Happy Birthday, Margalit. We remember you.
Today, November 4th, 2016, is what would be the 76th birthday of a woman named Margalit Lichtensztejn*. My family celebrated with baked apples, a candle, some old photos, and some raucous toddler singing. Margalit herself could not join us, because she was murdered in the Holocaust in 1943, just after her 2nd birthday.
Margalit was born in the Warsaw ghetto. Her mother was an artist, Gela Seksztajn, and her father was a schoolteacher named Israel Lichtensztejn. We know about Margalit because her father was one of the leaders of a clandestine project called Oneg Shabbat, which aimed to create an archive of Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto. The archive included photographs (illegal under the Nazis), diaries, recipes, posters, drawings and paintings, poetry, music, newspaper clippings— in short, all the little pieces of papers and documents that accumulate in people’s homes in everyday life. The organizers of the archive (many of whom were also involved in the Warsaw Uprising) understood that the Nazis planned to totally annihilate the Jewish people; the archive was a defiant attempt to preserve Jewish culture for future generations, and to document the brutal reality of life under the Nazi occupation. The papers in the archive were carefully packed in boxes and cans, wrapped up, and buried in the foundation of a building in the ghetto, where they were found, in bits and pieces, after the war.
Among the surviving papers from archive was the will of Israel Lichtensztejn, written shortly before the Nazis began destroying the Ghetto, murdering or sending to concentration camps most of the remaining inhabitants. I’m going to go ahead and include it in full, here:
“I’ve put my whole soul into this archive. I’ve chosen the hiding
place. I don’t ask for any thanks. I don’t want a memorial or praise.
I just want to be remembered. I’d like my people, my brothers and
sisters overseas, to know where my bones have been taken to. I want my
wife to be remembered: Gela Seksztajn, a talented artist. The past
three years she worked with children in the ghetto as a teacher. She
designed stage sets and costumes for the children’s theatre. Both of
us now prepare to meet our death. I also want my little daughter to be
remembered: Margalit is twenty months old today. She has fully
mastered Yiddish and speaks it perfectly. At nine months she began to
speak clearly. In intelligence she equals children of four years. I’m
not boasting. You could ask the teachers yourself. I don’t lament my
own life nor that of my wife, but I pity this lovely little talented
girl. She, too, deserves to be remembered. And finally, we are the
redeeming sacrifice for the Jewish people. I believe that the nation
will survive. We the Jews of eastern Europe are the redeemers of the
people of Israel.”
“I also want my little daughter to be remembered: Margalit is twenty months old today.” I’ve read this sentence hundreds of times and it still makes me shake and cry. The first time I came across it, my eldest child had just celebrated his first birthday. A deep chord of recognition thrummed inside me and I sobbed until my throat ached. My beautiful, precocious baby with the deep dark eyes. The beautiful, precocious baby with the deep dark eyes in a photo taken long ago. The beautiful, heart-breaking wish of her parents. Do not forget my child. The total unfairness of it all. The baby is the focus, but all my tears fall for the parents, forced to live in a world they knew would not allow their daughter to live.
My husband and I decided that if we had another child and it was a girl, her middle name would be Margalit (which means “pearl” in Hebrew, in case you needed this story to be even more heartbreaking). And that whether or not we were able to name a child in memory of Margalit Lichtensztejn, we would celebrate her birthday every year. We, who survived, we would remember. We would think about the little girl who spoke at 9 months, who in intelligence equalled children of 4 years before she was 2. We would teach our children about her and fulfill the wish of her parents.
My children do not know that Israel Lichtenszteyn was right, that the nation did survive the Shoah, that he and his family and his neighbors were the redeeming sacrifice for the Jewish people. They don’t even yet know what the Holocaust is. They are 4 and 2, and they are also lovely little talented kids, and when they are older, we will explain. But they know Margalit. We look at the only picture of her, a baby held up in her mother’s hands. There are pictures of me holding each of my kids in the exact same pose; the universal “I’m holding up a wiggly baby in my big adult hands while trying to pose for a picture” pose. Last year, when he was 3, my eldest, looking at her picture said, “she looks sad.” We told him she lived in a time that was very sad. This year, he had more questions. “Is Margalit alive or dead? Did she die when she was a baby or was she old? Do you still have a birthday even when you are dead? Can I look at that picture of her mama and daddy and auntie again? Can I look at the drawings her mama made again? Can I have some more baked apple?” Yes, I said, yes you can look at the pictures. Yes to more baked apple. Yes, you still have a birthday even when you are dead, because the people who are still alive remember your birthday and remember you and think of you. Yes, Margalit was a baby when she died. She was younger than your brother is now. She didn’t live to be old. My throat catches for that answer but I keep it together. “Okay,” my son says, “You still have a birthday even if you are dead and aren’t alive any more for the birthday. Can I see the picture again? That’s her mama. That’s the baby. The baby is Margalit.”
Gela and Israel, it’s Margalit’s birthday, and we remembered.
*This name can also be transliterated as Lichtensztein or Lichtensztajn, and likewise, both “Gela” and “Seksztajn” can be spelled a number of ways in English.