Eulogy for My Mother – Leah Kalina
Thank you for being here today in person or virtually. “Mom, you would be glad to know that I’m standing up straight and that I combed my hair.” These are two things that my mother harped on me about all of my life. Her special gift in life was connecting with people and my mother would have been delighted to know how many relatives and friends have come here today or are viewing this or will connect with us after the funeral to remember her. Already we have had many, many condolences. No matter where my mother went, she had the ability to connect. Her life was one of tragedy and triumph of the human spirit.
Our mother was born Lenke Grüenberg on September 14, 1929, the second oldest of four sisters of Eli (aka Illes) Gruenberg and Sheindel (aka Zseni) Schwimmer Gruenberg in Čierny Potok, CZ close to the Carpathian Mountains. Our Tante Ruchel was the oldest. Her father was a businessman who owned a farm and maybe a mill. My mother remembers Čierny Potok as an idyllic small town where everyone knew each other. “There was no place I would rather be.” My mother and her sisters adored their mother, Sheindel. “I thought nobody in this world had such a mother as we did,” she said, remembering her as a gentle woman who never raised her voice. She said, “I would rather be with her than any of my friends.”
Tragedy: The nightmare of our mother’s life began at age 14, on April 9, 1944, the second day of Passover. At that time, the Hungarians, who were in collaboration with the Germans, controlled the town. Policemen warned the town’s few Jews against celebrating Passover, but the family went ahead. My mother, in her Shoah Foundation tape, said it was a very different Passover from the usual happy occasion; tense and frightening. “The worst part was when I saw tears streaming down his (her father’s) face. I knew something was very wrong,” she said. “I never saw him cry before that time. He knew it would probably be our last Passover.” The next day the police forcibly removed them from their modest home and sent them to the Mukačevo ghetto in Hungary. “’Dad said ‘Take food; make sure you are taking food.’ ”
On May 11, 1944, after a month in Mukačevo, they were transported to Auschwitz by rail in a locked cattle car crammed wall-to-wall. “We had no idea where we were going,” my mother recalls. “I remember looking through this tiny window (in the cattle car) and seeing the green grass and thinking, ‘how beautiful the world is, but not for us.’ It was the second time I saw my father cry.”
At the camp, those assigned to the right were selected for work, at least temporarily. People deemed too old, young, feeble or too weak to work were assigned to the left and slaughtered. Her parents and sister Malka, the youngest at age 8, were murdered in the gas chambers right after their arrival.
“We arrived at night,” my mother said. “There is no way to express the feeling on arrival to Auschwitz.” “They took away the most precious thing in my life, my mother – she was only 42 years old – and my precious sister Malka,” my mother said.
My mother and her sisters, Ruchel and Bluma, were sent to the barracks after their heads were shaved, the first step in the dehumanization process. “My sister was right in front of me and I didn’t recognize her,” my mother said. No one could escape the sight of flames and smell of smoke coming from the crematoria. My mother remembers her shock when she first encountered the emaciated, hollow-eyed children in the barracks. When the other girls in the barracks told her that her sister and parents and were almost certainly already up in smoke, my mother recalls how “We just cried and cried and cried.”
At Auschwitz, survival was the only goal. My mother, Ruchel and Bluma were assigned to digging ditches. “We gave each other some kind of hope; we will get out of here, we will make it. They could never take away from me my will to live and my faith in God, though I was very angry with God,” she said.
Every day meant standing in formation for hours. Every day there was a selection. They always took somebody. Each morning my mother and her sisters would pinch their cheeks to look healthy enough to work though they were being starved and the hunger was constant. Each day they would be given soup, one piece of black bread and a little butter. “It’s the kind of hunger that there is nothing in this world you would not give for a piece of bread,” my mother said. One day, she impulsively ran out of the barracks door with her food container when she saw the people with the soup cauldron approaching. She was lucky not to have been beaten to death then and there. She was forced to kneel for hours on gravel.
A few weeks later, they were moved to Plaszow, the concentration camp portrayed in Schindler’s List. This camp was actually worse than Auschwitz. Lice were rampant. They labored 12 hours a day hauling stones. There were savage, unpredictable shootings and beatings. German shepherds dogged their heels, ready to attack if someone fell.
Sadly, Bluma, my mother’s younger sister was weakening. To try to conserve energy, the sisters would try and hide a piece of bread from their rations to eat later. One day, when the sisters were looking for the stash, they discovered it was gone. A girl came crying to them, “I took it,” she sobbed. They all began crying. “Imagine, four kids crying over one piece of bread,” said my mother.
Then in August 1944, they were transported back to Auschwitz. On August 11, 1944, the number, A-21653 was tattooed on her left arm. After arrival, there was another selection. It was overseen by Dr. Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi “Angel of Death.” And the worst happened. Bluma was selected.
“With one nod, they took Bluma up,” my mother remembers. “Bluma screamed to us ‘please don’t let me go.’ ” Ruchel tried to intercede, begging Mengele to let Bluma go. According to a tape made by Ruchel, he said to her, “Go back in line because you will die like a dog too.”
In the fall of 1944, my mother and her sister Ruchel were transferred to Bergen-Belsen. She said the stench of the dead bodies was awful. After Bergen-Belsen, their last camp was Buchenwald, which she and Ruchel entered December 17, 1944. For the final months, my mother was placed in a subcamp called Markkleeberg.
