My grandmother ran out of Poland towards Russia with only the summer clothes she was wearing and spent the next five years seeking warmth in a world that had frozen over.
I was raised on her story, as well as all the stories of my generation’s grandparents. We were their proof that it had been worth it and we were reminded of that as often as possible.
Black and white images of striped prisoners dominated my youth and I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my life was a living testimony to six million corpses.
I devoured memoirs and drew black and white sketches of emaciated Jews melting in pools of blood. My drawings hung on the walls as trophies, as though they meant we had won.
I knew what gas chambers were before I had ever watched a Disney movie. I scoffed at Socialism before I learned about Democracy. I could recognize Hitler and Stalin and swastikas before I ever saw a picture of JFK. I wasn’t brought up in the shadow of the Holocaust, I was brought up in the tangible fear and hope and pain and joy of a generation who went through something they either couldn’t stop talking about, or never mentioned at all.
I didn’t think death and destruction could faze me; I was basically a survivor.
Almost 11 months ago, my ninety-something year old grandmother walked across the green grass leading up to the hole they were lowering my 17 year old sister into. She stood as tall as possible for a 4 foot-something woman and looked straight ahead. “Dayeinu,” she stated. She remained stoic and unmoving throughout the week, solid as a rock. When someone told my father that we don’t ask questions; we just cry, she marched over and made another statement. “We ask questions,” she said, “we don’t cry.”
At one point I escaped the crowds and went upstairs to the room with the candle where we watched my sister die. I took out her paints and brushes and covered one of the canvases she never got to use in the colors of my pain. The release was more powerful than a thousand tears. I brought it down to share with my family and someone said, “show Bubby.” I sat down at her feet and held up the painting. She stared at it and patted my hand. “Bubby, I can’t share any other way,” I said. I wanted her to know that my eyes dry up when it hurts, but the words caught in my throat. “I know,” she said, “I see you crying.”
My grandmother survived more than the Holocaust. She survived immigration, she survived the loss of her mother, she survived the loss of her son, she survived the loss of her husband and she just survived the loss of her granddaughter. Dayeinu.
For two years I held my breath as I waited for my sister to die. Then she died and I stopped breathing. For almost a year I have built up a tolerance to air filling my lungs. I can learn to live.
The siren blared yesterday and rang in my head all day. I wanted to think of the lives lost…I really tried…but I have carried their memories in my essence since the day I was born and yesterday I suddenly felt like I wanted to break away.
I turned on the TV and the images of my youth jumped out at me on every channel. Nothing made my soul churn, it was like flipping through a worn out photo album and knowing each picture before getting to the next page.
Without warning, images of Syrian children flew across the room at me and slammed against my chest.
I thought of a child running for the border with just the clothes on her back towards a future she could never be certain of. I thought of her grandchildren, raised on her losses. I thought of her eyes drying up.
The ringing of the siren subsided. I took a deep breath and I reached for those paints and brushes.
My grandmother’s story was told. It is time to tell the ones that are screaming out at us from behind our screens.