Editor’s Note: Rita Ross was married for close to 50 years, during which time she raised five children (four boys and a girl), taught first grade at Solomon Schechter Day School and in addition to being a care giver, wrote a book, Running from Home: A Memoir, published by Hamilton University Press. It is a memoir about her youth in Nazi-occupied Europe, and as Rita puts it, “the fact that for me the war was not over when the peace pact was signed. I have been suffering with PTSD for many years and I wish I could say I’m over it, but in truth getting older seems to be exacerbating it.” For the past year, Rita has been teaching about the Holocaust in many schools, middle-school up to college, and has been reaching people and giving them a first hand account of what life was like for survivors. “It amazes me to learn how varied the depth of knowledge (and ignorance) is and how important it is to keep that dreadful period of history alive,” she says. Rita can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are privileged to be able to share her story here on JewishSacredAging.com.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] was born to be a care giver. I started at the age of four, during World War ll when my family was forced to leave Vienna, the city of my first home. Hitler came into power and it was inconceivable for my family to stay in that beautiful medieval city. My mother, younger brother and I went to Poland where in a very short period of time became homeless. We hid in the city of Krakow and I quickly became responsible in keeping my younger brother quiet so that he would not give away our hiding places. Life on the streets of Krakow became intolerable. We were freezing cold and in daily danger of being discovered.
My mother made the hard decision of moving us into the Krakow ghetto, where we had a roof over our heads and were able to keep out of the brutal cold. We stayed in a tiny room which was crowded with a variety of people whose only connection to each other was that they were all Jewish. My mother, who was blond, blue eyed and Aryan looking was often dispatched to barter for food outside the ghetto. A task she was chosen for because of her looks as well as her command of the Polish language. I was left in the ghetto, in charge of my brother: to keep him out of trouble and watch out for him.
Eventually, we were transferred to a POW camp in Germany where my brother and I were separated from our mother and it was here that my responsibility for him became an obligation. I had to ensure that he wear clean clothing, behave, keep out of fights and show respect for his elders: an awesome task for a six year old big sister.
Some twenty years later, it was not by accident, that I married a man who was father to two very young boys whose mother died at a very young age. My needs for giving care were quickly fulfilled as I raised the boys and the three children we had together.
When my parents retired they moved to Israel and spent about fifteen years there. My mother had a serious heart attack and developed shingles and eventually, at my urging, they returned to Philadelphia where I fo0und an apartment for them, close by, so that I could keep an eye on them as they aged. At this time I was a first grade teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School, a busy mother and slowly taking on more responsibility for my parents. I felt I could do it all. At about 80 years of age, my father, who was a strong, opinionated, domineering person became ill with bronchitis. I drove him to my doctor who was adamant that my father go into the hospital as an in-patient. He refused. He was convinced that people only went to hospitals to die and he was not ready to do so. My mother agreed and since both were of sound mind, I took them back to their apartment.
My father became sicker. He developed pneumonia and my mother, who was in a weakened condition was unable to assume complete care for him. On a daily basis, I shopped for them and took my father to the doctor. Only now, there was more than one doctor, there was an internist, a urologist, pulmonol0gist, rheumatologist and surgeon. In addition to my father’s doctor visits my mother had her own issues with healthcare. She needed to see many of the same doctors as well others dealing with her health issues. The trips to the doctors, the endless hours spent in the waiting rooms, left me exhausted, frustrated and overburdened.
When my father was finally hospitalized, my mother insisted on visiting him on a daily basis and spending the entire day with him. I would watch that once proud, strong beautiful woman, now frail and bent with arthritis, trudge slowly through the hospital lobby, I felt that these daily hours in the hospital with my father were too much of a strain on her and we spent too much time arguing. The quality of our loving relationship was eroding quickly and I felt my resentment and anger growing towards these two people whom I had loved all my life. It is painful to describe my mixture of pity, sorrow, fatigue, as well as my anger at the medical profession for treating my poor aging mother with impatience and detachment as well as my own guilt and anger at them for taking up so much of my time. I was also furious with my brother who seldom came to visit and did nothing to alleviate my burdens.
After my father died I continued to take care of my mother who was a much easier patient. The physical responsibility was awesome but on some level I was more willing to accept it.
After my mother died life resumed a normal pace until my husband developed stomach cancer. He had radiation therapy and chemotherapy after which we enjoyed six years of happy carefree time together. After the sixth year of his remission, my husband developed mysterious ailments which turned out to radiation poisoning. Seven years, after his treatment, the radiation therapy caught up with him and he became very sick. This was the most difficult, painful, unbearable time in my life. Worse than the ghetto, the POW camp, the cold and the hunger which I still remembered. Watching my once strong, brilliant, triathlete champion husband be unable to walk to the bathroom unaided, perform the most fundamental tasks made the dying process painful beyond description. Every day something was taken from him and I felt like a spectator at an auto da fé. I always knew that one of us would die first, but on some childish level, I was unprepared for his death. He often told me that I was being “so good to him.” I loved him and still do and feel satisfaction that I was able and strong enough to be there for him.
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