In the basement of her Oceanside, L.I., home, next to a window and a hand-lettered “Patience” poster, Irene Hizme sits at a drawing board, creating works of intricate calligraphy and flower-filled branches.
A Czechoslovakia-born Holocaust survivor in her “early 70s” and retired biochemist/computer programmer, she spends much of her free time these days making thank-you notes and birthday cards. She does many of her works as a volunteer for The Blue Card, an organization that offers financial assistance to aging Holocaust survivors.
Such precision drawing and lettering is “very hard to do,” she says.
It’s harder when you have multiple sclerosis.
Hizme was diagnosed about two decades ago with the disease that damages the fatty myelin sheaths around the axons of the brain and spinal cord, limiting the ability of nerve cells to communicate with each other. Like other people with MS, she has limited use of her hands and feet.
She gets around in a wheelchair.
And she uses her mouth to do her artwork, clenching pen or brush between her teeth, guiding it stiffly with her hands. It’s painfully slow; she does a little each day, until her hands give out.
None of this is evident in the finished product — the lines of letters are ruler-straight, the drawings are greeting card quality.
“Just to live is holy,” a quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one card reads. “G-d brought us out of slavery into freedom, out of sorrow into happiness, out of mourning into joy, out of darkness into light,” a Passover greeting states.
“Beautiful words written beautifully,” says Elie Rubenstein, executive director of The Blue Card.
Established in Germany in the early 1930s and then re-established in New York City in 1939, The Blue Card receives funding from the Claims Conference and from private donors. It provides a variety of services, including an emergency cash assistance program for survivors, many of them near or at the federal poverty level.
About two-thirds of the organization’s 1,700 recipients live in the New York area.
Grateful for the assistance that the organization has provided to victims of the Third Reich and to Holocaust refugees and survivors, Hizme produces the cards and notes and plaque certificates for The Blue Card “anytime we need,” Rubinstein says.
Four of her works of calligraphy will be part of a silent auction at a young leadership event sponsored by the organization Monday, June 21 at the Fifth Avenue Rooftop in Manhattan.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for Blue Card,” Hizme says.
She and her husband Sam, a jeweler, live in a home filled with Jewish artwork.
Neither her attitude nor her home speaks of suffering.
She smiles easily.
Born Renate Guttman in Teplice-Sanov, a city in northern Bohemia, she and her twin brother Rene were sent, at 4, with their mother, to Terezin. Her father, taken away separately, died in Auschwitz.
After a year, the three Guttmans were shipped to Auschwitz, living for several months in a barracks set aside for Czech families. Then they were split up, the children becoming part of the infamous medical experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele, the sadistic “Angel of Death.”
“I remember the first time I saw Mengele,” she says. “He was wearing green, dark green. And I remember his boots. That was probably the level my eyes were. Black, shiny boots.
“They did lots of things” — physical exams, measurements, X-rays, injections, blood tests,” Hizme says. “He was asking for twins, twins …”
She was often sick, in pain in Auschwitz. “I think I was pretty close to dying.”
She was separated from her brother, who stayed in a boys’ section. She saw him once, across a barbed-wire fence. She never saw her mother again.
After liberation, on Jan. 27, 1945, she spent a year under the protection of a kind-hearted Polish woman in the town of Auschwitz — “I became a very good little Christian girl,” renamed Irenka — until the U.S.-based Vaad Hatzalah (“rescue committee”) discovered her and brought her back into the Jewish fold. She spent time at orphanages, with other child survivors of the Shoah, in Prague and Paris, anxious about her brother’s fate.
Few children, she discovered at the French orphanage, had survived the death camps; most of the other children with her had been in hiding or posing as non-Jews.
“I was the only child there with a number, so I felt that there was something wrong with me,” she says in a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum oral history. “I felt that I had done something horrible, that I had gotten the number and nobody else did.”
By 1947-48 many of the children in the orphanage were reunited with their families; others were taken to Palestine.
Hizme probably would have gone to Palestine too, but representatives of Rescue Children Inc., an independent American organization that aided the young survivors, decided to bring her to the States for two weeks to take part in a fundraising campaign.
She doesn’t know why, she says, she was chosen. Maybe the poignancy of her story, maybe the number (70917) on her arm.
After two weeks of accompanying the Rescue Children leaders to fundraising dinners in New York and Washington, they told her “You’re not going back.” She’d have a better life, they told her, if a Jewish family in this country adopted her.
Meyer and Dinah Slotkin, Orthodox parents in Lawrence, L.I., took Hizme, who by then was known as Irene, into their home, raising her as their own daughter, sending her to Jewish day school, putting “some normalcy into [her] life.”
Where was Rene?
The Slotkins — “my parents” — hired a private investigator, who found her brother in Czechoslovakia in 1950. The Slotkins adopted Rene too.
He now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The siblings’ story is the subject of “Rene and I,” a 2005 documentary directed by Gina Angelone.
In school, Irene became Rifka and rarely talked about what had happened to her and her family in Europe. When she did, no one believed her.
“No children survived Auschwitz,” one teacher told her.
Eventually, she went to Hunter College, majoring in chemistry. She married, raising two daughters. “I became the all-American girl,” she says.
The Holocaust became part of her past — “nobody would talk about it” — until the mid-1980s, when American society became more interested in survivors’ stories, and Hizme attended a reunion of Mengele’s twins in Jerusalem.
About that time, she took up calligraphy seriously. Interested in lettering since her childhood, she enrolled in calligraphy lessons. “It was a way for me to express myself,” she says.
She added some drawings, “mostly flowers,” everything in shades of blue.
Then The Blue Card found out about her talent, and recruited her.
A calligrapher with her disease is unique, Hizme says.
“I’m motivated to keep active,” Hizme says. “I have a passion for life.”
She looks at a family photograph on her wall and smiles. “I’ve had a good life.”
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