I am a person who believes in people, who believes in goodness in spite… maybe sounds strange after the atrocities I saw and the atrocities I went through… I still believe in goodness of people, of human soul.
— Lydia Lilienheim
When I think of my Mom, I see beauty. Her beautiful face, her smiling eyes, her soft, soft skin, her warm embrace. The hug that she would greet us all with after being apart would encircle us and bring us in to the one place in her arms that meant everything.
We always called her the young and beautiful, warm and generous Mom. She always seemed so young. Even in her 90’s she was full of such energy and spirit, such glamour and charm. She was like the best, kindest version of Zsa Zsa — with an elegance and personality that filled the room. Everything was exciting, vivid and rich, when she was there.
When she was little, her own Mom Frania used to call her “goodie goodie.” She was a great student, especially in biochemistry, and graduated second in her class in one of Warsaw’s best school. But she got into a lot of mischief on the side. She had four close friends — two were Jewish like her and two Catholic — and the five together were inseparable and just a little bit naughty, a quality my Mom kept all her life. Her friend, also named Lydia [Vesosaky], became one of Poland’s great actresses. They were reunited many years after the war when my parents went to see her perform in Chicago.
Another friend was named Irene. She was killed in the war. My parents named me after her, a name that means peace — Shalom.
On Sundays, my Mom would go to her grandmother’s apartment. Over lunch and tea, her grandmother would give her French lessons. Then they would go for a ride in her Grandmother’s horse and carriage. At home, her mother arranged for English lessons. My Mom would run and hide under the bed when her English teacher came. Years later, when she was liberated by American soldiers, she was so grateful to her Mom that she was able to communicate with them. They greeted her and her friend with freedom, warmth and chocolate, and she could speak with them in English.
My mother’s Dad Joseph was a banker in Warsaw. He was tall and very handsome, and my Mom was always proud to walk by his side. He was the soft one, and would always say to his wife: “Come Frania. What will it hurt if Lydia does this or that, this one time.”
My Mom and Dad met in Warsaw and fell in love. Toben drew their wedding in a graphic novel he made for his Bar Mitzvah. The Nazis had already invaded, so the Rabbi had to perform the ceremony by candlelight. In his comic, Toben drew his great-grandfather Joseph watching proudly, as his wife Frania cried gently by his side. After the ceremony, the whole family, including my father’s parents Max and Cesia [Checha], his brother Maurice, his twin sister Edwarda, her husband Szxmon and their little daughter Misia all called out Mazel Tov and celebrated their union — a union that would last through a Holocaust and 63 years of marriage.
My Mom always seemed larger than life to me and she always will. She was a Survivor and a hero. She saved my Dad’s leg when she took off her yellow star to leave the Vilno ghetto and find a Gentile doctor to come back into the ghetto with her. She was brave and clever enough during the selection to save Mrs. Kalmanowicz from certain death.
The story that to me captures the essence of my Mom’s bravery happened at the end of the war, when she and her friend Anna were on a forced march from a camp in Magdeburg. You will hear that story in her own words in the film.
When he was in the camps, my Dad bartered five rations of bread to buy my Mom pearls from the Persian Gulf. He asked Mendel the shoemaker to hide them in his shoes and dreamt of the necklace gleaming around her neck as they danced. After the war, he traveled all through Europe looking for my Mom, the only one in either of their families who could have survived. But for all his efforts, it was finally her who found him. Carolyn will tell you that story, as well.
When I was born in Munich, my Mom was terrified that the Nazis would try to steal me and replace me with another baby. But anyone who ever saw my Mom and I together never doubted that I was my mother’s daughter. But it’s my brother Michael who is most like her in other ways. He inherited, especially, our Mom’s bravery and compassion.
When we came over on the boat to America, my father told me I would never leave my Mom’s side. He would have to distract me to let her even go to the bathroom. We were like two peas in a pod all the years I was growing up and it was wonderful and so much fun. My Mom loved to have a good time and made sure we always did.
One Saturday night years when I was in high school, I went to the Teatro del Lago with my girlfriend and my Mom. After the movie, a group of boys tried to pick us up. They were stunned when they got up real close and realized that my Mom was not a high school babe.
