The Human Spirit: Story-filled temporary dwelling

As we enter our succot, those temporary dwellings, let us place the telling and retelling of the stories who came before us at the heart of the conversation.

The Teitelbaum Family 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Teitelbaum Family 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Teitlebaum family, father Tuvia Teitlebaum, mother Margit Frankfurt Teitlebaum and their son and six daughters lived in Nyirbator, Hungary, a town in the northern great plain region of eastern Hungary.
So begins the story shared at our holiday table. Our guests Ephraim and Rita Greenfield have recently returned from a most worthy endeavor: gathering family history while it can still be gathered. They made the effort to interview far-flung family members, particularly on the side of Ephraim’s late mother, Julia Frankfurt Greenfield. Her family tree is stunted, with many branches having been amputated at Auschwitz. What he discovered were remarkable stories, some with happy endings, too. Here is an example.
Ephraim’s mother’s family lived in Nyireghaza, Hungary.
Her parents were pious Jews, active in the Jewish community. They earned their living by manufacturing soda water. To this day, homemade soda water is the preferred beverage at the Greenfield table in Jerusalem.
His mother’s older sister, Aunt Margit Frankfurt, married Tuvia Teitlebaum and moved from Nyireghaza to Nyirbator. Like the Frankfurts, the Teitlebaums were business owners. As each of their children reached maturity, a new enterprise was created around his or her talents. For instance, daughter Eva was gifted at handicrafts, so she was sent for artistic training, and opened a store specializing in finely embroidered clothing and lace curtains, which she operated even after she was married. Daughter Magda ran a delivery business.
Daughter Olga worked in the beer business.
As the Nazi machine grew, Tuvia Teitlebaum began making arrangements for the family to emigrate to New Zealand. He engaged tutors to teach his children English.
But before they could move, the noose closed. On March 19, 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary. With escape cut off, Tuvia gathered his family around him to distribute fast-acting poison. Margit objected. “How do we know?” she insisted. “Maybe one of our beautiful children will survive.”
The Nazis set up an officer’s club in the Teitlebaum house. Margit and Tuvia, and their six daughters, were shipped in cattle cars to Auschwitz.
The six daughters were in the same transport, one that was dispatched with haste to the gas chambers.
Indeed, 300,000 Hungarian Jews were hurried directly to their deaths without getting the cursed numbers of Auschwitz tattooed on their arms. But on the day the sisters stood together to die, the gas chambers experienced a rare malfunction. Instead, they were dispatched to a munitions factory in a camp near Bremen, Germany.
They worked there together, supporting each other, until the fuel ran out and the factory closed. Bremen was burning. The six of them were assigned to the forest to chop wood.
The war took place over their heads. Parachutes of pilots who had dropped into the forest from downed planes remained among the trees. Eva, the expert seamstress, knew what she could do with them. For her sisters, she turned the materials into sweaters to get them through the icy winter nights. She transformed the white foam and red material into a Santa Claus for the Germans’ Christmas party. Their tormentors were charmed, and gave the sisters perks: a blanket and extra food.
Sisters Nora and Alice, who shared the family artistic talent, were recruited to make Christmas cards for the officers. And so, in the midst of the mass murder around them, these religious Jewish sisters were saved by making a Santa Claus and Christmas cards.
And yet, goodwill goes just so far. As liberation approached, the same officers invited the Teitlebaum sisters for coffee and cheese. Following her excellent instincts, Eva insisted they turn down the invitation.
The food, as it turned out, was poisoned. The Nazis wanted to wipe out all witnesses of their crimes.
Instead, the young women were locked in a train and sent to an unknown destination: no food, no water, and British planes bombing from above. As the tracks were bombed, the Nazis let them out and set them to fixing the tracks and then locked them in the cattle cars again. At Plauen, they could go no further. The Nazis fled. One officer with a kinder heart unlocked the doors. Half the passengers had died in the terrible journey. The Teitlebaum sisters extracted themselves from amid the bodies.
Outside the scene was picturesque and tranquil: a mountain lake with a charming guest house. The sisters jumped into the lake, discarding their filthy clothing.
They remained in the water, while others, who approached the guest house, were shot. All night, the Teitlebaum sisters waited in the water. That is where the French Jewish underground soldiers found them in the morning. They soldiers gave them clothing and helped them reach the British DP camp in Neustadt. The Hungarian young women had never met the British, but they knew English because of their tutoring.
In the DP camp, Nora, the youngest sister, was courted by Sol Lessman, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto. He wanted to marry her, but the tradition in the Teitlebaum family was that the youngest only married after her older sisters. Even after all that had happened to them, they held to the tradition. Nora sent Sol on a mission, like a knight of old: “I’ll marry you if you find my only brother, David.”
Despite his resourcefulness, Lessman failed. Still, he was unwilling to let his beloved leave. When the sisters had already boarded a plane of survivors to go to Sweden, the brash young man came aboard and berated Eva. How could she leave before she returned to her hometown to seek her husband? What an example was she to her siblings? So convincing was Lessman that all the sisters deplaned. Eva headed for Nyirbrator to remove any doubt that her husband had survived and that she might still be a married woman.
And whom did she meet? There was her husband, preparing for his wedding the following day! They were reunited. And who else? Lo and behold, brother David who had just returned from his personal odyssey in hell.
“Maybe one will survive,” Margit Frankfurt Teitlebaum had said, staying the hand of her husband. No poison. She and Tuvia were murdered in Auschwitz. All seven of their children survived the Holocaust.
At Lessman’s initiative, brother David had been found. He was now free to marry Nora. They have had a loving, happy life together. In their ninth decade, they’ve retired to Florida, which is where Rita and Ephraim came to record their story, with Hurricane Isaac roaring outside.
Just think. This is just one story that is now preserved.
So many of our families are lost and forgotten – stories of survivors, stories of those who, like the hundreds of the Greenfields’ relatives – were murdered by the Nazis.
A single story.
I retell it to inspire all of us not to let our own families’ unique stories slip into oblivion. Sometimes all it takes is someone who cares enough to ask, to take notes, to bring a tape recorder.
As we enter our succot, those temporary dwellings, let us place the telling and retelling of the stories who came before us at the heart of the conversation. Let us welcome all their spirits as honored guests, ushpizim, into our succot.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.