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Frida’s Gift

Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun by Madeline Cohen—Yom Kippur 2013

The remarks I am about to read were written by my sister, Elizabeth Cohen, who is unable to join us as she is recovering from surgery. Also, we have shared similar experiences regarding the story I am about to tell you, and I can read it with Elizabeth’s intention and Kavannah.

I met my cousin Frida Oshman 42 years ago on my first trip to Israel. The year was 1971. I was 20 and she was 50.

When we met, I thought I was hallucinating: I thought my grandmother, Mary Cohen, had the exact same mannerisms; the same facial expressions; the same anxieties.

But they had never met.

My grandmother Mary and all of her siblings had immigrated to America as teenagers—all except for her sister Etel, Frida’s mother, and another sister who chose to remain in Europe. But it was clear that Mary Cohen’s genetic and behavioral imprints were strong ones indeed.

Elizabeth Cohen (left) and her sister Madeline (right) visit their cousin Frida in Netanya, Israel.

Seeing my “revived grandmother” made me feel right at home in Israel. I already had a general knowledge of family history and Frida’s history.

My grandmother’s family was from Motele, the town where Chaim Weizmann was born in what was then Poland. At the time of her marriage, my Aunt Etel moved to nearby Pinsk, then called the Jerusalem of Lithuania because of its thriving Jewish culture. Here Etel and her husband, Yaakov, raised their five children—two boys and three girls—all young adults by the outbreak of World War II. Frida was the only member of her entire family to survive the war.

With the war over in 1945, my father, Herbert Cohen, combed newspaper lists of survivors, searching for relatives. It was he who found Frida’s name and started the unshakable connection between our two families—hers in the Palestine, to which she then immigrated, and ours here in America.

Most of what I knew about Frida up until then came from family correspondence. My father and Frida wrote regularly, he in English and she in Yiddish, which my parents understood. In 1965 my parents made the first of what became regular visits to Israel to see Frida, her husband, Chaim, and their three children, with me and my sister making our first trips in 1971.

I am delighted to say that Frida is alive and well at the age of 92, living in Netanya, her home city since 1945. As Frida reached her late 80s, my sister and I started to make sure that we visited once each year.

I am telling you about Frida on this Yom Kippur, a day primarily dedicated to seeking repentance and forgiveness. But it is also a day of memory. The Eleh Ezkerah Service itself to which this talk is connected means “These things I remember.”

Four years ago, Frida self-published her autobiography, and “Eleh Ezkerah” “These things I remember” would have been a fitting title. It is a beautifully detailed account of her life, including her childhood with her beloved family in her beloved Pinsk, how she survived during the Nazi occupation, her immigration to Palestine, and her zeal to create a new family and a new world there. It’s an ethnographic study, a history lesson, escape thriller, and a family love story rolled into one.

Frida dedicated her memoir to the honor of her children, to the memory of her husband, and to the memory of her parents and siblings who died in the Shoah. In her introduction, she explains her motivation for writing it as follows:

Many years after my immigration to Israel in 1945, I thought about writing my memoir about that terrible period, but did not have the energy required to put it to writing. 

The difficult past sealed a mark in my soul and all my attempts to repress it failed. But my life got filled with daily activities and duties, raising my children and teaching, which I loved. At the same time, throughout my life, I was followed by sadness and memories of the past. I tried, and did not always succeed, to hide them from you and from everyone surrounding me.

When the war ended I was a young girl, completely alone in the world. No one in my family, from my beloved parents to my beautiful and talented brothers and sisters, survived. I did not even possess the smallest souvenir from them. My world had fallen apart before life even started.

When your father met me, I was grief-stricken, wandering in the deserted streets of my ruined hometown of Pinsk, where I arrived immediately after the German army was defeated and expelled. Thanks to him and together with him I gathered my strength to make Aliyah. … Both of us, powered by our youth, and motivated by a desire to prove that our family’s memory would not vanish from the world, built a new home here in Israel.

Thirty-three years after we were married, fate struck again with the sudden death of your father, and my life-course changed again. Then I knew it was time. With your encouragement and support, I decided to share my memories on paper for you.

