Not long ago, I had a particularly memorable class with a young female student I see once a week. I have been going to her house to teach Tali (13) and her younger brother, Uri (9) for over a year now, and we have become quite friendly with each other. She has quickly shed the shy, mouse-like qualities I saw in her in November 2014, and begun talking to me unreservedly in English, her third language after Chinese and Hebrew.
Theirs is a fascinating family. The kids’ parents met in Hong Kong. She is a mainland Chinese woman, not originally from Beijing but she graduated from a Beijing university (not far from my home) a little over 20 years ago. It’s hard to imagine the changes she has seen, but she shares them with me openly. He is a tall Israeli man who discusses international politics with me more often than he comments on his children’s education.
The family spend much of the winter months in Israel, Uri and their father going ahead of Tali and their mother. Uri will go to school in Israel for a few months, but Tali has to stay behind in China to take exams and continue to study. In Israel, they visit the extended family. Tali and Uri’s big sister studies there, living with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and even great grandparents on their father’s side. Yes, their great grandparents are still alive.
Enough about the family. More will abound in later posts I am sure. Time for the story.
In 1919, Tali’s great grandmother was born in Yasina, which is now in the Ukraine, and named Rachell. If the clues haven’t implied it already, Rachell’s family was Jewish. They were always well-off, with houses in several locations, and they were well-loved by the communities of which they were part. They were pretty famous, too, in those communities.
The youngest but one of 9 (or was it 12?) children, Rachell had a happy childhood. She grew up an intelligent, independent young woman, aware of her rights and her morals. When Rachell was in her late teens things began to change around her. Sometime in her late teens, or perhaps her early twenties, local officials burst into Rachell’s family home and turned the house upside down. They upended furniture, emptied cutlery drawers, smashed expensive glassware, tore pictures and littered the family residence with debris. What they were looking for, nobody knew.
After watching uniformed men tear her home apart, every minute seeming like hours with the panic and fear pumping through her blood, Rachell had had enough. She emerged from her hiding place and stood to face the officers trashing her home. Rachell, young as she was, had the heart of a lion.
Above the racket they were making, Rachell shouted at the two Nazi officers destroying her home, telling them to stop. Initially, they did not hear her. So she shouted again: “STOP!” And this time, they did. They froze, staring at Rachell not in anger but in shock.
Taking advantage of her captive audience, Rachell continued. She scolded the two men, shaming them for behaving so inappropriately in the home of one of the best loved families in the town. She told them that they would have to pay for the damage they had done, pay whatever it cost to return the home to its earlier state. The men left in disbelief, but they paid what she had demanded they pay.
Later, Rachell met Nazi forces in another setting. Just a year or two later, when Hitler had gained more power outside Germany, Jewish families in the Ukraine were targeted and shipped off to concentration camps. Rachell was parted from her large family and faced these ordeals alone, surrounded by people she had never met before. Rachell was packed onto a train with strangers. She was going to Auschwitz.
Hundreds of people were squeezed onto this train, bodies pressed up against on another with no room to move, no facilities, and nothing to eat for days. A woman had a baby she could not keep quiet, however hard she tried to hush the child. She was shot by Nazi officers, the baby handed over to someone else nearby.
When finally released from the crowded train, Rachell was ushered into a long line. In its short little life, that baby had made it all the way to Auschwitz. The women in her carriage had taken pity on the child and, by this time, Rachell was holding it.
Inspectors patrolled up and down the line. Rachell handed the baby to another one of the women she had spent the journey with, unknowingly, at a crucial moment. An officer walked past, saw the baby and sent both the baby and the woman away to die. That moment saved Rachell’s life.
This winter, when Tali and her family go to Israel, they will hear this story again, first hand, from Rachell, who is still alive. As are the majority of her numerous siblings, most of whom were born before the now 96 year old great grandmother of three wonderful (half Chinese) children.
N.B. This post was written and intended to be posted on November 11th 2015. November 11th is known as Remembrance Day (UK) or Veterans Day (USA) to mark the armistice signed in 1918. The Great Firewall, China’s way of messing with its inhabitants access to the outside world, had other ideas. So here it is, almost two hours too late for November 11th (in China’s time zone, at least).