By this time, I have lost so many family and friends to death that when Rabbi Jamie calls on us for Kaddish, I can sound off with my Top Ten. I have lists for the living people I say prayers for, and a while ago, Albert and I were sitting around and he began to talk about all the people who had helped him through life. There was family, of course, but many others. We began to count them. There were over a dozen who had given him opportunities and encouragement.
I have, over the years, asked about the experiences of people I know who had survived the holocaust. It seems that at least five helpers, planned or spontaneous, had to be there in the horror of the moment. The needs were immediate and sometimes at risk of rescuers’ own lives. Mrs. Rosen, gone now, who used to live in Denver, told me about her rescues. She and others had been outdoors in a temporary holding area set up just outside the Cracow ghetto. The Jews there were awaiting transport. She had given birth to a baby two weeks before and she and her husband handed the tiny girl back and forth. The family’s Polish maid came up to see them, at the enclosure, and Mrs. Rosen pushed the baby under the barbed wires and into a swath of cleared area between that fence and another that separated the areas fro mthe civilian street. The maid was pulling the baby toward her when a guard saw them. “What’s going on here?” “I was carrying my baby,” the maid said, “and I got so tired that I had to put her down so I could rest.” Unlikely, no, unbelievable. “Well,” said the guard, “take your goddam baby and get the hell out of here.” The maid took the baby and brought her to a convent where she, Esther, stayed for the duration of the war.
In the camp, the young couple were sent to a rail-head to work at unloading the corpses of people who had died during transit and to house out the cars afterward. The rail-yard was stationed a little away from the camp. A German officer commanded the group, which, because of the work involved, was quite a number. The officer began to see the prisoners as his responsibility. He worked at separating his people from those of the camp itself, pleading the needs as the trains came in constantly. The prisoners took over and abandoned railroad car. Then he started getting them extra food and clothing and providing medicine through a web of lies and bribes to people in the town. At the end of the war, when everyone could hear the sounds of artillery getting closer, the officer was ordered to shoot the prisoners. He fired the necessary shots into the air while the prisoners hid under the trains and waited for the Russians. The Russian officers, not wanting to slow their troops’ advance, took them to an American aid station. The little girl, Esther, was saved at the convent and returned to her parents. Albert and I were at ESther’s wedding. How many people had been involved in saving the three of them?
I’ve been thinking about my own life, the much more prosaic ways in which I have been helped, and I have begun my own list. There are ten and counting. I’m astonished at the number and variety of the people on that list. They seem to have appeared at my need, to encourage me in good times and help me through bad times. We don’t do it on our own, this living business. REcently, a man told me that he had become the great success he was all on his own, by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. I said i thought it must have been even harder, bent over double like that.
I am continually told that we are all interrelated, all dependent on one another, but unless I look closely, personally, subjectively at those relationship I don’t really believe it. The Torah tries to send the message all the time — all are God’s creation, I am a daughter of very specific people and that I exist specifically in time and place and need to be helped here and now. In services we recall the ill and the dead. Maybe there should be a time when we meditate on all the helpers big and small, young and old, the people who gave us a chance, who stopped when others walked past, who stood up for us and let us grow. See them walking beside you, living and dead? They are legion.