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My cherished friend Mrs. Weissbrot

Two years ago as Holocaust Memorial Day approached, Mrs. Riva (Regina)  Weissbrot and I agreed that I would highlight a bit of her story. Then she fell ill. Once she was feeling better she indicated with a wave of the hand that the column should wait “until 120,” after she died. Hence the Holocaust overlay to my tribute to Mrs. Weissbrot, who died this week. 

Mrs. Weissbrot’s regal and resilient nature, her brilliant mind and ability to recall Polish poems from grade school by heart, her gracious kindness when it came to the quotidian, such as flower bouquet drop-offs and home-baked treats coupled with her beautifully written cards, her immigrant tale of starting out with nothing and building herself up into a legendary American success story; her feisty nature and standing her ground when The Joint sent her and Mr. Weissbrot to Colorado Springs, then a town with little Jewishness, only to defy instructions, initiate a meeting with the late Rabbi B. C. Shloime Twerski and, for the sake of Yiddishkeit, get themselves rerouted to Denver — all this and so much more are not in this piece. Neither is the depth of my personal loss over someone I feel so privileged to have been so close to.

 Yet, the angle of Mrs. Weissbrot as survivor is real and a primary part of her, even if it was so often concealed. What follows, long as it is, is the tip of the iceberg, shared in the hope of illuminating this very beloved and cherished friend. 

Holocaust Day in 2017 was the first one without Elie Wiesel. In the once blazing yet now reddening dimdumei chamasetting sun — of this holy generation,  Elie Wiesel was the witness of the Holocaust to the world. Mrs. Weissbrot was mine.

Through the years of our friendship, I have splintered and spliced images of Mrs. Weissbrot’s moments from the war. Without any particular sequence, from time to time it was like Mrs. Weissbrot parted an invisible curtain and let me peek in on dim, hermetically sealed, globelike scenes or images of her long gone past. It was so far away yet it was right there whenever she parted that curtain.

Like looking at panels of bleak sepia images, I can see splinters and splices: Mrs. Weissbrot, while only 12, astutely noticing that a particular female Nazi, who was always acting mean and generating blood-curdling screams to please her cruel superior, never actually laid a hand on a Jew . . . An SS officer took a liking to then little 12-year old Mrs. Weissbrot and assigned her to clean her apartment where a bowl of milk, ostensibly set out for her cat, would faithfully be waiting for her . . . upon deportation from the ghetto, that same SS officer, searching out Mrs. Weissbrot at the cattle car trains on the cusp of that terrifying journey, hurried toward her with a blanket and a piece of bread . . . Mrs. Weissbrot and her fellow inmates searching in the woods for non-poisonous mushrooms to subsist on; or cupping snow in their hands to eat in order to stay alive . . . daily, passing by rising stacks upon stacks of the dead . . . at dawn, one morning, after presciently dreaming that her sister Manya had just arrived on a transport to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Mrs. Weissbrot was, and indeed the eerie dream proved to be true . . . Mrs. Weissbrot wrapped in an army blanket wandering and calling out to her sister: “Manyaaa!” “Manyaaa!”in hopes that her sister would hear her and know she was already there; with the kiss of kismet, indeed, they found each other. . . standing for the infamous daily concentration camp roll call in the bitter brutal cold, once seeing someone ahead of her wearing the sweater she had arrived in . . . heartbroken, when word spread that Manya was assigned to leave Ravensbrück; Mrs. Weissbrot could not bear the thought of leaving her broken-spirited sister Manya on her own — Manya, who had endured an unspeakable kind of torture, so Mrs. Weissbrot risked her life, leveraging her small body and smuggling herself through and among the inmates, then walking toward the very train Manya was slotted for, so the sisters could remain together . . . her sister Manya, the one who, when the Gestapo one day arrived at their home in Sosnowiec, and ripped their mother from them, desperate, ran after the Nazis sobbing, screaming, begging, “take me, take me instead!”

