Our little house on Hoskins Road in North Vancouver was one of the first cabins built in the old-growth forests of the North Shore. There in the kitchen sat my mother – jet-lagged from her long flight from Australia, holding my newborn daughter in her arms, cooing and muttering a mixture of Yiddish and Hungarian blessings over her first precious grandchild. I was stunned by the vision of the immense cultural changes we three women had witnessed. My mother had grown up in a small village in Czechoslovakia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had no electricity; she never learned to ride a bicycle, let alone drive a car! And here was her grandchild on the threshold of a fantastic, unimagined digital age. My amazing mother had lived to see this earth-altering shift, which meant surviving through two world wars and the Holocaust.
She was born Lenke (Leah) Moskovic on December 7, 1911, the fourth child and first daughter in a family of seven. When she was born, her father was away fighting in World War I, so Lenke was able to witness her mother running their home and business alone. Their small village, Turia-Pasika, near Uzhorot in Slovakia, was near mountain meadows where people came to harvest flowers and herbs for medicinal use. The family owned a small farm and a general store which sold the baked goods, pickles and preserves her mother made, as well as all the small goods needed in the village. From a young age, Lenke helped in the household and store and with the care of her siblings and grandmother. She would have loved to pursue further education, but that was not considered necessary for females – only the brothers were sent away to study. Her joy and her gift was found in sewing and embroidery (very traditional in that area), and she won many prizes for her work.
Hers was one of the few Jewish families in the area, and they celebrated the rich cycle of rituals, festivals and traditions. The house was spotlessly cleaned and readied for the Sabbath; the challah baked; the chicken noodle soup simmering; the table set with its white damask cloth and the silver candlesticks polished and gleaming, ready for the lighting of the candles at sunset. They were traditional, though not orthodox. Even when she continued some of these traditions in later years when visiting my family, I could feel a peace and joy coming from having a home so lovingly cared for and nurtured.
Did this hard but somewhat idyllic rural life prepare her for what was to come?
At age nineteen and against her parents’ wishes, she married a roving, ne’er-do-well but charming violinist and bore him a son. This sweet, young love was soon abusingly shattered, and within a year she took her son and went back to live with her parents, continuing to work at their farm and store. Within the community she was still considered a beauty, and one young man from the village repeatedly asked her to marry him, and she kept refusing. He left for America and sent for her again. This time she finally agreed to his proposal, but the borders closed and Europe was gripped in the terror of war. How radically a single decision can shift a life and destiny!
For most of the war, Hungarians believed they could negotiate with the Nazis. In 1944, all illusions of security vanished and the Jews were herded and sent immediately to their deaths. During a major roundup, my mother was in hospital in Budapest and overlooked. I’ve never known why. In her village her parents and her twelve-year-old son, Alidor, were taken away – and she has never known where or how they perished. This was an unimaginable anguish for her for the rest of her life.
She was one of the thousands of Jews in Budapest saved by the actions of the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, now recognized as one of those outstanding humanitarians who risked their lives during the Holocaust. My mother was one of many Jews rounded up from the Jewish quarter and marched through the snow, destined for a boat on the Danube which was to be sunk. A troop of soldiers rode up, waving papers of Swedish immunity, and under Wallenberg’s protection my mother was taken back to Budapest to hide in the warehouse of a glass factory. Another time she was rounded up to be marched off to a concentration camp, and her youngest brother Louis came up, dressed as a German officer with a whip, calling out for “the prostitute Lenke Moskovic” to come out. He dragged her out of the line, saying he was taking her for interrogation. And she was saved again.
She related many such stories and how, even after the war under Russian occupation, fear and chaos made daily life dangerous for a single young woman. Despite the danger she would make herself look old and ugly to walk to the train station for any news from the Red Cross on the wherabouts of her son. Finally she and Louis journeyed by the erratic train system back to the ruins of their home in the village. A former servant girl brought them food, which my mother described as a gift from heaven, and the few treasures she managed to hide and save, including my grandmother’s gold necklace, the only heirloom remaining, the one which I now wear.
