Sitting in a café in Jerusalem’s Malha Mall in the late afternoon sun, Lizzie Rubin smiles, looks around and says, “In Lodz, they have malls to die for.”
Rubin, 61, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, fully recognizes the irony of her comment. She has lived much of her life in the shadow of the Holocaust and has struggled to understand its effect on her and her family. The recent search for, and discovery of, the graves of her maternal grandparents in Lodz have helped her gain a greater sense of understanding of her identity and a sense of closure.
TO UNDERSTAND Rubin’s present, one needs to understand her past. Her mother, Doris, one of nine children in a Gerrer Hassidic family, grew up in the town of Zdunska Wola, about 40 kilometers from Lodz. In 1939, her family was taken to the Lodz Ghetto, which was the second-largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe. The Lodz Ghetto manufactured war supplies for the German Army, and was the last ghetto to be liquidated, in August 1944.
Doris was a seamstress, and when she and her two sisters, Pesa Chana and Ruda, were brought before Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz physician who decided the fate of the concentration camp arrivals, she told him that they were seamstresses. In truth, says Rubin, only her mother was a seamstress, and as a result, Doris had to sew triple the amount to meet her sisters’ quota, until they learned to sew.
All three sisters survived the Auschwitz ordeal, but soon after liberation, two sisters died from typhus, leaving Doris alone in the world.
Lizzie’s father, Harry, was born in Pilzno in Galicia. Orphaned at a young age, he apprenticed with a non-Jewish plumber and learned the trade, which helped him survive. He was taken to the Plaszow labor camp near Krakow, which was controlled by the infamous Amon Goth, who would kill inmates, often on a whim.
Lizzie says that her father would receive items from the other inmates and, at night, trade with the Ukrainian guards to get eggs, milk or butter, which he would then bring back to the camp to share with the others.
“One night,” she says, “he got 20 trays of eggs. The kapo caught him, and said, ‘I’ve got you now.’” Harry offered the kapo all of the eggs if he would spare his life, but the kapo refused. He then took all of the eggs and threw them at the kapo and hid on the roof. Within minutes, the dogs were sent out, and spotlights were trained throughout the camp. Somehow, Harry found a spot on the roof out of the reach of the spotlights. The next morning, one of the inmates offered him his train ticket, which he had received in order to do work at the next station. Harry took his ticket, jumped off the roof, and took the next train.
Earlier in the war, Harry’s blonde hair and blue eyes gave him a decidedly non-Jewish appearance, which he used to his advantage. He served as a driver for the Gestapo, together with another Jewish man, who also pretended to be a non-Jew.
One day, explains Rubin, the commander called him in and said, using his assumed name, “Tell me, Julian – are you Jewish?” Harry, realizing that there was no escape, responded, “Yes.” The commander asked him about his fellow driver. He responded, “Yes, he is also Jewish.” The commander pointed to the window, and said, “Look outside. See those two nooses? One is for you and one is for your friend. But I like you, Julian. You’re a nice guy, so run. And he ran.” The next day, Harry heard that the other driver was hanged.
At the end of the war, Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte arranged for concentration camp survivors to be transported to Sweden. It was there that Harry and Doris met.
Lizzie explains, “There was a boys camp and a girls camp, and my mother and a friend were speaking to two young men. My mother said to her friend in Yiddish, “I think that the brown-haired one is Jewish, and the blonde is not Jewish. My father answered – also in Yiddish – “No, my dear. I am the Jew and he is the non-Jew.” They married in Sweden in 1946 and remained there until 1954, when they came to America, after an uncle in Los Angeles sponsored them. Their son, Marvin, was born in 1947, and Lizzie was born 10 years later.
Lizzie’s father worked as a plumber, and her mother dabbled in real estate. Most of their friends were Holocaust survivors, and while they discussed their experiences with fellow survivors, they spoke little of them to others.
RECALLING HER childhood and her mother’s painful Holocaust recollections, Lizzie says, “While everyone was playing Barbie, I was talking Nazis.” She mentions one of her mother’s frequent stories. “There was a rehabilitation hospital in Lodz with a courtyard. The Nazis took the truck into the courtyard and threw the babies out of the windows of the hospital, onto their trucks, and the mothers would jump out after them.”
