There are times when I do something that I automatically think of other people. The best example I can give is one that breaks my heart a little, at the same time that it makes me smile. My mother-in-law was a very special person in so many ways. She was also a Holocaust survivor in the most horrible sense. Beyond what so many suffered – losing both her parents and all her grandparents, a sister, two brothers, more uncles and aunts and cousins than I can count, she was also an inmate at Auschwitz, known by many as the most notorious of the death camps. She, like many, lost her home, so much of her family…and yet, as if that wasn’t enough, something happened to her that while not unique, is certainly very rare. Like tens of thousands, she was taken to Auschwitz towards the end of the war, as part of the huge plan to exterminate the Jews of Hungary.
By that time, Hitler was not interested in Jewish labor. For the most part, he just wanted to kill as many as he could. My mother-in-law and the rest of the women of her family were sent directly to the gas chambers. My mother-in-law was probably in her late teens at the time. They entered the gas chamber and the door was closed. I stood in one of the gas chambers with my older daughter and thought of the chilling moment when my mother-in-law stood in the same one…or perhaps another of those barbaric remnants of man’s inhumanity. But even if she had still lived, I would never have had the courage to ask her if this was the one she was in – the first one we were in…or the second one in which the Germans had learned that to lower the ceiling improved efficiency because the gas would rise and then only slowly lower down and kill the people.
When we were there, the door remained opened and the room, even in summer, was chilled. When my mother-in-law stood there, the door closed and had it stayed closed, my husband never would have been born, nor any of my children. By a great miracle – for what other explanation can I find – the Nazis decided they were missing a few women for a work detail and opened the door and pulled my mother-in-law and her sister back out from death.
When she was liberated, she returned to her home village, there to meet the remnants of her family – including a cousin – who fell in love with her. They eventually married and brought four children into this world, and lived long enough to see, hold, and hug three of my children. Somehow as my in-laws looked forward, they never wanted to look back and so they raised their children without telling them much about many of the horrors of the concentration camps and life in Europe.
When her second son brought home a wife – me – the doors of my mother-in-law’s memory seemed to open, I think, and she began talking to me, telling me of Europe and the life there and of the camps and the death there. I remember so much, and never enough. But one story remains with me and each week, without fail, I remember it…and her.
She used to peel potatoes with a knife and she told me once that she remembers the hunger of the war and that there were people who used potato peelers and people who used knives. From what others threw out, she would, at the worst of times, find scraps of food to eat – and the ones who used knives left more “meat” of the potato in the scraps, while the peelers only took off the skin of the potato. So, if possible, it was better to go to the garbage of those who used knives than those who used peelers. She would remember, and make a point to go there, to the homes of those who used knives.
I remember that story each time I peel potatoes – with a peeler…and I’m so grateful there is no one trying to feed themselves off the scraps I throw away.
I cut peppers – a lot of them – and I cut them by slicing the four sides, pulling the sides away from the center where all the seeds are. I showed a friend one time and since then, she cuts her peppers the same way and says she thinks of me when she does. It’s an interesting feeling, a nice one. And yesterday, I got a comment from Rivka Yael. She wrote:
Made your tuna fritters again for shabbat this week and thought of you. Mazal tov on your daughter’s bat mitzvah and the upcoming wedding!
I am so touched that others have me in their thoughts at a moment in their lives and it reminds me of how I have my mother-in-law in my thoughts as well. I think that’s what life is about – touching others, being touched. I love the idea that in sharing our family recipes, there are others there who take these and make them their own.