Celebrations inherited: Sukkot, survival in Leipzig a century ago

Sukkot, an agricultural festival of thanksgiving and a commemoration of the 40-year period during which the children of Israel wandered in the desert, was certainly worthy of our devotion.

 A sukkah lovingly built in the yard of Aron and Regina Markiewicz as featured in London’s ‘Jewish Chronicle,’ 1947 (photo credit: COURTESY PESSY KRAUSZ)
A sukkah lovingly built in the yard of Aron and Regina Markiewicz as featured in London’s ‘Jewish Chronicle,’ 1947
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

The mood, as well as the climate, was cold that Sukkot in 1937 Leipzig, especially for the young husband and wife expecting the life-shattering event of their first offspring. On the second floor of a three-storied block on Kleinebruder Strasse, their rented apartment was near the local synagogue. There in its small courtyard, a Sukkah was braving the elements.

They were far from parents. His lived in Poland’s city of Lowicz, and hers were hundreds of kilometers away in Dresden. While father was immersed in learned tomes, her mother ran the family business.

So there were no great travel expectations, only to produce a healthy offspring. Being somewhat overdue, the prospective parents spent several days leading up to the festival in some discomfort – she being rather heavy and he rather anxious. Seeing her sighing repeatedly he said anxiously, “Ginchu,” his loving diminutive for her full name, Regina, “why do you krechtz and sigh so much?”

“Aron, I have trouble walking. My legs have swollen and they’re painful.”

“Maybe I’ll go fetch the doctor?”

 The writer in her Jerusalem home. (credit: COURTESY PESSY KRAUSZ) The writer in her Jerusalem home. (credit: COURTESY PESSY KRAUSZ)

“Not necessary. What can he say that he has not said already? That I must rest with my feet up. And you know I want to go to the synagogue, especially as soon it will be Simhat Torah. I like how we all make merry with reading from the Torah and seeing the children dancing round with flags. Who knows if I’ll get there?”

And indeed she didn’t. Instead, gasping for breath, she responded to the midwife’s instruction: ‘Push! Push! More! We’re nearly there! One more and... Ohhh! Well done! It’s a little daughter you have!”

“A girl? Not a boy? Are you sure? Well, she is born on Simhat Torah I will rejoice in that! My husband will explain all about it,” Mother confided to the non-Jewish midwife. “Just a drink of water please. Please!”

“Ginchu,” he said. ”Never mind. Next time will be a boy. But what is this mouthwatering aroma?”

“Aron, you’re busy with an aroma, while for me it’s the milk I’m trying to feed her with!”

The problem was that the smell of the feast from the nearby synagogue wafted into the nursing home.

How could he explain how enticing it was?

Abandoning his wife and newly born daughter, this young father – well, youngish, almost mid-30s – dashed though the door explaining briefly to his aghast wife that he was going out to eat Cholopches, the stuffed cabbage delicacy!

He returned from the shul to find his wife nursing the baby, who was rejoicing lustily. Mewling, she managed to find comfort in milky nourishment that strived to enter her puny mouth, with success.

Hard put to placate the new mother, he tried to justify dashing out to eat those delicious cabbage rolls stuffed with meat.

“They were not my form of escape. We have a newly created paradise here! But it is an ancient custom eating this food resembling the Sifrei Torah.”

This was a far cry you might say, tongue in the cheek, from life in London’s north western suburb where by dint of providence, we had later struggled to arrive.

We had miraculous escapes first from Leipzig on Kristallnacht in 1938, when I was barely a year old, to Belgium’s Antwerp. From there after enduring our incredible flight on foot from Nazi pursuit, we reached the coastal town of Dunkirk in 1940. With sheer determination, we were the only civilians rescued with the retreating British soldiers, aboard one of the hundreds of little boats. Thus, braving the English Channel’s bomb-strafed choppy sea, we reached a safe haven: Britain’s Dover coast.

Only five years later, this child was trying to help her father decorate their very own Sukkah on their very own back porch.

