Our rabbis teach us that tzaddikim die on their birthday. My grandma died today, on the second of Nissan, the day after her birthday, the 1st of Nissan 1923. That is close enough for me.
Rushka (Rose) Cygler was born in Szemecziz, Poland, the oldest child in her family. She always told us about her younger siblings, her parents and the grandma she adored (for whom my sister was named). When the Nazis came to her house, they told my grandma’s family that if one person in the house volunteered to come with them to work, they would spare the rest of the family. As the oldest, my grandma volunteered. She said goodbye to her family, expecting to see them soon. She never did.
She was sent to several concentration and work camps, spending the majority of the time in Bergen Belsen. She was liberated on April 15, 1945. Other families dreaded April 15, Tax Day, but we celebrated the date. Somehow, my grandma heard that her own father was alive, but dying in Buchenwald. She hitchhiked from Bergen Belsen to Buchenwald and managed to see her father before he died. That is where she met my grandfather, Arthur, the love of her life. My grandfather was definitely the more animated figure in the relationship, and she would say to us, “You can’t have two simpletons in a marriage!” My grandmother was anything but a simpleton.
After a year in Germany, they decided to move to Israel and when that did not work out, they moved to America where they found sponsors in Milwaukee. There, they raised three daughters, ran several business ventures and built a happy and new life in America together.
My memories of my grandmother definitely begin in the kitchen. When we were little, we ate every Friday night dinner at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother would be in the kitchen ready for the family. Every holiday, we would walk into their house to see my grandmother preparing the holiday’s special food. Nothing would make her happier than watching us eat her kreplach on Rosh Hashanah or her kneidlach or bubbaleh on Pesach. And nothing was more important than the gefilte fish she would make in her Polish style; a sweet gefilte fish. We would have a family debate each time if she put in the appropriate amounts of sugar to pepper. My grandfather would drive around town delivering pieces of the treasured fish to all their friends because NO ONE made fish as well as my grandmother.
A few years ago, missing home before a holiday, I decided that I would begin making my grandmother’s gefilte fish. I cried for hours as I ground the fish in my own kitchen. I cried because I missed my grandparents and the holidays we shared. I cried because I imagined my grandmother standing in her kitchen in Poland with her own mom learning to run the fish through the grinder. I cried thinking about how these traditions are all we have left of our loved ones.
When we would visit them in Florida, my grandma insisted that everyone had fresh orange juice from Florida oranges. She would start making us fresh squeezed orange juice by 6:30 a.m. with an old electronic juicer that could wake the dead. Then before I could even open my eyes, she brought me 8 ounces of orange juice. She watched with pleasure as we drank every last drop.
My grandmother was perfectly happy to let my grandfather take center stage. He was the more charismatic and outgoing of the two and loved to give and receive affection from all of us. When we received a present from the two of them, we would say, “Look what grandpa got me! We got pearl earrings and necklaces from grandpa.” Even today, as I hand these items down to my kids, I tell them they are wearing “Grandpa’s pearls.” Not only did my grandma not mind that we credited Grandpa with everything, she preferred it. She just sat there smiling and enjoying all the love and appreciation we would shower on him.
My grandparents had a true love story. When my grandfather passed away in 1998, we lost a part of her. I can still hear him in the hospital saying “Rushka, please let me go.” She was completely devastated by the loss, as were all of us. Even though the loss of my grandfather was the hardest loss of my life, part of me was always appreciative of the years that followed when I got to spend time with my grandmother and develop a relationship with her. I could hear my grandfather in my head every Friday asking me if I had called my grandmother to wish her a good shabbat.
My grandparents talked openly about what they went through in the Holocaust. We were lucky that we could ask them questions and touch my grandfather’s tattoo from Auschwitz. My grandmother told the story she had heard about her own sister and mother. When they arrived at Auschwitz, the Nazis sent her sister Lola to the line on the left (gas chambers) and her mom to the line on the right (to work) and little Lola cried for her mother and her mother joined Lola in the line on the left. I can’t even imagine how someone could wake up each morning after hearing that story, but she did. And she started each day strong and ready for whatever challenges awaited her that day.
Above all, my grandparents celebrated life. They were always going out with their close friends, the other survivors in Milwaukee, the “greene” as we called them. They were all truly our extended family. They were always getting together, playing cards, going out to eat and, before my time, going dancing. Two weeks before my bat mitzvah, my grandparents had been to another bar mitzvah of a greene grandson and said the sweet table there was incredible. My grandfather begged my mom to upgrade the sweet table at my bat mitzvah so that it would truly be an over-the-top celebration of life with all his friends. Of course, the most important part of the night was the cake that we brought to my grandmother – March 18, 1990, was also her 67th birthday.
It is sad when anyone leaves us, but there is something particularly sad about losing the last of our Holocaust survivors. The world has lost a witness and someone who chose to live a Jewish life of tradition despite everything she went through. My grandma did not lose as much as she gained and in doing so, taught her three daughters and her grandchildren (and even great grandchildren) about strength, devotion to family, commitment to tradition and love.
I am so sad to lose her but so happy she is back with my grandfather, where she has wanted to be for a long time.
Holocaust survivor and Milwaukee-area resident Rose Chrustowski died March 15, 2021. She was 98.