Inside every Jew is a fighter.
My grandmother's sister, Mrs. Edith Davidovic, is an exemplary Jewish fighter. A truly remarkable and inspirational woman, my great aunt is a Jewish fighter of the first order. More than anybody else I know, she embodies the timeless eternal faith of the Jewish people that has continued to survive and thrive.
Edith was born in Hungary but moved with her family to France. As a young newlywed at the outset of the Second World War, she and her husband went into hiding and joined a resistance group against the Nazis. Her parents took refuge in a small village south of the Vichy French line. My maternal grandparents were fortunate enough to escape across the French border from Aix-les-Bains into Switzerland where they were interned into Labor Camps.
Eventually Edith and her husband were caught by the French SS Nazi Commander Milice. They were forced onto a train on Passover, 1944, and deported to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz every moment was a battle to survive. Aunt Edith was tragically separated from her husband who perished in the Death Camps. To compound misfortune and tragedy, not long after she arrived in that hell on Earth, she discovered that she was pregnant. What would have normally been a cause for joy and celebration was for her the most horrific prospect imaginable.
Her immediate concern was to conceal from the guards that she was pregnant. To accomplish this, she exchanged some of her food for parts of a Polish skirt to cover her stomach and to conceal the fact that she was carrying a child.
In the infirmary, there were two head nurses. One was a harsh Nazi SS woman, while the other was a kind Polish deportee who had been in Auschwitz for some time. Edith confided to the latter of her predicament. The Polish lady took kindly to her and promised Edith that she would take her under her wing when the other nurse was not there.
At Christmas Eve, Edith went into labor. She was horrified at the prospect of the early morning roll call that were typically at 4:00 am. By that time, she would be in the final stages of hard labor. If she would not be at roll call, she would be shot. Miraculously, because it was Christmas, the guards moved up their roll call to 12:00 am to accommodate their festivities. Edith was there.
"If you let the baby live, they will conduct experimentations upon you and neither you nor the baby will survive. At least save yourself."
The Polish nurse assisted my great aunt to give birth to a 4-kilo baby boy within the confines of the barbed wire walls of the concentration camp. Conscious of the impending fate that awaited her, the nurse warned her that time was short.
Were the Nazis to discover her circumstances, her fate and that of her child would be sealed. Dr. Mengele and his cohorts in Auschwitz would inflict medical and scientific tests of the most despicable and brutal nature on her and her child. The nurse gave Edith an ultimatum: "If you let the baby live, I guarantee that they will conduct experimentations upon you in the most cruel fashion, and neither you nor the baby will survive. At least save yourself."
Tears pored down Edith's eyes.
How could she possibly make such a decision? But the nurse didn't leave her with any choice. "I want you to regain your strength and energy to make sure that you survive this hell." She grabbed the baby, removed him from the room, and quickly administered a lethal injection.
The next morning a SS Nazi appeared at the infirmary and demanded to know what had happened.
The Polish nurse explained, This mother gave birth to a stillborn. Not allowing herself to be interrupted, she said authoritatively, "Look at this woman. She is young and strong and is in very good health. Leave her and let her get straight back to work for the Fatherland.”
A long silence.
A shadow of pity penetrated the heart of the guard. He glanced at Edith and then at the nurse. After a moment that lasted an eternity, he slowly nodded his head.
Edith fought her way and successfully recovered her strength and resolve. The daughter of a Hungarian rabbi and a scion from a respected rabbinic family, she courageously hung onto to her Jewish faith. Without the emunah, faith, implanted into me by my parents, she would recall, I would never have had the stamina or audacity to survive.
She defied the Nazis that sought to dehumanize her and degrade her faith by fighting back -- not through arms and resistance, but through the human spirit.
She could not forget her father's insistence to always pray from a siddur unless there were extenuating circumstances. In Auschwitz, she poured her heart out to God. She prayed for strength and salvation and said all the prayers she remembered from memory. She even managed to get hold of a prayer book on Yom Kippur where she summoned all her resolve and prowess to fast on the holiest day of the year.
Edith heroically bribed a guard to exchange her meager food rations for a bit of wax. At great risk to her life, she constructed two Sabbath lights and before sunset on Friday evening, she kindled them and encouraged her fellow downtrodden inmates to also sacrifice their morsels of food to fuel their faith.
With her noble deeds, Edith made sure that the spark and fire of her Jewish soul would not be snubbed or extinguished by the Nazi monsters.
As the Allies closed forces on the Germans, Edith was made to walk the infamous Death March to Birkenau. She was forced to separate from her sister-in-law who was ordered to walk in the opposite direction. Edith met up with a Parisian girl and they encouraged each other to keep walking and not to stop under any circumstances. Those that stumbled, perished.
As the bombing continued and the German forces were sent into disarray, she and the French girl broke away from the march and fled to an empty house where they slept the night. To her great fortune, the two eluded the Russian forces that were picking up workers to be sent to the infamous Siberian labor camps. Instead, Americans forces discovered them. From there they were taken to the border of Belgium.
Edith's sister-in-law, however, was never heard from again. She was presumably taken by the Russian forces and sent to Siberia.
Edith survived and her fighting strength has not diminished one iota.
Edith survived. She returned to Paris, a ghost of her former self, barely recognizable. She was joyously reunited with her parents who had escaped detection by fleeing to south of Vichy. She went on to remarry a Jewish Romanian refugee after the war and with God's help was able to built up a large family with Torah-observant children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Indeed, her fighting strength has not diminished one iota since then.
The Eternal Jewish Fighter
Every Jew, in a very real sense, is a fighter.
Throughout history, the Jew has -- consciously or unconsciously -- been fighting for his life. The threat of genocide is not a new phenomenon. It has been repeated all too frequently throughout the ages, including 2,500 years ago during the Persian Empire when King Achashverosh reigned and Haman plotted to annihilate Jewry from Ethiopia to India.
The annual celebration of Purim reminds the Jew in the depths of exile of the imperative to fight for his physical life, and for his spiritual Jewish identity as well. It propels him to reaffirm his faithfulness in God who thwarted Haman's evil plans through hidden, yet miraculous, means. Then, as now, the Jewish community had to face a fierce battle to stem the trend of assimilation. Then, as now, they retained their faithfulness to the Torah by viewing it as their responsibility and privilege.
I draw continual inspiration from my great aunt's commitment to Jewish faith in the darkness of Auschwitz. When considering the faithfulness of Edith and many other Jews in the face of such unimaginable adversity, I repeatedly ask myself the following uncomfortable question: How much more is expected of me living in a free society, in an age where there are no inhibitions to my growth in Torah?
We have the most magnificent tradition to fuel our human spirit and Jewish soul. How can we not devote time to find out what is so special about our Torah heritage? By continuing the faith to the next generation, every Jew has a guarantee that he or she will emerge as a victorious fighter.
|In memory of my mother,
Gloria Degenstein Philipson - Gittel Chana bas Mordechai -
by her son Gregg