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In memory of Miriam Feingold

Last year on Holocaust Memorial Day, I wrote about my great uncle, Reverend Dr Isaac Levy, Chaplain of the British armed forces and liberator of Bergen Belsen. This year I am ready to write about my mother-in-law, Mera Feingold, who died just over a year ago. It was too raw for me to write about last year, but I do want to pay tribute to her memory now, particularly on HMD. 

Her story is just one of so many millions whose lives were interrupted and thrown into chaos during WW2. It is one of loss and displacement. Loss of dignity, loss of life, loss of hope and loss of home. The first five years of her life were idyllic. 

She was born in Przemyl, Poland to a close knit large Jewish family who lived communally in a shared home in the sophisticated style of middle Europe. With war looming, some family members left for Israel but Mera’s parents stayed in Poland out of respect to her grandparents.  In 1939 Poland was partitioned and Przemyl was divided between the Germans and the Russians. Most of the family were sent to Belzec, but Mera’s parents and sister crossed over to the Russian side and this saved their lives.

The two girls were six and eight years old. From there, they were deported to the Gulag in Siberia. Both of Mera’s parents died shortly after from typhus and starvation and the two little girls were orphaned and abandoned to survive as best they could. My husband’s mother never spoke to anyone about how she survived as a small child during these years. In fact she never spoke about very much at all that related to her past and her children learned not to press her. What we do know is that from the wastes of Siberia she was removed to Khazakstan and lived from hand to mouth. 

At the end of the war, there were population transfers, and Mera and her sister were returned to their home town. Only 100 Jews had survived from a population of 20,000 Jews – among those lost were almost all the members of  her greater family whose lives had been cut short in Belzec. She was placed in an orphanage where she began her life again. 

In 1946 Rabbi, Dr Schonfeld came to her town from the UK looking for Jewish children. He couldn’t  find all those that he was searching for as they had perished and he persuaded Mera and her sister to come back to the UK under a pseudonym. 

Back in the UK she lived in a refugee home in Stamford Hill and was enrolled in the Avigdor Grammar School. Despite her missed years in education she spoke several languages fluently and excelled in every school subject. This won her a place at the ‘Free University of Europe’ in Strasbourg. There she met my father-in- law, also a refugee and they returned to the UK to raise a family. 

But of course she was deeply scarred from the trauma, darkness and loss of her early life. She never managed to escape the sadness of her past and this overshadowed and set the limits for the rest of her life. Her sadness was compounded by the early tragic death of her sister who had been her only companion throughout the war. 

In 2003 my husband took his mother back to Przemyl where for the first time in 60 years Shabbat was celebrated in the town with the Chief Rabbi of Poland and three survivors (among them Mera). And my husband went on to meet a Jewish woman (me) at Limmud so that the chain of Jewish continuity was never broken. Am Yisrael Chai!