Tamar Fenton

Liel and Dora

My daughter's closest friend was a Holocaust survivor 78 years her senior. None of us thought my daughter would die first
Dora and Liel. (courtesy)
Dora and Liel. (courtesy)

Overcome with sadness, I watched as my three sons helped Dora up our steep staircase, one flanking her on each side, and one following closely behind in case she fell. Approaching her 99th year, Dora was hard of hearing, legally blind, and had recently broken her hip, but nothing could stop her from making it to my 21-year-old daughter’s bedside before Liel took her last breath. Ignoring the chair, Dora threw herself onto Liel’s emaciated body and wept. The boys stood nearby in case Dora’s legs gave out from pain or sorrow.

When Dora finally eased into the chair, she leaned close to Liel’s face. “You brilliant special girl, how is this happening?” And then, trancelike, grasping Liel’s limp hand, Dora began telling Liel one of the few stories from the Holocaust she had not already shared during their 18 years of friendship.

“Near the end of the war, after surviving Auschwitz and a death march to Bergen-Belsen, I was a girl the same age as you are now, barely 50 pounds by that point, and dying of typhoid. The Nazis had stopped gassing us, but we were still being worked and starved to death. I was too sick to leave the barracks, so I lay there all day alone, saving up the little energy I had so when my mother walked by and called out my name, I could yell back, ‘Mama,’ so she knew I was still alive.”

With urgency Dora continued, “I’m begging you, my sweet girl. Please use all of your strength like I did, to let me know that you hear me.” But by then, Liel had already slipped into unconsciousness.

In September 2004, our rabbi called asking if we would deliver apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah to congregants, survivors of the Holocaust in their late 70s who were homebound — the husband, Jules, had dementia, and his wife, Dora, rarely left his side, as she cared for him. A tiny, thick-accented woman welcomed the six of us into their home with a smile and hugs. After we handed Dora the gift bag of apples and honey from the synagogue, the kids took over. My oldest blew the shofar, the next son sang and danced, the third shared everything he had learned about the holiday, and my youngest, Liel, just 3 years old, plopped herself onto Dora’s lap, playing with her hair and filling every blank space with important insights that only a feisty preschooler can contribute.

Liel and Dora at our Sukkah, ages 8 and 86

After that, the kids insisted we go back to visit often, and when Jules passed away, Auntie Dora, as she was now called, became the honored guest at Special Person’s Day at school and joined us for holidays and bar and bat mitzvahs. My youngest two grew especially attached to Dora. When she was able to return to the synagogue on Shabbat, Liel and Ronen would burst into the sanctuary, run down the center aisle, climb over the kindly doctor who always sat next to Dora, and wriggle their way onto each side of her in the pew for the remainder of the service. Her siddur was no longer accessible since her hands were now firmly in the grasp of my children. One by one, our boys went off to college, but Liel was still at home, and visits to Auntie Dora had become indelibly and lovingly entrenched into her routine.

Celebrating Liel’s high school graduation, ages 18 and 96

When Liel got her driver’s license, she drove herself to Dora’s. They had animated discussions about current events, religion, and music. Dora was always eager to hear Liel’s perspectives, and since they shared a passion for clothes and shoes, even with her waning eyesight, Dora enjoyed Liel’s fashion shows. These visits also provided intimate time to absorb Dora’s harrowing and painful stories of the Holocaust, and for Liel to accept the weight of responsibility that came with that sacred trust. Dora’s resilience, her pursuit of justice, and her embrace of life inspired and comforted Liel during her challenging teenage years. In her hardest moments she would often say, “If Auntie Dora can be happy after what she went through, I have to figure out a way to be happy too.”

A visit to Auntie Dora, Ages 15 and 93

The summer Liel turned 18, we noticed that her shoulder was twitching. Over the next few months, she was plagued with neurological impairments and intractable GI issues. Even so, she insisted on going away to college as planned, and made the most of those eight months in New York, despite her worsening symptoms. Home at the beginning of the pandemic, she also began experiencing constant nausea, wild thyroid swings, and cardiac issues. Then she began losing consciousness dozens of times a day. Desperate for answers, we sought help from specialists and renowned medical institutions.

For many crucial months as her body deteriorated, doctors wasted precious time on a theory that her maladies, her growing list of disabilities, her rapid weight loss, and even her hospitalizations from potentially fatal drops in blood sugar, blood pressure, and heartrate, were somehow a result of a mental health disorder. Though we knew this was absurd and kept searching for answers, the momentum from this “diagnosis” followed Liel and limited doctors’ patience, compassion, and even interest in looking deeper into her illness. Only at a private-pay clinic were vital tests done that had never been offered by the world-famous medical center in charge of Liel’s care.

Finally, the real cause of her illness was discovered. Liel was suffering from a rare, acquired mitochondrial disorder that robbed her cells of the energy needed for her organs to function properly and for her body to adequately absorb nutrition. Eighteen months had slipped by while we fought to get the attention, care, even kindness Liel deserved from the medical community, and during that time, this disease caused irreparable damage.

