The story of how a man's leather belt ended up becoming part of a backyard avocado tree in Culver City begins in Hungary.
Barbara Rona's mother died giving birth to her. Nineteen years later, the father who raised her was arrested for being a Jew and taken to a concentration camp. Then Barbara was carted off to Auschwitz, the first of four Nazi camps where she witnessed unspeakable horrors.
She and others, exhausted, sick and starving, were ordered to march endlessly. They wore rags or were stark naked, and anyone who knelt to rest was shot and dragged away.
How did Rona survive?
"A fluke," she says. "How did anyone?"
After the war, she hurried back to Hungary to see what had come of her father and the rest of her family, and the answer was worse than she could have imagined. Her father had been shot and killed three days before the camp was liberated.
"They had to dig their own ditches. And then bang, bang, bang."
Altogether, she lost 50 relatives in the Holocaust, causing her to doubt the existence of God and her own ability to cope.
But among the survivors was a young man Rona had known since childhood. When he returned from a Russian labor camp, they became close, eventually married and began planning a move to California, where relatives had resettled. First, though, was a German relocation camp, where the paperwork that was supposed to take a couple of weeks took five years. As newlyweds, they lived in a one-room barracks with 14 other people.
Finally, in 1951, they arrived in Los Angeles and set up housekeeping at 39th and Vermont. In 1956, they moved to the Culver City house where Rona still lives, and where she and her husband, Louis, rebuilt their lives. Her husband got a job as a chemist at Max Factor, and they raised three children. Their first son became a chemist, like his father. Another son is a composer, and their daughter became a teacher. Rona worked as a teacher's aide once her kids were in school and today has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
But even in her new life, there was unexpected loss and suffering. Her husband died of heart problems in 1976, before reaching 60, and her eldest son died 5 1/2 years ago of leukemia.
Rona has persevered with the support of family and good friends, trying to live a life of hope. About 20 years ago, she took an avocado pit from a relative's tree and nursed it to life in a cup, with toothpicks as stakes. When it grew larger, she planted it in the yard, and it shot up so quickly that it began to slump.
Rona went through her late husband's clothing and found the belt he always wore on family camping trips.
She drove a stake into the earth in the garden her husband had loved and used his belt to hold up the tree, which quickly shot up to 10 feet and then 20, with a rich annual bounty. The Hungarian native found herself making tons of guacamole, and avocado quesadillas became a family staple.
Over time, the tree grew into the belt, as if absorbing the leather into its being. It's still there today, most of it swallowed into the trunk. But a section of the belt, including the buckle, still dangles free, a reminder of the long journey Barbara Rona and her husband made together, and a symbol of their resurrection.
It was tough, though, for Rona to maintain the garden as she grew older. Then, a few years ago, an opportunity arose. The Hungarian government began offering compensation payments to Holocaust survivors who lost loved ones. At first, Rona refused the money.
"I felt $2,000 was not going to pay for my father's life," she said.
But her son and daughter urged her to take the payment and use it for a tribute to him. Rona agreed, and the idea of a new garden as a sign of rebirth took hold.
Her husband's rotting workshop was removed, and Rona placed a stone from its foundation on his grave at the cemetery. She had the backyard grass removed and replaced it with agave and other native plants, making a trail to a bench near the avocado tree.
And now, with the warm spring sun of the last couple of weeks, the new garden is in bloom for the first time. A plum tree is blossoming, and orange and lemon trees are taking root. The tribute to her father is laid out in a way that frames the avocado tree that honors her husband.
Rona finds moments of peace out there, but the past is ever near.
"No matter how many books you read, you cannot imagine it," she said. "You cannot imagine what I went through."
The grandchildren have been spared the details, she said, for the sake of their mental health.
When I asked about her own, she shrugged. "What is a normal person?" she asked. "There's no such thing."
The woman who once found the strength to keep marching, to survive, sat in her garden on a beautiful day last week, close to the spirit of loved ones. A comforting quiet settled in and she smiled as she gazed up, through the trees, at the deep, eternal sky.