I believe Mystically and Magically Great Grandma Chava Watches Over Me

22 Aug

Chava Amsterdam

Even though I was born long after the Holocaust ended, I have a connection that defies logic. I am named for my great grandmother Chava. She was hidden during the war and was murdered when she returned to the farm her family owned by the people who occupied and stole it. I have been told that she was shot in the head.

I learned about her when I was 11 years old. Before that I only knew I was named for Grandpa Nat’s mother. And that was all.

But when I was 11 years old, living in North Bergen, NJ, I had a major fight with my younger sister. I ran after her screaming, “I am going to cream you.”   As she ran away from me, I felt a giant tug on my pony tail. My gentle Mom was dragging me to the sink. “Never use that word in my house. Never. They burned your Grandpa’s family alive in the fires of the crematoria of Austzvitz. You will never use that word in my house.”   And then she put soap in my mouth. I have never, ever forgotten that.

I never even thought of the slang word, “cream” meaning ‘to kill,’ had anything to do with the holocaust. But in my mother’s mind it meant crematoria. And perhaps she was right. I have not found a reference for it. But it does not matter. What it did do was open up a conversation.

My Mom was the gentlest person around. For her to do this, something horrible must have happened. And so I learned about the Shoah. I learned about my grandfather’s family and how they died: some of it, not all of it. Some came later.

But mainly I learned about Grandma Chava.

I thought about her so much, I started speaking to her in my mind. When I was worried about something, I spoke to her. When I was scared, I spoke to her. I knew she had been through so much that perhaps I could gain strength from her. And she would not let that happen to me. One generation was enough. When I was worried, I imagined her near to me.

When my son was little and afraid to sleep alone at night, I once told him that there are angels guarding him. And I mentioned my great grandma. I will admit this backfired. When my son was about 8 we went to see a production of “Footloose.” When they sang the song with the lyrics, “Somebody’s eyes are watching you,” he had to leave the theater. He told me he thought about my great grandma and her watching him. So I changed that image for him.

But for me, thinking of my great grandmother was always helpful. I did not think about how she died or what happened to the family. I thought that she would never let it happen again.

Often my Grandma Thelma, who had spent six months living with Grandma Chava in Europe, would say, “You are so much like Chava. She also was shreier or a machshafer or chachama.” Whatever she wanted to compare me with that day.

But basically Great Grandma Chava was a strong-willed person, as was I growing up. And I think I still am.

Because I was named for Grandma Chava, I was given jewelry that was hers and embroideries that she made. I now have a picture of a bird she embroidered hanging in my dining room. I was given the matzah cover she made for Pesach, which I have since donated to a museum. (See my blog: “Watching Antiques Roadshow Inspired Me to Donate my Great-Grandmother’s Matzah Cover.”)

Recently we found a photo just of her. My Grandpa looked like his mother. My brother looks like her. One of my nieces looks like her. And I held her photo up to my daughter and there is a resemblance as well.

As for me, I look like the determination you can see in her face. She is staring straight at the camera, and in my eyes she is so strong.

My desk with Great Grandma Chava watching.

My desk with Great Grandma Chava watching.

I enlarged the photo and hung it by my desk so I can see her whenever I am working. Because I always have and still feel that she is my guardian angel. We share the same nechama, the same essence.

Almost all of her children and grandchildren died in the Shoah, except my Grandpa and his family because he was in the USA. There were no grandchildren till years after the Shoah. My older boy cousin was named for my great grandfather, who also perished. And I, the oldest girl, was named for Chava.

So I sit at my computer working. And I turn my head slightly to see her. The world of magical thinking makes me believe that she knows we survived. That she knows her great-great granddaughter has moved to Israel. That she is not only looking over me, but also over my daughter.

As rockets fall in Israel, I think, ‘never again.’ Another Chava cannot lose her daughter to the hatred of anti-Semitism. And I believe, mystically and magically, that Great Grandma Chava is watching my daughter as well. And I feel her ruach, her comforting whisper. All will be well.


Schreier: screamer/yeller

Machshafer: witch

Chachama:  Smart one/intelligent

Nechama: soul, essence

Ruach: wind, spirit




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