When Mrs. Weissbrot unlocked these sealed windows of memory, she would intermittently pause and then say, “I can see Ravensbrück right by my eyes like I’m there . . . I can see Gleiwitz (a subcamp of Auschwitz) right by my eyes like I’m there.” At the seder too, as readings and discussions of the Haggadah were underway, as talk of traveling from slavery to freedom was shared, for her it was not an academic discussion . . . she was remembering “in silence” . . . “it comes back to the mind, in silence   . . . everything comes back . . . instead of Pharaoh there are thoughts of Hitler and you see everything . . . but not to bother anyone, you just keep it for yourself . . . and you go on and you go day by day.”

When I came over for a visit, with Mrs. Weissbrot’s elegant silhouette framed at her door, you’d never guess that she was a survivor; not a hint of all that she has been through. Blessed with the honor of advanced years, she always went about her life productively and joyously, fully present in the moment; not one to harp on the past. As she once put it to me, referring to her home, when I was once frustrated at being unable to reach her, “Tehilla, this is a busy place!” Not the typical quip you expected from someone her age. But it was true. Aside from the social dimension of her life — long friendships with her contemporaries that she so faithfully maintained, aside from the people who were one and even two generations younger than she who flocked to her door, she was constantly busy managing her own affairs; to be sure, an independent force to be reckoned with.

She was a friend like no other. A confidante like no other. A maternal authority like no other. In short, Mrs. Weissbrot — the rock of Gibraltar. Following her wisdom dispensed, support imparted, and a warm, home-baked, cinnamon, sugar-sprinkled mandelbrot shared, Mrs. Weissbrot would put the refrain of her life in two words: “G-tt tzu dank, thank G-d.”

She could often be heard saying: “G-tt tzu dank, a day still alive is a day to be thankful for.” When Mrs. Weissbrot said it, it didn’t have the ring of a hollow platitude; it rang with the essence of truth that those simple yet profound words hold. There was always some such variation on her lips: “We take the way it comes, and fight for a better tomorrow”; “there’s a better tomorrow, always a better tomorrow.” For so many years, in her crucial, formative ones, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion each night that she would meet the next morning. Life was lived in short increments. It literally hung in the balance. As nightfall came, each morning was a gamble. Tenuousness was tangible, death stalked at every corner. Would morning come? So it became a day by day, even a minute-to-minute, existence, a life strung together by moments of “G-tt tzu dank.”

We didn’t usually talk about the war. We talked for hours, but about life, about current life. So many years, countless hours upon hours, we sat around her kitchen table, or cozy on her sofa, as our seemingly never-ending conversations reached long into the night. Whatever topic came up, be it of a psychological-emotional nature, a Torah text, politics or just good old shmoozing, often Mrs. Weissbrot crystallized and compressed her insightful comments into a word or two, or a pithy Yiddish phrase that spot on summed up the essence of the conversation sharply. Over the years, I’ve picked up many wonderful Yiddish expressions this way, expressions I cherish. Not only for their quick wit, but because I learned them over time, in an organic fashion, as they naturally arose in conversation with Mrs. Weissbrot. This kind of endearing heimishe knowledge, contextualized by conversations with someone you love, is not stale information available online that can be googled. It is a precious and intimate language of bygone pre-WW II life. Indeed, it is precious to me.

Of course, a lot of it was Mrs. Weissbrot’s unique way of putting things. When coming across news of a tragic loss of a baby succumbing to a terrible illness, Mrs. Weissbrot simply sighed: “Wherever her parents turn, the baby won’t be there.” Or simple truths about balancing responsibilities: “In life, there are times you live for others and there are other times you live for yourself.” At times, she invoked a biblical theme. “People have sunshine and darkness in life. You could have seven years of growth and seven years it’s dying, everything is dying . . . ” She would often say, “Good deeds leave with us, this is what we have. This, and our wisdom.” Then, after an awkward situation I once found myself in: “Even if it’s your biggest enemy, as long as they are physically present in your home, they are counted a guest, you treat them as your guest. So what you do? You lead them outside, even one step outside your home, and then you give them a piece of your mind.”

Within this seemingly easy conversation and friendship lay a subtle, unsaid subtext. Every once in a while, inevitably our conversation reached a point where something came up, and then a pause, pregnant with the unsaid yet clear implication of the Holocaust, or of the pre-Holocaust; an implied “it’s not for us to discuss” that brought an end to the conversation. Though not articulated, it was understood that the conversation ended there.

