My mother passed away in the early morning of the first day of Rosh Hashana, September 30, 2000. I recall it also as the day following the beginning of the Al-Aksa Intifada, half a world away in Jerusalem. Curiously, my father died virtually to the day that the first Intifada began, December 21, 1987. I’ve quipped more than once that it’s a good thing for the Jews (and I might also add, for the Palestinians) that I have no third parent – e.g., no adoptive parent to supplement my birth parents.
My parents came to this country together with my mother’s Tante Elsa, a stately Viennese lady of family lore, in June 1941, virtually to the day that the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and shortly overran their Galician shtetl hometown, Jarownow (the first w is pronounced as a v). Fortunately, rather than being trapped there, they were in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where they stayed from1938 until ‘41, assisting Tante Elsa after she was widowed and forced into exile from Nazi-occupied Austria; they waited there for US immigration visas, while being rejected by all other Western countries.
As the Nazis gathered to conquer Yugoslavia, the US consulate withheld their visas for several weeks, requiring my parents to prove that the countries they’d travel through would give them transit visas – a meaningless delay (inspired on the orders of Under Secretary of State Breckenridge Long), intended to flummox Jews in the hope that they’d be trapped rather than make it to the US. With the help of a travel agent, my father secured letters from several consulates assuring the US that travelers with immigration visas to the US would have no trouble obtaining transit visas.
My parents struggled in a new country, to raise my sister and myself, and to make a living, without the help of their parents. My mother had sisters here, but my father lost his entire family and I never knew my grandparents on either side because of the Shoah. My mother’s brothers all made it to Palestine and gave root to three generations, so far, of Israeli sabras.
I’ve long felt a serious psychological burden as a result of this background, emanating from the greatest crime of the modern era. Given this history, it’s been impossible for me to believe in a personal god who governs such things, but I feel somewhat sinful in stating this.
My mother spent most of her last decade in decline in Florida, suffering from a worsening dementia. I took her in during her final months, but was not knowledgeable enough to prevent her from dehydrating during a hot spell in May and I saw her through several months at Mt. Sinai and at the Jewish Home and Hospital. Most days, I would see her twice a day, stealing time from work, and grew exhausted. When my sister secured a place for her in a facility near her in northeastern Connecticut, I okayed the transfer. My visits, of course, dwindled to a couple of weekends.
My sister, who is disabled in a wheelchair from MS, visited with her husband every other day. My mother deteriorated quickly and died within about a month of the transfer. I won’t say that I’m consumed by guilt over this, but I do feel guilty, and occasionally this feeling hits me in the gut, especially when I recall that she stopped recognizing me.
Being there for her in New York was an exhausting challenge, but her clear sense of appreciation was rich compensation. I cannot but feel that I abandoned her.
I don’t know how or if the Jewish tradition sees a death on Rosh Hashana as significant. If I’m not mistaken, there is some mention of such a death occurring on Yom Kippur. But as long as I remember each Rosh Hashana, I will honor my mother’s yahrzeit. Le Shana Tova!
I found your article very moving.
I have a question about the name of your mother’s village in Poland. Are you sure about the spelling. My mother-in-law is from the town of Jaworzno. Could that be the same village?
Thank you Amichai. Although I’m not sure of what the best spelling is, my parents’ Galician shtetl was NOT Jaworzno. It was Jarawnow (pronounced Ja-rav-nah). Gam lekha, Shanah Tova.
P.S. Your name sounds familiar. You’re a veteran of Mapam and Kibbutz Artzi?
I am a member of Kibbutz Shomrat and was a Hashomer Hatzair shaliach in Toronto from 1980-82. I have known Arieh L. for many years.
Please send him my regards.
P.S. I wrote a column for Israel Horizons in 1994.