Honoring My Cousin’s Courage

By Diane Von Furstenberg

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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Sima Vaisman and my father, Lipa (Leon) Halfin, were first cousins. Their mothers were sisters and they lived in the same house in Kishinev, Bessarabia (now Moldova). Sima’s mother, Genia, was a widow. And my grandmother Sarah asked her husband, a well-to-do merchant, to welcome the mother and daughter to live with them. It was a large house with a beautiful garden where the other four sisters of Sarah and Genia and their families would celebrate holidays and birthdays. Genia was considered the wise one in the family, and Sima took after her.

Sima studied medicine in Bucharest, and became a doctor. In the 1930s she left Bessarabia, married and, fleeing the increasing persecution of the Jews in Romania, she moved to Paris. There, lacking the means to get further medical degrees, she became a dental surgeon.

Meanwhile, my father, at the age of 18, also left Bessarabia. He went to Belgium to join his brother who was at university there. His brother returned home after graduation; my father never graduated and never went back. His father had died, the family business had been sold, and his mother urged him to stay in Belgium.

During the war, Sima fled to Lyon and was eventually arrested by the Germans in Mâcon in 1942. She was deported to several camps before arriving at Auschwitz and later she was transferred to Ravensbrück.

In the camps, she was assigned to the “hospital” and was relatively protected. There, she met a young girl from Belgium, Lily. They liked each other. Lily was reserved and never told Sima that she knew someone from Bessarabia, a handsome young man she had fallen in love with. Had she done that, Sima would have known it was her cousin Leon.

The war ended and — miraculously — both Lily and Sima survived. Back in Belgium, Lily married Leon and soon after I was born.

When my father took my mother to Paris to meet his cousin, the two women recognized each other. What happened? I don’t know. Neither of them were very talkative on the subject of the camps. Between them, there was almost a silent complicity… the camps were not a favorite subject.

As a child, growing up in Belgium, I remember my father calling cousin Sima on the telephone and speaking endlessly in Russian whenever he had an important decision to make…. “She is the wise one,” he would say.

That is how I remember Sima — wise, pragmatic, detached and able to dissect any problem, any situation. Like her mother, she had become a widow, living alone and seeing her patients. She read a lot, supervised the education of her nieces and kept in touch with all the members of the family who had survived the war. I did not see her often, but her closeness to my father, and the fact that she was, for him, such a symbol of strength, justice and wisdom, made her nonetheless a presence.

Sima’s tale of the camps is strong, gripping, often hard to read or believe. She had written it eight days after being freed by the Russians, as if to bury it somewhere and never have to think about it again. And it is the only such account by a female doctor.

My cousin, her niece Eliane Neiman-Scalie, discovered the manuscript by chance, in 1983. Sima brushed it aside, saying it was “of no interest,” but she allowed Eliane to read it and to later publish it. But she did not want to talk about it much herself. Like my mother when asked about her experience in the camps, she did not want to talk about the misery and the atrocities, but rather about the friendships and the hope that somehow allowed them to survive the impossible.

This text is written in her voice — a voice of intelligence, detachment (how else?) and disgust… the voice of a survivor. It is my duty and honor to help it be published in English… in the name of Sima, of my mother, and of all those who perished.






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