Thursday, September 12, 2013

Granddaughter of Survivors

On September 8, youth across the US celebrated National Grandparents Day. Although I could not be with any of my grandparents on this day, I still recognize the contributions that they have made to the world and to my life.

My maternal grandmother’s name was Feige, and I have dedicated my blog l’ilui nishmata (to elevate her soul in Heaven). She was born to a wealthy family in Beregszasz, Hungary in 1921. Her mother, Ita, who I have also dedicated my blog to, ran an import-export business. This was highly unusual for a woman of that era, and certainly for an Orthodox woman. Her husband learned Torah and Talmud all day; a story has been passed down that he dodged serving in the military during World War I by hiding in the attic of the Satmar Rebbe and learning. As a child, my grandmother had a huge crush on a neighborhood boy eight years her senior. Although he was at first dubious of the little girl who kept running after him, the two were married in 1940.

Unfortunately, they were wedded on the eve of the Holocaust. My grandmother, her mother, and her three siblings were in Auschwitz together from winter 1944. Earlier, her father had escaped to cousins in Belgium in hopes that it would be safer there, trying to figure out how to bring the rest of the family over. It is assumed that he was identified as Jewish by his beard, which he refused to shave, and killed. In Auschwitz, Ita worked in the kitchens, sneaking scraps of food out to trade for cigarettes. The food had no other purpose for these women, as they refused to eat anything non-kosher. My grandmother worked in the office as a clerk. Although all five survived past Liberation, my grandmother’s brother died of starvation shortly afterwards. The rest of the family immigrated to America.

Although my grandmother only lost one sibling, my grandfather was not so fortunate: of the 11 children in his family, six were murdered. His father died when he was young, and his mother was killed in the camps. During the war, he was taken to the army and a work camp in 1941, and was periodically allowed back home. After Liberation, my grandparents were reunited in Beregszasz. While there, non-Jewish neighbors gave them photographs of their families that they had saved before the Nazis ransacked the photographer’s shop, which was nothing short of a miracle.

My grandparents waited in a Displaced Persons camp until 1949, when their sponsorship to America came through. They came to America on March 22, 1949 through the 23rd Street Pier in New York on the SS Admiral Muir. They brought nothing but the clothes on their backs. When they got off the boat, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) gave them a cooked chicken, which they ate sitting on the sidewalk.

To become citizens, my grandparents had to learn English and pass a test on US history. They both passed and stayed in America. At first, they lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My great-grandmother, unable to leave her business-oriented roots in Europe, owned a toy manufacturing company, and my grandmother would sew ears onto the teddy bears. My grandfather was a carpenter, and built storefronts for a living. He supported his wife and infant daughter very well until 1953, when he fell off a ladder and shattered the bones in his leg. Doctors said that he would never walk again, a terrifying possibility. However, this was a man who had survived the Holocaust; he would not let shattered bones stop him. Determined to get better, he was walking and working by 1954. They then bought a house and had my mother.

Seven short years after coming to America with no knowledge of its customs or language, my grandparents were upstanding members of society: homeowners, proud parents of two children, and members of the working class. A mere two generations later, their granddaughter is a student at an Ivy League university.

Their story has shown me that the human spirit is, indeed, indomitable. From my grandparents, I have learned that it doesn’t matter how bad I think my life gets. They went through a lot worse, and they didn't let it stop them; they rebuilt. Their dedication to God was tested in a way that I cannot even begin to imagine, and they still led Torah-observant lives. Although neither one of my maternal grandparents is in this world, they shall always inspire me to keep getting up and improving myself and the world.

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