‘Bernie’s Mom’ survived the worst, proving the resilience of the Jewish Soul

by | Jan 30, 2022 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It was 80 years ago this month that 15 high-ranking Nazi officials met in a villa on the outskirts of Berlin. Among them were names like Adolph Eichmann and Heinrich Muller. They gathered over snacks and alcohol to address a single issue desired by their leader, Adolf Hitler. And in less than two hours, they came up with an answer.

They called it “The Final Solution.”

It was a plan to wipe out the Jewish population of German-occupied Europe. It was unspeakably evil and horribly simple. Evict Jews from their homes, transport them to concentration camps, work them to death or murder them outright, then burn the bodies.

It was meant to exterminate an entire race of people, people like Rita Mermelstein, who would later take the married name Rita Smilovitz. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because she would become the mother of Bernie Smilovitz, the popular, long-serving sports anchor for WDIV-TV (Channel 4) here in Detroit.

But back in 1943, Rita was just a pretty, single, 18-year-old woman from Munkacs, Czechoslovakia. Her family lived on a farm. One day, soldiers came, grabbed Rita, her parents and her siblings, and put them on a train to Auschwitz.

“An animal train,” she recalled in a video made by her grandson, Zach. “They put all the Jewish people in that train, no window or nothing.”

When she arrived at the concentration camp, she was quickly separated from her parents. She was young. They were old. She spotted a big building with a chimney. Dark smoke was spewing out. It smelled awful.

“We ask (the guard) ‘What is that?’ He says, ‘You’re all gonna go in that chimney…There is your father, in the smoke, burning.’”

Hell on Earth

That was the last Rita saw of her parents. She quickly realized that being young and strong was her only hope for survival. One day they separated the healthy prisoners from the sick, and Rita spotted her sister Fay in the sick line. She knew what that meant. When a sudden commotion momentarily distracted the guards, Rita pulled Fay into the ‘healthy’ line.

In that instant, she saved her sister’s life.

But there were far more darker moments. As Rita recalled in the video, “We were miserable. Every day was murder, murder. … There were wire (fences) and they were electric. One day, I see two people hanging on the wires. They wanted to escape. They touched the wire. They got dead.

“The man who was in charge of us, with a big dog, he said, ‘If you’re gonna try to escape, you’re gonna hang (up there) like them.’ They left them as a sample.’’

Rita survived by eating bugs, potato peels and soup. She was made to work in the crematorium, cleaning out the incinerated remains of her fellow Jews. She had a number tattooed on her left forearm, but that was nothing compared to the horror tattooed into her memory.

One day, as she was cleaning up packages that had been taken off a transport train, she heard a high-pitched crying. She discovered an infant, who’d been hidden amongst the cargo. A guard was watching every move Rita made. With no choice, she was forced to carry the baby “and put it in the oven.”

She never stopped having nightmares about that.

How she coped with the horror

You might think, under the weight of such human horror, a person would just snap and die. And so many did.

But some did not. Their survival was the best revenge against Hitler, and the Wannsee Conference where the Nazis planned the Jewish extinction 80 years ago.

Rita was liberated in 1945 and she made her way to America. She married Izidor Smilovitz, who’d been enslaved by the Nazis into forced labor for four years. The couple had two sons, Bernie and his younger brother Harvey, who they raised in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C.

But the horrors of the Holocaust were never far from Rita’s existence.

“I remember in third grade, our school had a grandparents day where you were supposed to bring in your grandparents,” Bernie recalls. “Until that day, I didn’t know what grandparents were. We never spoke of them. I asked my mother, and she just said, ‘They died in Europe.’’’

Smilovitz himself faced his own share of antisemitism. As a boy being raised in a non-Jewish environment, he recalled getting a hit in a baseball game, and hearing an opposing player yell, ‘You better not do that again, or Hitler’s gonna get you.”

Bernie rarely spoke about such things, nor did his mother. “She was always trying to shield us from the horror she’d gone through. But she was always worried about me and my brother. If we were playing baseball half a block away and were supposed to be home at 6 o’clock, by 6:01, she was hysterical.

“Later, when we had kids of our own, she never wanted them to leave the house. She would say, ‘Don’t go outside, the Germans are hiding in the bushes.’”

Despite her haunted memories, Rita was able to find small joys as the years passed. She loved to cook. She loved to watch people eat. She adored her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And she was incredibly proud of her daughter-in-law, Donna Rockwell, Bernie’s wife, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology. When Detroiters would say, “You’re really Bernie Smilovitz’s mother?” Rita would wave them off.

“That’s nothing,” she’d reply. “My daughter-in-law is a doctor.”

There’s a pattern there: anything that spoke of life, hope, education and a future energized her. She was warm and engaging. And she was funny, even if she didn’t mean to be. She’d say things like, “I speak six languages, all except English.” If a restaurant served something she didn’t like, she’d crack, “The food was better in Auschwitz.”

I had the pleasure of meeting her numerous times, and once she was told about a book I wrote called “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

“Maury?” she exclaimed. “Maury Povich?”

A survivor till the end

Rita passed away a month ago. She called Bernie while he was on vacation and left a message on his cellphone: “I love you. I’m gonna die soon. Bye bye.”

Twenty minutes later, Bernie said, she passed away in her bed, quietly, peacefully, without pain.

She was 96 years old, and had lived in her own house right up to the end.

So Hitler failed, and Eichmann and Mueller and the others who crafted a “final solution” failed. They failed when it came to forces of nature like Rita Mermelstein and Izidor Smilovitz and other Jews who were strong enough to survive those concentration camps and the inhumane treatment and prosper, and have children, and have grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Hitler failed, but he still was responsible for 6 million Jews murdered, and his venom courses through other people’s veins to this day. Antisemitism is on the rise almost everywhere around the world, yet it remains one of the least highlighted bad behaviors in America, a nation that likes to think it is quick to shout out injustice.

Did you know that Jews comprise only 2.4% of the U.S. population? Yet 55% of religious hate crimes committed in 2020 were antisemitic, according to the American Jewish Committee. There’s something terribly wrong with those numbers. And each time someone like Rita leaves this Earth, there is one less witness to the horror that took place in the 1940s, and one more nudge for those who would deny it.

“When I see what is going on today, and I hear about people who deny the Holocaust,” Smilovitz says, “I want to tell them: ‘come have a look at the video my son made of my mother telling her story. Listen to her, and you’ll understand what everyone is talking about.’ ”

At Rita’s funeral, Bernie read a eulogy. It concluded with the time Bernie asked her, after all she had been through, how she could still believe in God? She looked straight at him.

“Quiet!” she said. “He might be listening!”

Faith goes on. Eighty years ago this month, a group of delusional men thought they could map out a plan, punch in some numbers, and antiseptically wipe out a people. 

But as long as a heart beats, there is hope, and as long as a spirit believes, there is a future. Rita Smilovitz —  “Bernie’s Mom” — left this Earth on her own terms. We lost her. But she won.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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