Gizella Sabo: “I survived Auschwitz... for this?"

Six months to live

Maxine and Harley Davison
  • Maxine and Harley Davison

Gizella Sabo took the news hard. “I survived Auschwitz,” she said, smashing that bitter noun to smithereens. “I came out alive from that place. And for what?” she demanded. “For this?”

This had turned out to be cancer, and it was malignant.

Five years before, Gizella Sabo had undergone treatment for cancer of the colon. Now the symptoms of digestive discomfort had returned. Lab tests were conclusive.

Gizella and Zigmund Sabo

Gizella and Zigmund Sabo

Accordingly, she underwent surgery to remove the infected portions of her colon. Her doctor announced the surgery successful but cautioned a wait-and-see attitude. Within months her lab tests showed new growths, and so she went under the knife again. The report on the second operation was more guarded. Gizella, who by now had been deprived of most of her colon, was next told a growth had been found on her lower spine. A schedule of chemotherapy took care of this. However, the treatment itself almost killed her, and future chemo- and immunotherapy were no longer options. Her latest labs showed the cancer had spread to the lungs. Three operations in two years. Prognosis: Six months to live.

Harley Davison also had only a few months to live. He suffered from leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. He shared with Sabo more than the means by which their lives were ending. With Harley just five years older, they were of the generation that had played parts in the drama of World War II (she a survivor; he, as a member of the American armed forces, her liberator); both had gone on to long and happy marriages; both were parents and grandparents (and in Harley’s case, a great-grandparent).

What do you do when the yielding rhythms of daily life become a time clock? How do you respond when told you have six months to live? A physician acquainted with Gizella Sabo’s medical and social history but not appointed to treat her suggested that one look to her life.

“In her case,” he said, “I’d begin with what it was like for her in Auschwitz. Our early responses to crisis are a key to how we handle the final one, dying. No one can tell you what it feels like to die, any more than we have words to explain what it means to be alive.”

For each, their deaths would seem to find their outlines in the early histories they shared and the memories they recalled. Interlaced with those accounts were the recollections of those who loved them and would be left behind. In this narrative weave, memory was stitched as a shroud into which the corpse could be consigned. Here was a way of paying homage to a life lived.

Having never lost her Czech accent, Gizella Sabo usually made something soft and pretty of her sentences. It was different though if she were upset. Then each word of her adopted language might be rendered glass and her tongue a hammer. Like her accent, and despite having lived in the United States for the last 45 years, Sabo had never managed to lose the aura of being — not so much an immigrant, but a foreigner. Her husband, Zigmund, who had tailored Jacqueline Bouvier’s trousseau when she married the future president, sewed for his wife beautiful outfits that left her rather better put together, somewhat “haute couture,” than her more casual off-the-rack friends. Attractive at 71, with dark brown hair and her figure still supple and curvaceous, she was a popular member of Beth Jacob Congregation, the Orthodox temple on College Avenue. There she had a reputation as a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. If you wanted to get something done, it was said, just ask Gizella Sabo. Visitors to the city, newcomers to the local Jewish community, those who found themselves without family, say, on the High Holy Days, all were told that there was always an extra place at Gizella Sabo’s table. With her brown eyes sometimes appearing to take in more than she would say and her smile hinting a mysterious withholding, Gizella Sabo, taking pride in her home and her family and her wide circle of friends, lived a life so active and fulfilled that a debilitating disease, so messy and uncertain, seemed out of the question, like deep shadows at noontime. But cancer had invaded anyway.

Annually, more than half a million Americans die from cancer. Those under such a diagnosis often find it comes out of thin air, blasting into their awareness with the violence of a meteorite crashing through a living room ceiling. When Gizella got the unhappy news, the shock induced in her a pessimism that was uncharacteristic. Sheila Gordon, her second child, was tested in high school with other children of Holocaust survivors. Studies have shown children of Holocaust survivors are more likely to assume a world cruel and incalculable than other children. Sheila’s profile showed someone who operated under a sunny assumption of general good will. This upbeat attitude, Sheila said, was one shared by her sisters Sylvia, Helene, and Gwen. Sheila credits her parents for this.

