A Mother’s Day Interview with My 99-Year-Old Mother, a Holocaust Survivor

May 6, 2020Aron Hirt-Manheimer

This is the third year in row that I’ve interviewed my mother, Adela, a Holocaust survivor, for Mother’s Day. In our 2018 and 2019 interviews, she revealed memories that she’d previously kept to herself, like the last time she saw her own mother. Knowing little about my martyred maternal grandmother, I decided there was no better time to ask.

ReformJudaism.org: What memories do you have of your mother, Leah?

I remember my mother always being busy with housework, especially around Shabbat, when my father brought home strangers he had met at the shul to enjoy a hot meal and a comfortable bed. These guests often showed no appreciation. One of them tried to steal our silverware in the middle of the night; another smoked in bed and almost burned down our house!

What mattered most in my father’s life was tzedakah, acts of charity, and I think it is because he was orphaned at age 5. He was truly a pious and righteous man, but he took for granted how much work this demanded of my mother or how much stress it caused her.

But she was a very humble woman and never complained. When I wanted to help her in the kitchen, she would say, “You have time to learn how to cook. Go read a book instead.” To this day, I don’t know how to bake a cake.

Did you know Pop’s mother, Rose?

She was a very beautiful woman with blue eyes and black hair. Polish soldiers stationed in her neighborhood would always try to flirt with her. I don’t have a photo of her to show you.

The last time I saw her was at our engagement party in my town of Dombrowa, Poland. The following week we were supposed to have another in your father’s town, Bendzin, but on that very day, I was rounded up by the Nazis.

As I was being taken away, I saw my mother running after me with a piece of cheesecake in her hands. The Nazis responded by beating her so badly she fell to the ground.

When was the last time you saw your mother?

She came to the building where I was being kept. From an upstairs sealed window, I could see my mother standing below and crying. We could only look at each other.

About a year later, I leaned that my parents were sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed. My father was 55; my mother was 50.

Did you keep a picture of your mother?

When we arrived at the concentration camp in Grunberg, Germany, the guards ordered us to take off our clothes for a shower. I was afraid that they would kill me if they found the little picture of my mother I was hiding in my mouth, so I swallowed it.

You grew up in a very Orthodox Jewish home. Did you pray while in the concentration camp?

It was strictly forbidden to practice our religion in the camp, but I remember one Yom Kippur when a girl named Malka Pepper, who knew of my background, handed me a Jewish prayer book and said, “If you can pray a little, it will help us.”

When I finished praying, I felt more hopeful that I would survive.  

Did you think God heard your prayers?

I don’t know, but I believe something was leading my life. How else can you explain what happened every Sunday during the four years I was in Grunberg? The Nazis would line us up outside and count us off in tens. If you came up number 10, you were sent to die in Auschwitz – but I was always number nine or number 11.

During the death march, the sheeser (shooter), who had already killed 17 girls, caught me in a doghouse looking for a scrap of food. Instead of executing me on the spot, he told me to get back in line and later even brought me the little pillow I had left behind.

That such a brutal murderer would act so out of character in that moment tells me that it was meant to be. It was a miracle.

When you were too weak to go another step on the death march, you and others were put on a truck to be taken somewhere to be shot. Suddenly, a U.S. plane flew over and strafed the truck, and you escaped. Was that a miracle, too? 

Yes. When that plane bombed us and only the German woman guard sitting in the back of the truck was hit, that was a miracle, and I thank God for each day of my life. 

What is the little Yiddish prayer you say every night before going to bed?

A gitte nacht mine kindeh, mine einiklach, mine ei-einiklach, und alle gitte menschen oft de veld, “A good night to my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and all the good people in the world.”

Who are the "good people" you are praying for?

They are the people with good character. They are not selfish, not arrogant, and not aggressive. It doesn’t matter where they are born or the color of their skin.

Let me give you an example. When I am pushing my walker down the street, some people walk right past me, like I’m an old piece of junk. The good people stop and ask, “Hi, how are you? Do you need some help?”

I say, “No thank you, but I want to give you a compliment: Your parents brought you up right.”

What is your Mother’s Day hope for yourself and for the world?

First, I want to say that no matter how bad things get, never lose hope. If I didn’t live with hope, I would not be here. Tell the children to be patient, and everything will be good.

My hope is that airplanes will fly again soon and bring my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to Los Angeles to celebrate my 100th birthday this summer.

My hope for the world is that people will put aside all their differences and live in peace and love. 

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