By Richard Freedman
As a young girl growing up in prewar Warsaw, Miriam Teitelbaum (Lichterman) could never have imagined the life she would lead and that she would pass away nearly 100 years later in Cape Town, at the tip of Africa, which was her home for over 70 years.
The passing of Miriam (Marysha) Lichterman on 18 July has left a painful void for all who knew her. Miriam’s contribution to her adopted home and community was remarkable. She embraced the community and in turn, as they grew to know and love her, the community regarded her as a treasured jewel. Her identity as a Holocaust survivor took centre stage in the last 40 years of her life but there were many facets to Miriam which went way beyond that.
When she first came to Cape Town in 1950 with her husband and fellow Holocaust survivor, Cantor Jacob Lichterman of blessed memory, she took her responsibilities as the wife of the Cantor of a large congregation in Vredehoek very seriously. She made it her business not only to enter into the life of the synagogue but also the community in all its aspects. She warmly welcomed to her home many Barmitzvah boys who came for lessons with Cantor Lichterman. As they entered the house, where music was ever present, few were aware of the horrific experiences of ghettos and death camps which the Lichtermans had endured.
Never bitter, always positive, with great determination and courage they rebuilt their lives going on to have two sons, Ivor and Joel, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It always gave Miriam a great sense of satisfaction that her sons followed in their father’s footsteps, becoming well respected cantors in their own right.
Miriam’s lifelong abiding Jewish beliefs and convictions were central to her life and outlook, and indeed she firmly believed that her survival was nothing short of a miracle. She remained a devoted shul-goer until recently, when her failing health prevented her from attending services. Always immaculate, Miriam could be seen sitting alongside fellow Warsaw survivor Ella Blumenthal in the women’s gallery of the Marais Road synagogue. With Miriam’s knowledge and experience, for many years she oversaw the Kashrut at Jewish functions at the Mount Nelson hotel and elsewhere. Diminutive in size, she loomed large as an assured and commanding presence upon whom the community could rely.
Miriam was a strong supporter of Israel. For over 60 years she was an active and dedicated member of the Vredehoek branch of Bnoth Zion where she served as the cultural convener. She was honoured with the Rebecca Sieff award on two occasions for her long service.
From the early days Miriam reached out to fellow Holocaust survivors and played a key role in She’erith Hapletah (the survivors’ organisation) which held regular gatherings of the 40 or so Holocaust survivors who were members of the organisation in Cape Town. As we look at the flickering memorial lights in each synagogue, few of us know that they were placed there at the instigation of Miriam and fellow survivors.
The public profile of the survivors was raised with the annual Yom Hashoah Ceremony where Miriam played a key role in the organisation before and on the day. She delivered several powerful addresses in her eloquent and elegant English, with an amazing recall for detail.
The opening of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre in 1999 was very significant in Miriam’s life. Not only were her story and that of her brother, Israel, key elements of the exhibition, it began a process of involvement with thousands of young people and others outside the Jewish community, with whom she shared her testimony.
It was never easy, yet Miriam never said no to sharing her story, in the hope that it would inspire all who heard it to create a more just world. Typical of the impact that Miriam had on the young people who listened to her is the following from a Grade 11 learner, “…I find it truly inspiring, the amount of courage, kindness and strength that radiates from her even to this day. There is no room for malice and hate in her heart. Despite the cruelty and suffering she endured, she managed to teach love, peace, kindness and equality to us.”
Miriam’s own words at the 2019 Yom Hashoah commemoration remain a powerful reminder and testimony to this extraordinary human being:
“According to our rabbinical teachings, to remember is our most important response to tragedy. Those who were destroyed live with us and help us to carry on. My memories are not only of man’s inhumanity to man, destruction and horror, but also of spiritual strength and unbelievable courage in inhuman circumstances. This helped us to rebuild our lives and gave us hope for a better future. And so my friends, once again in this holy place, I thank Hashem for the miracles of my survival, and you, this wonderful community at the tip of the African continent. Remember not to forget, because no matter what, Am Israel Chai.”
Miriam will be sorely missed by us all. May our memories of her always be an inspiration and comfort to her dear family and all who knew her.
Click here for Remembering Miriam Lichterman z”l.
• Published in the August 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.
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