In my grandmother’s eyes I could do no wrong and for that I loved her dearly. But this post is not really about my grandmother. It’s about the woman who birthed her, my great grandmother, Rivkah, for whom I am named.
It’s said, in the Jewish religion, that when a name is given to a person, the dead’s spirit inhabits the recipient of that name. I don’t know if that’s true. My grandmother refused to talk about her mother, except for the circumstances of her death. Rivkah was shot at the door of a synagogue by Nazis invading her small town, Mottele. The story went that a Rabbi had sent a letter to my grandmother confirming Rivkah’s death.
I’m told that’s when my grandmother stopped talking of her past. My grandmother never spoke of Mottele. All I know about the town came from outside sources. The principal of my Hebrew school, Mr. Sokolow, was a landsman. This meant that he had family from Mottle. Mr. Sokolow treated my grandmother with the utmost respect when she came to synagogue with our family, but I never heard her talk about Mottele with him. The owner of a hot dog stand in Skokie was a Landsman, too. My grandmother liked to go there, but there, too, she was silent about Mottele and her mother.
It was years after my grandmother’s death that some cousins would find a transcript written by a man who claimed to be the sole survivor of Mottele. Mottele was located in Eastern Poland—in the part that was contested by the Russians. I think that it was a farming community. Thatched roofs, mud roads, a synagogue—presumably the one where Rivkah died. I tried to situate Rivkah and my grandmother there. My grandmother was Rivkah’s youngest child, shipped off to the States as a teenager to work as a nanny for her oldest sister’s children. Rivkah birthed twelve children in all. Nine were killed in the Holocaust. Of those nine children’s offspring, only three survived.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I know how Rivkah died and a few years ago, I learned how her husband died. He was riding a horse driven cart on a lake near Mottele and fell through the ice. He died before Hitler. A gift.
The transcript—and what I was able to read of it—delivers more sad news. Within days of the Nazis conquest of Poland, the rest of my grandmother’s family perished. The transcript says that they were thrust in a pit and shot. But before they were shot, they sang. Rivkah’s children were killed singing.
That’s when I stopped reading the transcript. I was on p. 13.
I can’t shake the fact that this Rivkah—who birthed my grandmother and reared siblings to sing in the face of death—isn’t somehow alive. Not necessarily in me; I can’t carry a tune, but certainly her spirit thrived in my grandmother.
My grandmother was really my best friend. She was not a scholar; she was unable to read. But, she knew how to love unconditionally and pass on sage advice. She gave this shy child a strong sense of confidence. Though I don’t cook like her—thank goodness given all of the schmaltz she used—I find myself remembering how she pulled our family together for Friday night dinners. How she sized my husband up immediately and opened her arms to him. How she embraced my children.
It makes me sad that I know so little of Rivkah’s life. But, she must have been a helluva mother. She certainly passed that on to my grandmother. I’m proud to bear her name. Let her spirit continue!
Filed under: Uncategorized