My mother-in-law, Shirley Ragen, passed away yesterday in Jerusalem at age 85 after seven torturous years succumbing to a merciless illness which left her unable to speak, walk, or move her limbs. But the last period of her long life, was not her worst. The worst happened when she was eighteen and the Nazis came to her home in Uzhhorod (now in Ukraine), beating her little brother senseless, and carting away herself, her three sisters, two brothers, parents, and beloved grandmother.
The worst was the cattle car ride, and the platform in Auschwitz in which she and her sisters were separated from their mother, never to see her, or any other member of their family alive again. The worst was the year spent in a concentration camp starving, trying desperately with her older sister Zipporah to keep their youngest sister Malka alive. I remember the stories she told me those Friday nights when my husband, her beloved only son, was away in the synagogue with his father.
How she cut her slice of bread into tiny portions instead of eating it all at once, to save some for the next day, the willpower that took. How she managed to take bits of cloth and form them into collars that she bartered to other prisoners for food and other essentials. Her sisters and camp “shvesters” called her by her Czech name, Magda.
And then there was the death march and the story of how she and her sisters and some friends took the life or death plunge to escape, hiding under hay in a hayloft, as the Germans stuck pitchforks in looking for them, until finally giving up. On the road, finally free, they found a crate.
Starving, they pried it open. Inside was the finest French champagne, fallen off some German truck. They celebrated the end of their captivity by drinking it straight from the bottle still in the striped uniforms of Auschwitz. And then they found an empty house abandoned by the German family who lived there to escape the advancing Russians. Using the soap and towels left behind they heated water and bathed, seeing the color of their skin for the first time in many months.
Deciding to go to Israel, she and her two sisters waited for the Zionist organizers to bring them. But delay after delay made Magda lose hope. And so she decided to go home to see if anyone she knew had survived. Leaving her sisters behind, she traveled by train to her home town. But, she said later, she couldn’t bring herself to look her neighbors in the face, remembering how they had lined up to watch her family being taken away, smirking with satisfaction. She boarded the next train out, taking it down the line to where the Sudenten Germans had been chased out, leaving behind houses the government was handing over to refugees like herself.
By chance, my father-in-law got off at this same stop. He had also gone home to see if his wife or son and daughter had survived. Finding proof that Auschwitz had taken his entire family, and that his neighbors had helped themselves to all his belongings, he went from house to house gathering his possessions together, then left them in the wagon, handing them over to the wagon driver as he hopped the next train out.
Fate brought them together. And they brought each other love, comfort and the hope for a new beginning.
Eventually, they wound up in New York City, working as a tailor and a seamstress. There she was known as Shirley. They raised a son and a daughter. They achieved the American dream, owning a home. And when their son married and moved to Israel, they decided to join him.
Those were, they always said, the best years of their lives. They owned a lovely apartment in Netanya near the sea, and spent their time being grandparents, enjoying their many friends, or volunteering for good causes.
When we say Yizkor for her, we will use the name Shaindel, the name her parents gave her. But I always called her “Mom.” And my kids called her “Bubbee.” She was a wonderful , giving person as well as a tough cookie.
Though not always easy to accept, her criticism came from love and from wanting things to be better for those she loved, in the way she understood it. We loved her very much. May her name and memory be blessed.