My grandmother was really beautiful.
The kind of beauty that shines through someone’s eyes and which, at the end, made her oxygen mask and the aura of confusion emulsify into the shadows.
My grandmother was the blue part of the flame, coming in contact with her made you glow. The kind of light that thrives in a storm, humming, low, and resilient.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. That little word matters. International.
It’s not Yom Hazikaron L’Shoah here in Israel.
We’ve weaved that part of our history into our narrative, calling the nation to contemplate our humanity, to understand that the Holocaust did not define us or make us worthy of this place. We remember every year so that we can tell everyone we are not victims but survivors and though we recall the past, we take responsibility for the future.
That day is ours. Today is everyones. It’s International.
We implore the world to remember because it is all too ready to conveniently forget.
And despite that promise to Never Forget, Holocaust denial is alive and well.
Though society has evolved, those oppressive, hateful seeds of a cruel regime still exist in other ones.
And there is no generation left to present the historical evidence in the face of “alternative facts.”
The generation who could give testimony is dying out.
And denying the Holocaust rages on and is given a cloak of respectability.
The personal stories and the names are decaying with the onslaught of time and indifference.
So I wanted to introduce you to people who are so intrinsically a part of me, I constantly feel their loss.
Their stories can’t be the sole burden of their families. That’s too risky.
Listen to who they were and what they saw.
And don’t let it go from your psyche.
Bubby, my mother’s mother, was born in Lublin.
She had many siblings.
She was a math whiz and laughed really fully, grabbing her collar bone and throwing her neck back to feel the force of it.
She had the most soulful, beautiful brown eyes I have ever seen. They were like tea cup saucers to me and so full of emotion.
In her youth she was social, accomplishing things I never did, like being active in a youth group (Hashomer Hatzayir), and getting herself a serious boyfriend by the age of 17.
She also faced things I never could.
She faced the Nazis invading.
She faced the looming Russian border and the suspicions of Communism on the other side.
She faced rickets and a baby and the loss of her lover.
She faced the baby dying too.
My Bubby was lucky. She lived, her sister came with her.
Four siblings didn’t.
Raizel, whose black and white portrait hangs on our wall, is reminiscent of an Ansel Adams model.
Miriam, whose braids were the only thing my Bubby was able to remember about her.
Bubby would tell me these stories as I sat next to her on the 70’s brown and orange sofa set in the upstairs apartment above our duplex.
I would sit with her when she needed company because I was the youngest and easiest to force.
I liked sitting with her. I liked her energetic voice and her purple sunglasses and the violet silk scarves she wore as a mitpachat to placate my more religious grandfather.
Violet was her favourite color. Candies were her favourite food.
She’d tell me all about her siblings but I can no longer remember all their names.
I’ll never forget the story of when she was running barefoot down the hill near her house and almost lost a toe after it got caught on something sharp on the train tracks she was crossing.
That one was used to guilt trip me into always wearing slippers at home (it worked).
Bubby spoke in accented English but I can’t remember her words. Every time I think of her it’s always in a trilling mishmash Yinglish. Truth be told, my memories of her are predominantly in Yiddish.
A day wouldn’t go by without her opening the door to the hall and calling down to our house, “Who is in the haym?”
And you’d have to scream up the stairs for her to hear you. She’d ask repeatedly until she was sure she wasn’t alone.
When she could still walk, she would come down the stairs and look out the window next to the front door and watch the tree at the centre of our courtyard.
She’d unconsciously start singing.
I’ll never forget what she sang.
It was the tune always on her lips, a tick, the strongest one nestled in her subconscious.
“Zog nit keyn mol az du geyst dem letstn veg…”
Never say that this is the end of the road…
The Partisan Song.
My Bubby sang that all the time and I’d like to think it was it was because she never saw herself as a victim, but as a fighter.
I could see it in the flame that shone in her eyes and hear it in the verve of her voice as she hummed and feel it in the wind that came from the surprisingly forceful pump of her fist as she tapped her foot near that window.
That flame inside her that clung to the past.
Her name was Sarah Brana.
My grandfather called her Sonya.
Her parents were killed as were most of her sisters and brothers.
And we still don’t know how.
My Zaidy, my mom’s dad, I recently lost.
I can hardly write about him without it threatening to extend into a book length post.
But it’s easy to describe him. His name was Viktor.
Strong. Stubborn. Indignant.
He stood at a towering 5’3.
He never bent his back.
Not to the Nazis, not to the Communists.
He was born in Krasznik, Poland.
When the Nazis invaded he fled to Russia.
On a horse drawn cart. Through a fiery road, then through a forest until he fought his way wading through a dark river instead of crossing a bridge because it had already been blown up.
He jumped a train after that and made sure it got deep into Russia before he jumped off.
Zaidy never talked about it with me or at all until the last few years of his life.
He was the man who suffered in silence, who was angry at G-d but still served him, who would keep things neat and tidy and minimal because life needed space, and space shouldn’t be taken up by unnecessary things.
Zaidy had a couple of immaculate suits he kept well and living for over thirty years. He always wore a small fedora or sun hat as both a fashion statement and a sign of gentlemanliness.
He argued with God by the window and sang with tenor of an Opera singer.
He was opinionated and sometimes unforgiving, but like Bubby, he fiercely loved you. There was no such thing as a moderate feeling. Lukewarm did not run in his blood. He loved you with every fibre of himself.
He lost everyone.
Every single person in his family.
