Helen Ber Jacobs
Birth: March 15, 1918 in Płock, Mazowieckie, Poland
Death: December 19, 1993 (age 75) in Nanaimo, B.C.
Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein gave the following eulogy at her funeral:
Funeral: December 20, 1993; 6 Tevet 5754;
Yohrzeit: 5 Tevet
The shock of Willie’s death has barely left us, and here we stand yet again. We have come ow to bid farewell to you, Helen, as you wing your way home. Another survivor has left us. We are bereft yet again. Willie and Helen’s lives merge at this spot. Words spoken so recently for one are now called forth again. We feel her presence here, seeing her barely seven weeks ago leaning over Willie’s coffin, the intensity of her grief melting all of us, etched in our minds. As with Willie, as with every survivor, Helen’s death represents both a miracle and a victory. It is a miracle that she lived to be able to die after full and good years beyond the kingdom of death. It is a miracle that she lived and was able to love and bring children into the world and to die a natural death surrounded by her family’s love. To die surrounded by love is also her victory over the beats who sought to kill her long ago. The natural death and holy Jewish burial of a survivor is a statement of hope and affirmation in the continued life of the Jewish people, one more cry in the song of our survival. “We are here, we survive.” And we are torn apart as we say goodbye to yet another survivor. We are filled with grief as this mother and bubbe and dear friend, Helen Jacobs is now laid to rest.
Little more than a week ago, just before Helen went up-island to visit the children there, she shared a profound dream with her devoted neighbour, Bat-Ami. In the dream Helen was visiting a friend and she wanted to go home. She asked the friend to call Willie, saying he will come to take me home. So the friend called, and in the dream Willie came to take her home…
Like a flower bravely trying to blossom, Helen reached for rays of sunlight following Willie’s death. A gently strength emerged. The indomitable Helen called forth all of her survivor’s instincts. She showed humour and confidence and courage. She spoke of the further, and yet organized her affairs, just in case, that others be spared the burden. She was filled with love for this community, responding to the love shown to her with Willie’s death. During those short weeks she even spoke of the Holocaust for the first time. In a beautiful letter following his father’s death, David described his mother’s strength. Please allow me to read from your letter, David.
“Yesterday I attended the symposium on the Holocaust graciously dedicated to the memory of my father, Willie Jacobs. My brother and I accompanied my mother to the auditorium. In all her years living as a survivor, my mother has never been able to publicly or privately confront the memory of her past. The memory and and my dear father, may he rest in peace, witnessed and endured during those brutal and horrible years in history known as the Holocaust.
Never until yesterday. While still in mourning for the death of her husband, my father, and as physically weak as she was, she decided now to speak.
I helped her to the microphone. I briefly introduced myself and her to the gathering. From the back of the room she spoke to the audience. Wonderful friends and young people she had never met before witnessed something remarkable. My mother was able for the first time to confront the past. She spoke bravely, albeit briefly. There was so much emotion. I wished I had said more myself. I wanted to tell everyone how much they had suffered, but I was overwhelmed and I said nothing.”
David and Michael, the image of you both holding up your mother at the microphone said more than words could ever say. We were all overwhelmed.
She made a valiant effort, and now we again take up the survivor’s torch. The flame of her soul joins Willie’s, woven together like the flames of a havdalah candle, burning brighter with each other.
Helen was born in the Polish town of P’lock (“Pwotzk”) on March 15, 1918. She was one of 3 children. Her sister survived and to this day lives in Israel. She witnessed the murder of her brother, the one detail of her nightmare that she shared. The family moved to Lodz where her father had a job as an insurance salesman, and there they became trapped in the Lodz ghetto.
In July 1942, Helen was taken to the notorious slave labour camp, Skarzysko. It was here, at the very beginning, that Helen met her beloved friend Rysia Kraskin. Together Helen and Rysia survived 5 camps, Skarzysko, Czenstokow, Ravensbruck, Burgau, and Turkheim.
