My mother died at 6:30 this morning.
Her beautiful, saintly Indian caregiver, Swapna Santhosh, called to say that she was changing her and turning her body when my mother suddenly coughed a few times, gagged, took three deep breaths, and was gone. She had a heart murmur and I suspect her big heart finally gave up.
My brother and sister are in shock. I’m not. They took care of her all these years in Jerusalem, I didn’t. Instead, I feel relieved on her account. Day after day, since arriving here after her stroke and seeing her mostly blind, deaf, and unable to talk, not to mention half-paralyzed, I prayed that her deepest wish be granted, be it for life or be it for death.
Now, Saturday afternoon, I sit with her body. You can’t start the burial procedures here till the end of Shabbat, which will be around 20:15 today, and then, I imagine, it will be bedlam. Till then, four hours of relative quiet. I sit in her living room, just a few feet away. I’ll be sitting here for the shiva, too. But right now it’s just me, no family, no guests.
I’d like to tell you more about my mom. She survived the Holocaust in Bratislava, most of whose Jews were killed, while losing her father, a brother, and two sisters. I’ve chanted their names every time I’ve been at our Auschwitz bearing witness retreat.
She wanted to get to Israel after the war, so she took her orphaned 5-year-old nephew and brought him to a refugee camp in the south of France. From Marseilles she stowed aboard an English ship with him and hid the entire time the ship traversed the Mediterranean, only giving herself up to the red-jowled, British captain when they docked in Haifa. The scene that ensued was very funny in the telling, but I won’t tell it now. She and her nephew were taken to a refugee camp in Israel, where she met my father and married.
After that my parents fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948 and my father was wounded. I was born in the last month of 1949, when she was 21-1/2. My sister was born in 1954 and in 1957 we found ourselves on a ship passing under the Statue of Liberty, enroute to New York.
My mother’s early years marked her; she couldn’t forget them. Long before the term PTSD was coined, she was a living embodiment of all that conveys. She had a long life, good times, bad times, and everything in between. She had three children, 5 grandchildren, and some 15 great-grandchildren; she was also strong and healthy till the age of 86, never missing a morning swim in the Jerusalem municipal pool.
But those early years grabbed a hold of her like cruel fishing hooks. She cried every time she recounted those events, and she recounted them plenty. She didn’t hide in silence.
Karma is very complex, no one thing explains everything. But in my favorite land of stories, there’s one story that captures a lot about my mother:
The Nazis cleared Bratislava of Jews during the war, but my mother’s family managed to survive the first onslaught by hiding in cellars. My uncle Simcha was the one who found places and people to help; he’s the one responsible for the fact that I, my siblings and cousins are all alive. But my mother also showed amazing courage. She was the lightest member of the family, so she’d be sent to forage for food outside; had she been caught, she’d have been killed on the spot. She also, along with Simcha, went outside the city to bring money to a non-Jewish woman who was taking care of their nephew, whose mother was killed in Auschwitz with an infant son.
Since in theory there were no more Jews in Bratislava, Jewish apartments were padlocked from the outside by the Nazis. My uncle Simcha was able to unpadlock their apartment and the family crept back home to hide there, as quiet as church mice. But the apartment had to look as though the padlock had not been interfered with, otherwise people would guess that someone was hiding inside. My uncle, using some kind of thin, heavy pin, with great ingenuity managed to maneuver the padlock back in place from the inside, so that to outside eyes the door looked like all the others. He also showed my mother how to do this in case the Nazis came one day and he wasn’t around.
One day Nazi soldiers came into the building when he wasn’t around. Parents and siblings congregated around my mother, who was 16 at the time, as she tried to maneuver the outside padlock from the inside to fall into place. They could hear the soldiers talking downstairs, and then their heavy footsteps coming up the stairs.
“Did you do it?” her father whispered to her.
She nodded to the others in silence and they stood away from the door, holding their breath.
But she hadn’t done it. She hadn’t succeeded in maneuvering the padlock back in place, her hand had shaken too much. She knew that any soldier who looked carefully at the door—and this is what the soldiers were doing, apartment by apartment—would notice this. She said nothing to anyone, but her entire life she remembered the terror in the room, and particularly the pale, shivering face of her younger sister, Eva.
Slowly the heavy boots came down the hallway, and one particular set of books trampled down towards their door. Any moment the man would notice that the padlock was not in place, would break down the door, and find a Jewish family not supposed to be there, not supposed to be alive—and it would be her fault.
There was a shout from downstairs, a name called, and after a few seconds the soldier turned around, the sound of heavy boots receded down the hallway, and he went downstairs. They were saved, at least for then.
Long after that they returned to hide in someone’s cellar, she came back one day from hunting for food and found her entire family gone, caught by the Nazis, and finally she was caught as well. She was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she met up with the remnants of her family, and she survived the starvation there (and a tooth extraction with no anesthesia) till the end of the war.
But the experience with the padlock always stayed with her. It was a secret she couldn’t share with the others. She couldn’t meet their eyes, felt she’d betrayed everybody whom she cared for. She had guts and grit, courage and nerve beyond measure, and still she’d failed them. Only a miracle had saved them from being found and killed.
My mother was a soldier, a hero. When she was in her 80s, I still said that if a war broke out, I preferred her with me over any four-star general. Whatever fearlessness I possess, whatever capacity I have to land on my feet, I owe her. At the same time, she suffered from deep insecurity her entire life, feeling that at bottom she was worthless.
Now she lies on the hospital bed near me. My sister covered her face with the blanket, but I uncover it on occasion. Even now she doesn’t look ashen or blue, she still has the same porcelain complexion I envied. Her mouth is open; other than that, she’s pretty in death.
We loved her and found her immeasurably complicated. Now the peace of a Sabbath afternoon surrounds her, the sun shining brightly outside. All I hear is birds.
The blog will be quiet for a while.
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