By Mindy Rubenstein
Gail Halpert takes daily walks around her tree-lined Mandarin neighborhood, sometimes a mile or longer. She dresses beautifully, puts on her necklace and earrings, and carefully does her hair.
She loves to cook, especially things like hearty soup and other favorites from her childhood in Romania, where her family grew fruits and vegetables in their small garden, before the Nazis took over.
“When you’re active like I am, you’ll live to be 120,” says Gail, who recalls swimming and jogging two miles a day when she was raising her children.
“I don’t feel my age. I don’t count the numbers anymore,” she says.
Her mom, Chansa, would wake at 5 a.m. to make mandel bread, chicken, and challah for Shabbos. She remembers singing zemiros, songs, with her family around the Shabbos table.
She and her siblings attended government school in the morning, then came home, had a snack and walked to the Jewish school nearby.
She remembers her childhood filled with love, surrounded by parents and siblings and other relatives, and a solid foundation that gave her strength throughout her life. The beautiful stories from her childhood run counter to some of the heart-wrenching pain she has experienced in her lifetime.
“The pain stays with you day and night,” says Gail, during a recent interview. “But life goes on.”
For decades she has chosen to stay positive for her daughters. And she continues to remain joyful for her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“I have to be strong for my grandchildren and great grandchildren,” she says. “I smile. Put on make-up. Dance. I put on a show. I’m very good at it.”
When you make that choice, evil doesn’t win.
“When I go out, I smile to everybody. I make an effort even though there’s pain in my heart.”
Gail, or Gitu, was deported as a teenager from Romania to Auschwitz 1944 along with her parents, six siblings and 3-year-old nephew. Upon arriving by train at the camp, her nephew was taken from his mother’s arms. They never saw him again.
During her time in Auschwitz, starvation, illness and death surrounded them. From Auschwitz, they were taken to a working camp deep in Germany towards the end of the war. She spent 12 hour shifts at night making bullets for the Nazis along with her sisters.
“I prayed to Hashem to take us out of hell,” she says.
Yet, even in the darkness of Holocaust’s largest death camp, there were moments of humanity, sparks of light, hidden in the darkness there.
She got lost one night returning to her bunk. A female guard with a large dog told her where to go.
“I told her the truth and she let me go back,” she recalls.
She saw a man throw a package over the barbed-wire fence to a girl inside the camp. It landed in a place the girl couldn’t get to it. Two guards helped her fetch it and sent her on her way.
And in the working camp, when her sister was suffering from typhus, the guards allowed her to say goodbye.
“I was holding her close to my heart and she closed her eyes. The Germans took her and laid her out and said I could say goodbye. I started to cry and they told me if I didn’t stop I would join her. They were maniacs.”
Following a forced, days-long march to nowhere in the freezing winter of Germany, they were liberated in January 1945.
She and four siblings survived. She lost her parents, aunts, uncles or cousins. She says she lost close to a hundred family members.
At a nearby farm, where she stayed until she could figure out where to go, two kind military boys spread out food for her and other newly released prisoners. When she and her sisters tried to pick cherries from a nearby tree and a local questioned them, those boys defended the girls.
After the war, she and her surviving siblings returned to their home. Her parents and many other family members were gone.
“When we got home, we were devastated because we were left all alone.” Her brother came home a month later and started to cry, she recalls.
They had taken everything from their home. They even unburied their kiddush cup and candlesticks from the backyard, tore out the ceilings.
“That’s when you realize it’s just stuff,” she says. “If you’re healthy you’re rich.”
Gail came to the U.S. in 1949, to New York, married Israel, who lived in her Bronx neighborhood. They raised two daughters, Carol and Sherri.
Losing her older daughter, Carol, to an illness is in many ways more painful for her than what she experienced as a teen in the Holocaust.
But she loves to talk about Carol, including her kindness and generosity, and of course her beautiful grandchildren and great grandchildren, whose photos sit perched along the mantle.
“And when I see my grandchildren and great grandchildren, they ease my pain,” she adds.
Sitting next to Sherri in their Jacksonville, Florida, home, mother and daughter look through photos.
“I’m a very lucky mother that Sherri and my son-in-law Adrian treat me royally and accept me to live with them. I’m very thankful to Hashem for this,” Gail says.
Her homemade cabbage soup cooks on the stove in the kitchen. Large silver candlesticks sit perched on a nearby table, waiting to be lit on the upcoming Shabbat.
“There are questions I didn’t get to ask,” she said of losing her parents. “All these things bother me so much.”
“My Bubbie helped me a lot. She would teach me and explain things to me about the Torah.”
All these years later, Gail continues to try to share bits of her story, at schools and other places. But she admits, of course, it’s difficult to talk about.
“I hurt all the time. My heart is bleeding all the time, from the family I lost, my daughter, my husband,” she says. “I have Sherri and I don’t want her to be sad.”
But she continues on, with a smile, asking warmly of others, “How are you? How are your children?” She says it’s so important for their children to know what it means to be Jewish because they are our future.
“Hashem leaves me here so I can share my story,” she says.
My Special Mom
By Sherri Halpert Goldfarb
When I think of Mom, wisdom, courage, strength, energy, elegance, and grace are just some of the attributes that come to mind.
However, the quality that really shines out about my Mom is the positive outlook on life that she always exhibits despite the atrocities she witnessed during the Holocaust. After surviving the Holocaust, she began anew in a foreign country, learning a new language, getting married, and raising a family while working full time.
Her greatest joy is caring for her family and staying closely connected with her extended family. Her selflessness is demonstrated by how she always puts her family’s needs before her own. This gives her great joy in giving and doing for her family rather than for herself.
Mom is always appreciative for whatever she has, never giving in to life’s adversities especially after losing my Dad, Israel Halpert a”h and my Sister, Carol Halpert Phillips a”h. No matter what struggles my Mom encounters, she always views situations optimistically and always carries a smile. Her motto in life is always “if you have your health” you have everything”.
Her warm, caring, and outgoing personality endears her to whomever she meets, always showing a genuine interest in other people’s lives.
My Mom has so many special qualities, and in my mind, is the perfect example of how one should live their life. She has always been my life’s inspiration. I love you Mom with all my heart!
Sherri Halpert Goldfarb, originally from Long Island, lives in Jacksonville with her husband and her mother. Prior to living in Jacksonville, she was a full-time marketing research project manager and used to love to ice skate and ski. Currently she does administration and bookkeeping for a small public company working from home and enjoys traveling, walking, swimming, cooking, baking, and reading.
Our Bubby has been taking care of her grandchildren for our entire lives. From babysitting us after school to having sleepovers at her house whenever we wanted, we knew she was there for us as children.
Now, she is here giving the same amount of love from a distance to her 8 great-grandchildren, as she was when we were physically together. It is so special to see our children’s faces light up when they talk to her during their daily video chats. We truly look up to her to guide us how to create a warm, loving and supportive family.
Donnie and Erica Phillips
Esther and Ari Gottlieb
Penina and Ari Roth