Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Family Motto

Look at any of the heraldic shields of old and they share one characteristic: each has a motto engraved on the shield. These mottos were the rallying cry for their particular family/clan/tribe. Warriors facing battle found strength in the words as they entered battle. The mottos were a way for families to place meaning behind their names, for stating what they believed.

Today there are few families or family groups that have specific mottoes attached to their names. What few mottoes remain are usually attached to larger groups or organizations. We see the motto in play in the US Marines--Semper Fi (semper fidelis)--ever faithful. But there are a few families today that are the exception, that still adhere to a family motto. Mine, for one example.

In the dark and horrifying days of WWII the Jews of Visuel de-sus, Marmorish, Romania were living under the oppression of the Nazis, may their names be cursed for eternity. The beasts had taken over the town, bringing their evil with them. They took over my grandparents' hotel as their central headquarters. Yes, there was hope that God would end the oppression, that He would remove this pestilence. But there was also fear, based on the knowledge of what the beasts had done and were doing to the rest of European Jewry. And one morning the dreaded fear became reality. The Jews of "de Vishevis" were to be immediately deported to the killing camps to the west.

What does a parent say to a child in a moment of such terror? What words of wisdom or comfort can there be when family members are about to be ripped from each other's protective arms? "Al achas regel" what words could a parent utter to his children?

My zaydie was an educated man, legitimately known as Herr Doktor Rabbiner. There were many things he could have told his children, and did in the days leading up to the deportation, but there was only one thing that he said in that last moment together. The last words that my mother and my Tante Libby a"h heard their father say were burned into their consciousness. He told them: "Hotz eich lieb"--love each other. And to my mother, the eldest by four years, he added: "Pas oif off dein shvester"--take care of your sister. And then life as it had been known was torn asunder and the terror days escalated.

Throughout the plague years of the camps, my mother and my aunt never, ever forgot the words their father had given them. They clung together, two against the world, loving each other fiercely and without exception. Their love for each other provided the warmth in the chilling emptiness of their lives.

And finally the war was over. And zaydie's words still provided the blanket of strength that helped them to rebuild their lives anew. They went back to de Vishevis and then to the larger cities to build a life again. And yes, they married and began families. But the terror was not yet over. They escaped over the border barely a few hours before the advance of the Russian armies. They found themselves once again in Bergen Belsen, this time as a DP camp. They struggled to get papers to leave the hellhole of Europe.

My father and my uncle on the surface had seemingly nothing in common; their personalities, interests and abilities were totally different. And yet, these two so very different men forged a strong, loving bond. Why? Because their wives, my mother and my aunt, made it clear from the beginning that they had better get along, that they had better forge a bond, because if they were marrying my mother and my aunt they needed to know that "Hotz eich lieb" was the rallying cry. And the men listened.

People have commented over the years that they have seen many close siblings but nothing that came near the obvious love and devotion that existed between my mother and my aunt. They often wondered at how such a love came into being. "Hotz eich lieb" and "Pas oif off dein shvester" were the mottoes they held dearly when they faced life's adversities. There was nothing they could not overcome as long as they wrapped themselves in their father's words. There was nothing that they would not do for each other.

My oldest first cousin and I were born 11 weeks apart. My aunt was still not completely back to her physical well being and she could not produce enough milk to nurse her new baby. Problem? Not for these two sisters. My mother, gladly and with love, nursed both infants. Others wondered at this selfless act. Those of us raised by these two amazing women didn't wonder at all; it was exactly what "Hotz eich lieb" and "Pas oif off dein shvester" was all about.

We are seven first cousins, children of my mother and my aunt, and our childhoods were molded by my zaydie's words. There is not a one of us that does not remember his words, and does not live by them. We are seven so very different people, like our fathers before us, but we are united by what is our family motto.

Over the years I have seen so many squabbling siblings, so many siblings in outright war with each other. And yes, I have seen many of the groups in Klal act like those warring siblings, competing to be number one and with little or no care for their "siblings" in Klal. C"v we should ever be faced again with the events of WWII, but are the problems that Klal faces today not bad enough? Must we add to those problems, cause those problems, because of Sinah? So much of what is wrong in Klal today could be obliterated if only we would heed those words of my zaydie.

Our gedolim utter so many words to us about so many things. They preach to us and teach to us. If only they would utter the words that might finally make the difference. If only they would tell us, and then tell us again "Hotz eich lieb." The modern pop song asks "What's love got to do with it?" What? Everything!

So yes, I'll gladly lend out our family motto. Just repeat it every day, as many times as is needed: Hotz eich lieb.


Lion of Zion said...

great that your extended family has that bond

Trudy said...

Beautifully written. And true. Too many parts of Klal that barely tolerate each other, and the problems multiply.

Won't say that my brothers and sister and I never disagree but we love each other and that gives us the reason to work things out.

JS said...

Beautiful. Brought a tear to me eye.

BE said...

I've seen that love in action and I'll tell you what I've told you before--you're family is unusual. And I've never quite seen a relationship like yours with your mother either. I've seen lots of loving mom/daughter pairs but you two are unique.

Anonymous said...

I have never understood how siblings could not speak to each other. My sisters & I speak to each other all the time. Not every day, but certainly every week and we email and send each other pictures of our grandchildren, or the new curtains we just bought or send along emails that strike us funny. My mother,obm, would say "Of course Aunt T & I had a fight on the phone, but we talked to each other the next day. After all she's my sister." My sisters & I feel the same way, maybe because that is how we were brought up.

Anonymous said...

Siblings who go through adversity together often have the type of bond you describe. My grandmother and her sister who escaped Russia together were exactly like you describe your mother and sister. Throughout their lives the were their for each other, including when one lost her husband at an early age the other one and her husband took the widowed sister and her children into her home where they continued to live together and support each other for the remainder of their lives. My Tante and my Grandmother were both equally mothers to my mother and grandmothers to me and my siblings.

s(b.) said...

Thank you for sharing.