“Especially my mother,” she said. “All her life, she loved to have fun. Growing up, she was a kind of party girl, and it was the same way as our mother. For her, life was a joy to be shared.”

This year San Diego Hospice on Third Street celebrates its 20th anniversary as an independent, not-for-profit, community-based healthcare organization. Spokesperson Melissa DelaCalzada describes the hospice as providing physical, emotional, and spiritual care for the terminally ill and their loved ones.

Visitors to the lushly landscaped site overlooking Mission Valley find a handsome administration building modestly set in front of the Palliative Care Center, a single-story structure with a 24-bed capacity. Generous in scale and beautiful in the restful manner of a monastic retreat, the multimillion-dollar facility was built with a grant from Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s restaurant chain founder Ray Kroc. According to DelaCalzada, a leggy Filipina-American with a thunderstorm of black hair, the center was born out of the idea, the belief, that everyone has the right to die in dignity.

“Mrs. Kroc pledged monies to cover the cost of planning, construction, and interior furnishings for the center. After its completion, the center was left as a resource for the people of San Diego who were,” she said, “expected to maintain it.”

DelaCalzada delights in pointing out the many pleasing features of the center, such as the rock-surfaced waterfall by sculptor Philip diGiacomo that dominates the foyer. The corridors are extra wide so that gurneys move easily. Patients’ rooms are light-drenched, appointed in shades of mauve and boysenberry. The airy meditation space is hung with panels of minimalist-style stained glass. All patients’ rooms in the Palliative Care Center look out onto the landscaped grounds. Through the open window the muted tumult rising from the valley floor below sounds more like a stream rushing on, a metaphor for each patient’s own ebbing life, rather than what it really is—a dozen lanes of traffic, tons of hot steel hurtling back and forth on Interstate 8.

The hub of the administrative building is a light-filled atrium-like reception area painted a deep green. The administrative offices are on the first floor. On a lower level is a warren of cubbyhole spaces for the hospice nurses, social workers, health aides, homemakers, volunteers, and the several chaplains. Colleen Dodge was the hospice nurse assigned to the teams working with Gizella Sabo and Harley Davison.

“Harley tries not to take death too seriously,” she said. “In fact, he can joke about it.”

It is not easy to imagine cancer as a joking matter. Both Harley and Gizella were born at a time when fewer than one in five people so diagnosed survived five years. By the 1940s, the figure was one in four. Twenty years later, on the heels of biomedical research, the proportion of survivors had reached one in three. Prompted by a combination of early diagnosis and improved treatment, today more than 40 percent of all cancer patients are alive five years after diagnosis. Yet even with these breakthroughs, millions of those diagnosed still succumb to the disease or its complications. Colleen Dodge carried a clipboard on which were a long list of her patients’ names. More than half the names were colored over with a turquoise blue Hi-Liter. These were her patients who had recently died, she explained.

Hospice work draws upon the reserves of a very particular portion of the health-care community. Dodge came to San Diego Hospice after 16 years as an intensive care nurse at Sharp Memorial and a year’s stint as a nurse at the San Diego County Jail. Recently married and with a pair of preschoolers, she is able to manage a demanding home life and an emotionally charged career because, she says, she has an understanding husband and she loves her job working to make the last months of people’s lives comfortable and their deaths dignified. With her dark brown hair, hazel eyes, and pale skin, she might play a stand-in for Linda Carter, the former beauty queen, TV personality, and ‘70s action heroine, Wonder Woman. The resemblance to Wonder Woman is not just skin deep.

Leaving the hospice center on a regular call to the Davison home, Colleen headed for a small trailer park on the northwest side of Mission Valley. Whizzing along, she had timed matters so as to just make her eleven o’clock appointment. Suddenly the pager on her belt went off. With a quick check at the number and a rapid dial on her cellular phone, she glanced through case files on the car seat beside her, found the correct one, and was reading aloud from it even as she negotiated a snarl of traffic. Speaking on the phone, she gave an account of her most recent visit to a patient of the physician on the other end of the line so that he could better determine the nature of the patient’s sudden medical crisis. Dodge noted pertinent information, then set aside that folder and picked up her day-at-a-glance schedule, checked it, and set up an appointment to meet that afternoon for consultation and, with what she later described as 17 things on her mind, she said good-bye, cut the connection, parked, and exited her red Chevy Cavalier smiling. She checked her watch; she was right on time.

