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My Mother’s Loving Silence

A Holocaust survivor, she nurtured me with silence. This Mother’s Day, I’ll mourn for her—quietly.

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(Illustration Ivy Tashlik; original image Shutterstock)
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My family wasn’t very interested in Mother’s Day when I was growing up. My mother wasn’t a believer in contrived holidays. Her philosophy was that every day you were alive should be seen as your birthday, and if you had a mother, every day should be seen as Mother’s Day; nothing more needed to be said. So, our observance of Mother’s Day left a lot to be desired, and we usually marked the day with a casual toss of “Happy Mother’s Day” during a phone conversation.

This year, for the first time, there won’t be any Mother’s Day phone calls. My mother, Rochel Steinmetz, passed away last October. Instead of chatting on the telephone, I will be mourning in silence. Silence is a fitting tribute to my mother, because she understood that sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

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As a rabbi, I know that mourning and silence go hand in hand. Oftentimes, visitors to shivas feel compelled to speak. After all, the North American cultural bias is to force-feed every social situation with conversation; silences are awkward and unwanted. But shiva houses are different; there are sensitivities to consider, and there is authentic grief in the air. So, when you arrive to speak with the mourner, you’re concerned that what you say might prove to be a faux pas.

For this reason, I often rely on the well-worn cliche, “There are no words.” I’ve gone to hundreds of shiva homes; and there are tragedies so large that it’s impossible to speak without acknowledging all of the pain swirling around the room. Declaring that “there are no words” makes an awkward situation less awkward; suddenly no one has to pretend to comfort, and no one has to pretend to be comforted. Death is final and tragic; nothing anyone ever says can change that. Clever attempts at offering comfort usually fail miserably and are more likely to offend than to console. In a shiva house, words cannot compare to silence.

After my mother’s funeral, I sat shiva for the first time. After having visited hundreds of shivas, this time it was me who sat hunched down in the low chair. Suddenly, the phrase “there are no words” took on new meaning. The Talmud says that upon returning from the cemetery the mourner eats a rounded food (like eggs, lentils, etc.). This is because a mourner “has no mouth,” just like an egg, which is an enclosed circle, without any hint of an opening. During the first few days of shiva, I realized how true this was. Even though I spoke nonstop, words couldn’t express my sense of loss. Inside my 47-year-old body was a 7-year-old-child crying for mommy; and even an ocean of thesauruses could not describe my heart, the heart of a grieving orphan. Silence communicated my feelings better than words.

As the year of mourning presses on, silence has become the playground of memory; I hear my mother’s voice best during moments of silence. And even as I turn my mind to other matters, precious memories turn up, without prompting and without warning, unannounced. They arrive with or without tears, while I’m doing everyday tasks like driving or saying kaddish; suddenly, I’m overwhelmed by how much I miss my mother. And these silent intrusions are actually quite welcome; it’s extremely comforting to know that I can remember my mom without even trying. She is a part of my heart and soul, with or without anything further being said.

While silence is a large part of any mourner’s life, it feels particularly appropriate in my case: Silence was important to my mother, and she made it a large part of my upbringing, as well.

My mother was deported to Auschwitz in 1944; at the time, she was just 16 years old. After the war, she came to America and rapidly rebuilt her life. She got married, bought a house in the suburbs, and had three children. In 1964, when she was eight months pregnant, my father’s car crashed, and her world fell apart. All of sudden, she was a widow and a single mother struggling to get by. And 30 days after my father’s death, my mother gave birth to her fourth child: me.

At my mother’s funeral, an elderly rabbi asked for the opportunity to speak. He told the audience that 47 years earlier, when he had visited my father’s shiva, he was struck by the enormous courage my mother had shown as a young widow. Even while sitting shiva, Rochel Steinmetz let everyone know she was going to raise her children by herself, and raise them well. And 47 years later, her children can confirm that she kept her promise.

Despite all the difficulty in her life, my mother was an absolute optimist. This Holocaust survivor, widow, and single mother insisted that the glass was always half full; and even if it wasn’t half full, it was at least a quarter full. To my mother, the most important thing a parent could give a child is a sense of hope, so she nurtured us with a steady stream of inspirational quotes and stories.

