Lessons from the ashes at Yad Vashem

My parents rarely spoke of their prewar family. But I learned a lot at Yad Vashem.

HALL OF Names, Yad Vashem.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
HALL OF Names, Yad Vashem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
When a genealogist friend suggested I search for my roots at Yad Vashem, I scoffed. My late parents, both of them survivors, were fervently committed to the center’s mission of collecting the names of the six million. Each time they visited Jerusalem they submitted “Pages of Testimony,” some of them filled out by me.

Search there? Wouldn’t everything I’d discover be déjà vu?

Well, yes and no.

I started with my two grandmothers, two aunts and an uncle. It was heart-wrenching – any encounter with the Holocaust is, even on a screen – and I found what I expected, pages in my own scrawl. Then just purely on impulse, I typed another name: Regina Blau Goldberger, who died in Auschwitz along with her husband and young daughters.

My Great-Aunt Regina – or Rivka, she was fervently Orthodox and likely to use her Hebrew name – was yet another one of the absent elders in my life. Like most survivor families, mine consisted of a tiny nuclear unit supplemented with a small sprinkling of elderly relatives, some fairly distant.

My parents rarely spoke of their prewar family. It was probably too painful, but from an early age I sensed their absence.

I often wondered about them, who they were, and what my life would have looked like had they been a part of it.

Aunt Rivka left the world at age 39, and like many of Hitler’s victims, she left without a trace – not a photograph, letter, Shabbat candle or even a tchotchke remains.

My mother’s memories were spare but telling. Rivka was the youngest of my grandmother’s siblings. She married at 30, relatively late in those days. Her father was a rabbinical court judge. As the only child to remain in her birthplace, the tiny village of Csenger in northeastern Hungary, she cared for her aging parents as well as her own brood. Today we’d say she was part of the sandwich generation.

Uncle Lipa, her scholar husband, was a year her junior and a hassid, with a personal style and customs that deviated from the family’s Hatam Sofer brand of Orthodoxy. When he left her and their children to spend Yom Tov with his rebbe – no one remembers which hassidic group he belonged to – tongues wagged. I wonder how she coped with that.

I don’t know anything else about Aunt Rivka, whether she was the breadwinner, whether her husband had a side business, what they enjoyed, what they disdained. I do recall one more tiny detail – that she fretted over her daughters less-than-classy village accents. She wanted them to sound like aristocrats. It’s almost amusing considering their fate.

The Yad Vashem archive doesn’t acknowledge any of this but my research there turned up other surprises. The first was the source of the information. The Pages of Testimony – described in Yad Vashem parlance as “substitute graves,” as if pieces of paper can take the place of tombstones – were recorded in Hungarian by a stranger. That seemed odd. Through a WhatsApp group whose members’ families came from my aunt’s town, I discovered that their submitter, Dr. Zoltan Tokes, is a Protestant pastor from Csenger. Born after the war to a family that claimed Jewish descent, Tokes recorded the names of the town’s dead and in 2013 traveled to Jerusalem to hand-deliver the information to Yad Vashem.

THE PAGES are stark – no room for storytelling, just the scaffolding of the lives of my aunt and her family, which ended collectively in Auschwitz one terrible day during the summer of 1944. What more is there to say? Yet when looked at together, these pages tell a remarkable tale of resilience and faith.

All through those dark years, Aunt Rivka and Uncle Lipa kept on having children, one after the other, all of them girls. I suppose they were attempting to fulfill the first commandment, to be “fruitful and multiply,” which most rabbinical opinions define as having a minimum of two children, one of each gender.

Their first daughter, Klara, was born in 1937 when Aunt Rivka was 32. That year Hungary was still free, but across the border in Germany Adolf Hitler had begun sending Jews and dissidents to concentration camps.

The following year, known forever as the year of Kristallnacht, Aunt Rivka gave birth to a second daughter, Magdolna, and the next year as the Nazis marched into Poland she had yet another daughter, Esther, named after her mother, my Great-Grandmother Esther.

In 1941 Hitler formulated the Final Solution, and Aunt Rivka gave birth to yet another daughter, Katalin. The record lists one more daughter, Bella, with no birthdate provided. She might have been born after that, possibly even after the Nazis occupied Hungary.

It wouldn’t have been hard for my aunt to talk herself out of having these children. According to Jewish law, one can receive rabbinical permission, a heter, to use contraception. A claim that another baby would cause hardship is adequate grounds to receive such permission, and in those years that was undoubtedly true.

Even before Hitler, Hungarian Jewry suffered a declining birth rate, as people lacked the faith, emotional buoyancy and financial resources to have children. Not Aunt Rivka. As European Jewry hurtled toward its tragic end, she kept bringing new life into the world.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Aunt Rivka was my role model. Instead of pursuing a career I stayed at home and had kids; as part of the post-Holocaust “rebuilding generation,” that felt like my raison d’etre. Thankfully, I had a few. I won’t state a number – it’s Jewish tradition not to count one’s offspring – but it’s a nice-sized brood.

Aunt Rivka’s bravery and her optimism – our children are after all footsteps into eternity – echo our foremothers Yocheved and Miriam, and the midwives of biblical Egypt.

And her temimut, simplicity and wholeheartedness, taking the next right action and leaving the results to God, is an example, especially in these uncertain days of pandemic.

There are no stones to mark the spot where the ashes of Rivka, Lipa and their children landed, but these stark and simple facts are their epitaph.

May their memory be a blessing.  

The author is a prizewinning writer. Her work appears frequently in these pages, and she facilitates a memoir workshop on Zoom. [email protected]