As it is with so many survivors, you marvel at how they could have gone through what they did and despite what must be a haunted part of themselves still build such strong, such beautiful lives. So it was with Mrs. Weissbrot.

She remembered the pre-war years well. Born and raised in the bustling Polish city of Sosnowiec, one of the large metropolitan centers of Jewish life in Poland before the war, it forever remained the compass of her life. When she was young, the famed Sara Schenirer, the pioneer in Jewish women’s education, paid a visit to Mrs. Weissbrot’s community. Mrs. Weissbrot was among the crowd of girls who Sarah Schenirer spoke to. This one-time encounter was indelible for Mrs. Weissbrot. When I spoke with Mrs. Weissbrot I was looking into eyes that saw Sarah Schenirer. But more than that. I was looking into the eyes of someone who saw a thriving, long standing Jewish world completely destroyed. And then, somehow, rebuilt again.

During the week Mrs. Weissbrot’s father managed a store, but on Sundays he served as a scholar and a rabbinic judge, a borer, in the court of Reb Shaya Englard of Sosnowiec. Conflicts, divorces warranting bills of divorce and other disputes would be brought forth to be resolved. Her family were Jorkerer chasidim. Around them thrived many different chassidic courts, such as Belz and Radomsk. On Shabbos in Sosnowiec, she says, the whole city smelled of cholent.

At home, on erev Shabbos, cooking and baking was the toil of her dear “mama.” Routinely, this ritual began on Thursday night, when Mrs. Weissbrot would be asleep. Her mother always cooked a little extra and the following morning her mother would ask her little daughter to deliver homemade Shabbos bundles and treats to an elderly aunt and uncle, or to some families who could use it. This Friday errand was so seared in Mrs. Weissbrot’s memory of pre-war life, a memory that linked her to her nurturing and caring mother, that it became a cherished, lifelong mitzvah for Mrs. Weissbrot: leadership and generosity at Tomchei Shabbos.

Although there were tensions leading up to that fateful day the Nazis invaded, and although Mrs Weissbrot was only 12, etched in her mind was the exact date. “It was September 1, 1939.” “Erev Shabbos.” “Right before Yom Tov.” On that day, her life, until then lived in the bosom of family cloaked by the innocence of childhood, was forever changed. Shattered to smithereens.

One day, once their town was already occupied, Mrs. Weissbrot and her sister were sitting in the living room, when Nazis barged in and dragged their mother off. Mrs. Weissbrot never saw her mother again. A few months later, one week before Pesach, she got news that her beloved mother was dead. Mrs. Weissbrot doesn’t know exactly when her mother was killed, but each year she observed her beloved “mama’s” yahrzeit one week before Pesach.

Nearby where Mrs. Weissbrot lived stood beautiful shuls. One was a two- story shul, crowned by windows, “like Chagall.” One week after the Nazis arrived, “the shuls were burning.” “Gone.” “They were gone.”

At some point later that year, when Mrs. Weissbrot was home one day with her two sisters eating stale bread — “by that time only Chavala and Manya were left in the apartment” — they were suddenly engulfed by terrorizing, piercing sounds. Nazis were inching closer and closer. Instantly she and her sisters understood. Driven by the adrenaline of terror and the primal instinct of survival, they literally ran for their lives. This turned out to be the first of what the next six years brought so many times: outrunning death.

Mrs. Weissbrot ran to the dark, sand floor cellar in the basement of the building, buried deep in the ground, with the brutish shouts of “Juden raus — out!” ricocheting above her. Being a diminutive girl, small built, Mrs. Weissbrot cleverly managed to squeeze herself, cradling her body in one of the windowsills, seemingly, a brilliant act of camouflage. But the devils hunted her down and she and her sister, each from separate hiding places, were dragged out to the local Jewish high school, where they were reunited in a sick twisted way.

Every once in a while, when we spoke of those times, Mrs. Weissbrot would break out in song. In those moments her face took on a faraway, exalted look, and she sang a niggun or a passage from a famous prayer. During the Days of Awe, especially, like a proper cantor, she would suddenly belt out a heartfelt and beseechingly piercing Shma kolenu that brought tears to my eyes.

