Seventy years ago on January 27, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex, history’s worst slaughterhouse for human beings, where over the course of four years well over a million Jews were murdered – one of them being my grandmother Rosa.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was comprised of the two namesake extermination camps, a slave labor camp built nearby to run an IG Farben factory, and 45 other satellite camps. The extermination camps featured Zyklon B gas chambers, efficient human ash-spewing crematoria, and body-processing areas and accompanying warehouses to reap and store the raw materials of those killed.
The evil at Auschwitz was so great that sometimes even the righteous came to regret acts of life-saving goodness. Four years ago, in the last month of my 84-year-old father’s life, I was stunned to hear that he had long harbored such a regret.
When he was 15 he had successfully nursed his mother through a bout of typhus when they were in a French internment camp. After her recovery they were separated and a year later she was sent to her death at Auschwitz. During that conversation with me, my father, who had been talking about his mother, suddenly asked, “Did I do right?”
Shocked, I attempted to assure him that he had, but he continued to recount the horrors of those years until finally his mind eased somewhat and I was able to steer our conversation to more mundane topics.
Now, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and as my father’s yahrzeit approaches, I want to tell the story of Rosa and Kurt Lion, both of blessed memory, and how their loving mother-son bond transcended the Shoah, a lifetime and beyond.
My grandmother died at Auschwitz more than 15 years before I was born. Nevertheless, I felt like I knew her, and we always felt her presence at family gatherings. During many holiday dinners my father and his two older sisters – who had escaped from Germany in the late 1930s – talked of their early family life in a small village in southwest Germany near the French border.They talked of their comfortable home, its nice furnishings, and how their mother was especially proud of their front parlor where she displayed her prized keepsakes. Her most cherished possession was an intricately carved pendulum clock that her husband, Philip, had given to her as a wedding present. My father and his sisters’ childhoods had been punctuated by the clock’s rich hourly toll.
They would often reminisce about their mother, her likes and dislikes, her wise sayings, and, of course, her superb cooking skills. To her children she was the gold standard of cooking – and at our table when good food was served they would invariably compare it to her fare, whether her sauerbraten and spaetzle or her famous Zwetschgenkuchen plum tortefor Rosh Hashanah or, at the Passover Seder, her matzah ball soup.
“These are good matzah balls,” my aunt Robertine would say, but her sister Irma would counter “No, not compared to Mama’s. They were always so light yet they never fell apart.” Then a spirited discussion would ensue dissecting the recipe and debating the cooking technique. They would laugh over memories of the times they were mischievous around their Seder table and how Mama would scold them but always with good humor and a hint of a smile curling her lips.
My father often recalled boyhood adventures roaming his village of Ihringen with his cousin Walter, hiding in the vineyards and fields to avoid doing farm chores. But after Hitler’s rise in 1933, their innocent shenanigans often were disrupted by anti-Semitic bullies who taunted and threatened them.