Roseanne Malka Werb Zwanziger

What would my mother say…..


It was late May 1967. It was Mum’s first trip to Israel, and the very first trip to Israel for anyone in the family. She had gone to attend a cousin’s wedding. A few days thereafter, the Chatan (bridegroom) was mobilized. Two days later, so was the Kallah (bride).


It was late May 1967. It was Mum’s first trip to Israel, and the very first trip to Israel for anyone in the family. She had gone to attend a cousin’s wedding. A few days thereafter, the Chatan (bridegroom) was mobilized. Two days later, so was the Kallah (bride).

She returned from Israel, her face tear-stained, hands shaking, lips taut. The words of joy and happiness on pale green aerograms of reunions with family who had survived the Shoah evaporated on the sunny morning of her arrival. At home, she found my 19-year-old brother, as usual, spread out on the plush white living room carpet, relaxing, and reading the newspaper. She shrieked.

“How can you just lie there reading the newspaper doing nothing?“ she cried in anguish. “Your cousins, the same age as you, have just been mobilized! Who knows what fate has in store for them?”

“How can this be? Something must be done!“ she shouted.

She wandered about the house in a daze. There were bouts of weeping. She was inconsolable.

I was only 14 at the time, and all talk was of war – at home, in the press, on the radio. It seemed that war was inevitable for the beleaguered State of Israel. But did I know what that meant? A day or two after Mum’s solemn return, a mass community rally was called at a synagogue in our small prairie town. The telephone message was strong and clear. “Everyone should be present – men, women and children old enough to understand.”

When we arrived, I saw a room completely packed, peoples’ faces intense, worry lines across their foreheads, all engaged in loud and agitated conversations. When the leaders of the community stepped onto the dais, absolute silence fell on the crowd.

“There will be a war in Israel. It will be difficult. Our brethren will be giving their blood, their lives to ensure that our longed-for, prayed-for State of Israel survives. It is our responsibility to give our all, everything we can. You must give, as though it is your blood, and your very own life that is at stake.”

Then, there was a roll call: each and every family by name called in alphabetical order. The heads of family stood up to be counted and accountable. My mother held my hand tightly, her face remained damp as I tried to imagine the pictures and thoughts behind her tears.

June 1941

Mum was barely 17, exactly 26 years earlier, in June 1941. The Soviets had abandoned her small town of Tluste, moving east towards Russia. Roving gangs of Ukrainian collaborators had waited for this moment. Full of blood lust, they proceeded to rob, murder and pillage the Jews of her town. Only a short time later, the Germans and their Hungarian collaborators came and shipped off the rest of the town’s Jews to Belzec for extermination. Mum ran and ran, and ran. She was able to save herself. She knew war, but even more so, she knew, she saw, she lived in the midst of Jew-haters.

I imagined that as the community leaders spoke at that fateful time in 1967, pictures of Yankele and Tami, the young and joyous newlyweds, were before her eyes. What would be their fate? Or, was she reliving her terrifying memories of the murder of her mother, father, siblings? Was it the sheer terror of war and loss of her remaining family in Israel, or, was it the possibility of the annihilation of the Jewish state? Was there any real difference?

October 2023

What would she say if she were here to see and hear of the murderous and villainous atrocities committed once more against innocent children, the young, the old in the State of Israel? What would she say when there is no sure refuge, no peace, no tranquility in the numerous countries that promised the same after the Shoah? What would she say to the fate of naive Jewish students, who used to wander innocently and aimlessly about campus studying and partying, who now cower in fear as keffiyeh-wrapped hoodlums and bullies seek to harm them? What would she say to the unbridled, unapologetic, and brazen antisemitic language in the media, the protests, the threats, the violence, that have overtaken the so-called educated Western world? What would she say to an Israel caught off guard?

I imagine a torrent of tears would flow from her soft brown eyes. I picture her body shaking in fear. I envisage the bitterness and sorrow deep in her soul that lay dormant, now rising within her as she might nod her head and respond, “Yes, they still hate us… things will never change… Siz shver tsu zayn a Yid…” (It is hard to be a Jew).

And yet… Despite the wretchedness that clings to my soul for the murder of my family, despite the unfathomable cruelty and execution unleashed against our people and other innocents by antisemites, I know that today is different. Despite the horrific errors of October 7, I remind myself how blessed we, the Jewish people, are. That now, after two millennia we have our own state, and our own army. And, that our army defends not only the people within the State of Israel, but defends every single Jew, whether committed or self-denying, in every single far-fetched place that they may find themselves. And yet… Now we are once more reminded that there is only one refuge, and a blessed one it is.

And yet… I hope all our brethren worldwide will stand together proud, upright, united, and defiant, as one, the way we stood together in that synagogue in a sleepy prairie town.

Written in memory of my beloved mother, Henia Werb, beloved father, Chaim Werb, beloved mother-in-law, Mina Zwanziger, beloved father-in-law Leon Zwanziger, aunts, uncles, and cousins too numerous to name, all survivors of the Shoah.

About the Author
I am a retired attorney, most recently from Chicago who worked as an Administrative law Judge in Illinois, New York, and Ontario Canada. Since my retirement I have been a participant in " Writing Circles" in Chicago, where writers get together and share their work, obtain ideas, and improve their craft. I initiated a Writers Circle in Netanya approximately six -seven years ago. Once again, this has been an opportunity for English language writers to get together on a bi-weekly basis to write on various topics, present their compositions, and get feedback. Our group consists of writers from England, South Africa, and the US. My personal work is the compliation of stories related to the lives of survivors, their stories, and the stories , as the child of survivor AFTER World War II. I am also working on a fantasy story for young girls.
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