Two poems from May 1944 with very different purposes unite and connect three generations of women, 75 years after their creation.
On May 11, 1944, 75 years ago, Bertha Weinschenk celebrated her 75th birthday in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp and ghetto. A group of her friends presented her with an original poem in German, specially composed in honor of her birthday, handwritten on a piece of cardboard. The poem praises her courage and skills; it ends with a blessing that, given the circumstances, must have seemed unlikely: And long live Mother Weinschenk/And the children and grandchildren beside her.
Nine friends signed the poem.
The German commandants had already begun “embellishing” the camp, to make it an attractive showcase for the Danish and Swedish Red Cross to inspect in five weeks. As part of embellishing, SS Col. Karl Rahm, to ease overcrowding, shipped elderly or sick inmates to be murdered at Birkenau.
Three of the women who signed the poem were sent to their deaths in the next week (along with thousands of other inmates). Another three of the women were shipped east for murder in October. One signed only the last name, Hamburger; several doomed Jews with that last name are listed among those murdered. Two signers survived.
Bertha Weinschenk’s daughter, Hannah Weinschenk-Buehler, and her daughter, Ilse, had fled Nazi Germany in May 1940 and were living in Detroit at that time. Three days after Bertha received her poem in Theresienstadt, her granddaughter in America, Elsie (a new Americanized name) celebrated her 16th birthday on May 14, 1944. For that occasion, her mother, Hannah, composed a German poem, as if written by her teenage daughter (see below):
Dear Mother, believe me,
Now that I am grown, don’t give a thought about counting on me
You can do all the work,
and I can do all the play.
I can relax in my chair,
and listen to soap operas all day
I can read as many comic books as I like.
So it goes in life, as the world turns,
That hard-working mothers
get lazy daughters.
One of Elsie’s sons, Dan Simkovitz, recalls learning about the two poems. “I knew about the first poem from my youth. I learned about the second poem on a visit to Detroit late one Shabbat evening when my mom and I were up late reminiscing, going through old albums, and she showed me her birthday poem.
“It dawned on me the next morning that my family had two poems composed three days and thousands of miles apart under very different conditions, connecting three generations of women.”
Simkovitz said the blessing at the end of the 75th birthday poem for Bertha Weinschenk “came true for all three women.”
Bertha survived and moved to Detroit.
“They all lived into their 90s, and they all lived to be surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In my mother’s case, she lived to see 49 children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren, with more on the way.”
Elsie Simkovitz died in Jerusalem in December last year.
One more note from Dan: “Regarding my mother’s 16th birthday poem: My mother could not Americanize fast enough. She changed her name from Ilse — a name I happen to like — to Elsie. She refused to speak German. She would listen to soap operas after school and, yes, according to her brother, Grandmother Hannah, and my mother, she was as lazy a teenager as depicted in the poem.
“Obviously, this was not the woman I knew,” he said. “The woman I knew was unstoppable and always busy, like her mother, Hannah, and grandmother Bertha before her.”