“This work is for adrenaline junkies,” she admitted.

Harley Davison was waiting for her in the carport. So was Muffin. “Quiet!” he said, anticipating the response of the cocoa brown miniature poodle. Davison put out his Marlboro, pressing it against the side of an old coffee can set aside as an ashtray, and opened his arms wide. Colleen hurried in close for a hug. Muffin went crazy. “Muffin!” cried Harley. “You know Colleen! Now be quiet!” The still air of the trailer park, set above a canyon, was torn by the poodle’s shrill yapping. Muffin was not taking orders.

“We’d better go inside,” said Davison, pointing the way.

Colleen put her pager on silent vibrate mode. She then opened the back door, but before she could step into the kitchen, Muffin had darted between her feet, nails clicking like a light shower of macaroni falling onto the linoleum-type floor. Davison brought up the rear.

A retired navy chief petty officer, his mustache gave him the look of a ’30s film star, more particularly character actor Adolphe Menjou. Menjou was nominated for an Oscar for the 1931 movie The Front Page in which he played a conniving editor operating on overdrive. Here the resemblance between the actor and Davison fell short. Open and friendly and without the least trace of guile, in his short-sleeved shirt and cotton slacks, of average height and sturdy build, Harley was hardly moving on overdrive; he took the stairs very slowly. And there was further proof that he was a sick man. His forearms and the backs of his hands were a purplish black color where capillaries had broken under the surface of the skin. Just as exhaustion is common to those suffering from leukemia, so is this condition, which is known as petechia.

“Maxine!” said Dodge, greeting Harley’s wife like an old friend.

“Why, hello there!”

Maxine Davison was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on her spaghetti sauce. More than 30 years before, she and Harley had been co-owners of the Big Kitchen, a restaurant at 30th and Grape Streets (where Whoopi Goldberg once worked). Maxine, who was tending tables in a small wartime Seattle restaurant in 1942 when she met Harley, was gifted with the no-nonsense charms of a short-order waitress. If most of her experience was at the tables with the customers, it was clear from the pungent odor of herbs and fresh tomatoes lifting off the spaghetti sauce, that she knew her way around the kitchen. With Muffin now an adoring rug of brown curls panting at her mistress’s feet, Maxine set her pot of sauce on the counter. Age and recent illness had shrunk Maxine a little. Lean in her faded red cotton slacks and white blouse, under a cloud of white hair, she still retained the restaurateur’s keen inclination to keep the traffic moving.

“Go on in there and sit down,” she said, pointing to the living room. “Make yourself comfortable.”

From the kitchen of the trailer home, the six-foot distance to the dining area was offered in an unobstructed view. That unremarkable space was taken up by a mahogany dining table and four chairs, its forlorn air reminiscent of empty rooms with kids’ bunk beds, corners of garages cluttered with used bikes and high chairs and hula hoops — that is, the gear enjoyed when children were about and now discarded when they have grown up and gone away. At the table a pair of plastic place mats at lonely right angles to each other indicated where Harley and Maxine now sat for their meals.

Beyond the living room was a narrow nest of easy chairs and soft cushions. There was a neat arrangement of family photos, Christian iconography, and knickknacks that were neither distinctive enough to hold the eye, distinguished enough to be called antique, nor endowed with the redemptive charm of kitsch. Though the spelling was slightly off, Harley had suffered jokes about his name all his life; one might therefore have expected to find some Harley-Davidson motorcycle memorabilia, but there was none, just a number of little things without consistency or pedigree but touched with enough personal, affectionate memory to have earned places on bookshelves and tabletops. In the background, the radio, tuned low, was playing golden oldies. I felt comfortable being there.

