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For my mother — who survived the Holocaust, married the love of her life and kept her sense of humor

A daughter and a physician remembers her mother’s stories of survival and her advice for surviving

How do I eulogize the one person in this world who gave me life and whose last words in hospice were “Marilyn, I love you. Are you eating enough?”

My mother was the sole survivor of her family, all of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. I always marveled at how she and my father built the life they did without support from family and with very little money. Their work ethic and strong family values propelled them forward and in time, they achieved the American dream.

As a young child, before I knew of the Holocaust, I sensed that some terrible things had happened to my parents. I always wanted to do things that would bring joy into my mother’s life, whether it meant getting good grades or complimenting her on something she did.

As I got older, I began to realize that her pain was something I could not really reach, nor did she expect me to. But it was something I always tried to lessen for her in whatever way I could.

Although my mother’s real name was Sara, her friends and family always called her Steffi. She explained to me that Hitler, by decree, had eliminated the surnames of Jewish men and women who did not have typical Jewish first names and substituted them with the names ‘Sara’ for the women and ‘Israel’ for the men.

So, it was offensive to her and her friends to continue calling her Sara, and she was called Steffi instead.

This name stayed with her for the rest of her life, although her legal name remained Sara.

My parents became orphans as a result of the war. They met and fell in love in a displaced persons camp after they were liberated by the United States Army. My father was set up on a date with my mother’s best friend at the camp but when he came to meet her, he saw my mother and fell in love with her instead.

They promised to marry each other in the United States.

They both arrived on the same boat, the USS Marine Flasher, my father three months before my mother. I still have the original Western Union telegrams he sent her, telling her how much he was looking forward to her arrival. He was waiting for her on the Hudson Piers when she arrived on July 15, 1946.

Although my parents tried to keep a positive attitude while in concentration camp, I am sure there were times they thought they would never live to see another day. And for that, I am very grateful they lived to see two granddaughters, Stephanie and Ilana, and their husbands, Matthew and Zachary.

Stephanie and Ilana have beautiful memories of staying over at their grandparents’ house in Queens, celebrating holidays and going on trips with them all over New York City — museums, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and so many other places.

Grandma Steffi and Papa Max were married 73 years. Their marriage was an epic love story. My father was so in love with my mother that the last time he saw her, the day before his stroke — which was also the day of his 99th birthday —  he still called her “my beautiful bride.”

So, what would my mother want you to know about her?

She would want you to know that she loved her family with all her heart, especially her two granddaughters, Stephanie and Ilana.

She would want you to know that she never stopped thinking of and loving the family taken away from her by the brutal Nazis when she was a young girl  — her mother, Miriam; her father, Raphael; her younger sister, Itka; both sets of grandparents, and many aunts, uncles and cousins.

She would want you to know that despite six years of slave labor and starvation, she never lost hope that one day she would meet the love of her life and start a family.

She would want you to know — and was proud of the fact — that she and other women assigned to work in a German munitions factory, sabotaged as many bullets as they could, rendering them virtually ineffective, and possibly saving the lives of many American and allied soldiers.

She would want you to know she loved the color blue, she loved dogs — especially her beloved German Shepherd, Cookie.

She loved watching the news and figure skating on TV, and she loved using her gifted hands to knit countless sweaters and scarves for the entire family.

There is something I would like you to know about my mother. She had a wonderful sense of humor, despite all the hardships she experienced. It always gave me great pleasure to hear from people she interacted with, including hospital and nursing home staff, that she made them laugh.

She was always giving advice but she let everyone do as they pleased in the end.

My favorite personal piece of advice she would repeatedly give me was this:

Whenever I am given the choice between staying home and doing housework or going out and having a good time, never choose housework!

It was an honor and privilege to be her doctor for the past five years. Just as she always took care of me, the ability to be her physician-of-record in the nursing home, gave me the biggest opportunity to now take care of her. I only wish I could lay my stethoscope on her chest or assist her with a meal just one more time.

I am grateful beyond words to my immediate family for their unfailing support. This was especially helpful during the times being a daughter got in the way of being a doctor, making even straightforward medical decisions difficult.

Mom breathed her last breath at Good Shepherd Hospice in Port Jefferson, New York.

By sheer coincidence, she was placed in the same room as my father had been in two years prior. So, she spent her last days and died in the same bed as her husband.

If there was any doubt that there could have been any other outcome, this alone comforts and assures me that all the events leading up to her final days were meant to be.

I will miss you, Mom.

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