Understanding my mother

My mother was without question the most formidable person I have ever known.

In fact, according to many, many conversations I had with those who met her – friends of mine, people she interacted with, tradespeople she terrorized, care-givers she likewise totally bossed, all of whom were fascinated by her – she was also the most formidable woman most of those people had ever met.

Because, as she often told me (and anyone else in the vicinity), “Your mother is a very special woman, Arthur”.

And because she had such a disproportionate effect on my life – both good and bad but completely inescapable in both effects – I have always wondered where that incredible strength (that’s the kind designation for the steel in that woman) came from.

Was she born with it?

Or was it forged by the horrible circumstances of becoming a Holocaust survivor while nearly her entire family including her precious soul-mate younger sister were hunted and murdered?

I will never know, of course, but there’s at least a hint of explanation from a recent Israeli study that compared Holocaust survivors with a similar cohort of Israeli Jews who did not live through those unimaginable horrors.

And what they concluded will not surprise many of us who have Holocaust survivors in our families: Holocaust survivors live seven years longer on average than other Israeli Jews, probably because, these researchers surmise, they were such strong people to begin with.

So while the average life expectancy of non-Holocaust-surviving Israelis in this study was around 77 years, the corresponding average life expectancy of Holocaust survivors was over 84 years (my mom died just short of her 94th birthday, entirely because, I strongly believe, she decided that that was the day to go).

And what’s really astonishing about this huge difference in average life span is that Holocaust survivors actually have higher rates of several of those chronic conditions – high blood pressure, dementia, kidney disease – that should actually promote an earlier death rather than a later one.

What these researchers conclude is that the small minority of Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust (in my mother’s huge family, of those who remained in Europe, which was nearly all of them, and didn’t manage to escape, there was no other survivor) were “genetically more resilient” than the others, and in fact, the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust may even have strengthened some of them, the researchers surmise.

There is, of course, no accounting for luck in surviving such indescribable circumstances – managing to stay hidden during the frequent ghetto round-ups for transport to death, finding a ghetto guard willing to take a bribe to transport a young woman beyond the barbed wire fence to a hiding place (and who even wished her, “I hope you survive”, as he left her for my father to take her to the safe place), finding one of the few Polish civilians willing to take such an amazingly huge risk of hiding fleeing Jews – but I am certain that much of the reason my mom (and dad) managed to survive the Holocaust is the totally amazing strength they were born with.

They were both very “special” people.