She spoke neither English nor Hebrew, I spoke neither Hungarian nor Portuguese—and yet we laughed and cried together. Agatha survived Auschwitz as a young teen and then in the tumultuous years that followed wandered through Europe bereft of a family or youth. She was not of a religious family or community and wed a Hungarian Catholic. She respected his bunny rabbits and swimming sessions and he respected her religion, knowing that his children would be full fledged members of the Jewish people. They even entertained thoughts of moving to Israel but were scared of the impending War of Independence. They were looking for somewhere safe and quiet, and there is nowhere quieter than Sta Cruz Cambrario, Bahia.
We visited her and her son at their home down a narrow cobblestoned street, with few streetlights and the air of old Europe (I know I have never been there but I’ve read enough books). She is bowed and white-haired, wrinkled and aged, but the joy of seeing two orthodox Jews lit up her tired eyes and put a spring in her step. She dug deep into the reservoir of her memory and brought out the few Yiddish words she probably heard in her childhood wandering around the shuls of Budapest. The table was set with her finest silver and Judaica, and the offer of food was on her lips before we even entered the room.
She was a true Yiddishe Mama, soaking in nachas from her son who conversed with us in English—she not understanding the conversation yet following it with her eyes. She smiled when we laughed and grew solemn when we did. The shuffle of her slippered feet down the hall reminded me of the tens of grandmothers I know making the trek to the kitchen to bring food and drinks for her guests. Water and Coke was on offer as was fresh fruit cut with a new knife.
Slowly her confidence grew and with many a hand gesture, a cholent (she of the barley and no meat variety, mine with a few potatoes and some lamb thrown in) of words, and ever so expressive eyes we heard of her times in the camps, of the pain of never seeing her parents again and of the joy of being reunited with her sister.
I looked at yellowed photographs and tattered certificates. We went through the Sefer HaZikaron of her decimated town and commemorated the arbitrary yahrzteit given, which was this week. I saw faded pictures of her in Hungary, digital snaps of her in Sao Paulo, and photos of her in Israel, at the kotel, with her grandchildren, and we smiled through our tears.
In addition, the “Roving Rabbis” site features a world map that lists the locations where Merkos Shluchum will be traveling over the summer. Upon clicking on any of the tags on the map, visitors to the site can tip off the young rabbis of Jews that they should meet in the regions they are visiting.
The “Roving Rabbis” blog is a project of Chabad.org in conjunction with Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch’s Merkos Shlichus division.