Drawing strength from hardship

Drawing strength from hardship

Mother's Auschwitz tattoo provides inspiration for marathon-running daughter

Devorah Hilsenrath did not tell her four children about her years in Auschwitz until they were teenagers.

“I couldn’t bear to share my pain with them,” she said.

In recent years, Hilsenrath has begun to speak to synagogue and school groups about her wartime experiences, but “I couldn’t bear to tell them what happened to me.”

She recalled that when her son, then 3 years old, asked about the number on her arm, “I told him that when I was a little girl I wrote my telephone number on my arm and it didn’t come off.”

One child, however, always knew that something was wrong.

“Growing up, my mother never really spoke about her experiences,” Rochelle Goldschmiedt of Teaneck, Hilsenrath’s third child, said. “Once a year, on Pesach, she would tell a story, but she kept it limited so she wouldn’t upset or scare us. But even as a young kid, I always sensed something different about my mother.”

Rochelle Goldschmiedt flashes her medal after the triathlon.

image Rochelle Goldschmiedt with her mother, Devorah Hilsenrath. Photos courtesy the family

For example, she said, she was extremely sensitive to the fact, unlike her father, her mother had no family. Later, as she learned more about her mother’s life, “I got an idea of the hardship she went through. Not just losing her parents but going through that when she was a vulnerable young girl, with no support from [anyone]. It was overwhelmingly difficult.”

Indeed, Goldschmiedt was so shaken by what she learned that “it became a part of my own life experience, part of my DNA.”

Deciding that the best tribute to her mother would be to associate her hardship with something positive, the daughter did a remarkable thing.

“She asked me for my Auschwitz number,” said Hilsenrath, who comes from a rabbinic family, and whose husband, Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath, is now rabbi emeritus of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.

Goldshmiedt, who was about to run in the New York Marathon, wanted to write the number on her own arm.

“It shook me to the core,” said her mother, explaining that her daughter planned to henna the number on her arm to give her strength during the race. “She had thought about a real tattoo, but in the Jewish religion you can’t do that. I was very emotional about it and very touched. I thought my goodness, how sensitive she is, and how deeply she’s thinking about what happened to me.

“It was such a positive thought to gain energy from this and draw a positive conclusion from the horrendous experience I had.”

For her part, Goldschmiedt said the number on her arm gave her both strength and inspiration during the marathon and, later, during the New York Triathlon. In both cases she donated the funds she raised to charities, including Chai Lifeline and Sharsheret.

Goldschmiedt, now a grandmother and a personal trainer, said she has been active throughout her life, but in the past five years, she “fell in love with running and realized I could run and at the same time raise money for charities I believed in.”

She decided to participate in the triathlon for the same reason and because she loved the idea of doing something that challenged her. Particularly anxious about the swimming component, she embraced the challenge.

Glancing at her mother’s Auschwitz number on her arm, she said, “gave me the surge of energy I needed.

“When taking on these challenges, thinking of [her] hardships, I asked myself how I could complain when she went through something so much worse. I looked at it especially toward the end.”

“My mother was surprised, overwhelmed, speechless, taken aback,” Goldschmiedt said, noting that for the triathlon she wrote not only her mother’s number but the name of her mother’s little sister, Gabriella Rachel, who was murdered in the Holocaust and for whom she is named.

“Rochelle has been very empathetic about my Holocaust experiences and the six million souls of the men, women, and children who perished just because they were Jewish,” said her mother, adding that her daughter told her she wanted to put the number on her arm because “in case I get too exhausted to continue, your number would remind me of the hardship and peril you have endured and would encourage me to go on.”

The runner, also the mother of four, found herself surprised, and deeply moved, when her own children later presented her with a gold bracelet bearing the numbers she so prized.

“My family was blown away,” Goldschmiedt said. “My older daughter, Yael, knew that [my mother’s experience] was part of my life growing up. Being sensitive, she went out and had the bracelet handmade by a jeweler.

“I was completely surprised and overwhelmed by the fact that I could send the message to my own kids about what an inspiration their grandmother is, what a strong woman she’s been, and that we can overcome the challenges we face.

“My kids understand because I spoke about it so much; they know how important it is,” she said, adding that her mother is now telling a lot of stories, reminding the children how much they should appreciate their freedom – for example, being able to walk through Teaneck, and having the opportunity to keep kosher.

“I think my grandchildren’s gesture is huge, so meaningful,” Hilsenrath said, noting that she has spoken with them about her own past “piece by piece, not the whole thing.”

What should they learn from her stories?

“They should look to the future and try to overcome the past’s terrible, or unpleasant experiences and go on from there,” Hilsenrath said. “It’s no use living in the past if you have a future ahead of you. Make the best of it.”

“Rochelle is a great champion,” she said. “Remembering the tragic history of Auschwitz and learning the positive lesson of life, to take and overcome difficult obstacles, is an admirable achievement.

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