Our grandmother, Regina Littman Sperling, passed away on October 14th at age 88. Because the number of Holocaust survivors is sadly and rapidly dwindling, we wanted to share some memories about what a unique and blessed life she lived and what her loss means to us.
We called her Ginga, because when Jen was a baby I couldn’t say Regina, so I started to call her that, and it has been her name ever since.
Born Rebecca, Rivkah Leah, in 1924 in Bolechov, Poland, she was a teenager when the Holocaust began.
Rather than repeat today these painful memories that we must never forget, I’d rather tell you how Ginga, a survivor, found the light, found love and found family.
Her first saving grace was her beauty and wit.
Our grandmother had blond hair and blue eyes and easily passed as a Polish Christian. Not only did she wear a cross, but she, an Orthodox Jew, learned how to cross herself properly while using her charm to outsmart the Nazis.
Unfortunately, as an only child, her parents were taken away by the Germans. She fled and never saw them again. Toward the end of the war, she ventured to Hungary as a member of the partisans where she met Margaret Littman, the woman who would become our great-grandmother, known as Gammy.
As a loving person, Gammy only wanted to adopt her as her own daughter, but instead Ginga found love and married her son, my grandfather Mickey. As an orphan of the Holocaust, Ginga’s second saving grace was finding the first love of her life, Mickey and love from his parents as if she was their own.
She found her beshert and found the light, following the war, a love story just like a movie storyline. They all emigrated to the United States together in 1947. They later had two beautiful daughters, our mother Lillian and aunt, Judi. Unfortunately, Mickey passed away at the age of 57 and Regina, now her American name, was a widow.
Ginga always spoke to us about finding our beshert and would approach every other grandma at the Fountains County Club in Lake Worth, Florida asking if they had single grandsons for her granddaughters.
At one point we thought she was might start to wear a t-shirt with our picture on it and our resumes because she always kvelled about us.
In 1981 Ginga married Leon, another Polish Holocaust survivor. They were set up on a blind date and it was love at first sight for both of them, again.
While a second marriage for both Regina and Leon, the love they shared was special. They both always said their love was equal to their first marriage. Leon was at my grandmother’s side until her very last breath.
While we may not have our Grandma at our side when we one day stand under the chuppah, we will know that not only will she be watching over us, we will live by her teachings of life lessons on marriage – finding love, light and family.
My grandmother was a real character. She knew how to make everyone laugh, whether it was with one of her Gingaisms, or when she told a dirty joke and began laughing so hard she couldn’t even finish, Ginga always brought a smile to everyone around her.
In August of 2001, President Bill Clinton was speaking at the Grand Hyatt in New York and Jen made it my business to meet him. When she arrived she was surrounded by Secret Service members and mobs of men. She was the only lady in the crowd, but managed to say “Thank you for all you have done for the Jewish people, it means so much to have an ally.”
He tapped her shoulder and thanked her for thanking him, telling me stories about Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Nethanyu. She was in awe. When she called Ginga to tell her the story, she asked if I was wearing my name tag. When she said yes, her response was, “When he calls you, hang up the phone!”
We spent many Saturdays with Ginga’s at Daffy’s, which she said was like attending a Broadway matinee. We knew that fashion and shopping were so important to her we always made it our business to show her all the clothes we would buy and have what we called a “Ginga fashion show.”
While she didn’t smile much during the past few years as her dementia progressed, these moments of joy will forever bring us happiness.
Her experience as a Holocaust survivor taught my family the art of her version of chutzpah. One example was the time she took my mom and my aunt to see the Beatles play for Ed Sullivan. There were mobs of people waiting outside the hotel in Florida and my grandmother with her charm and “chutzpah”, took her daughters by their hands, cut the lines of ticket holders, ignored the security and police and walked Lillian and Judi right into the hotel. Well these Beatles fans ended up sitting in the sixth row.
She taught us to always hold our head up high and if you look and feel confident no one will ever question you. This lesson of confidence has and will continue to guide my mom, my sister and I everyday.