In closing her introduction, she writes:

The following pages are written from a strong need to honor the memory of my family, your family. The writing itself was a sort of moral justification to the fact that I survived. 

Yes, “moral justification to the fact that I survived.” The fact that a person feels a need to justify survival speaks volumes about the burdens of being a survivor, especially when one is the sole survivor of a family.

But how, in fact, did Frida survive the Nazi occupation? Her story is essentially the perfect intersection of survival instinct and intellect with, of course, the blessing of a little luck.

As in many other Jewish families, Frida’s parents were fervent drivers of academic success, and Frida’s early life revolved around her studies. She was accepted into the university in Lvov, and it was because she was away from her family that she was able to escape their fate when the Nazis invaded Pinsk and initiated mass shootings of Jews.

Frida had chosen to specialize in modern languages, German in particular. She chose German because of its importance to so many fields of study, but she had no idea at the time that the decision to study German would be one that ended up saving her life.

In Lvov, on June 30, 1941, Frida awoke early to prepare for her final exams. Loud explosions were heard as the Germans started their invasion of the city. Frida found herself running in the streets, finally hopping onto a truck filled with university professors and students fleeing eastward. Among the passengers, Frida found another Jewish student, Mala, who also came from her home town of Pinsk.

Together, Frida and Mala fled from the Nazis through the Ukraine and the Caucasus for three years. They posed as Polish university students who became stranded in Russia and were unable to get back home because the borders were closed. They worked on collective farms, changing locations periodically, trying to stay ahead of the German armies that were moving farther south into the Caucasus.

When the Germans surrounded their farm in the Caucasus in 1942, they managed to retreat back into the Ukraine to the town of Fastov, still German-occupied. Carrying false papers, they went looking for work in the local government office, where they found themselves promptly denounced as Jews by a local Ukrainian government worker. They were then brought before the German governor, which in their minds meant certain death.

Using her fluent university German (spoken without any trace of a Yiddish accent), Frida calmly told the governor their cover story of being stranded Polish university students. The governor then saw in Frida a solution to a problem he was confronting: The German armies in the area relied on the local wheat mill for flour for the military. However, the German mill manager spoke no Russian, and the Russian mill workers spoke no German. Frida spoke both.

So, the German governor hired Frida to be the interpreter for the mill manager and assigned Mala (who remained mute the entire time as she did not speak a word of German) to work in the kitchen.

Frida’s life in Fastov was completely surreal. To the German mill manager, she was a gift from heaven. Flour production improved, and the manager became totally dependent on her. He never bothered to learn Russian. He brought Frida presents from his wife when he would go home on leave.

But by the end of 1943, the Russians were coming closer and eventually surrounded the town of Fastov. Just before the Russian army arrested the German mill manager, Frida was told that he was running around frantically, looking for Frida to rescue him, as he was really unsure how to function without her.

Eventually, Frida and Mala were liberated by a group of partisans operating near the mill. Over the next year, they lived and worked in very difficult conditions as they made their way through the Ukraine and back to Pinsk. Frida learned what had happened to her family and the Jews of Pinsk from partisans and other Pinskers she met during this period, but she still wanted to go back to her roots, to her beloved town. The following is a section from the memoir describing the day she went to look for her family’s house:

We reached Visnioviitzki Street. My feet were quickly pulling me to my family’s home, mom’s home…Whom could I tell what happened to me throughout the war?…All my dreams, hopes, and words that I repeated over long troubled nights, the words that I kept only for you…

I stood thunderstruck in front of an empty lot whose land was scorched. The entire house was destroyed by a direct hit of a bomb, as were the other neighbors’ houses nearby…

The house that held my happy moments and happy childhood memories and grief, the house that contained my childhood and my adolescence, where I was born and grew up with my beloved brothers and sisters, where at its gate my worried mom stood waiting for her children, with the garden she lovingly tended to–everything, everything was gone… 

I never returned to the site of the house during all the days of that stay in Pinsk. The pain was too great.

