A Yom Ha’Shoa tribute to my late grandmother (Esther Klein, 1918-2011), who did more than survive Auschwitz and Ravensbruck: She defeated them.
To truly do justice to Esther Klein, I ought to invite you to my kitchen as I tell you about her. I would seat you in the corner on a rickety step stool, play some swing music, and let you peel some potatoes for my soup, or very slowly add the ground nuts into the egg whites for the highest rising Pesach cake in Bayswater, if not all of Queens.
While you were on that step stool, I would tell you stories about my childhood and my sisters and my parents, all gone. I would never cry. I would tell you in a way that never scared you or depressed you, but instead compelled you to bring the story forward, to your own kitchens, later.
I would sing along with the music and laugh at your jokes, whether or not they were funny, and I would tell you my distinct opinion on family life, world politics, fashion, economics, literature, or social etiquette.
Later, we would play Rummikub and I would scratch your back until you fell asleep. I would tell you stories about your father, when he was little, and how he reminded me in this way of my own father, and in that way, of you.
Without too much effort, I would tie you generations back, and tie myself generations forward, completely by the way, as you were dozing off.
You would never guess that my own wonderful childhood ended at the train tracks, until I would tell you that part, too. There was a perfect sense that nightmarish evil was absolutely real, and also that, most decisively… “Ve Von.”
We won because, when you are not sitting on that step stool, I am using it, well into my 80’s, to climb to reach things from the top cabinet, teaching you that it’s all about balance.
I tell you about my very religious and learned father who learned at the Shabbat table with my mother, back when most European women were learning the Tzena Re’enna. Who sent his sons to yeshiva and expected them to work, like he did. I would tell you how my mother, Nechama, prepared blueberry jam for stomach ailments, because she was known as something of a medicine woman around town, and, like my father’s dry-goods store, her kitchen was a regular stop for the local poor.
I would create a seamless flow from the Hershkowitz’s charitable and intellectual kitchen in Seredna to my short but horrific stay in Auschwitz and then Ravensbruck, where I was sustained by my nieces, teenagers of whom my sisters put me in charge… and then right back to the kitchen where we now sit, making potato soup.
Which, if I were my grandmother, would bring me back to my mother, who told me on our first day in Auschwitz, when we were being processed into our potato sacks, to ignore the SS, just as I had ignored the goats and the cows back home. My mother had reminded me, in those two weeks we were together before she disappeared in a cloud over Poland, who was the human being in this situation, and what that demanded of me. I remembered, and reminded, every day since.
What it meant to be human was to have both determination and balance. Empathy and a sense of justice. Respect for the dead and a total dedication to the living. To living. A sense of reverence and a sense of humor. Balance. Living modestly but mindful of aesthetics. A dedication and deep gratitude to America, and a complete devotion to and support of Israel. Work outside the home well into her 70’s, and family always first. Being equal parts emotional, intellectual, and physical. Torah classes, survivor’s meetings, family events, the gym. Shul and the beach, both healing.
Being realistic and optimistic – living on that delicate edge of facing down yesterday and expecting a reversal tomorrow, while completely in the present, today. My Grandma was Zen before anyone knew what that was, except maybe my uncle.
My grandmother’s life, you would soon see, was a “Dayenu” story. Thankful and disbelieving of every victory, and also always pushing the envelope toward the next one, the one that her father demanded that she pursue.
Esther Klein did things on her terms. She accepted God’s will. But to the greatest possible extent, it would be God’s… and Esther’s.
It was the endless winter that began 1945. My grandmother and her nieces had just been marched through the snow from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck. The Nazis felt that the end was near, and the final solution needed final solving. To accelerate matters, they put the women in an outdoor tent in sub-freezing weather. The calculations were correct. Half died the first night there. The survivors, my grandmother told me, slept very little, and when they did, it was standing or sitting, huddled in groups.
They also didn’t let go of their tin cups, because that way, they could drink hot soup, when it was available. Being and asthmatic since age 13, my grandmother got sick. Very sick. She did the forbidden and fell asleep. She thought she would not wake up. But then something crazy happened. She had a dream.
In that dream, her father, whom she had not seen since getting off the train on Shavuot of 1944, was standing near a window in a long white robe. She said it looked like a kittel. He asked her to come look out the window. He pointed actively to a tree with white blossoms, and told her: When the trees start to blossom white, you and Ibby and Helen will be free. Please wait.
So she woke up. She stood up. And she waited. And encouraged others to do the same. As her father promised, they were liberated in spring. The Swedish Red Cross took my grandmother and her nieces back to Sweden. When they disembarked this more benevolent train, they found that they had arrived in an orchard in full bloom. On every tree, white flowers.
This story, which every Klein grandchild has heard more than once, was Grandma’s way of saying that you need an inner guide, one that is firmly planted in your own authentic roots, but that you make yours, and tell it your way. You need to hang on and believe in God, but you need to do your part to make it so. She believed in Divine miracles made real only via human effort, which is the message of the first Esther, too. She believed in bearing witness to the past, and she believed in writing your own story going forward.
Grandma, I miss you terribly. A world without you is a strange place. But you taught us what your idyllic life before Auschwitz, and your unthinkable time there, taught you: how to balance on a rickety step stool while singing and reaching higher.
What more could we have asked to know?