Continued from Part I

I was much sobered as we walked through Bucharest. It was beginning to infiltrate my brain that the war against the Jews had been a thorough, country-by-country extermination, and almost successful, but for those of us still alive who defied by our existence the Final Solution. The next weeks would further my education, not as a Jewish woman but as a survivor. Bucharest was my first postwar hard lesson. I had not imagined the dimensions of the reality until this moment. The Reich, aided by its enthusiastic supporters within the nations it overran, had ravaged Europe. European Jewry was in shreds. The tapestry of centuries of our life as a people had been ripped apart beyond recognition—but hopefully not beyond its ability to be rewoven.

The tapestry of centuries of our life as a people had been ripped apart beyond recognition—but hopefully not beyond its ability to be rewovenWe wandered around and asked for directions to the address the Bobover Rebbe had mentioned in his letter. When we reached the right neighborhood, we were puzzled. It was a strange collection of buildings and dwellings. It was as if someone had thrown together spare sets and props from a large theatrical production. It made no sense to us. On one corner there was a mansion, on another a hut with a thatched roof. And the old royal castle was still standing, making it all too bizarre to take in at first. We saw a man riding a horse, and someone on the street said, “There’s the king’s son.” We were confused and bewildered, but with great relief arrived at a beautiful building that was the address the Rebbe had given us.

The building was close to the royal palace. The Rebbe was living in a small apartment with his son. They had a bathroom—an absolute luxury!—and the extra bedroom served as the Rebbe’s study. The living room did not have a couch in it, but the dining room had an enormously long table. There was one chaise longue on which to sit. The foyer was large but empty. There were two cots folded up and waiting there, so we understood this was to be our bedroom by night.

Mechel and I noticed that the apartment was packed with holy books, which had been saved from burning or rescued from trash bins. I wondered how the Rebbe had managed to retrieve so many, and how he had hidden them during the times of peril. I did not ask, however. I saw that the apartment was overflowing with medical textbooks as well. The Rebbe was not only a Torah scholar but also had a serious interest in medicine.

I looked around and realized there was no kitchen. I was crippled with anxiety. How could I begin to make a Seder for the Bobover Rebbe without kitchen facilities? I asked and was told that indeed there was not a kitchen available.

We were there to make Passover, and I was not going to be defeated by the lack of a little item like a stove! Or a kitchen! I discussed with Mechel my idea of how to turn the bathroom into a kitchen and he agreed. We found wooden planks at the lumberyard, and laid them over the bathtub, which produced an instant kitchen countertop. We purchased a small gas tank with two burners.

Always confident in languages, now I had reached a place where I could not communicateAlways confident in languages, now I had reached a place where I could not communicate. I did not know a word of Romanian. How could I negotiate at the market and with the butcher? The Rebbe taught me a few basic words, and how to count, which was the most important. The Vizhnitz community had a shochet (a ritual slaughterer), but he did not kasher (salt and soak) the chickens after slaughtering them as required by Jewish law. I had to do this in the bathtub.

The Vizhnitzer Rebbe had wine and matzahs, which he made available to us too. I bought some prunes and some fish. It was so simple to perform difficult domestic tasks because I now knew what mattered and what did not. Without any commotion or drama, I was ready with our Seder meal. It was March 28, 1945, a Wednesday; in the Hebrew calendar it was 14 Nissan 5705.

This was the most unforgettable Seder of my life, unsurpassed until today. When we began to recite the haggadah, we all wept. We did not need to add extra discussion linking us to the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and the miracles they experienced. We were a remnant, a mere fragment of a vibrant and huge population of Jews. We represented all that was lost as much as we represented the reality of survival. We were not telling the story of the ancient deliverance that night, but were living the contemporary recital of our own survival and the continuation of our people.

It was a Seder of joy and tears. The wine we spilled from the glasses to signify the Ten Plagues could also represent the losses we had only recently suffered. The Bobover Rebbe did not know what had happened to his family any more than I knew about mine, yet we both knew. His face and mine were mirror images of one another. Our nightmares and fears were as yet not specific in detail, but were nonetheless present in our hearts that night.

Our nightmares and fears were as yet not specific in detail, but were nonetheless present in our hearts that nightWe knew there had been nothing random about Bochnia or Krakow or Niepolomice or any of the other emptied-out cities and villages of Europe. It had all been a part of a systematic plan to arrest, torture, murder, assassinate, bludgeon, gas and burn millions of Jews. Seated around that Seder table in Bucharest, we understood without articulating it that our parents, grandparents and their children were undoubtedly lost forever, yet the Jewish hope for continuity and belief in our ancient covenant with Hashem was alive that night. Maybe, just maybe some members of our families and those dear to us had escaped and survived. We did talk about how it could have happened. We had no answers. There are still no answers, none that really work at any rate. There are explanations for the Shoah, but those are not answers.

The Rebbe began to sing a song, but I heard it as a prayer. I always will.

Di mamme hot gehaissen, nisselach fun boim oopraissen
Oy, vi hoich zenen di tzvaigelach
Oy, vi niderik zenen di kinderlach
Zei konnen nisht dergraichin

Mother told us to pick nuts from the tree
Oh, how high the branches are!
Oh, how low the children are!
They can’t reach them.

We cried and sang and ate, but mostly we cried. It was a Seder of longing and grief, but together we made it through to the end of the haggadah, and it established a lasting bond between us.