In my own write: Bittersweet jolt to memory

These days of memory and mourning are part and parcel of life’s reality in this country of ours, a grueling journey through our past and present.

April 21, 2015 21:18
MOTHER AND SON, safe and secure

MOTHER AND SON, safe and secure. (photo credit: JUDY MONTAGU)


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Here in Israel, you don’t need spring’s wild seesawing of outside temperatures to feel unsettled during the weeks immediately following Passover. You know what’s coming up: the emotionally harrowing Holocaust Remembrance Day, followed by Remembrance Day for the soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s wars and victims of terrorism – now numbering 23,320.

These days of memory and mourning are part and parcel of life’s reality in this country of ours, a grueling journey through our past and present.

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For me, this year’s commemoration period has been paradoxically both lighter and heavier: lighter because I was distracted by a busy week leading up to and including Yom Hashoah, spent at my daughter’s and son-in-law’s home in Ramat Gan, fetching and carrying and hanging endless bits of diminutive laundry as our first grandchild, born on the first intermediate day of Passover, acclimatized to the ways of his new world.

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It’s been lighter also on account of the pervasive joy of witnessing a healthy mother and baby, and the advent of a new generation of our family.

BUT MAYBE heavier isn’t quite the right word to express what we felt on Yom Hashoah, as sad music played on the radio and the little one alternately fed and, satiated, slept the day through cocooned in a feathery nest of blankets, watched over by a mother and grandmother alert to his every move and cry.

“Looking at the beauty and innocence and perfection connected to a newborn offers a very special insight into what life and love mean,” a friend wrote to me from abroad after the birth.

She likely didn’t have the Shoah at all in mind as she sent us that congratulatory email; but to us, on that day of somber recollection last week, our baby’s beauty and innocence and protection from the slightest harm drove home, by way of total contrast, and in a manner that few other things perhaps could, the opposite, terrible situation of one and half million babies and children during the Holocaust who were torn from the arms of their loving natural protectors, who couldn’t protect them, and murdered.

Some children stayed with their mothers and were killed anyway.

In a piece called “Second generation speaks” that I wrote based largely on my mother’s memories of her time in Auschwitz, she recalled a beautiful cousin of hers who was deported together with her baby.

“At the selection point, she was sent to the right, the child to the left. She begged them to let her stay with her baby. They graciously consented. Mother and child were gassed together.”

Some children perished in their dying mothers’ wombs before they could be born, and are likely not counted in the final tally of the murdered.

In Auschwitz hundreds – some estimate thousands – of fetuses were aborted at the hand of a heartbroken but determined Dr. Gisela Perl. A Jewish gynecologist deported to the camp in 1944 from what was then Hungary, she was put to work there as a doctor in unspeakable conditions and came to realize that pregnant women faced torture and medical experimentation by the diabolical Dr. Mengele, and a brutal death. She told The New York Times in 1982: “I learned that [pregnant women] were all taken to the research block to be used as guinea pigs, and then two lives would be thrown into the crematorium. I decided that never again would there be a pregnant woman in Auschwitz.”

After the war she delivered around 3,000 babies in New York alone, and would pray before every delivery: “God, you owe me a life, a living baby.”

On that memorial day last week, then, the sight of our little Eitan sleeping snug and warm in his safe surroundings threw into incredibly sharp and poignant relief the fate of those earlier, doomed infants and children; and my daughter and I put our arms around each other and cried.

AS I sat in that quiet Ramat Gan apartment thinking how extraordinary it was that a sleeping infant could imbue his surroundings with an almost tangible atmosphere of peace and calm (until he awoke and started screaming for food), my thoughts turned to this week’s Remembrance Day and the realization that helping to care for this new baby had given me an extra dimension of understanding: a deeper appreciation of the pain suffered by parents who have lost their children to war and terrorism.

Those parents, like Eitan’s, marveled at the beauty, innocence and perfection of their newborn children; they too watched over them with endless love and care; they invested time and hope and energy in their futures as they watched their children grow – and then freeze in time as their lives were cut short.

Seeing photos of those young, fresh and often smiling faces – and knowing that they are no longer among the living – is one of the most painful things we confront as we open our newspapers on Remembrance Day and turn on our TV and computer screens; sadly, on other days of the year as well.

Bereaved parents who carry on in the face of such agonizing loss are heroes by any measure. Every day they must get out of bed and go about their lives despite the gaping void where their beloved sons and daughters should be.

MIRIAM PERETZ was chosen to light one of the beacons at Israel’s official Independence Day ceremony last year. She lost her firstborn son, Uriel, in Lebanon in 1998, and a second son, Eliraz, in Gaza in 2010. Her husband died later, she says, “of a broken heart.”

In a wrenching video you can see on YouTube, she explains that she now has two homes: the house where her sons were born, “and a new home, Mount Herzl, where my two sons are buried.

“It’s a colder home; when it rains, I think: Maybe they feel the cold... here, I knew how to keep them warm. I live between these two homes....

“People ask me: When you get to heaven, what will your meeting with your children look like? What will you tell God?” She won’t speak to God, she says.

“I only want to hear one word, and then die. I want to hear them shout, ‘Mom!’ I just want to hug my children, that’s all.”

Only here in Israel, she says, can a torn heart like hers go on beating – “in a country that can move from Holocaust to revival, among a nation capable one day of existing amid struggle, living under threat, and the next day, celebrating [Independence Day].”

This ability to carry on living, she says, “personifies the Jewish people – and my life.”

AMONG THE many prayers for the welfare of our country’s defenders, I came across a short one which felt particularly suited to Remembrance Day: Dear Lord, watch over our precious soldiers. Wrap them in the mantle of Your divine protection and bring them safely back from their missions.

Grant those who have been wounded or injured a full recovery; and those who have been killed, let them rest in peace and tranquility forever.

Comfort the bereaved; help them to bear their unbearable grief, and let them know no more sorrow.

WITH MY newborn grandson uppermost in my mind, I would add this plea: And bring us peace, so young people need never again go to war.

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