Rachelle Unre­ich and her moth­er, Mira, Pho­to by Vicky Leon

All pho­tos cour­tesy of the author

At the heart of the mem­oir I wrote about my moth­er, Mira—A Bril­liant Life: My Mother’s Inspir­ing True Sto­ry of Sur­viv­ing the Holo­caust—was a series of inter­views I did with her in the last six months of her life.

I didn’t plan to inter­view my aging moth­er, whose sto­ries I thought I knew so well already. She was an enthu­si­as­tic con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, which is not to say that she talked all the time, but rather that when ques­tions were posed to her, she would com­pose her answers impres­sive­ly. She did not ram­ble or go off top­ic; instead, her sto­ries con­tained entire worlds ren­dered with the most evoca­tive details. My mother’s mem­o­ries float­ed around in my own head for some time after our inter­views. There was the time her father, Dolfie, prod­ded her shy moth­er, Genya, to sing in front of an audi­ence, prompt­ing twin spots of blush to col­or her cheeks — like papri­ka,” recalled Mira. Or the sto­ry of when her two broth­ers played a game of cops and rob­bers that devolved into fisticuffs, mak­ing Genya cry — the only time her chil­dren had ever seen her do so. They would nev­er fight again. 

Mira and Rachelle

But it turned out, I didn’t retain Mira’s sto­ries as well as I had ini­tial­ly thought. Although I knew she was born in a tiny postage-stamp of a vil­lage, Spišská Stará Ves, in Czecho­slo­va­kia in 1927, I could sum­mon up only the sketchi­est of details about how she lived there. She was twelve when war broke out, and sev­en­teen when she was sent to the first of four con­cen­tra­tion camps that she would endure — among them, Auschwitz. As the daugh­ter of a Holo­caust sur­vivor, I knew that I had a respon­si­bil­i­ty to remem­ber her sto­ries accurately.

Still, despite the fact that I’ve been a jour­nal­ist for three and a half decades, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to inter­view her at the end of her life if my broth­er hadn’t sug­gest­ed it. Mira was eighty-nine, and ovar­i­an can­cer had robbed her — and us — of so much. Gone was her singsong voice, which her chil­dren were so accus­tomed to hear­ing in phone calls each morn­ing. It was replaced with a flat drawl, and that flat­ness per­me­at­ed every oth­er part of her. The light behind her eyes was dim­ming; the pal­lor of her skin had lost its shine. Every day, the things that I’d thought were her trade­mark — her vibran­cy, her col­or, her joy — fad­ed more and more. 

At first, I was inter­view­ing her to dis­tract her, not to gath­er mate­r­i­al. And so I start­ed casu­al­ly, maybe even care­less­ly. What did you eat for break­fast when you were lit­tle?” I asked. Did you have any pets?” But soon my ques­tions became more nuanced. What did your par­ents try to teach you? Did they have a good mar­riage?” I had nev­er known any of my grand­par­ents, since all four of them were killed dur­ing the Holo­caust. But the more Mira talked, the clear­er the pic­ture that emerged. My mater­nal grand­fa­ther, Dolfie, was not only prac­ti­cal and res­olute, but also a gift­ed vio­lin play­er with a mel­liflu­ous voice. When he sang tra­di­tion­al hymns on the Sab­bath, said Mira, the walls would be shak­ing.” She told me that she could not have imag­ined any con­cert tick­et rival­ing the music that was per­formed in her din­ing room on those evenings. My mater­nal grand­moth­er, Genya, was soft-spo­ken but main­tained a qui­et deter­mi­na­tion. Her secret tal­ent lay in sewing, in her abil­i­ty to com­bine fab­rics and col­ors to cre­ate gar­ments of great orig­i­nal­i­ty and beau­ty. Decades lat­er, Mira would inher­it this gift, and her love of clothes would lead her to be fet­ed for her won­der­ful style. Once, when she was in her thir­ties and liv­ing in Aus­tralia, Mira wore a tight­ly fit­ted black dress to a ball held by a Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion. It had a giant bow that cov­ered almost the entire back of the dress. For years after­ward, peo­ple would come up to her and tell her how beau­ti­ful she had looked. 

Some­times, we spoke about what hap­pened to her dur­ing the Holo­caust. There were many seg­ments that I knew already, since she had com­plet­ed three record­ed tes­ti­monies by then. But some­how, by sit­ting down with her and lis­ten­ing — real­ly lis­ten­ing — I heard these sto­ries dif­fer­ent­ly. Our con­ver­sa­tions had knit­ted a new inti­ma­cy between us, and I now knew not only what she had been through in her life, but also who she was as a per­son, and how she felt. It made me won­der: how often do we neglect to find out who our par­ents real­ly are? I had not done this with my father, and I think about all the ques­tions I might have asked him. What did you hope for in life when you were grow­ing up? What did you most regret? What was the les­son you most want­ed to pass on to me? What is your favorite mem­o­ry of the two of us togeth­er? 

I wish some­one had taught me ear­li­er every­thing I even­tu­al­ly learned from inter­view­ing my moth­er. Once a per­son is gone, there is no fill­ing in the gaps. Find­ing out who a per­son tru­ly is — not just who they are to you — will enrich you, and will allow you to cob­ble togeth­er the jig­saw puz­zle pieces of your own life. For exam­ple, by speak­ing this way with Mira, I under­stood why she had respond­ed to my ado­les­cent crush­es with faint dis­cour­age­ment. I real­ize now that she did not under­stand them; per­haps she was even scared of them. She had missed out on her entire teenage years, and had no inkling of what they could have been. For the first time, I could look back on my own time as a teenag­er who thought her moth­er didn’t under­stand her, and I could for­give myself, too. 

I hadn’t known that I could fill my mother’s final months with some­thing poignant and mean­ing­ful, and — much to my amaze­ment — some­thing dot­ted with real joy. So much of that time was ugly: the med­i­cine she had to take, the wretched­ness of her ill­ness as she dete­ri­o­rat­ed. But, as I wrote in my book, A Bril­liant Life: Through the veil of her sick­ness, past the nau­sea and her swollen bel­ly and her ach­i­ness, we were shar­ing moments of such beau­ty, I would feel daz­zled by them after­wards. It was as if we had some­how man­aged to sneak off and have a moth­er-daugh­ter hol­i­day, one where we had spent the days laugh­ing and cry­ing and, most of all, lov­ing each oth­er fiercely.”

Mira and Rachelle in 2000

Pho­to by Andrew Lehmann

Rachelle Unre­ich has been a jour­nal­ist for thir­ty-eight years, includ­ing sev­en years in New York and Los Ange­les. Her work has appeared in pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Rolling Stone and the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, and she has been pub­lished exten­sive­ly in the Unit­ed States, UK, South-East Asia and Aus­tralia. She lives in Mel­bourne, Australia.