My mother turned 91 on April 3. At least, we think her birthday is April 3. She never had a birth certificate, so after the war she picked April 3. I heard that she and her surviving three sisters all picked April birthdays.
My mother was born to a Jewish family in Ruscova, Romania, a hamlet nestled up against the Ukrainian border. I have seen photos of it on the Internet. In the summer it appears to be very green, with softly undulating hills. It was a small town, just a few streets. I was told that the Jews and the non-Jews got along well.
My mother’s maiden name was Husz. It was, to my ears, a strange name. I found out it is Czech and means “goose.” Jan Hus, the dissenting fifteenth-century theologian, burned at the stake for his reformist views, supposedly said, “Now you kill a goose, but one day a swan will arise whom you cannot kill.”
My grandfather was named Samuel Husz. His family had lived in Ruscova for over 100 years, possibly longer. He had a pottery manufacturing business and made a good living. He traveled over northern Romania to sell his goods.
His wife, my grandmother, Esther Mallek, was from Moiseu, Romania. I had been told that she was from “Miseve,” and it took me decades to figure out that it was “Moiseu” in Romanian. That is the problem with Yiddish genealogy. Colloquial names and map names often differ.
My mother, Chava, was the seventh of eight children. She had had three older brothers and one younger sister who died of childhood illnesses before the war.
In our family, my father was the storyteller. His wartime experiences were entirely different than my mother’s.
Although he lost nearly 80 relatives — including both sets of grandparents, perhaps 20 aunts and uncles, and dozens of cousins and friends — on the road, in cemeteries (his paternal grandparents were forced to dig their own graves) and in the death camps of Majdanek and Belzec, he and his immediate family fled to the Soviet Union and were never imprisoned.
He secured a safe, even prestigious, job as the bodyguard and chauffeur to the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, Dmitry Protopovov. He was relatively free, as free as one could be under the watchful eye of “Uncle Joe.” He and the First Secretary would visit collective farms, where he was told to fill the trunk of the car with food to take to his family. He was treated well.
Growing up, my father dominated the table conversation. I think that, to some degree, he was protecting me and my mother and sister.
Right after my parents were married in February 1948, and my mother became pregnant with my sister, she took to her bed, convinced that she had a defective heart. My father took her from doctor to doctor until she recovered. I think it was a delayed reaction to all she had experienced. She was 24, with no mother to talk to, share the good news with and ask for advice, and I think that realization immobilized her.
I am imagining this, because we never talked about my mother’s life.
My mother was a gentle, non-assertive, profoundly kind and sensitive woman. She was almost prophetic at times. Nothing made her happier than to do favors for people.
An excellent seamstress, cook and housekeeper, my mother would be asked by my aunts to alter their clothes—take something in, let it out, fix a hem. She was always delighted to do it, without charge, almost grateful that they had asked her.
This is what I was told over the years.
My grandfather, Samuel Husz, was well read. He was aware that something had happened to the Polish Jews. He told his family that the Polish Jews were auf tsuris, “in trouble.”
Decades later, about seven years ago, my sister traveled to Ruscova and met people, then in their eighties, who had known my grandfather when they were children. They said, “He was a fine figure of a man. He had beautiful blue eyes. He was once nearly beaten to death by Romanian fascists.” We had never been told of this fact.
In April 1944, on Passover, a young Wehrmacht soldier knocked on their door. My grandfather invited him in, showed him the table settings and explained their symbolism.
The man left.
Soon after, the Jews were ordered to leave their homes and relocate to “the Vishivitz,” as my mother called it. I later found out the town was called Viseul de Sus.
In June 1944, (Shavuot), my grandparents and their two younger daughters (the elder two sisters were in Bucharest) at the time) were transported to Auschwitz.
Upon descending from the railroad cars, my grandfather gathered my mother and her sister and told them, in Yiddish, “Come, let us say farewell.” He used the word geseigunung.
My grandparents were forced in one direction, my mother and her sister in another.
Their parents were gassed and burned that day. They were 56 and 54 years old.
The sisters were herded into a long line. At the end, they came face to face with a man my mother later described as “the handsomest man I ever saw.. He wore shiny black boots.”
It was Dr. Joseph Mengele.
They were chosen as slave laborers. They were stripped, deloused and shaved, and their intimate body parts were searched for valuables.
Men did the searching, I believe. My mother was always vague on these details.
The humiliation and fear still silenced her, even after a lifetime in America.
My mother and her sister were given sack-like dresses and wooden shoes.
She called, “Charna! Where are you?”
Charna shushed her. “Quiet! I am right next to you.
They headed towards the barracks, and my mother looked off into the distance and saw a heavily laden wagon.
“Look,” she told Charna, “fine white pigs.”
“Those are not pigs,” Charna said. “Those are people.”
Years later, I read that Zyklon-B blanched the skin white.
The terror, slow starvation and death continued for three months.
During this time, my mother especially suffered from the lack of food. She told me that she had been a big eater.
She started to give up.
Charna gave my mother her bread and said, “Here, you take it. I am not hungry.”
“She could have eaten it with her eyes,” my mother later said, referring to her sister.
My mother developed a high fever and a painful sore throat.
She went to the infirmary.
Charna saw her standing in line and pulled her away, saying, “You’ve waited long enough. If they haven’t seen you by now, they are not going to see you.”
If she had gone into the infirmary, there is a good chance she would have been sent to her death.
In October 1944 they were transported to Wustegiesdorf, Germany, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen.
They worked in an I.G. Farben factory, inspecting hand grenades. The girl working next to my mother lost several fingers when a grenade exploded.
One time, without provocation, a guard hit my mother in the temple with a rifle butt. She carried a depression in her skull for the rest of her life.
On May 8, 1945, my mother and her sister were liberated by the Soviet forces.
“One more week,” she told me, “and I would not have lived.”
She weighed about 80 pounds (at 5′5″). Her gums completely covered her teeth.
After they were liberated, my mother and her sister returned to Ruscova to look for family. Their two older sisters arrived around September.
They sold their house and fields for a pittance to the people who taken possession of them and used the money to pay smugglers to transport them to the occupied zone of Germany, where in 1947 my mother met my father.
My father’s parents made their wedding, his mother walking my mother to the wedding canopy. It was outdoors, at night, under the stars.
(CHAVA first appeared as MY MOTHER’S HOLOCAUST MEMORIES on chabad.org.)