(April 20, 2020 / JNS) My grandmother, Reggie Richman, passed away on April 10 at the age of 92 from complications due to the coronavirus (she also had pneumonia).
She was a Holocaust survivor, a teacher, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Those titles complimented each other as she went through life, relaying her experiences, knowledge and love to those she knew.
She was born in Munich, Germany, and was 5 years old when Hitler rose to power. She was 10 when the Germans took her into custody on a Shabbat and put her in jail, followed by transporting her to the Polish border. Once there, an order came from Hitler for the train to go back to Germany with her still on it.
As my grandmother recalled, after Kristallnacht in November 1938, she escaped by train with her older sister to the French border and lived in an aunt’s house, and later in a children’s home, where she hid with six others. Years later, when the Germans, who had already invaded France, sought to pick them up, the Swiss Jewish people who ran the home asked to request to the consulate they be released. The group was escorted back to their home and then the Swiss border, where they were told that the children couldn’t enter.
The father of the home gave his oldest daughter, who was 17, money and told her to go with the children to southern France. Their journey consisted of them scrounging for whatever food they could while staying in a hotel room with one bed; half of the kids slept on it one night, while the other half slept on floor. They would switch positions the following night.
After entering the unoccupied zone, the children ended up in a Jewish orphanage, where a strict director was replaced with one who was more friendly. After one of the children was almost picked up by the Nazis, who said that they didn’t have a train for her at the moment to be deported, the orphanage worked to get the children into hiding. My grandmother alone was adopted by a loving Catholic farm family in central France after their professor daughter took her out of the orphanage.
The family on the farm, where she lived for two-and-a-half years until the war ended, did not make her go to church. My grandmother, who knew she was Jewish, would identify as Protestant to stay safe in what was a Christian country. She was loved and cared for from the moment she arrived at their home. The daughter who saved her would visit her when she was not working and teach history to my grandmother, whose studies had obviously been interrupted.
The family was eventually recognized as the righteous among the nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance museum and memorial in Jerusalem.
After the war, my grandmother was reunited with her family and learned that her older brother perished at Auschwitz. The family moved to Minnesota, where she resumed her studies with the ninth grade.
A few years later, a cantor who visited her synagogue saw her and thought that his brother would be a good match for her, which came to be true. They moved to Illinois and raised their three children, including my father, giving them the blessed childhood that my grandmother sadly never had.
My grandmother was a foreign-language teacher at a public school. She knew English, French, German and Spanish. She taught not only those languages, but also how to have a kind and tolerant tongue.
My memories of her include hearing her story of surviving as a hidden child and raising her children with her husband, Jack, whom I’m named after. Her children raised their own children and taught them the values they were taught by her, including being friendly to one another and to not let anyone feel lonely, as she was growing up.
I remember the precious times I had with her, including teaching her how to check email and watching tennis on TV with her, an activity she loved, especially witnessing Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer face off in a legendary Wimbledon match.
In her final days, my grandmother was in a New Jersey hospital, and my aunts were only able to see her twice while dressed in Hazmat suits. My father, who lives with my mother in Illinois, was in touch only by phone, due to the restrictions imposed everywhere amid the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the circumstances, her children and the rest of her family wanted her to know that she was beloved and not alone.
The burial on April 12 consisted of my aunts, one of their spouses (the other is a kohen and therefore was not allowed to be near the site) and a rabbi saying goodbye to her temporarily (the plan is for her body to be eventually exhumed and moved to Israel to be finally rested next to her husband, who wanted to be buried in the Jewish state). My father, unable to be there in person, saw the procession on FaceTime, while seven of her grandchildren (plus the spouses of my two married cousins) saw it on Zoom.
Despite my grandmother’s end coming in a circumstance where we’re socially distanced from one another, her passing was a moment that exemplified the crux of her values. That she would not be alone in her goodbye as she was laid to rest, even if the family couldn’t be together in person. Her story was one of togetherness, joy and love even amid the hardship.
May her memory be for a blessing.
Jackson Richman is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for JNS.
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