A Eulogy for Helen Zimm (z”l)

Today, I had the painful honor of burying my dear friend and teacher, Helen Zimm. The experience was made even more painful by the fact that most of Helen’s family and virtually all of her community were not able to be physically present to mourn and memorialize her together. We did the best we could using the technology at our disposal, but it was not how I envisioned saying goodbye to this extraordinary woman. Below is the eulogy I delivered. I hope my reflections appropriately honor her life and legacy. And whether you knew Helen or not, whether you were able to watch the funeral service via Zoom or not, I hope you join me in celebrating and learning from Helen’s life.
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It is perhaps strangely fitting that we gather — both those of us here in person and those who are with us virtually and spiritually — to bid farewell to our beloved Helen Zimm in these most unique of circumstances, because our dear Helen was herself so profoundly unique. There has never been anyone in this world like Helen Drexler Zimm, and there will never again be anyone in this world like Helen Drexler Zimm.
Part of what made Helen such a singular figure is her extraordinary story. Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1924, Helen was the oldest of three sisters, the first-born daughter of Solomon and Brandla Drexler. Her father was the owner of a soap factory, but when the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, they seized the factory, just as they seized the businesses and property of all Polish Jews. The Drexlers fled from Lodz to a town between Lodz and Warsaw, where they lived for about 3 years. In 1942, Solomon learned that the Nazis were planning on deporting the Jews in the town to concentration camps, so he bought false papers for Helen and her youngest sister. Fortunately, Solomon knew a woman by the name of Mrs. Kaszusczek, who was willing to forge documents for the Drexler girls. Helen survived the war as a housekeeper with an assumed Christian identity. Her parents were murdered by the Nazis, but Helen and her sisters survived.
After the War, Helen went with her middle sister, Nana, to live with an aunt in Toronto, Canada, while her youngest sister, Halina, moved with her husband, Alan, to Richmond. Mentioning Alan, it feels appropriate at this moment to wish him a full and speedy recovery. Through Halina and Alan, Helen met the love of her life, Alan’s brother, Sol Zimm (of blessed memory), a kind and loving man who had survived Auschwitz.
Soon after Helen and Sol married, they moved to Richmond and built a rich life and a beautiful family. They had two children, Melvin and Brenda. Two multiplied to four when Melvin married Sheila and Brenda married Larry. And four multiplied to eight when grandchildren Sophie and Clara and Rachel and Jason were born. But family, for Helen and Sol, was more than just one household. To Helen and Sol, Halina and Alan’s family were as their own: nieces and nephews Ruth, Rebecca, Josh, and Sol; nieces and nephews in law John, David, Allyson, and Nina; grand-nieces and nephews Jeremy, Jordana, Aaron, Ethan,, Jordan, Tova, Yossi, Yoni, and Michael. And Helen remained intimately close with her sister Nana (of blessed memory), as well as Nana’s son, Murrary, and Murray’s partner Henry.
If it was possible for Helen to love something as much as she loved her family, it was being Jewish. Helen LOVED being Jewish. She was a Zionist through and through and was extremely passionate about the State of Israel. Helen was blessed to visit Israel many times, including for the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1981 along with her entire family. Helen was also a life-long Hadassah member, a supporter of Camp Ramah and B’nai Brith, and a devoted member of Temple Beth-El.
I am honored to say that Temple Beth-El was Helen’s home away from home. This, perhaps, is a good opportunity to acknowledge another dimension of Helen’s uniqueness — her personality. For a woman so short of stature, Helen had an enormous personality, an undeniable and unmistakable presence. When Helen Zimm was in the room, you knew it. And indeed, scarcely a Saturday went by without Helen’s indelible presence toward the front of Temple Beth-El’s sanctuary — and, it must be said, that almost literally NO ONE voluntarily sits close to the front, so it shows how singular a personality Helen was, and also just how deeply Helen loved her Judaism and her shul — singing loudly, dancing in her pew, and giving instantaneous and spontaneous sermon feedback. I often felt that having Helen in the pews was about as close as I would ever come to being the pastor of an African-American church, with every line that was agreeable to Helen being met with a hearty “OO-MAYN!” or an enthusiastic “AM YISROEL CHAI!” As a point of personal privilege I will say that nothing was more invigorating than preaching with Helen in the pews, and there are fewer things that I will miss more than Helen’s active participation during my weekly messages. Since her father was a Kohen, Helen was until very recently our go-to “first aliyah,” the first person honored with reciting the blessings over the Torah each week, and we could always count on her to exclaim “FOREVER AND EVER!” after she intoned the concluding blessings over the Torah, to which the congregation would enthusiastically respond, “FOREVER AND EVER!”
