Death Finally Came to Vera

Death finally came to Vera on Mother's Day -- 70 years after the French and Germans tried to kill her.

In 1943, Vera and her brother hiked over the Alps from Nazi-occupied France into Switzerland. And since then Vera has stood proof to the resilience and goodness of human beings.

As a teenaged orphan after the war, she helped the recovery of Eli Wiesel and other survivors who had been through far worse than she had -- Auschwitz, the camps, starvation, the gas and the crematoria.

Vera was saved by the Oeuvre de Secours Des Enfants (OSE) or Children's Aid Society but the price was steep: she had to abandon her mother.

After the war, the OSE brought her back to France where she worked with other survivors in a rehabilitation center in a large French country house. Barely 15 years old she helped the beaten, the tortured and the starved to regain their mental and moral health -- restoring the inner parts of humanity that cannot be revived through food and medicine alone.

Vera was spared by fate and by the heroic actions of a few French men and women defying the "go-long, do what they want you to do" mentality of the Vichy herd. As collaborators and agents of the Nazis, French officials did more to kill Jews than did the Germans in Vichy France. But they missed Vera.

Last night on Mother's Day, after many decades living and raising her family in the Bronx, Vera joined her parents who perished in that Holocaust. I must recount a bit of her life because each light that goes out takes with it the living memory and testimony of mankind's ghastliest crime.

Vera's family lived in Austria but that became inhospitable after the Anschluss when Hitler's troops marched into Vienna in 1938.

Humiliated and frightened by anti-Jewish violence, Vera's family went by train to Brussels but it too was consumed by the Nazi fire. Her father was beaten by anti-Semitic thugs and one day he vanished.

Her mother took Vera and her brother, both about 11 years old, on a long train ride to nowhere. Anywhere. Away from the advancing wave of hatred and death that would soon create that great contribution to world shame -- death camps.

Vera's family settled in a small village in the south of France, seemingly beyond the reach of Hitler's troops. But after months of what was called the "phony war," German armor crushed the French army in 1940.

My own father had fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 and joined the Free Czech Army in Paris -- now the 5,000 Free Czech troops and diplomats fled to the South of France and were evacuated by British ships to England.

But for Vera's mother there was no evacuation.

One day, members of the OSE showed up and told Vera's mother the awful truth. They could not save her. But they could save her children. If the kids could be smuggled over the border into Switzerland, they would be safe. Swiss policy was to allow children under 16 to remain as refugees. But everyone older was returned -- often to certain death.

Vera's mother made that awful choice and sent Vera and her brother away -- both survived the war in Switzerland, placed with families. But Vera's mother vanished into the tightening net that would kill six million Jews from France to Russia. My own grandparents in Brno, Czechoslovakia, went to Terezin camp and then vanished in 1942 on a transport to the east. My mother's parents fled east from Poland into Ukraine but the Germans caught up and they also vanished.

But thanks to Vera's mother's decision, her children and her children's children live on.

I write this in part because her story is compelling, a tale of one person who floated above the most terrible storm in world history. But also I write to repay a debt. Some 40 years ago I had a terrible fight with my own family. I had spent two years traveling across the Middle East and Asia writing poetry and searching for the meaning of life. Naturally, that greatly upset my parents who thought I needed extensive therapy, a job, a good licking or some combination of these.

But with the family arrayed against me, and feeling increasingly isolated and uncertain, I happened to meet with Vera and her husband Morris.

After hearing the direst predictions of disaster from my parents, Vera said simply in that mixed French-European accent of hers: "He is trying to find himself and that's natural. He'll work things out. There's nothing to worry about or to fear."

That opened a door in my mind that allowed me to somehow return to society and to my family -- without abandoning my writing or my spiritual search. Now I realize that in 1946 and 47 in France, treating the surviving children of the camps, she knew that searching for the mysterious meaning of life -- and death -- is not a waste of time. It is something fundamental that allows us to move forward despite life's inevitable setbacks such as failure, poverty, illness, fear, and uncertainty.

A few years later I got a journalism degree and a few years later was flying as a reporter with the president on Air Force One and with the Secretary of State.

So thanks, Vera. Thanks for your words. They meant a lot. And still do.