Irene Ilona Rosenschein – Yitta bat Yisrael v’Bluma Hendel
Delivered at Bonai Shalom on May 18th 2018, Sivan 4, 5778
Who here does not feel richer and a little more complete through knowing Irene Ilona Rosenschein, who has left the most extraordinary legacy to every single one of us whose lives she touched? What an unbelievable gift just to have known this aishet chayil, this woman of valor. “Aishet chayil mi yimtzah, v’rachok mip’nimim michra? A woman of valor, who can find, her value is far more than pearls?” says the Book of Proverbs. Chayil really means strength, like chayal, which is a soldier. Irene was the strongest, most courageous and tenacious woman I have ever known and yes, we did find an aishet chayil in this remarkable woman. Irene has looked death in the eyes several times and defied it with her will of iron and so much to live for. Even towards the end, she said to her family “I don’t want to die. I’m not done yet. Why is this happening to me?” as if she was immortal, immune from death. It was so hard for her to let go and we wondered if she was trying to hang on until Monday, the 2nd day of Shavuot, the day she arrived in Auschwitz on the Hebrew calendar and saw her mother and four younger siblings for the last time. Did she want to share the same yahrzeit, death anniversary, as them? The ultimate survivor has finally left us and we are bereft and broken, yet relieved that she is no longer in pain. How can we possibly tell the story of this aishet chayil, who grew up in a forgotten world so long ago and whose departure closes a book on a life that has made all of our lives better just through knowing her?
Irene grew up almost 100 years ago in a small town in the Carpathian Mountains called Kralovo or Kierahause in Hungarian. It had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was in Czechoslovakia when Irene was born, became Hungary again, and is now in Ukraine. Irene was one of twelve children born to Isadore and Hermina (Yisrael and Bluma Hendel) Sicherman. Two of the children died in infancy and the other ten grew up in a three bedroom house. Their father had two butcher shops, one kosher and one not kosher, and Irene had incredibly happy memories of her childhood in this close and loving family, the people and the animals. Every time a Jewish holiday would approach, Irene would remember the tastes, smells, sights and activities of those holidays in that lost world and she loved the joy and excitement of the weekly celebration of Shabbat. All of the special foods were always so important to Irene until the very end and on my Friday visits, there would always be such enticing aromas as I climbed the stairs to her apartment that maybe evoked Shabbos back home.
Before 1939, the relations between the Jews and non-Jews in the town were very good and respectful, but that all changed when the pro-Nazi Hungarian government occupied their region, and in a short time family friends stopped talking to them. Cruel regulations were imposed, including the compulsory wearing of the yellow star, and deportations began. The stress and uncertainty of these times impacted Irene’s father who had an enlarged heart and he died in February 1944, a month before they were all deported. His was the last Jewish funeral in Kralovo. A little later, Rabbi Teitelbaum told their mother “your husband was a Tzaddik, a righteous man, because he has a grave but we won’t know where our graves will be.” Two weeks after their father’s death, Irene’s older sister Valerie, who was already married and living in the town of Chust, was visiting and the sisters decided to bury some objects of special significance in an old metal basin. After the war, this was retrieved by Chaichu and it included the winter mountain scene needlepoint that Irene made as a girl and still hangs on her wall.
Right after Passover in 1944, many arrests had begun and the Nazis started rounding up the whole town. Hermina had everyone in family make a rucksack out of a table cloth and they packed what they could as they were forced to leave their home for the last time. Within a very short time of them leaving, their house was looted by their former neighbors.
