Ella is 82 years old, a tiny white-haired woman with a beautiful smile, primly dressed, who still speaks with a slight accent. She invites me to call her by her first name, but I keep my eyes off the number tattooed on her left forearm that’s still distinctly visible, A277331. She sees me staring at it and says, “A is for Auschwitz, the number means I’m the 277,331st prisoner in the extermination camp.”
She told her story with occasional lapses, sometimes losing names, dates and places, sometimes blanking out the horror. Ella was the only survivor of a 55- member family from Krakow, Poland. After her liberation at age 18, she came to New York, worked in a factory, and decided to go back to school. It took her 11 years to get her high school diploma and a college degree. During those years, she married her husband, Harry; they moved to Phoenix where he built a successful furniture manufacturing company, and they raised two children. In Phoenix, Ella went back to the university for a Masters degree in social work and headed the department in a local hospital until her retirement 10 years ago.
We talked about family, fears, and fun. Ella said the greatest joy in her life was in being of service to others. She especially loved speaking to children in public schools where she enthralled them with her stories. She lamented the fact that she was having increasing difficulty in remembering things. Sometimes, in mid-sentence, she would draw a blank and couldn’t continue. Not being able to reach out and touch others had left her feeling life had lost its meaning.
Ella’s work was her spiritual life, and you could feel her soulful connection to people in need. She needed to be involved and to make a difference. Ella had no organized religious life — the Holocaust had left her devoid of belief in an omnipotent God. She was interested in my beliefs, and I do not shy away from such questions in my work. I told her about my upbringing in a fairly traditional Jewish home. My mother kept a kosher home, she loved the Sabbath; when she lit the candles on Friday nights, she covered her eyes with smiling anticipation that tonight was the night the Messiah would come. In my chronic mode of skeptical judgementalism, I would teasingly ask her that if the Messiah hadn’t come the previous week, month or year, that perhaps he might not come in our lifetime. Unperturbed, she’d say that until the Messiah arrived, it was up to us to make his presence known on earth. We were all responsible for helping one another because we were God’s messengers on earth.
I said I thought my mother was right; I don’t see God as a white-bearded patriarch enthroned in the heavens. I think that when we reach out and embrace each other lovingly, we become the language of God. We always feel better when we know that somebody is there for us, listening to us, hugging us, and caring about what happens to us. This is how God becomes manifest on earth. I also told her I thought she was such a Godly person. She touched lots and lots of people with her loving presence. She touched me right now, here in my office. She didn’t have to stand in front of an audience to make a difference. I loved her story, would love to share it with others if she let me, because I thought it would make a difference to them too. She’d still be connected, her work wouldn’t end, just change its form.
Ella liked the idea and said she’d bring along a story she had written when we met the next time. I’ve included it as an attachment to this week’s byte. She hugged me when we said goodbye. I said she reminded me of my mother’s certainty that we are all sparks of the divine. Ella, who reaches almost to my belly-button, heard it a little differently and said, “If we are all grapes on the vine, let me squeeze you a little harder.” I laughed and thought both are the truth.