As I am about to light the yahrzeit licht, I must stop and take a moment. I cannot believe it has been five years. You are still touching lives and igniting souls. Wherever I go, your smile, your passion, and your Torah wisdom are remembered. You are still alive, Ema; your spirit somehow fills the world.
The world has been spinning. We could not imagine all that has happened. I need only say one word and the grief is overwhelming. Pandemic. Illness. Loneliness. Antisemitism. Meron. Bleachers. War. Violence. Surfside.
We are reeling.
I hear your words as if you are standing here at my side. You will not be silent.
“The world is on fire and we are sleeping! Wake up! Hashem is talking to us.” There was never a moment that you would rest.
You came to this country after living through incredible pain. You lost Zaydas and Bubbas who enveloped you with their love. The life you knew went up with the smoke of the crematoria. You would describe the days before being taken away to Bergen Belsen. Zayda was the chief rabbi of Szeged. Each night there’d be a knock at the door. Refugees piled in. Strangers yet family. You never knew where you would be sleeping because every room and bed was taken. But you did know that no matter what, for another Jew, there must always be space.
Young boys drafted to the front lines, waiting to be shipped out from the Danube River, had just one last Shabbos to spend. They would enter your home wearing yellow badges of shame. Zayda would place his hands on their heads and bless them at the Shabbos table. Mama would feed their bodies and souls. As Shabbos would bring peace, their yellow stars were transformed from badges of shame to great courage. Before they would say goodbye, Zayda would give them one last blessing. Their tears mingled as one.
The terrible day came that you were taken away. You would describe being just a little girl with a favorite doll that you carried in your hands. The super of Zayda’s shul was standing there, watching, along with his daughter. She was your age. He grabbed the doll out of your hands. “What are you doing?” You cried. He spit at you. And then he laughed. “Dirty Jew. Where you are going you’re not going to need any dolls.” His daughter held your doll as you were carted off. Thick darkness covered the world.
You would describe the long days and nights in Bergen Belsen. The stench of death that had filled the air. The terrifying fear. The hunger, the lice, the sores.
But you would never leave the story at that barbaric low point of humanity.
Where was G-d? You were asked, over and over again.
“Where was G-d? No, that is not the question!” You would respond. “Where was man? Why did the entire world stay silent? I saw man descend into the abyss of hell.”
And then you would describe your Tatty, my Zayda. Each week Zayda would hide away his ration of moldy bread and count the days till Shabbos. “Hold on, dear children, my ‘lichtege kind.’ Shabbos is coming. Five more days. Four more days. Three more days…” And when Friday night would come, Zayda would gather you, give you his tiny portion of bread and ask that you close your eyes. “Imagine you are home. “ Zayda would say. “Mama baked delicious challah. The Shabbos licht are dancing.” Zayda would sing Shalom Aleichem and there, even in the most evil place on earth, you found holiness.
You shared your stories of emunah with us, Ema. With our children and all the children of Am Yisroel. They remain our lighthouse, infusing us, empowering us.
After all the choshech, all the pain, all the wounds that would blister your heart, you remained a fierce force of light. How did you do that? I wonder till today.
Instead of animosity you brought love. Instead of distance you brought closeness. Instead of fear you brought faith.
You never gave up on a neshomah. You did not see clothing, you saw the beautiful soul that lay beneath. You loved every Jew. You felt the pain of the shechinah for every child who was not home. “If a father has 12 sons and one of his sons is missing, do you think he can be at peace? Can a child say, Abba, just forget about my brother. Have joy from us! Can a father sleep at night, knowing that his child’s seat is empty?” You told me this when I was a child and you opened my eyes to the tzaar that Hashem feels; waiting for the pintela Yid to be sparked once again.
Dear Ema, in the last days of your life we had a few moments of quiet together. I remember sitting at your side, holding your hand. You could not speak, your eyes were closed, but I knew in my heart that you could hear my words. I thanked you for my life. I thanked you for giving me your great legacy; for Hineni.
A tear rolled down your face. A sacred tear from your soul.
Umacha Hashem dimah.
I love you Ema and miss you terribly. So does the world.
Venafsho keshurah Benafsho.
*Leillui nishmas HaRabanis Esther bas HaRav Avrohom HaLevi