My great grandmother, Flora Grünberger of blessed memory, loved to ice-skate. In the winter months, when the Oder river would freeze over, she’d take her granddaughter, my mom, both bundle up, and go out into the cold. Gliding on their special shoes, they’d hold hands and have fun. Somewhere there’s still a greying photo with both of them hugging and German scribbles on the back. When my Zionist grandfather, fearing the new regime, told her he’s going to schlep her beautiful daughter and beloved granddaughter to Palestina, she wasn’t about to join. For one, there were not enough “certifikatim” (immigration certificates); and besides, what nonsense! What does he think this is, the Middle-Ages? She was not about to leave her lifelong homeland, where her husband, my great-grandfather, was a decorated WWI sniper; nothing can possibly happen in modern, cultural Germany! let alone to her!! If all else fails, she can always join later…
“Later” all that came was a telegram, explaining she’s going “East”, traveling “with the neighbors”. But the neighbors were long dead!! What did this message mean? Was she losing her mind? Was she maybe trying to say something? What in the world was going on?? Surely, a misunderstanding… Today, Yom HaSho’a 2020 I lit a candle in her memory. I thought of their good-bye, of the journey, of my grandma, her daughter, trying to make a life in the sandy red soil of central coastal Israel, learning to care for chicks and oranges, live under the hot sun, grinding her teeth over the strange, rocky language, all the while, the gnawing fear inside, pieces of the horrifying news slowly trickling in…
Only decades later, did my mom find her name in the long lists of those murdered in Theresienstadt. Only decades later, did I begin the understand pieces of our story; of my story. We grew up in silence. No one spoke. I now think that it’s not that they purposefully didn’t share; it’s that they thought “there was nothing to say”. Maybe there was guilt, shame, so many mixed feelings that had no words… We were lucky. We were alive. Our immediate family was nearby, and about those absent, we didn’t know even to ask. Our gaze was forward. And that past? Those awful photos and heart-wrenching stories? Those belonged to some other people, not “us”. To “us”, this would not have happened. A wall of silence rose between “us” and “them”; between the here and now, and the stories and people of then and there. They did not speak; we did not listen. In some strange way, everyone was content. And silent.
Silence was also what accompanied the surviving relatives. My nuclear family all arrived in Israel in the 1930’s with the “5th Aliya” – coming from Germany, so I made that assumption that this was so for “everybody”. I knew that my aunt (by marriage) left Berlin in 1935. Clearly, where would one go? I assumed that she too, and her family, came to Israel then.
It was when I was back in Israel for my uncle’s shiv’a, when my aunt was asked by one of the guests, when did she come to Israel, that I heard the rest of the story; happened to hear; snippets of…
When the question was tossed into the full room, me, knowing “everything” about the family’s history, jumped and said, 1935! My aunt looked at me puzzled and said: “no, that’s when we left Germany”. “Yes, so? 1936”? She hesitated, and I was further confused: that was everybody else’s story; how long did it take her to get here? Even in the “ancient” 1930’s? What’s so hard to calculate?
She thought for a long moment, already realizing what her answer will do, then slowly said, “1949”.
What??? She shook her head yes. “But wait”, I tried to save the story; my version of the story, still hoping to change what’s about to be revealed.
“Didn’t you leave Berlin in 1935”? “Yes”, she said, her fists tight around the armchair.
“We went to Holland”.
“Holland”?? I was alarmed, “In 1935?? That’s not good! What happened”??
“Well…. yes, things were not so good… nu, maspik, enough with the boring stories. Tea? I have an excellent cake. Anyone?”…
When the guests finally left, she suggested I talk to her sister, who had the “interesting story” and can tell me “everything”. No “Yekke” in their right mind ever tells anyone “everything” but she told me some: how she, her newly-wed husband (married after dangerously sneaking into the community mikveh) and six others, aided by the Underground, dressed up, with false papers (except for their ktuba…), crossed the border from Holland to Belgium, hidden by Righteous Gentiles, then continued to Switzerland, where they were caught and sent back to be held in Detention Camps and DP (Displaced Persons) camps. She also told me some of my aunt’s “boring story”, how she refused to leave Amsterdam, opting to stay with her mother who, they feared, will not be able to make the escape journey. In Amsterdam they first went hiding, and then, like Anna Frank, were caught and sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which they both, miraculously survived, then sent to DP (Displaced Persons) camps in North Africa, before indeed, arriving in Israel, in 1949. My aunt got married but was never able to have children. That time was lost, and who knows what else happened. Forever, she had to walk that line between endless pain for all that was gone and joy and thankfulness for being alive at all. How can one hold all of this? How is anyone expected to just get up and go afterwards? Yes.
It’s 1978. My mom and I travel to the US before my army service for some sightseeing and meeting relatives. One night we stay with a cousin of some degree who survived the war. My mom tells me how beautiful she was as a child, and that in spite of the emaciation, was still beautiful when an American soldier fell in love with her and took her home, to live “happily ever after”. But the Holocaust never left. When we sit down for dinner, 30 some years later, I put two potatoes on my big, white, empty plate. Just as I am about to put my fork into one, she looks at me, then the potatoes, then again, eyes me, eyes the plate, and says, “one potato is more than enough for a girl your age and size”. “But”… I try to protest. “Sh”… hushed my mom, pulling my hand away, “let it go; it’s because of what happened ‘there’”. Silence. I now realize I was then about the same age she was when the war ended. One potato was definitely enough. Maybe for a whole day. Maybe a week.
The stories seem so much part of my childhood that I don’t ever remember being without them, and yet, it takes so much time to really hear them. Another vignette: Standing on the platform in the busy Berlin train station, with a ticket to safety and freedom in Scandinavia (Denmark, I believe), my mom’s cousin, all ready to depart; her mom waving good-bye. They both know they might never meet again, but ‘what must be done, must be done, and this is what’s best’. The horn sounds, once and twice, whistles blow, conductors rush, doors almost closing. My mom’s cousin, already on the train, looks at her mom, steps off that train in order to join her mom and remain in Berlin. It’s 1939. They hide in Berlin for the next 6 years. Six. Whole. Years. In a Berlin cellar. Surviving the war and later making a home in New York.
I start writing this morning; it’s Yom HaShoa and I should. And I want to. I plan on something short. “To the point”. But the stories spill on. Especially these days, these ladies are with me. We have dinner together and they tell me what it was like to bake matza behind a bookshelf in Brussels so there would be no smoke in the chimney; and what it was like when you really could not go out; and what it was like when you finally could. When people compare the current situation and the Holocaust, I shudder. There is no comparison, but maybe, the only thing is that the distance between “us” and “them”, “here” and “there”, has just shrunk a tiny, tiny bit. We are still so far…
May their memory be a blessing.