Indeed, for the clergy and congregation at Temple Beth-El — and I know I speak for my colleagues like Cantor Rosenblatt and teachers like Rabbi Creditor when I say this — Helen was like a member of our family; perhaps even more emphatically, like a limb of our body. The clergy and the congregation did everything in our power to love Helen as she deserved. Members like Harry and Lois Hirsch dutifully took her to and from services; our gabbais David Ruby and Ed Mollen gave her back cushions for her seat; congregants lined up to sing and dance with her during prayers and to serve her kiddush lunch afterwards.
We did this, I must say, not only because we loved Helen, but also because we so deeply revered her. We honored her for her story, of course; but more importantly we honored her for the way her past shaped her worldview and her values. We honored her for who she became over the course of her long life, what she brought and what she taught to her family, to her community, and to us all. We honored her for her heart and her soul, for her wisdom and for her righteousness. And as I took some moments over the past few days to reflect on Helen’s life and legacy, it was this — Helen’s singular spirit — that stood out most prominently in my mind.
From her experience surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, Helen learned to care about the welfare of others and to take responsibility for them. Consider, for example, Mrs. Kaszusczek, the woman who saved the lives of Helen and her sister by providing them with fake documents. According to Helen’s testimony for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Mrs. Kaszusczek was a “righteous gentile.” She risked her life — literally — to help save the Drexler girls. Helen witnessed in Mrs. Kaszusczek an extraordinary, miraculous, courageous act of moral resistance, learning that if there was goodness to be found in the world, it was to be found in people who concerned themselves with and who took responsibility for the welfare of others.
Helen lived this value — in the way she cared for her family, in the way she cared for her congregation, in the way she cared for our community, our people, and our homeland; in the way she committed herself to imparting her story and her wisdom to countless strangers, young and old.
It is fitting, then, that we escort Helen to her body’s final resting place on Erev Pesah, for Pesah is nothing if not a celebration of ordinary people heroically concerning themselves with the welfare of others: the midwives who in defiance of Pharaoh’s decrees saved Hebrew babies, for example, and Moses who intervened when an Egyptian was beating an Israelite, despite his having no obligation — no right, even — to do so.
It is similarly fitting to lay Helen to rest on Erev Pesah because the holiday emphasizes the essential role of memory in shaping our present and guiding our future. When we read the Haggadah tonight, it will tell us that each of us must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, and that we must tell our children the story of our past — because seeing ourselves in that story, and reminding our children of where we came from, are critical to understanding who we are today and who we are called to be tomorrow. That’s what Czech author Milan Kundera meant when he wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The oppression of the Israelites starts with an act of forgetting: Pharaoh forgets, perhaps deliberately, about Joseph. And consequently, our liberation is bound up in our remembering.
Indeed, according to legend, memory itself made the Exodus from Egypt possible. Because of a promise made generations earlier, the people could not leave Egypt without Joseph’s bones, but no one knew any longer where the bones were buried. No one, that is, except for an extremely elderly woman named Serach bat Asher, Serah the daughter of the patriarch Asher, who happened to have been alive during Joseph’s time and miraculously lived to see the Exodus, several centuries later. Serah stepped forward to help Moses find Joseph’s bones; only then the people were able to leave Egypt. Through this story, our rabbis teach us that we cannot leave Egypt — both the literal Egypt of our past oppression and any metaphorical Egypt in which we might find ourselves now or in the future — without holding our past with us, and so we cannot find liberation or work toward redemption without memory keepers, those who know where the bones are buried.
