A friend asked me over lunch yesterday how the Rosenscheins settled in Harrisburg. That’s an easy one; in 1949 the Truman administration admitted thousands of European Jewish refugees, and Jewish communities across America opened their hands and hearts to these war-shattered families. The Joint Distribution Committee found ours a very welcome new home in Central Pennsylvania.
As I age, I appreciate the variable speed of perceived time. We quantify it in days, hours, minutes, and second(ary-minute)s — and especially years. But I think that generations are the way to go, especially since they overlap so deliciously. I figure historically a generation was roughly 25-30 years. Lately it’s gone up amost 10 years; thankfully so has life expectancy. (See The Invention of Grandparents.) It’s interesting that our generation was born just a few years after WWII or, for that matter, 12 years after the death of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941)… Or that the last WWI veteran, Florence Green, died at 110 in 2012.
I am fascinated by juxtapositions of dates. My mother was born April 9, 1921, the 7th day of Passover, a scant 56 years to the day after the Confederate surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox. Little could she imagine growing up how crucially the USA would figure both in deciding a later war and granting her a new life.
My maternal grandfather, Samuel Bleier, for whom I’m named, was born in 1885 in Mukachevo, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He married Shaindel Shimshovitz, and together they raised nine children, seven daughters and two sons. Mom was their youngest daughter.
They made it through the war unscathed–almost. But, in 1944, the Nazis caught up with Hungary’s Jews, executing their deception in carefully planned stages. On the 7th day of Passover (14-Apr-44), the order was given for all Jews in town to move into a closed-off (ghetto) neighborhood, to scrounge for a roof over their heads and figure out what of their life’s possessions they could drag there. One month later, they were marched to a factory on the outskirts of town, where they sat on the ground for three days, waiting for the cattle-cars that would “resettle” them. Then the train… 3 days… terminating at Auschwitz (27-May-44).
I won’t tell you the longer story here of four grandparents’ last hour on earth.
Nowadays my mother no longer goes to synagogue for the yizkor memorial service—because it doesn’t give her enough time to silently remember her long list of loved ones lost. She survived the horrors together with one older sister and one younger brother. Today these three’s descendants number hundreds; she is the last living survivor of her large pre-war family.
My grandfather Samuel Bleier was murdered at the age of 21,340 days. From where I sit right over the other side of 60, it doesn’t sound so old anymore. I catch myself wondering, do I treasure each loved one, each day, each breath enough?
Diane and I visited Poland in 2007 on a trip led by the remarkable Aryeh Geiger ז״ל. My saddest moment was on the train platform at Auschwitz. This year, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation produced an outstanding must-see short video about Auschwitz, narrated by Meryl Streep. The whole film is worth watching, but the juxtaposition of the train tracks then and now [at 5:40] moved me to tears.
Tonight and Thursday, we commemorate יוֹם הַשׁוֹאָה, Holocaust Memorial Day. We can try but will never fathom the magnitude of what transpired in the death camps, even as modern regimes deny one holocaust while planning another.
Mom ended the war half-starved, half-dead from typhus in the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, two months after Anne Frank died there of the same disease. She once told me that the Nazi female guards were shooting Jewish girls with pistols even as British soldiers approached the barracks.
Today America marks exactly 15 decades since Lincoln’s assassination (also 7th day of Passover), but April 15 is also 7 decades to the day since my Mom’s liberation and rebirth.
I dedicate this #notsilent post to four grandparents — Yehoshua and Rivka Rosenschein, Shmuel and Shaindel Bleier — and the dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins whom I never knew. Also to my Dad, Martin Rosenschein ז״ל, my Mom עמו״ש who turned 94 on this April 9 (6th day of Passover), to my brothers and their families, to our wonderful sons, daughters-in-laws, and grandchildren, and especially with love to my Diane!
Also published on Medium.