Remembering my Grandmother’s Journey from the Land of Death to the Land of the Living

Remembering my Grandmother’s Journey from the Land of Death to the Land of the Living

This week marks the end of the 30-day mourning period for my grandmother, who passed away at the age of 94, and whom we lovingly called “Mama Peppi.” I called Mama Peppi every day on my way home from work, and if I didn’t call, I was in trouble! We had a very close and special relationship, for which I am eternally grateful.

Peppi Moskowitz was born in 1929 in a Jewish town called Chust, which was once part of Czechoslovakia, then Hungary, and is now Ukraine. She had a lovely childhood where Jewish and non-Jewish children played and went to school together. That was, until Hitler came to power, and her world turned upside down. When she was just eleven, her father Meir was arrested and sent to do forced labor for the Hungarian army. Her 34-year-old mother Leah was left raising six little kids during a period of increasing anxiety and apprehension.

As we are seeing today, antisemitism has a way of metastasizing like cancer, and quickly her neighbors became raging antisemites. Not overnight, but within a few months, her classmates began taunting her, “Jews to Palestine!” For generations, the Moskowitz family had lived in Chust, but Europe was changing. Suddenly, the Jews were told they were not wanted there and should go back to where everyone in the 1930s knew the Jews came from: Palestine.

From that point on, every day was a miracle that the vulnerable family wasn’t turned into the authorities, raped, or even killed. One example is from Passover 1944 when she was fourteen. Towards the end of the Seder meal, the fatherless family opened the door for Elijah, and two drunk German soldiers stumbled inside. Thankfully, her fast-thinking, terrified mother gave them all the wine left on the table, and the soldiers left without doing the unthinkable.

After Passover, the Jews of Chust were forced to move into a ghetto. Mama Peppi would tell us that she remembers carrying a few bags of food and clothing across her village, and all the neighbors eagerly came out of their homes to watch. Tears would well up in her eyes as she relived the feelings of abandonment and humiliation. “The Jews always waited for their Messiah, and now their Messiah has come for them!” cackled her neighbors.

Just weeks later, the Jews of Chust were taken to Auschwitz, where they arrived on the second day of Shavuot, Pentecost. Her mother held on tight to her babies and was quickly sent to the left by Dr. Joseph Mengele. Mama Peppi’s older sister Ruchie grabbed her hand, and they went to the right, never to see their mother and younger siblings again. The atrocities she experienced and witnessed at Auschwitz were horrific, but ironically, the Nazis’ laser-focused obsession with genocide caused them to lose their war against the Allies. As the Soviet army approached, the Nazi guards marched the emaciated Jews to Theresienstadt, which is where Peppi was liberated by Russian soldiers on May 8, 1945. 

When Peppi and Ruchie made their way home to Chust, their townsfolk’s embarrassment and evil were incredulous as they hissed, “What are you doing here? Didn’t they kill all of you?” Europe had become a land of death for the Jewish people. 

With nowhere else to go and few living relatives, Peppi and Ruchie made their way to the United States. Peppi, from Eastern Hungary, met George, from Western Hungary; they were both alone and got married. They had two children, Linda and Michael, named in memory of her mother Leah and her father Meir. I learned later that most Holocaust survivors had two children in case they ever had to flee again; he would take one, and she would take the other.

My grandmother always said, somewhat apologetically, that she tried to do the best she could, raising two kids without grandparents to offer advice or any other kind of help. They sacrificed in order to send their kids to private Jewish schools, and they made Linda and my father promise that no matter what, they would always remain faithful, observant Jews.

America was good to my grandparents, and she loved the United States. Towards the end of her life, over the past few months, it pained her terribly to see antisemitism raging in American cities. “I can understand Jews being harassed in Europe, but how could this happen in America?” she would ask.

Since the Book of Genesis, when Abraham buried his wife Sarah in Hebron, Jews have gone to great lengths to bury their loved ones in the Land of Israel. Our family was fortunate to be able to bury our grandmother in a picturesque cemetery called “Eretz Hachaim,” which means the ‘land of the living,’ taken from Psalms 116. “Return, my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For You have rescued my soul from death, my eye from tears, and my foot from stumbling. I shall walk before the Lord in the lands of the living.”

Those of us living in Israel have been to far too many horrific funerals this year, of young Jewish men and women, killed in the prime of their lives because they were Jews defending their land. Thankfully, Mama Peppi’s funeral was not like those. There were tears, of course, but we were grateful that, unlike her own parents, who have no permanent burial place, she is buried between her husband George and her son Michael, in the land of the living.

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