I have very sad news. Lena Goldstein, at 100 the oldest grandmother in our book, Just Add Love, passed away this morning.
I spoke to her yesterday and she was in fine form. I would even say sparkling form. Making jokes, saying meaningful beautiful things. "You made me famous you know," was the second last thing she said to me. She finished with, “And on top of everything, you’re a good girl.”
We were meant to meet today, so am feeling quite bereft, although a painless death in your sleep after a century of life is something many would wish for.
One of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto in which the Nazi's incarcerated Jews during WW2, Lena Goldstein lived an extraordinary life. Her strength and brilliance were an inspiration to all who knew her. Here is a picture of Lena at the Just Add Love Sydney book launch 10 days ago... she was so proud to be there, and I was even more proud that she was able to attend.
Rest in peace darling Lena, (Helena Midler.) Your memory is already a blessing.
In tribute to Lena, I am sharing a piece of her writing, a poignant memory of 2 friends who did not survive the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. I am also sharing one of her signature recipes for chrusty, melt in your mouth 'bow tie' pastries, which is in the Just Add Love cookbook. When we photographed Lena at 98 years old, she made everything from scratch and by hand, naturally, who needs a food processor or a mixmaster to help you along at 98?!?
Into her 90s, Lena was healthy, vibrant, in fact feisty, involved with her children and grandchildren, still baking, reading, and going out Saturday mornings to meet girlfriends at a café near her home, where they discussed world events as well as family news.
Lena was taking part in a NSW study on Centenarians though her own good health was a mystery to her, since she knew great deprivation as a young woman during World War Two.
Lena was in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. Jews were immediately targeted. The Nazis established a Ghetto where they herded Jews from across Warsaw and its surrounding villages.
“It was between 350,000 - 400,000 people and it was quite a small area,” Lena recalls.
Overcrowding, hunger and disease became rampant. Lena, her parents and one of her brothers, Salek managed to survive these increasingly harsh conditions.
By 1943 Lena and Salek were part of only ten per cent of Warsaw’s Jews – some 40,000 people - still alive. The rest had died of starvation or disease, or had been deported to nearby death camps such as Treblinka. Those murdered there included Lena’s parents.
As they waited the final deportations of 1943, some of the young Ghetto leaders decided that if they had to die, they would die fighting. They began planning an Uprising. It turned into the the largest Jewish revolt of World War Two.
WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING
From early 1943, Lena was working for the Jewish Fighting Organization planning the Uprising. Just before it was scheduled to begin, in April 1943, she was offered a hiding place outside the Ghetto. She wasn’t sure if she should take it. Her brother Salek advised her to go. Perhaps someone from their family would survive. Perhaps it would be Lena.
“My brother said that somebody has to survive, to tell the world what’s happening here because no one will believe it. He was right. It was unbelievable.”
Lena never forgot her brother’s final words. More than seventy years after World War Two, she was still keeping her vow to him, sharing her life story, in a bid to educate against hatred. She was awarded the Order of Australia for this work in 2015.
“I’m 98, I could stop now, but I remember my brother's words. Try to survive. Tell the world. I hear them each time I talk. Afterwards, I don't sleep for days. But it is my obligation and that's why I continue.”
IN HER OWN WORDS
Lena wrote about two of her friends, Heniek and Gutek, who did not have the opportunity to escape the Warsaw Ghetto when she did. They had to stay behind to face the Nazi onslaught. Lena fears she may be the only person alive who remembers Heniek – and even she does not know his full name.
"One of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust was that entire families and villages were not only erased from the face of the earth but from history itself. If no member of your family of village survived, there was no one to remember you or the things you did. This is the story of one such hero, who perhaps in the sharing of my memories of him will not be forgotten," says Lena.
The Importance of Memory
BY LENA GOLDSTEIN
When they read ‘the names’ his name will not be there. When they mention Mordechai Anielevicz, Antek Cukerman, Zivia Lubetkin and other heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, his name won’t be there, though it should be. There is nobody alive who remembers his full name. Even I only know him by his first name: Heniek.
I first met Heniek during deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto, when I started working in the Laundry as a washerwoman, washing Nazi uniforms.
Heniek was the Laundry Foreman. To this day I find the title ‘Foreman’ ironic, for in truth he was just a boy of 17. His family had already been taken away on a transport; mine too had been taken.
Heniek quickly attached himself to me in a way that reminded me of a puppy. I became his mother confessor, somebody to ask for advice or guidance or to whom he could tell his secrets. He was only a few years younger, but he called me Mamusia (Mummy). I didn’t mind.
Heniek’s childhood was a sad one. His father was cruel and sadistic, his mother a battered wife, his sister an assaulted waif. At the age of ten, Heniek had to give up his education and begin to work to support his family. He found work in the dry-cleaning business, where he gained the expertise which would later, temporarily, spare his life. By the time I met him, no one knew better than Heniek how to remove the blood from German uniforms.
He made friends with Gutek, my boyfriend at the time, who also worked in the Laundry. One day they failed to turn up at work. With constant Nazi ‘selections’, this in itself was nothing unusual; no one enquired after them. Only I was let into the secret. Both boys had joined the Jewish Fighting Organisation, (JFO) which consisted of a few cells like Betar, Poale Zion, the Bund and the Communists. Theirs was the Communist cell, not because of ideology, but because the Communist cell was located in the attic of the building adjoining the Laundry.
In a short time, Heniek became one of the most active members of this group. His assignments were the most dangerous and audacious and although he was the youngest, he led the group. Heniek was modest. His courage was only ever related to me by Gutek. Because of this courage, he was also entrusted with the money collected to purchase revolvers, the only weapons the Jewish Fighters could afford.
