As the world took pause this week to remember the Holocaust, I read warnings from survivors that we should never forget. Remembering, they said, is not achieved with a single moment of silence, prayer, or candle lit. Remembering is an active and ongoing process. Remembering is more than the opposite of forgetting. Remembering is building a relationship with the past, and carrying the past and the lessons from it with us in our everyday lives, in the decisions we make, the policies we support, and the future we build. This week, I chose to spend some real time remembering my family’s own story of survival. Here is the story of my grandmother and her sister, based on interviews I conducted with my Great-Aunt Rachel in 2015.
Rachel’s sister, my paternal grandmother, Marta Miriam Szarvas, was born to the Morecki family of Lwów, Poland, in March of 1927. She was born to Lucia “Shinedel” Liebeskind and Moshe “Moondeck” Morecki, two people whose greatest legacy is their kindness.
Lucia had grown up in a traditional Jewish family in Krakow. She was the second of four children and only educated to the third grade, after which she stayed home, which she enjoyed, as she enjoyed to care for her mother. Although she was not well educated, Lucia is remembered as being an extremely astute and intelligent woman.
Moondeck grew up in Lwów, the son of a coal miner and wash woman. Though his father died young and he had to work to support the family, Moondeck, a determined young person, managed to earn a law degree. He was a visionary and a dreamer, attending the Herzl’s Jewish Congress in 1909 in Switzerland. Though he had no money to attend, his conviction was strong, so he jumped atop a train bound for Switzerland and rode all the way to the Congress.
Though both Moondeck and Lucia were raised religiously, only Lucia carried the traditions on with their children. Lucia was raised in a kosher household that visited synagogue regularly. When Marta and Rachel were little, Lucia kept a kosher home and attended the synagogue every week. Rachel remembers going with her sometimes, just to hold her hand. Though Lucia suffered from challenges with illness, this did not diminish her kindness or generosity. When Moondeck gave her money for the household, she would keep some aside, hiding it in a sweater in the closet. Along with food she had saved, she would bring this money to people on the street who had none. Lucia also had a wonderful relationship with her friends, with whom she would speak French and travel to the country.
Marta and Rachel grew up in a vibrant Jewish community. Lwów had the third largest Jewish population in the world at the time they lived there, with forty-five synagogues, numerous Jewish schools, youth clubs, newspapers and cultural centers. Jewish artists came from Poland and abroad to perform at the famed Nowosci hall. The family rented two adjacent luxury flats near the University of Lwów, one in which they lived and the other which was Moondeck’s law office. His law practice was successful, and he served mainly, but not exclusively, Jewish clients. The girls were very close to their family, seeing their aunts, uncles and cousins every Friday. Rachel often played with her older cousins, whose generosity and patience as she experimented on their teeth helped Rachel to discover her calling as a doctor. Moondeck often took his children and their cousins to the luna park. The seven children and grown man were heavy for the horse that pulled the buggy they travelled in. Rachel remembers swinging wildly sky-high on the swings despite Moondeck’s playful warnings. The wild child soared into the sky, Moondeck would entertain with jokes, the children would laugh, they had an immensely good time.
Though Rachel remembers a happy childhood in Poland, the family still suffered some darker fates. Marta was being so harassed at her public school for being Jewish, the family bought her a guard dog to escort her to school, which once came home badly injured from a fight. Though Jewish life seemed at a high point in Lwów during the Morecki parents’ early life, Moondeck began to see warning signs that it may become unsafe for them to stay in their homeland. Moondeck was known to be a great thinker and a man of great foresight. He encouraged his young daughters that they could be “whatever they wanted, as long as they worked hard”, endorsing Rachel’s dream of becoming a doctor. He dreamt of a Jewish state, and in 1932, bought land of his own in Palestine. Buying land was a special dream for many Jews, who did not have the right to own land in their countries of origin. However, Moondeck did not desire to move to Palestine, as he did not speak the language and could not continue his law practice there. Though he did not want to move, Moondeck’s worry grew. Once, after returning from Warsaw, the children overheard him telling Lucia his concern of the terrible anti-semitism he had seen there– Jews being thrown out of windows and murdered.
