Looking into a Holocaust survivor’s soul

Leah Cik Roth is the subject of a stirring account of her Holocaust experiences, called 'My Eyes Looking Back at Me.'

March 4, 2017 08:47
Holocaust survivor

Leah Cik Roth (right), the subject of a stirring account of her Holocaust experiences, co-authored with fellow Miami dweller Menucha Meinstein. (photo credit: PR)

The generation of Holocaust survivors is gradually dwindling. With them go their stories, the memories of unspeakable horrors they faced and somehow withstood, and came through more or less intact – at least in the physical sense.

But what about the trauma, and the emotional baggage they have been schlepping around with them for the last 70 or 80 years? There are, of course, psychological and other services designed to support survivors and, possibly, help them work through the accumulated emotional scar tissue, but some have kept it all bottled up inside all this time.

Leah Cik Roth is one of the latter. Now 91 years old, the Miami resident who lived, got married and had two children in pre-state Palestine and Israel in 1946 to 1956, is the subject of a stirring account of her Holocaust experiences, called My Eyes Looking Back at Me, co-authored with fellow Miami resident Menucha Meinstein.

The original English version of the book was launched at the Jerusalem Music Center a year or so ago, and now the Hebrew and Spanish editions will be officially proffered in this part of the world.

The book launch event, free of charge, takes place at the same Jerusalem venue next Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at noon, and will be graced by Meinstein, who will enlighten her audience about the physical and emotional logistics involved in the project.

The book launch is part of a program that includes a rendition of Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1941, to be performed by the Israeli Chamber Project foursome.

The book takes us through Roth’s childhood in pre-Holocaust Brustury in Czechoslovakia, now Bystrytsya in Ukraine, a peaceful village in the Carpathian Mountains, then near the Polish border. The feisty nonagenarian was introduced to life’s challenges at a young age. Her mother died when little Lenka, as she was then called, was just five years old, and her relationship with stepmother proved to be so trying that she ran away from home at the age of 14.

“I felt invisible, with no one to talk to,” writes Roth. “I envied other children who had a ‘real’ mother.”

“No one to talk to” was a recurrent emotional load throughout almost all of Roth’s life, until around six years ago. At the age of 85, she finally encountered someone who would help to slowly release the lid on her pressure cooker of deep-seated feelings and memories. It proved to be a labor of love, as Meinstein not only set to the task of coaxing the story out of Roth, she provided her with a home for the four and a half years it took to put the memoir into a coherent readable form.

Considering the enormity of Roth’s sorrowful burden, it seems only appropriate that the title of the tome should be inspired by an outsized work of art.

“It comes from the Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial where Leah spotted her picture – an archival photo on the black granite wall – for the first time,” explains Meinstein. The imposing commemorative work of art is “seven stories tall,” Meinstein says.

“Leah and her daughter were there together.

Her daughter said: ‘Imma, this is you.’ That is very powerful.”

It is indeed, and that poignant portrait appears on the cover of the autobiography, which goes by the subtitle of Insight into a Survivor’s Soul. The photograph dates to 1930. It is a fifth-grade group school picture and, as Roth notes, it was taken when she was still “innocent, happy and unaware of what was to come.” It is the only pictorial memento of her pre-Shoah years. The back cover of the book features a shot of the Kenneth Treister work of an outstretched hand reaching up to the heavens, with dozens of tortured figures clinging to the arm.

Meinstein was paired with Roth through the good offices of Rabbi Frederick Klein, whose many professional hats include serving as director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection to Spiritual Support. Mishkan Miami runs a series called the Refuat Ha-Nefesh (Remedy for the Soul) Fellowship program, which trains volunteers to become spiritual care providers. Some of the latter opt to visit Holocaust survivors and Meinstein, a writer with training in psychology, was matched with Roth. It proved to be a pairing made in heaven, although there were quite a few hurdles to be navigated along the way.

Did Meinstein have any inkling of what she was letting herself in for? Indeed, Roth had not even offloaded some of her anguish to her husband or daughters.

“It took a bit of time to build trust,” says the writer with more than touch of understatement. It appears that Roth had, in fact, already set the autobiographical process in motion, although there was clearly a long road ahead.

“She had shown me something she had written about her story, only there wasn’t a story in it. It was just genealogical, geographical information.”

Meinstein was clearly the right person for the tough project in hand.

“I have a method I developed for information retrieval, memory retrieval, called Soul Writing. It’s a way of building trust and slowly, piece by piece, going a little deeper.”

It was a process that often involved taking one step forward and two steps back.

“That wasn’t a one-time interview. It took over four years.” Tried and tested Soul Writing method notwithstanding, it was very much a stop-start continuum.

“When I would go back to edit what had been written she would say: ‘Oh, it wasn’t that way, it was this way.’” The Soul Writing approach certainly helped paved the way to extricating Roth’s painful story, but the retelling ride was anything but smooth.

“There were many crises,” says Meinstein.

“We’d talk together late into the night, and we’d sit there and cry. It was horrific. Then we’d go to bed and both of us would have nightmares. My nightmares would be about what I understood had happened, and for her, these interviews would take her right back there, where she was, and she relived it all. Every time she tells her story she relives it, she goes back there, right there where it happened.”

Judging by the no-punches-pulled rendition in the book, it is a wonder storyteller and chronicler survived the experience without sinking irretrievably into the darkest recesses of deep depression.

Meinstein was truly heaven-sent and provided the octogenarian with a lifelong – and lifesaving – need to express her innermost feelings.

“What I uncovered is that no one ever, her whole life, asked her or cared about anything she felt. Here I was, taking a therapeutic stand, using my Soul Writing method to uncover these stories and vignettes.”

Roth survived four concentration camps, but lost almost her entire family.

Only one of her four siblings survived.

The book dedication mentions Roth’s parents, siblings and “106 Aunts, Uncles and Cousins.”

In one harrowingly evocative passage, Roth relates how she caught a glimpse of an old student friend as she was being marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

She notes his “dazed trance, stooped from fear and fatigue, waiting for something unknown.”

She never saw him again, but the memory resurfaces constantly.

“This scene shadows me even today whenever I see crowds of men, standing, praying in the synagogue. No one knows why I wipe my tears. I am different. I was there.”

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