The doctor last saw my mother the day before she left us. Her condition had declined dramatically, and he was checking up on her with increased frequency. He sat down at her bedside and asked in his characteristically empathetic manner how she was feeling. Judith Rubinstein smiled and, clasping the doctor’s hand, responded in a weak yet resolute voice: “My bags are packed.”
Appearing to change the subject, she motioned toward the blue number tattooed on her forearm and explained, as she had done countless times in the past, that this was how the Nazis tagged Jewish prisoners kept alive for slave labor at the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was not just a typically efficient German administrative procedure, akin to ranchers branding cattle to keep track of them: It was also a diabolical attempt to dehumanize the Jews. By replacing the prisoners’ names with numbers, the Germans were trying to extinguish their souls before murdering their bodies. Of all her family members deported to that infernal place, my mother was the only one who survived to bear witness.
Lest the good doctor misunderstand her intentions, my mother emphasized that she was not looking for pity. After the war, she had been blessed with a wonderful husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And Canada proved to be an excellent country in which to build a secure and fulfilling new life. No, she was drawing attention to the tattoo on her forearm for a different reason altogether.
Her horrific experiences in Auschwitz led her to contemplate how it had been possible for human beings to sink to such depths of degradation, and what might be done to prevent a future recurrence. She arrived at the inexorable conclusion that the key was for all people to recognize and acknowledge their common humanity.
We might have different colors of skin, hold divergent beliefs, and act in dissimilar ways, but we are all children of the same Creator, with far more binding us together than driving us apart. Losing sight of this fundamental truth can lead to tragic consequences. In our own era, we have witnessed how disdain for others can transmute into raging genocidal hatred, even among citizens of the most civilized countries and even among people who regard themselves as deeply religious.
Throughout our history, we Jews have endured such hatred far in excess of any other group. We thus have unique credibility and a particular moral obligation to caution all who might listen about the danger of hating others.
So it came to pass that an unassuming woman speaking Hungarian-accented English, who had never before addressed an audience, became an impassioned and popular speaker at the Holocaust Education Center in Toronto.
Again and again, my mother was to employ her riveting personal story as the framework for a universal plea for tolerance. She relished the opportunity to speak to groups of all ages, non-Jews as well as Jews. But she derived special satisfaction from engaging with the schoolchildren to whom the future belonged, thousands of them over the years.
My mother found that most youngsters were blank slates on the subject of the destruction of European Jewry. They were invariably shocked to realize that this lovely lady’s family, together with a great many others, had been marked for death simply because they were Jews. This stark fact provided the opening to enlighten them about the pernicious consequences of bigotry.
The doctor sat silently for a moment, tears welling up in his eyes. His elderly patient’s heartfelt words had resonated within him. Dispensing with professional protocol, he related how his own late father had served in the Pacific with the Canadian Armed Forces, ending up in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The guards treated him with extreme cruelty and he bore the scars of this dreadful experience for the rest of his life. The entire family suffered along with him.
Her grave medical prognosis did not distract my mother. Even on her deathbed, she maintained a clear focus on her message to all humankind, including her doctor. Yet she understood that the universality of the message did not contradict the unique particularity of the Jewish tragedy. She believed that the appropriate response to this tragedy was a defiant affirmation of the Jewish identity which the enemy had been so determined to obliterate. Such an affirmation is manifested in living, loving devotion to the heritage of our ancestors, which is in turn passed on to our progeny. This is more a matter of faithfulness than of faith, for even those survivors who reverted to some degree of religious observance could never escape an abiding skepticism regarding Hashgacha Pratit, Divine Providence.
The many visitors to the hospital who knew and loved her marveled at my mother’s fearless serenity in the face of death. A young orphan emerging from the hell of Auschwitz, astonished that she was still alive, could not possibly have imagined that she would prevail to the venerable age of 92, living what proved to be an exceptionally good life. For my mother, every single day after liberation was a wondrous and cherished gift, but it had been more than sufficient and she was not greedy.
According to Primo Levi, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, survivors fall into two categories: those who talk and those who do not.
He was surely describing my parents.
My mother’s memories surged out of her in a mighty torrent, and this had a cathartic and healing effect on her. The passionate eloquence of her words enabled her to impose meaning on what would otherwise have been unbearably meaningless. But she was quite exceptional among survivors in her ability to talk about the past.