My Mom’s greatest quality was her humanity. When she was working in a lab in Wilmette, she became good friends with an African-American man who worked with her. One day they sat on the bus together after work and people started making a fuss. My mother, furious and indignant, got up to tell the passengers what she thought of their racist attitude, but her friend asked her to please sit down — it would only make things worse. When the Dean of Women called her years later to say that her daughter was suspended because I had left school for Washington in support of Martin Luther King’s march to Montgomery, my Mom told her that was just fine. My parents brought me up to believe in justice, tolerance and equal rights. Years later, when a young Senator from Illinois first started his campaign for the presidency, my Mom, who was always active in the democratic party, put all her energy in convincing others that he would soon be the first Black president.
My Mom fought against every kind of injustice. With a few new friends she helped build WilPower, a grass roots family organization created to provide secure homes for people with mental illnesses in their own communities. Later she suggested that Abbey and I make a documentary about WilPower, which Toben named Unbreakable Minds. The film is still being used worldwide to break down the stigma against people with mental illness.
When my brother Mike was born, he added another whole element into her life and she threw herself into it completely. Mike was not only a great athlete with exceptional hands and talent himself; he was also a great sports fan — especially for his beloved Chicago teams. My Mom would enthusiastically pile Mike and his friends in the car and take them to see the games. Afterwards they would stay to say hello to the players and collect autographs.
As similar as Mike is to my Mom, in many ways I really married another version of my mother in the form of Abbey. If anyone was alike, they were, and they were always in cahoots against me. They loved each other and many of the ways my Mom tortured me live on relentlessly in Abbey. He will always be a beautiful reminder of so many aspects of her.
After my Dad died, some of the great times we had together were when we went on cruises with Toben, Abbey and Sally. My Mom came to breakfast ready to go. She had already poured over the events of the day, and she and Sally were ready for any adventure. Everyday was a blast for all of us, and every evening a relaxed and elegant family affair.
My most joyful memories arere when all the family was together with Toben. My mother and Toben were an exuberant pair. She loved just being together — talking and laughing, seeing him play with Nortush, our dog, going out to dinner or taking him shopping (finally someone who shared this pursuit enthusiastically with her). She would always tell Toben how handsome he is and how much he reminded her of her father. Toben always treated her with gentle, caring love. She was his beautiful, fun and funny, Grandma, who spoiled and loved him with all her heart. And I know she is looking over him now.
My Mom, like many of our parents who are Survivors, wanted Mike and I to live a happy life, filled with family, even though our own families were killed in the war. When she and my Dad came to Chicago she met the people who became their dearest friends. They lived life to the fullest — with parties on Saturday night and picnics on Sundays. All the Moms would go to Wisconsin in the summer with the children and the husbands would come up for weekends and vacation.
Back in town, the ladies used to meet every Tuesday for lunch because that was the day Paula had off work, and they continued meeting for more than 50 years. I sat in my Mom’s place with all the Tuesday Girls I love so much, every time I go to Chicago. I know how much they miss her.
One of the great gifts my Mom left us is the Family Reunion. Like the others in our group, I always longed for the family I’d lost and didn’t recognize that our parents had created a new family — with aunts and uncles and cousins — that was just as wonderful as any family could be. Three summers ago, my mother had the idea that it was time to celebrate this family with a party, which she called Czas Na Zabawe [Chaz Na Zabavoum]. All the longing we all felt was totally transformed into a celebration of the family we had become. This was indeed a great gift she gave us, I hope for generations to come.
Now, Mom, you are in the embrace of all those you love who passed before you: Dad, Joseph and Frania, your grandparents and uncle, Dad’s family, all your friends — Lydia, Irene, Angela, Eva, Runia, Dorka, Leah and all the others, too.
All your family and friends here miss you. For me, Mom, I will always see your enchanting, exhilarating, mischievous smile and I will always feel your sweet embrace — that warm, safe place in your arms and the softness of your skin. I will remember them always, and long for them still.
Now finally, it is my turn to say the blessings for you, Mom.
God bless you,
God keep you.
God save you.
We love you! We love you!! We Love you!!!
Irene Lilienheim Angelico, written in Glencoe, March 18, 2010.
Edited for the Montreal commemoration, March 20,