Home Articles My mother, a Holocaust survivor, distilled life’s lessons to three profound basics

My mother, a Holocaust survivor, distilled life’s lessons to three profound basics

She had lived through so much history, but until her final days, I hadn’t asked for her big-picture wisdom. I didn’t want to hasten the end with weighty questions.

From left: Hanne and Marianne as children.

Maybe I was in denial. My mother seemed immortal. Marianne Greenblum, the feisty Holocaust survivor “who never looked back” (my brother’s words), was still gossiping about her neighbors and critiquing my fashion sense. The grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of six had told us her heart was failing, and that we should not get in the way of her process. It was easier said than done, but we complied because she was still the boss.

My mother was a remarkable woman. Her parents were killed in the gas chambers of a concentration camp early in World War II. My mother and her sister fled Germany for Holland, parting ways. My mother’s dark complexion and hair made her vastly more vulnerable than my aunt, whose paler tones were not as much of an identity giveaway.

Throughout the duration of the war, my mom hid in attics or basements, wherever she could find safety. But it was always temporary shelter, because Nazi soldiers were relentless in their hunt for unaccounted Jews. As soon as there were leads to her whereabouts, she would move on, guided by devoted family friends in the Dutch resistance who continued to risk their lives — even after losing one of their own.

My mother attributed her will to survive — despite trauma and malnutrition — to an anchoring belief that her parents were alive, and that she would see them again. She did not. But anyone who knew my mother would agree she was a force all by herself, with an uncontainable resilience that enabled her to get what she wanted and do what she wanted the moment she could put those horrific years behind her and begin anew.

After the war, relatives in the U.S. brought her to New York, where she met up with cousins, one of whom was dating my father. It only took one social get together before my father drove my mother home from the beach instead of the cousin. The way my mom told the story made whomever was listening laugh out loud, because it was so matter of fact: My mom was the real catch, and the cousin “just thought she was hot stuff.”

To know my mother meant listening to her stories. There was a whole lifetime full of them, but most were about my father, their kooky courtship and later what trouble my brothers and I caused. My parents married because my mother refused to go on an overnight ski trip with my dad unless he put a diamond on her finger. When my brothers and I were little, his job required traveling days or weeks at a time. She would complain that he left her with “the rotten kids,” and he knew not to come home empty-handed. And she had her sister, who also survived the Holocaust. My aunt was always there, the personal on-call nanny to rescue her from us “kinderen.”

Top left: Hanne and Marianne. Right: Marianne with Ellen’s daughter Rachael and her great granddaughter Aviva.
Bottom left: Marianne as a young adult. Middle: Ellen and her mom.

In her final years, her raison d’etre was to celebrate life with ferocity, with family and dear friends all around her. In her convivial senior apartment complex, she socialized over cards, at happy hour, during tea and meals. (She insisted meals were lousy, but she thrived on a good reason to get dressed up.) Every Sunday evening, any number of family members and friends would join our weekly “party.” Weeks before she left us, she was still taking a daily walk up and down hills, reading a romance or mystery novel a week, attending yoga and tai chi classes and talking on the phone — a lot. If she ever complained about an ache or a pain, I would joke it might be time for a trip to the Grand Canyon, where I could leave her as food for hungry wildlife. My mother would laugh and say, “Don’t leave me there. Ship me to Florida to be buried next to my husband. That’s where I’m going.”

Three weeks prior to passing, she began to talk seriously about death, getting her finances in order, reviewing last requests. Ten days prior, she was very sure about dying and wanted to die comfortably in her bed. My family and closest friends worked together.

Someone was always with her, and I welcomed the doctor’s call on Jan. 2 connecting us with hospice, which supplied medications to make the final days and hours easier. My mother was relaxed and surrounded by the love of family, friends and grandchildren, who were there to hold her hand or stroke her face. If she was conscious, I can promise you she loved the attention. She left us on the afternoon of Jan. 4. The sun was shining, and there was a gentle breeze coming through the windows. It was a perfect winter day in Arizona.

She had lived through so much history, but until her final days, I hadn’t asked for her big-picture wisdom. I didn’t want to hasten the end with weighty questions. Finally, while she was still lucid and verbal, I asked my mother what advice she had for those of us living and growing up in the world now — a complex time with extreme symptoms of systemic inequities and division.

Her answer surprised me. She talked about the importance of always surrounding yourself with good people. Her remark was the distillation of and a foundation for so much of what she stood for, and definitely played out in her final days. She said, “…only good people, people that are honest and that you can be honest with. Honesty is the most important thing, it starts there, because then you have trust.” I reflected on a conversation we’d had a few months prior. She explained her good friends are family. “They become that,” she said.

My mother built community in all of her circles — with her family, her friends, and the people she played bridge with — so she always had something special to look forward to. For every social or family gathering, she planned her outfit days in advance and would say, “I’m looking forward,” which is what she did her whole life.

I love you Marianne Greenblum. Thank you for giving me a greater capacity for opening my heart to others and to call my beloved friends family. Thank you for these life lessons: Find your people, work hard and play hard, and even through hard times, look forward. Always look forward.

Ellen Greenblum
Ellen Greenblum BFA, M. Ed, MFA is a proud grandmother and chairs the Arts and Humanities department at Prescott College in Prescott.

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