The door was opened by a petite woman with wrinkled skin and grey waves crowning her head. "Annah?" she queried in a hoarse - but loud - voice, staring ahead, yet glaring through me. Shortly after, Yetta told me she has lost her vision, so I am just another shadowy figure with an anonymous face. Despite her physical inability to see, Yetta reads people's intentions and motives with complete aptitude, as I came to learn.

I am just another shadowy figure with an anonymous face

We entered a living-room filled with porcelain lamps, Persian rugs, a huge record player, and a cabinet of floral china. In one corner stood a multitude of canes and walking sticks. This was the first of many visits with Yetta, an eighty-two year old Holocaust survivor. We exchanged niceties, and I explained what I was doing in her apartment on a cold Sunday afternoon. Yetta was thrilled. Having no children of her own, and finding it more and more difficult to leave the house, my visits were a welcome respite to her monotonous routines.

We sat down on her patterned couch, and soon, she began to talk.


Yetta was the daughter of a rabbi in a town near Warsaw. Her pride for this aspect of her heritage is easily detected by the strength in her voice as she once again reminds me of her family's dedication to Judaism. Sadly, she never met her father as he died after a brief illness shortly before her birth. Her mother was left alone to raise a family of eleven children.

Yetta's childhood was a happy one. Over the holidays, they were host to multitudes of hungry people, all welcome at their enormous table. Her brother had taken over the role as Rabbi in the community, and so all the animals were slaughtered according to Jewish law in her front yard. To this day, Yetta knows the details about koshering animals and can tell you exactly what makes a cow fit or unfit according to the most stringent of laws.

Yetta taught me many profound lessons about life and G‑d. They were lessons I perhaps learned in school at one point or another, but it was with her perspective and unassuming words, these lessons impacted me as never before.

"Do you know when I learned that G‑d exists?" Yetta asked one day.

Living in Poland amongst anti-Semitic peasants created many difficulties for the Jews. Yetta's sister had purchased a house shortly after her marriage, but was approached one day by a Polish neighbor, demanding that they vacate the home lest he murder the entire family. Yetta's sister refused. He made it clear that he expected the house to be empty upon his return from a nearby market.

Yetta then paused for a moment and said, "And do you know what happened? He came back with his head separated from his body."

Apparently, he had gotten into a drunken brawl and had his head cut off by another Pole.

"Then," Yetta continued, "I realized there is a G‑d in this world."

Yetta would chop the wooden chairs in her empty houseAlthough her childhood was pleasant, the good times were short lived. Yetta lost her mother when she was nine years old, and as her siblings were no longer living at home, Yetta remained alone in a large and silent house to fend for herself. She could no longer attend school and found work in a beret factory. That winter was a brutal one, and Yetta would chop the wooden chairs in her empty house with a kitchen knife in order to build a fire. After one long year, she moved in with her married sister in Warsaw. Shortly after, WWII broke out. As the situation intensified, Yetta and her sister began formulating a plan of escape.

A ship was being arranged for children and teenagers, with plans to take them to Spain. Yetta had no papers permitting her to leave, so her sister – the real Yetta – gave up her own, sacrificing her only chance for a future. Yetta left on this ship, completely alone. She was fourteen. But when they arrived at a port in Spain, they were forbidden entry. They remained on board for weeks, waiting for a country that would grant them admission. Finally, they were allowed into Cuba, under condition that all young children be sent back to Europe. All the kids on the ship were subsequently butchered in the Nazi death camps. Every time Yetta spoke of this particular period in her life, she broke into deep and painful sobs. As she recovers herself, she tells me that she still sees their innocent faces as they were sent to their deaths.

Yetta arrived in Cuba, where she married Benny, another teenager on the same boat. He was seventeen, she - fifteen. They worked hard to support themselves. She worked by day, and sang in clubs at night. Every extra penny was sent to support their family in Europe. She did not know if they ever received the money, yet she continued sending whatever she could. One day, the money was sent back, stating that they could not be found. Yetta then knew they were dead.

Yetta became pregnant with twins when she was sixteen. As she told me, her joy was indescribable. This was to be her revenge against the murder of her sisters and brothers. Her twins were born, but sadly both were sickly and died as infants. She never spoke of them except to tell me that she did give birth, and that she'd do anything if only to have a living child. Shortly after the death of her twins, she had another baby who also did not survive. Yetta was barely eighteen years old, and had already lost three children.

Once the war ended, Yetta and Benny made their way to the USA, where they devoted their lives to making an honest living and helping others in need. Like the home of her parents, Yetta hosted huge Shabbat and holiday meals for friends and strangers. For many years, she volunteered with the blind. It is a huge irony that she herself is blind today. She has learned to adapt herself to this challenge, and is easily the one to ask if in need of locating something in her apartment. Her fingertips have memorized every crevice, and each safety-pin is in its place.

Yetta felt weak and excused herselfYetta's waning health has been most difficult for her to bear. Several years ago, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday, a good friend decided to have a portrait painted of them together. After posing for hours, Yetta felt weak and excused herself. As she began walking, she lost consciousness and fell down a staircase. She arrived at the hospital with bruises all over her body, yet they were not what alerted the examining doctors. They discovered that Yetta had breast cancer. Due to her accident, they miraculously caught it before it spread through her body. This began a long treatment of radiation therapy which has left her much weakened, and on many days, ill and bloated. It has been increasingly taxing on Yetta, and her limited abilities upset her greatly. Yet she fights.

Her husband, Benny Keller, passed away several years ago. During his prolonged illness, Yetta cared for him with complete selflessness and love, sparing no expense if only to make him more comfortable. Towards the end, his body ravaged with sickness and his mind victim to Alzheimer's, she stayed up through the night, at his side, in case he cried out in pain or discomfort. Although I wasn't around back then, I know Yetta never complained. From her, I have learned true love and devotion.

I met Yetta over three years ago. We have spoken, debated, walked, laughed and cried together for many a Sunday afternoon. When I sit with Yetta, I am amazed at her simple humanness that is so much larger than life. She considers herself a plain woman, but she is one of the most powerful people I know. She is unique and strong. She is beautiful and smart. Not succumbing to the circumstances of her life experience, she has impacted the lives of others through her kindness.

There are precious, irreplaceable lessons that are unique to Yetta's aging generation. It is difficult to relate to their harsh life experiences, but we can listen to their stories and watch their distant expressions as visions of the past flicker before them. They see horrors we can barely imagine, but moments later, it is the future that they speak of. We are their hope for possibility and continuity. Our lives pass by regardless, but if we might reflect on their struggles and make meaningful choices, we in turn make their efforts to survive worthwhile and purposeful. I think we owe them that much.