Harley and Maxine had two sons. David was 50, his brother Dennis, three years younger. Both these big-boned men were shown in photographs dating from grade school through high school. They lined the narrow hallway of the trailer, a steady progression of images charting the yearly metamorphosis of a couple of all-American youngsters maturing into clean-cut adolescents and healthy young men. This photographic record, which stopped at the door of Harley and Maxine’s bedroom, made a U-turn and a jump and started up again in the living room where now those young men, 20 years later and at least as many pounds heavier, grown slightly blank-faced and anonymous with early middle age, were fathers to good-looking, all-American kids; David, indeed, was a grandfather to a toddler shown held in the arms of a young couple not much older than children themselves.

“Sometimes I feel like the whole back of my head wants to come off,” Harley was saying. He lifted his purplish hands but did not touch his head. The lightest touch to his hair, Harley said, could sometimes be painful as hell. Colleen said it sounded like the pain had much increased She spoke low, commiserating with him. Her file lay unopened beside her.

“Yes, he’s been having quite a time of it for most of the last week,” said Maxine. Seated in a chair at some distance from her husband, holding Muffin on her lap, she addressed the nurse’s implied question.

Born and raised in South Dakota, his voice plummy and thick like himself, Harley was nine when his parents abandoned him and his four younger brothers and sisters. Alone in the house, with the errant parents never to be seen again, for two years he managed to keep his brothers and sisters fed and their parentless situation secret.

“I stole, panhandled, and hopped trains,” Harley said.

“What do you mean by ‘hopping trains?’ ” I asked.

“Well, with my younger brother, we’d jump on a train as it was leaving the yard and throw out coal or potatoes or whatever, and then jump the train and go back for the goods.”

Eventually their distressed condition was discovered. The others went into foster homes and Harley was shipped to his grandparents. By then he understood what it meant to operate in a world that promised little security; on his grandparents’ farm he worked hard but got no love. By 14, he’d had enough and ran away. He hopped trains. He worked with the circus. He planted trees under Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Finally, at 16, he lied about his age and enlisted in the navy. He was stationed in Seattle when he met Maxine. Their romance was acted out against a background of Benny Goodman wartime music.

Colleen Dodge taking vitals of Harley Davison at his home

Colleen Dodge taking vitals of Harley Davison at his home

“The first time I ever can remember being hugged was the day I got married,” Harley later said. That hug proved redemptive just as their devotion to each other helped to explain how Maxine could speak up for Harley in describing his mounting pain. Dennis Davison said that often his parents would do that, speak for one another. “We used to say they were so much in each other’s head that one knew when the other was going to burp. They came by this knowledge of each other,” he said, “because they love one another. It is that simple.” “Sometimes the pain’s so bad he can’t sleep,” added Maxine. Dodge suggested that perhaps it was time to increase Harley’s morphine dosage. It would reduce the pain. In the “Dying Person’s Bill of Rights” adhered to by San Diego Hospice, the terminally ill patient is encouraged to expect to “be treated as a living human being until I die; express my feelings and emotions about my approaching death in my own way; participate in decisions concerning my care; not die alone; be free from pain; have my questions answered honestly; not be deceived; die in peace and dignity, and expect that the sanctity of the human body be respected after death.”

"The nurse had Harley’s file open and was writing. “How is your appetite?” she asked.

He shrugged. “To be honest,” he answered, “I don’t always have much of one.”

“He is definitely not eating like he should,” said Maxine. While he certainly could not be blamed for his cancer and the attendant discomfort, the testiness in her tone implied that Harley's failure to eat was another matter: he was not eating because he was choosing not to. Loss of appetite, however, has been found to be a natural consequence of advanced cancer. According to a 1994 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, those dying of cancer often wanted very little nourishment in their final months. This change might begin as mild distaste for certain foods, then as a desire for only a few select foods, ending finally as an almost complete lack of ability to eat. With “starving” the term researchers in the 1994 study used, they argued that it seemed to ease cancer patients’ deaths because dehydration lessened consciousness, promoted sleepiness, and diminished pain. Cancer, went the report, gives off chemicals that affect not only the taste buds on the tongue, but also the parts of the brain that control taste, nausea, vomiting, and the sense of fullness. Sometimes a cancerous tumor blocked the stomach or bowel. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and some medications could also add to the loss of appetite. And finally, there was the sadness and depression. Because red blood cells carry oxygen, those suffering from leukemia often find themselves exhausted and short of breath; depression is common. Harley had been treated for depression before being put on oral chemotherapy (treatment for depression often predates and supports the benefits of the chemotherapy). As for loss of appetite, however, researchers would hold that the problem was directly related to the cancer itself.

