Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In Memory of Gertrude "Gittel" Feuereisen Chanis

          Assorted memories.
          Her picture sits on my desk in my classroom.  If not for her, I would never have become a teacher.  Or, I would have racked up so much debt in grad school, it wouldn’t be worth it.  Either way, I keep her in plain sight at all times when I’m on the job.
          She was known for her keep fashion sense.  To an outsider, she may have looked like a typical balabusta walking down the streets of Borough Park.  But to those who knew her, she was so much more. 
          First, there was her hat collection.  Oh, her hats.  The more colorful, the better.  It’s an old stereotype of Hungarians, they like things that are colorful.  But even by Hungarian standards, her fashion sense was ostentatious.  My mother tells me it embarrassed the dickens out of her late husband, my Zeide.  He was a quiet, simple man.  He typically wore the same white shirt, black pants, red suspenders, big black yarmulke, and white tzitzit every day.  There was not a lot of variety in the way he dressed.  Every year, his yeshiva had a weekend getaway for alumni.  Zeide would go.  He would beg Savta to please wear a tichel, like most of his cohorts’ wives.  She would never sully her head with such an ugly hair wrap.  But he would beg and beg and beg.  Savta would give in (or pretend to).  She would then go to the store, buy herself a new hat, and make sure it was as flashy as she could muster.  Sequins.  Rhinestones.  Feathers.  Oh yeah, she would get creative.  And poor Zeide always looked so embarrassed. 
          She never acted her age.  When I was a child, if I ever asked Savta how old she was, she would say “100.”  She nearly lived to 100.  But she did not look or act 100.  And she didn’t want anyone to think that she was almost 100.  She would not take a cane or a walker.  She had one of those foldable shopping carts; that was her walker.  To an outsider, she would look like she was just going shopping.   She would not get a home help aide.  Whenever the social workers at the hospital asked how she can live alone at her age, she would get very sassy with them.  No matter how much they told her that she should not be doing all her housework by herself, she still didn’t care.  She hated the way home help aides did housework.  As far as she was concerned, all they were good for was passing her a towel when she was in the shower.  And with a wave of her hand, she harshly said “I can get my own towel, thank you very much.”
          Nobody could drive you crazy the way Savta did.  Oh yeah, she was one of those people who could give Sophia from the Golden Girls a run for her money.  One time, she got in fight with her sister Yudit because Yudit suggested that Savta had cancer.  Of course, Savta gave her an unequivocal “leave me alone, I don’t have cancer!”  Yudit then had one of her sons print out some literature from the internet about how to fight cancer.  She slipped it under Savta’s door.  Savta was livid.  Then later, she found out that Yudit’s son, who is the sexton at a synagogue in Queens, recited a prayer for the sick for Savta.  That was all she could take.  For the next few years, Yudit was dead to her.  It was funny, but it wasn’t funny; that was Savta for you.
          One of my favorite stories was when three of Savta’s sisters decided to visit their father’s grave in Lakewood, NJ—and they didn’t invite Savta.  Before Yom Kippur, it is customary to get a blessing from your father; and if your father is not alive, you are supposed to visit his grave.  My father always drove to Staten Island to visit his father’s grave before Yom Kippur; I usually went with him.  So Savta’s sisters went to their father’s grave, and they didn’t invite Savta.  So Savta got pissed off at all three of them.  But here’s the funny part: even if they did invite her, she would have said NO!  She thinks this custom of visiting your father’s grave is stupid.  Knowing her, she was more upset that she wasn’t given the opportunity to chide her sisters.  They probably heard it from Savta so many times, that they decided just to go without telling her.  But Savta wanted them to hear her complain about how they shouldn’t visit his grave...
          Savta had many quirks.  And they made her the kind of person who was not always easy to get along with.  But I still took the time to visit her.  I wasn’t sure how much time she had.  So I learned how to not let her drive me too crazy.  And I’m glad that during those last years, I got to know her.  There was so much I wanted to ask her.  There was so much she wouldn’t tell me.  She told me a lot about her childhood in Hungary.  But her father was a topic she would never discuss.  She loved talking about her travels.  But her own experience in the Holocaust was mostly off limits.
 She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holocaust.  And she loved to argue about it.  One time, she randomly called me to ask how many people survived Bergen-Belsen.  She always heard that there were no survivors.  All her books (she had plenty) said the camp was completely liquidated.  I went on Google and looked it up.  Yes, the camp was completely liquidated.  But before that, there were prison transfers.  So there were a handful of survivors; but they were lucky enough to have been sent to other camps before Bergen-Belsen was completely liquidated. 
At her age, she had an amazing memory.  But sometimes, it was spotty to a fault.  One time, she called me about Sheldon Silver.  She wanted to know where Sheldon Silver was born.  I looked it up.  He was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  “But I thought he was a Holocaust survivor!”  I scoured Google trying to find anything about Sheldon Silver and the Holocaust.  He would have been a little child when the Holocaust occurred—living on the Lower East Side.  Nope, Savta still insisted he was a Holocaust survivor.  I threw the question out the Facebook.  Everyone who replied agreed that Silver was a LES native.  Some friends said she was maybe confusing him with someone else. What amazed me was how impossible it was to get her to back down.
Perhaps the funniest Savta story of all happened at a Passover seder when I was younger.  Her sister Edith survived Auschwitz.  We were taking a little break from the seder before the meal.  Savta asked Edith what stops the train made on the way to Auschwitz.  Edith had no idea.  Savta wouldn’t let it go and continued to badger her.  Edith yelled at her “WHAT STOPS DO YOU THINK THE TRAIN MADE?  DO YOU THINK WE TOOK THE A-TRAIN TO AUSCHWITZ, THE B-TRAIN TO BUCHENWALD, AND THE D-TRAIN TO DACHAU?”  To be fair, Savta had a bit of survivor guilt: she and her father were able to escape Hungary.  But the rest of the family was stuck in Europe after Pearl Harbor, when America closed its borders.  I’m still not clear on why that happened.  But Savta, who missed out on the travesty, was forever curious about what it was like.  So the funny thing about the story is that it takes someone like Savta to ask such a question; and it takes someone like Edith to answer the question like that (another post).
I could fill pages and pages with stories about Savta.  The most important lesson I’ve learned from her is to never take anyone’s word for anything.  Always question everything.  She took it to the extreme.  But in her world, nothing was ever de facto true. 
She will be missed.

May her memories forever bring a smile to all who knew her.