Surviving Auschwitz With Constant Prayers on Her Lips (Guest Post: Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg)

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A tribute to Chaya Esther Bruckstein, a Holocaust survivor, in honor of Yom Hashoah

Sitting on my shelf is a precious treasure. While its pages are starting to brown and its letters starting to fade, its words still jump off the pages and fill my heart every time it catches my eye. Because it’s more than just an old, used book. It’s a time machine.


My Babi, Chaya Esther Bruckstein, was born on August 15, 1913. She grew up in a beautiful, spacious and ornate home in Bustina, Hungary (now Ukraine). Later in her life she would wistfully tell us, “Ve vere so very vealthy.”  Her family was prestigious and prosperous and Babi’s childhood was filled with plenty—the most beautiful dishes and décor, servants who took care of everything, even a separate guest house on their large estate. It was a hospitable and warm home too, rich with Torah values and gemilus chassadim, attracting all different types of guests. Some were recuperating from illness while others were visiting Rabbis from all over Europe. Her family, including 6 siblings and over 60 first cousins, was loving and close-knit, a robust, beautiful family steeped in Yiddishkeit. It was during those early days, and then later in 1938 when she and her husband had their first child, that she would open up her Tehillim and recite the words of Hallel and Hoda’ah for all the good she was given and for the brachos in her life: Hodu lashem ki tov ki le’olam chasdo.


Like so many others, one day her warm, pleasant life was shattered. She, her husband and their 5-year-old daughter were rounded up together with her extended family and community, and taken to Auschwitz. As she was standing on the platform, waiting to be told in which line she should stand, an unfamiliar man in prison garb came up to her and instructed her, “give your child to the old lady next to you right now.” My Babi, disoriented from the long and arduous train ride, followed his orders and handed over her child to her mother-in-law, never to be seen again. As the days went on, starved and exhausted, Babi would find inner reservoirs of strength that she never knew she had. It was there, in Auschwitz, that she would see her father for the very last time, across a fence in the men’s camp, and not know who he was, until he called out to her in a weak voice, saying, “Don’t you recognize me Hajnal? It's me, your Opu.” And a little while later, while in Ravensbruck, her sister and cousin would task her each day with dividing up the measly rations they would get, because she was the oldest and wisest and had deep compassion and integrity. It was there that her younger sister felt helpless and hopeless and shared her plan to throw herself against the electrocuted barbed wire to end her agony. My Babi was the one who, despite being just as beaten down and tired, pleaded with her sister, encouraging hope, faith and will to survive. It was there that she cried out to Hashem, from the depths of her suffering, quoting the same Tehilim from her parched lips that she once sang from a full heart: Mima’amakim kirasicha HaShem


After being liberated and reuniting with the few scattered members of her family, her realization of how many people were lost was daunting. Among the living was her first cousin, a wonderful man she had her eye on earlier in her life and had wanted to marry, but her parents had not allowed it at the time. They both found themselves at a mutual cousin’s home in Romania and they decided to get married. It was there that she had to do chalitza before her wedding, after testimony that her child was killed before her first husband. In the aftermath of the war that broke their bodies and souls, they were able to locate her brother-in-law, find a Rabbi, and make it a priority to complete this obscure and complicated mitzvah so they could finally be able to unite under their chuppah. Together they grieved the life they once had, he too having lost a wife and son in Auschwitz. It is there that they committed to put one foot in front of the other and look towards the future. There was nothing left for them in their hometowns and it was time to move on. They had a baby, my father, secured visas, and came to America to start a new life, but the hardships continued. They arrived in Ellis Island with battle scars, empty pockets and an unfamiliar language. They were able to get jobs in a garment factory, sewing clothing. My grandfather had no idea what he was doing. He was a brilliant man but his talents and skills were not in the sewing and fabrics trade. He would slowly and painstakingly try to do his work, but struggled to finish his pile. My grandmother would not let him get fired. She would spend those days working quickly and tirelessly to do his workload in addition to hers, in order for him to save his job and his self-respect. It was here, replanted in a new world, with nothing but hope for the future, that she called out with those same tefilos that had accompanied her this far, Dovid Hamelech’s Tehilim: Ezri me’im HaShem.


