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The Stories She Never Told

What another Holocaust survivor’s book taught me about my own mother’s life

by
Carol Ungar
November 02, 2022
Courtesy the author
The author’s mother in her prewar life Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
The author’s mother in her prewar life Courtesy the author

My mother loved to talk politics, real estate, and cooking. She’d happily offer intelligent insights on nearly any subject except one: her own life. With stops in prewar Hungary, Auschwitz, the Sorbonne, Mexico, and finally Manhattan, my mother’s life was extraordinary, but she kept it to herself. I hated that, but I knew why. So tender-hearted that news of terrorist attacks or natural disasters brought her to tears, she needed to distance herself from the pain of her own past. Still, as her child, I needed to understand her and the world that created her.

As a teenager and young adult, I plied her with questions, but I was only partly successful. I uncovered the scaffolding of her past but not its interiority. My mother is gone now, but my curiosity remains. I still search for her by immersing myself in stories of prewar Hungarian Jewry. Surprisingly, a new book about a Sephardic Holocaust survivor has opened a window into my mother’s inner life.

One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World, a Natan Award winner, is a Tuesdays with Morrie-style recollection of journalist Michael Frank’s conversations with nonagenarian Stella Levi, who grew up on the island of Rhodes. My mother was born thousands of miles and a universe away in the Romanian city of Satu Mare, the small Romanian city better known by its Yiddish name Satmar—the birthplace of the Satmar Hasidic sect—yet their lives seem to mirror each other.

They were born within two years of each other in the mid-1920s; both grew up in religiously observant but non-Hasidic families (prewar Satmar was home to many non-Hasidic Jews), and both belonged to the last generation of Jews to feel deeply rooted in their European birthplaces. My mother’s forebears had lived in or around Satmar for more than two centuries. Levi’s family had been part of the Juderia, Rhodes’ Jewish district, since the Spanish Inquisition. Both grew up in the embrace of aunts, uncles, and cousins in a world that moved to the eternal rhythms of the Jewish calendar.

Living within a 5-mile radius in Manhattan, both Levi and my mother viewed themselves as consummately modern women, yet both were intensely nostalgic for their childhood homes. Levi spoke of “a place where old women sat outside and told stories … took dishes to be baked in the communal oven … and where a granddaughter learned to prepare her grandmother’s sweet and savory dishes.” Unable to access the right words, my mother expressed her longing to recreate the flavors of her childhood and by carrying a crumpled photograph of her doomed aunts and cousins inside of her wallet.

Both watched their mothers push needles through cloth to create exquisite, embroidered tables and bed linens for their future dowries, yet neither woman deigned to pick up a needle. In the book, Levi describes her disdain for embroidery and for the arranged marriage her mother was planning for her. My mother never spoke about being primed for a shidduch, but like Levi she married late and had a career.

In an era in which women’s education was often neglected, both Levi and my mother were sent to fancy private schools—perhaps that was their parents’ way of preparing them for eventual emigration—when Levi was still a child, her siblings had moved away to the U.S. and the Belgian Congo and my mother’s father had established a beachhead in New York, hoping to bring the rest of the family along. Both women attended tony Catholic girls schools, where they studied prep school subjects: literature, Latin, and ancient Greek. They were a minority in their communities; Levi was among five Jewish Rhodesli girls from the Juderia who attended the school. (There were other Jewish students who came from the wealthier neighborhood outside the Juderia.) At my mother’s school, the nuns let the Jewish girls refrain from writing on Shabbat and holidays. Neither family seemed the least bit concerned that Catholic school might cause their daughters to stray from Judaism—coming from such an intensely Jewish world, Judaism felt as natural as breathing. Ironically, neither woman received more than a minimal Jewish education—a loss my mother compensated for by sending me to New York’s fanciest yeshiva, Ramaz. My mother didn’t speak about the nuns except to note that they expressed their antisemitism by lowering the grades of the Jewish students. In contrast, Levi shares fond memories of the “young and vibrant” Teresa, who introduced her to Italian poetry, though she also expresses her disappointment at her favorite nun’s failure to make any effort to protest the Nazis’ deportation of the island’s Jews in July 1944.

When the Nazis’ racial laws went into effect, both Levi and my mother were expelled from their Catholic schools. In the book, Levi eloquently describes her emotional devastation: “Imagine if someone told you that you could no longer go to school. It would take you a lifetime to understand what that meant to your sense of who you are and what you deserve in life.” For my mother, the expulsion was yet another bit of swallowed hurt, but I suspect that had she read them, Levi’s words might have resonated. Both completed high school, my mother in a hastily organized Jewish gymnasium and Levi in an ad hoc school started by gentile friends where she was the only girl.

In the summer of 1944, both were sent to Auschwitz B, or Birkenau. The Rhodesli deportation—three long weeks by boats and then train—was the longest of the war. Levi describes it in grim and gory detail. On this, too, my mother held her tongue—the single memory she shared of that terrible journey was that she was fortunate enough to have been able to sit on her suitcase. After reading Levi’s description, I’m relieved that my mother spared me her own details. Though both would later travel the world, that trip was their first time away from home. In Auschwitz, both clung to loved ones, and both made valiant efforts to keep clean, my mother by washing with icy water and Levi by diving off the side of the prison boat to bathe in seawater.

In Auschwitz, Levi and the other Rhodesli women propped each other up by dancing, singing, and laughing. My mother never danced or sang, but she probably told dark jokes—I wish I had one to retell. She also swapped recipes, “the more fattening, the better,” a simple act powered by an awe-inspiring clinging to life.

During the postwar years, when the extent of their losses hit them, both struggled. Levi saw a psychiatrist—an unusual move in those years. My mother didn’t. Instead, she started university, first in Bucharest and then again at the Sorbonne, and after several years in Mexico City, once again at Hunter College—perhaps the schoolwork distracted her from her grief.

Levi never returned to school. “I’m ashamed and full of regret because I dreamt of doing something else, of living an intellectual life. I didn’t have what it took,” she told Frank. My mother racked up credits but never earned a degree. She never articulated any regrets—it wasn’t her style to reflect—but after I flunked the New York bar exam, her disappointment vastly outweighed mine. Was she mourning her own educational failures, too?

Eventually, both women settled down in Manhattan, my mother on the West Side, Levi in Greenwich Village, where they married and had children, though Levi would later divorce. In that pre-feminist era, both entered the business world having careers they didn’t plan for in their prewar lives. Levi became a successful textile broker, and my mother, the former scholar of French literature and philosophy, operated successful businesses in the jewelry and later the real estate industry.

Both felt at home in New York. My mother never explained why, but Levi attributes that to the city’s large population of “exiles, wanderers like herself.”

Had they crossed paths, I think they would have become friends. Both shared a gift for friendship. My mother’s circle included both former Satmars and native New Yorkers, and Levi keeps up with a global network of Rhodeslis and others by phone and in person. During those first few postwar decades, both women kept quiet about their wartime experiences but as the years passed both shared their stories with strangers, my mother with an interviewer from the Steven Spielberg Foundation and Levi with Michael Frank, a stranger who grew into a friend with whom she shared more than she did with her own son.

During my mother’s last years, Parkinson’s muddled her brain, At the end she couldn’t express herself at all. But what if she would have remained healthy?

What stories might she have told? What insights might she have provided? Reading One Hundred Saturdays offered me, at last, a glimpse into what she might have said.

Carol Green Ungar is a prize-winning writer, and author of Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What it Means.

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