Not long ago, my synagogue in Northampton, Massachusetts, asked me, an ordinary shul-goer, to give a talk about prayer. I didn’t believe that I had any special expertise about the topic, but said yes to the request, and then found myself — in preparing my remarks — looking for a letter of my mother’s that had been published in 1946 in the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog.
At the time of the letter, my mother, Franka Lorberbaum-Kliger, was 25-years old and in a detention camp in Cyprus, on her way to Palestine after having survived the war. I was not yet born; my older brother was about to be.
My feelings of weariness fade with each passing day, as I come closer to my goal — a quiet corner of my own in Israel. Until now, I have had no interest in sharing my experiences with anyone, but today 1 feel a first ray of light… .It is only by chance that I survive, and I must confess that it is no great joy to remain living after such a disaster … .In Auschwitz, I ceased to exist as a human being, and was transformed instead to a number. On my left arm, in black ink, I was branded with the number 48427 and a small triangle, the Nazi mark for Jewish criminal. There, in Auschwitz, our names vanished. And our spiritual suffering was often far greater than our physical afflictions. There, I lost my sister and her child, powerless even in the choice to die together with loved ones. When I wanted to accompany my sister into the ovens, a Nazi sadist objected: “You are still young. You must work yet, and only then will we allow you to die’.’ I was pushed out of the line reserved for death.
In Auschwitz, I would sometimes meet several friends from our Warsaw Jewish student organizations… .Very few of us survived. For us, the dearest moments… in Auschwitz were those times when, though hungry and exhausted, we would recall the idealistic underpinnings of our youth movement in Warsaw. We would dream about surviving the war, reunited with our friends who would perhaps have managed to escape to America, Israel or the Soviet Union. This was pure fantasy, of course. Enveloped by hunger, we could only dream….
After the liberation a new chapter of suffering began. It was not easy for me to decide to return to Poland, where the very earth is soaked with the blood of dear ones and family … but with the faint hope of perhaps finding someone, I returned to Warsaw.
After three weeks of wandering through war-torn Poland, I arrived at the ruins of Warsaw. The city and its streets, once so dear to me, seemed foreign and empty of any meaning. I found no one and I left for Lodz… determined to leave Poland altogether.
In Bergen-Belsen, in the DP camp, I began to regain my strength. The new surroundings, the improved conditions, and the devotion of a group of colleagues from the movement — all of this raised my spirits….
I resumed my organizational activity, and began thinking about immigrating to Israel. I was married on December 18, 1945 in Bergen Belsen to Rakhmiel Kliger, and from that moment on, the loneliness which had so pained my heart came to an end. We decided to build our life in Israel, and our group began its journey on April 4, 1946. Our group wandered for seven months until detained in Cyprus. Now I am here with my husband, behind English barbed wire, soon to become a mother. I am very concerned about this, for as yet I have no place that is my own, let alone a home for a small innocent baby. On December 22, we are due to leave Cyprus for Israel. It will not take too much longer before we will be a free people in our own land, and the wounds of our soul will heal.
I look forward to the birth of a new human being, part of a new generation, born at the threshold of our national homeland, our national future.
Reading this letter, 43 years after it was written, it occurs to me that the reason I was drawn to it is that I suspected it had something to teach me about prayer, about the capacity to pray, no matter where life sets us down — 1939 or 1989, Bergen Belsen, New York, or even Northampton.
I recall, for example, sitting with my mother as a child in shul, at the Williamsbridge Jewish Center in the Bronx, in the women’s section. The ba’al t’filah (prayer leader) moved along quickly in the service, but my mother prayed at her own pace, pointing out certain savory words and phrases to me in the prayerbook we shared.
I now realize that my mother was one of the very few women in that room who understood Hebrew. And the very language, which she had learned as an adult, of course, was full of bloom and power for her. I remember our old neighbor Mrs. Pessy, who could not read at all, probably in any language, asking my mother, year after year, to tell her when the time for Sh’ma Koleynu (Hear our Voices) was approaching. For then Mrs. Pessy would know when to begin to cry.
I sit now, thinking about prayer, wondering what my mother’s letter, my parents’ lives, my childhood experiences of sitting next to my mother in shul, all teach me about prayer, about the power of belief, connectedness, perseverance, love. And why, of all memories, can I bring up, so easily, the scene of Mrs. Pessy asking my mother to tell her when to begin to cry?
It occurs to me that in my attempts to embrace more of the rituals and customs of Judaism as I grow older, what I am searching for is a bond with family members and loved ones whom I never knew because they perished in the Khurbn, the Holocaust. I try to reach back, past that time of worlds turned upside down, of broken promises and shattered dreams, back to a place within myself, a place where even I can hope, believe, have ideals, love — despite this insistent heritage that spins countermelodies of despair inside my head.
I always have wondered whether I could have carried on, believed, hoped — indeed, whether I could have prayed? And suddenly it is clear to me:
It is not answers that we break through to, but the ability to feel, and thus to begin to pray. And so I know now why I remember old Mrs. Pessy with such a feeling of poignance and of clarity and warmth.
Because it is not Mrs. Pessy, but myself, who is asking my mother — and through her, my grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and sisters, all sacrificed — to tell me when the time for Sh’ma Koleynu is approaching, because I am finally ready to cry.
Hannah Kliger is an assistant professor in the department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies and the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst