Tonight and tomorrow mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day. This memorial day holds special significance to me as the grand-daughter of survivors.
Tonight I participated in a special seder, originally developed by Rabbi Avi Weiss, to ritualize remembrance of the Holocaust. We read from a short book, sitting on the floor as mourners in a darkened room around six candles to represent the 6,000,000 Jews who perished. The evening had four sections: physical destruction, spiritual destruction, destruction of children, and resistance. An important part of the seder is to pass the first-hand experiences of survivors to future generations so that the memories never extinguish and can continue to be passed l’dor va dor (from generation to generation).
Since no survivors were able to join us, I asked my mother to share with me some stories from her mother so that I could re-tell her experience as part of the “resistance” portion since my Bubbie’s attitude, wit, and courage is what helped her survive. Here is what my mother wrote as if she were speaking as her own mother:
I was born in a small town named Sandz (Novisoncz (sp?) in Polish), Poland. Since my mother was busy working in the family business, I was sent to live with my older sister in a larger city Katowicz. I went to school there and because at some point this was a town in Germany (borders changed a lot in those days) the schools taught German as well as Polish and I learned a “high German.” Who knew that it would later help save my life.
Money and diamonds helped some people live through the war if it wasn’t taken away from them by the Germans; knowledge/education was something that they couldn’t take away from you.
I was sent to a labor/work camp when the war broke out. I was in my late teens and thin and pretty; I always looked taller than I was so they thought I was older and would be a good worker. I worked in the kitchen, mainly peeling potatoes for the “potato soup” to be fed to the worker Jews in the camp — peels and water for the Jews, real hearty potato soup for the Germans. There was an adjacent men’s work camp and I could see young teenage boys, 11-12 years old, skin and bones, through the barbed wire fence. They were working hard too and quite hungry. One evening I was leaving the kitchen and stole a pail of potatoes, intended mainly for the teenage boys to keep them alive. On the way back to the barracks with the pail of potatoes, I was seen and stopped by a German guard. He asked me what I had in my hand and I answered in German that it was some potatoes and I was hungry. He said that I was carrying way too many potatoes just for myself and asked what was I going to do with them. I answered him in the best High German that I knew and said, ” They are just for me. Did you think I would be so stupid to just take a few every day and risk getting caught each time? ” He answered, “Verschwind!” in German meaning disappear, and said that I should get out of his sight quickly and never do that again.
My wise-ass German answer helped save my life.
One story that my mother had never heard, but that Bubbie shared with my younger sister was that in addition to working in the kitchen, she also worked in the laundry. This afforded her the opportunity to actually cook the potatoes in hot water under cover.
When my sister was in Israel a few years ago, she took some photographs in Yad VaShem‘s Valley of Destroyed Communities of the cities where my grandparents grew up: Poppie was born in Chrzanów and grew up in Krakow; my Bubbie learned the German that saved her life in Katowice.
I am proud to say that though my grandparents are no longer alive, they worked hard all of their lives, passing on the legacy of higher education to their children and grandchildren, and even managed to save a few dollars to help provide for future generations. They had “made it” in America. And they did make some investments in jewelry and left this necklace to me which I cherish and wear regularly.
In preparation for the seder, I thought about the potato peels that my grandparents often sustained themselves on. To help reenact part of the resistance experience, I made potato peel crisps. Don’t be mistaken – this is NOT a dish to remember my grandmother by — I think of her when I eat grapefruit or Chinese food (we used to take her out to Kosher Chinese in Miami and she would always order a hamburger, insisting that she didn’t like Chinese food, and then proceed to pick from all of our plates, exclaiming how much better our dishes were…).
Potato Peel Crisps
I chose russet potatoes for this “recipe.”
Preheat oven to 500°F.
Wash potatoes well to remove any dirt. Peel potatoes and soak in water. Spread in single layer on baking sheet and spray with oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes until crisp.
[Thank you to Elisha for sharing this special ritual with me and other members of our community, and encouraging my family to document our stories.]