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Today is a very special day in my family. It was on April 15th, 1945, that my grandmother, Masha Greenbaum, then Masha Ralsky was liberated from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen Belsen
74 years ago today, she went from being enslaved, to being free. She celebrates this day every year as her birthday
This year, the way the dates work out with the Hebrew calendar, Passover is around the corner. The year she was liberated, Passover happened first. At seder, jews sing a song called “avadim hayinu”- we were slaves
In Bergen Belsen, she sat with her mother and sister, and other jewish prisoners, and tried to recite what they remembered by heart from the seder. When they got to the we were slaves (in Egypt) song, they stopped, and cried, confounded. They were PRESENTLY slaves.
The irony was too much. But they continued. They sang all night in the hopes that one day soon they would truly be free. That like the Jews in Egypt, they would be freed from their enslavement.
Then, on April 15th, they were. My grandmother lost her father during the war. But she survived, along with her mother (for who I am named) and her sister.
Right before liberation, my grandmother developed typhus. She was brought to the nazi’s ersatz infirmary. The system was as followed: she has a few days to recover and get back to work. If she got sicker, she would be left to die or killed by a German bullet
She woke up in the hospital to a shocking sound. The havdala, the prayer we say at the conclusion is Shabbos, which separates the holy from the mundane, was being recited on the loudspeaker of the camp
She was totally confused. How was this happening in Bergen Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp?
The war had ended. The man on the loudspeaker was Avraham Greenbaum. He was with the British army. He would become her husband.
After the liberation, the survivors moved into a DP camp. My grandmother, who was already fluent in Hebrew, began writing ketubot, Jewish marriage contracts. The survivors wanted to get married, have children, and start new lives. They wanted to rebuild.
My grandfather was working for the British army, but he was also working for a group that would ultimately morph into UNSCOP, the United Nations special commission on Palestine
The group was interested in one data point: did survivors want to return to Europe, go to America, or flee to Palestine?
As a speaker of Yiddish and English, he was tasked with conducting interviews and translating results for the committee. One day, he was presenting his findings: overwhelmingly, the survivors wanted to go to Palestine, to eretz yisroel. There were objections.
The group didn’t believe that he was representing the results accurately. What happened next was nothing short of heart wrenching.
A young survivor, maybe 18, walked by. One member of the committee said, go bring him here, ask him where he wants to go, where he wants to call home
My grandfather asked the survivor. The survivor said: I want to go eretz yisroel. The committee pressed my grandfather to ask the survivor where he would want to go if israel were not an option
My grandfather said: if that can’t happen, where would you like to go then? The survivor looked past my grandfather and to the committee. He said in Yiddish: If you can’t send me to israel, you may as well send me back to auschwitz
The committee left soon after. They reported the results. The Jews had an unwavering connection to the land of the israel. It was not something that could be severed.
My grandmother had only a little surviving family. She came from Lithuania, where a catholic secretary had bravely offered to save her life, hiding her during the war. She at first planned to go with her, and then decided she would live or die with her people and her family
Aside from her mother and sister, her only surviving family had moved from Lithuania to Mexico City long before the war
There was one problem: she didn’t know their address. She wrote a letter, and put it in an envelope with their names on it. Then she put that envelope in with another letter in a new envelope, addressed only to: Chief Rabbi, Mexico City.
She wrote a letter to a person she didn’t know but assumed existed, explained the circumstances, and asked him to pass on the letter to her family. When the British came around collecting letters, and saw she had one with no address, no name, just “Chief Rabbi, Mexico City” they
Explained to her that this wasn’t how the mail system worked, that her letter would never get there. She asked them to try anyway. They did. And you know what? The letter made it.
Fast forward a short time later, my grandmother, her mother, sister, and new husband, moved to Mexico. My father was born a couple years later.
This is her, 36 years after liberation, earning her masters degree in jewish history- a subject she lived.
She lives in Jerusalem, Israel. For years while she was able, she taught at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. She has written many articles and several books. She sees it as her mission to tell the world what happened.
One of her books, the Jews of Lithuania, tells a story that precedes the war. We are so focused on what we lost, we so often forget what we had. We forget what a thriving jewish community Europe was once home to. She never forgot
Another one of her books, “a fenster tzum gehonim”, a window into hell, is about the war years
My own desire to be a writer came from her. I learned early on that to write was one of the most powerful things a person could do
This year, I’ll spend Passover in israel with my husband, my aunt and uncle, my cousins, and my grandmother. I’ll sit with her, at the table, singing “ we were slaves”.
Every jewish descendant at that table is proof that good triumphed over evil; proof that god took us out of Egypt.
As the Holocaust generation dies out, we — all of us, but especially us, the descendants of survivors— has a special obligation to pick up the torch, to recite their stories, to repeat their words.
During Passover, jews are obligated to imagine that they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. We are obligated to make it personal. For my family, that obligation isn’t hard. It’s natural. It is personal.
We all sing “we were slaves” but for one of us at the table, for my grandmother, those words are literal. And the rest of us can only be grateful that she was freed.
So this year at your seders, lift a glass. Not to cheers, not to l’Chaim, but to l’cherut. To freedom.
Here we are in Jerusalem, 2017
Re-upping this thread about my grandmother in honor of Yom Hashoah
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