In memory of Leah

The lovingly delivered story of Holocaust survivor Leah Weisz, written by her Nepalese caretaker Lila Shubedi.

Leah and Lila (photo credit: COURTESY WEISZ FAMILY)
Leah and Lila
 One of the rewards of a career taking care of the elderly is meeting seniors in different stages of life.
It’s inspiring to listen to their stories – the struggles, successes and tumults of their entire life cycle. I love hearing their youthful stories of golden days, spoken from the inner core – heartfelt, full of truth and passion.
Aging renders the elderly physically weak and dependent on others, even for basic movement. As freedom of activity decreases, they feel helpless; pouring out the pain and anger can help relieve their stress. So can sharing their memories. Sometimes the past runs in their minds like cinema reels; they can’t bring back sweet moments, but they can enjoy remembering and sharing them.
Death may loom at the next door, but meanwhile it’s a great feeling to be there with them, to interact and facilitate, to make them smile. This produces a kind of satisfaction that I never felt before.
EVERYBODY LOVES to see kids in the park, and so did Leah. She and I used to visit the park every day, passing through roads with colorful mimosa trees on both sides.
When blooming spring flowers riding the gentle wind decorated the streets and heads, we felt that nature also welcomed us in its way.
The park was full of youngsters, brought by their parents for recreation. The heartwarming sight of innocent kids in the park somehow rejuvenated us, too. Other caretakers brought their employers to the park, giving us an opportunity to catch up with each other while our employers enjoyed meeting with their friends. Sometimes the people in their late 80s and 90s shared with us their interesting journeys through life, and they liked to listen to our stories, too.
Leah and many of the elderly people here were displaced from various countries, taking refuge for survival. They relived painful memories of the past with tears in their eyes, still struggling with the sorrow of lost family members.
We encouraged them to share their stories. We continued talking after returning home, although sometimes difficult subjects made it painful for her to continue.
Listening to her was like tapping into a living history.
The depth of her feelings frequently surprised me. While taking medicine, she used to say that her bitter life and the medicine were similar in taste. “When we had teeth, we had nothing to eat and now we have everything but no teeth at all.”
Her caring questions regarding my personal life were an amazing part of our conversations. I still hear her lovely voice asking why I left my husband, daughter, son and country of my youth. My reply was simple, yet sincere: “If I were not here, who would be with you now?” This brought a gentle smile to her wrinkled face. She added, “People wander to unknown places for livelihood; maybe you too have similar problems?” I replied with a smile and nodded in accord.
She was a true philosopher, with vast knowledge of many subjects and a lovely, inimitable way of expressing herself that I enjoyed listening to. She had traveled to distant places and read many books, which enriched her conversations.
Leah’s heart issues, high blood pressure and weakness sometimes restricted our ability to interact. She also suffered slightly from Alzheimer’s disease, so it was increasingly hard for her to remember things quickly; nevertheless, sometimes we managed to converse meaningfully.
This note is an attempt at describing a life’s journey, based on interactions with Leah and her family members.
LEAH WAS born in 1922 to a Jewish family in northeastern Hungary, in a town called Miskolc. They were a religious, happy bunch and lived a balanced life, working hard running the family dairy shop.
In the freezing early morning hours, Leah delivered dairy products to doorsteps. Carrying the milk pail before school made her feel ashamed in front of her friends. They would reach school earlier than her; she was always late due to work. Yet there was a boy waiting for her, and he would help her carry the pail.
Leah had a deep love for classical music and wanted to learn piano, but had to give up that dream because her family was unable to afford it. More than once her mother caught her listening to classic songs coming out of the music class, instead of going to her own class. Sitting by the window and staring at the fingers of the teacher playing piano engraved such deep traces in her mind that it developed a habit in her, and she would unknowingly run her fingers over objects, even while sitting at the dining table.
She would also sing with her sweet voice whenever she felt the urge. While she was still a child, neighbors would call on her to sing for them at weddings and parties; even the classroom turned into a stage for her. An average student, she excelled in extra-curricular activities, and was loved by her teachers.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Poland was the first victim of the Nazis. In Hungary, there had long been a strong anti-Semitic atmosphere. By 1940 Jewish men and youths were sent to labor camps to the east, and the families left behind suffered from violence, harassment and prohibitions. Their lives were very difficult. The war against Russia was about to begin, and the bad conditions brought death to many.
