Holocaust Day in 2017 was the first one without Elie Wiesel. For this generation, he was a witness to the Holocaust. Mrs. Weissbrot was mine.
From time to time, through the years of our friendship, Mrs. Riva (Regina) Weissbrot parted an invisible curtain and let me peek in on dim scenes of a long gone past, so far away yet right there.
Like bleak sepia images, I can see splinters: Mrs. Weissbrot, only 12, noticing that a particular female Nazi never actually laid a hand on a Jew … An SS officer assigning her to clean an apartment where a bowl of milk, ostensibly for the cat, would be waiting for her … upon deportation, that same officer searching her out at the cattle trains with a blanket and a piece of bread … Mrs. Weissbrot and her fellow inmates searching the woods for mushrooms to subsist on, cupping snow in their hands to drink … stacks upon stacks of the dead …
You would never guess that she was a survivor; her elegant silhouette gave not a hint of all she had been through. Blessed with advanced years, she went about her life productively and joyously, present in the moment, not one to harp on the past. Aside from the long friendships with her contemporaries that she so faithfully maintained, aside from the people one and even two generations younger who flocked to her door, she was constantly managing her own affairs. A force to be reckoned with.
She was a friend like no other. A confidante like no other. A maternal authority like no other. After dispensing her wisdom and sharing home-baked, cinnamon mandelbrot, Mrs. Weissbrot would put the refrain of her life in three words: “G-tt tzu dank.” Thank G-d.
She could often be heard saying: “G-tt tzu dank, a day still alive is a day to be thankful for.” For her, it wasn’t a hollow platitude; it rang with the essence of truth. For so many years, as nightfall came, each morning was a gamble. Tenuousness was tangible, death stalked at every corner. So it became a day-by-day, minute-to-minute existence, a life strung together by moments of “G-tt tzu dank.”
We didn’t usually talk about the war. We talked for hours, but about life. For years, we sat around her kitchen table or cozied on her sofa, long into the night. Whatever came up, be it psychology, Torah, politics or just a schmooze, Mrs. Weissbrot crystallized her insights into a word or two, or a pithy Yiddish phrase that summed up the essence of the conversation. I learned so many wonderful expressions this way, a precious and intimate remnant of a bygone life.
But beneath this easy friendship laid a subtext. Inevitably our conversation would reach a pause, pregnant with the unsaid implication of the Holocaust, an implied reluctance that brought the topic to an end.
I marvel at how survivors could have gone through what they did and still build such strong, such beautiful lives. So it was with Mrs. Weissbrot.
She remembered the pre-war years well. She was born and raised in Sosnowiec, a large metropolitan center of Jewish life in Poland before the war. When she was young, the famed Sara Schenirer paid a visit to her community. When I spoke with Mrs. Weissbrot, I was looking into eyes that saw Sarah Schenirer. But more than that, I was looking into the eyes of someone who saw a thriving Jewish world completely destroyed. And then, somehow, rebuilt again.
During the week her father managed a store, but on Sundays he served as a scholar and a rabbinic judge, a borer, in the court of Reb Shaya Englard of Sosnowiec. Conflicts, divorces and other disputes would be brought forth to be resolved. Around them thrived many different chassidic courts, such as Belz and Radomsk. On Shabbos, the whole city smelled of cholent.
Although Mrs. Weissbrot was only 12 when the Nazis invaded, the day was etched in her mind. On that day, her childhood innocence was shattered. One day, the town under occupation, Mrs. Weissbrot and her sister were sitting in the living room when Nazis barged in and dragged their mother off. A few months later, a week before Pesach, they heard that she was dead. Beautiful shuls stood near her home, one two stories tall and crowned by Chagall-like windows. A week after the Nazis arrived, they were burned down.
Later that year, Mrs. Weissbrot was home one day with her two sisters — “by that time only Chavala and Manya were left” — they suddenly heard terrorizing sounds. Nazis were coming closer. Driven by the adrenaline of terror and the primal instinct of survival, they ran for their lives. Mrs. Weissbrot ran to cellar, the brutish shouts of “Juden raus!” above her. But the devils hunted her down, and she and her sisters were dragged out to the local high school.
When we spoke of those times, Mrs. Weissbrot would sing. Her face would take on a faraway look. During the Yamim Noraim especially, like a cantor, she would cry out a heartfelt Shema Koleinu that brought tears to my eyes.
“But I can’t cry, Tehilla,” she said. “Ever since the war, I can’t cry. Why can’t I cry anymore?” Perhaps like the memories, the tears, too, were locked away with G-d, never to be opened, for the risk of unlocking them was too great.
One day, Mrs. Weissbrot invited me to bake challah. By the time I arrived, her counters were already covered with the first batch. I had never seen her in anything but her signature formal dresses. This time, her hair was up in curls, her hands deep in flour; she wore a short-sleeved housecoat.
We were side by side, braiding the challahs, when I froze. I saw it. I felt like I had laid eyes on something both holy and profane that I wasn’t supposed to see. The awkwardness must have been tangible, because Mrs. Weissbrot casually said, “Gleiwitz was part of Auschwitz.” Taking her words as permission to look, my eyes found her tattoo: 79260.
It was rare for Mrs. Weissbrot to share her painful past. Her memories were always cautious. She invoked the word “camp” so undramatically that had I not known it was a reference to Auschwitz or Ravensbrück, I could have mistaken it for summer camp. Afterward, as I sat there dumfounded, she would smile reassuringly and simply say, “It’s OK. G-tt tzu dank. G-tt tzu dank.” What I knew was only the tip of an iceberg of unspeakable trauma.
But above those shattering stories thrived a spunky and vivacious person. Her house was a place of gathering; the four walls of her home witnessed thousands of beautiful Shabbos and Yom Tov meals and simchas. For years after the “War,” as she called it, she and her husband would gather in fellowship with fellow survivors every Saturday night to play cards or board games together. For those hours, they didn’t need to explain themselves; without speaking, everything was understood, a reprieve from the composed masks they wore “for the sake of the children.”
She told me that during the War, the awareness of suicide was constantly around her, how there were those who braved the electric wire in an attempt to escape, but others who threw themselves on it, ending their lives.
“Did you ever consider it?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Never.”
So what was it that kept her going?
This time she paused.
“Zug nisht kein mol az du geist dem letsten veig, don’t say this is the last going-away. You know what this means?”
She broke into song, the simultaneously mournful and optimistic Song of the Partisans. The Yiddish lyrics flowed from her lips. She sang steadily, firmly holding my gaze, translating. “Don’t say to anybody that you are going on the last road. The last way. Don’t say it. Keep hoping that there will open another way, there will open another road.” She sang the anthem of her generation and her life: “Zug nisht kein mol az du geist dem letsten veig…”
Tears were streaming down my face. And now, all I can think is, “G-tt tzu dank, Mrs. Weissbrot, G-tt tzu dank.”
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News