“But I can’t cry, Tehilla.” “Ever since the war, I can’t cry.” “Why? “Why can’t I cry anymore?” Her question filled the air as our eyes locked. Mine, misted by tears. And hers     . . . hers, perhaps like those memories, those tears, too, were locked away. Locked up with G-d, never to be opened; because the risk of unlocking them was simply too great. They would never stop.

One day, Mrs Weissbrot invited me to bake some of her famous challahs with her. You never knew when you’d get lucky enough to receive one of her scrumptious and beautifully woven loaves. She was baking challah in honor of Shabbos ever since she arrived in America. Even in recent years, when it wasn’t so simple for her to continue this labor of love, her devotion to this mitzvah never waned.

By the time I arrived in her kitchen, her long counters were already covered with her first batch of rows of the warm golden loaves. She baked eight pounds at a time. So if she doubled a recipe, which she did, you do the math and imagine the abundance of challah. It was a regular bakery. Before this visit I had never seen Mrs. Weissbrot in anything but her signature formal suits or dresses. This time, her hair was up in curls, her hands deep in flour and challah dough, wearing a shortsleeve T-shirt or housecoat. I don’t remember exactly, but suddenly, when we were side by side, braiding the challahs, I froze. I saw it. And I felt like I laid eyes on something both holy and profane; something I wasn’t supposed to see. There must have been a tangible awkwardness, because Mrs. Weissbrot then casually said, “Gleiwitz was part of Auschwitz.” Taking her words as permission to look, I found my eyes boring into her inked tattoo: 79260.

Throughout the years, there were those rare times when, instead of the veiled references or silence, suddenly Mrs. Weissbrot would share of her painful past. Not quite a torrent, because her stories, her memories, were always cautious, yet there would be a lot in her heartrending memories from “Camp,” as she called it. She invoked that word so undramatically that had I not known it was, in fact, a reference to the Auschwitz or Ravensbrück concentration camp. I almost could have mistaken the word for summer “camp.” Afterward, as I would sit there dumfounded, mute with horror, she would smile at me reassuringly and simply say, “It’s OK.” “Never mind.” And end with a double “G-tt tzu dank, G-tt tzu dank.” Over the years, I have learned that what I know is only the tip of the iceberg of her unspeakable traumas and what can only be described as her valiant inner strength and spirit.

Remarkably, above those shattering stories that stay in the inner chambers of the heart, practically unutterable, thrived a spunky and vivacious person. Her house was a place of gathering; the four walls of her home witnessed thousands of beautiful Shabbos and Yom Tov meals and simchas. Even when it came to impromptu hosting or adventures, there was nothing Mrs. Weissbrot enjoyed more. Just one of many times, years ago, when, after attending a wedding in her neighborhood, due to an oncoming blizzard, the Prenzlaus were stranded. By invitation, they crashed at the Weissbrots. Of course they all had a grand time enjoying a cozy indoor snow holiday together. Last minute sleepover company? Mrs. Weissbrot was unfazed. It was a welcome adventure and opportunity for friendship.

In fact, for years after the “War,” as she called it, Mr. and Mrs. Weissbrot would gather in fellowship with fellow survivors. Week in and week out, every Saturday night, peynar schnitzel (garlic toast) in the oven, they would play cards or board games together. Those were a few hours where they didn’t need to explain themselves as  “greeners” to anyone. Those were the few hours where without one word uttered, everything was understood; no explanation needed.A reprieve from the perfectly and carefully composed masks so brilliantly put in place by survivors “for the sake of the children,” Mrs. Weissbrot explained. In this place of effortless emotional comfort, where native Yiddish was shared, the jokes of common cultural references understood, and of course the pathos of common loss and scars, without one word uttered, reigned.

While recovering in the DP Camps of Germany, in Landsberg and Heidenheim, Mrs. Weissbrot was introduced by her older brother Yankl to his friend from “Camp,” Yosl Weissbrot, aka Mr. Joe Weissbrot, the man who became her lifetime loving husband. He was a Dachau survivor with his own miracle story . . . somehow he even survived the war with a tallis and a pair of tefilin intact. Before a fellow inmate’s death, someone who had managed to smuggle a pair of phylacteries into the camp, he bequeathed this treasure to Mr. Weissbrot. After the war, throughout his long life, a day didn’t go by, even in challenging times of illness, when Mr. Weissbrot didn’t don this tallis and pair of tefilin.