Irene turned down the opportunity to go into hiding with a Christian family insisting that she would never leave her family. Family was always the most important thing to Irene to the very end. The six or seven hundred Jews of Kralovo were all rounded up, their possessions loaded on to horse drawn wagons and they were marched 12 kilometers to the ghetto in Sighet where they lived in appalling conditions for about six weeks until they were forced on to the cattle cars; 55 men, women and children crammed into one car like animals for the two or three day journey to Auschwitz, at this time of year 74 years ago. Irene always remembered peering out of a crack in the car as they were riding through Polish countryside and seeing farmers drawing their hands across their necks, cruelly gesturing their fate. The doors opened and they were greeted with the appalling stench and the sight of the tall wire fences and the large chimneys. Irene’s mother and four youngest siblings were sent one way, and Irene, Chaichu and Esther the other. That was the last time Irene saw her mother and young brothers and sisters. The three young women were moved to block 19 in the C Lager. No words can capture the pain and the brutality of this hell, the place of which Irene would say “the skies are always red”. In the first couple of days, the three sisters were reunited with their oldest sister Valerie (Feige) and the four of them, “die fier Shwester” were never separated again, surviving Dr. Mengele’s infamous daily selections. One day there was a special selection for strong, healthy, blond women and Irene was picked. She couldn’t stand being separated from her sisters and risked her life by creeping and then running back to block 19; that unbelievable tenacity, courage and loyalty that were with Irene her whole life. Who knows what angels were watching over these four devoted sisters, but with the protective help of Judith their blockalterste, they somehow managed to escape from block 19 to 17 about half an hour before that whole block was taken to the gas chambers. Irene told me once that one of the things that kept them going was a pure and simple faith that Mashiach, the messiah, was going to redeem them.
A couple of weeks after this episode, the four of them were selected to leave Auschwitz and they were transported in cattle cars once again to Nuremberg and a small camp with better conditions. Three of them were working in the Siemens electronics factory and Esther worked at the camp. The Allies were bombing the factory and the camp, and they were moved to a school where the 700 women were separated by last name. As Valerie was already married, she was selected for another group. Irene went crazy and ran up three flights of stairs and started yelling that she would jump if they didn’t let them stay together. Not knowing how to handle this commotion in a built up area, SS officers tried to force her to come down and eventually pushed her down the stairs and kicked and beat her, cracking her skull, but they consented to this feisty woman and Valerie rejoined her sisters. They were forced on to cattle cars for the last time and taken to Holeschein in Czechoslovakia, where they worked in an ammunition factory. From here they were liberated in May 1945 by Polish partisans and American soldiers who greeted them with chocolate, chewing gum and Jewish calendars.
In Budapest, they found out that their brother Martin and Valerie’s husband Eugene had both survived labor camps and they were reunited in Bucharest.
Chaichu and Irene briefly went back to their old house in Kralovo after the war, where Chaichu dug out the metal basin. Irene tried find their cat Miloush, and the wife of the former friend and neighbor said “if you take one more step, I will kill you.”
The Israeli Haganah helped them cross the border into Germany and into a DP, displaced persons, camp where a US army rabbi helped them find their older brother Morris, who had moved to New York before the war. In June 1947 Irene, Esther, Martin and his wife saw the Statue of Liberty from the SS Marlene and were reunited with Morris and his wife, and Irene got to meet her cousin Lolly. It is hard to imagine the emotion of these reunions and the beginning of life in America.
Irene met her beloved Felix, another survivor with a whole different story, in New York in 1948 and they were married in April 1949. They moved to Vancouver where Felix got a job as a Hebrew school teacher and Irene became pregnant with their first daughter Beverly. Somehow Irene knew that she had to give birth to an American citizen and she somehow got herself across the border while Felix was working and Bev was born in the US. They needed to choose which country to stay in, and Felix got a job as principal of a Hebrew day school in Chicago and they moved there in 1951, where Karen and Gail were born. Irene worked as a Jewish nursery school teacher for seventeen years, which she loved. I had the privilege of being with Irene and Bev at the JCC preschool a few months for Shabbat Sing as two of her great grandchildren ran up and hugged her. Irene was so happy that day and it brought back good memories of her time teaching.
Irene was so smart and practical, frugal and creative. She used to patch towels apparently. She was also very savvy and clever financially with her stock portfolio and she was almost unbeatable at Rummikub. Gail remembers that one day she heard her mother speaking Polish to a Polish cleaning lady and said, “I didn’t know you spoke Polish.” She replied “neither did I.” It turns out that with all the changing borders and her natural aptitude for languages, Irene spoke Hungarian, Yiddish, Czech, some Hebrew, some Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and, of course, her English was impeccable. Yiddish was mostly what her sisters spoke to each other and die fier Shwester, remained deeply connected to each other until only a few years ago.