Ginga also taught us to be proud of our heritage. Although she was terrified for us to ever wear a Jewish star for fear of persecution, she always reminded us to have Judaism deep in our hearts. Over the years, she inspired us to be proud Jewish women and promote the Jewish cause. Most recently we were founding members of the SoHo Synagogue in Manhattan as we wanted Ginga to know that we are proud of who we are.
Ginga taught us how to pray and established traditions for celebrating the Jewish holidays. We had the great fortune of spending every Jewish holiday dinner together as well as attending Shul together. Thanks to our mom, we were spoiled grandchildren. Ginga would always tell us” when the ark is open, tell Hashem what you want. He will listen, and when the Torah comes around kiss it with your Siddur, and be sure to listen to the sounds of the Shofar.
On Rosh HaShanah of 2011, we insisted on taking Ginga to temple thinking this would be her last new year. We arrived at Chabad of Mineola with Rabbi Anchelle Perl leading the service and were greeted by his wife, daughter and other patrons, who remarked at the elegance and beauty of my Grandma. However, it wasn’t only the beauty that was remarkable but the love and compassion they saw we expressed for one another.
This Rosh Hashanah, however, was different as Ginga was not able to leave her home, was even to weak to climb a flight of stairs. Instead, this year we brought the sounds of the shofar home to her. Jen brought her BlackBerry in and secretly recorded the sounds of the Shofar and other prayers that were recognizable. She asked Rabbi Sholom Shapiro, “please don’t tell Rabbi Perl what I did by breaking the Jewish rule, I was hoping Hashem will let this one slide.”
When we arrived at Ginga’s house and played back the shofar her eyes lit up and it was remarkable to see her show such expression and signs of appreciation at this stage.
On the Friday night we thought could be her last Shabbos, we wanted to bring her the compassion and warmth she has exuded all her life. Just before sunset we put the Shabbos candles over her heart and said the blessings. This moment is something that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. We placed a chamsa around her neck as we wanted Hashem to be with her until the end. Since she was on oxygen we couldn’t light the candles in the room but we lit them later at home and said the blessing for her again to “share the light” with Ginga, as we only wished for her to have a peaceful day of rest in her final hours.
The next day, we were able to spend six hours with her before she departed us, in which something truly magical happened. As Michele laid in bed with Ginga and Mom, while Jen held her hand, Mom asked Ginga for a kiss and out of nowhere she puckered her lips, lifted her neck and kissed my mom goodbye twice on her lips. It was miraculous, cosmic, and truly unexplainable. That kiss was such beautiful closure for Mom.
It was passionate, loving and more than that it was my grandma thanking my mom for everything she had done. Every day while she was bedridden, our mom was over to bring love and homemade food.
Ginga found ways to touch not only our hearts but the hearts of others. While she found the light and lived a lifetime filled with family, love and compassion, she emanated that warmth to others, inspiring hope.
The night before her funeral, we learned how she changed the life of a dear friend, who was a child of a Holocaust survivor. In Israel in 1964, she inspired our friend to believe that anything was possible while living in a world riddled with depression and pain from Nazi nightmares. Through encouragement and her innate warmth, Ginga was a guiding light to show how he may still live a prosperous and happy life.
She changed his life forever and he credits her for this unique power and ability. We know that our mom has tremendous shoes to fill when she takes on the role as grandma to her future grandchildren but she has the inspiration and guidance of her beloveds, her grandma, Gammy and her Mother Regina.
Ginga, you have taught us how to find the light, find love and find family. From the outside, you emanated beauty and elegance, from within you were a power of hope, strength, enlightenment, inspiration – to us you were our Ginga and Michele was your mamala, the little one.
We hope that now you may be at peace and remember that you will be dearly missed but surely will not be forgotten. You will forever hold a special place in our heart.
This article was adapted from a eulogy delivered by the authors at Regina Littman Sperling’s funeral on Oct. 15, at Riverside-Nassau North Chapel in Great Neck.