|From Generation to Generation
"Arbeit Macht Frei." "Work Makes One Free."
These words adorn the entrance to Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp outside of Prague, in the former Czechoslovakia.
This ruling, that you would be freed if you worked, obviously was not a fair one. What were you to do if you were too ill or weak to work? What if you were too old to work? Were the Nazis offering freedom only to those individuals who were young, fit, and healthy? In actuality, they did not offer freedom to anyone. "Work Makes One Free" was a farce. It led the prisoners to believe that they had done something wrong and would be freed once they had paid for their misdeed by working it off.
The only crime committed by my great-grandmother was not having anyone to care for her after her son was taken away to a work camp at Dachau. As he was being taken away, he requested his release, stating that he needed to care for his mother. The Nazis quieted him by assuring that his mother would be taken care of. This was probably one of the few times the Nazis did not lie. She was taken care of. She was sent to Terezin, where she "lived" until she could live no longer.
While I had read about and listened to stories about the Holocaust and my family’s experiences during the Holocaust, I never felt the pain and suffering as clearly as I did at the moment I saw those words, "Arbeit Macht Frei," gracing the entrance to Terezin. At that moment, I felt my great-grandmother’s presence surrounding my own. This is not to say that I believe in ghosts or spirits, or that I truly feel that she was there with me. I can only say what I felt, and I have absolutely no way of explaining it. As I entered the camp, I was not alone. Yetta, my great-grandmother, was there in some form.
No one in my family knows the details of what happened to Yetta. All that is known is that she was sent to Terezin and perished there. As far as I have been told, it is unknown whether she was killed or whether she died of natural (or as natural as can be in that setting) causes. I have not seen any records of her death date or what was done to her body. I do, however, know the feelings that came over me as I visited different parts of the camp. I now know some of the rooms that she may have been through. I have a feeling as to which crematorium was used to dispose of her body. I felt the footsteps that she took to make her way from the living quarters to where she may have worked or eaten. There is no way of verifying any of this, but the feelings have told me more than most written records ever could.
The moment at which I felt Yetta’s presence most clearly was as I was preparing to leave Terezin. There was no way that I could leave without taking something with me. Not something tangible, yet something none the less. What was this thing which needed to leave with me? It took me quite a while to realize that I needed to remove my great-grandmother from the horrific experiences of the camp. She needed to accompany me out of that place. How can this possibly be done? I still don’t know. I do, however, know that Yetta joined me on my trip from Prague across the Mediterranean and into Israel.
I felt as though it was Yetta’s dream to reach the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael.
I left Prague to spend five weeks in Israel, and the entire time I could feel Yetta’s presence. She remained with me until it was time for me to return to the United States, at which time, I believe, she left me to remain in the Holy Land, Israel.
During the time that I was in Israel, the group that I was with held religious services every Shabbat and occasionally during the week. This meant that, at least every Friday evening and Saturday morning, prayers, including the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish, were recited. As tradition holds in my community, just before the Mourner’s Kaddish, anyone who would like to may state the name of someone who has passed away recently or during the current season in years past, or the name of anyone who has passed away and is being remembered at that time. This allows the community to recognize who is in mourning and who is being mourned. I seized this opportunity to honor my great-grandmother. Since the date of her death is unknown to me, I found it appropriate to say the Kaddish for her while I was in Israel more so than at any specific time of the year. So, for five weeks, every time the Kaddish was recited, my great-grandmother’s name was spoken.
The last service that my group conducted in Israel was held at the top of a mountain range in the Negev desert. As the final Mourner’s Kaddish of my trip to Israel was nearing the end, I felt tears streaming down my face. I could not determine whether they were tears of sorrow, relief, or a combination of the two. I was saddened by the circumstances of my great-grandmother’s death, and the fact that I was going to be leaving Israel a few days later, and possibly leaving a strong connection to my past as well. Despite the overwhelming feelings of grief that accompanied these tears, relief was definitely among the emotions flowing through me at that moment. I was relieved that I was able to assist Yetta in reaching her Promised Land, relieved that I was able to say Kaddish for her in a more meaningful manner than choosing a random day to set as her day of remembrance, relieved that I was able to form some sort of bond with one of my ancestors, relieved that I was now able to more fully understand my family’s history.
Now that this experience is all in the past, I look back on it in disbelief. There is no way that Yetta was with me for any portion of my trip. It is impossible that I could have known, just by being there where she walked, which oven she was cremated in. How could I have known, or at the very least imagined, that her dream was to make it to Israel? And how is it that I felt her with me throughout my journey to Israel and for the extent of my time there?
I have a continuing reminder of this experience in a recurring dream. I suppose that many people would call it a nightmare. It does not seem fitting to me, though, to call it a nightmare, since it is one of the only reminders of a fantastic event. In this dream, a line of elderly men and women are being ushered into a room in Terezin. For a long time, I could not see the faces of the men and women in my dream. They were just faceless bodies. However, I could hear the murmured conversation between two of the women. They were speaking almost as if they both had a severe case of laryngitis. It finally occurred to me that the reason for this muffled talking was to keep the guards from noticing them. One woman was telling the other that all she wanted was to see her husband one last time. The other woman, knowing that, at this point, any wish was an unrealistic one, stated that she just wanted to see Jerusalem, the Holy Land, before she died.
About a year ago, after not having had the dream in almost six months, I once again woke up in a sweat from the same dream. This time was different, though. I almost did not realize the difference while I was sitting in my bed trying to compose myself. Finally it came to me. The second woman, the one who wanted so badly to see Jerusalem, had turned around just before I had woken up. I had seen her face. That was quite possibly the most frightening and, at the same time, the most comforting realization of my life. A few weeks later I was able to have my father track down a picture of my great-grandmother and, sure enough, the face I saw in my dream was that of Yetta.
Believing in "spirits" and afterlives
and other such circumstances is still not something I am quite ready for.
However, I have no way of explaining the occurrences involving my great-grandmother.
I can only hope that some of what I felt was actually true, and that Yetta,
or her soul, or whatever is left of her, has found some peace and serenity
wherever she is.
Footnotes on family history:
The full name of Toby’s great-grandmother (her paternal grandfather's mother), using the original spelling, is Jette Levi nee Rosenbaum. She was born on November 14, 1871 in Oberzell (Rhoen), Germany. She and her husband raised three children in the village of Lohra, near Marburg, Germany. She was deported from the city of Frankfurt am Main to Terezin, and the transport date is listed as August 18, 1942. Some records give her date of death as August 29, 1943. Toby’s grandfather, however, said that information that he had received from the Red Cross shortly after the end of the Second World War suggested that she died earlier. Her husband, Loeb Levi, was a member of the German army who was killed in action on October 23, 1916; he is buried in Verdun, France.
Yetta's three children each left Germany at different
times. Toby’s grandfather, Isidore Levy, was held at Dachau from November
1938 until January 1939. He was released after securing a visa enabling
him to leave Germany, and he came to the United States late in 1939. Toby’s
father, Leo S. Levy, was born in the United States.
This essay previously appeared in the December 1999 issue of the Bulletin of Congregation Berith Sholom, Troy, N.Y., in Leo S. Levy’s column "Nobody Asked My Opinion, But…"
Published here with the permission of Toby Ann Levy.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.