding her behavior to ask her mother what precipitated this incredible change.

She took her mother back home; there was silence in the car.  Finally, her mother said to Hadassah, “I want to ask your forgiveness.”  Hadassah looked at her mother, who looked deeply at Hadassah as though really seeing her daughter for the first time.

“I want to tell you how sorry I am that I never let you cry,” Esther said.  “After I spoke today, I understood for the first time what this must have done to you.”

Hadassah stopped the car, shocked.  And then Hadassah cried and cried.  She took her mother home, and then came to her own home and sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote, bestowing countless blessings in honor of her mother’s 90th birthday, celebrating her life.

Note:  “The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc” — published by S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services in partnership with Lehrhaus Judaica is available in English from Amazon.com.  The Hebrew translation from the original Polish will be published in Spring 2018.