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When Nuns Took My Grandmother’s Son in the DP Camp to Bathe Him

September 11, 2022 | by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

The secret to my grandmother’s joy.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are given the gift of the Hebrew month of Elul. These days are a month of introspection, a journey of self-discovery.

Who am I?

What is my life all about?

Where do I put my energy?

It’s not only the big moments that make a difference. Most of us have not changed the world. The small moments matter tremendously, too.

I once asked my grandmother, Mama, about her most difficult memory after being rounded up by the Nazis. She spoke with pain in her eyes. Despite seeing her children and children’s children create homes of sanctity and peace, the anguish remained raw.

Mama’s response was unexpected.

Greater than the brutal deaths of her precious loved ones, the gasping for air in the cattle cars, the gnawing hunger, the shaved head covered with lice, the gas chambers that loomed before her, the terror that each day would bring, it was this one painful memory that Mama shared with me.

After going through the nightmare of Bergen Belsen, Mama, together with my grandfather, my mother and her two brothers, were all sent to a D.P (displaced persons) camp in Switzerland. Mama was a young mother then. I can’t imagine the emotions she endured throughout that terrible dark time. How does a mother watch as her innocent, sweet children suffer through savage destruction and crushing brokenness, yet remain whole?

Upon arrival to the D.P. camp, the nuns insisted that they take Mama’s youngest child from her to bathe.

“I’ll do it!” Mama cried. “Don’t take him away from me! Please! I beg you. Let me bathe my child.”

The nuns would not hear of it. They grabbed the little child out of my grandmother’s arms. He screamed and screamed.

But the nuns would not hear of it. They grabbed the little child out of my grandmother’s arms. He screamed and screamed. He stretched out his hands, his eyes opened wide with fear.

Mama wiped her glistening eyes. “I thought to myself, How can it be that we survived till now, I have my children, and now I am going to lose him? They will never bring him back to me. Never! I lost him, I lost him… I moaned over and over. I just sat there crying. No one could console me.

“Finally, the nuns brought him into my room. ‘Mama! Mama!’ he cried. I don’t know who was crying more. But I do know that this was one of my most terrible memories.”

I looked at Mama now with a new understanding. I saw the joy she had every time she held a baby in her arms, baked her delicious Hungarian dishes for us, and played on the floor with grandchildren and great grandchildren. Every time she looked at us or called our name was a balm for her broken soul. Even giving a bath became a moment of healing. I got it now.

We who have the freedom to live, to love, and to embrace life must seize the moment. It’s not only about changing the world. It’s about changing ourselves. Elul is about gratitude, reaching out to those we’ve taken for granted, building and rebuilding connection and relationships. It’s about the little moments where we can wipe away a tear, make someone smile, and give a listening ear to another. It’s about giving a child a bath.

Take the time now and contemplate those little moments that pass us by. Hear the music of the world that surrounds you, listen to the joy that comes when we take the seemingly routine instants and make them sacred.

Think about composing an Elul prayer of contemplation.

Thank You God for the sound of a baby’s cry in middle of a night.

Thank You God for the shoes all over the hall, the messy kitchen, and the dinner that needs to be made.

Thank You God for the many people in my life, their voices, their opinions, their visions and dreams that color my life. Thank you for the noise, the hands that are full, and ‘to do’ lists that seem endless.

Allow me to treasure each day. Allow me to discover the magic of the soul that lies deep within. Allow me the gift of time to grow, the gift of patience to hear others, and the gift of an open heart to relish each moment I have in Your world.


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