Helen, too, was a memory keeper. She was well-read, and her mind was a sponge for the content of books, as it also was for the musicals and old Hollywood movies she loved. Helen could — and would — sing the songs from her favorite musicals like Fiddler on the Roof fully, flawlessly, and joyfully — right up to her last days. She was also a meticulous keeper and organizer of photographs and other mementos. Yes, the past was always alive in Helen’s mind. This is not because she lived in the past. On the contrary, as I’ll come to in just a moment, Helen very much found great joy in the present and embraced life in the here and now. Rather, Helen held on to the past because she knew how memory shapes our present, how it forms our identity and informs how we relate to our world, and how it therefore in no small part determines our destiny. And so Helen spent many years not only sharing her story of survival in classrooms and in museums, but also emphasizing to students of all ages that, in her estimation, her past imparted above all the importance of tolerance, compassion, and love today and tomorrow.
And the primary lesson Helen learned from her past was the sanctity of life. Perhaps she learned this from her parents, or from the righteous gentiles she encountered during the Shoah, all of whom risked their lives to save hers, teaching her that there is nothing so precious as a life, and no act so sacred as saving one; that in spite of all the horrors she had lived through there was still meaning, purpose, and goodness in the world — that life was worth living, and the world was worth saving. Perhaps she learned this from the simple fact of surviving — that her life was a miracle, a gift, something to be cherished and seized at every moment, something that was absolutely forbidden to waste. Or, counterintuitively, maybe she learned this from the tragedies that befell her — like burying her beloved husband and her two precious children — that life is fleeting and fragile, and therefore demands to be cherished.
Whatever the reason, Helen passionately, fervently, zealously LOVED life. All the way to the very end, Helen loved singing, playing, laughing, and dancing. She loved to look good; she went to the beauty parlor every week because, in her words, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Every Shabbos morning with Helen in the pews was an absolute celebration of life. And similarly every visit with her at Parkside offered ample opportunities to laugh, to sing, and to dance — all the way to the very end. Even when she could no longer eat, even when she could barely speak, she would spontaneously erupt in song, singing “Shabbat Shalom, hey!” or “To life! To life! L’chaim!” Helen truly cherished and celebrated life; you might say that she literally refused to let go of life; instead — it at least seemed to me — Helen stayed alive physically until there was literally nothing left, and she essentially evaporated into the bonds of everlasting life.
That Helen could endure the unthinkable hardships she encountered throughout her life and emerge more kind, more deeply committed, and more vivacious is a testament to her extraordinary character. It is therefore easy to miss that who she became in spite of — or, indeed, because of — the traumas she experienced was a deliberate choice on her part.
And, therefore, her life is Torah for us, for we, too, can flourish as Helen did in the face of the tragedies which befall us. Helen’s secret was her faith and her love — her faith in and love of God, her faith in and her love of the Jewish people, her faith in and love of life. Her faith and her love were like deep roots that tethered her — to her ancestors, to her people, to her descendants, to God — when destructive winds blew.
We, too, can rise from the ashes so long as we are able to embrace that kind of faith and that kind of love. In doing so, we too can weather life’s storms — including and especially this current painful and challenging moment — and even become strengthened through them, secure in the knowledge that life is worth living and that people are worth saving; firm in the hope that, ultimately, goodness will prevail; and committed to play a part in the ultimate triumph of the good.
We will remember Helen for concluding her prayers — for punctuating her conversations, even — by proclaiming “forever and ever!” That exclamation expressed her faith that the fire of the spirit of the Jewish people could never be extinguished. That faith sustained her and inspired her.
May Helen’s memory sustain and inspire us, so that her legacy will endure forever and ever, and also so that we can play a role in bringing that blessing into fruition, ensuring not only that the Jewish people endures but also that our world will be repaired through God’s sovereignty, and the Infinite will reign in righteousness and peace forever and ever.
May Helen Zimm’s soul be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life, and may her memory inspire us all to lives of blessing.
Amen.
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