Paralyzed: Life-Savers and my Life Saver

Mrs. Lefman

A year-and-a-half hiding in an underground bunker with her mother. Trudging into the village to beg local residents for food scraps. Occasionally discovering berries in the nearby forest. This was Mrs. Lefman’s life during the Holocaust. As she spoke, she remained outwardly stoic, preventing her internal reactions from manifesting in tears.

And meanwhile, she comforted me so that I could hold back mine.

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I  first met Mrs. Lefman at my synagogue when I was seven. She was a Holocaust survivor, and that was pretty much all I needed to know to be in awe. Not that I really knew what a concentration camp was or even what awe meant at seven, but still, I was struck.

Second grade. The year of a new best friend every day, of a retainer screwed into my mouth to correct my overbite, of coming home with blisters on my fingers from forcing them to write legibly. The triviality of the everyday was my world, and Mrs. Lefman was a grandmother to me from the start.

Every week, I sat next to her on Shabbat, and after the chanting of the Torah portion, she would pull out a bag brimming with mint Life-Savers for “refreshment.” I felt her empathetic smile and watchful eye as I savored the crumbly mint.

Every week, I got to see her, and every week, I got to talk to her. About school, about family and friends, about life. Each time, she had a Life-Saver waiting for me.

Nourishment and biography—that was what she cared about in a person.

When eighth grade came, my time finally arrived. I was going to hear her biography. It was the year of the Social Studies Holocaust survivor interview project, and I was going to reciprocate. Or so I thought.

The day of the interview was a crisp December afternoon. We had just changed the clocks back from Daylight Savings Time, and with pen and notebook in hand, I was ready. It was the first time I had ever been to the Lefman home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and I sat in between Mrs. Lefman and her now-late husband Mr. Lefman on the couch in the living room, asking about their experiences growing up as teenage Jews during the height of the Nazi regime.

Mrs. Lefman spoke first. When she described begging a Nazi officer not to kill her father right in front of her, I couldn’t look her in the eye.

Mr. Lefman spoke next. Two strokes within the past several years impeded his speech, but he continued. His, thin, pale skin was stretched even more tightly over his jaw as he struggled to speak. He described moving from concentration camp to concentration camp, a Nazi officer hitting his father with a rifle, and his father making him promise to survive in order to carry on the family name. That promise alone enabled Mr. Lefman to survive the years of torture and hunger. He punctuated his story with sighs and sobs.

I scribbled notes in my Social Studies notebook, alternating between gasping and holding my breath. I kept glancing over at Mrs. Lefman as he spoke. Her eyes always seemed to convey that perfect balance of concern and reassurance. She knew me well enough to do that.

So here I was, at what I thought would be the crescendo of my reciprocation. Yet she was the one getting me through the descriptions of the Nazi beatings. And I wasn’t even the one who witnessed them. She and Mr. Lefman did. So what was I doing for her?

I left Wellesley that day with two things: The Lefman’s Holocaust stories and freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. Mrs. Lefman insisted that I take home something to munch on for the next few days, and her signature hint of cinnamon topped off the offer (not to mention the cookie dough).

Four months later, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mr. Lefman passed away. I was the last person to have interviewed him, and I felt responsible to perpetuate both stories. But what did blue ink on a page matter if it was forever lost within the covers of a worn, neon-pink, eighth grade Social Studies spiral notebook?

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That December afternoon was not the last time I visited the Lefman home. Five years later, on another chilly day in December, I was once again in Wellesley with Mrs. Lefman.

But this time was different. This time I was in college.

I missed Mrs. Lefman’s empathetic ear every week to debrief about my nightly dinner discussions with friends or about my lonely, bundled walks braving the cold. And of course, I missed my weekly Life-Saver.

But when I entered her house, it was as if I had never left. Mrs. Lefman invited me in with a hug and an apron. She was going to teach me “to be a chef, too,” as she put it. She stirred a large bowl filled with browned kasha, sautéed onions, and bow-tie shaped noodles, and moments later, Mrs. Lefman handed me the wooden spoon. I stood beside her the entire time, my vibrant, baby blue terrycloth apron next to her worn, navy blue quilted one—master and apprentice.

We talked as we worked. Before long, she knew my whole story—me coming in thinking I knew what I wanted to study and realizing that I had no idea, my uncertainty about what I wanted to do with my life, me meeting a new friend who was already the older sister I never had.

In her house, there was no such thing as small talk. Every person had a story, and every story mattered.

My skills could never match Mrs. Lefman’s. My hand fumbled under the weight of the grains and noodles. I couldn’t stir in rhythm, and I dropped some on the floor. The broken bow ties signified the work of my amateur hand.

But that didn’t seem to matter to her. Mrs. Lefman continued asking me about my chicken-and-green-bean dinners and the Locust Walk layout. She treated me that way no matter how old I was, no matter how frequently I saw her.

Mrs. Lefman’s genuine, selfless empathy defines her, and I love her for it.

She spent years hungry and cold, happy to find a few berries growing nearby. Yet, she always asks about what I eat for dinner at Hillel and bakes me chocolate-chip cookies.

She persevered to escape the wrath of the Nazis. Yet, she cares about my struggles to choose a major and my chilly walks through the snowy streets of Philadelphia.

On that day five years ago, I didn’t know how to respond to her story, and I still don’t. Yes, I share details when appropriate, and I think of her often. But is that enough?

I don’t know how to thank her for her many talks and treats. I will always think of her like a grandmother, and I know that she knows that. But is that enough?

The futility and ineffectualness of response paralyzes me.

Nonetheless, whenever something good happens, Mrs. Lefman is one of the first people I want to tell. Whenever I return home and attend synagogue, she is the one I am excited to see. I hope she knows that, for what it’s worth.

Even though I can never make up for anything she endured. Even though I can never reciprocate for anything she has done for me. Even though nothing that I can do will ever be enough.

 

 Rebecca Pritzker is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

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