My mother was a Holocaust survivor, but she was always more worried about my happiness.
My 93-year-old mom, who survived the Holocaust, died of COVID-19 in an assisted living facility in New Jersey on April 5. I found out she was dead from a text with the words Baruch Dayan Haemet, the Jewish blessing at the time of death.
Only days earlier, my nephew called to tell me she had pneumonia, and had been tested for COVID-19. When he called back two days later to tell me she was rushed to the hospital because her oxygen level was poor, she was struggling to breathe, and her temperature was high, I knew my family would face the single most difficult decision any family has to make.
Do we let her get admitted into the hospital, where she would be put on an IV and a breathing machine? Was it likely she would pass away alone in a hospital, the one place she truly hated? Or would we instead decide to let her pass away in a hospice, in her own bed, surrounded by pictures of her family? The decision was hard and easy. Hard because it meant I was going to lose my mother, and easy because we all knew her preference.
She died within two days. I wanted to be with her, but was told that because she tested positive, no visitors were allowed. It meant I couldn’t be with my mother at the end of her life. I couldn’t hold her or touch her.
Her burial was painful. Only ten people were allowed at the cemetery, and we couldn’t leave our cars until after she was buried. This meant I couldn’t shovel dirt over her grave, as is the Jewish custom. Instead, I had to watch a tractor cover her, while I cried in the car. Only after she was buried were we allowed to approach the grave.
I spoke about who she was, and how painful life would be without her: “You are, and have been, my best friend. You have been in my heart every day of my life.”
I said: “In 2009 and 2010, when I was living with my mother, I was convicted of a crime and was awaiting my sentencing hearing. My mother had great difficulty hearing, seeing and walking without support. Even though she was physically challenged, my mother insisted on being at my sentencing hearing, and speaking to the judge on my behalf.”
My mother stood up and told the judge, “Your honor, I am a Holocaust survivor. I have suffered enough for a lifetime. My daughter, she has been a fantastic daughter. She has been doing everything for me. She feeds me, she shops and without her I cannot exist … not even a day. I will die without her.”
The judge responded by saying, “I’m sending her to prison.” We took the three-hour trip home.
The night before I was to report to prison, I was packing things away prior to my incarceration, when my mother walked into my room. Leaning against her walker, she motioned for me to move closer to her.
She said, “It will be harder for you to be in prison than it was for me to be in a concentration camp.” I said, “Mom, are you crazy? You were in Auschwitz. How can you possibly compare the two?” She said, “I was 12 years old and you are 60.”
It would be years later, when I was placed in solitary confinement, when my mother’s words came back to me. “I was young … a child … I didn’t know what was going on. You are an old woman, and aware of what you lost. You will see your life every day.” And she was right.
My mother feared what going to prison would do to me. She knew from her own experience the torture I would face. I told her, “I’m going to be fine.” I worried about leaving her, knowing no one would take care of her as well as I would. I left Ali, my beloved Maltese dog, with her.
I missed her every day. When I came home, we held on to each other for a long time. She was concerned Ali wouldn’t remember me. I said, “We will see in a minute.” Ali walked in, looked at me strangely, and then jumped high to get in my arms and kiss my face. Once again, as so many times before in my life, I knew my mother worried about me and my happiness.
Whether we were in good or difficult times, I always knew how deeply my mother cared for me. I knew my happiness was always on her mind. I hope she knew how deeply I cared for her, and how much the lessons of her life and experiences will live on.
Evie Litwok is the Founder and Executive Director of Witness to Mass Incarceration, based in New York.