Far more characteristic was my father, Bill Rubinstein, who never talked about the past. Not only did he steadfastly refuse to discuss his own wartime experiences: Whenever a conversation drifted toward pre-history,– that is, the period before his arrival in Canada,– he would try his best to change the subject. If this did not work, he would find a pretext to leave the room. This was my father’s way of coping with his intensely private pain. And really, who could argue when the strategy seemed to work so well for him? This decent and beloved gentleman was able to build a remarkably successful new life in Canada by banishing his demons—at least at the conscious level. When he was adrift in the helplessness of sleep, the nightmares held sway, every night without mercy until the end of his nearly 99 years.
Throughout the time she was a slave laborer in Auschwitz, Judith had to concentrate single-mindedly on the daily challenge of staying alive. She was privileged to witness astounding acts of heroism in the camp, such as the October 1944 uprising by several hundred male prisoners who succeeded in blowing up one of the crematoria and a gas chamber, using explosives smuggled into the camp by Jewish women working in a nearby ammunition plant. The enraged Germans shot the rebels and hanged the explosives smugglers in a public spectacle. Although she deeply admired her fellow prisoners’ valiant, self-sacrificial conduct, Judith was determined to work hard and avoid trouble, in order that she might score a victory over the evil ones by surviving to bear witness.
She did manage to stay alive until the end of the war, while most of her family, friends and neighbors did not. In certain respects, physical survival seemed to have been the lesser challenge as Judith set about the arduous, excruciating process of reclaiming her humanity and reassembling the shattered pieces of her life. To her amazement, the process was to begin soon enough after the end of the war.
Ten ragged and emaciated young women shuffled alongside the road leading into Schwerin, Germany. Along with hundreds of other inmates, they had been marched out of Auschwitz by their German captors, ahead of the Red Army advancing into Poland from the east. At that moment, it was hard to appreciate the full significance of what was happening. Tank after tank rumbled past on the road, each one flying the proud flag of the United States of America. The Germans guarding them on the march had slithered so silently into the adjoining fields that the young women were astonished when they realized they were on their own.
They had grown accustomed to being under constant surveillance, to having their every move scrutinized under the threat of beatings and shootings. Now, suddenly, they were invisible: No one took the least notice of them, neither the American soldiers focused on their mission nor the terrified local German civilians. Having been conditioned by experience to be extremely suspicious, the young women were unsure what to do. They did not know what to make of the American soldiers, who were too preoccupied with consolidating their new position to make their intentions clear. Finally, the wanderers came across an abandoned, badly-damaged building. They settled into a filthy, disheveled room on the first floor with the scraps of food they had managed to scavenge along the way.
My mother always recalled fondly her first encounter with the Americans. For her, it was a transformative event, the demarcation between the old life from which she had been torn and the new life fraught with uncertainty that lay ahead.
In the camps, there were Jewish prisoners who preserved their sense of self by keeping track of the Sabbath and holidays in quiet defiance of the Nazis. The young women huddled in their makeshift lodgings had continued to follow the Jewish calendar, and knew that the holiday of Shavuos began that night. They were able to improvise two candles out of some string and margarine. With nightfall, they lit them on the windowsill, thereby commemorating the revelation of the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. As there was no electrical power in the building, the ersatz candles provided the only illumination.
Soon there was a furious rapping on the door. Two soldiers burst in. One of them screamed in German: “Don’t you know there is a curfew in effect? Why do you have lights in the window?”
One among the group who was a native German speaker stepped forward and responded: “We are ten Jewish women who have survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. Now that we are finally free, all we want is to observe our holiday in peace.”
The American soldiers froze. Overwhelmed with emotion, they began to weep, for as it happened, they were also Jewish. They had been briefed earlier that not a single Jew had survived Auschwitz. The next morning, Captain Sol Koppel of Houston and Sergeant Herbert Saafeld of the Bronx accompanied their coreligionists to a villa on the outskirts of town belonging to an elderly German couple, and settled them into the unimaginably luxurious comfort of the second floor. They watched over the young women, gradually restoring their strength with nourishing food. Captain Koppel, a middle-aged gentleman with a wife and four children back home, offered to adopt Judith in order to facilitate her immigration to the United States. Touched as she was by this kind offer, Judith nevertheless declined, explaining that she was anxious to go home to Hungary and reunite with her own family. The Jewish officer from distant America knew it was unlikely any of her relatives were still alive, but he did not have the heart to shatter her illusions.
Every day, soldiers from the company would drop by, bearing gifts of cigarettes and chocolate. One of them brought a battered old gramophone and a scratchy recording of Gounod’s Ave Maria. The music-starved young women played it over and over again, oblivious to its Roman Catholic liturgical origin.
