Livia Bitton-Jackson 88 248.
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
"Do you have any lipstick?" was the first thing Livia Bitton-Jackson said to me when we met for our interview. She wanted to look good for the photo, she explained.
It wasn't just vanity. Once, long ago, her looks saved her life.
"I was 13 when I arrived in Auschwitz. I had long blonde braids and looked Aryan. Mengele beckoned me aside and asked, 'Are you a Jew?' I answered yes. 'How old are you?' he said and I said 13. 'From now on you are 16,' he said and he sent me to the side where those who could live a little longer were sent. Thirteen-year-olds were immediately sent to the gas."
The hideous memories have not faded although 65 years have passed. "My friends went with their mothers to the gas and looked back at me who had not been sent. You don't forget those looks," she says.
Today Bitton-Jackson is professor of Judaic studies and Jewish history in the History Department of Lehman College in New York and the award-winning author of several books. Her latest book, Saving What Remains, tells the story of how she, together with her second husband, Dr. Leonard Jackson, and her mother, who also survived Auschwitz, brought the remains of her grandparents to Israel.
"In 1980 we heard that a new dam was going to be built on the Danube and the whole area, including the Jewish cemetery where my grandparents were buried, would be flooded. My mother, who was 90 at the time, was devastated. She said, 'My whole family wound up like smoke in Auschwitz, my parents should be swept away by the waters of the Danube?' She begged us to exhume the bodies and bring them to Jerusalem for burial, and my new book is about that experience."
From 1945 to 1948 Bitton-Jackson was in a displaced persons camp in Germany, working for the Bricha helping to get immigrants to Palestine. In 1951 she came to the United States, married her first husband who turned out to be abusive, had two children and divorced in 1967.
PREPARATION FOR ALIYA
In 1976 she met Dr. Leonard Jackson, an Irish-born physician living in Montreal, who had lost his first wife a few years before. She was the sister of Elie Wiesel and, before making aliya, he went to New York to say good-bye to his famous brother-in-law.
"Leonard knew about me and we met. We spent three days together in New York before he came to Israel. After he made aliya, he wrote to me every day and asked me to marry him. Only a crazy Irishman could do that after three days' acquaintance," laughs Bitton-Jackson.
She sold her house, packed up for herself, her mother and her two children and set out for Israel. She met her two stepchildren for the first time. Leonard's son, today a highly-respected neurosurgeon and mohel, was a schoolboy, and his daughter, today a mother of seven, was also still at school.
"We came to Netanya where Len rented us an apartment and we lived there for a month. Then Leonard and I traveled to Dublin and got married."
LIFE SINCE ALIYA
"It has been like a dream," she says. "When I married Len, his children were young, they had just lost their mother and I was like a mother for them. I've watched them study and grow and become very successful which is gratifying.
"I've also been able to carry on with my work in New York by commuting. It always worked out, although I had to do a lot of juggling of my career and home commitments.
"I would always be here for the New Year until the end of Succot, then go to New York, come back in the Christmas vacation, then go again until Pessah. My mother held the fort, and Len would often come and stay with me."
"Since I'm a crazy Zionist, I accepted everything with love, but sometimes the bureaucracy was too much even for me. Otherwise everything went smoothly."
"I spoke Hebrew already before I came. At one point in my life I'd even been a Hebrew teacher."
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
"As a Holocaust survivor who has also lived in America, I feel truly at home for the first time in my life."
ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS
"From a historian's point of view, I see the last 1,000 years of Jewish history as very bitter - the Inquisition, the pogroms and blood libels and, of course, the Holocaust - so that now that we finally have our own home after 2,000 years, we have to do everything we can to hold on to it."