April 1, 2009
Rachel Arazi — What They Wore
Rachel Arazi gathers the blouse in her hands and brings it to her face.
“I wonder if it’s still possible to smell my grandmother’s scent,” she muses.
Arazi has never washed the aged cotton blouse, even though stains discolor the ruffled yoke. Still clinging to the lace collar and the delicate, thread-wrapped buttons, she believes, is the essence of a woman she never knew.
Roza Neumann Gold raised four children and helped run the family’s grocery store in Györ, Hungary, before the Jews were rounded up and taken to live in a ghetto. She was eventually killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where most of the family perished. Only Arazi’s mother, Elza Gold, escaped.
Now, the only mementos Arazi has of her relatives are a tiny diamond ring that belonged to her aunt, the blouse and a couple of photographs. Her uncle took these items with him when he immigrated to Israel as a chalutz (pioneer) before the war.
“Looking at these pictures of my grandmother, I think she would have been a wonderful part of my life,” said Arazi, 59, of Sherman Oaks. “She looks like somebody who had so much to give. I see a whole world in her face.”
Most of that world, for Arazi, is filled in by stories she coaxed from her mother over the years. But talking about the past was never easy for Elza.
At Auschwitz, when the guards were separating all of the incoming families, Elza and her sister, Muncie Gold, were able to stay together by pretending not to know each other. Elza was put to work building airplane parts. After a while in the camp, Muncie became ill, and the guards said they would take her to the hospital. That was the last time Elza saw her sister.
The ring had been Muncie’s. Arazi believes it was an engagement ring, because of the diamond, but knows little about Muncie’s life. Still, she felt compelled to wear her aunt’s ring — so often, in fact, that the delicate band eventually snapped.
“I wore it for sentimental reasons,” Arazi said. “I wanted to make sure that there was continuity — something to show the world that no matter what happened to us, we are still around.”
Elza eventually escaped from her Nazi captors. It was near the end of the war. Russian forces were advancing, and the German guards had to keep moving the prisoners to avoid capture. Elza was taken with a group of women to a barn one night, where she spotted a ladder leading up to a loft. She climbed it and hid in a bed of hay with another woman until the prisoners were herded out the next day.
As the Russian army shelled the nearby village, Elza escaped to a farmhouse where a Russian officer gave her his coat and promised to protect her. As luck would have it, he was Jewish.
Arazi recalls the day her mother gave her the old blouse. “There were tears in her eyes,” she said. “She told me, in a soft voice, ‘This is the only thing I have left from your grandmother.’ She handed it to me almost like a gift. I told her I would cherish it as long as I live.”
Elza died two years ago, at age 97. Arazi still feels emotional when she handles the blouse. It reminds her of the warm, extended family she never had.
Arazi considers herself her mother’s revenge for the horrors she lived through.
“I am not just my mother’s, but every Jew’s revenge,” Arazi said. “They wanted to wipe us off the earth. But we are here to stay.”