My mother, Chava died seven years ago.
She would have been 99 on April 3.
At least, we think that was her birthday. She never had a birth certificate so after the war she picked April 3. I heard that her surviving three sisters picked April birthdays as well.
She was born to a Jewish family in Ruscova, Romania, a hamlet nestled up against the Ukrainian border. I have seen photographs 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.
Her surname was Husz. It means “goose” in Czech. The other explanation is that the name was taken from the town of Husi. A third variation has it as being after the city of Khust, home of a renowned yeshiva.
Husz sounded sounded like “hiss” to me and I thought it odd. Sometimes, my mother spelled it “Huss” which even further confused me.
Her paternal family had lived in Ruscova since 1860, possibly earlier. Her father owned a pottery manufacturing business. Her mother was from Moiseu, Romania and moved to Ruscova when she married.
My mother was the seventh of eight children. She had had three older brothers and one younger sister, all of whom died of childhood diseases before the war.
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 soldier left.
A few days later, the Jews were ordered to leave their homes and relocate to Viseul de Sus, Romania.
Seven weeks later, on Shavuoth, 1944, my grandparents and their two younger daughters (the elder two were in Bucharest at the time) were transported to Auschwitz.
Upon descending the railroad cars, my grandfather gathered his daughters 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.
They were herded into a long line. Soon, they came face to face with someone my mother later described as “the handsomest man I ever saw”.
It was Dr. Joseph Mengele.
They were selected to be slave laborers. They were stripped, deloused, shaved and their intimate body parts were searched for valuables by men.
The humiliation and fear still silenced my mother, even after a lifetime in America.
She and her sister were given sack-like dresses and wooden shoes.
Afterwards, she called out, “Charna! Where are you?”
“Quiet!”, Charna said, “I am right next to you.”
She 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.”
The terror and slow starvation continued for three months.
My mother started to give up.
Charna gave her her bread and said, “Here, you take it. I am not hungry.”
“She could have eaten it with her eyes,” my mother later said.
My mother developed a high fever and a painful sore throat and 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 a munitions factory making hand grenades. The girl sitting next to my mother lost several fingers when a grenade exploded.
One day, without provocation, a guard thrust the butt of his rifle into my mother’s temple. She carried the depression in her skull for the rest of her life.
They were liberated by the Soviet forces on May 8, 1945.
“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.
A few weeks later, she and her sister returned to Ruscova to look for family. Their two older sisters arrived around September.
They sold their parents’ house and fields for a pittance to the people they found squatting there and, with the money, paid smugglers to transport them to the American Occupied Zone in Germany, where, in 1947 my parents met.
“My life began when I met your father,” my mother said.
His mother walked my mother to the wedding canopy.
It was outdoors, at night, under the stars.
(A version of “Chava” has appeared on chabad.org)