For the last two years that was the springboard for his arguments with God.
It would always start after he lit the Shabbat candles and looked at his siddur resentfully.
“Why should you do this to your people? You love your sons so you make them a Churban?”
The righteous anger in his voice echoed that of a prophet, and that strange resemblance he had to Ben Gurion only made the words crash in your ears with more insistence.
Churban, the Yiddish word for Holocaust, is also Hebrew, biblical. It means Sacrifice or Destruction.
After he accused God of not loving His sons properly, he’d bring up his sister.
Dobsce, with the blond hair and little children.
Deborah. That was her Hebrew name.
It always came down to her.
“Mein shvester mit der kinderlach….”
Not one member of my Zaidy’s family survived.
No one alive knows what Dobsce looked like.
My Zaidy, my father’s father, was a quiet man.
I don’t know much about him because he didn’t volunteer information and died when I was two.
He was born in Moravia, a region ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
My dad defined him by his work ethic.
He worked hard.
He would wake up before the break of dawn to head out to his job.
What I see on those terra cotta filtered pictures of him, is someone who is still and quiet and good.
I don’t know why he was so quiet.
Only that he never spoke about his time in a labor camp.
That it was known he was there.
That it may have not made him a quiet man but it made him more silent still.
Though I do not know much about him my father, his brother and my grandmother loved him deeply and proudly and acknowledged that he possessed a quiet strength which surrounded him that they still sorely miss.
It was either my uncle or my father who told us children about the one thing they knew of my Zaidy’s time in the labor camp.
One evening he was so hungry, so exhausted by the constant cramping, that he found a patch of miraculous grass, and ate it.
I always picture a blue night and a full moon high above barbed wire and hear the sound of my grandfather’s relieved chewing when I think of this.
Zaidy lost everyone too.
That’s why his namesakes’, my nephews and cousins, are so important.
Moshe Zev is what they’v been called after a man they never knew and a survivor they never met.
Bubby, my dad’s mom, Thank G-d ad 120, is still here to tell her story but she’ll wave you away if you’re too investigatory and invasive in your tone when you ask the question.
I had to sneak my phone camera on her when I surreptitiously tried to do a quasi conversational interview with her.
Bubby’s name is Adele in Hungarian and Leah in Hebrew.
She likes History, made the best sufganiyot I have ever tasted, is extremely humble and self deprecating and is also the most optimistic human being I have ever met.
She reads an extremely worn out sefer tehilim every day and used to love to watch JAG (lest you think she is all piety).
She left Hungary for Canada when she was already hitting middle age and worked in bakery for most of her life.
There’s nothing wrong with cleaning toilets, Bubby would say, as long as you’re cleaning them well.
Handouts, she would say, are the only thing to be ashamed of.
Like her husband, she worked hard.
She talks politics with me and lets me complain about the content in the yeshivish magazines my aunt brings her.
To me she is a kindred spirit, especially when I catch glimpses of her in old pictures and she looks shy, skeptical, wary of the camera.
“I was a moody person.” She’d say. Bingo. We’re twins.
I remember my grandmother’s sister, Tante Ibi. She used to live a few doors away from Bubby. Nothing pleased me more than to go over there to get force fed delicious pastries and be given permission to play on her swing set.
“Ibi was never moody. People loved her. Always smiling. ”
I never asked about Bubby’s brother until I was old enough to understand that he was taken and never came back.
And by the time I was old enough to ask, this Bubby of mine who was considered a general worthy of inspiring fear and respect in my father’s eyes, had mellowed to the point that she would cry in front of others.
Asking about her brother induced tears. The guilt made me stop asking.
Bubby only told me snippets of what happened. She always remembers the same incidents but not always in chronological order.
“The Germans came.”
In her little town in Hungary, where many ethnically German Hungarians lived, the people threw roses on the pavement, giddily watching as the black boots of Nazi columns crushed them underfoot.
“I’ll never forget how they welcomed them.”
Bubby remembers curfews punishable by death and the shul being set ablaze and people being taken to the bundhaus to receive beatings.
She also remembers how a few select families were left alone, invisible, and were mysteriously not on the rota when deportation came.
I have her on tape describing the scenes and am afraid to show them to her. Like her husband she is a private person. The sound of her own testimony might embarrass her.
Bubby’s apartment in Outremont, Montreal, is the setting for hundreds of my memories.
A picture of us together is taped to my wall in Jerusalem.
Bubby and I are close.
I see myself in her. I’ve never asked her if she sees herself in me.
Being in pursuit of love I’ve asked Bubby how she met my Zaidy many times. The man who was strong and silent.
“He came to my village. After the war.”
As if this were an answer. As if it described a courtship or a bond full of trust.
But that’s how Bubby would see it.
“He came to my village.”
There were few who were left. Strolling into the village is the more practical, unsentimental way of saying that survivors came together, families looked for each other, and they tried oh so hard to make sure never to part.
All four of my grandparents were survivors in their own way. They remain the strongest and most admirable people I know. They never hid emotions or shirked from responsibility and seem to me to have been made with a fortitude that is lacking in this day and age.
They held a magic of another world as well as the darkness of it.
Maybe their stories don’t seem important or inspirational.
To me they always will be.
They survived and because of them, I lived.
So in honour of International Holocaust Remembrance day, I’m asking everyone to make their stories matter.
I’m asking everyone to say their names.
So we don’t forget.
So we don’t normalise hate.
So the individual matters and the stories live on somehow.