Woman of Valor and Virtues: My Savta, Tirza Bittmann z”l

In eighth grade, my English teacher asked our class to write articles for our school yearbook about the person we most admire. I gave it some thought and quickly came to the conclusion that my article would be about my grandmother, Tirza Bittmann. My Savta had always been a hero for me. Though I had only been 13 at the time that I wrote the article, I had already been tremendously aware of what an extraordinary woman I had for a grandmother.

One of my earliest memories of my beloved Savta consists of her lovingly holding me after a fight I had with my brother Netanel over a toy. I remember crying bitterly (to the wall? To my mother? To myself?), and then being taken into the protecting, loving arms of my Savta. She didn’t tell me to stop crying, or that I was a baby for crying about such things. Instead, she let me cry and express my feelings of frustration in a completely non judgmental way and thus met me in a comfortable, warm place of empathy and love. This, indeed, was who my Savta was – a person who always showered her loved ones with wholehearted love and acceptance.

I have glorious memories from my youth, which consist of family trips every summer to my Saba and Savta’s apartment in Kiryat Moshe, Jerusalem. I had always looked forward so much to those trips, when we would fly Tower Air to Israel and take a summer sublet close to our grandparents’ apartment. Every evening we would be pampered with delicious soup, chicken, chocolate cake, colorful gumballs, new clothes and new toys. And everything had always been accompanied with so many kisses and hugs. After a gourmet, but still very home-cooked tasting Romanian-style meal, we would all gather in the living room to watch “Mabat”. Though I couldn’t understand the fast-paced Hebrew of the program, it really didn’t matter because I knew that I was sitting in the best, most comfortable place in the world – Saba and Savta’s living room.

One vivid memory I have is when one evening, after Mabat, there was another program about the Holocaust. Daunting images of Auschwitz, survivors, and Nazis suddenly flashed across the screen. My Savta was no longer her calm, wholesome self. “I think it’s time for you to go. Come back again tomorrow for dinner.” With that, my family said “goodnight” and shuffled to our apartment.

This short memory demonstrates the other, unrevealed side to my Savta, the side that I had always tried to penetrate, yet was always curtly dismissed from getting to know. My Savta was a survivor of Auschwitz, hailing from the same town as Eli Wiesel. She, her sisters and parents were taken on the same transport as him from Sighet, Romania to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944. Though I had tried numerous times over the years to get Savta to talk about her experiences, I had always been met with refusal (who can blame her?). My Savta just never wanted to revisit that horrific chapter of her in the presence of her children and grandchildren. Though I will sadly never have a clear and organized picture of what exactly happened to her, I have gathered enough bits and pieces to understand the horror she courageously endured. I know that my Savta helped save her sister Yaffa’s life by somehow hiding her when she was selected to be gassed. I also know that when the Germans forced the remaining inmates on a death march from Auschwitz to Germany, it was my Savta who had the strength and courage to carry her sick mother on her back for most of the tortuous journey. Based on the information that she had given me prior to my trip, I was blessed to be able to locate her barrack when I traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Heritage Seminars. These facts, and others, have given me an idea of all that my Savta courageously faced at the unbelievably young age of 16.

Instead of burdening me with the darkest times of her life, Savta always chose to uplift me with the most blossoming times. Out came the epic stories of how she romantically met and fell in love with my Saba in a post-war DP camp; of their engagement on an illegal Aliyah Bet boat en route to Israel which was then detoured to Cyprus. She painted a legendary picture of her early years in Palestine, when she and my Saba took care of Yemenite youth at a youth village. She told me of her years abroad during two shlichuts of my Saba who was principal of a school in Rome, and later taught at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in New York while studying for his Doctorate in Talmud at JTS. At the same time, my Savta, in addition to giving birth to two daughters, studied for an accounting degree and received an excellent position at Korvettes. When they came back to Israel, my Savta received a senior position at the State Comptroller office and for twenty years was responsible for reviewing the tax files of some of the biggest corporations in Israel. The budding life that my Savta chose to build, after living in the shadow of death and tragedy in the Holocaust, were the details that she wanted me to know. And indeed, these are the details that will forever be retained.

My Savta helped me make the most of my present as well. When I made aliyah alone in 2007, she hosted me at her home for dinner week after week, guiding me during my treacherous first years of life as an olah chadasha. As I was tackling the challenges of acculturation into a new society, and of teaching Jewish Philosophy in fast-paced, slang-filled Hebrew to rambunctious teenagers at TALI Beit Hinuch, I found serenity and comfort with my Savta. I would tell her about all of my dating adventures – about the nice guys and the not-so-great guys. She would always listen with incredible interest and love, never missing a detail. She always made me feel as if I was the most important person in the world! Looking back on those formative first years of my aliyah, I can honestly say that her unconditional support and guidance for me provided me with the strong roots upon which I could blossom thereafter on my own in Israel.

It is impossible to summarize my Savta in just a few words, but I hope that my words have somewhat painted a picture of a woman of valor and virtues. Though she taught me numerous life lessons, I believe the most important lesson I learned from her (through her own personal example) was about unconditional, virtually infinite, love for the people who matter the most. My Savta’s dedication to her loved ones never knew bounds. Even when my dear Saba had been bedridden with leukemia, I can never forget the level of tireless self-sacrifice and love she exhibited. Similarly, the love and generosity she showed her children, Naomi and Michal; grandchildren Netanel, Ariella, and me, and great-grandchildren Leora and Lielle, knew no limit. My Savta was a very proud wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother – and she always let us know it.

Savta, it is unbelievable that a woman who was about overcoming all odds, making the most out of life, and wholehearted loving and living – is no longer with us. You may have never known it, but your maxim of ‘’ובחרת בחיים” – and you shall choose life – was always felt by us and continues to be felt. Your rich voice, discerning facial expressions, extraordinary life lessons and menschlich character – are all very much alive and felt. They will be passed on from generation to generation.

I love you.

About the Author
Atara Newberger Zafir is a Bible, Jewish Philosophy and English educator and lecturer. She has taught in various schools and educational settings both in the United States and Israel, including SAR Academy (Riverdale, NY), TALI Beit Hinuch (Jerusalem) and the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (Tel Aviv). Atara holds a BA in Psychology, an MA in Bible, and a teaching certificate in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud.
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