Today’s post is the eighth in the Women Who Inspire Us Series. You can read the previous posts here. You may also want to subscribe to my RSS feed, or “like” my Facebook page to catch the upcoming posts. As always, if you would like to share your inspiration by participating in the series, please contact me. I would LOVE to hear who inspires you!
Mirjam Weiss, aka Mirj, is just a girl from the Bronx living in Israel since 1983. She loves to cook and has a need to feed, often using her husband and eight children (four of them hers, four of them his) as guinea pigs for various culinary experiments. She enjoys nothing more than a table full of hungry guests for a Shabbat meal. She writes about food and recipes and the stories behind them on her blog, Miriyummy.
Who is a women you find inspirational?
The woman I find so inspiration to me is Dora Magat Wachter, who passed away in October 2009.
What is her relationship to you?
This may sound like such a cliche, but she was (and always will be) my mother.
Where did you meet her?
We met on Fifth Avenue in New York. I was in Mount Sinai Hospital, where I assume I was born (I have never found my birth certificate, and have no need of it right now). I met my mother and father when they came to pick me up, they adopted me. I don’t know how old I was, but the first pictures are dated about 2 months after my birth date.
When did you meet her? Do you think the timing of your meeting affected her impact on you?
I don’t know how old I was, but the first pictures are dated about 2 months after my birth date. The timing was very important for both of us. I needed someone to love me and take care of me and make a commitment to raise me, and she needed a child, the one that was denied to her biologically thanks to the Nazis in Bergen Belsen.
What is inspirational about her (it can be more than one thing, i.e. personality, actions, overcoming hardships)? Can you share a specific memory (or more than one)?
The one moment that most inspired me about my mother is the moment she would have wished had never happened. I had a normal upbringing in New York, about as normal as you can get with one very willful daughter and one tortured Holocaust survivor. My mother shared many stories about her experiences in the ghetto and in the camps, but she obviously didn’t share all of them. I never knew I was adopted, until just after my 41st birthday.
There was enough to admire about my mother. She was a ghetto rat, smuggling food through the sewers of Vilna and helping her family to survive. She had been a hard worker in Bergen Belsen, working in the kitchens during the day, taken away to the SS barracks at night to suffer unspeakable horrors. I knew my mother had been scarred for life psychologically, but I never dreamed of the physical scarring. In order to make her more “available,” the Nazis sterilized her.
In 2003, when I was 41, I traveled to New York for my father’s first yahrzeit. He had died the year before following a quadruple bypass operation. The day of the yahrzeit was at the end of December. The streets were covered in snow, we really had no way of getting from the Bronx to New Jersey, and worst of all, in the depression that overtook my mother since she lost her partner and best friend, there was no stone on the grave. My mother couldn’t face the fact that she had not yet put up a stone. “Aba will be mad at me!” she cried. Literally cried.
So I made a decision, we weren’t going to the cemetery. As far as I was concerned, my father wasn’t there. I could always find my father in his collection of books, in the sweater still hanging on the coat rack in the hall, in my memories of him. We didn’t need to go to the cemetery to honor my father.
This news seemed to calm my mother down. After about an hour of us just sitting quietly together, one of my cousins called. He was my father’s sister’s son, and he called to ask what time we were all meeting at the cemetery. And when I told him we weren’t going he became very angry. And that’s when he told me I had never been my father’s true daughter, and this proved I was not really his daughter. And the penny dropped.
So many things started to make sense. I hung up the phone and asked my mother if I was adopted. She started to cry, this was one of her worst nightmares come true. She told me I wasn’t adopted and she had the papers to prove I wasn’t adopted. I didn’t even ask to see those papers. I called my favorite cousin, ironically the sister of this horrific cousin, and she confirmed the news. I called my father’s sister in Israel, and she told me this was true.
I cried for about an hour, and then I realized, so what? Big deal! My mother and father didn’t give me birth, but they gave me life. My mother brought me home, loved me, raised me, fed me, educated me, drove me crazy. She was truly my mother. And in that moment I never loved her more. And it took me 41 years, but there and then I had such a burst of pride and respect for this woman, the feeling still has me reeling today, almost eight years later.
How has this inspiration affected your life? Do you think it has made you a better person? How so?
It’s humbling to realize that one can treat one’s mother in such an offhand manner and take her for granted. Since that moment I have never taken my mother for granted again. I remember asking her, once upon a teenage time, what did you do to survive the Holocaust? And her answer? “I didn’t do anything, ” she said, “I was just lucky to survive.”
Which makes me now think, what have I done to deserve such a strong woman, such a loving person, such a nurturing mother. Nothing. I was just lucky to have her. And for so many years I didn’t even realize this. Has it made me a better person? I don’t know. I’d like to think that just living with such a woman has made me a better person, not just the one inspiration that really came too late for me to really appreciate her while she was alive.
When do you find yourself thinking of this person? How do you feel when you think about her?
I think of my mother, and my father, often. I especially think of my mother when I am in the kitchen. My mom was the most amazing cook. I know almost everyone thinks of their mother as having been a wonderful cook, but my mom really was, honestly! She showed her love through feeding people, and I have inherited that characteristic of her, although my husband will tell you it’s not so much of a personality trait as it is an obsession. I channel my mother when I use her wooden chopping bowl, her sharp hochmesser (the two blades connected by a handle that she used to chop onions, liver and most everything else in that wooden bowl).
I think of her when I find myself saying something to my children that she always said to me (when I stood staring into the refrigerator for an infinite number of minutes she would say, “There’s no television in there!). I find myself turning into my mother, and I am both horrified and honored at the same time.
Thank you so much, Rivki. I will always miss and love my mother, but thank you for the opportunity of honoring her.