For 26 years I was the Director of Pastoral Counseling at a facility for Holocaust survivors. Listening to their heart-breaking stories of experiences and loss, I could not restrain my weeping.
I hugged them as they spoke. I wiped their almost-never-ending flood of tears. I kissed their hands.
They were for me not only survivors, not only patients in a facility founded to help them, they were to me as parents, as grandparents. And their suffering became mine. Each night when I returned home I shared the day’s experiences with my beloved wife, a daughter of survivors.
She wisely explained to me that in order to help them, I must remain clearly objective. Their experiences could not be mine. I needed to view them and to listen to them from a clinical manner. It was not possible for me to do. And for those 26 years their suffering became mine. I was very familiar with many of the towns, cities and villages from whence they came.
In 1969, I had been an invited guest of the Polish government due to a series of articles I had written for the Polish press regarding treatment of Jews in Poland before, during and after the war. A Polish guide took me to Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Brzezinka (Birkenau), Majdanek and Treblinka. The remains which I saw have deeply affected my life. I am haunted by the memories and I recited kaddish at each place of horror.
In Krakow, Maciej Jakubowicz, head of the surviving Jewish community, took me on a tour of the remnants of the once thriving and bustling Jewish community. In his office he showed me photos of the major synagogues and shtiebels which existed in Krakow prior to 1939. Now only one, the Rema on 42 ulica Szeroka in the Kazimierz district of Krakow, named for the 16th century Rabbi Moses Isserles remained, and was successful in maintaining a minyan for religious services. I looked. I saw. And I wept for what was no more.
That official visit to Poland and from there to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union had an immense impact upon my life. It has never disappeared.
On January 21, 2016, my wife and I were seated in our son’s medical office when he broke the bitter news to us. The CT revealed that my wife had pancreatic cancer which had metastasized to her liver. She sat quite still, shocked, but exhibited no outward emotion. I sat beside her, holding her hand and crying hysterically. Where was God? Why Rahel? Why not let me die first so that I would never have to look upon her suffering?
For seven months, she endured chemotherapy treatments, sometimes able to eat and drink, often not at all. I slept beside her holding her hand through the night, weeping bitter tears, and hardly sleeping…watching to make sure that she was comfortable and breathing.
We had been married 56 years after knowing one another for only 6 days. It was love at first sight. And although she is no longer in my sight, the love for her burns constantly in my heart.
On the 20th of Elul (23 September 2016) she breathed her last breath. My younger daughter and I cried hysterically. We were alone with no one to embrace us or comfort us. At three o’clock in the morning our beloved and esteemed rabbi and his wife came to us, to be with us, to notify the chevra kadisha. I lit a candle at her bedside and covered her with a sheet and I followed as her body was taken into the funeral car, reciting the 23rd psalm of David as I walked behind her lifeless body.
It is now seven months since she has been taken from us. My son, a busy doctor, finds time to go to the synagogue twice every day to recite kaddish for his mother. My younger daughter recites the kaddish with tears every Shabbat morning in the synagogue. My older daughter who lives 5 hours away from us recites the kaddish silently and in a place where there is no minyan.
I visit her grave sometimes twice every month to pray, to weep, and to remind her that my love for her is undying.
Friends constantly comfort me. I am invited for meals. They struggle to ease my pain but all is in vain. No one who has lost a beloved spouse for so many years can truly experience the grief. They can offer sympathy but do not experience empathy.
On the last day of Pesach, Yizkor prayers were recited for the deceased. For me, it was simply another day of weeping.