A Secret Shared
Submitted by Elizabeth Savetsky, Shabbos Program Participant
This week I found myself sobbing on the phone to a woman I barely knew. Oh, and did I mention that she was crying too? Wait, let me back up the story and start from the beginning. But you might want to hold onto your socks.
I always feel better when I’m investing in my spiritual growth, but for the past several years, that’s taken a backseat to motherhood, work, and the chaos of life. On most days, I barely find time to take a shower, let alone open an inspiring book.
But my life was about to change when I received an email asking me to participate in an “Influencers Virtual Challah Bake” with Partners In Torah. I felt it would be a very uplifting evening in these uncertain times. It was an opportunity to give my Instagram followers a chance to join together with hundreds of women around the world as a community for collective inspiration. To my surprise, I was so moved by the event that I took the plunge and signed up for the three week Shabbos learning program. This gave me the privilege to learn weekly with Partners in Torah’s Senior Educator, Adina Stilerman.
Adina and I are very different women on the surface, with different backgrounds, different levels of religious observance, and very different interests. However, from our first call, Adina and I realized how much more in common we had beneath our outer shells. We are both working mamas with strong Jewish values and an incredibly passionate (sometimes maybe a little too passionate) approach to life. But, I had no idea that I was about to discover that we also shared a secret about a tiny corner of the earth—a place that changed us both forever….
When Adina called me for our second learning session, I was in the middle of a death-defying balancing act, with my right hand comforting my screaming 6-week-old baby, and my left hand scrambling to prepare his bottle, all whilst calling (read: shouting) instructions into the next room to my panicking 8-year-old daughter on how to get back onto her Zoom class.
Are you picturing the mayhem?
When I heard the phone ring, I thought to myself, “Oh no, that must be Adina! Not now! I don’t have time to study Torah right now! Why did I even sign up for this??” I ran and picked up the phone just before it went to voicemail, so I could tell her we needed to reschedule—not that there’s ever a better time with my current juggling act.
Adina immediately sensed my frantic energy and said, “Elizabeth, is everything okay?” I started to list off my endless parade of stressors and was about to propose a reschedule when she asked me if she could tell me a story. “Um, sure,” I blurted out, figuring I could put her on speakerphone as I fed the baby and I would do my best to pay attention.
Now this is the part of the story that makes me so grateful that I didn’t reschedule on that day.
She opened up to me, relating that when she found out that she was expecting her fifth child, she was still grieving the recent loss of her mother. At that moment in time she couldn’t imagine being responsible for another baby. In addition, the news came just before she was scheduled to lead a Holocaust education trip to Poland. She just didn’t know how she would hold it together.
For the first few days in Poland, she maintained a strong facade for the benefit of the group, but inside, she was miserable and feeling sorry for herself. Physically, she struggled with the long bus rides and emotionally she was somewhat dispirited about the baby within. All she wanted was to go home.
One morning, the tour guide came up to her on the bus and informed her that he had just added in a last-minute stop on their itinerary and asked her if she could speak there: The Children’s Forest in Zbylitowska Góra. Adina had been to Poland several times already but she had never visited that site. In fact, she was slightly annoyed that he had added it in without first getting her approval. Well, too late now! They were going to be there in 5 minutes, so she quickly Googled the place to help her prepare something to say. When the Wikipedia page popped up, her eyes skimmed the words and her heart stopped… What she read can only be described as a horror of the unimaginable kind. It was a heart-wrenching account of the massacre of innocent, helpless children. She read the date…June 11, 1942… the number 800 popped out at her….Jewish little children from an orphanage…marched from the nearby Tarnow ghetto…thrown in a pit…the German’s opened fired…tossed hand grenades… until the last screams were silenced…she closed the screen.
She couldn’t read anymore.
Adina got off the bus and walked slowly through the forest, well behind the group, toward the mass grave.
Her heart was still racing but now her mind was running its own marathon. She thought about her four little ones at home, and of course the one on the way that she just didn’t have the perspective to appreciate…until now. By the time she reached the clearing, she was so overcome with emotion, she couldn’t even open her mouth to speak. She just wept. The group wept along with her.
As she breathed in the air where these 800 pure young souls took their last breaths on earth, her mindset shifted completely. She was overwhelmed by an enormous surge of gratitude and purpose. She thought about the mothers of those children who would’ve given anything to save their precious babies, and her entire outlook on her impending blessing changed. The worry and anxiety she once felt no longer carried the same weight. She vowed to never forget to appreciate the gift she was granted – to be a mother.