In March 1944 the Nazis conquered Hungary, forcing the Jews to wear yellow stars and enclosing them in ghettos.
Within two months, they began sending the Jews on trains to Auschwitz. Leah, her parents, her sister Miriam with her three little children and their aunts were deported to the death camp. Her sister’s husband had previously died in a labor camp.
At the entrance to Auschwitz, the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele made the selection, sending elders and children to the left – to the gas chambers. When he saw Leah and her sister Miriam, he said they were pretty and motioned them to the right. Thus their lives were saved, and they were sent to work in an aeronautical parts manufacturing company.
Pinchas, who later became Leah’s husband, had also lived in Miskolc with his family before the war. Pinchas was taken to a labor camp in 1941; his family was sent to the ghetto and afterwards to Auschwitz. After the war, of the family’s 10 children, only Pinchas, a sister and two brothers were left – the rest were murdered.
After the war, some survivors, including Leah, Miriam and Pinchas, returned to Miskolc. Leah married Pinchas in November 1945, in the presence of her sister. The couple’s first business was a clothing store and they hoped for a normal life.
Yet unpleasantness in the life of Hungarian Jews continued.
Two daughters, Haya and Sima, were born. Meanwhile, Communist Russia took over Hungary and anti-Semitism once again flourished. The so-called proletarian Russian soldiers started harassing what they called the bourgeois in Hungary, including Leah’s family, and they finally opted to leave.
Due to the insecurity, many families were forced to move out of the country and go somewhere for survival. The decision to leave and the escape from there were not easy.
Leah and Pinchas locked their home and their store and threw away the keys, and with heavy hearts moved on an unknown path with two little daughters, aged six months and two years.
Their escape involved heavy bribes to border smugglers, and they reached Czechoslovakia at midnight. Leah’s husband was caught by the Czech officials, and was forced back to Hungary that very night. He was released after still more bribes, but was caught again. Luckily, this time he managed to escape and reached the Jewish Agency shelter in Slovakia.
There, the reunited family heaved a sigh of relief. They were relocated to the Jewish Agency shelter in Vienna, where their youngest daughter fell ill due to the difficult traveling conditions; she needed medication and was hospitalized.
The situation forced the family to move on, and they started making their way to Italy.
Coincidently, Eli, the youngest brother of Leah’s husband, was traveling on that same train. Eli had taken leave of the family years back and no one was aware of his existence.
A few relatives had moved to Canada and America, but the reunion cemented the family decision to move on to Israel, already declared independent, in hopes of a safe and peaceful life.
They reached Haifa by ship, but life was not as easy as they hoped. Following seven weeks in the Sha’ar Ha’aliya community shelter, the family moved to Moshav Shafir in the South, after learning the government would provide land at subsidized cost to farmers willing to work in group farming. They started their new life by building houses, laboring in the vegetable fields, keeping cattle and engaging in group farming for five years. With hard work they managed to save some money, sold the land and moved to Kiryat Ono.
Leah used to say, “I was born in a religious family and believe in God. One should do the hard work, and God will always be there to look after you.” She worked at a variety of jobs, including in a supermarket, in households and as a kindergarten teacher. In later years she worked as a receptionist in the Kiryat Ono municipality’s welfare division.
She always insisted that when she was with the kindergarten children it didn’t feel like work, it was sheer pleasure for her.
She would say, “We should take any work that comes our way and know that nothing is bad, because it may be useful in the future. You never know what unexpected turns life may take. We should never feel too proud.”
Her marital life was full of love. When her husband passed away, the pain overwhelmed her; the stress brought on many health issues at once. Her struggle came to an end when she took her last breath at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer on November 29, 2013.
IT’S PAINFUL to say goodbye to our loved ones, but everyone’s life comes to an end. She was like a mother to me and her memory and guidance will always remain alive and cherished in my heart, mind and soul.
The five years and five months I spent with her were among the most precious in my life. Although I was there for a job and to earn money (which I did, I supported my family financially and funded my children’s higher education), I never felt I was away from home. As Leah once told me, we learn only 10 percent in the university and the remaining 90% through life. I was privileged to study with her; she will be remembered in every step of my life.
I had wished to write about her and show it to her when she was alive, but this wish remained unfulfilled. Now, as I write this memorial, I must acknowledge that it was the love and affection of her relatives and friends, and especially that of her daughters, Haya and Sima, that propelled me to write.
I will always remain thankful for the enormous love and support I received throughout my days with this family.