#13: Goodbye dear Mom

[remarks at the funeral of my mother, Yolanda Rosenschein ז״ל, February 5, 2019]

The pain of parting from your mother is intense even when she lived happily to 97. She was our last surviving family member of her generation. I want to honor her memory today and share with you our Mom’s story and also her secret for enjoying life.

Yolanda Rosenschein was born Yenti Gitl Bleier on April 9, 1921 in the town of Mukačevo (or Munkács) in eastern Czechoslovakia. She was the youngest of 7 daughters, with an older and younger brother, too.

She enjoyed a happy childhood and young adulthood in a thriving cultural center. She grew up without today’s conveniences. For example, her grandfather had a real telephone in his business—and she always remembered his phone number; it was “2-5”. By the age of 22, she was an assistant manager in a local dress shop.

World War II almost passed them by, because it was the Hungarian Fascists, not the Germans, who occupied their town, and they were not deporting Jews. Yet. 

Mom once told me that she would visit their local hospital on Shabbat afternoons with her girlfriends. They brought candies to the sick children, one of whom was a young boy named Shonyi. (more on him later).

On March 15, 1944, the Germans seized Munkács. 5 weeks later, right after Passover, they decreed that all Jews immediately relocate to a tiny neighborhood (ghetto) in town, scrounging for a place to live.

One month later, May 15, the Jews were ordered out of their houses, to march—past their former neighbors, who were jeering — to the brick factory on the outskirts of town, where they sat on the ground… waiting.

Three days later, on Thursday, May 18, the deportation trains pulled in. Not passenger cars. These were livestock cars, into which you could shove about 100 humans, give or take. No food, no water, no sanitary facilities. There were 40-50 cars per train. It took 5 days to deport all the Jews from their town. 

Yolanda’s extended family was packed in like sardines. Then she saw her young friend Shonyi from the hospital. “Hey, Shonyi, come with us!” Unfortunately, the German commandant overheard this and shouted, “You want the cripple? You can have all the cripples.” And, sure enough, they squeezed another 20 people into that cattle car.

Later in life, Mom told me two things about this incident. (1) To their credit, her family never complained about what she had done. (2) She believed in her heart that whatever good fortune may have smiled on her family — was God’s reward for this simple act of loving-kindness.

By May 23, 1944, the Nazis reported to headquarters that Munkács was Judenrein — “free” of its 28,587 Jews.

Upon arrival at Auschwitz/Birkenau three days later, the men and the women were divided into two long lines for “processing”. Yolanda’s father, Shmuel, our grandfather, crossed lines to say goodbye to his wife. “Tate,” his daughters screamed, “go back… they’ll shoot you!” But he crossed lines anyway, recited the Shema Yisrael and told our grandmother in Yiddish, “May we meet again someday in עולם הבא in the next world.”

Almost all of her extended family was sent to the left: death by asphyxiation in the lonely darkness of the gas chamber. Yolanda was sent to the right, with one sister, to the labor camp — stripped naked, shaven, issued striped prisoner pajamas, one size fits all. Upon emerging, she beheld hundreds of unrecognizable crazy-looking women, and then she realized that she was one of them.

In the work camp, she met one familiar face: Freda Rosenschein (later Freda Lederer). “Martin’s sister?” she asked. The two of them became “Lager-schwestern” (camp-sisters) and would stick closely together the next 69½ years.

The two were “selected” for work in another concentration camp called Weißwasser. By the winter of 1945, the women weighed a skeletal 70 pounds (32 kg). Besides the whips and the clubs, the worst part was waking up in sub-zero nights to stand outside, sometimes for hours, in the snow and howling winds, waiting for roll call.

There was one humane German woman in the factory, named Paula Kattendorff, who took pity on the girls. She would leave a small apple in the drawer, which Yolanda and Freda would hide and then split down the middle.

By spring of 1945, the inmates still breathing were force-marched to the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where there was almost no food but plenty of epidemic. It was here that Yolanda witnessed the single most horrifying sight of her lifetime—a mountain of unburied bodies.

The British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. In the final moments of captivity, with soldiers walking up to the barracks, the German women guards took out pistols to rid the world of a few more Jewish girls.

Yolanda was sick as a dog with typhus, powerless to move or swallow food. Her new sister Freda was sent to Sweden for convalescence.

Now, for most nations who fought in World War II, the end of the war brought some joy and relief, as they counted their dead.

The Jewish survivors had no such celebration — they only counted how few were left living — shattered, traumatized for life, and guilt-racked for even surviving. The Nazis had successfully slaughtered sixty hundred-thousand Jews, two-thirds of Europe’s ten million Jewish population — to the “shock” of the civilized world.

Postwar Europe was in pandemonium, masses of refugees passing through train stations, desperately looking for anyone who knew someone in their families, living or dead.