She turned upwards and with tears streaming down her face and overwhelming gratitude in her heart whispered, “G-d, thank you for giving me the privilege to bring another pure soul into the world.”
Months later, G-d gifted Adina with a beautiful baby girl. That child carries her mother’s name and turned out to be the biggest comfort for her loss…”
She stopped talking for a minute.
I couldn’t speak.
“Elizabeth, are you there?”As Adina told me her story, a chill ran up my spine and I began to break down in tears. I could not believe what I was hearing. You see, I had had my own pivotal moment in that exact same place halfway across the world, deep within the Polish forest of Zbylitowska Góra!!
“Adina, you’re not going to believe this.”
I took her back to May of 2018, when I went to Poland on a whim. It had been a longtime dream of mine to take this intense journey, but like Adina, the timing was anything but logical. I had just suffered a second ectopic pregnancy and was recovering from an emergency surgery to remove my ruptured fallopian tube. I was a bit of a mess both physically and emotionally. I remember feeling fear as the question of having children in the future hung in the air. And of course there was anger towards G-d for putting me through this.
My brother-in-law called me: “Lizzy, I just found this trip to Poland over Memorial Day weekend. We should sign up!” I told him I could absolutely not do that right now considering my emotional state, my two young daughters, and my husband’s insane work schedule. Mostly, I felt fragile and was experiencing situational depression. I could only imagine that a week of Holocaust history would pull me even further down my spiral of negativity. But after I hung up with him, the thought of going kept tugging at my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, nor talking about it for that matter! Finally, my husband Ira said to me, “Just go on the dang trip!! We’ll figure out how to handle everything here!” I booked it immediately, before I lost the courage, and I don’t think I slept a peaceful night until the day we left. I was so unbelievably nervous!!
From the moment we landed in Warsaw, and as we made our way through Poland, I felt a stronger connection to my Jewish identity than ever before. Each site we visited was like a call to action to bring forth the voices which could no longer speak for themselves.
But as I related to Adina, it was the morning of our third day in Poland that was the pinnacle of the trip for me. The rabbi leading our trip came over to me on the bus and asked me, just as she was asked, if I would be willing to speak at the place to which we were headed. I did not yet know that we were going to the Children’s Forest nor did I know anything about what had happened there. He said it may be the hardest moment of the trip for many of us and felt that because I was a mom of young children, I could help bring the significance of this spot to life.
When we got there, he handed me a paper to read. It was a letter written by a young mother to her one-year-old daughter. The woman was sending her daughter away into hiding in order to save her life, as she knew that she herself would likely be sent to a death camp very soon. I read the letter and could barely get through it. She conveyed on that paper the torture of being torn from her baby, of the thought of never seeing her again. It was so real, so raw. Every member of our group was crying. I sat down on a tree trunk right next to the blue painted fence of this mass grave, where 800 innocent children had been robbed of their lives, and I wept.
The group gathered to say some prayers and comfort one another, but I couldn’t move from my tree trunk. I felt an overwhelming desire to put my newfound feelings into words. I pulled out my phone and typed a letter to my daughters back at home.
“I didn’t know what it meant to purely love until I became your mother. I had no expectations for how those first moments would feel with you in my arms, but as I think of your beautiful faces now, I know I am fulfilling a special purpose. I am perpetuating our people who have endured persecution, expulsion, terrorism and murder, all the while miraculously maintaining that unique identity that was the cause of the oppression. For this purpose, I feel incredibly lucky.” My time spent in the forest shifted my whole outlook on my critical role as a mother. Bringing Jewish children into the world is not simply about perpetuating numbers. It’s about kindling the Jewish souls in my charge.
And so, dear readers, that’s how I found myself sobbing on the phone together with a woman I barely knew. Yes, we had just met, but at that moment I felt that we were intimately connected because of our unique shared experience.
I also feel that it is not a coincidence that the material we received from the Shabbos Learning Program this week on Havdalah was about the fleeting nature of inspiration. We read that moments of clarity are like sparks. Most of the time they are only bold and bright for a brief time before they are gone and we feel ourselves slip back into the darkness of apathy and misdirection. But if kindled properly, like the Havdalah candle, they can turn into a blazing fire that lights up that darkness. It can be used as a memory one can tap into in time of need.
I’m so grateful that I didn’t have a chance to reschedule my learning session with my Partner in Torah.