It was dark in her apartment. The window shades were down and no lights were on. We could barely see Raisa sitting in her robe, her head down, barely acknowledging our presence with a small shrug of her shoulders. Leaving, we questioned ourselves: was it too late to reach Raisa? Was she too far gone in her depression?
The following week we returned, bringing Raisa a single carnation. Still in a dark room, we sat as she held the flower, turned it slowly, looking at it. As we sat in hushed anticipation, she reached out with one finger, touched the flower lightly, and began to speak.
“I was born in Zoatocha, Ukraine. In 1933, when I was six years old, the Romanian soldiers gathered 3000 Jews together. My mother died during this gathering and father took care of me. The Romanians left and the Ukrainian police force took over. The Ukrainians were working with the Nazi armies.
“They began marching everyone down a road and we came to Jews they had already killed. They were on the road in front of us and we were all forced to walk on top of them, children included. The police began driving along the road telling the parents if they gave them money the children could ride in a van to the front of the line of bodies. In this way we children would not have to walk on the dead bodies. They said, ‘You can meet your children at the end; they will wait for you there.’
“Some parents complied, paying for the privilege. The van was loaded with children and driven to the end of the line, beyond where we could see. There the children were all killed. When the van was empty, they brought it back to ‘help’ more of us children, filling it up again. My father refused to let me go in the van. Eventually everyone arrived at the end of the road and found all the children dead. I was angry with my father for making me walk on the dead bodies until I found out the truth.”
In 1941, several men – a German, a Romanian and a Ukrainian, abused Raisa. As a result of the violent abuse Raisa could not have children. During the war all of her remaining family members died and she had no one left.
Raisa worked in a factory job after the war and was promoted to a high position. She eventually married a Jewish man who also lost every member of his family in the war. In their later years they decided to move to Israel. But after they moved, he also died. Now she was completely alone.
She summed everything up in one poignant statement,
“With what I saw in the war, I have no more tears. My heart is like a stone.”
When Raisa finished speaking, she lifted the carnation to her nose and we saw the flicker of a slight smile.
Upon exiting her apartment, our translator became very animated.
“Did you see her face? Did you see that little smile? I think we have a chance! We have to do something!”
Immediately we went to a flower shop and he bought her 1 dozen long stemmed red roses. Returning to Raisa’s apartment, he knocked on the door. When Raisa opened it, he silently held them out to her. Startled, she looked up at him smiling. Taking the flowers, she blushed like a schoolgirl receiving her first bouquet. Backing into her room we caught a glimpse of a big smile before the door closed.
Within a few days we adopted her to a couple in the United States. They began writing to her and praying for her every day. Every week we went back to visit and every week we began to see changes. One week she was dressed, the next she had her hair combed. The following week bright sunshine flooded the apartment as her shades were up.
The process was gradual, taking about six months, but eventually Raisa was animated and enjoying life again. She had letters, and small gifts, from her adopted family and a strong relationship was built.
We knew great progress was made when on our arrival Raisa had bright red lips! Her adoptive family had sent her red lipstick and she was never without it after that.
Finally her adopted family decided they had to meet Raisa. They came to Israel and we all had lunch together. When we had cleared the dishes, she had something to say.
“In all my years, even living with my own parents, I never experienced the kind of love you have given me; love without conditions. I love you so much I want you to consider me your mama and I want you to be my children.”
This newly formed family had their arms around one another. No one in the room could stop from crying.
Raisa enjoyed a beautiful relationship with her new family until the day she died. We all have lost a true friend with her passing, but we are left with many incredible memories.
*Raisa made a 4 hour narrative of her life through the Shoah Foundation founded by Stephen Spielberg. Her story and picture are in a book called “Book of Salvation” about Holocaust Survivors. Both of these narratives are in Russian. She has seen much pain and trouble her entire life. Raisa said,
“If someone wrote about my life, it would be a whole book.”