Penny Waga – My Mother, My Hero
My mother, Penny Waga passed away this week after a long illness. As someone who loved – and was loved – by her more than anything in the world, the loss was devastating for me. She was born in a WWII DP camp to a family of survivors who moved to Israel as refugees before making their way over to the United States.
As Jews we are taught to strive to see the good in everything, even after the loss of a loved one. I would therefore like to share my mothers tale which could serve as a parable for the strength and continuity of the Jewish people.
My mom didn’t have an easy life. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who worked very hard to raise her and her brother. Their families suffered every imaginable, awful fate during the Holocaust. Most of their relatives were wiped out.
There was also the scars symptomatic of those raised by survivors. In the last few months of her life my mother learned that her father, Morris Waga had been married with a family before he married my grandmother. He lost that wife and a 3-year old daughter in the camps to the Nazis. Yet, throughout his entire life he never told my mother or her younger brother. What a burden my grandfather must have carried all his life.
My mom spent so much time researching, reading, and studying about the Holocaust. She attended conferences, discovered obscure files, and spent days at Yad Vashem. She never shared with us her “master file” on the dozens of family members we lost which she uncovered.
A month ago I visited Israel and had the privilege of bringing my mom’s grandchildren, my kids, to Yad Vashem. I found documents at the museum signed by her parents, which they filled out in the 1950’s upon arriving in Israel. The papers contained details about their family members which were killed during the Shoah. For me, walking the streets of Jerusalem together with my family felt like a triumph of Jewish history – even as I cried as we walked the grounds knowing that we were the heritage of what she had studied and learned so much about.
Of course my mother loved us so much. My mom was bright and tough and taught us values, courage, wisdom, strength and decency. She told us every single day that we could do anything we set our minds out to do. We heeded and believed her – and knew that our mother would and could do anything and everything for us. And she did.
How I remember walking the streets of Netanya with her as a kid when we went daily to the water park- and how I remember walking the streets of Hebron with her as an adult. How I vividly recall walking to shul with her – and how she loved the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale women’s tefillah group. And today I am so proud my children are able to attend yeshivas.
As a proud Jew, she taught me so much by example. Whether in her days at Betar or always advocating for me and my sister on anything and everything. My mother was so proud that professionally she grew to serve as Executive Director of PEF Israel Endowment Funds. PEF was established in 1922 by Justice Brandeis, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Robert Szold and a group of distinguished Americans to enable the direct distribution of funds to selected and approved charitable organizations in Israel. And through her work at PEF, she was able to help so many Israeli causes she cared about so much – from women’s’ learning in Kiryat Arba to dogs for the blind in Israel, Kiruv projects and work with new immigrants.
Through her blood, sweat and tears she somehow managed to raise me and my sister. My mother once wrote me a note many years ago which says “Enjoy this, try to make the most of it, and I hope when all is said and done you will see it is all really worth it.” As my mom often told me “We never know what tomorrow can bring.” Mom – I hope and pray that your tomorrow is better than today. Life without you is something I can’t imagine. But I can tell you that you will be loved forever – and from the scraps of the Holocaust a family has arisen that will continue to grow.
Your parents are buried in the same cemetery as you- and I hope today you are walking with them and with all of our other family members who were tragically killed. Thank you mom thank you.
“Enjoy this, try to make the most of it, and I hope when all is said and done you will see it is all really worth it.” Those are words I will remember as long as I am in this world.