By Rivky Herman, MS CCC-SLP
About two and a half years ago, I was inspired to write an article about Bubby Gelber. I received much positive feedback. However, the idea that touched me in an indescribable way was that it was rare for a grandchild to write an article about the greatness of her Bubby while her Bubby was still living. Truthfully, I had not thought much about it, as the words flowed from my heart onto the computer screen. As many who came to be menachem avel expressed, everyone who knew Bubby thought she would live forever.
Bubby was youthful and fun; she loved to smile and laugh and exuded warmth that permeated the hearts of those in our community and beyond. I was captivated by Bubby’s heartfelt tefillos as she lit Shabbos candles, kissed the mezuzah dozens of times prior to going to sleep, and performed mitzvos with complete devotion to Hashem. Bubby never left her house without looking presentable, her sheitel combed perfectly and dressed to impress. She did not have to tell us to act like menschen, she taught us through the manner in which she carried herself that being menschlich in every way is of utmost importance.
Bubby rarely spoke of the difficult life that she experienced. She seldom spoke of her experiences in Auschwitz, the train accident in which the car carrying her family turned over and how suitcases fell on her head, sending her to a hospital and separating her from the rest of her family, the loss of her eldest daughter born in Germany after the war, or the petirah of my Zaidy before she was 50 years old.
Bubby spoke only of the lessons that she learned throughout her life. She sang songs of her youth and stressed the importance of performing mitzvos for the Ribbono shel Olam even during the most difficult of times. Later in life she began to speak with me about the war. She recalled how her mother asked her father to take a little bread with him as they arrived at Auschwitz, but her father responded that he needed only his tallis and tefillin.
My family was zocheh to be in Bubby’s house practically every day. Bubby was our world and we were hers. Bubby lived to give, and she gave with love. When I slept at Bubby’s house on Shabbos, she woke up early and quietly peeked into the room in which I slept to be sure I was sleeping comfortably. I frequently was awake and loved the feeling of comfort and safety that I felt as Bubby peeked in quietly.
Bubby held my hands inside of hers, turned her cheek for a second kiss from me because two kisses from me were expected, one on each cheek, and winked at my siblings and me with her sparkling blue eyes, along with a chuckle that brought laughter to everyone in the room. Everyone who knew her felt a natural, instant, and unique connection to her.
Though she did not wish to publicize her physical pain, Bubby was unwell for the past year and a half and traveled from doctor to doctor with my mother at her side always. My family spent Simchas Torah last year in the hospital as she underwent her first lengthy surgery. Just prior to entering the surgery, the two things that scared her the most were the thought of not waking up and not eating for hours prior to the surgery. She had starved enough during the war. Yet, as the nurse preparing her for surgery asked what her secret was to be looking so beautiful, she smiled and motioned for him to come closer. She whispered that if she told him, it would no longer be a secret!
My mother and I were the first to enter the recovery room following Bubby’s surgery. She was clearly uncomfortable and very hungry. The nurses smiled as they said that she was the first of their patients to request a coffee in the recovery room. I held Bubby’s hand and asked if she knew who I was. With a twinkle in each of her eyes, she lovingly said, “You’re my Rivkele.” She then asked me if she was alive. When I told her that of course she was alive, her face began to glow and she almost sang, “I’m alive, I am really alive.” For months afterward she recalled the time in the recovery room and laughed as she recalled her excitement and love of life, despite its challenges.
Following the surgeries, Bubby could no longer use her right arm, yet she trained herself to use her left arm and hand to bake muffins for her doctors and our favorite foods for dinner and Shabbos. She cooked chicken soup together with my mother just a few weeks ago, l’kavod Shabbos.
We never left Bubby alone, even for a moment. My father who quietly suffered pain prior to and following five surgeries within three months this past year drove Bubby to doctor appointments once he was able to drive again, and my mother spent many nights holding Bubby’s hand in the hospital. Bubby’s gift of giving was passed to her children who I am zocheh to call my parents.
On the night prior to Bubby’s petirah, we rushed to the hospital to see Bubby after Shabbos. Her face was glowing, and her coloring seemed good. Her vitals were stable. Though she could barely speak and had a collapsed lung, we had no idea that just a few hours later we would be escorting our precious Bubby to Har HaZeisim.
My brother, my uncle, and I left the hospital close to 10 p.m. and my mother stayed for the night. We discussed who would stay the following day to enable my mother to have a few hours of rest. Just a few hours later, my mother called us. Bubby’s heart rate was too rapid, and her blood pressure was dangerously low and dropping. My mother was instructed to call the family.
My uncles, siblings, and I rushed to the hospital on the cold winter night, davening as tears flowed down each of our cheeks. My father was visiting Eretz Yisrael and though it was during a short break from work and my father asked me to join, I had only wanted to spend time with Bubby. I did not know that we would meet my father in Eretz Yisrael for the kevurah.
We kissed Bubby over and over and held her hands as she gasped for air. As she took her last breath, I felt a spark from Bubby’s hand, and it sent a shock through my hand. I was startled. I told myself that I was exhausted and imagining it. However, the spark was real. I am sure of it.