After an aufruf Shabbos replete with the bride’s 250 home-baked eierkichel prepared from mere egg powder distributed as a post-WW II staple, Mr. and Mrs. Weissbrot married in the presence of their remaining family and newly forged friends, fellow survivors. Mrs. Weissbrot was outfitted in a proper wedding gown, sewn especially for her by a friend. The rest, as they say, is history.

One day Mrs Weissbrot said to me, “Tehilla, there is something I would like to ask you to bring me.” Instantly I perk up. “Anything, Mrs. Weissbrot, anything at all. It’s my pleasure.” Mrs. Weissbrot never asked anyone for anything, and I mean anything. She was the perennial giver, be it to her friends or her community. Her wish was my command. I was intrigued at the opportunity to have the honor of helping her, bringing her whatever it was she needed, be it medicine, flowers, a treat . . . “a dictionary.” The word punctured my thought process. A dictionary? “You know how I enjoy keeping up with the news and the politics. Of course I understand it (she was multilingual and her English was outstanding!), but every once in a blue moon there is a word I don’t understand, and I want to have a small dictionary on hand to look words up.”

I was humbled. This is what Mrs. Weissbrot, at her age, wanted? And yet, on some level, this ongoing curiosity of hers about the world didn’t surprise me at all. I once asked her about the “War,” and then posed the same question to her again, after another time she defied medical odds and was released still again from the hospital, “What got you through it? How did you get through it?” How did she yet again outrun death?

“I fight with myself.” “I fought with myself every day.” “There were times, every minute.”

Often I heard Mrs. Weissbrot say those words. What exactly did she mean? I wondered. Once when she shared how during the War the awareness of suicide was constantly around her, how there were those who braved the electric wire in an attempt to escape, but also how others intentionally threw themselves on it, I asked, had she ever considered it? “No.” “Never.” She said it wasn’t hope as much as curiosity that served as her inner catalyst. She was so young. She wanted to know more of the world. There were experiences she still wanted to taste and live.

Another time, she described the barracks atmosphere toward the end of the war:

“ . . . There was a together feeling in the barracks . . . it was tzaras rabbim, do you know what this means? Sorrow in the majority. We all felt a connection . . . at the end the Hungarian girls came. They would sing among themselves . . . and they always talked about sweets and cooking . . . of course we didn’t have food but they weren’t used to starving yet . . . it was different countries, different cultures, we came together, it was the end of the war already . . . but the Hungarians were strong, they had more energy because for them the camp had just started and we were already worn out . . . they always talked between themselves, a separate clique . . . the Polish, we were already starving so long . . . ”

In the camps, there were adults who “kept track of the days, of the yomim tovim, who hid and made a minyan and davened, who sang the songs for Pesach and Rosh Hashanah. Toward the end of the war it was the older people who had somehow managed to remain alive who were encouraging the youngsters to hold out. Of course everyone could hear the planes flying overhead and knew something major was brewing. The camps were being liquidated. They were taking us deeper and deeper into the forests and word spread.”

Coming back to that question, so what was it, what kept you going? How did you fight with yourself?

This time she paused.

Zug nisht letsten veig, don’t say this is the last going away, this is the last hope. You have to have bitachon, faith. This is the whole meaning of it. You know what this means?” Whereupon Mrs. Weissbrot broke into tentative song, the simultaneously mournful and optimistic Song of the Partisans. The Yiddish lyrics flowed from her lips, as she was now singing steadily, with a firm look, holding my gaze, translating, re-stating the core message. “Don’t say to anybody that you are going on the last road. The last way. Don’t say it. Keep hoping that there will open another way, there will open another road.” Her Yiddish singing resumed, soaring louder now. She was singing her generation’s and her life’s anthem, yet again . . . Zug nisht kein mol azdu geist letsten veig. . .

Tears were streaming down my face. All I can think is, “G-tt tzu dank, Mrs. Weissbrot, G-tt tzu dank.”

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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