Permit me, Rysia, to tell the story of the water, the moment that joined you as sisters. It was in a transport from Ravensbruck to Burgau in 1945. It was in a sealed cattle car. When the train stopped many were already dead. Helen was near the door as it opened. A small amount of water was handed in. Helen received it, and without taking a sip she carried it to Rysia who was unable to stand, then soon after helped her down from the high cattle car that she not be left. Later on Helen had somehow managed to get a small piece of lipstick. During a selection in the camp barracks she used that lipstick to brighten her own and Rysia’s face to make them look healthier and thereby avoid the sleection for death. Providing the backdrop for a life-long friendship, those incidents always give perspective to any of those little things that might upset an ordinary friendship. These incidents formed the unique bond of friendship between Helen and Rysia, a friendship that rose from a time when an act of kindness was a heroic deed. She was a heroine.
After the war Helen sought to return to Poland to search for survivors. On this journey, or it was perhaps in the DP camp first, Helen met Willie. Hearing of the pogroms in Poland, they headed back for the DP camp. They were married while en-route back to the camp. Less than a year later, desperately seeking to reaffirm life, Helen gave birth to David. Soon they left the old world behind and came to the United States, living first in Patterson, New Jersey and then New York. Michael was born and rebuilding life after the Holocause began in earnest.
While Willie worked excruciating hours outside the home, Helen cared for the children and took work into the home. The boys remember how she so carefully packed nylons for a friend’s store. Later, when the children were older Helen took a beautician’s course and became a manicurist in a department store. There was something so symbolic in that occupation for her, as we recall that piece of lipstick used in the concentration camp to save life, a symbol of resistance and determination.
Throughout her life Helen sought to care for others, always looking to the needs of others before herself. She loved to make chicken soup for anyone who was sick. In the best sense, she was the quintessential Jewish mother. In 1976 she and Willie came to visit Michael and David on Vancouver Island. Willie had a heart attack then and spent several weeks in the same hospital where Helen died. Drawn here in hope, however, Willie and Helen moved to Victoria in 1978. These became the most peaceful years of their lives. Reaching out to their new community they immediately became involved in the shul and quietly sought to help others. Helen joined Hadassah and ORT and worked for Youth Aliya and she cooked and baked and cooked and baked.
Whenever Helen and Willie went up-island to see the children she would fill large coolers with cooked meals from soup to nuts. Even though it was at times irritating, and even though your demanded that she stop- an order which she refused — this is the stuff of legends. Her ‘knockout chicken soup’ as Michael called it, and the cole-slaw, which she proudly said no one made like her – – pressed down with a rock to remove the liquid – – will continue to nourish all of you. Her motto might truly have been, “Have kneidel, will travel” — but only the hard ones, for that is all that her beloved men would eat. She was a beloved Bubbe, who adored each of you Rachel, Jesse and Paul.
In tears Michael, you said “we are orphans now”‘ the Mourner’s Kaddish is indeed called the orphan’s Kaddish. As we spoke, the deepest kaddish is now your relationship with each other, brothers going on together, sons of Willie and Helen, sanctifying their memory with your lives.
Also amid tears David, you said “Whenever we talk about her it brings a smile”. So may she bring a smile for all of us. We shall remember you, Helen, with love. We shall try to tell the tale that you could not tell for sorrow, even as we now try to piece together its many facets. We shall be your memory and your witness, Helen. As Willies comes for you now, may you both go forth in peace. Your memory shall be for a blessing, your love shall endure.
Gravesite Details: Row Q – Plot 22
Star of David on either side of Jacobs
פּ״נ (Here lies)
In Memory of Beloved Parents and Grandparents
Hebrew Name: Chana b. Avraham Aharon v’Sarah Rivka
Mar. 15. 1918 – Dec. 19. 1993
In Sacred Trust Their Words Shall Live
ת נ צ ב ה
abbreviation for Biblical quote: “May their soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”
Rachel Ruina Ber