Shavuos Memories: Bittersweet but Evergreen
Shavuos, “Festival of Weeks,” is named for the seven full weeks that we count from Passover until Shavuos. Historically, it commemorates the date when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, which defined them as a nation. This led to the custom throughout history of staying up and learning Torah throughout the night until the Morning Prayer service. Additionally there is an agricultural aspect to the holiday, the “holiday of the First Fruits, which led to decorating the homes with flowers and greens. My mother tells us that in her childhood, her family filled the house with greens: the windowsills, the buffets, all over. And we still do this today.
The foods that are traditional to Shavuos are dairy: for example, the blintzes which have been in our family for generations, is on pages 106-109 of my book, Food Family and Tradition: Hungarian Kosher Family Recipes and Remembrances. I have already begun to prepare them with my mother for the holiday this year.
It is a spring, festive time, and, for us, it holds sweet and bitter memories. The years of my parents’ childhood were as sweet as the year that they were taken from their home and sent to Auschwitz was bitter.
The years of their childhood were filled with happy memories and delicious recipes for dairy foods. The flowers that my mother has always had in her home bring us back to this wonderful time. But then, 1944, both my parents were taken immediately after Passover with their families from their homes and sent to the Ghetto. There they remained until they were put onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz. My mother and her family arrived at Auschwitz on May 25,1944 (3 Sivan) just a few days before Shavuos. Her grandparents, mother, and 3 younger brothers were separated from her and sent directly to their deaths, in the Gas Chamber. My father’s family arrived, after a long journey on the cattle cars, at Auschwitz the evening of the beginning of Shavuos.
Let me share this memory with you, in my father’s words:
“We were on the third transport; my family was together: my two sisters, Goldie and Chana, my younger brother, Chaim, my father and my mother. They put us on cattle trains with just two buckets of water and a bucket for sanitation. You can just imagine the panic that was taking place when you sit in a cattle car, 60, 70, 80 people, young and old, babies, without toilet facilities or a place to wash. Everything was conducted with one cattle car. It was very panicky. You could not get out. We made a couple of stops, but they only opened the door for a minute to let a little air in. Then they closed the door when the train started to move. That was just two days before the holiday of Shavuos.
On the night of Shavuos we arrived in Auschwitz. It was extremely panicky. Everybody was just extremely flabbergasted, and did not know what was going on. They started to chase us out of the train, and we came to a place where there was a huge gate. Then they started to break up the families. My mother was taken into one area, along with her sisters and their babies and her mother, and I was taken into different place with my father and my brother. My mother and that line went directly to the gas chambers.”
But my father survived Auschwitz, survived the Death March from Buchenwald and, most amazing of all, survived his experiences and memories without becoming anything other than a loving, positive, scholarly, courageous man who made a new life with my mother, in this new land. So when we remember Shavuos in our family, our memories are very bitter, very sweet. Because of my parents’ courage and love, our memories and the life they made possible for us, are indeed evergreen.
Wishing you all a Chag Sameach!