In the Budapest train station, Mom saw Martin Rosenschein from her hometown again. “Your sister Freda is alive; she’s in Sweden!” And the two of them stuck together from then on. Martin knew her family and proposed marriage soon after. Yolanda was too overwhelmed to grasp it. She was emaciated; she had zero idea what would be. Later that winter, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and gave Martin another chance to back out.

They crossed through forests and over borders in the dead of winter. When you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat the grass. Our Dad would later smile — or maybe wince — when someone would remark, “I’m really starving!”

Yolanda and Martin reached a “displaced persons” refugee camp in West Germany, where they were married in March 1946. They got one wedding gift from all their neighbors: a cup and saucer. They lived in that camp for 3 years.

In 1949 the Truman administration accepted some European Jewish immigrants. Many stayed in New York, but others went to Jewish communities across the country who accepted a few families each. Yolanda and Martin were sent to… Harrisburg PA, where they arrived with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Ben and Lillian Rosenschein.

A year later, the four of them founded Rose Family Cleaners, later Quality Cleaners. Dad did the cleaning; Mom did sewing and alterations. Within a couple of years, Freda and her new husband Steve Lederer joined them. Fifteen years later, brother Sandy and Ella Sternberg came to town. The four families lived on one block on Green Street, a vestige of their need for family to rely on and stick close together. 

We children grew up never grasping their stories; how could we? Our parents decidedly did not talk about the war; some things are simply not discussed. They wanted “normal” quiet lives in Harrisburg. What I can say is that they all worked hard to provide the best for their families and contribute to their adoptive community and attempt to overcome the nightmares of their pasts.

So stop for a second. Who cares! We’ve all heard Holocaust survivor stories and seen the movies.

Well, what makes the survivors special is not what they suffered but that they found the courage to reboot their lives.

What made our Mom remarkable was her determined upbeated-ness. She was the most optimistic person that I have ever met. Believe me, Mom was not naïve; she’d literally seen it all.

But she possessed a special generosity of spirit, warmth, optimism, and a so-big heart. She approached everyone she met — strangers, friends, family — with a smile on her face and an openness in her heart. That is her legacy.

The Nobel-prize winning Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, himself admittedly not an optimist, wrote that, if you could wish one genetic trait on your children, it should be the optimistic gene. Optimistic people, on the average, are luckier, happier, and more successful.

But I’m telling you that there’s more to it than that and Yolanda Rosenschein is the proof. To a certain extent, of course, optimistic genes help. Yes, she wore rose-family-colored glasses. But she also experienced plenty of heartache in her life, “oh yes”.

Happiness, it turns out, is also a choice! That was her secret.

Here are 5 Yolanda Rosenschein lessons for us:

  1. Choose to be happy and work hard at it.
  2. If you want others to smile, then you must smile.
  3. Find meaning in loving your family and friends.
  4. Accept others the way they are, even strangers. Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.
  5. Discover your own faith: not the one’s that’s easy but the one you’ve wrestled with, nurtured, and, in your darkest moments, doubted.

She would always say: life goes on; we do the best that we can.

Mom’s upbeat nature provides inspiration. Whenever I go through a tough period, there’s this tiny voice in my ear: this is nothing, you have shoes on your feet and a shirt on your back.

In the ancient Jewish book of Pikei Avot, Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakkai asked his five students what is the most important quality a person should seek. Rabbi Eliezer said, “A good eye.” Rabbi Joshua said, “A good friend.” Rabbi Yosay said, “A good neighbor.” Rabbi Simon said, “The ability to see what’s coming.” Rabbi Elazar said, “A good heart.” The master responded: “Elazar is correct, because a good heart actually includes all the rest.”

Even in the struggle of her final days, with her physical heart failing, Mom’s big-heart and joie de vivre shone through. One of her last sentences, cobbled painfully together to the doctor on Friday, was “Maybe they should write an article called ‘the woman who wouldn’t let go’.”

Mom, we ask for your סליחה וּמחילה, your forgiveness, for anything we might have done to you, or not done in the long years we’ve lived far away.

We are grateful for the tenderness shown Mom in her final months at The Residence of the Jewish Home and the extraordinary care at Harrisburg Hospital, especially Dr. Jessica Cunningham. We’ll never forget the devotion and kindness of her nieces and nephews on both sides — please forgive me not mentioning all your names — but I must especially thank Rita Gordon for always being there and treating Mom as her own.

Please remember Yolanda Rosenschein. Stop and think of her, maybe once a year, maybe on your birthday, and savor your own blessings / loved ones.

Remember her smile and her loving warmth. It’s not about the inevitable hardships but rather the courage to make meaning in your life.

יְהִי זִכְרֵךְ בָּרוּךְ וּּתְהֵא נִשְׁמָתֵךְ צְרוּרָה בִצְרוֹר הַחַיִים 

May your memory be a blessing for us all.

ְנוּחִי בְשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְכָּבֵך. Rest in peace, dear Mom. We love and will miss you beyond words. May the angels descend and accompany you to your next place. We, your survivors, family and friends, will keep you alive, in our hearts.