Colleen asked if Harley was enjoying any of his food. He had his cigarettes, he said, and “every evening,” he added, smiling, “I have a highball. And sometimes” (and here he winked), “I have more than one.” His jocular tone had the rich, dark color of the whiskey he favored for his drinks, but Maxine, bristling a little in her seat, was clearly not pleased with the notion of leaving her husband’s nutrition to alcohol and nicotine. She had her specially prepared spaghetti sauce now sitting on the countertophi the kitchen, and she hoped at lunchtime that it might be sufficient inducement to get Harley to eat. Of course, the serving and sharing of food communicates strong messages about loving, about care and friendship. When Harley did not eat, not only were the chances of sharing the activity of eating lost, but fears about his survival quickly surfaced. Here was the heart of Maxine’s concern: if her husband did not eat, he would die. She said nothing, however.

“Why not let him enjoy himself,” Dodge suggested later. She had not been disapproving of his highballs and cigarettes because (and here she articulated another hospice principle) his highballs and cigarettes offered a sense of control and power over a life that was, after all, still his.

Dodge took some notes, then looked up, laying her pen aside. “Now Maxine, how about you? How have you been?”

Last year, Maxine, suffering from poor blood circulation, had had her right leg amputated. She was now outfitted with a prosthetic limb and moved about the trailer with a hint of a limp. Harley, she said, as a couple of tears ran down her cheeks, helped her with her leg each morning, “but I’d have to say it isn’t always easy to keep smiling.”

Four months ago Maxine had had an artery in her neck cleared so that blood would flow better to the brain. Just a few days ago doctors found that there was new blockage,-and a second operation seemed likely. The couple had arranged to celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary that weekend. Now with the prospect of surgery to clear the arterial passage at the brain, no one knew if this would interfere with those plans. (Later, a second operation to unblock the artery was reckoned as too dangerous. In her frail condition, Maxine might die in the course of the procedure.)

Dodge made mention of the weeping after the visit: “It was good,” she said. “Maxine knows how anxious Harley gets when she is worried, especially if it is about him. Did you see how he didn’t take his eyes off his wife as she spoke? She doesn’t usually allow herself to cry in front of him. I think that was a lot of what those tears were about. She was talking about herself and of course she was worried, but it was really a chance to cry for Harley.”

“Harley,” I asked toward the end of my visit, who do you feel about dying?” He looked at me and smiled. “Everybody’s got to go sometime,” he said, and laughed. “But I’m one of the lucky ones,” he added. “I made the best choice a man can make. I chose the right woman for my wife.”

Dodge had been taking notes, looking up to urge Harley to keep his oxygen handy and use it regularly — especially, she reminded him, when he was on the toilet. Home care service would be delivering more oxygen, E-cylinders, she added. She wrote a little more, looked up again, and told Maxine she would keep in touch about the operation; then she stood. There had been nothing rushed or preemptive about her visit, but when she moved, now closing her files, pocketing her pen, and making her way through the kitchen and down the back steps, she acted quickly. “Happy anniversary,” she called from her car. Standing in the cool shadow of the carport, Harley waved. Maxine, holding Muffin, smiled. The poodle yelped. “Quiet, Muffin,” said Harley.

“No, it was not easy,” admitted David Davison, the older son. “At first we had to deal with my father when he was diagnosed with cancer, but then my mother got sick too.” A heavy equipment operator with teddy bear looks, he acknowledged the problem he and Dennis faced. “With my mother in and out of the hospital, it got to the point,” he said, “where we were not sure which one was going to go first.” And then this big man quietly wept.