Bubby’s hands, which were always warm, turned cold and as I stroked Bubby’s cheeks, they, too, seemed cold. Her coloring turned yellow and as we stood in shock, refusing to believe what had happened, I touched Bubby’s chest. Her heart was still warm. She passed as she lived, with warmth in her heart.
The Chevra Kadisha came and we watched as Bubby’s beautiful face was covered with a sheet. Her body was placed in a bag and wheeled out of the hospital room that she had entered just days prior. The hospital felt like prison to her. She wanted to go home and Hashem had decided that He wanted her home in Gan Eden.
We were told that it was a z’chus to be holding her hand as Bubby was nifteres, yet the trauma and pain remains. She fought to live and struggled until her last breath.
The days following were a whirlwind. We flew to Eretz Yisrael where Bubby’s kevurah took place on the very top of Har HaZeisim overlooking Har HaBayis just over 24 hours after her petirah. An entourage of family and friends accompanied Bubby from the airport and Yerushalayim. We were escorting a rebbetzin, our Bubby, a queen.
On the night of the kevurah, I walked with my brother to the Kotel. I frequently glanced at Har HaZeisim as I walked down the steps from the Old City to the Kotel in the past. I imagined my Zaidy and aunt on the very top. This time, I motioned to my brother to pause. We looked up at Har HaZeisim and for the first time, our precious Bubby was together with our chashuve Zaidy and aunt.
As I sat at the Kotel and struggled to find the words to daven, I felt dizzy. We were exhausted from grief and nights without sleep.
The last time I spent time in Eretz Yisrael with Bubby was just a year and a half ago. She apologized to me that she was unable to go to the Kotel to daven there with me. Bubby promised that next time she would be with me at the Kotel.
I closed my eyes and felt a warm embrace. Bubby, Zaidy, and my mother’s dear sister were surely hugging me. I heard Bubby’s voice telling me that she will now always be with me at the Kotel. Tears once again flowed as my lips began to move with prayer.
My mother and one of her brothers sat shivah in our home in Yerushalayim for just over two days and the apartment was constantly full of people being menachem avel. It was incredible to see the devotion that people showed as they traveled from far or made an extra effort to be a part of the minyanim for Bubby. We were deeply touched.
We then traveled back to New York for the remainder of shivah.
Many have said that the neshamah of someone remains in the person’s home during shivah. That is a lofty concept. However, I truly felt it. As the community poured into Bubby’s house, often with people waiting at the door, I knew that Bubby would have been glowing. Her house was always open, and she excitedly welcomed guests always. Others called and sent letters from afar.
The minyanim in Bubby’s home were packed. Even when Bubby could no longer go to shul, we walked in on Shabbos morning to find a Siddur in her hands and tefillos on her lips. Her home was saturated with kedushah.
People came and people cried not only for us, but with us. Friends brought food and, just as Bubby always liked it, her refrigerators were full. One kind person unpacked bag after bag of food and I stood in shock as each item that was unpacked was a staple on Bubby’s menu. It was as if Bubby had sent the food.
When my Bubby and Zaidy first came to America following the war, they lived in Buffalo, New York. Though Bubby and Zaidy counted pennies, everyone knew that if anyone needed a warm place to stay and a warm meal, they were to be directed to Rabbi and Mrs. Gelber’s home. Bubby transformed bananas that were turning brown into fresh muffins for her family and guests.
Giving was the essence of her life.
I walk around her home and so many material possessions that I associate with Bubby remain. I still smell the detergent in her sheets and see her dresses hanging so neatly in her closets. Bubby always told us in Yiddish that when a person is niftar, he takes only his good deeds and is buried with none of his material possessions, not even his socks. How true Bubby’s lessons are.
Bubby is no longer physically here with us, but her legacy resonates within me. She loved to live and lived to love. She glowed with pride as she told me that I am like her when I told her how I love meeting new people and care deeply for others. She taught me to love without judgement and to give without question. She did so ever so sincerely and naturally.
I would like to express heartfelt hakaras ha’tov to all those who came and who cried with us. Each person who came to the airport, who was a part of the minyanim, and who was menachem avel provided tremendous nechamah to our family. We continue to mourn. However, just as Bubby lived her life caring for others, the community has shown the same care for Bubby’s children and grandchildren, surely in Bubby’s z’chus.
During and following shivah, I examined photos taken of Bubby and me, and I noted that she frequently held my hand as photographs were taken. On erev Shabbos prior to Bubby’s petirah, I had placed my hand on Bubby’s and a photo was taken. Bubby’s hands were blue from constantly being poked for blood. She had no more blood to give. It pained me to see her hands, which she used to constantly give, looking so thin and blue. Her hands were weakened, but her desire to give remained. I promised myself to never forget the feeling of Bubby’s hand touching mine. The spark will forever remain.
I will never let go.
Rivky Herman, MS, CCC-SLP, TSSLD/bi, obtained her master’s degree in speech-language pathology from Columbia University’s Teachers College and is working as a medical therapist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center’s Infant and Child Learning Center, where she provides services to children with varied disabilities. Rivky can be contacted at email@example.com.