I recently sat between two older women in shul, reciting the Shabbat prayers, singing melodies, full of faith. It was difficult for them to get up and stand, but they did. I have known these women for years, but this time, sitting next to them, I noticed something I had only heard about – numbers tattooed on their forearms. I asked myself how could these women, both survivors of the death camp Auschwitz, be full of praise for a G-d that allowed for such evil? I decided to speak with them about their lives.
Sitting to the right of me was Helen Sherman. I heard about Helen’s life, partially from Helen herself and mostly from her daughter Esther. Helen was born in 1925 in Zechlin, Poland. Her father’s first wife died during the birth of their fourth child. He remarried and had seven more children, one of them being Helen. For Helen, childhood was filled with the typical bustling activity of a large family. Then came the Nazis. Her first horrific memory was when Nazis made her father shave his beard. The entire family cried when they saw him. Then the Nazis forced them all to move from a beautiful house to the ghetto, into a small hut with a dirt floor. Even in that crowded squalor they took in an old aunt who had no place to go.
When the Nazis came to the ghetto for the deportations they first took Helen’s brother Yaakov. A Jewish policeman warned Helen’s sister Rochel she was next for deportation, so she stayed away from home. Helen’s mother decided she would go instead of Rochel, but Helen insisted her mother needed to stay with the younger children. As Helen’s mother yelled at her to run to the attic, the Nazis stormed in and grabbed Helen thinking she was her older sister. That was last time Helen saw her family.
Throughout transfers from camp to camp Helen imagined life after the war, creating plays and acting them out with friends. She recalls one of her friends sneaking around to meet boys, laughing and giggling despite the horror around them. This friend eventually became an actress after the war.
Close to the end of the war, during another transfer, they were each given a loaf of bread. Helen’s friend consumed her loaf almost immediately. Helen, who ate small pieces, saved bread that she was able to share with her starving friend during the cattle car ride, which ended up lasting a week.
After the war, in yet another demonstration of selflessness, Helen gave her cousin, who had no close relatives in the US, her ticket to leave. She reassured her, saying she would find another way out. Helen humbly repeats that she never thought she would survive, that she was not strong, not brave. Helen marvels “Who would have thought I would live to see fourteen great grandchildren”?
Sarah Bella Avner, who sat to my left that day in shul, was also born in 1925, in Dunaserde, Slovakia. Since speaking about her experiences during the Shoah is too painful, I heard stories from her son Moti, daughter Rivka and daughter-in-law Becky. Sarah Bella was an only child. Her entire village was transported to Auschwitz. Her parents were sent to death; she was sent to slave labor. Helen and Sarah Bella commemorate the collective yahrzeits of their home towns on the days the entire village populations were transported to death camps.
As Sarah Bella, also known as Savta Bella, walked to a Yizkor service she mentioned the pain of sores she had on her back while in Auschwitz. The sores, from lying on the wooden barracks, caused excruciating pain. She thought if she could just endure a little more pain she might make it out alive. Walking to Yizkor recalled that anguish – just a little more pain, it will pass. Endurance, with prayer, gave her courage. One of the few actual reminders to her family of her experiences, aside from the number tattooed on her arm, is that she refuses to go on an elevator. It reminds her too much of the horrid conditions of the stifling cattle cars.
Savta Bella kept a tiny siddur hidden inside in the barracks. She prayed with this siddur regularly, even in the midst of the horrors around her. During her secret prayers on Yom Kippur she was caught with her siddur in hand by a prison guard while in her barracks. She was certain this would be the end of her, but he only stared at her and walked away.
After the war she returned to her town and met her first husband, also an Auschwitz survivor. They had one child together, Leah. He never recovered his health from the ravages of the death camp and died in 1949. So with baby Leah in her arms, widowed Savta Bella came to Israel. She got a job as a cook in a yeshiva, and then met and married a widower with two children. They had three children together. Her youngest son Chaim Meir, z”l, was killed in the first Lebanon war. Savta Bella proudly honors her son’s service for Am Yisrael. For years she volunteered in the local Pina Chama, the soldier’s rest stop for cake, coffee and refreshment. She is still close with Chaim’s girlfriend.
Savta Bella made a decision to close the door on the horrors of her past and a vow to keep her door open to an optimistic future. She literally welcomes everyone to her home. With limitless generosity, she always has enough food to feed everyone, even extra guests.
I left speaking with Savta Bella’s family contemplating her hidden siddur and thought of Helen sharing her stored bread with her friend. Even in the depths of unimaginable horror, these women were able to reach out of themselves, to share with others or pray to G-d.
Now, with their constant presence in our shul, Savta Bella and Helen teach us the strongest statement of faith. At the liberation from Auschwitz they both made choices to look ahead with hope. They married and created beautiful families. They regularly attend shul, demonstrating faith and gratitude. They warmly greet everyone with kindness. This compassion and generosity gave them strength to endure the worst of humankind. Their example of faith, despite the unspeakable darkness they lived through, continues to inspire us to keep ours.