Cecillia Pollock Etkin’s faith in Judaism delivered her from seven concentration camps during the Holocaust and in 1950 to the Seattle Orthodox Jewish community where she lovingly served as the “mikveh lady” for 27 years, from 1970-1997. Born in Sighet, Romania in 1922, Cecillia was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 where her parents and many siblings were murdered. It was 18 years before Cecillia could speak of these experiences. In 1945 Cecillia emigrated to New York City, married Seattle native Nathan Etkin, and moved to Seattle with him where she ran her own dressmaking business and raised four children. As Seattle’s first volunteer “mikveh lady” she prepared the ritual bath according to Orthodox Jewish law, and counseled brides and married women, converts, the sick and the elderly, who sought her quiet spiritual guidance. She now tours Seattle public and Jewish day schools educating the young about the Holocaust. “It’s hard to live for yesterday,” she says. “I have to go on and live each day.”
“The way I met my husband was that I attended a meeting in October of the B‘Nai Akiva group in New York City. He didn’t sweep me off my feet. But for our next date he came with huge flowers. Almost as big as this round table. After dinner, we went for a walk and he asked me if I knew about the mikveh [the Jewish ritual bathhouse.] ‘Of course, ’ I said. My father went every single morning, even on Shabbat.’ Nathan said, ‘Would you go to the mikveh? ’ And I said, ‘Listen. Why are you asking me this questions?’ And he said, ‘If we have children, would you agree to bring them up and give them a religious upbringing?’ I was so flabbergasted. Why is he talking to me like that? So, I tell him, ‘Listen. I don’t know who you are. And you don’t know who I am.’ He said, ‘I know who you are. My parents live in Seattle, Washington, and it’s a long way from here. I will take you there.’ I saw right away that he is not an ordinary person. He’s a learned man. He started growing on me.”
“I realized that going to the mikveh is a wonderful thing. It’s a way of life. You want to hear about that? A woman has a period every month. And for two weeks after that, after she has her period for seven or eight days, you don’t sleep together. Every time it was like a honeymoon. You don’t get tired of each other. I don’t understand how people who don’t keep that Law-how they live, really. Because we waited for one another.”
“As the mikveh lady that’s the only thing that I had to do: prepare the water. I had to make sure that it was done according to halacha [Jewish law]. It’s not just something that you fill up a tub with water. We have to have natural water. Spring water. The mikveh is not a new thing. It comes from the time of Adam and Eve. We believe that the roots of those waters were connected to Gan Eden [The Garden of Eden]. I couldn’t live any other way.”
© 2004 Jewish Women’s Archive. Photographs by Joan Roth.