Issue 1, Winter 2011

Small Things in the Morning that Bring Joy

by Shmuel Reis MD, MHPE

As a physician on a house call, Dr. Reis took a moment to listen to the recollections of a patient of who was a survivor. Drawn to her story, he set up regular meetings to learn more. Their visits together inspired the survivor to document her memories and share details of her life never before revealed. The therapeutic nature of their shared activity led her son to report, “These last ten years have been her best.”

Shmuel Reis MD, MHPE

I wrote in my journal a few years ago: “We met in the morning; she was glowing. Her son’s family, visiting from Brazil, came to meet me too. Ruth was beaming when she introduced the granddaughter and grandson, praising their achievements. In today’s letter she wrote: ‘The book stirred much excitement…my room looks like a garden in bloom…a friend prepared a birthday cake with 80 candles and I had to blow and extinguish 80 little flames, like you see in the movies or on TV…. The image of you bringing me the stacks of books stands before my eyes, this was a pleasant surprise…I continue to receive very emotional responses to our book…and I am quite excited myself.’ ”

By now you must be aware of an 80th birthday and a book. Twelve years ago I started a tour of duty as the family physician in this rural community. Over a hundred of the patients were elderly Holocaust survivors. She was not among those who frequently attended. I just had to sign the monthly prescriptions and was vaguely aware that she goes everyday to the nearby psychiatric day facility. One day she fell, was admitted to the nearby hospital, stayed there for a month and came back bed-ridden. I had to make a house call.

Halfway through the visit, I realized that her story was more than what I could attend to in a tight schedule, so I said, “I would have liked to hear more about you and your history, but my time today is limited. I can see you every week for about 20 minutes. Since there is so much to tell, can you write it for me?”

The rest is history.

Every week for two years she brought me a letter of her small, packed handwriting 15 to 20 pages long. The themes: life in Vilnius, Lithuania before WWII; life in the Ghetto, where her family perished; fleeing and living in the woods with partisans; the after-war days; her marriage, motherhood, widowhood; life in the village and the present: constant listening to classical music on the radio and her life with a Filipino caretaker.

Early on: a disorganized narrative, repetitious, a bonanza for a mental status analysis (flight of ideas, cognitive malfunction, emotional flatness, pages arranged backwards). Later on: calmer, organized, rich. Always funny, moving, human, and compelling.

A few examples:

Prewar: “What a wonderful memory surfaced. A fieldtrip when I was in high school. To Narotch, these are woods near Vilnius that later partisans fought in. It is also a lake. We slept on its shore. We have made tents, roasted fish, swam and rode boats we have hired from peasants. We took photos. Away from home and from the city, this was the first time that I was out of the house and on my own. I was in love with one teacher (all my life I was in love with someone). What a great recollection. This was the first and only field trip I ever took.”

War: “On September 23, 1943 the Vilnius Ghetto was finally liquidated. Everybody was sent to die in Ponar*. The resistance people fled to the woods. I had another way to survive (in hiding in an alley)…a month later we were found and escorted to the police. This is the most difficult chapter. But I have to unload it from my heart. How did I run away from the police? I spoke fluent Lithuanian. I was young and beautiful. A Lithuanian policeman fancied me. I was an innocent and naïve girl. First I did not understand what he wanted from me, later I did. I gave myself to him and he in exchange took me out and yelled, ‘Go to hell.’ Not nice? What one wouldn’t do to survive? I haven’t disclosed this until now; I was ashamed, now having reached the age of 75 I have decided: nothing to be ashamed of. I wanted to live. I survived; everybody else didn’t.”

After war: “After the war I had TB and I took a train from Poland to Davos, Switzerland for an operation and rehabilitation. I was already married (not officially), but I agreed to separate for a long time…later on we reunited in Italy, I was convalescing and Tom [her husband] took trips in the area. We leaved in a small town, next to the Pope’s summerhouse in Castelgondolfo. It is like a dream for me now: blue lakes and snowcapped mountains, fresh air and no sweat.”

Life in Israel: “I was a music teacher and a very good one. To be a good teacher you need of course knowledge of music, general knowledge, culture and a temperament.”

She started walking a month later (and is still going presently); she never went back to the psychiatric day care. Five years ago, an edited collection of her letters was first published and a few months ago, for her eightieth birthday, another. I stopped seeing her weekly. I long ago moved on away from this clinic, but I still come every six weeks to receive the white envelopes of letters and talk briefly.

Most of the time, in spite of her loneliness and a host of mental and physical problems, as well as multiple meds, she was in this mood: “A new day, new life, there are so many small things in the morning that bring joy. I thank G-d again that I live on this community. I would be completely lost elsewhere. I have friends, sensitive and gentle. Thank goodness for waking up in the morning. Thank goodness for the ‘Voice of Music’ [radio station], thank goodness for love.”

Two and half years ago I wrote that she hasn’t changed much. A visit of the family from Brazil scheduled a few weeks ago is cancelled as her community is within rockets’ range from Lebanon. She is calling and writing more these days – probably the combined effect of the stress and loneliness. I will see her in a week. She called in to say she wrote a lot in the last few weeks.

Today: I was away for a year on a sabbatical, her letters followed me. When I came back we resumed our meetings, six weeks apart. Two weeks ago I received the phone call announcing she had a massive stroke and a few days later she died. When I met her family, now visiting for the funeral, her son said: “These last ten years have been her best.”

*Ponar: Ponar(y) is located 3.7 miles from Vilna, Lithuania. The Soviets had dug large pits in the sandy soil of Ponary in order to install oil tanks. When the Germans took over, the pre-dug pits were used as mass graves. There were 100,000 people killed at Ponary Forest. Of these, 70,000 were Jews, mostly from Vilna.

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