Good Connection: Lessons from a Holocaust Survivor
I am sitting in the corner of the couch, and Fania Lavi is facing me in her wheelchair in her small apartment at an old-age home in Jerusalem. Amcha, the organization that trained me to pay weekly visits to a Holocaust survivor, made a good shiddukh. Fania dreamt of becoming a journalist and is curious and critical—just like I am.
In our three years together, I have heard intriguing stories about her past but we also talk about love; art; the way Israel treats minorities; family (she has none in Israel); the Holocaust, of course; and dozens of other subjects.
Fania, who is 92, searches her crowded coffee table for the small list of things she wants to talk to me about. Today, she wants to know who discovered Edith Piaf. I make a note and tell her I will Google it when I get home. I don’t have my smartphone with me now, but on other visits I have shown her the miracles of the Internet. She alternates between wanting to learn how to use it and feeling she is too old.
One day we google Cheri, her lover during her underground days in World War II Yugoslavia and her first love. Cheri was her nickname for Mladen Ŝerment, an actor who became well known after the war. We find pictures of him online, and while I am excited, Fania takes it in stride. When I ask what happened to the relationship, Fania tells me that she had realized that Cheri was married to the theater and she would always be second place.
Fania tells me how she discovered that Cheri had died. Decades after their love affair ended, she was working on a crossword puzzle in a Croatian newspaper in her Jerusalem living room. A clue was about Cheri—but written in the past tense.
Fania is a rarity. She is engaged, interested, informed. She asks questions, listens with attention. Today, I tell her how unusual it is to find such an attentive listener. Fania smiles and reaches over her shoulder to pat herself on the back. Did I mention her sense of humor?
At one point, she wants to tell me something, but I am busy jotting down what she has just said. I hold up my fingers in that Middle Eastern “wait” gesture, then realize it doesn’t feel right.
“Is this bad manners?” I ask her, displaying the gesture again.
“It’s not done in good company,” she says. “It’s saying, ‘Stop talking. I have something to say.’”
“It’s also ‘wait a minute.’”
“Yes. Wait a minute because I need something.”
As usual, Fania hits the nail on the head. I had never thought of it this way. This is one of the things I love about our visits. I come away with new insights. Not to mention great tales. Fania is a treasure trove of stories (see sidebar, opposite page)—funny, moving, sad, but always human—from her years in the Resistance; her childhood growing up on a farm; her early years in Israel; her two marriages; her years working for the Jerusalem municipality and the Jewish Agency as a draftswoman. She is an artist by vocation.
Consulting her list, Fania asks, “Can I translate for you the ‘Partisan Song’? I remembered we had an anthem.” Fania is often flooded with memories of the past when she cannot sleep at night.
I mention to Fania that years ago when I had just moved to New York, a new friend, a Bundist, had introduced me to the Bund anthem.
Fania gives that little shake of her head and a direct gaze that means she either did not hear or did not understand what I said. But it turns out she had never heard of the Bund (the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund, or Jewish Labor Bund, a secular socialist party active in the early 20th century in Russia and Eastern Europe).
I don’t hide my surprise.
“Yesh li hor bahaskala—I have a gap in my education,” Fania says. “Tell me about it.”
I do, and fania gets back to her anthem. i ask her to sing it for me and to write down the words. She translates, then we sing it. Fania claims she cannot sing, but it is one of the things we enjoy doing together.
Through the forests and mountains
Of our proud country
March groups of partisans
Bringing glory to our land.
“What does this song do for you?” I wonder.
“It reminds me of a time when life was not easy, but it was a very positive time of my life.”
I relate what another older friend of mine told me about her year as a student of renowned Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler in 1943. It was the middle of the war in Budapest, she said, but it was the happiest year of her life.
This happiness during war that both Fania and my friend experienced is something that I have wondered about. Fania understands it perfectly. “I was part of something meaningful and bigger than myself,” she explains.
Fania tells me that she has a new visitor: a young German man who is volunteering in Israel for a year as an act of atonement. She likes him, tells me he is handsome, smart and polite. She also notes that the social worker who connected her with him had said these volunteers get very little pay. “I will always make sure to have something for him to eat, because with his small salary he can’t buy enough food,” Fania says.
This doesn’t sound right to me. “I think you’re making a mistaken assumption,” I say.
“Correct me,” she replies.
Open-mindedness and a willingness to learn are other rare features that characterize Fania. I tell her so.
Fania gives a little rueful smile and says, “That doesn’t stop one from being left alone.”
Fania’s Story: The Dress and the Carbuncle
My mother and I—sole survivors of our family—joined the partisans. It was their policy not to put family members in the same unit but we were both in the Jewish brigade. For a whole year, I didn’t know where she was. We had lost everything we had, but I kept one light wool blue dress with me.
One Sunday, my group came to a village—a few houses with a church on the hilltop. I knew that night we would be crossing a snowy mountain pass located in between two German patrols. We were at a farmer’s house and his wife proudly showed me a sweater from goats’ hair she had made for her daughter. I knew how precious fabric was—you couldn’t find any in all of Europe during the war. I said, “I have a pretty dress exactly your daughter’s size. Give me the sweater and I’ll give you the dress.” She was thrilled. I was thrilled.
What did fate want? The partisans were always on the move because the Germans were after us. A couple of days later, my mother arrived at the same farmer’s house and she saw the girl wearing my dress. Her first thought was that I was dead and they took my dress. She asked, aggressively, “Where did you get this dress?” The farmer’s wife told her about the business transaction. After a year of not knowing, my mother found out her only surviving child was alive.
But I didn’t know she was alive. And here, fate again entered the picture. There were no phones, no communication between people—it was like the Stone Age. But my mother was resourceful. She heard that a courier was to deliver a message to a place she thought I might be. She told him, “If you get to division 13, first aid, maybe you’ll meet my daughter. Her nom de guerre is Chibi [chick].”
This courier had walked fast in the snow. He had a sore on his neck and it had filled with dirt and sweat and turned into a carbuncle. I was working in first aid and the boy was waiting for someone to help him. When he got to the male nurse, the nurse called to me: “Chibi, come, tell me what this is.”
When he heard my name, the courier asked, “Do you have a mother?”
I said, “I hope so.”
He said, “You have a mother. And here is a letter from her.” So after a year, I knew my mother was alive. If the courier hadn’t gotten the carbuncle, I wouldn’t have known she was alive.
What was the happiest moment in my life? The day I found out my mother was alive. The snow melted and they sent me to the area where my mother was.
But that is another story.