Half-mast for Mrs H, on Holocaust Day
Last night I lit a memorial candle and placed it in my kitchen window. My tiny street was completely dark. The light from the candle flickered and bounced over all the doors and windows of the houses opposite. Such a little light, for such a big thing.
I grew up in a community almost entirely comprised of German Jews. They were refugees who came over to England either before the war, or after it. The surnames of my friends at shul were all German names: Frei, Beigel, Faber, Nussbaum, Hirsch, Schwarz, Felsenstein.
I knew, internalized long before the story of the Holocaust had been verbalized to me, that the people I davvened with in shul had undergone unimaginable suffering. Some of them had been orphaned as children, had arrived in England on the Kindertransport never to be reunited with their parents. Some had been in the worst of the concentration camps as teenagers. Most of my friends at shul had no grandparents.
But the person who attracted my attention in shul was Mrs. H. Mrs. H., a very attractive woman with an impressive black sheitl, had two adopted children. This was unusual in those days. There were a good number of childless couples in the community then – it was before the days of fertility treatment. But not many religious couples adopted. It was difficult to find Jewish children available for adoption, and the adoption of non-Jewish children was a halachically complicated process.
Infertility is an agonizingly private issue, but everybody knew why Mrs. H. couldn’t have children of her own. She had been experimented on in Auschwitz by Dr. Mengele. She was a teenager at the time, fifteen or sixteen years old.
Every week in shul I looked and looked at Mrs. H., who sat at some distance away from me and my mother. Mrs. H. had a grave, quiet face. She was a devout woman who prayed with composure and focus. For 51 weeks of the year Mrs. H. was always there, in my peripheral vision, taking three steps back, three steps forward into G-d’s presence at the beginning of the Amida prayer.
On one day of the year, Yom Kippur, Mrs. H. moved into central view. On that day Mrs. H. was no longer quiet. Her suffering was terrible to behold. She wept and wept, was bent double with weeping. As a small child I watched her. To this day I remember the feeling of my mother’s hand on my head, tilting it downwards towards my siddur, teaching me that people’s tears on Yom Kippur are their own affair. But I did not feel that Mrs. H.’s tears belonged only to her. Even then, at ten years old, I understood that her tears belonged to all of us.
The English are restrained and polite about grief. Don’t shout, don’t scream, don’t sob. And if you are an observer of grief, don’t look, don’t touch and don’t give away that you have noticed, as this would be an invasion of privacy.
In all the years that Mrs. H.’s body crumpled against the mechitza with weeping, I don’t recall that anyone ever reached out to her. No one hugged her and no one held her. “I want to give her a cuddle”, I used to say to my mother. “Can I go across and cuddle her?”
“No, darling, you can’t”, my mother would reply. “I’m not sure how she would feel about it.” And indeed. It would not have been the done thing.
I think that Mrs. H., stored somewhere deep in my hard disc, is one of the reasons I’m living in Israel today. Israel is that one big hug I could never give to Holocaust survivors. It’s also the hug I give to myself, as I walk across Safra Square on this Jerusalem day – Holocaust Day – in April. I look up at the huge flagpoles of the Jerusalem municipality and I see that they are flying at half-mast.
Half-mast for you, Mrs. H. And all the other women of the Shoah.