A mothers love, metamorphosis amid the Holocaust

"Thanks to My Mother" is the story of an 11-year-old child and the mother who literally forced her to survive the Vilna Ghetto, several concentration camps and a death march.

It is also the story of Raja Indurski-Weksler's profoundly transcendent love for her daughter, born Susanne Weksler.

No ordinary Mother's Day tale, the daughter's memoir is at once riveting, blood-chilling, heartbreaking and, ultimately, awe-inspiring.

Weksler, who is now Israeli and uses the name Schoschana Rabinovici, was born in Paris. She spent her childhood in Vilna, Lithuania.

"My mother was a beautiful woman, one of the most beautiful women in the city," Rabinovici writes. "She was elegantly dressed and groomed…She looked fragile and behaved fastidiously."

But, as Rabinovici eventually discovers on a four-day train ride that would end at the Kaiserwald concentration camp: "People in extreme situations can behave completely differently from the way they usually do."

In June 1941, German soldiers invaded and ordered the residents to evacuate to the Vilna Ghetto.

The author provides profound testimony for the youngest victims of political persecution: "We children forgot to play, we forgot to laugh…We learned to live quietly and keep our eyes open, and to eavesdrop on the conversations of the adults."

Eventually, the Jews were ordered to leave the ghetto as well. Indurski-Weksler sewed jewelry and coins into the linings of their coats.

In this passage, we see an abrupt metamorphosis of Indurski-Weksler.

Mother, daughter and a stepdaughter, Dolka, were herded to a Christian cemetery for the first of many "selections." They then heard a cry from the top of a wall: Three youths ran the length of the wall warning those below. "Jews, go to the right! Go to the right!"

It suddenly became clear to her mother that "you had to be young and strong to make it to the right." With that realization, her mother's voice changes. "It was hard and cold, and it frightened me," Rabinovici writes.

"Suddenly a bayonet hit me," she recounts. "I screamed with pain, and a warm liquid ran down my arm."

The soldier who struck her had raised his arm again. But before he could deliver another blow, "my mother turned to him very quietly and said, in Russian, 'Drive us to the right, in the direction of the soldiers. For every blow toward the right, you will get a present.' She pulled a diamond ring from her pocket…The soldier, a Ukrainian, understood the score at once."

Once delivered to Kaiserwald, Indurski-Weksler told the guards the girl was 17, not 11. That kept Rabinovici from being shipped off to a children's camp — and separated from her mother.

Indurski-Weksler made sure her daughter stood in the middle when their work group was made to carry heavy iron rails, "where the spot was less heavy." She later guided her into a less strenuous job in a battery factory.

She angled herself a job in the clothing depot and smuggled things to her daughter that way: zwieback, sugar, jam — an occasional article of clothing. One day she brought back a cotton-stuffed bra and some head scarves, which she artfully wrapped around her daughter's head to make her appear taller.

"When we went out to roll call, I looked like the other women: thin, but as tall as they were," Rabinovici writes.

Months passed and the weather became increasingly harsh: One day, after a particularly long, grueling roll call that the women endured in a frigid rain, her mother collapsed. She was taken to "the dying room," where prisoners in a hopeless state would remain, unattended.

During her mother's two-month illness, Rabinovici herself lost the will to live.

"One day, small, shrunken and dirty, I went to visit my mother," she writes. "I suddenly found her in full possession of her senses. When she became aware of how I was looking, behaving, and walking, she cried, 'Musselman!' [the name for those inmates who had given up the fight to stay alive].

"It must have been that my wretched condition woke up my mother, and that her return to life also motivated my strength of will."

They are later transferred to Stutthof, a typhus-ridden camp built on swampland. And Rabinovici realized with alarm that her mother's hair had grown in again — pure white.

Typically astute, her mother made alterations to their personal data.

The former Susanne Weksler became Susanne Rauch, an 18-year-old native of Bialystok. Her stepsister, Dolka, became 20, and her mother, 30. That way, the threesome fell into that age group "allowed to live."

This much, any mother could understand. Here is tenderness, quick-thinking and even an instinct for survival that a sole focus on another's welfare can bring.

But what may amaze many readers is Indurski-Weksler's ability to prod her daughter to endure abuse — and dole out slaps and slugs — if it meant that the girl would ultimately prevail.

Rabinovici, for example, forgot all the rules of survival when she spied a childhood friend. But her greeting was cut short when a "blitz maiden" began clubbing her repeatedly.

Jolted to consciousness by a bucket of cold water, Rabinovici,then 12 years old, was ordered to stand for hours on one of the stools designed for public punishment of prisoners.

"My body hurt, and I was so dizzy the world turned about me," she writes. "But all I could think was: I have to stay upright if I want to stay alive. I read that in the eyes of my mother, who was staring at me unblinkingly."

Indurski-Weksler managed to sign all three up for work as furriers — a skill they knew nothing about. But Dolka, "who was changing into a Musselman before our eyes," declined.

On Jan. 25, 1945, the camp's inmates were forced to leave the camp and begin what was later termed a "death march." Dolka stayed behind, losing her only chance to live.

The guards readied the inmates, forcing them to take showers, then clubbing them into the freezing night, where they remained — wet, naked, and barefoot — until the gray light of morning.

When Rabinovici begged to sit among the legs of the freezing women, her mother "shook me with her strong hands, hit me in the face with all her might.'"

At sunrise, disinfected pajamas and cups of weak tea arrived.

More than 11,000 women set out for the march north to the Baltic, most already sick with typhus. Hundreds died before they settled briefly in a wooded encampment.

But when the second leg of the journey began, Indurski-Weksler and her debilitated daughter insisted on staying behind, even though it meant certain death.

They returned to the deserted camp. Alone, they slept, and awoke to the sound of tanks rumbling through the streets.

"It was the Soviet army — our liberators!"

Emaciated and desperately ill, the women were wracked with infected wounds. They were brought to the home of the town's mayor and cared for grudgingly by the German residents.

Rabinovici chronicles each incident with a dispassionate accuracy and, somehow, with a child's innocence.

Soon after that, the war ended. Her once-beautiful mother, at age 41, looked 70, Rabinovici observes.

In 1950, the author immigrated to Israel. She served in the military, then married and raised two sons.

Her mother died in 1974.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.