How does one describe a mother? Is it possible to quantify the chassodim she does for her family? Is it possible to describe her deep love for her children and her desire for them to have only the best? In one of the more prominent tefillos in Selichos, we say to Hashem, “As a father has mercy on his children, so, Hashem, may You have mercy on us.” Wouldn’t it be more potent to say “as a mother has mercy on her children”? Isn’t she soft her on her children and isn’t her compassion for them greater? It has been said that a mother’s mercy and love for children are so great that they cannot be captured in words. This is why we don’t say it.
Our mother, who recently passed away, lived a lengthy and fruitful life. As her son, I don’t have the temerity to define her life, a life so full of accomplishment. We can only study her legacy, the lessons she taught us, not merely with words but with her actions.
During the shivah, she was described by relatives and neighbors as a queen, intelligent, with refined middos, and someone who made those around her feel good. She was talented, a gourmet cook, a wonderful seamstress, and a meticulous homemaker. But much more importantly, she was a yirei Shomayim, a tzonuah who would constantly say Tehillim. “With strength she girds her loins and invigorates her arms” (Mishlei 31:8). She was a hard worker both inside the home and out, a wife and mother who so lovingly accomplished her mission.
My brother and I had an idyllic life as children with dedicated parents who worked long and hard hours to make our home pleasant. We never heard from our mother the horrors she experienced during World War II, the loss of her beloved parents, her younger brother, and her entire extended family with hardly any survivors. Together with her two sisters, she made it to these shores under trying circumstances.
She never, ever, spoke about her experiences to us. Undoubtedly, she wanted to shield us from any fears. She was also too involved in building her home and raising children to allow her own personal tragedy to get in the way. This is a middah of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. In His hidden chambers, Hashem cries because of the pride of Klal Yisroel that has been lost in the golus. But on the outside, in His running of the world, “Might and joy are in His place” (Chagigah 5b).
It is only because of our overhearing her conversations with other survivors that we got a small glimpse of how much she had suffered. We were also able to see the marks left on survivors who lived in our neighborhood, both physical and emotional. We were aware of our next door neighbor, a refined and intelligent woman who had to undergo shock treatments to help her deal with the aftermath of her war experiences. I was also heartbroken when the family of my best friend just fell apart r”l because both of his parents, survivors, had mental breakdowns. In those days, shortly after the war, there were no organizations that could help them. To this day, I feel their pain and wonder whatever became of them.
Yet, our mother kept her inner pain to herself without even a hint of the horrors she endured. It was only a few years before her passing that she spoke openly about it as it came up casually in conversation. Every year, she would remind me to learn Mishnayos on the yahrtzeit of her parents and brother on the third day of Sivan. I asked her how she could be so sure of a specific day when she was separated from them. It was only then that she described in detail what befell them.
It was shortly before Shavuos when they were rushed out of their homes with barely any time to pack some belongings. They were loaded onto a train like cattle, supposedly to take them to a work camp. For days, they rode under subhuman conditions. They finally made it to the gehennom known as Auschwitz, where they were greeted by the notorious Dr. Mengele ym”sh. My mother said that had she known the implications of this selection, she would have clung to her parents. But she had no idea. As her parents were taken away, she ran after her mother to remind her to take her medicine. That was the last she saw of them. That very day, she found out that they died al kiddush Hashem.
Despite her inner pain, we were treated to a blissful home. To supplement our father’s parnassah, she also had to go to work. The working conditions for a seamstress were most uncomfortable and the pay was minuscule. Yet, after a day of hard work, she garnered the strength to run a beautiful household, shopping and cleaning, lovingly cooking delicious meals, and patiently dealing with two lively sons. Life had to go on. She was building her own mishpacha and there was no time for moping or feeling sorry for herself.
Today, we are beneficiaries of the miraculous growth of Klal Yisroel, which of course is happening b’chasdei Hashem. It involved tremendous mesirus nefesh from the leaders of Klal Yisroel, the roshei yeshivos, the admorim, the rabbonim and the lay leaders. But they could not have done it without the hard work of the simple men and women, the foot soldiers who emerged from the ashes to follow them and rebuild our nation. This was the most potent answer to the Nazi beasts who tried so hard to destroy us. Today we reap the fruits of the loving labor of that generation.
This is one of the greatest lessons our mother taught us. When there is pain and disappointment, do not get discouraged or fall into despair. You pick yourself up and move on. “For though the righteous one may fall seven times, he will arise” (Mishlei 24:16). This has been the story of so many individuals in Klal Yisroel. It is the story of our people and it is the essence of our survival throughout our turbulent history.
