Yahrzeit is the Jewish yearly observance of a loved one’s death. Traditionally, we light a candle at home and recite the kaddish in the synagogue in their memory. I learned the words of the kaddish sometime in 1950 when I was eight or nine, shortly after my mother found out the precise date of my father’s death—July 25, 1945, which translated to the Hebrew date 15 Av—in what had been the Ebensee concentration camp. I have observed the ritual ever since. The kaddish makes no reference to mourning but is a reaffirmation of our faith in the Almighty despite our loss.
My sisters, Eva, seven, and Leah, five, were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau on February 11, 1944. Like me, they had been entrusted to a Christian family by my parents to safeguard them from the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators. But while I was kept safe by the Indonesian Dutch Madna family and their Muslim nanny, Mima Saïna, who adopted me and loved me like one of their own, my sisters were denounced to the Nazis, imprisoned in Scheveningen in The Hague, Netherlands, deported to Westerbork, and then sent to their death at Auschwitz—a fate they shared with 1.5 million other children killed by the Nazis.
It took a long time as a child growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust to fully understand the terrible toll the Holocaust had taken on my family, to comprehend what people meant when they embraced me and told me how lucky I was because my mother had “come back,” or when they shook their heads and said how sad it was that my sisters “had not come back.” They tried to shield me with euphemisms from the horrors of concentration camps and gas chambers, just like the Madna family had sheltered me from the always looming Nazi threat with love and joy.
For many years after the war, I continued to scan newspaper photographs for my sisters and held out the secret hope that they too had miraculously survived, a fantasy I never shared with my mother or anyone else for fear, I suppose, that it might be shattered. I did this whenever there were stories of sudden unexpected reunions of people who had been separated and assumed to have died during the Holocaust, and even after my mother had received a letter from the Red Cross confirming their deaths at Auschwitz. And yet, my mother confided in me that she went so far as to attend a session with a medium shortly after the war in the desperate and irrational hope of communicating with my father. The medium, my mother told me, found her too skeptical and dismissed her for being a “disruptive influence.”
While my mother told me many stories about my sisters and held them out as examples of good behavior when I was little, she never lit candles or encouraged me when I was older to observe their Yahrzeit by reciting the kaddish. I now wonder whether she had ever come to terms with their deaths and whether she too harbored an illusion that somehow, somewhere, they might yet be alive. My mother made a point of visiting my father’s grave as soon as she found out that there indeed was a grave in Ebensee. When she returned from her trip to Austria, she showed me photos of the concentration camp that was now a cemetery and of her standing at my father’s grave, thus burying any thought that he might have survived. But for Eva and Leah there were only the Red Cross form letters with a red rubber stamp bearing the disclaimer “time of death not available and administratively determined.” My mother never visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I did. Even there, however, I found it impossible to envision and mourn the death of my sisters.
Perhaps imagination is the purview of the young and like other more tangible faculties diminishes as we get older. I cannot pinpoint the time when the undeniable reality of the death of my sisters extinguished the last glimmer of hope of seeing them alive. But for the past 20 years I have been lighting memorial candles on the Hebrew date corresponding to February 11, 1944. Reciting the kaddish was more difficult. By glorifying God’s name was I absolving the Almighty of responsibility in the murder of my sisters? It was fortunate that when I did recite the kaddish for the first time in memory of my sisters, Cantor Deborah Togut at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rockville, Maryland, offered to chant the mournful, hauntingly beautiful prayer “El Moley Rachamim,” “God Full of Compassion,” which unlike the kaddish does not focus on affirming the power and majesty of the Almighty, but on asking the Almighty to embrace and shelter the soul of the deceased, imagery that lessened my anger and gave me a measure of comfort. On rare occasions, I have allowed myself to believe in an afterlife, a time when I might finally embrace my dad and my sisters. But like my mother, I am too anchored in reality to allow such musings for long.
As the years have gone by, Yahrzeit after Yahrzeit, the feeling of loss when I think of my sisters has not diminished but has increased. I imagine them older and married and with my nieces and nephews, and family occasions, and the contributions they might have made to the world. A few days after the 75th Yahrzeit of my sisters, I spoke with Dewie Madna, my foster or adoptive sister, daughter of Annie Madna and Tolé Madna, the family that sheltered me during the Holocaust. She was then 90 years old and the last living link to my sisters. She and her older sister, Wil, and younger brother, Rob, lived across the street from the house where I was born and where my family continued to live until we were forced to go into hiding, and they were frequent visitors in our home. Rob, who must have been six or seven at the time, told me of a vivid memory of watching my mom prepare a salad dressing and being amazed that she added sugar to the oil and vinegar, an absurdly trivial memory, made all the more real by being so inconsequential. Rob and Wil had passed away a few years ago, and now there was only Dewie left of the original Madna family. I told Dewie that it was 75 years since my sisters were deported and killed. “Maar ik zie se toch zo voor mijn ogen,” “but I see them now, as if it were yesterday,” she responded. Sadly, Dewie died eight months after that conversation.
I was too young to know my sisters and Dewie was my last witness to the reality of their having been, and of my loss. Now I am the last living link to the story of my family during the Holocaust and, more importantly, the last witness to the lessons that story holds for the world, just like the stories of a million other families, so alike and so different, the sad legacy of a world given over to prejudice, hate, and murder, stories that need to be told if Never Again is ever to be more than a hope, but a promise kept.
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