Maybe commemorating the loss of his own Sukkah in his parental Polish hometown, or that building his own while in Leipzig was not possible, my father was among the very few in London who in the mid-1940s built their own Sukkah. And it was not a flimsy concoction. No! It was made of stout wooden vertical planks. It had a wooden floor up one step from the ground. And crisscrossing the roof were thin planks that allowed a generous eiderdown of leaves through which nevertheless the required stars could be viewed. But what added a colorful touch to this sturdy structure was the hanging of delicious fruit, bags of chocolates, and sweets on thin strings that my father patiently strung up. No helping him either, as maybe the strings would not all be the exact same required length! It was a booth of pride that needed to be shared with others.

Sukkot, being both an agricultural festival of thanksgiving and a commemoration of the 40-year period during which the children of Israel wandered in the desert after leaving slavery in Egypt, was certainly worthy of our devotion, having suffered our very own travails.

And so it was that many came to eye this edifice on the final day, Simhat Torah, to eat my mother’s potato latkes, while wending their way homeward after synagogue services. Little did they know how, beginning in early morning, my mother hand grated tons of potatoes and onions into a gigantic bowl, added into the mixture numerous eggs, some matzah meal, salt and pepper, and stirred the huge concoction that drop by drop would be placed carefully into several large oil-filled frying pans, then turned on the other side to be ladled onto waiting platters.

Between the Sukkah and the back of our house was a small courtyard with a narrow metal bench and a few upright mismatching chairs. There wives would sit, truly birds of a feather saved from such countries as Italy, Poland, Germany and Austria, paralleling biblical miracles. Stalwart, propping each other up, some with hands folded over rounded best dresses, some with hands resting on knees, but all had pinkish or reddish tipped nails. And hair permed, blue-tinted, or straight and with all shapes and sizes of a Shabbat hat atop. Amazing concoctions!

In the Sukkah, so wanting to contribute, my efforts were to place some nuts and crackers on the table. But father said “Don’t Touch!”, and stood glasses and drinks in multi-colored shaped liquor bottles and whiskey in a central place of honor.

How had their husbands managed to push themselves into our Sukkah, and squash around the table? Peeping, I’d see bottles and nosh generously passed round. From their ample throats, relieved by loosened top shirt button and collar, blessings would emerge – but none as enthusiastic as when Mother’s latkes made their appearance. Of course, they were the remnants of those which flocks, with manicured hands, managed to snatch as platter after platter emerged from the kitchen window into the courtyard on their way to the Sukkah.

Undeterred by receiving fewer latkes, the men’s sing-song unmelodious voices, refrain after refrain, words gradually less and less coherent, floated into the neighborhood.

How was it that hardly a morsel was left for this skinny girl, standing patiently alongside the latkes being deftly pulled from bubbling oil? Sometimes, though, one or two reached me, despite appearing invisible. So by staying by my mother’s apron strings – in more ways than one – it was impossible not to appreciate her selfless, tireless offerings.

Tireless, you may ask? Well, due to providing all these delectable refreshments, mother could not get to the synagogue in the morning to see the Torah scroll procession. However, she did get to see it the evening before, when children followed the circuitous carrying of the Torah scrolls, whose flags were embellished with motives of Jerusalem. Mother was very proud that atop mine was a bright red apple my father had shined so you could see your face in it. That is, until a man with very sharp teeth could not resist temptation. He took a big bite, and my tearful woeful face did nothing to dispel the feeling that this must have been the original “Apple”!

Still, no matter how memorable our festival was, none could compare with our celebration when we finally reached Jerusalem. On the other hand, despite the wide array of different Sukkahs vying for the most beautiful in Jerusalem’s annual Sukkah competition, none could compete with the one so laboriously and loving erected in our London back yard.

And when it comes to Simhat Torah, it not only is a joyous holiday celebrating the Jewish love of Torah and study, it also celebrates our family’s miraculous survival, and creates a giant birthday party for me!!! ■

Pessy Krausz is a qualified psychotherapist who made aliyah with her husband and three children in 1975 and founded Shalshelet, the Enhancing Relationships Center, where engaged and newlywed couples enjoyed workshops and making friendships while gaining communication skills. She later expanded the center to include counseling for singles. pessykrausz@gmail.com