On July 20, 2010, my life was turned upside down by a diagnosis, out of the blue, of breast cancer. I will never forget the feeling of complete devastation upon hearing the news that day. I had been fasting, as it was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. A day of mourning, 9 Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year, marking the destruction of Jerusalem (twice,) as well as other calamities (pogroms, expulsions, wars, etc.) that have befallen Jews throughout history, on this date. Collective sadness became deeply personal as I suddenly faced my own mortality.
As Tisha B’Av approaches this year (Sunday, August 14, beginning at sundown the night before,) I am grateful to be celebrating six years of health since that fateful day. Another year of watching children become adults, of love and personal and professional fulfillment. Another year (our fifth anniversary!) of turning lemons into lemonade at the Lemonade Fund, https://lemonadefund.org/movie-what-the-lemonade-fund-does/, providing grants to Israeli breast cancer patients who are in financial crisis. Nothing but pure gratitude for the gift of life and the ability to move forward.
It is easy to see the parallel between recovery from a serious illness and the fast of Tisha B’Av. How do we as a people rebuild, and even improve, after near total destruction? Every year I now feel graced to find a message of hope on this saddest of days. It comes this year care of my mother, Vera Greenwald, z.l.
My mother died suddenly of a massive stroke, in February, at the age of 78, at the height of her career, and if ever there was a tale of rising from the ashes, it was hers. Her life story is one of miracles, survival and rebirth.
My mother was born in Presov, a city in eastern Czechoslovakia that had an active Jewish community of about 8000. Once the war began, her parents had the foresight to begin to run early on, while many were sitting tight. While they were waiting for false papers, my grandmother had a way of hiding in plain sight. It was known that the Nazis worked on a schedule, that they had specific hours when they’d enter the city to round up Jews. My grandmother would take my mother early each morning to Kosice, the next town, and they’d wait in the high reeds by the river all day, only to return each evening after the Nazis had left.
Once this became untenable, they began to run in earnest. One time, while hiding in the house of a righteous Gentile, my very young mother was told to keep completely silent for hours, beneath a pile of potatoes, while the Nazi’s banged their guns and shouted, hunting for Jews. My mother has a memory of clasping her hands together, and promising God over and over again, that if she survived, she would even eat barley soup that she despised.
Eventually hiding in houses became too dangerous and there was no where to go but into hiding in the forests, where my mother and her parents lived with a small group of Jews. They lived in primitive wooden bunkers, 12 people in one, and 17 in the other. Many times they were near death from starvation, living on nothing but rose hips, or foraged greens boiled in melted snow, only to find food one way or another. Many times they couldn’t light fires for fear of the smoke being seen, and it is a miracle that they didn’t freeze to death in the winter months.
Another time, a Russian soldier warned them to disperse, to flee, moments before the Nazis came and found their bunker and razed it to the ground. My mother and her parents hid behind one tree, silently, for a long time, in the bitter cold, while the Nazi’s scoured the woods. They watched as other families were found, just meters away from where they hid. Yet in daylight, in a winter forest with no leaves, they were not caught. My grandmother told of the family scurrying up a sheer ice-covered cliff, at night. She remembered that they all had bloody knees by the time they reached the top. She said that she never knew how they were able to climb that mountain, in the cold and dark. My mother was a very young child at the time.
Somehow those who survived this attack, rebuilt the bunkers, much deeper in the woods. My mother remembers Passover seders in the bunker. My grandfather kept track of the calendar with a match on the wall and recited the Haggadah, the Passover story, by heart. As the end of the war was nearing this small band of Jews were so close to starvation that they decided to risk their lives to venture to the nearest village to get food. They had one valuable watch remaining, to use as a bribe. At the last moment my grandfather and the other men were given a sign that they were falling into a trap and they turned back. Days later they were liberated.
Their family was almost completely wiped out and there was no home to which to return. Very few Slovakian Jewish children survived the war. In post-war Prague, where my mother and her parents lived for two years after the war, no one believed my mother’s story of survival. They said it was impossible, that no children her age survived. She would tell them that she was saved by a miracle.
In the years that followed, my mother and her parents were fortunate to build a new life, near my grandfather’s sister, in America. In 1959, my mother met the man of her dreams, my father, and thus began a love affair that was to last 53 years, until my father passed away. They had children, grandchildren and careers. My mother was a brilliant businesswoman, working until the day she died. She was dazzling and a bundle of energy. She was also loving, kind and charitable. In her last years, as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindled, she took it upon herself to speak to groups of young people at public schools about her wartime experiences. She began each talk with this sentence,
“YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK.”
The Talmud (Rosh Hashannah, 18B,) states that, “at a time when there is peace, they (the fast days) shall be transformed into days of joy and happiness.” In honor of the memory of my wonderful mother, Vera Greenwald, z.l., let us try harder than ever this Tisha B’Av to work on reconstruction. On building a society that is more cohesive, unified and at peace. One that is just and kind. That is inclusive rather than rejecting; one that reaches out to others who are different than us. Let us help those who are more unfortunate in a way that preserves their dignity. Let us be concerned about the welfare of those living within our borders. Let us avoid senseless hatred. In deference to those who survived and rebuilt their lives, let us heal the rifts that divide us. We are stronger than we think. Just as the body can heal, societies, too, can be repaired.
In honor of our parents, my brothers, Joel and Daniel Greenwald, and I, are inaugurating the Martin and Vera Greenwald Memorial Lemonade Fund. Throughout their lives our parents were charitable to those in need and showed deep compassion for those who were ill. And they loved Israel. After it was founded, in 2011, our parents were proud supporters of the Lemonade Fund. Though they never had breast cancer, they had a daughter who had had it, and they saw the anguish that accompanies the disease. They were sensitive to the need for an Israeli emergency financial relief fund for indigent Israeli breast cancer patients.
To donate to the Lemonade Fund:
Wishing everyone an easy fast and years of good health and peace.