A Blessing From My Grandmother
A Holocaust Story
By Rabbi Pamela Frydman (Baugh) © September 2009. All rights reserved.
Originally published in Zeek Magazine online, October 2009
My Grandparents, Leibish and Pessel, lived in a two-room duplex with their eight sons and Pessel’s great grandmother. When the boys were at home, they shared two beds on which three boys slept in one direction, and one slept perpendicular at the end of the bed. Leibish and Pessel provided for their family as best they could. Each boy received a Jewish education, both for religious reasons and because public school was not accessible to Jews in the Polish village of Chmielnik where they lived.
Getzel, the oldest, attended yeshiva where he studied Bible, prayer and Jewish history and law. The other seven—Yoel, Avram Harsh, Aaron Baer, Yossel, Yumin, Kalma Itchel and Zelik—went to cheder, an elementary school that was more financially accessible to large families. After a few years of schooling, each boy learned a trade and began working. Yumin—my father—began cheder at three. At five, he continued school while apprenticing to a tailor, and at seven, he left school and began working.
Leibish died of a kidney ailment in 1927. After his father’s death, dad left Poland and made his way through Europe, eventually setting sail for the United States. In the 1930’s, Uncle Yoel wanted to immigrate to the United States with his wife and children. Dad arranged to sponsor them, but Yoel had problems with his eyes that required treatment and glasses, and as a result of quotas and immigration laws, the U.S. government denied Yoel a visa.
Uncle Zelik immigrated to Palestine in the 1930’s. In the 1940’s, he served in the Haganah, a paramilitary group that fought against the British for the establishment of a Jewish state. When Israel gained independence, Zelik became a policeman and served as a bodyguard to David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister.
Uncles Aaron Baer and Avraham Harsh settled in Sosnowce (Sos-nov-cheh) in the 1930’s. They worked as carpenters and their wives each gave birth to a son and two daughters. As Poland prepared for war, Aaron Baer was drafted and submitted to service in the Polish army. His wife Temmah took the children and moved to Chmielnik to be near her parents and Bubbe Pessel.
The Nazis entered Chmielnik on September 5, 1939. They murdered many of Chmielnik’s Jewish leaders and established a Judenrat and in 1941 they established a ghetto. Jews could not leave the confines of the Chmielnik Ghetto unless authorized—or forced—to do so. Mail delivery ground to a halt, and Jews could not do business or communicate with the outside world.
On a cold rainy October day in 1942, the S.S. entered Chmielnik in full force and ordered all Jews into the street. Bubbe Pessel watched her family and neighbors gathering around her. Two of her sons—Yossel and Kalma-Itchal—and all of her Chmielnik grandchildren older than fourteen had been herded into trucks and carried off by the Nazis a day or so earlier. Getzel, her eldest son and her business partner, was still badly bruised from the beatings he had endured on the day his brothers and older children were taken. He stood now with his wife and their two young children.
Pessel’s mind was racing. The day-to-day beatings, harassment and humiliation under the Nazis had drained the life and courage out of everyone. She shuddered to think what they might have already done to her sons and the grandchildren taken a few days earlier. What would they do with everyone today after loading them into the trucks whose running engines filled the air with noise? Pessel was at the end of her rope.
As Jews lined the streets, Pessel studied the faces of the soldiers, and then she saw him—a Jew from a nearby village in a Nazi uniform with a rifle in his hand. Pessel recognized him, walked over and began to speak in Yiddish, “I cannot bear it,” she said. “Please. Kill me now.”
“We cannot kill anyone,” responded the soldier in German as if he didn’t recognize her. “We have our orders; everyone must be taken alive.”
“Please,” she begged. “I have lived long enough. Help me, please.”
After seemingly endless pleading, Bubbe Pessel finally penetrated the soldier’s hardened heart. “We have orders to shoot anyone who tries to escape,” he said, looking straight ahead. Tears flowed as Bubbe Pessel hugged and kissed each member of her family and many of her neighbors, saying a final knowing good-bye to each one. Then she ran.
No one from our family on that Chmielnik street survived the war, but many survived the day and lived to tell others how Bubbe Pessel met her end. The story is recorded in the records of Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. Uncle Zelik completed the Hebrew form on September 23, 1955. Under “Place, Time and Circumstances of Death,” it states, “Chmielnik. B’re’utah ki lokchim et yaldeha v’nechdeha, lehurag, biksha ki yeharguha bamakom ve’chen asu.” “Chmielnik. When she saw that her children and grandchildren were being taken to be killed, she asked that she be killed on the spot and they did so.”