“When I was five years old, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night, crying. I would say, ‘What’s the matter, Mommy?’ She would reply, ‘I had a dream that the Nazis took you away, and I wanted to make sure you are here.’ She’s holding me and crying, and I’m the one who’s five years old, comforting her. ‘Don’t worry Mommy, I’m here.’
“As a kid,” she continues, “there was a lot of crying. Shabbat afternoon was the worst time of day. My mother would sit in her darkened room and weep. It was very hard for me.”
The Holocaust, says Rubin, was felt in the house and in the air. “If I left something on my plate, my mother would look, and say, ‘I could have lived on that for a week.’ If I stood in line and didn’t push my way to the front, my mother would comment, ‘You would have never survived the concentration camps.’”
Yet, Rubin continues, “They [her parents] did what they had to do. They built their family, went to shul, were part of the community, and were involved in the school.”
Despite the tears and the recollections, Lizzie’s mother spoke very little about her own mother. “I would beg, and she would say, ‘Why do you want me to cry?’ I would say, ‘I don’t want you to cry, but I want to know about my grandmother.’ Whatever I knew about them was so minimal, and I didn’t feel connected to them. I felt like I had no family or background.”
IN 1994, Lizzie went to Poland, together with her parents and her husband, Dov. Her mother pointed out the house where they lived in the Lodz Ghetto, and Lizzie saw her grandmother’s kitchen. Lizzie’s mother showed them a chimney in one of the ghetto buildings still standing, where she and her siblings hid from the Nazis. They even returned to Zdunska Wola, where her mother was born and spent her childhood, and saw her house and the apple tree that she so fondly remembered.
Lizzie began to search for her grandparents’ graves. “We went to the office of the Jewish council in Lodz and found two old men sitting with index cards that contained information for each grave. They gave us the coordinates of where they were buried. But when we got to the cemetery, it was completely overgrown, and there was no way to figure out the rows.”
Lizzie’s mother knew that her mother was buried in 1941, in a ghetto field. When her father died in 1944, he had been buried in a different section. They looked but were unsuccessful in finding either grave.
“We sat there in the cemetery,” recalls Lizzie. “My mother said, ‘My father doesn’t want me to find him.’ I said to her, “You’re right. He wants you to go home, enjoy your family and live in Israel.”
In 1996, Lizzie and her husband returned a second time, and again were unable to locate the graves of her grandparents.
In 2017, Mindy Ribner, a friend of Lizzie’s who is a guide at Yad Vashem, went to Lodz, and made contact with a non-Jewish woman, who had extensively documented the cemetery and the grave sites. This time, the woman quickly found the exact locations of the graves of her grandparents and sent the photos to Lizzie.
In March 2019, Rubin and her brother, Marvin Tark, together with their spouses, two of her children, along with Mindy Ribner and her husband, David, returned to Lodz to dedicate headstones marking the graves of her maternal grandparents.
“I held it all together at the cemetery, and I didn’t break down”, says Lizzie. “I was enjoying the moment. I couldn’t believe that I was there.”
With her grandparents’ graves marked and dedicated, Lizzie and Dov returned to Jerusalem and resumed their regular lives. Lizzie, a couples and sex therapist, and Dov, a noted hi-tech developer, live in Jerusalem and enjoy their six children and “a crazy number” of grandchildren.
“I never knew what closure meant. I now feel that I had grandparents. Their DNA is in the ground, but it is there. I feel like I did something for them. I don’t know what they were like, but I’m sure my mother is happy, too. I think everybody up there is very pleased that we did this...” and her voice trails off.
“The most meaningful moment,” says Lizzie, “was when we attended the tiny Lodz minyan on Shabbat with our family. My brother and my son are both named Menachem, after my grandfather. They each received an aliyah to the Torah in Lodz. In Lodz! Mindy and I looked at each other and began to cry.”
Lizzie Rubin thinks for a moment and says, “My dream came true – to put up headstones for the grandparents I never knew.”
Readers who have family buried in the Lodz cemetery, and want to check the cemetery files, can write to email@example.com and can contact Lizzie Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org for general information about Lodz.
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