Sunday, February 22, 2009

The End of a Generation

This past Thursday, I went to Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba to see my dad's aunt, Amelie. At 93, she was in a bad way and judging by the fragile woman I saw, I knew this would be the last time I would see her alive. She noticed me straight away, "The real Avram Piha" as she always used to stress when seeing me (I am the only one in the family line who shares her father's name and last name). I said a few words, and then she proceeded to wish my family a long life & good health. I leaned over, kissed her on her forehead and said, "I love you and thank you." Thank you? Yes, thank you:

I remember as a 5 year old growing up in Ra'anana that I always used to dread going to visit my dad's Tante Amelie and Oncle Solomon z"l. Nothing against them as people obviously, I was just little and when you're young, unless they're named Granny or Grampa or Nonnou or Nonna, old people are just not the 'in thing'. As I grew older however, my attitude towards Tante Amelie greatly changed (Oncle Solomon z"l passed away in the last 1980s - 1988 if I'm not mistaken). What brought along the change in attitude? A story. A story that effectively summed up her role in my family's existence: Life Saver.

Rhodes, the birthplace of Tante Amelie and my Nonnou Nissim z"l, had a thriving Ladino (Spanish Jewry who trace their roots back to Spain pre-the 1492 expulsion) community up until the Holocaust. As Hitler's armies swept into the Rhineland, and then the Sudetenland, and finally the 'real' invasion into Poland on Sept 1st, 1939, European Jews who actually foresaw the upcoming tragedy started looking for any possible way to escape the continent. From what I understand, Nonnou's mother, did not want Tante Amelie to take Nonnou on the boat but she nonetheless took him onto one of the boats that left Rhodes. That boat would be the last boat to leave Rhodes before the Nazis arrived. Along with the majority of the Rhodes Jewish community, his mother Miriam and one brother (Isaac) perished (while one brother, Yeshaya, survived).

Tante Amelie would proceed to move to Palestine with her husband, while Nonnou went to the Belgian Congo, eventually ending up in South Africa, where he lived until he passed away in 2000. Were it not for Tante Amelie's insistence on Nonnou being on that boat with her, the Piha line would have died in the holocaust (Oncle Yeshaya never had kids). She is the reason why I'm alive, why my dad, my little brother and I carry the Piha family name. My dad said she always looked at him as a son, and me and Eitan as grandsons. Although she wasn't the 'mother' that gave us life, she did have an extremely important role in assuring that we'd in fact be alive.

I always try to spend time with Tante Amelie when I'm in Ra'anana. Despite being 89 years old, she's still remarkably sharp and recounts stories as if they had happened just yesterday. I always bring up the same story, thanking her for what she did. I never feel as if it's enough though. How can you honestly thank a person for a deed that great? The Talmud says that if you save one life, it's as if you've saved the whole world - well I guess Tante Amelie technically saved the whole world a few times over - and for that, my family will be eternally grateful to her.

I will miss her and her stories about the 'world' that was, or her phenomenal memory that allowed her to sing the Ladino & Italian songs from her childhood. 93 years, a loving marriage, 5 wonderfully warm children, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. May we all be as blessed.

Au Revoir Tante , je t'aime ... Menuhata Be'gan Eden ... ברוך דיין האמת


No comments: