Three threads. One for a sweater, one for a cloth garment and one for a stocking. If anything gets torn it will need to be mended, and you won’t have another garment.
These threads were my mother’s entire fortune when she was sent by her own mother into hiding from the Nazis. That was all she was left with out of all the items and memories from her narrow home with the large piano in Amsterdam, memories of family warmth and a carefree childhood. My grandmother, Gertrude, was forced to pack a bag in the dead of night for her young daughter, and handed her and her brothers over to the neighbors. That is how she saved their lives. Shortly after, she and my grandfather, Solomon, were murdered in Auschwitz.
And now here I am in the Space Station, running my mother’s threads through my fingers, and they’re drifting weightlessly in the air in front of me. I wish my grandmother could have imagined a moment like this while she was hastily packing her daughter’s bag to go into hiding.
My mother is now elderly, and she awaits my return to Israel. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of listening to her tell her and my father’s stories. How she was only 14 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, and how they began seeing the Jewish refugees arriving in Holland.
“We felt something bad and ominous”, she would say[i], “but it defied definition. An awful, sinking fear, a sense of hopelessness”. Her aunt and uncle had already fled to America, and her parents decided to join them a week later. But by that time, in April 1940, the Nazis had already invaded Holland and had conquered it in five short days, seizing control of all the state institutions and imposing draconian decrees against the Jews in their attempt to root them out of Dutch society. Their money and assets were frozen, and their self-dignity gradually curtailed. My mother, a young girl in the prime of her life, saw with her own eyes how everything she had once considered to be normal start to disappear. Freedom gradually being curtailed until it was gone. Each family tried to salvage the little that was left.
My mother would recount the grim atmosphere at home. The stress, anxiety and frayed nerves. The fear of going to sleep at night, when every rustl at the door was threatening. See, they’re coming to get us. And her mother, retaining her composure in order to conceal her concerns, “had already packed bags for me and my brother with everything necessary, and especially for me, all the things a girl my age would need. She placed a box in the bag, which contained the sewing thread and buttons, and a tape measure I still carry with me to this day.”
My mother was smuggled from one home to the next, through towns and remote villages until the war finally came to an end. Thanks to the good people she encountered along the way, she survived. About one-third of the 25,000 “divers”, as Holland’s Jews called those fortunate enough to find a hiding place, were turned in and executed along with the people who boldly protected them. About 16,000 of the Jews who went into hiding survived. Think of the odds and the terrible risk. Thinking about the Jews that went into hiding, I also think about the families that gave them shelter. I think about those good souls who risked their lives to protect their fellow human being, sometimes protecting people they hardly knew, simply because they believed it was the moral thing to do.
These threads that I took with me to the ISS, in my Crew Personal Kit, is my link to the grandmother I never met. To remember, and never to forget. I can shut my eyes and envision that rare moment: a mother bidding her adolescent daughter farewell. Equipping her with the things that seemed essential for survival. A sewing kit. Because if a garment were to tear, there wouldn’t be a new one. Equipping her with hope. You will go into safe hiding, and we will follow. Both of them choosing to remain hopeful and not to contemplate the other possibility.
Zikaron Basalon (Remembrance in the Living Room), a project I am proud to be a member of, was created to ensure that my children’s generation might also have a way of handing down our parents’ story to future generations. This isn’t something that can be taken for granted. Memories fade as they pass from one generation to the next. The people who once were able to tell their stories in their own words are gradually growing older and dying. Our mission, to preserve their stories and to pass them down, is becoming increasingly challenging as the years go by, but we Jews in particular, being the People of the Book, know full well that the best way to preserve our heritage is through storytelling - and so this is the task we give our children. To meet with friends, family and members of the community and to retell the story that has brought us to where we are, so as to pass it down to future generations. Not merely for the sake of historical record - but for the sake of their own future. Only if we know and remember the terrible calamity that befell us, and the social factors and processes that allowed it to happen, will we be able to guarantee it never happens again - not to us, not to the Jews, and not to any other people in the world. Only if we remember the courage of the people who saved us, who acted and tried to do everything possible to save human life and dignity - will we be able to learn and to try to be better people ourselves.
My mother is a special kind of Holocaust survivor. Like everybody else, she stood in the shadow of death, she witnessed that machine of human evil annihilate an entire world, but along the arduous and winding path she took she was fortunate enough to spend time in the company of the noblest of men and women, people who risked their own lives to save a young Jewish girl.
She was able to reach Israel and build a family, to live life to its fullest, to remain optimistic and full of hope - and to try to do as much good as she could, here in this world. Her mother’s threads are drifting here in space with her grandchild, who is no longer a child, and who continues to tell her story over and over.
Attend a Zikaron Basalon (Remembrance in the Living Room) gathering in a home near you. Listen. Think. And pass on the story.
[i] Documented in her book, “Landscapes - The Story of Elma and Ahuv Stibbe”, as recounted by Elma, written by Michal Shalev (Halperin)