Gizella Sabo was undergoing treatment for her cancer while Zigmund, her husband, 16 years older, was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. At 87, few expected him to live much longer, yet it came as a shock when doctors reported that his kidneys were failing. He was admitted to the Palliative Care Center at San Diego Hospice.

“How can you be altogether prepared?” asked Helene Abramson, their daughter. “Dying, after all, is so big, so final.”

Everything had been in a holding pattern for months. As the Alzheimer’s disease progressed, Gizella was the only one able to understand Zigmund’s needs and meet them. “But then my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” explained Helene, “and after the operations and chemotherapy, when we were told she had less than six months to live, we’d enrolled her in San Diego Hospice and were working with them to prepare for her death. Then suddenly father’s kidneys failed.”

Like two of her sisters, Helene lived outside San Diego. The third daughter and, at 5 feet 10 inches, the tallest of that darkhaired, strikingly good-looking set, she had been regularly taking off from work, flying into San Diego to stay for a week at her parents’ home. While David and Dennis Davison also visited their parents regularly, stopping by the trailer park every day or so to see that all was well, for Helene and her sisters, the situation was made more difficult because their parents had never learned to read and write English well. As they grew ill, they depended upon their daughters not only for articulating what the doctor said during their medical visits, but for going to the pharmacy, noting the numbers and kinds of medications they were to take, arranging for someone to do the housekeeping, and seeing to pretty much all the rest of their needs.

Helene said that when she got the call saying to come right away — “Daddy is dying” — she caught the next plane out of Kennedy Airport in New York. “I kept praying, ‘Please don’t let him die,’ over and over throughout the flight. We landed and I got to the Palliative Care Center. My family was there. My father was lying in the bed. His eyes were closed. I went over to the bed, leaned over, and lifted his eyelids. He was looking right at me. ‘I’m here,’ I told him.”

Having been at bedside most of the day, members of the family left to get something to drink or to go home to bathe. Helene was alone with her father. She said it was as if he’d waited to say good-bye to everyone in his family. Now with her there, the last to arrive, he opened his mouth three times, she said, then he stopped breathing. Zigmund Sapo died February 1, 1997, at 8:40 in the morning, his face quickly turning yellow as the blood drained. It was, said Helene, a holy death, that among Orthodox Jews, those who die on the Sabbath are thought to be especially close to God.

According to their faith, there is no burial of the dead on the Sabbath. Zigmund’s body was wrapped with sheets and gently lowered to the floor. The family returned and spent the day praying over the body. Helene said the hospice center and its staff allowed them their privacy throughout the day. She praised especially Colleen, the nurse, and Jennifer Smerican, the creamy-skinned social worker. They had arranged Zigmund’s admission into the hospice, and throughout the entire crisis, they were deftly solicitous.

That afternoon, sunshine streamed through the window, wrapping the sheeted body in light. Zigmund Sabo had died widely regarded in his Orthodox community as a tzadik, a righteous figure. Sabo had not come by his righteousness painlessly. While he had survived the extermination camp, he had lost his entire family there. When Zigmund’s first wife died, she was in Auschwitz with Gizella. That story of the second wife serving as a witness to the death of the first was one of the many that informed Helene’s young life.

“My mother would sit by my bed and tell me what it was like, what she went through, and how my Aunt Julie helped keep her alive. Those were my bedtime stories.”

Life, Helene was told, had been tolerable enough in Czechoslovakia even when the race laws were enacted and her mother’s parents had to leave the tavern they owned and move the family into the Jewish ghetto. There things became more and more tightly circumscribed, an implacable net drawn closer and closer until finally the family found themselves crushed together in an enclosed freight car heading for Dachau. But that camp was full, so the train was redirected to Auschwitz. After long days of travel, cramped and without water, the train at last stopped and they descended:

“The young and the old were herded into one group,” said Helene, recounting what she’d been told. “Because my mother was 16, old enough to work, she was sent with Julie, her older sister, to another group. A younger sister, just 14, left the workers’ group, running back to be with her mother and the younger children. Then my mother’s group was sent to the showers to be disinfected and shaved bald. The others were gassed.” Helene paused, reflecting. “My mother said that when the train arrived at Auschwitz and they were ordered to descend, they knew that they were going to face death.”

