Tomorrow, August 14th will be the first anniversary (in the secular solar calendar) of my mother Helen Rosenzweig’s death. Mom was a woman who came from a Jewish world that was lost to most of us who grew up in the post-WW2 era. She grew up in a family about whom stories and legends were written about and yet she wore her humility with dignity and grace. Like her maternal grandfather who provided Shaleh Shudis (the third Shabbos meal) for the poor of Sighet. The Zemiros – Shabbos songs were so beautiful that gypsies would sit outside the dining room window and listen to the singing. His hospitality was so great that the community insisted on burying him in a coffin made out of planks taken from his dining room table.
My mother was born in 1916 in the Transylvanian mountain village of Visu, affectionately known as “the Vishuvis.” Her Shmu’el father was a Kohen and the local butcher. Her mother Gitel came from an esteemed family from the city of Sighet, but she died young and the 5 daughters of the family took up her duties. My mother was taught to cook and to sew, eventually becoming a professional seamstress, but her cooking and baking made her legendary to her family, friends, community, even the friends of her children.
Though Romania entered the war in 1944, she, her father, three sisters and two cousins were transported to Auschwitz where her father and one sister perished. On a death march to another camp, refugees from Dresden passed by on the same road. My mother heard some refugee women speaking Hungarian and she signaled to the two sisters and her two cousins to inch over to the middle of the roadway and when they practically rubbed shoulders with the refugees, they all did an about-face and blended in quickly with the other refugee women.
Eventually, my mother a sister and a brother ended up in a DP camp in Weissenhopf, Austria, outside of Innsbruck where she met my father Jacob. They soon married to start life over again and nine months later I was born in the camp. When I was 2 years old, my parents immigrated to Canada and for a short time resided in Hamilton, Ontario where my brother Harry was born, eventually moving to Windsor, Ontario where my 2 sisters Grace and Ruthy were born.
Like other holocaust survivors who lost entire families or who were separated from them, my parents gravitated to other survivor families who shared similar backgrounds and whose Jewish lives tended towards traditional practices. We had no family in Windsor, but we shared times of joy and sorrow with other survivor families eventually integrating into the general Jewish community.
Our first Shul was the Tifferes Israel or more commonly known as the “East-Windsor Shul.” I remember the weekly Shabbos and Yom Tov services very well but when we moved to Dougall Ave. we inevitably joined the Sha’ar Hashomayim. While there was still a social barrier between the ‘greeners” and the “gailers” (the recent green immigrants and the older more faded yellow immigrants), life at the Shaar became a focal point of our lives.
My father’s day was split between his work and his participation in community service: the daily Minyan; general upkeep of the synagogue property; and the Chevra Kaddisha among others activities. My mother, while raising a family was active in the Shaar sisterhood, Mizrachi women and Hadassah WIZO, although her real strengths were in the kitchen. My mother created a home where hospitality and graciousness were a regular experience. Our home was the address for travellers, people in need and members of the community. I remember many Passover Seders with 10 -15 non-family members in attendance. I remember our Sukkah always filled with guests enjoying the décor and the atmosphere of the festival. And she would add a song that was sung in her home or a story about her life that always fascinated us. Beyond the camaraderie and the joy of celebration there was one common denominator that drew so many people to our home and that was mom’s cooking.
My mother’s home made dishes were always outstanding. Her plain old roasted chicken was unique, her nokolach were superb, her Cholent was delicious, and her rogoh kumpli was absolutely unbelievable. Mom’s culinary expertise did not end there, her baking was famous. All the amazing baked goods that she made were mouth-watering but the only regret is that while we learned many of her recipes, so many of them are lost to us because she never measured or worked from a recipe. I once asked her to teach me to make Kishka. Mom showed me how to mix the ingredients together all the while kneading them with a mixture of water and oil. I was perplexed at getting the proportions of the two liquids and asked her, “How do I know when the Kishka is properly mixed?” She looked at me with a smile and said, “When it feels like a baby’s tuchas, you’ll have it right.
When my father organized the weekly after service Kiddush, my mother and her “Hungarian Mafia” (this was a play on words because Ma’afia means bakery in Hebrew) made coming to Shul a delight.
Last year, my mother passed from this world on the 14th of Av, the day before Tu B’Av – the 15th of Av – the Jewish love day. She was a woman who was filled with love, undamaged by one of the most horrific events in Jewish history, but a woman who loved her husband, her children, her grand and great grandchildren, she loved her community, her people and a brought a world and a culture that has virtually disappeared, to the hearts of all who met her.