IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER

I paid special attention to the part of this book that discusses my mother’s work as a psychologist, due to my wish to understand her professional life. I was particularly fascinated by the complexity and depth of her teacher Dr. Stern’s ideas, and Mother’s strength of spirit in tackling these complicated subjects without giving up. She dared to touch fire, which was perhaps her most important trait. That was the case when she met Father.
Her first meeting with him occurred like this, as she told it: I saw a withdrawn man, with a nevertheless captivating look about him, standing in the corner; and no one dared approach him. I asked myself why no one was talking to him, what – is he so scary? I’ll show him I’m not afraid of him. I went up and spoke to him.
Since his personality intrigued and attracted her, she immediately sought contact. Using her marvelous intuition, she recognized that which hides the secret of the universe and fearlessly engaged in contact with him.
Living with Father and working with Stern shared a common element. Consciousness of the world exists in the world, and perhaps creates it as well. This consciousness seeks a connection to the world through messengers, these being the intellectuals and poets. But these people’s essence often lacks the ability to communicate clearly with their environment, so they in turn actually require mediators (both Stern and my father were like this) to touch the world and produce from it the sounds through which, and in which, consciousness will engage in dialogue with Creation. The meaning of life is created out of the sounds and their reverberation.
Mother was the bold patrol that touched life and produced its unique sound. No wonder she chose the world of the child. Her love of children and their world, and her identifying with them, was a wonderful creation unto itself. Those who experienced her in her work knew how to appreciate this.
In her work with children she was like a great maestro who with soft, perhaps indiscernible, touches elicited the best from people. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of children owe their mental health to her. Throughout all her years of administering therapy, no child became afflicted with illness. With clenched teeth she struggled against everyone and sometimes even against the child’s parents’ request to diagnose his problem as a genetic disease (meaning untreatable). She believed that everybody has the ability to change their mental state. Her approach was to work with the healthy part and not the sick part. She fought for the option of change (according to Maimonides: the possibility of repentance). Faith is related to courage and the spirit’s courage brings the truth on its wings. Her name was Vitka=Life.
And that perhaps more than anything was the foundation of her personality – great faith in life. Her immense vitality and desire for contact, sometimes with things that are “forbidden.”
When I went over her letters I discovered how lonely she had been (at least during the early 70s), contrary to the outward impression she made (on me as well) that she was a woman teeming with social contacts of all types. Father was her husband and true friend, and gave her life much meaning, but lived in his own special, almost impenetrable world. I, as her son, was far away. When I was a small boy I wasn’t allowed to approach her (because of her tuberculosis). That disconnect undoubtedly pained her as a woman and a mother. Later I was in an educational institution (we saw our parents twice a week). After that I went to the army and then to New York.
She had a complex relationship with her daughter, Shlomit. She didn’t really have women friends of her own age on the kibbutz. Rozka was a real friend to her and an important support system of friendship and recognition of the importance of extended family (which is what the Marla and Kovner families were). Their path had been scorched by great fire but also by rich life experiences. The children brought her tremendous happiness and working with them gave her satisfaction and enjoyment. She loved my sons deeply. I think they reminded her of her brothers, to whom she was so attached and who perished in the Holocaust. (The younger brother stayed with their parents in Kalisch and the older one went back to Warsaw with Mordechai Anielewicz). She took care of Shlomit’s first son, Daniel, like a full-time mother and they got to know one another well (maybe that’s why he is now studying psychology). Shlomit and her husband David took care of her and nursed her during her final years. Mimi and Mother had great love and mutual appreciation for one another. Thus she often said, while sitting in her wheelchair looking at the grass and trees, “I’m happy here, at home and on the kibbutz.”
Tabenkin said that every time he wanted to make an important decision he sought advice from two people: his grandfather who had died ten years previously, and his grandson who had not yet been born. I dedicate this book to the young generation who knew Mother and especially to those such as Lena (Hanina); as well as to those who will come after her and have not yet had the chance to get to know her. I’m convinced that Mother would have become attached to them and loved them greatly. Perhaps this book will illuminate to them who she was and inspire them to assume the complex burden—to continue her special path both in life and in working with children. I see one of the most amazing riddles in children and their world, and nothing is more sacred than devoting oneself to them.
Mother came from a Revisionist home and carried that heritage in her heart even though all her friends came from the Young Guard movement. We therefore had many confrontations on political subjects. I was, and remain, the leftist of the family. In the moral approach I saw and still see man’s first obligation as being to himself and his society. I grew up in a house where the tradition of heroism and the willingness to devote one’s life to man’s honor and the people is a supreme (almost sacred) value. Israel has undergone many changes in its attitude toward heroism and the concept of “martyrdom.” In my environment it’s practically contemptible to fight for honor. Life is the highest decree and staying alive is the most sacred.
