Ethel’s husband disappeared on one mission and she was left to fend for herself and her three children. Budapest was occupied by Nazi forces and conditions became so horrific that even precise descriptions do not permit our minds to fully fathom the terror Ethel must have felt. She worked tirelessly to feed her children and to cook for others who could not care for themselves.

In 1944 the family, with more than 4,000 others, were forced by the Nazis to begin a march into the unknown. The march lasted weeks and it was not intended that they should survive. During the march, as winter set in, teen-age daughter Betty thought about the coming holidays and how Hanukkah had once been: candles lit, a fireplace aglow, a gift for each child, Hanukkah songs and dreidel games. As the march wore on, Ethel watched as her children’s shoes were worn away to rags and their spirits began to break. They were nearing starvation, losing their will to live, and had seen revolting things that made them doubt Ethel’s constant reassurances that God would protect them.

Ethel had only her body, her spirit, her wits, and a heavy woolen blanket to protect them. By day, Ethel, age 40, literally carried her 10-year-old son the month that it took to walk from Budapest to Austria. She used her spirit and wits to keep her two older daughters from collapsing. In the dark of night, with ice falling around them, Ethel spread her blanket on the ground, tucked all three children beside her and sang them to sleep with lullabies promising that everything would be all right. At the end of the march, only about 500 people survived. Ethel and her children were imprisoned with the others in a concentration camp. The entire family suffered typhoid fever. Ethel continued to find ways to help her children, sneaking them scraps of potato peels to supplement their pathetic rations. The camp was finally liberated May 5, 1945, by American troops.

Legendary latkes
Ethel’s determination kept her children alive and her spiritual faith kept her determined. They traveled to America, reunited with surviving relatives, and formed new families. The horrors of the war were seldom discussed. Ethel’s grandchildren knew very little of what their grandmother and their parents endured. They did, however, grow up with family traditions, holiday rituals and the recipes that Ethel kept and passed on to her children.

Lasting Gifts
The wisdom of an experienced woman is passed from her child to her grandchildren. Like other grandmothers, Ethel Markowitz set a spiritual tone for her children that would touch the next generation. Other grandmothers shepherded their children through different trials, like immigrating to America in steerage, surviving the Great Depression, and raising children in America’s slums. Grandmothers today are challenged with work inside and outside the home, changing family patterns and ongoing prejudice.

They know that keeping holiday traditions leaves great impressions on children, and in spite of all life’s hardships, they continue to set a standard for how things ought to be.

No Longer Taking Things for Granted
Gaining historical perspective, we must feel even more thankful to be safe in our kitchens, confronting decisions about how to make latkes and whether to serve sour cream, apple sauce or both as side dishes. Safe — or safer than most — in America, we are free to celebrate and worship.