* * * *
In 1989, as the high holy days approached, Uncle Zelik phoned my mother to wish her happy new year. “You’ll never believe it,” he said, “I dreamt about Bubbe Pessel.”
“Bubbe Pessel?” Mom asked excitedly.
“It was a few weeks ago. She was so freilach (joyous). Singing! Dancing! I was shocked.”
“Shocked?” Asked mom.
“Well, you know—the way she died—I always think of her with such a rock on my heart.”
“Of course,” said mom, thinking about her mother-in-law’s tragic end, and also about little Pua, Zelik’s daughter named in memory of Bubbe Pessel. Pua had died in childhood of a brain tumor.
“Your daughter was…” began my mother.
“No, your daughter!” interrupted Zelik.
“My daughter?” interjected mom.
“In the dream, Bubbe Pessel told me your daughter became a rebbetzin.”
“A rebbetzin?” exclaimed my mom. “She didn’t marry a rabbi!”
“I know,” he said, “I didn’t mean she married a rabbi. Bubble Pessel said she became one.”
“That’s right,” said my mother through her tears. “She received smicha (ordination) in June. We didn’t tell anyone (in the family) she was studying because the frumm (very observant) side wouldn’t approve.”
“Did Yumin know? I mean Benny; did he know?” asked Zelik.
“Of course,” said my mother. “She’s been studying for many years. She asked her father’s advice before she began and Benny told her to go for it. I wish he had lived to see it.” Her voice cracked as she wept.
“Halevei! (if only!)” said Zelik. “May he rest in peace. So now let me tell you the dream. Bubbe Pessel was singing. She was dancing. She was so freilach and I was so shocked. So I went up to her in the dream, and I said, ‘Mama, why are you so freilach? I always think of you with such sadness because of what happened. The war and how you died.’ She answered me,” Zelik continued, ‘I’m freilach because my granddaughter, and my namesake, has become a rabbi!’”
“Can I tell Pam?” asked mom.
“Of course. Tell her everything. I’m going to write her a card and wish her mazel tov,” said Zelik. “If Bubbe Pessel says it’s alright, I think we need to accept it.”
A few weeks later, I received a card in the mail from Uncle Zelik. In red ink, it said, “Dear Pamela, We wish you shana tova, a zissen yohr (happy sweet new year). Since Bubbe Pessel accepts that you are a rabbi, I think we need to accept it too. We want to wish you mazel tov. Love, Uncle Zelik and Aunt Rivkah.”
I immediately thought of Pua—how I miss her even now!—and my Cousin Pam—Aaron Baer’s daughter born to Auntie Rosie whom he married after Temmah and their children were murdered. Pua, Pam and I each have different Hebrew names, but we are all Pessel Shprintze in Yiddish, and in English, we are Pamela Sharon Frydman. How did Uncle Zelik know that Bubbe Pessel meant me and not my Cousin Pam? How he must have missed his Pualeh when he heard of the accomplishments of other daughters. I held the card and wept.
In 1989, the notion of woman rabbis was still new and controversial. Regina Jonas was the first, and she was ordained in Berlin in 1935. In 1942, she was arrested and deported to Terezin Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia. In 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered. The war and Regina’s tragic end slowed the process of further ordinations, and it was not until 1972 that the Reform Movement ordained Sally Preisand, and in 1973 the Reconstructionist Movement ordained Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. My own Movement—Jewish Renewal—ordained Lynn Gottlieb in 1980 and the Conservative Movement ordained Amy Eilberg in 1985. By the time I was ordained in 1989, there were dozens of women rabbis, and we were engaged in a joyous and challenging uphill climb toward acceptance.
My friends and colleagues were aware that I had been studying for the rabbinate. Some were cautious and many were proud. I had followed my parents’ lead in not telling our extended family about my studies, so only a few family members knew about my ordination. Uncle Zelik’s card, and his dream that mom had conveyed to me, gave me the courage to tell the rest of the family. I went to the mikveh and left my doubts in the water. Mom and I divided the list of relatives, and we each made calls. Some were overjoyed and others were doubtful, ashamed or worse. I tucked Bubbe Pessel’s blessing deep into my heart and never looked back.