Those Jews who had survived seemed to bury their horrors and immediately embrace the opportunity to start a new life. Lenke met and married my father, Misha Ehrenthal, a gentle, peace-loving man who had also lost his wife and children in the Holocaust. They started a new home, but Eastern Europe was still unsafe. Since her siblings were going to the newly created state of Israel, a longed-for haven of peace and protection, they joined them and the tide of refugees “beached” there. Here my mother and father lived in a primitive settlement of corrugated iron huts donated by the Swedish government. There were no roads or electricity and few services. My father spoke French, and since there were also many Yemenite Jews in the settlement who spoke that language, he became a popular manager. My mother worked in a local health sanatorium. I was born, and they apparently had simple but happy years, helped by my mother’s dogged thriftiness and initiative, such as her decision to also raise and sell chickens.
However, one by one her siblings moved to Australia, and since “family” was so intrinsically vital to her, she convinced my father that they should join them in Melbourne. So when I was five years old, we set off on the Italian ship Castel Felice, carrying yet more itinerant Jews intent on re-settling the world. On the journey my father had a heart attack in his sleep and died. It would have been the normal procedure to bury him at sea. However, my small but feisty mother argued and convinced the captain that he should divert the ship from its course and pull into Aden, where the local Jewish community came out to give my father a traditional burial.
My mother arrived in Australia penniless, still owing for the cost of the voyage, not knowing the language, and with me in tow. She went to work in factories and as a housekeeper. When she married my stepfather, she helped him build up his business of importing continental foods for the growing community of immigrants from everywhere.
Marriage, for her now, was a contract of mutual convenience and support. Life now meant family ties and the pursuit of material wealth and security. Even with her intrinsic strength, it was still unthinkable for her to think of being a woman alone. Even my father’s erratic temper and abusive outbursts were simply something one tolerated. All hopes and dreams that she had were now to be lived through me!
So who was she to me?
As I knew her, Lenke was immensely hard-working – in the business, home, garden. She was a true Jewish “martyr”, the stuff of films and satire! Referring to herself in her labours as “a donkey”, she never allowed herself to enjoy the lifestyle, clothing, furs, jewels and luxurious holidays her contemporaries were gradually able to lavish on themselves as they built up their wealth. In fact, my mother continued to sew all our clothes, mend, patch and even turn the collars and cuffs of my father’s shirts to prolong their life. She was also very social, loving to have company, especially family, to enjoy her renowned cooking. The extended family and friends picnicked together every weekend around Melbourne and always celebrated the festivals together with lavish traditional meals, including my mother’s famous matzoh balls and chicken soup at Passover, fresh doughnuts at New Year’s, Angel cake for birthdays and rich tortes for any occasion. Unfortunately, her skills with apple strudel are buried with her!
Did her life make her more compassionate or empathetic? My experience was that anytime I had a pain or sorrow, she would instinctively harden, toughen-up and point to her own suffering and survival. Yet she was also protective and nurturing to the point of suffocation. When we moved to an outer suburb that was largely new immigrants from all nations, my mother met her neighbours with an exchange of food. I would often see dear Italian Nona from across the street weeping her sufferings on my mother’s shoulder in Italian, and Mum consoling her and crying her own in Hungarian!
My mother was uneducated, yet she spoke five languages, including a very humorous, unschooled form of English. Her grocery list, especially a “pound of piss” (peas), was a delight for us children.
She was a lover of “home” and would never have travelled or holidayed anywhere other than to visit relatives. Yet her life flung her far from her roots, and her grandchildren now experience the excitement of a world with so much more freedom.
Eventually, Mum became the matriarch, ever more interfering and controlling as the other relatives died off. It was said that no one in the family even bought underwear (gutkes) without Lenke’s permission!
At 87, she had a major heart attack and was lying in intensive care in the hospital. The larger extended family gathered around her unconscious form, weeping and waiting for that final breath … for she was the last of her generation and the holder of all the stories. One cousin looked across the room at another with whom there had been a long-standing feud, and started to hysterically shout insults at him, calling him (in Czech) “a filthy shit.” At this point my mother sat bolt upright and said, “Where’s the shit?” She recovered to live, feed, badger and alarm us all for another twelve years!
Survivors refer to the years they lived beyond the Holocaust as “dancing on Hitler’s grave.” My mother passed away in 2010 at the age of 99.