Regularly, as Gizella’s cancer encroached, she would undergo pleural effusion, fluid filling a pocket in the lining of the lungs. As this occurred, Gizella would find it more and more difficult to catch her breath or speak; finally she would lapse into silence. Her daughters took this as a cue that it was time to have the fluid drained. The procedure is called “tapping.”

The first time she was tapped, the fluid, which normally looks a little like champagne, was orange colored with a pinkish trace. The pink color was explained when the long hypodermic was removed and Gizella cried out in pain. The medical assistant, it turned out, had punctured the lung and was drawing blood. After that, Gizella was taken to San Diego Hospice to be tapped. Here things went better and there was little discomfort. Fearing a lung might collapse or the needle puncture a cancerous growth, doctors decided to discontinue tapping. The last fluid taken from her body was green.

At the time of my visit, Gizella’s hair was perfectly in place as if she had just come from the beauty parlor. She wore a blue print silk dress; her legs were covered with a throw rug. She lay on a daybed in the recreation space just off the kitchen where, hanging on the opposite wall, was a large needlepoint framed like a painting. Pictured there in primitive detail, a rabbi stands over a young man with a black yarmulke on his head who pores over some sacred text. The needlepoint is old and faded. Moving back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, Gizella’s daughter Sheila and a young woman hired to help clean and prepare for Passover, which was still more than a week away, were setting plates on the dining room table.

Gizella, allowing her mind to drift backwards in time, recalled her first months in this country.

“We were so poor,” she said, speaking fondly, “that I would go out to the street, near the subway, and pick up from the ground the used cigarettes. I would take them home and clean the tobacco. This way my husband would have something to smoke.”

Whatever the actual experience, memory had made of it something precious. Years later as their health gave way, Gizella and Zigmund found day-to-day living had gone sour. With their memories, they would lie on the bed together, holding each other’s hands and silently crying.

“They felt bad knowing how unhappy the other was,” said Helene, who, like her sisters, felt guilty during those weeks when she was away from her own family, just as she felt bad when she was away from her parents. She spent so much time away from her job in New York that she was fired.

“It was just that no one expected my mother to live so long,” she explained. Gizella had managed to live beyond the six-month date assigned hospice patients. Helene said the same rage that had supported her mother in Auschwitz she now took in hand in her fight against cancer. At the same time, headlines in San Diego reported an investigation critical of hospice centers that carried patients longer than six months. Word of this investigation got to Gizella.

“I’m sorry,” she told Colleen Dodge.

“You just keep living,” Colleen responded. “We’ll take care of the rest.”

Gizella lay on her side as we talked. Julie, her older sister, sat beside her. As young women, before Auschwitz, Julie had been the beauty while Gizella was said to have all the personality. Now Julie’s face was lined and her gray hair was cropped short; she wore rumpled slacks, a baggy sweatshirt, no makeup. She looked ravaged.

In the camp, she would pinch Gizella’s cheeks each morning to bring the blood to the surface so that she would look healthy at roll-call inspection. When they were required to stand at attention, Julie would be beside her, her fingers a vice at her sisters elbow in case Gizella might start to collapse. The sisters hid their relationship (family members were not allowed to billet together), so when Julie, suffering from an impacted tooth, was sent to the infirmary where, under anesthesia, her tooth was removed and she was sterilized, Gizella hid her concern, waiting silently until Julie was returned to their hut.

At the camp, Gizella’s job was to collect and deliver to the crematorium the bodies of the women who each night threw themselves against the electrified wire. Suddenly sick with dysentery, feverish, half out of her mind, Gizella ranted on about rushing out in the night and grabbing the wire. Too exhausted to stay awake, Julie tied a string to her hand and looped it around her sister’s wrist so that with any move she’d awaken. There were other moments, each critical, in which Julie had acted quickly. She had bequeathed survival to Gizella as she might have handed down a winter coat grown too small. But now there was nothing that Julie could do but sit by her sister’s side and wait.