The love of her life, Felix, died suddenly in 1988. In their home in Skokie, Illinois, Irene had lots of friends, many of whom were also Holocaust survivors and she was very connected there, but in 1996 Irene moved here to Boulder because, as had always been true, family was home for her, and her three wonderful daughters all lived in Colorado. Irene created a remarkable and very independent new life for herself here and, of course, everyone she met, whoever they were, fell in love with her. How could you not? She had other survivor friends, like Lola Sussman who died last year, and made so many other connections. We have been beyond blessed at Bonai Shalom to have Irene’s love and friendship and presence. Before my time, Irene was one of the main Kiddush volunteers and made her legendary egg salad for fifty or so every week, feeding so many in so many ways. Irene used to come and share her story with our 6th and 7th graders and the respect and attention that these young people gave her as she spoke was so remarkable. I am proud to say that Irene loved this community and we loved her back.
It is not easy being the children of two survivors, both traumatized by witnessing the darkest face of humanity and unbearable loss. Gail told me that one time when she was agonizing over which major to take in college, Irene said “you guys have it so hard. Our life was easy. Apart from the Holocaust, our life was easy!” Inevitably some of the trauma is inherited by the next generation and Irene’s three daughters are so aware of that impact along with happy memories of their own childhood. They have become remarkable women each in their own world and their mother adored them and was so proud. They have inherited the same values of loyalty, love of family and a strong sense of justice. It has been so moving and inspiring to witness the constant love and devotion with which you Bev, Karen and Gail have been with your mother until the very end, allowing her the dignity to die in her own home, which was always her wish, through this excruciatingly hard couple of weeks of Irene’s resistance to letting go.
Irene also adored her grandchildren Alexander, Madeline, Michael, Jake, Julia and Sam and her great grandchildren Max, Leigh, Felix, Francesca and the newest one, baby Iris, just born a few weeks ago who Irene got to hold. They all loved Irene so much. Madeline shared how she would just show up there for special loving hugs, along with always being fed so well. In a tender moment last night, Madeline said “I just can’t believe I’m not going to eat grandma’s food again!’ to which her mother Beverly immediately responded, “I don’t know about that. Take a look in the freezer.”
With Irene’s various medical adventures, she got to know quite a few doctors, nurses and other health care professionals and they all loved her so much and she loved them back. Any of us who had the privilege to visit Irene in hospital or rehab would enjoy having Irene introduce us to her new friends, knowing every one of them by name and half of their life story. Her mind was so sharp until the very end, knowing the name of and dosage of every single one of her medications and what they were doing, as well as knowing with such love and intimacy the stories of so many of us. One of her primary doctors, Amy Meditz, said she has never had a patient who shows such authentic gratitude in real time. Every nurse, every carer, every friend experienced that love and gratitude. You could understand it if someone witnessing the cruelty and fickleness of humanity, with friends and neighbors becoming bitter enemies, with so many people across Europe happy and complicit in the killing of Jews, might became cynical, mistrustful, hateful even. I don’t think Irene had a hateful cell in her being. She was a lover of humanity, always making instant connections, whoever people were.
Irene’s beauty, tenacity, courage, loyalty, pride and love have touched us all and they will, they must live on in our hearts and in our memories. Irene is the last survivor of Hermina and Isadore Sicherman’s twelve children, and her loss is so much sadder because she is one of the last of this generation who has lived through the unimaginable, and yet brought so much love, light and healing to the world. We must keep telling the story of this Eshet Chayil, this woman of valor and courage and live our own lives in ways that would have made her proud. Tomorrow night we begin the festival of Shavuot, always clouded with memories for Irene, where Jewish communities imagine themselves standing again at Sinai receiving the Torah, a kind of spiritual wedding. A person is compared to a Torah scroll and Irene’s life was a magnificent Torah that has taught and given us so much. We receive in order to give and may we all manifest the lessons of courage and of witnessing and loving, and each bring the Torah of our own lives into the world in Irene’s memory.
As a mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great grandmother, cousin, aunt and dear friend, Irene will never be forgotten.
Strength and comfort to the mourners Beverly, Karen, Gail, Alex and Les, grandchildren Alexander and his wife Joanna, Madeline and her husband Pete, Michael, Jake, Julia and Sam, and great grandchildren Max, Leigh, Felix, Francesca and baby Iris. Irene adored you all.
Zecher Tzadik livracha – may the memory of this righteous woman be a continued source of blessing for all of us.