But my mother also nurtured us with silence. As a 16-year-old, she had experienced unspeakable horrors, yet she made it a point of not talking about them. Survivors have debated among themselves about whether or not they should speak about the Holocaust with their families; in my own family, my mother refused to speak much, while her sister carefully documented the events of the Shoah. Those who did speak have left a treasured historical record, and I am so grateful that my aunt left us her testimony. But I am also grateful for my mother’s silence. Even though she had a full portfolio of personal challenges, she was determined to shelter us from her struggles. She never complained, because she didn’t want to worry us; for the same reason, she never spoke with us about the Holocaust. She raised us to love life.

Mom’s silence was a symphony of determination and love, a desire to make sure the horrors of her youth were not visited on her children. As I sit silently tapping away on my keyboard, her quiet legacy still speaks loudly. I will remember many things about my mother; and I will never forget the sounds of silence, her silent struggle to provide us with a home filled with love.

***

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KMontreal says:

How fortunate you were to have been raised in silence about the Holocaust. My mother spoke obsessively about her experiences to me, her only child, while resisting formal documentation; her major achievement was passing on the burden of the horror.

bellissimo e commovente. grazie

Rebecca Kun says:

yes, I think I would have preferred chosen silence instead of seething silence punctuated by random spouting of how luck i am to be alive with food, etc. and it is probably good that your aunt at least wrote down information that will be there for future generations. thank you for writing this, it is very soothing

susanschwartz says:

what a lovely tribute to your mother. and what nice writing.

What a beautiful tribute to your Mother Rabbi. Thank you for sharing it.

I am so touched by your article. I am also from a holocaust experienced family – Lucky for me all the women in the family who survived were also great towers of courage and showed those of us born after the war that even after  the most horrific experiences  the desire to live is so strong , as our Jewish faith tells us. My grandmother who was in Block 10 a patient of Dr Mengele , survived him and the Death March to be a light of inspiration, bravery and love of life for all her grandchildren. I loved having mothers day with her .

Flo_J says:

So beautiful and moving.  Thank you for sharing.

Victor Ney says:

Thank you for your article.  It put a helpful perspective on my own parents.  That is, like your aunt, my Mom spoke often about her Holocaust related experiences.  In contrast, like your Mom, my Dad never spoke about his Holocaust experiences.  Growing up in a household with such a contrast was challenging.  And,  as I learned later, my Dad’s experiences were quite different than my Mom’s as he was incarcerated for a long time in a Labor Camp.  Thank you again.

LaraGreenEyes says:

What a beautiful piece. What a dance – the talking, the not talking, the listening – the not wanting to listen.  Author Diane Wyshogrod, a psychologist, explores this also in her book – Hiding Places, a Mother, a Daughter, an Uncovered Life. It’s very good.  

beautiful . This is  a keeper.

I’m sorry for your loss, a mourner’s first seasons without the beloved are difficult, I’m happy for you that you have such good memories. We children of survivors either have one or the other, the parent who shares, or the parent who is silent, and sometimes one and the other in our family. You have three siblings, I’m curious whether the experience of the eldest child is different from yours, of course it is, each child per definition has an other experience, but regarding the aftermath of the Holocaust your older sibling may have experienced something other than you. I know of people with whom that was the case, if your mother did not by osmosis share with her first born, she indeed was even more special than you make clear she was. What a gift.

On another note, your essay triggers memories not immediately connected to the Holocaust, but indirectly. While I feel blessed when in the company of people who don’t need to fill the silence with words, who are able to be quiet, I have a different experience and opinion about perpetual silence in regards to longitudinal mourning. Especially when a death was unexpected, accidental or brutal, telling the story of how it happened can be of the utmost importance to the bereaved.

Often the inner circle grows tired of listening to the story, they think the grieving person should be —over it already. When that’s the case, a person can benefit from finding professional caregivers who will lend a listening ear. I imagine that’s what you would give to people in your congregation Rabbi, or am I mistaken? I know it’s slightly off topic, but at the same time, your message —that silence is golden, might make some very sad people feel inadequate, and not deserving the attention they need.

With the most respect, and with sympathy, Judith van Praag in Seattle.

Beautiful! The sentiments and the writing!

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My Mother’s Loving Silence

A Holocaust survivor, she nurtured me with silence. This Mother’s Day, I’ll mourn for her—quietly.

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