“I survived Auschwitz,” Gizella had declared early on. By the time I talked to her, her rage seemed to be spent. How did she feel facing what I called “a significant transition”? (I had used the two D-words, death and dying, with Harley; but here, in front of Gizella — a woman, a Jew, an Auschwitz survivor— I was desperate to find some other word or phrase less — brutal.) But my “significant transition” had not made sense. She looked quizzical, and only when Colleen Dodge said, “Gizella, he wants to know how you feel about dying,” did she shrug and smile in a way that I understood as dismissing the subject. I assumed that she was accepting her condition. Instead, she was in denial and continued to be even when told that after six tappings, she could not undergo another. By then, her cancer had metastasized to the liver and small intestines; there was, as well, a growth the size of a golf ball, and just as hard, that sat in her stomach area. Gizella, unable to eat, with further medical intervention halted, began to lose weight, her face turned gaunt.

“She was torn,” said Colleen Dodge, her nurse. “She told me she wanted to be with Ziggy and that she did not mind death. But the fact was that she was afraid of the dying process. At first she said she wanted to just go to sleep and have it happen. And then, of course, she felt she had so much to live for and that she didn’t want to leave all that was familiar behind.”

Julie, watching her sister lose weight and turn quickly into that skeletal figure she remembered from the camp, was beside herself. She moved through the house, numb.

“She can’t leave me,” she cried.

David Davison remembered the pleasure his father took in driving him and his brother out to the beach so that they could go surfing. Harley waited in the car, reading the newspaper or just looking at the ocean. “We’d be out in the water sometimes for a couple of hours. My father would wait there quietly until we were done. Then we’d pack up and he’d drive us back home. He’d smile then, happy to be doing it. You see, he had created for us a life different from the one he had growing up. He was proud of that.” Dennis Davison paused. “My father said he wanted to be our best friend.” When I asked Harley Davison what the most significant moment was in his life, his answer came at once, and it was not one particular moment but three: the day he got married and the day each of his sons was born. “Especially the day I got married,” he said, looking over at Maxine. He had already announced himself one of the luckiest men in the world because he’d been blessed with a fine woman. Now he named the date when his luck hit.

“August 15, 1945,” he said. “I have a couple of good sons and I have the best wife a man could ever have. How’s that?” he said. “Wouldn’t you say I’m a lucky man?”

Harley and Maxine

Harley and Maxine

Harley had told his nurse that he wanted to leave some kind of legacy. Colleen reminded him of what she’d seen, of the affection she’d witnessed between him and his wife, between Harley and his sons. You might call it small potatoes, she told him, but was love, after all, not a legacy? And what might that mean for those who read his story? Harley, who once believed he would not live to see this article reach print, has indeed done so, and said, yes, maybe she was right.

“It was not a moment,” Gizella said, responding to the same question I’d asked Harley. “It was a year. I saw my last two daughters married in the same year. That was the most important time for me.” What this meant to her, she said, was that she’d done her job and, as much as she was able, had seen to her children’s futures.

Gizella fought the dying. Unable to surrender, she scowled, her gaze turned hard and unloving. She reverted to a primal state, not unlike what is reported to have happened in the concentration camps. The morphine pump was set up, allowing Gizella to control her dosage. But she refused to fully narcotize herself; she struggled not to go under. Her daughters, all four, were there. They were devastated. They were saying goodbye to a stranger.

Gizella Sabo died on Sunday, June 1, 1997. Her last word was no. Over and over again she said no, no, no, no...

As an Orthodox Jew, she was buried according to a clearly prescribed protocol. AM Israel Mortuary at El Cajon Boulevard and 63rd Street took the body. It was cleaned and prepared for burial by the chevra kadisha, members of the burial society. There was no embalmment, and within 24 hours the body was buried at Home of Peace Cemetery in a plain pine casket with holes at its bottom to speed up the process of decomposition. Her body was set down beside that of her husband. In one year their family will mark the occasion with a simple bronze plate. It will bear, besides names and dates, the simple inscription “Holocaust Survivors.”

Rabbi Bogopulski led the service for Gizella Sabo, ending with, “Let her soul be bound up under the cover of God’s wings.” Her daughters shared with me another sentence with which the services often end: “May her memory be for a blessing.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader