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A Queens Rabbi Unlocked My Grandmother’s Story of Surviving Auschwitz
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Opinion

A Queens Rabbi Unlocked My Grandmother’s Story of Surviving Auschwitz

Rabbi Bernard Rosensweig, who died March 25, shared her heavy load.

The author's mother, Dagmar Fodiman, her uncle Arthur Perl and her grandmother Serena Perl in Lake George, N.Y., 1964. (Courtesy the author)
The author's mother, Dagmar Fodiman, her uncle Arthur Perl and her grandmother Serena Perl in Lake George, N.Y., 1964. (Courtesy the author)

“Never Forget.” While intended as an admonition to remember the evil of the Holocaust and the precious lives that were lost, for me the directive to “Never Forget” includes another layer: It extends beyond the years of 1939-1945, to the struggle experienced by survivors and their families in every waking moment thereafter.

I spent my childhood surrounded by survivors and their families. Summertime would bring shorter sleeves, revealing the numbered tattoos on the forearms of many of these holy souls. I remember stories of those for whom their post-war years triggered deep struggles with mental health; the vivid tale of one family friend whose husband found his wife flushing all of her jewelry down the toilet, having awoken in terror, convinced that the Gestapo was invading the house 40 years after the war ended. I knew that the impact of the Holocaust was not only in the lives that were lost, but carried by all those who continued to live.

My memories of my grandmother, Serena Perl, include images of her, with her green thumb, tending to the beautiful flowers and vegetable patches surrounding her home; rolling and filling kokosh cakes so that each time we walked in the door there was something fresh to eat and another to take home; and the rhythmic sound of the needle pacing back and forth, while her foot pressed on the pedal of her sewing machine. I recall her clanking searches through her many metal cookie tins to locate the perfect button and her draping me with beautiful fabrics, carefully threading push pins through the seams so as to properly fit me.

The stories that my grandmother and her sister Anna shared with us, their family, were primarily the daring life-saving gestures that the other selflessly made to survive the horrors of Auschwitz. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away too young for me to initiate the conversations that I’ve always wished we had – though I am to this day unsure if she would have actually welcomed them.

My grandparents had the good fortune to build their married lives on Abington Road in Kew Gardens, Queens, just down the block from Congregation Adath Yeshurun. I remember much about the community and the warm-hearted Rabbi Bernard Rosensweig who led it with his broad smile and good humor. Still fresh in my mind is my developing appreciation for him as a little girl going up to greet him in the sanctuary and, as I grew older, sitting in the pews listening to him deliver captivating sermons.

Rabbi Dr. Bernard Rosensweig, a former professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, served as rabbi of Congregation Adath Yeshurun in Kew Gardens. (Courtesy the author)

As a community leader he supported the building of a large Persian synagogue just across the street from his own, welcoming and celebrating each wave of Jewish immigration and growth. As professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva College, he integrated that world of Torah and scholarship. As a pastoral leader, Rabbi Rosensweig was ever present for our family, sharing his wisdom and warmth in our family’s joys and standing at our side as my grandparents left this world.

Several years ago, Rabbi Rosensweig’s beloved wife Miriam passed away. While I sat with him during shiva in his home in Queens, he shared a memory that I have held dear ever since. ”You know, Ilana,” he told me, “your grandmother would come to meet with me in my office quite regularly to discuss what she had experienced and talk about God. She had a lot of questions.”

This discovery left me stunned. The burden of pain that my grandmother carried after losing her family and surviving the hell of Auschwitz, all while she continued to struggle with the day-to-day realities of the here-and-now, had always seemed overwhelming to me.

I am sure that she shared how it all began. When officers knocked on the door of my grandmother’s home in the village of Stropkov, Czechoslovakia intending to summon her to what they said was ”a work project” at a shoe factory, their mission was foiled. Her family had sent her elsewhere in an effort to avoid precisely such a fate. Unfazed, the officers seized her younger sister, not yet 16, promising to exchange the sisters when the older one was produced. The terrified parents located my grandmother, who agreed to accompany them to the Catholic Center where the girls were being held in hope to free her sister. When they arrived, the officers had changed their mind and declared that now both daughters would be taken.

When her parents came back home without either daughter and suspicion surrounding the story of the shoe factory intensified, one of her brothers raced to the next town where they were boarding the train, but the guards refused to release his sisters. On March 26, 1942 my grandmother and her sister were on the first transport of young women from Czechoslovakia to walk beneath the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” into Auschwitz.

Three years and two months after their imprisonment, the sisters were liberated. Hitchhiking on the back of a truck driven by a Russian soldier and hiking along bombed-out roads, they arrived back to their home in Stropkov only to find that while the structures of their town remained, the Jews and the familiar sounds of Jewish life were no longer. Worst of all, their parents and three of their siblings had been murdered in Majdanek.

With a strength that I still struggle to comprehend, the two sisters and their few surviving friends built a network of mutual support and began to re-enter the world of the living. They found jobs, fell in love, married, had children, emigrated to America and built extraordinary lives.

I have often dreamed of being a fly on the wall in the rabbi’s office. I wished I could have heard my grandmother’s voice and listened in on their conversations.

Rabbi Rosensweig was born and educated in North America, a world away from my grandmother’s. And yet, as a leader of profound integrity, wisdom and warmth, he helped her remember and share her load — an act of pure chesed.

Since this revelation, I have often dreamed of being a fly on the wall in the rabbi’s office. I wished I could have heard my grandmother’s voice and listened in on their conversations. My grandmother often expressed the frustration that her education had been cut short before the war. I wonder what memories she shared that I will never know and what questions of theology she formulated. Knowing that Rabbi Rosensweig honored her journey, helping her create a space to engage in conversations that must have been far from easy, is a tremendous source of relief and comfort.

True memory isn’t merely recalling facts. Remembering means grappling. Remembering means opening our hearts to the experiences of life and finding a way forward with them. For many of us, memory can be too much to carry alone; but together we can share, listen, support and grow.

Rabbi Bernard Rosensweig a”h passed away on March 25, at age 94. As I honor the memory of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and the life affirming quest of those who survived, I join my family in deep appreciation for a man who we will never forget. May his memory be a blessing.

Ilana Fodiman-Silverman is Rabbanit and Director of Moed, an organization based in Zichron Yaakov, Israel that draws together secular and religious Israelis in the region for shared Torah study and social action. She grew up in Woodmere, N.Y., and made aliyah with her family in 2006.

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