My dear Leah, where do I begin? You were larger than life; maybe because you defied death so many times. Growing up, you were a household name in my home. I heard bits and pieces of your harrowing story. My parents sang your praises and called you a warrior. You had a column in The Jewish Press for many years. As a professor, your wisdom and insight showed through in every article you wrote. I had met you briefly on a number of occasions, especially at the wedding of my sister Debra, but I only truly got to know you when my children became teenagers.
In Israel, high school students must interview a Holocaust survivor as part of the 11th grade history curriculum. As soon as my oldest daughter came home with the assignment, I knew exactly who to call. Leah had been living in Netanya at the time and asked if we minded making the long trip from Maaleh Adumim to see her. I said that we weren’t just willing to make the trip; we were eagerly waiting to hear her story.
Leah was outside waiting to greet us when we arrived. I was struck by how regal she looked. She was tall in stature with her snow white, straight hair falling at her shoulders. She had gentle blue eyes and a warm smile. We all went into her apartment, sat down and started to get to know each other. She was very personable and made my daughter and her classmate feel at ease. Leah started by giving some historical background to WWII.
She was born in 1931 in Czechoslovakia. Her father owned a grocery store and her mother was home with the children. She spoke about her carefree childhood when she would wander around with her friends and explore her town of Bratislava. Her father was a Torah scholar and would teach her Torah.
In 1944, the situation began to deteriorate quickly for the Jews. Her father was sent to a labor camp and she was sent with her mother, brother and aunt to Auschwitz. At the selection, she was asked by the notorious Nazi, Mengele, how old she was and she responded that she was 13. She was very tall already at that age and he told her not to tell anyone she was 13. “From now on you are 16.” He then held one of her blond braids and asked her are you sure you are Jewish? She said yes. He then sent her to the right while her mother and aunt were sent to the left. She begged him to let her mother and aunt join her. He allowed her mother to join but not her aunt. They kept begging and at that point a Nazi soldier just killed Leah’s aunt there right in front of her. This was almost too much for her to bear, but she continued to move along with her mother. This was a memory that was seared in her heart forever.
As a coming of age young girl in Auschwitz, Leah’s grueling account of daily life and the many miraculous close calls left us listeners spellbound. In addition to her ability to save herself, she was instrumental in saving the lives of her brother and mother by sacrificing her own small rations of food. There was a time her mother had a terrible leg infection that would have prevented them both from being transported out of Auschwitz, so Leah carried her mother on her back and they continued as planned. Leah’s journey and personal story was beyond belief. She survived the war together with her mother and was later reunited with her beloved brother Bubi. She learned shortly after the war from a friend who was with her father in Auschwitz, that he was shot there. For Leah the loss of her beloved father left a profound sense of pain.
When the interview ended, Leah showed us a glass plate negative she had of her father and of herself from before the war. The local photographer was charged with photographing everyone in the town shortly before they were all deported. When she returned to her town she looked through the ransacked store that had belonged to the photographer and found the negatives. She was able to locate them because of the distinct features of her long blond braids and her father’s hat. At the time, the men were asked to take off their hats but her father refused. She also showed us the books she had written and was proud that it had been translated into many languages. At the time, she was around 85 years old and still traveled to other countries to tell her story and promote her books.
We asked her what kept her going? What gave her the superhuman strength to survive? She said that when she was young her father taught her the sentence that represented her Hebrew name Leah. It was “Lo amut, ki echye, v’asaper ma’aseh Ka” – I shall not die, for I will live and tell of G-d’s ways. Throughout the war, she kept reciting that pasuk to herself. Her goal was to survive and tell of the miracles that G-d did for her. Through these difficult interviews and lectures she was continuing to do just that.
Leah, although you can no longer tell your own story, I will do my best to retell it. I only hope that I do you justice. You are an inspiration to me, my family and all of the Jewish people. You rose from the horrors to build a family. You were a fighter, a believer, a thinker, and a survivor. All my love and admiration go to you.
May you be a melitz yashara for all of Am Yisrael.