Another G.I. found an antiquated but still operable sewing machine. He presented it to Judith, who was trained as a seamstress. Someone else brought blue-and-white-checked bed sheets from the hastily evacuated Nazi officers’ quarters. Judith sewed an identical blue-and-white-checked dress for each of the ten women. They did look somewhat comical when they were all together, but the new clothes were a huge improvement over the filthy, threadbare rags they had worn from Auschwitz. Little by little, Judith and her friends were beginning to reclaim their ravaged human dignity.
Judith knew that the Americans must have been battle-hardened warriors who could kill without hesitation or remorse. Yet she was struck by the fact that they were also warm and generous people capable of bestowing kindness on total strangers. After having been exposed to unspeakable human wickedness, it was crucially important for Judith to be reminded that homo sapiens was capable of benevolence as well.
Judith’s prospects for the future were beginning to look brighter with each passing day.
It was only after her liberation, when she was no longer totally preoccupied with the daily struggle to stay alive, that Judith was able to ponder the catastrophe that had befallen her family and her people. In common with most survivors, Judith seethed with despairing bitterness following the war. At the first Yizkor memorial service she attended after regaining her freedom, she simply could not bring herself to recite the hallowed words, much as she yearned to honor the memory of her murdered parents and brothers.
Judith’s initial impulse was to flee as far away as possible from the identity that had brought her so much anguish. However, with the passage of time she came to realize that severing her roots brought no satisfaction, only dismal emptiness. She was hurting herself by discarding the rich Jewish heritage of her childhood that had imbued her life with meaning and purpose.
She resolved to renew her covenant with God, not for his sake but for her own. This enabled her to attain a remarkable tranquility of spirit which graced her for the rest of her days.
My mother’s stories about her early life in Hungary, the war years, and the post-war process of healing and reconciliation gestated within her for a long time, the emotional turmoil that inspired them gradually transforming into thoughtful coherence. Yet, during the first years in the New World, these stories were an achingly solitary affair. The Shoah stood as a yawning chasm between those Jews who had been fortunate to come to Toronto before the war and the survivors who joined them afterwards. Not long after my parents’ arrival in 1948, a friendly Yiddish-speaking neighbor asked the newcomer what had brought her to Canada. My mother responded matter-of-factly that in 1944, the Germans and Hungarians had herded the Jews of Szerencs, Hungary including her entire family into a foul ghetto, from which they were shipped by rail to the Auschwitz concentration camp to be gassed to death and incinerated. She and her husband-to-be somehow stayed alive. As no country in the world wanted to take them in, they languished for three years in an Italian refugee camp until finally Canada was the first country to open the door.
A long, awkward silence was followed by a deep sigh and a plaintive lament: “Mrs. Rubinstein, you can’t imagine how hard life was in Toronto during the Great Depression. And during the war? Oy! We didn’t even have butter to put on our poor children’s bread!”
At a loss for words, my mother brought the conversation to an awkward conclusion. How could her neighbor possibly comprehend horrors which lay utterly beyond the realm of her sheltered existence? After all, she herself had great difficulty coming to terms with the malevolent depravity that had stricken at the very heart of civilized Europe. She decided that it would be prudent to keep the memories to herself.
Almost two decades would pass before my mother opened up about what came to be known as “the Holocaust”, perceiving that many people were finally as ready to listen as she was to speak. Beginning in the 1960’s, extensive media coverage of the Eichmann trial and the first publication of works like Elie Wiesel’s Night chipped away at the barrier between survivors and non-survivors. When her moment finally arrived, my mother was seized by an inspired articulacy which startled her no less than it did her listeners. In the course of the extraordinary speaking career that followed, she more than compensated for lost time.
This year, as we observed the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we were all-too-conscious of the melancholy reality that this would be the last major commemoration. A decade ago, 1,500 survivors from all over the world traveled to Auschwitz to mark the 60th anniversary. This year, only 300 were able to make the pilgrimage. By the time the 75th anniversary comes around, there will be virtually no survivors left.
We who remain behind must prepare for a world in which there will be no living witnesses to the calamitous destruction of European Jewry. We have been spoiled all these years by having in our midst remarkable people like Judith Rubinstein. To be sure, they bore witness with their tattooed forearms, resolutely refuting the scoundrels who dared deny the veracity of our people’s tragedy. But in their breathtakingly successful struggle to rebuild broken lives rather than succumbing to despair, they also gave us hope for the redemption of humankind.
As we turn our gaze apprehensively to the future, we know that the potent presence of the survivors will be sorely missed.
Who now will bear witness?
Who will guide us? Inspire us? Give us comfort?
We shall have no choice but to devise as best we can new ways, of necessity less direct and less compelling, to perpetuate the sacred charge of the survivors.
Let us pray that we are up to the challenge.