When her peers returned to their campuses following COVID closures, Liel was too sick to go back, but her university made it possible for her to continue learning remotely. Having reveled in the independence she had enjoyed during those first eight months at college when her symptoms were more manageable, now back in Minnesota, the idea of me hovering over her and constantly wanting to take her to yet another doctor was not her idea of embracing the promise of each day. Yet, she and I both knew that given her declining health, it would not be wise for her to live alone or too far from home.

Deciding to live together – ages 19 and 97

Liel understood what her future held long before I could acknowledge it, and with whatever time she had, she was determined to live her life as fully as possible. Graduating from college and reaching her 21st birthday were at the top of her bucket list. Despite her pain and symptoms, she regularly visited Auntie Dora, who, though blind and 97 at the time, was living alone in her home and planned to keep it that way. She had rejected the idea of moving into a senior facility or having anyone “take care” of her, but when Liel broached the idea of moving in, she made an exception. Dora said, “I know we love each other very much, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be good roommates. Let’s try it for two weeks and see how it goes.” Two weeks stretched into two years. There were periods of time when Liel was in the hospital or temporarily recuperating at our house, but as soon as she felt well enough, she would move back to Dora’s.

They found joy in their daily routines. Liel was, by then, relying on a feeding tube for the minimal nutrition her body could process, but they still cooked and sat together each evening to discuss their days. One night, Liel called, and I could hear Dora laughing in the background as she told me that they were both tipsy from all the alcohol they had poured into the batter of the rum cake they made. Dora enjoyed participating in videos Liel made for college assignments, and Liel set up an Alexa system so Dora just had to ask, and the air would magically fill with classical music. Liel rubbed lotion onto Dora’s aching back and arranged for a friend to come to the house to give her manicures. Dora could sense when Liel was feeling especially down and would list all of her special qualities and tell her how important she was in her life, saying, “You are as dear to me as my own children.” For many years, Dora had spoken to schools and groups about the Holocaust, but by this time, her age and COVID restrictions made in-person appearances impossible. Understanding that, for so many reasons, Dora must continue telling her story, Liel served as tech coordinator for her virtual presentations, as well as for Zoom calls with Dora’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Roommates, ages 20 and 98

After three years of crumbling health and dozens of drastic interventions that led nowhere, during a final hospital stay in February 2022, doctors acknowledged how dire her situation was and that they did not know how to help her. Liel asked if she was going to die and if it was time to go on hospice, and the answer was yes to both. When she was discharged, she went to tell Dora in person that her fight was coming to an end and that she would need to move back home for her last months. Dora refused to believe that this warrior, so full of life, so tough like herself, could possibly die before her. Through tears and pronouncements that a cure would still be found, she told Liel that her room would always be there waiting for her.

The day Liel told Dora she was moving out and going on hospice, a few months before Liel’s 21st and Dora’s 99th birthdays.

At home on hospice, Liel finished her Public Health degree, graduating summa cum laude. The entire faculty of her department participated in a virtual graduation ceremony for her and spoke of her intellect, wit, and resilience. Dora watched the ceremony on a computer, her daughter by her side, describing to her all that she could not see or hear clearly. The next night, though emaciated and weak, Liel’s brother, Ronen, took her to a bar on her 21st birthday where she was thrilled to be carded and take a few sips of a mimosa before returning home and getting back into bed. Her two top bucket list items were checked off in May 2022.

Two and a half months later, Liel woke up one day and said, “Mom, I can feel my body shutting down. I think it’s time to call the hospice nurse.” Family and friends came to be with her. There was nothing left unsaid. Liel spent her last conscious night ordering gifts online for loved ones, knowing that they would arrive after she was gone. That was Liel. More worried about others than herself, thanking us all for the ways we made her life as good as it could be. Stronger than anyone I have ever met — like Dora — and that is a comparison that would make Liel very happy. Dora climbed the stairs to Liel’s room just after she had finally and blessedly had fallen asleep. Two days later, my husband David and I were with Liel as she slipped away.

After we buried her, I found a note in which Liel had written, “Though I don’t want to die, I do need to go before Dora because I could not take losing her.”

Now I am the one to visit Dora, who is at home on hospice herself. We cry. We tell stories. Dora reports on the progress of the book that she is dictating to a friend about her life, which includes a chapter on Liel. I bring her vanilla cake and pour rum over it to recreate that infamous drunken night they shared. We talk about how friendship has no age limits or boundaries. The love that Liel and Dora nurtured all those years is proof of that. Their extraordinary connection transcended generations and unfathomable pain, and the courage and spirit of these two women, born 78 years apart, is forever and beautifully intertwined.

About the Author
Tamar Fenton has worked in the Jewish community since her first job teaching religious school at a small synagogue in Orange County, CA at age 15, and for the last 15 years has been the development director of the Minnesota JCC. Married for 35 years to David, together they raised four kids: a rabbinic student, a film editor, an aerospace professional, and their daughter Liel, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in public health.
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