By JOSEPH BERGER
Yitta Schwartz, shown in the late 1980s.
WhenYitta Schwartz died last month at 93, she left behind 15 children, more than 200 grandchildren and so many great- and great-great-grandchildren that, by her family’s count, she could claim perhaps 2,000 living descendants.
Mrs. Schwartz was a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect, whose couples have nine children on average and whose ranks of descendants can multiply exponentially. But even among Satmars, the size of Mrs. Schwartz’s family is astonishing. A round-faced woman with a high-voltage smile, she may have generated one of the largest clans of any survivor of the Holocaust — a thumb in the eye of the Nazis.
Her descendants range in age from a 75-year-old daughter named Shaindel to a great-great-granddaughter born Feb. 10 named Yitta in honor of Mrs. Schwartz and a great-great-grandson born Feb. 15 who was named Moshe at his circumcision on Monday. Their numbers include rabbis, teachers, merchants, plumbers and truck drivers. But these many apples have not fallen far from the tree: With a few exceptions, like one grandson who lives in England, they mostly live in local Satmar communities, like Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel, near Monroe, N.Y., where Mrs. Schwartz lived for the last 30 years of her life.
Mrs. Schwartz had a zest for life and a devotion to Hasidic rituals, faithfully attending the circumcisions, first haircuts, bar mitzvahs, engagements and weddings of her descendants. With 2,000 people in the family, such events occupied much of the year.
Whatever the occasion, she would pack a small suitcase and thumb a ride from her apartment in Kiryas Joel to Williamsburg or elsewhere.
“She would appear like the Prophet Elijah,” said one of her daughters, Nechuma Mayer, who at 64 is her sixth-oldest living child, and who has 16 children and more than 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “Everybody was fighting over her!”
There were so many occasions that, to avoid scheduling conflicts, one of her sons was assigned to keep a family calendar. But her family insists that Mrs. Schwartz had no trouble remembering everyone’s name and face.
Like many Hasidim, Mrs. Schwartz considered bearing children as her tribute to God. A son-in-law, Rabbi Menashe Mayer, a lushly bearded scholar, said she took literally the scriptural command that “You should not forget what you saw and heard at Mount Sinai and tell it to your grandchildren.”
“And she wanted to do that,” he said, without needing to add her belief that the more grandchildren, the more the commandment is fulfilled. Mrs. Schwartz gave birth 18 times, but lost two children in the Holocaust and one in a summer camp accident here.
She was born in 1916 into a family of seven children in the Hungarian village of Kalev, revered as the hometown of a founder of Hungarian Hasidism. During World War II, the Nazis sent Mrs. Schwartz, her husband, Joseph, and the six children they had at the time to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
At the shiva last month, another Bergen-Belsen survivor recalled her own mother dying at the camp; Mrs. Schwartz took it upon herself to prepare the body according to Jewish ritual, dig a grave and bury the woman.
“For her it was a matter of necessity,” Nechuma Mayer said of her mother’s actions.
When the war ended, the family made its way to Antwerp, Belgium. There, Mrs. Schwartz put up refugees in makeshift beds in her own bombed-out apartment.
In 1953, the Schwartzes migrated to the United States, settling into the Satmar community in Williamsburg. She arrived with 11 children — Shaindel, Chana, Dinah, Yitschok, Shamshon, Nechuma, Nachum, Nechemia, Hadassah, Mindel and Bella — and proceeded to have five more: Israel, Joel, Aron, Sarah and Chaim Shloime, who died in summer camp at age 8. Sarah came along after Mrs. Schwartz had already married off two other daughters.
While her husband sold furniture on Lee Avenue, Williamsburg’s commercial spine, Mrs. Schwartz, who never learned English well, tended the family. She sewed her daughters’ jumpers with mother-of-pearl buttons and splurged for pink-and-white blouses — 20 for 99 cents each — at that late lamented discount emporium on Union Square, S. Klein.
With so many children, Mrs. Schwartz had to make six loaves of challah for every Sabbath, using 12 pounds of dough — in later years, she was aided by Kitchenaid or Hobart appliances. (Mrs. Mayer said her mother had weaknesses for modern conveniences, and for elegant head scarves.) For her children’s weddings, Mrs. Schwartz starched the tablecloths and baked the chocolate babkas and napoleons.
After her husband died 34 years ago, relatives said, Mrs. Schwartz never burdened others with her new solitude.
“We didn’t feel even one minute that she was a widow,” Mrs. Mayer said. “She used to say, ‘When there are so many problems in life, I should put myself on the scale?’ ”
Mrs. Schwartz did not want her children to collect photographs of her and, given that modesty, her family was reluctant to provide more than one to accompany this article. “Just keep me in your heart,” she used to say. “If you leave a child or grandchild, you live forever.”
MATRIARCH The casket of Yitta Schwartz after her death last month in Kiryas Joel, N.Y. She left perhaps 2,000 descendants.