The first day of the second half of this summer will no doubt stand out in the memories of countless people who had the zechus to attend the twelfth Siyum HaShas at the MetLife Stadium. Many more who weren’t there in person were nonetheless able to participate in some way, either by catching highlights of the celebration streamed live or by viewing video clips and photos that managed to capture the essence of the achdus, exhilaration and sheer exultation that was widely in evidence that night.
It’s safe to say that everybody knows somebody who was there, be it a family member, neighbor or friend. A childhood friend of mine whom I shall call Malka stayed home with her elderly mother (who has lived with them for the past several years), while her husband attended the affair. An only child and the daughter of holocaust survivors, Malka was a young girl when she lost her father to a debilitating illness and most of her memories of him center on her visits to his hospital bedside. Her mother raised her single-handedly, having never remarried, and had always been extremely reserved about sharing or conveying her inner thoughts, even to her own daughter.
“My mother said very little, and even that little was spoken in a tone barely above a whisper,” says Malka. Not a bad thing in itself, to be sure, but Malka has often lamented that there was so much she yearned to know about both of her parents, and especially about her grandparents and the numerous aunts and uncles she had been cruelly deprived of ever meeting. According to Malka, “…my mother spoke only when it was essential for her to do so and spent most of her time working to support us and maintaining our small, neat and humble home.”
In the early evening of August 1, Malka was taken by the scene that greeted her when she stepped out on her front porch. Parked curbside along the length of Borough Park’s18th Avenue “were buses upon buses, white and shining, for as far as my eyes could see, with masses of my fellow Yidden – Chassidish, Litvish, Yekkish, Sefardish, Yeshivish, you name it – lining up to wait their turn to board the bus that would take them to the much talked-about event.”
This was something Malka felt her physically frail mother couldn’t miss seeing. “I held onto her arm and slowly guided her to our street corner from where she could clearly see the goings on. I turned to ask her what she thought of the incredible sight…”
Malka searched her mother’s face for a reaction and to her surprise saw tears welling in the older woman’s eyes. “Us they didn’t transport in white buses…” she said quietly, emotion choking her every word as tears began to trickle down her cheeks.
“She didn’t have to elaborate,” says Malka. “Not that she had ever gone into any detail, but I’d read and heard enough to know that she was reliving the horrors that she and innumerable others were forced to endure when they were mercilessly stuffed into the cattle cars… and I also understood that she was overcome with a sense of pride in her heritage that has miraculously survived despite the evil intent of a monstrous dictator that sought to annihilate us.”
And another miracle, albeit much smaller in scope, began to unfold on this day; Malka’s mother began to open up, to share the memories she’d stored in the attic of her mind for decades. The remarkable scene of hundreds of Jews boarding new-like buses to celebrate their joy in perpetuating our G-d given legacy apparently triggered in Malka’s mom a sudden urge to share the heavy burdens of her heart with her future progeny, to make them aware of the savagery perpetrated upon their ancestors who were among millions of victims of the Nazi genocide.
Malka recalls, “Over the years I had come to know that in Auschwitz my mother, then a young woman hardly twenty years of age, was given the job of sorting and checking through the various clothing items of victims stripped literally bare…” But now her mom shared the memory of a heart-stopping moment in time, when she had picked up a woman’s coat and felt something stuffed into one of its sleeves. To her horror it was a baby… whose life its mother had apparently desperately tried to preserve.