Moondeck had an immigration certificate to Palestine. In 1939, the British government informed him he would lose it unless he came there for some time with his entire family. Moondeck and Lucia readied the girls to travel for what they believed would be a summer vacation, though he had the foresight to understand that they may be leaving permanently. Moondeck told everyone they were going for summer vacation in Romania, especially his non-Jewish clients, so as not to lose their business. He packed a suitcase full of practical items, and Lucia one full of sentimental items. Some part of her must have been sure she would never return to her home. Every picture and keepsake my family has of the Moreckies and Liebeskinds before the war was packed in Lucia’s bag. Since the family was only permitted to travel with one sterling pound of silver, they brought additional valuables in the form of jewelry. The Moreckis had invested some of their money in jewelry, because they were not allowed to invest it in land. Moondeck was fearful of the Nazis and the fate of Jews in Poland. He booked many tickets for his family and begged his siblings to send their children to Palestine with him, but they told him he was a crazy man and afraid of everything. So the Moreckis set off alone, Marta and Rachel wearing their mothers rings on their tiny fingers. First they traveled by train to Romania. On the way, one of Lucia’s jade rings slipped off of Rachel’s little finger. Her father was smart and kind, so he was not angry with her. He was a very understanding person and Rachel imagines he asked himself, “Why would I put an expensive ring like that on a little finger on which it does not fit?”
The train they took was mostly full of Jews escaping the Nazis. When they got to Romania they transferred to a boat. The boat was small and somewhat unstable. Many of the children on the boat were seasick, including Rachel, but not Marta. Marta, who had never eaten well her whole life, suddenly had an excellent appetite. This seasickening weeklong journey to Palestine was the last of its kind. Just two weeks after that jade ring slipped off Rachel’s littlest finger, the Nazis invaded Poland and imprisoned her family. Not one more boat left the Romanian dock.
Of course, at the time, the children did not know what fate awaited their family. When they arrived at the shore in Palestine, people came out on smaller boats to welcome them. To the children it felt like a little party, and like the whole world was waiting for them.
When I was growing up, there was a black and white photo in my house. There were more than a dozen people in it, dressed opulently, their eyes staring eagerly and earnestly at me, each one looking directly into the lens. As I grew older and more curious, I would ask my mother about them.
“Who is she?”
“Grammy Marta’s cousin”,
“Is she dead?”,
“And who is he?”
“Grammy Marta’s Uncle”
“Is he dead?”
“Are they all dead?”
This is how I learned about the Holocaust. Almost everyone in the picture was dead. Almost everyone in the picture had been murdered; in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, or worked to death, or shot in the “Lwów Ghetto”, which is what my grandma’s treasured childhood home became. The truth is we will never know exactly how their lives were taken from them. But I do know how their lives were lived; the joy they shared as a family breaking bread together, the laughs my great-grandfather elicited from the children during their brief lives, though I know he wished he could have saved them, and heard many more of their laughs.
Marta and Rachel did not return to Lwów. They grew up in Palestine and then Israel. Rachel moved away to study medicine in Geneva and then settled in the United States. Marta stayed in Israel, where she raised my dad and his brother, who still lives there. They were reunited with a few cousins, who had survived in hiding throughout the war, but they never saw most of their loved ones again. Rachel’s treasured best friends, with whom she spent her childhood traveling and building imaginary worlds, were also murdered by the Nazis. When Rachel was older, she attended a Holocaust museum and heard her beloved friend, Genya’s name read off as a victim. She could not stop crying.
Today when I talk to Rachel about this story, though she has lived a life full of successes as a pioneering woman in her field of pathology and award winning artist with a beautiful family of her own, the pain in her voice is still palpable. The trauma of a life stolen and the pain of the murder of almost everyone they loved, lives on in her, in my father, and in me. This is the pain of lives lost that were never allowed to be lived. Of family bonds severed, of a career cut short, of a relationship to a culture, of knowing there may have been a chance to save some of them, a chance that wasn’t taken because the horrors inflicted upon them were unimaginable to the people who were about to become the victims.
This week, and always, I remember my family. I remember my grandmother and great aunt’s stories, but I also do my best to remember their family and friends, killed too young to have grandchildren who could remember them. This week, I also remember the capacity for cruelty we humans possess, that we must always be vigilant, and that everyone who dies leaves lasting pain in those that loved them. The pain inflicted on one human being does not end with them, it leaves living scars that last for generations. Let us take this time to reflect and promise ourselves that to the best of our abilities, we will try not to leave scars that our children and grandchildren will still need to heal from, long after we are gone. Let us also remember the love, and the laughs, of those that were lost.
This article was first published in AVIVA–Berlin, Online Magazine and information portal for women, on February 1st, 2020
More about Jewish Life in Lvov:
“Virtual Jewish World:Lvov, Ukraine.” Lvov, Ukraine Jewish History Tour.
American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.
The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – Jewish Life in Lvov. YouTube. Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.