At the time, I never went back to the place where my house was and I regret it ever since. If only I tried to dig, search for something, I might have found some item of memorabilia, a picture or a book that remained buried in the ground!…The homecoming shock hit me hard and long.

Frida’s memoir continues from the trauma of her return to Pinsk to her fortuitous meeting of Chaim, whom she married in the DP camp to which they traveled together, and their Aliyah to Israel. I will add that Mala, along with the husband whom she, in turn, married in the DP camp, immigrated to Israel at the same time as Frida and Chaim, and Mala continues to live in Israel, near Haifa.

In reading Frida’s book, I was particularly moved by her account of life in Palestine from 1945-1947 and the early years of the state. It is one thing to read about these events in history books, but another to view history through the everyday struggles of real people at the time. On arrival in the country she calls “my only home on earth,” Chaim and Frida lived with Chaim’s brother Yona. Frida describes the scene:

Yona’s house was located in a working-class neighborhood on the northern edge of Netanya. The path to the house curved through orchards that surrounded the residential neighborhood. At the entrance of the house, wearing shorts, waited for his wife, Bella, who greeted us while holding Leviah, a little girl, in her arms.

Yona and Bella’s little house contained only one room and a kitchenette. A sewage system did not exist and the house was not connected to power. In the evenings, an oil lamp was used for lighting. And Yona and Bella had countless debates over whether it was better to buy a goat to have enough milk for the baby or first get connected to the electricity grid.

Yona was an educated man who loved a good book even after an exhausting workday. He finally won the argument, and they got themselves connected to the electricity grid.

Frida writes candidly about their struggles to adapt to life in Israel, about raising a family of three children, and about finding work. She succeeded in getting a teaching certificate, difficult to obtain because she had been unable to complete her university studies. Fortunately for her, the Commissioner of Education came from her town of Pinsk. Her first job was to teach Hebrew at a moshav for Jews from Turkey, still under construction. Her first classroom was a tree with very broad branches: There was no blackboard; no pens or pencils. But the kids learned.

She went on to become a well-known and beloved teacher in Netanya.

Her three children found very successful careers. Their success was the very proof she and Chaim sought that the memories of their families would not vanish from the world.

When her beloved Chaim passed away, Frida was only 56. With the support of her children, she fought to keep going. After retirement, she went to Tel Aviv University and got a B.A. in Greek and Roman Classics. She taught Hebrew to Russian immigrants. She took art classes and became an accomplished painter. With her painting skill, she was able to fulfill a dream of giving at least one painting—something of herself—to each of her children and grandchildren.

Near the end of the memoir, Frida reflects on the difficulty of drawing on her resources to continue with her life after her husband died. She writes:

I really felt that my life had also ended. I did not believe that the future would hold any life for me anymore… It seemed impossible that once again I was left alone, and did not yet appreciate the mental powers inherent in humans that allow us to get stronger and fight and continue to survive despite all the losses we endure.

This description of resilience after terrible loss is expressed with some sense of surprise and, I hope, pleasure. For me, and I hope for many of you here, it is a beautiful teaching.

With Frida’s memoir, my cousins now have the full record of who their grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles were. They can see them as Frida saw them. In many families, there is no one left of whom one can ask questions about family connections. Frida mourned that she was left without a single souvenir from her family. She has now given her own family the most precious souvenir: her memories, in her own words.

These they will always remember.

***

I would like to thank the rabbis and Myriam Abramowicz for the opportunity to speak today during this Eleh Ezkerah service. In writing about my cousin’s memoir, I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in her book in far greater detail than I may otherwise have done. And over the weeks that I have been writing this talk and thinking about it I feel as if I have been spending time alone with my cousin. And that has been a privilege.

Madeline Cohen

Written By Madeline Cohen

Madeline Cohen has been a member of B'nai Jeshurun since 2000. She was born in New York City and has worked in New York for her entire career, as a research librarian.

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Elizabeth Cohen

Written By Elizabeth Cohen

Elizabeth Cohen has been a member of B'nai Jeshurun since 2000. She was born in New York City, and has worked in New York for her entire career as a marketing professional.

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