Finally, with the Allies invading from all sides, my mother, her sister and about 2,000 others were sent on a death march to Theresienstadt in northern Czechoslovakia. Fewer than 200 would survive. It was during the march that my mother escaped. They were forced to walk nonstop, with just an hour or so of sleep each night. They were given a piece of bread at the beginning of each day, then nothing. After about two weeks, my mother saw a field of freshly planted potatoes. On impulse, the same kind of impulse that sent her out for extra soup, she darted into the field.
“There I go again,” she stated in her Shoah testimony, “I’m thinking, ‘I’m just going to dig up the plants and come right back.’ ” But she fainted and when she came to, the others were gone. “I woke up and there were three potatoes and no one but G-d was with me. Those three potatoes were the best food I ever had.”
Our mother soon met up with two other death march escapees. She told us that upon liberation, she weighed approximately 70 pounds and she is 5 feet 3 inches tall. She just began walking and walking.
After the war, my mother learned that Ruchel had made it alive to Theresienstadt. Eventually, they reunited in Čierny Potok, their hometown. When they returned to the town, they found that their house had been turned into a small school. They were given a room, but it was clear there was no future there. “At that time I was very surprised the people in the town were not happy to see us,” my mother said.
She went to work in Prague as a babysitter and then worked in a bakery. In 1946 she and her sister were placed in a series of displaced persons camps through the Joint Distribution Committee. At first, in the DP camps, people talked about their experiences. Then they stopped. “We had the incentive to build a new life, the incentive to work hard, not hating people,” she said
The last DP camp was DP Camp Deggendorf in Germany. My mother described this as “heaven” compared to the concentration camps. The survivors were given plenty of food and my mother described herself as a “blimp” for that period of her life. She had her own cot. In the camp there were also cultural and social events and schooling. My mother attended the dressmaking school sponsored by ORT, the Jewish educational and vocational training organization. She remembered going to lectures on Zionism and joined the Betar Movement which was a Zionist youth organization for a while. There was a makeshift synagogue and medical facilities. Life moved forward for many as there were many marriages and babies born there. My Aunt Ruchel married her husband Hashel there in a hand-me-down wedding gown. My mother and her sister Ruchel possessed an inner strength when challenged by tragedy.
Our mother was able to obtain a “child’s visa” and immigrated to the United States alone. HIAS also participated in this process. She began her journey to the United States on October 15, 1947, also at the port of Bremen, Germany aboard the “Ernie Pyle.” When my mother arrived in New York, her name was Lenke. She changed it to Leah shortly thereafter. Her American relatives, who were her sponsors, Uncle Louis and Aunt Zina Schwimmer, met her in New York.
Triumph: Our mother was unflinching and extraordinary. In the six years from 1945 until 1951 in which she lost her parents, her two sisters, her home, her education, her teenage years and survived four concentration camps and a DP camp, she then came to the US, where she went to night school, learned English, married my father and started a family-me and Barb in 1953. That’s courage.
It was at a lecture in 1948 in Philadelphia at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel where Moshe Sharett, the first Minister of Foreign Affairs from Israel, was speaking where my mother first met my father. He went because of his passion for history – especially Russian and Jewish history. Dad was talking too loudly; my mother turned around and told him to be quiet. As they say, this was the beginning of a beautiful romance. Tragedy struck again when our father died in 1970 due to a massive stroke.
Barb and I heard all our lives how beautiful, gracious and lovely our mother was and it was absolutely true. All of our friends like to hang out at our house in Cherry Hill – mostly because of Mom. She made everyone feel welcomed and she was also a fantastic cook. Because of her background she got carried away and would always say, “Eat, my children. Eat. Eat or Essen mein kinder.” It’s a wonder that we turned out thin. She was the consummate host. No one ever left her house hungry. No one. She took a real interest in everyone and always saw the good in people.
Triumph: We remember some of her achievements as becoming the PTA president at Parkside School. She also worked in our father’s grocery store, became a preschool teacher and started talking to school children about her life and the Holocaust. My mother could have the children and teenagers relate to her as she was only 14 herself when she was taken to the camps. She also has her legacy documented in the Shoah Foundation’s videotapes. Her last years were difficult but she faced them with grace and quiet dignity. I remember the lessons she taught me. One example: my mother came with me to a pediatrics conference and we were invited to sit with my chairman as we walked by his table. We spoke for about 10 minutes and then Mom announced that we had to go. Naively, I asked her where we were going? She said, “Nowhere, you never want to wear out your welcome.” Another time the two of us were driving to Atlantic City. We and my Tante Ruchel all loved to gamble. It was 2008 and I was supposed to drive. When we got into the car, she stated that she wanted to drive, so I let her. It was a somewhat harrowing experience. She told me that this was something she always wanted to do and she was doing it. She was a life time learner and bold. My mother, Barb and I had good times working in the store, going to Litt Brothers, attending the NY World’s Fair and many other journeys.
We remember you as a wonderful mother, the best Bubbie, loving wife, devoted sister, doting aunt, warm cousin, vibrant friend, caring teacher and courageous Holocaust survivor. Above all, we will be remembered for your loving devotion to our family. You were always so reassuring and supportive of us. Mom, we’re going to miss you immensely. Thank you for everything you’ve given us – the love and the bonds we shared during your precious time on earth. You touched many lives. We love you. You’ll always be in our hearts.