From Budapest to Auschwitz to Chassidic Valentines in Brooklyn- Tribute to my Maternal Grandmother Ima Bubbe

From Budapest to Auschwitz to Chassidic Valentines in Brooklyn – Tribute to my Maternal Grandmother Ima Bubbe

February 1926 – December 2018 #RIP 

Transcript:

My maternal grandmother, fondly referred to as Ima Bubbe, was born in Hungary before WWII. Although her birthday was February 10, we enjoyed humoring her with birthday presents on Valentine’s Day. Growing up in NYC, my family did not celebrate American legal or secular holidays. Valentine’s Day was a mere convenience, where we were able to find nice red and pink items on sale the day after. For many years, we all pranked my grandmother with new red underwear, because they were on sale, and hilarious to all of us. She always giggled heartily, but appreciated the 8-pack! 

Ima was a survivor. She outlived three husbands (Weiss, Oberlander, then Moskowitz). She spent most of her life walking on 3 bullets embedded in her feet at Auschwitz. She hobbled and wore special shoes on a large wedge. It looked like toddler booties with a wide front. She resisted a cane, and resisted a wheelchair. She always put a smile on first, and never allowed anyone to see her without her dentures, or without her wig. Lipstick and clip-on earrings were her friend. She smelled of Bengay and goulash, with a hint of Dollar-Store musk perfume, which made me cough.

Ima and I had a special relationship. I was the obnoxious relentless trouble maker, but also a wiseass. I learned quickly all matters that were of interest to me. Languages being one of them, I was the only grandchild to learn Hungarian by listening. How I made her laugh with my Hungarian wisecracks! The song  סְאָל אָ קָאקָאש מַאר as well as Mókuska, Mókuska, a children’s song about a squirrel, were my specialties. My mother, her siblings, and all the grandchildren, had a very specific job around Ima. We were required to help her by massaging her feet, knees, and shoulders. I was the only grandchild that she preferred, and called me גאלדענע הענטעלאך, העניקא פּעניקא! “goldene hentelech, Hennyka Pennyka,” translated to “Golden Hands, Henny Penny.” To date, my hands betray me due to dyspraxia, a neurological motor movement disorder. But my intuition and empathy allows me to provide comfort in ways that surpass the person’s capacity to indicate or request it. My grandmother recognized my gifts for energetic intuiting. She appreciated my wit, and humor. She liked my spunk and creativity, and she loved my style.

When she was dying in the hospital last year, my family forbade me from visiting. I was in New York at the time, and they threatened me in all kinds of ways. I begged to be on speaker phone, at minimum, just to sing for her in Hungarian one last time. The response was mainly, “no, it’s going to kill her!” She died the next day, almost 93 years old. I cannot forgive that she took my family’s position about my divorce, after herself having suffered a lifetime of abuse and oppression, and denied me 10 years of family time. 

I can work on forgiveness if there is more communication about her story. But I have been withheld all of her life details that my family did not want us to know, such as the secular lifestyle that she had in the first 10 years after WWII living in Hungary with her husband Imre Weiss. Even the circumstance of his sudden death, rendering my grandmother a widow with 3 children under the age of 6, was a family ‘mystery’ and blamed on “sick from the war”. She simply never shared photos of him. I found some of those photographs. There were no wigs, beards, yarmulkes, etc. My grandmother looked sexy, happy, and encouraged by how her life was rebuilding after the holocaust. 

Today, I reflect on the positive memories. The times that she shared freely with me how she whipped out all her magical Hungarian dishes. I am the grandchild who holds those magical memories and skillsets directly passed onto me with love. I am the grandchild that cries softly when an 8-pk of red panties are on sale today in the store. I am the woman who has her stamina, her humor, and her creativity. Together with my pragmatic/logical, non-love paternal lineage, I have become an unbreakable warrior, inoculated against trauma. There is nothing left that will break me or scare me into irrational coping. How wonderful that I can see my face in my grandmother’s, and remember that I have so much left to aspire to. RIP Ima Bubbe, on your 94th birthday.

An Unorthodox Life: Radio interview with NPR KQED, April 25, 2017

This 30-minute episode aired through KQED to NPR two years in a row. Three years later, people still write to me about smilier stories and sharing good wishes.

Direct link: An Unorthodox Life: Radio interview with NPR KQED, April 25, 2017 (click the red play button)

Transcript

An Unorthodox Life

LISTEN

33 min

 (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Henny Kupferstein grew up in the Belz sect of ultra-orthodox, Hasidic Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn. From early childhood, she felt like a misfit. After getting married to a virtual stranger at age 18, Henny began secretly rebelling against the confines of her sect. When she was 34, a startling diagnosis would lead her on a dramatic path away from the Belz and everyone she knew, including her four children.

You can read about Henny’s work with autistic kids and her book, Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autismon her website.

Music for this episode was composed by Nicholas DePrey, Chris Colin, Seth Samuel, and Henny Kupferstein.

Henny Kupferstein, age 18, with her paternal grandparents on her engagement day.
Henny Kupferstein, age 18, with her paternal grandparents on the day of her engagement. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)
Henny Kupferstein concealed by her veil on her wedding day.
Henny Kupferstein concealed by her veil on her wedding day. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)
Henny and her husband on their wedding day.
Henny and her husband on their wedding day. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)
Henny Kupferstein and her four children in front of the New York Aquarium seven years ago, on the last day that she saw them. Her children were 12, 10, 5 and 15 months at the time.
Henny Kupferstein and her four children in front of the New York Aquarium seven years ago, on the last day that she saw them. Her children were 12, 10, 5 and 15 months at the time. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)
Henny Kupferstein holding a picture of her and her four children in front of the New York Aquarium on the last day she saw them. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)