Saturday, September 23, 2023

A Life Well Lived

I learned the news as I drove to a nature center to meet friends for a walk, a phone call telling me that my dear friend Dora Eiger Zaidenweber had passed away. Now this shouldn’t have been a surprise. She was 99 years old and in home hospice, mainly because of her advanced age. While she had many aches and pains that accompanied that age, she had a will that sustained her. Enough so, that even knowing that none of us get out of this alive, her absence still felt like a very strange concept to grasp. 

Dora was an unusual and impressive person. A Holocaust survivor and Holocaust educator, at age 99, she testified at the State Capitol on behalf of Holocaust education and was still presenting to classes on Zoom, an intelligent and well-educated woman with a graduate degree in economics from a time when few women pursued such paths, an immigrant to the United States who carved out a new life with purpose, a world traveler, the nexus of a close-knit

extended family and a person with a network of deep friendships. She faced obstacles and surmounted them, whether it was surviving the Holocaust or losing her sight. In typical Dora spirit she responded to this later loss by studying the Talmud by telephone, listening to the Economist on tape and with the use of a magnifying device successfully translating her father’s memoir from Yiddish.

There are people who we encounter in our life who shape us, take us in directions we didn’t anticipate. While we all are shaped by parents, sometimes we are fortunate enough to encounter people who play a pivotal role in our adult life. It is a different kind of shaping; we are less malleable, and it often requires sustained interaction to take root. Dora and I met almost every week for thirteen years. Long enough, consistently enough, for a deep relationship to evolve. 


In the almost 500 blog posts I’ve written over the past fifteen years, Dora is mentioned in 7% of them, obviously a significant presence. I met her in a surprising way. I was doing a website on the former Jewish community of Radom, Poland, one of my ancestral towns. A friend in Israel told me that he knew a woman from Radom who had a close friend from Radom who lived in my community. He sent me her contact information. It languished in my email box for several months. I then gave a presentation on artwork I was doing on Radom, drawing from a homemade film from 1937, a snapshot in time of the pre-war Jewish community. A woman in the audience told me that she had sat next to a woman from Radom at a dinner the prior night. She later shared that woman’s contact information. Of course it was the same person to whom I had not yet responded!  When I get information in stereo, I have learned to pay attention.

Dora and I had a bit of a comedy routine in how we retold the story. She teased me about hesitating to call her, imagining this old woman with a thick Polish accent. She put on the croaky voice of an old woman as she offered this version. I protested that I had been totally focused on preparing for an art exhibit of my work in London. The truth may lie somewhere in between. I was distracted, but I do hesitate to call people I don’t know, it’s an introvert thing, we introverts much prefer email. The one thing we both agreed on was that it was bashert (Yiddish for fate) that we met. I pantomimed fate tapping me on the shoulder as I looked the other way, then jabbing me in the ribs for not paying attention. We later discovered that my great-uncle lived at the same address as her grandmother in Radom, fate indeed!


We spoke on the phone for an hour and then I went to her house later that week and we spoke for five hours. Thus began a friendship with many late evenings of conversation. At first, I sought her input on the Radom paintings that I was doing. This was somewhat impeded by the fact that she couldn’t see them as she had limited vision. I described the images to her and asked what she recalled about a water carrier or young men playing chess in the street. As I completed that series of artwork, I contacted a friend at the Arts and Culture Center in Radom who I had met the prior year. I mentioned the work to him which resulted in an invitation to show it in Radom. Now I had a show in London followed by a show in Poland to plan for, it was my year of international exhibitions. As the paintings were small, I needed to build out the show, so asked Dora if she would be willing to show photographs of her pre-war and ghetto life, pictures that had been hidden in her family members’ shoes during the camps. She agreed, then noticing a wistful tone in her voice I asked if she would like to join me there. “Maybe,” she replied. It then dawned on me that I had only known her for three months. What if something happened to this then 86-year-old woman during our travels? The maybe became a reality in a way that assuaged my concerns when her son who lived in Boston agreed to accompany her one way if my husband and I could accompany her home. In Radom, I met more of her extended family who took the opportunity to join us there as well, to hear her stories first-hand in the place where they happened. 


Now that wasn’t our only trip together. Some years later I was making regular visits to my hometown in Central Illinois to see my late mother. To entertain myself while there, I did a genealogy talk for the local Jewish Federation. When they mentioned a need for a Yom HaShoah speaker, I suggested Dora. I had only to figure out how to partner her with her grandson in Chicago for the event and agree to accompany her on the flight home. Dora used to tell me that I made things happen and I guess I did. She appreciated that quality, a quality she too possessed and it formed part of our connection. We recognized parts of ourself in each other. One evening we sat in my car in front of her home. Speaking into the darkness, she confessed that she had been pulling back from her more public life, thinking that part of her life was over.  

Then she turned to me and said with a rush of emotion, "And then you came along and pulled me back in! " I wasn’t sure at first if she viewed that as a good thing, but she quickly assured me that it had given her back a sense of purpose. 


Dora, in turn, played an important role in pulling me back into the Jewish community. I had grown up in Reform Judaism but had not been engaged in the community for many years. Suddenly I was accompanying her to events within the Jewish community, meeting her extensive network and attending lively seders at her daughter’s home. While I had begun to step gingerly back in through family history and artwork, she pulled me into the center of things. Just as I made things happen in her life, she did similarly in mine.


Dora knew how to build friendships. She often told me that as you get older, you just need to find younger friends. She was the poster child for that approach. When we returned from our trip to Radom, I didn’t want our relationship to end, but it had largely been built around a project and I wasn’t sure how to reframe it. Dora took charge and suggested that we could go out to lunch together. Thus began a weekly get-together where we shared the events of our life in our deepening friendship. One day I mentioned an art exhibit and she expressed interest in seeing it. 

“But how will you see it?” I asked.

“You’ll describe it to me,” she replied matter of factly.  I learned that approach added a dimension to my understanding of the artwork as well. 

We exhibited her photos with my paintings in several venues and I created a series of paintings called Dvora's Story based on her stories from the Holocaust. They became the structure of new talks where she told those stories. I assisted her in talks, putting together slides and imagery to tell her stories, often interviewing her to provide a structure to her presentations.

 When her grandsons worked together on her father’s memoir Sky Tinged Red, about his time in Auschwitz, I sometimes functioned as a go-between, serving as her eyes for information that she needed to review and comment on. As I’ve written in this blog, I later interviewed her during the Covid years to capture her own story spanning seven generations of Eiger women. She extracted a commitment from me, to work on her story. In her final months, she reminded me of that regularly. In true form, Dora gave me a final gift with that assignment, a way to give back to my dear friend. And so, I will soon turn my attention to shaping her story, as I work with her family members to turn it into something to share within their family, and perhaps beyond.