Last month, my son Randy called to tell me about his dinner at the home of my friend Lisa’s daughter, Raquel. He told me about their lives and said they were all doing well. A few days later, Randy called to tell me the most unbelievable news: Lisa passed away. What a shock and what a loss – to Lisa’s family and to me, a lifelong friend.
I first met Lisa 75 years ago in post-war Poland. We were the same age, born one month apart. Because of that, we never forgot each other’s birthdays – until last year, when I was a day late with my birthday call. She panicked, thinking something bad happened. Otherwise, how could I forget? I apologized for my memory lapse.
We lived in the same town in Poland: she with her parents, I with mine and my sister. We were rare teenage Holocaust survivors; most of our friends were killed. There was no need to discuss how we survived, and no one to listen. We only looked forward, hoping to resume our studies after four lost years spent hiding from the Nazis, hoping to live like normal children.
The principal of the only high school – I am happy to forget his name today – was a devoted antisemite. He was determined to keep his school free of Jews or “Judenfrie,” per the Nazis’ failed plan. Lisa and I studied vigorously for the entrance exam. Hoping to rattle us, the principal asked Lisa what fish her mother cooked for Shabbos. Lisa boldly responded: “Why don’t you come over on a Friday and check it out yourself?” Her confidence only enhanced our performance; we excelled and the principal had to admit us. In a sea of blond heads stood two girls with dark, curly hair. Yet, we stood together for the rest of high school, studying, sharing books and confidences.
In those early post-war years, most Jews tried to leave Europe for the United States or the newly-established country of Israel. The Polish government, while not exactly in love with these Jewish remnants, still impeded their departure. My family received exit visas; Lisa’s did not. As we gathered our meager possessions, the Lublins (Lisa’s family) arrived at our door, offering to help us pack. Mr. Lublin then suggested Lisa could go with us as a relative. He would obtain papers. The times were very haphazard; for a few dollars, everything could be arranged. My father responded: “I lost a child during the war. Family is precious. Do not part.” We left for Israel; Lisa and her family remained.
We continued to correspond, sharing book recommendations and stories of our new lives. One day, Lisa wrote that her father died, and she planned to move with her mother to Israel. I was now living in Germany, but I immediately wrote to my sister, Pola, in Tel Aviv. I told her my best friend was arriving soon, and she should treat Lisa as a sister. Pola invited Lisa and even introduced her to a charming young man from Poland, who now lived in New York City. They had one date, but the young man was returning to NYC the next day; it was not a match. Later, Lisa met another nice young man, also from Poland, now living in Venezuela. This was a match. They married and left for Caracas with Lisa’s mother. (Incidentally, Pola never gave up on the first young man. When I moved to NYC a few years later, Pola made some calls, arranged a date, and we eventually married. That story was a source of occasional laughs among old friends.)
Over the years, Lisa and I remained close despite our distance. Our families became extended families. We visited Venezuela, connected whenever Lisa traveled to the US, and visited more often when she eventually relocated here, near her children. After we lost our husbands, and travel became more difficult, we talked often over the telephone. A few years ago, I spent an entire month with Lisa in California. It was bittersweet; many shared memories were now fading. We last spoke a few weeks before Lisa died. I cannot recall the conversation, but I hope it was meaningful. Now, when the phone rings, I still wonder if it’s her, until I remember it won’t be.
It has been a privilege to have such a dear friend in my life. When my time comes, I hope to pick up where we left off – sharing a book, a good story, and a sweet treat to mark the occasion.