Some Jewish people in the Ghetto sold their bedding to Poles in exchange for food. They got rid of the feathers, because the bedding covers on their own were easier to smuggle out. The thick whirl of feathers then created became the perfect camouflage for fighters and their weapons.
Sometimes I wondered if Heniek’s courage and disregard of danger were due to his youth or perhaps some greater sense of defiance on his part. At one point, I noticed in his attitude a sense of unrest, which he eventually explained to me.
In the evenings, the groups would have political discussions on subjects like Marx’s Das Kapital, or ways to build the Communist Utopia. I could not help but smile when thinking about what kind of people we Jews were, when we have been sentenced to death today, we are talking about building Utopia tomorrow. In this area Heniek felt he was inferior to his comrades.
“They are using those big words, I don’t even understand their meaning. How can I take part in the discussion?” he asked me.
“Why don’t you write down the words you don’t understand and bring them to me so that I can explain them to you? Then you can join in with the others,” I suggested.
I don’t remember the exact words, but I can still see before my eyes his big round handwriting, a childlike scrawl betraying that his education had ended at age ten.
A day before the Ghetto Uprising, I had the opportunity to sneak across to the Aryan side of Warsaw. Gutek and Heniek came to say goodbye. We knew we would never see each other again. I will never forget the last words that Heniek spoke to me.
“Mamusia,” he pleaded, “I so much don’t want to die! Mamusia, I never in my life loved a woman. I never in my life was in love! It isn’t fair…”
Lena ends her account there, with Heniek’s last cry of pain.
Lena escaped to the Aryan side and endured many more hardships, which are almost inconceivable in fact, but she survived the War. (You can read the rest of Lena’s extraordinary survival story in our new book, Just Add Love.)
With no possiblity of escape, no bolt hole like the one which suddenly opened up for Lena, Heniek and Gutek and Lena’s brother Salek remained and fought in the Uprising.
The Ghetto held out for more than one month – longer than any country in Europe, as Lena points out – before in May 1943, the Nazis razed it to the ground. After initially running away in disarray, the Nazis replaced their commander, and destroyed the Ghetto building by building, smoking the fighters out of their bunkers, or bringing the buildings down on top of them.
Approximately 7,000 Jews were killed there. The remainder, some 30,000 people, were captured and deported to concentration and extermination camps, including Treblinka. A few dozen fighters escaped through the sewers.
These photos come from the report prepated by Jurgen Stroop, the commander in charge of liquidating the Ghetto. He was a committed and unrepentant Nazi. After destroying the Ghetto, he personally blew up Warsaw’s Great Synagogue.
“What a marvelous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theater. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously. I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of the burning buildings. After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted: Heil Hitler and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colors, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done," Stroop told his cellmate in a Polish prison, before he was hanged for his crimes.
Lena Goldstein is fiercely proud of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
"Look what a few boys and girls, armed only with revolvers, achieved".
She feels this way, even though Heniek, Gutek and her brother Salek did not survive. May they rest in peace.
COOKING V BAKING
Lena was an excellent baker and always happy to share her recipes.
“I won’t give you other recipes, for main course dishes. I’m not a real cook, I’m a nasher,” Lena said using the Yiddish word for someone who eats for pleasure.
“In Poland I didn't cook, so after the War, I had to learn from scratch. In Sydney, I was working in the rag trade, the schmatte business. I worked as a “finisher”, our job was to complete the last parts of the shirt or dress by hand. I would sit with other Jewish women and they would tell me their recipes.”
That's how Lena re-created the tastes she remembered from home.
CHRUSTY – Pastry BOW TIES
This is Lena's signature dish, light, melt-in-your-mouth bow ties made of dough and deep fried.
“Every festival meal, the family insists that I prepare these, so we can have them in the soup. They say, ‘You must make it!’, so I do, even though I am 98 years old, I still make them.”
The dough is only very slightly sweet, so the biscuits can be prepared as a savoury dish, and served in soup as they are in Lena’s family. Or they can be served dredged in sugar, as a dessert, as they are across Europe – like the Italian Crostoli - or dredged in honey and spices as they are in Central Asia. One of the wonderful things about this project is seeing how variations on the same dish appear in Jewish homes from country to country!
2 egg yolks
1 thimble vinegar, or 2 thimbles vodka
¾ cup plain flour
1/3 cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 tablespoon sour cream
to finish: icing sugar, another 1/4 - 1/2 cup, for dredging
Lena does everything by hand! For those hands aren't as strong as Lena's, the first step can be done in a mix master or food processor.
1. Mix wet ingredients – egg, egg yolks and sour cream, plus vanilla essence and vodka - and then knead in flour, sugar and salt. You want the dough well-combined.
2. Flour your benchtop or a board, and dived the dough into four sections. Using a rolling pin, roll each ball of dough out thinly – to ¼ inch or even 1/8 inch thick. ( 6mm – 3 mm) As thin as you can get, but still sturdy enough to fold.
3. Cut out rectangles, about 3 inches by 1 inch (7.5 cm by 2.5 cm) Lena does this by sight. You can give that a try, or use a ruler.
4. Cut a small slit, lengthways, in the centre of each rectangle and push one end through it, to make a bow.
5. Deep fry in hot oil. Watch carefully, they are quite easy to burn! Once the oil is hot, it helps to turn the heat down.
6. Rest on paper towels. If making the sweet version, dredge with icing sugar.
Lena attended the Just Add Love book launch 10 days before her death. It was one of my proudest momemnts to see here there, in the front row.