A Brave Survivor Passes, Having Touched Many Lives

I am in Paris at the moment, but the other evening a colleague, Doron Shultziner, wrote to a number of us to celebrate his grandmother’s life on the occasion of her passing. She was a Holocaust (Shoah) survivor who lived through the worst and on to the best, bringing up a family in Israel. To paraphrase the great Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, Bracha Shultziner followed the “614th commandment”: She did not grant Hitler a posthumous victory. Her first name means “blessing,” and her memory will surely be for a blessing. Doron himself is a brilliant young political scientist, an Israeli doing research for two years at Emory University in Atlanta. I was very moved by his account of his grandmother’s life, and with his permission, I am posting his letter below:

6th December, 2008

Saying Goodbye to My Grandma

This passing night, my good grandmother, Bracha (Bitzia) Shultziner, passed away; she was 88 years old. I will not be able to participate in her funeral because the earliest possible flight to Israel will arrive already after the funeral tomorrow afternoon. Indeed, it is customary in Jewish tradition to bury the dead as early as possible in order to protect the dignity of the deceased (whether or not the deceased is Jewish). I decided that the best way for me to say goodbye is by recalling and retelling moments of bravery and dignity in her life. Indeed, she experienced some trying moments in life, and I exist today because of her persistence and clinging to life in the Holocaust.

My grandmother never knew her father who left home when she was a little child. She was brought up by her mother and grandfather who she loved dearly. He was a well known Rabbi from the Pizem family in a Romanian Jewish community not far from the capital Bucharest. His picture is still hanging in my grandparents’ living room. My grandmother met my grandfather (who recently turned 90) when the Second World War was closing on eastern European Jews.

After the Nazis took over parts of the Ukraine, they handed the area known as Transnistria to Romania which helped the Nazis in their war against the Soviet Union. Thereafter, Transnistria was transformed into a concentration area for the Jews of Bessarabia, Buokovina, and north Moldova. My grandparents were among 150,000 Jews who were deported to Transnistria and put in Ghettos and forced working camps. My grandmother saw the daily death toll around her during those years: 90,000 Jews of those deported were murdered. My grandparents were forced to march tens of kilometers together with thousands of Jews to Transnistria, major portions of the way were in mud and snow. They witnessed how many of those who were too weak or slow to march were simply shot dead. So my grandfather literally carried my grandmother’s mother on his back through long portions of the way so that all three of them would survive, and they did.

It was in one of those Ghettos that my grandmother gave birth to my father. She was alone; my grandfather was taken to forced labor elsewhere, several months earlier. She managed to get into a Christian hospital “illegally” in order to give birth. That was a very dangerous thing to do. Had the authorities knew that she was there, they would not have hesitated to kill her, and then my father, and hence I, would not exist. Yet, her survival was even more miraculous than that.

My grandmother did not have an easy birth with my father. She was so weak and lost so much blood while giving birth that she came close to death. In fact, she was left on the hospital bed bleeding and unattended, and would have died that night if it was not for a good Christian doctor who happened to be there that day and to notice her. After a short query, he realized that she was a Jew who was “not supposed to be there.” He could have turned her in. In fact, it would have been much safer for him to do that. But instead, he decided to save my grandmother. He told the nurse to bring him ice in order to stop the bleeding. “More ice, get me more ice!” he shouted and ordered the nurse time and again during that fateful night, his face full of concentration, as he was trying to save her. I remember her telling me this story in minute details, with tears in her eyes and in a broken voice, as she delved into that hurtful past and relived those moments for me, moments that were carved into her memories and self. She passed out and regained consciousness the following morning to discover that she was still alive. She could not stay in the hospital for long and so after she regained some strength she went back to the Ghetto. My grandfather did not hear any news about his first son, my father, until much later.

That was not the first or only time my grandparents came close to death during that insane time, but they clung on to life. Indeed, my grandparents were among the lucky Jews who survived the Holocaust. In the early 1960s, they immigrated to Israel. Starting in a transition camp in northern Israel, they slowly built their lives there, my grandmother as a professional seamstress, and my grandfather working at the Haifa sea-port.

She was a very noble and caring person, very intelligent, and held the family closely together through weekly Shabbat dinners at their house in Haifa. I will never forget those dinners: delicious Romanian food, family warmth, and laughter. But I would also not forget how her hands often trembled as she brought the plates to that little packed Shabbat dinner-table. Being the curious child that I was, I asked her about that. She explained that the shivers began after the Holocaust. When I grew up, I discovered many other incredible stories that my grandparents had from the Holocaust, stories and memories, which they seldom talked about.

It was difficult to see my grandmother gradually transform in old age due to illness, first physically, then psychologically. Hers was a combination of Parkinson’s and strokes in her 80s. The most deplorable thing was that her acute thinking was eventually impaired too. By this time she was already aided by Luchi, a dedicated caretaker from Romania. This is somewhat an irony of history. In Romania my grandparents experienced anti-Semitism from the Nazis and the local community and eventually moved to Israel. In Israel, my grandmother was taken care of by a wonderful Romanian Christian who became attached to my grandmother as if she was her mother, so she told me while crying earlier today over the phone; and my grandmother came to see Luchi, or Luchika as she fondly used to call her, as the daughter she never had. So in a symbolic way a circle is closed: my grandmother made her peace with Romania and with her hurtful past there.

Despite her illness, my grandmother maintained this amazing grace until her last moments and died in dignity. I spoke to her briefly a few weeks ago, and with her loving voice she wished me all the best. I will forever treasure the moments and memories that she shared with me.

Blessed be her memory,

Doron Shultziner