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Hugging Mrs. H

Hugging Mrs. H

Even as a young child, I understood that Mrs. H's tears belonged to all of us.


I lit a memorial candle last night and placed it in my kitchen window. My tiny street was completely dark. The light from the candle flickered and bounced over all the doors and windows of the houses opposite. Such a little light, for such a big thing.

I grew up in a community almost entirely comprised of German Jews. They were refugees who came over to England either before the war, or after it. The surnames of my friends at shul were all German names: Frei, Beigel, Faber, Nussbaum, Hirsch, Schwarz, Felsenstein.

I internalized long before the story of the Holocaust had been verbalized to me that the people I prayed with in shul had undergone unimaginable suffering. Some of them had been orphaned as children, had arrived in England on the Kindertransport never to be reunited with their parents. Some had been in the worst of the concentration camps as teenagers. Most of my friends at shul had no grandparents.

But the person who attracted my attention in shul was Mrs. H. A very attractive woman with an impressive black sheitl, Mrs. H. had two adopted children. This was unusual in those days. There were a good number of childless couples in the community then -- it was before the days of fertility treatment. But not many religious couples adopted. It was difficult to find Jewish children available for adoption, and the adoption of non-Jewish children was a halachically complicated process.

Everybody knew why Mrs. H. couldn't have children of her own.

Infertility is an agonizingly private issue, but everybody knew why Mrs. H. couldn't have children of her own. She had been experimented on in Auschwitz by Dr. Mengele. She was a teenager at the time, fifteen or sixteen years old.

Every week in shul I looked and looked at Mrs. H., who sat at some distance away from me and my mother. She had a grave, quiet face. She was a devout woman who prayed with composure and focus. For 51 weeks of the year Mrs. H. was always there, in my peripheral vision, taking three steps back, three steps forward into God's presence at the beginning of the Amida prayer.

On one day of the year, Yom Kippur, Mrs. H. moved into central view. On that day Mrs. H. was no longer quiet. Her suffering was terrible to behold. She wept and wept, doubled over with weeping. As a small child I watched her. To this day I remember the feeling of my mother's hand on my head, tilting it downwards towards my siddur, teaching me that people's tears on Yom Kippur are their own affair.

But I did not feel that Mrs. H.'s tears belonged only to her. Even then, at ten years old, I understood that her tears belonged to all of us.

The English are restrained and polite about grief. Don't shout, don't scream, don't sob. And if you are an observer of grief, don't look, don't touch and don't give away that you have noticed, as this would be an invasion of privacy.

In all the years that Mrs. H.'s body was crumpled against the wall with weeping, I don't recall that anyone ever reached out to her. No one hugged her and no one held her. "I want to give her a cuddle," I used to say to my mother. "Can I go across and cuddle her?"

"No, darling, you can't," my mother would reply. "I'm not sure how she would feel about it." And indeed. It would not have been the done thing.

I think that Mrs. H., stored somewhere deep in my hard drive, is one of the reasons I'm living in Israel today. Israel is that one big hug I could never give to Holocaust survivors. It's also the hug I give to myself, as I walk across Safra Square on this beautiful Jerusalem day -- Holocaust Day -- in Spring. I look up at the huge flagpoles of the Jerusalem municipality and I see that they are flying at half-mast.

Half-mast for you, Mrs. H. And all the other women of the Shoah.

April 18, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Mandy, June 3, 2009 10:19 AM

Very Evocative

Beautifully written. Well done

(7) Anonymous, April 24, 2009 12:07 AM

Although the state of Israel is a wonderful gift to the Jewish people, as a "hug" to the survivors of the holocaust, it is not appropriate. It is a well known fact that the secular founders of Israel impeded rescue efforts (read Ben Hecht's "Perfidy") because they thought it would damage their efforts to create the state. Jewish lives in exchange for a Jewish State is not a Jewish concept.

(6) Kristie, April 20, 2009 11:02 AM

human hope

I am a milti-racial Jew. I am a single, divorced, mother of 9. 4 of whom are my cousins children that I adopted in June 1997, the day after the death of my father's mother. I did not get to hug her while she was alive much and when she died that is all I wanted to be able to do. I missed that opportunity. I believe that is partially why I adopted my cousins children, that and a deep love of course. Each time I hug them I feel as though I'm hugging a part of her. You see she helped to partially raise these children. I am sorry you did not get to hug Mrs. H, but I am very glad you are hugging Israel she needs it. My children and I hope one day to live in Israel so we too can hug her. In the mean time with love and honor wee WONT FORGET!

(5) Feigele, April 20, 2009 9:44 AM

Sweeping dust under the carpet!

I believe as part of the healing process, we have to do it alone and that should be respected by others. But there come a time when, it is time for others to participate and show their support by talking, touching, holding hands or even hugging. As the story says, Mrs. H was going to Schul 51 weeks a year for years. All that time, not once and no one even acknowledge her pain to her. I think that was cruel. I am sure it would have warmed her heart if people had hugged her and talked to her not in an invasive way. By not doing so, she must have felt so alone like she was during her tortures. Maybe by talking/hugging her she would have stopped crying so much for so long.

(4) Yaakov, April 20, 2009 1:43 AM


wish you would've hugged her. but perhaps it wasn't appropriate, whatever the heck that means!

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