I want to quote two passages that represent the reflection through which I see Mother in the context of this complicated matter.
The first is from a book by José Saramago, “Blindness” (all parenthetical comments mine):
And next to the table the doctor’s wife [she is the only sighted person among all the people in the isolated world of blindness. A small group has overtaken the world of the blind using unrestrained violence – MK] presented the idea she had come up with: ‘The time has come to decide what we need to do. I am convinced that everyone is blind, at least that’s how the people I’ve seen up till now have behaved…we are immersed in chaos…’ ‘There’s probably some kind of government,’ said the first blind man. ‘I don’t think so, but if there is, it’s a government of the blind that wants to control the blind…’ ‘So there’s no future,’ said the old man… ‘I don’t know if there’s a future but now we have to find out if we can live in a present like this…I think humanity may have a chance of living without eyes but then it won’t be humanity…I for example killed someone.’ [She used scissors to kill the head of the murderous gang that bullied, raped and robbed the other blind people – MK.] ‘You killed someone,’ said the first blind man in astonishment. ‘Yes, it was the leader in the second ward. I stuck scissors in his throat.’ ‘You killed to avenge us.’ ‘And a woman had to avenge the women,’ said the woman in dark glasses. ‘And if the vengeance is just then it is humane, because if the victim has no more rights than the executioner, then there is no justice and no humanity,’ added the wife of the first blind man.
I see my mother in the image of this woman. Brave, determined, taking responsibility for her actions and seeing while others are blind. But also not leaving sight only in the realm of gazing but also using it to create a pattern of taking action in the world.
And regarding the subject of heroism and martyrdom in the context of my mother’s deeds during the Holocaust and the difficult dilemmas she and her comrades faced, I offer Maimonides’s magnificent comments.
During the annihilation in the days of the emperor Hadrian’s severe decrees against religious life in Israel, the leading scholars of the time and the public leaders gathered together for a clandestine meeting in an attic in Lod to hold a consultation on how to save Judaism from destruction and to determine emergency laws, according to which: “For all the offenses in the Torah, if a man is told ‘Transgress and you will not be killed,’ then he may transgress and not be killed, except for idolatry, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.”
In the fifth chapter of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (Fundamentals of Torah), Maimonides writes,
The entire house of Israel is commanded regarding the sanctification of God's great name, as written: ‘And I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.’ Also, they are warned against desecrating His holy name, as written: ‘And they shall not desecrate My holy name.’
What is implied? Should a gentile arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah's commandments at the pain of death, he should violate the commandment rather than be killed, because it is written concerning the mitzvahs: ‘which a man will perform and live by them.’ They were given so that one may live by them and not die because of them. If a person dies rather than transgress, he is held accountable for his life.
The commandment not to be killed for the sake of the mitzvahs is severe and absolute, and yet further on, he writes:
If he is alone and there are not ten other Jews present, he should transgress and not sacrifice his life. If anyone about whom it is said: "Transgress and do not sacrifice your life," sacrifices his life and does not transgress, he is held accountable for his life. However, if he forces him to transgress with the intention that he violate a mitzvah in the presence of ten Jews, he should sacrifice his life and not transgress. This applies even if the gentile intended merely that he violate only one of the mitzvahs. When anyone about whom it is said: ‘Sacrifice your life and do not transgress,’ sacrifices his life and does not transgress, he sanctifies God's name. If he does so in the presence of ten Jews, he sanctifies God's name in public, like Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. These are those slain by the wicked kingdom, above whom there is no higher level.
The term martyr (Harugei Malkhut) applies to Mother (and those who fought with her during that terrible time), expressing Maimonides’ worldview in this intricate question. I don’t think it necessary to explain why I have said these things here.
Mother possessed a combination of tenderness and vulnerability (she was easily offended; even in later life she would cry at small offenses) besides exhibiting strength and confidence, a forceful spirit and faith in herself and the goals she represented. She wasn’t afraid to touch fire even when she knew the burn would be painful and bitter. Nachman of Breslov said (roughly) that it’s as if he who speaks truth has spoken with God.
Her words (both verbal and nonverbal) came from her heart, and were clear and simple words of truth. What she said and what she felt were identical. She strived for warm, direct human contact.
Matisse once said that he aspired to see the world through children’s eyes and to express that vision in his painting. In many ways Mother was a kind of Matisse in the world. Her spirit is one of vitality and freshness. Anyone who knew her misses her greatly. My family – Mimi, our sons Amikam and Nimrod, and I – loved her very much and her passing is a tough loss, but her image and legacy persist and will light up our way as we continue in life.

 

Michael

Things I wrote for my mother's book 

The Partisan Woman Song

written about Vitka, sung by Lior Yeini

© 2013 by MICHAEL KOVNER