But then came even more mesirus nefesh. It is impossible to describe how attached our parents were to us. In their eyes, we were all they had. So it boggles the mind how when I reached bar mitzvah age, they sent me far away to the Telzer Yeshiva when there were numerous local yeshivos that I could have attended. My father was advised by a neighbor, a talmid chochom, that the environment in our neighborhood was detrimental to my ruchniyus and that being secluded in a yeshiva far from home would be most beneficial.
My father always followed the opinions of rabbonim and he brought me to Telz. My mother did not quite understand, but as an isha kesheirah, who fulfills the will of her husband, and as a mother who wanted what’s best for her child, she agreed to this, as hard at it was for her. Three years later, my younger brother followed me. Now there was no one left at home, but she lovingly accepted it. No off Shabbosos every few weeks and there were no cell phones. We made one three-minute phone call every Motzoei Shabbos and that was it. How she missed us, but never complained, and how she worked hard to make our bein hazemanim enjoyable.
Indeed, going away from home to yeshiva accomplished a double purpose. It was an ihr miklat, a place of refuge, to protect us from the foreign winds that were blowing on the American street, the hippie culture of the ‘60s and the spiritual upheaval that it brought about. But I was also exposed to an atmosphere of kedusha, of gedolim, roshei yeshiva and their choshuve talmidim who themselves later became gedolim. The aura of that kedusha, of the hasmadah, of Elul, and of Shavuos remains a part of me to this day.
But it wasn’t all peaches and cream in yeshiva. While I took to learning seriously, I was very homesick. And while the learning helped me forget my longing for home, there were times when I cried myself to sleep. And even when I grew older, there were the normal inner struggles that a ben yeshiva faces that can get one down. From time to time, my mother would send a food package of her tasty pastries. Much more than the food contained in those packages was my mother’s love reminding me that she has me on her mind and is davening for me.
Then came the question of what to do after high school. Today it is a given that most talmidim in yeshiva will stay in kollel. But that was not the case back then. My mother very much wanted me to pursue higher education in order to have a respectable parnassah. And can you blame her? After the war, she and her two sisters returned to their hometown in Romania, where for close to two years they went hungry.
Hearing that there were DP camps in Austria, my mother traveled by train hidden in a luggage compartment, where she did not eat for three days. She told us that a woman who offered her a piece of bread dipped in oil saved her life. Here in America, there were no free handouts that are found today. She went from one shop to another, not knowing English, begging for work. So it is understandable that she had a strong desire for her children to have it easy when it came to parnassah and she wanted us to leave full-time learning to attend college.
Truth be told, I had those same thoughts. But the influence of my rabbeim prevailed and I stayed in yeshiva, then kollel, and eventually became a rebbi in Telz. It didn’t help that some of her friends boasted of their son the doctor, or their son the lawyer or engineer. At that time, saying, “My son is learning,” was not so glamorous. But seeing that this is what we wanted, she not only accepted it, but actively helped support us both financially and with encouragement.
“Strength and majesty are her raiment, she joyfully awaits the last day” (Mishlei 31:16). Those special middos she adorned herself with during her lifetime will bring her eternal happiness. She was zoche to many ainiklach and great-grandchildren, bnei Torah and yirei Shomayim. The zechus that this writer has in teaching Torah for many years and the thousands of campers he has served in summer camp is in a large part due to her mesirus nefesh.
Even in her last years and after our father was niftar, she maintained a happy demeanor. Although she was homebound, she was thankful for every moment of life. We are grateful to her neighbors and the Bais Yaakov girls who visited her to keep her company. They all said that they were the recipients of her chesed, as their conversations so enriched their lives. She was so happy when these girls became kallahs, as if they were her own granddaughters. Her ainiklach would ask her for brachos when having to take an important test or when in shidduchim, believing that it was her Tehillim that helped them.
We thank Hashem for the arichas yomim that He granted her. At the age of 95, she contracted Covid. She said that she was so weak that she felt like her neshomah was departing. After a long and deep sleep, she awoke invigorated. In the last year of her life, she merited to celebrate numerous family simchos.
Yisroel kedoshim heim. We cannot begin to enumerate the various areas of chesed that we benefited from during the last days of her life, from the frum doctors so dedicated to keeping her alive to bikur cholim, from patient advocates to visitors at her bedside, and, yes, after her petirah, Misaskim.
May our mother be a melitzas yosher for all of us and may we all be zoche to yeshuos and nechamos in Klal Yisroel.