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A Mother’s Day Wish: An Interview with My 96-Year-Old Mother

A Mother’s Day Wish: An Interview with My 96-Year-Old Mother

The author and his elderly mother posing together against a white background
Photo: Rose Eichenbaum

There are some questions about growing up as the son of Holocaust survivors I had never asked my parents, so a week before Mother’s Day, I phoned my 96-year-old mother, Adela, and asked her to share some memories and thoughts about motherhood.

Aron: What was it like for you as a mother when Rose [my sister] and I were little?

Adela: Whenever I think back to that time, I feel regret. I never had time to be a mother. I was always running: being a nurse to your father, leaving for work at 6:00 in the morning and coming home at 7:00, cooking and cleaning. I was in some kind of cloud. What I regret most [tearfully] is when you asked me a question, I would say, “Please ask me later,” because I was always in the middle of something.

I am proud of what you and Rose have achieved in life and how close the two of you are, but I can take no credit, because you did it on your own.

What is the most important thing a parent can give a child?

Sincere love. Nothing can replace that.

Looking back, did you realize that I was like a parent to my little sister?

Of course. You dressed her to go out and play and took her to school. Listen to what you did: One time on the school playground, you accidentally knocked out two of her front teeth with a baseball bat. When I asked, “What happened?” she said some guy did it. Only years later did you tell us the truth. Even as a young child, Rose appreciated how good you were to her and showed it with loyalty. This is a good quality of hers.

You like to tell the story of the time we were in store and you offered to buy me a toy. What did I say?

You said, “I don’t need toys, buy yourself something.” So I looked at you, 5 years old, and I thought, “Oh my God, how well I raised you.” But I don’t really deserve the credit. Something higher was at work. I think it was the charitable heart of my father, who was orphaned at age 5.

What is the most important lesson you learned from your father?

I learned that love comes to you when you give it to others. He said the most important thing in life is to have a good name, because that is all that remains after you are gone. Nothing makes me feel better than giving tzedakah (donating to charities).

What did you learn from your mother?

When the Nazis came into our town and the synagogue was burning, my mother took me aside and said, “I see we are going to be separated soon. Remember one thing: If somebody hits you, don’t hit back because two bad ones don’t make a good one. You will be rewarded, but you have to be patient.” And that’s how I live.

Did you and Pop ever consider not telling Rose and me about the Holocaust?

Never. When other survivors said to me, “I don’t want to upset my children,” I said, “I am living with the truth.” It would have been a lie if I didn’t tell you and Rose what happened to us in Europe. You would not have known how I suffered through that terrible five-month death march, or gone with me to the Czech Republic in 1995 for the reunion commemorating the 50th anniversary of our liberation.

You and Pop were engaged to be married in Poland just before the war broke out. What was it like when you saw him again for the first time after five years?

Pop was a patient in a tuberculosis sanitarium. He said, “Listen, I came out sick. You came out OK. Forget that we were engaged before the war.” I answered, “Vos vet zeyn mit dir, vet zein mit mir.” – “What will be with you will be with me.” I have never regretted that decision.

So you’re saying the three most important things a mother can give a child are sincere love, truthfulness, and faithfulness?

That’s right. Toys and clothes are thrown away; love stays.

Be truthful with your children; don’t overprotect them with lies and secrets.

Like love, knowing that somebody will always be there for you, no matter how difficult the situation, is precious.

These are the values that shaped who I am, and how I try to live my life.

My wish for you this Mother’s Day is that you’ll give yourself a little credit for being a good mother to Rose and me. How about it?

It’s hard to change at my age.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Published: 5/10/2018

Categories: Jewish Life, Family, Parenting
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