As the years went on, Babi slowly rebuilt her life. She raised her son and supported her husband with care and selflessness. She was machshiv Torah at a time when it wasn’t so common to care about daily limud Torah. In the cold, winter months she would wake up early to warm their clothes on the heater so “her men'' could learn together each morning in comfort, before going off to work and Yeshiva. With kindness and grace she devoted herself to her sister Gizi, who was never zoche to have her own children, including her in every part of her life so she had a family to call her own. It was in their Washington Heights apartment that she had to tell her precious 13-year-old son that he did not need to fast as a bechor before Pesach, because there was another child who came before him. And it was here that she reunited with the man who took that child from her arms in Auschwitz and, now realizing that he had saved her life, stayed in touch with him and invited him to partake in all of her family simchas. Despite trying to move forward, she was never able to fully let go of her past. Where else to turn but her Tehilim to find the right words that can capture her desire to transition to a life of goodness and no more sadness: Hafachta mispidi l’machol li.


In her later years she imparted life lessons to us, her grandchildren, who she never imagined she’d see, in her everyday attitude and actions. We knew that every crumb was precious, never to be wasted. Every grandchild and great-grandchild was a miracle, never to be taken for granted. And every milestone was a momentous occasion to participate in and celebrate. There was not one graduation, Visiting Day or Chumash party that she missed. Each time her heart filled with nachas and joy as she experienced the rebirth of her family. She reveled in her husband's Torah learning and scholarship, in her son’s success in medicine and in the beautiful home he built with his wonderful eishes chayil, her precious daughter-in-law. She felt her life, in her tiny apartment in Rego Park, Queens, without the servants and fancy serving pieces, was complete. She would thank HaShem for all the bracha and riches she had, and with her beloved Tehilim in her hand she would sing: Kos yeshuos esa uv’sheim HaShem ekra.


In 1993 I went off to seminary and, upon my return trip for Pesach I wanted to buy something for my Babi. I knew that her old Tehilim was battered and ripped and that it was time for a new one. I got her name engraved on the cover and when I presented it to her, the smile on her face and joy in her eyes convinced me that it was the right gift.  At that moment she knew that I understood what was most important to her and the legacy she was passing on. I have such vivid memories of my Babi reading from that Tehilim, day and night, well into her 90’s. Her connection with HaShem was unflinching, her love for HaShem palpable: Lehagid Baboker Chasdecha, Ve’emunascha Balaylos


And so, sitting on my shelf for the past 18 years since her petirah, is my Babi’s precious Tehillim, the one that I gifted to her 30 years ago. It’s a symbol of her tenacity, courage, strength, perseverance, profound faith and deep love.  And now, since its pages are starting to brown and its letters starting to fade, I keep it in a frame on my shelf to preserve it for longer and safeguard it for many more years. Whenever I walk by the shelf and see it from the corner of my eye, it serves as an inspiration to me.  It reminds me that while Baruch Hashem, my own highs and lows can’t begin to compare with what my Babi endured, I too, like everyone, have good days and more challenging ones. And that no matter what is going on in my life and the lives of those I love, I can find expression like she did, in the book of Tehillim. Sometimes singing Hodu laShem ki tov and at other moments, Mimamakim kerasicha Hashem.


Now that I am blessed to have grandchildren who call me their Babi, I look at that time machine on my shelf and feel responsible to not only transmit the physical sefer to my children and grandchildren, but all the lessons, tefillos and tears it has absorbed as well. I try my best to give over the values and messages I was privileged to gain from previous generations, and to be the next link in the unbreakable chain: Dor l’dor yishabach ma’asecha.


Reprinted from Mishpacha Magazine, Pesach 2023