For as long as I can remember, my relationship with my grandfather was strained. He was an intense person to begin with, and his experiences during the Holocaust (many of which he refused to discuss) only magnified his social ineptitude.
While most people knew him as the stately “Mr. Reich,” a select few knew him as the slightly more approachable “Pinchas.” (An even smaller group cherish memories of their younger years with the playful “Pinky.”)
To me, he was “Zeide,” and though I loved him unconditionally, it was often difficult to embrace a man with quite so many rough edges. Growing up in Baltimore, it felt like Zeide’s house in Brooklyn was a million miles away.
So, during my college years in New York City, I decided to take full advantage of our close proximity, bending over backwards to forge a deeper bond with a man who had always been so distant.
What follows is an abridged version of a college essay I wrote in November 2002 about an important turning point in our relationship (and one of my fondest memories).
Though I don’t usually believe in “recycling” old material, I cannot think of a more fitting way to mark my grandfather’s second yartzheit than sharing this story of hope and rebirth on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
(I am also quite certain that finding this treasure on my computer days before the yartzheit was no coincidence.)
Pinchas scurried down the steps to the mikveh (ritual bath) with his towel draped over his shoulder. It had been about a month since the Nazis transformed his small Romanian town into a ghetto, and by some miracle, he had not yet been forced to live among the Jews who had been earmarked for transport to the “labor camps.”
After a failed attempt to escape the ghetto completely, he found himself sleeping in the Nazi interrogation center, keeping himself busy sweeping the alleys, cleaning the officers’ uniforms and shoes, and successfully staying out of sight and mind.
The rest of his family, however, had not been so fortunate. Figuring that their immediate entrance into the ghetto would allow them to choose “more comfortable quarters,” his family’s haste proved fatal when they were transported from the ghetto to concentration camps where survival, not comfort, was their main concern.
It was Friday afternoon, and nothing, not even a state of war, could keep Pinchas from his normal Sabbath preparations. As he reached the bottom of the staircase to the mikveh, he noticed his father coming toward him from the other side of the courtyard.
It had been weeks since they had last seen each other and, though Pinchas wanted to speak to his father and inquire about the family’s well-being, a soldier stood in the corridor watching their every move. If they talked, especially at length, they would be questioned, interrogated, or even beaten.
Having overheard many conversations in the interrogation center, Pinchas also knew that this was the last day his parents would be living in the ghetto before they were evacuated. He wanted to warn his father, to tell him everything he never had a chance to say, but he was silenced by fear. This was goodbye.
As they crossed paths they silently nodded to each other and continued walking.
Pinchas, my grandfather, now a great grandfather and a pillar of his community, is commonly known as ‘Mr. Reich.’ He looks distraught and weak, an unnatural state for a man who is usually so unflappable, as he recounts his final encounter with his father.
“I often think about this,” he says somberly, “and it is very painful for me to know that I wasn’t able to say goodbye to my father before they took him away.” He seems distressed, even moved, but he doesn’t cry. He never cries.
My grandfather has never shown any signs of weakness or vulnerability and has always been confident and strong, even when it might have been healthier to ask for help or share his feelings. As a child, I saw him as royalty. He was stoic and powerful. But talking about his father seemed to melt his regal facade.
Years ago, my parents and I spent a night at my grandfather’s house in Brooklyn, New York. In the morning, while Magda, his second wife, was preparing breakfast, my father and I began roughhousing in the kitchen. As we playfully tussled, my grandfather looked on in amazement. When we had quieted down, he looked at my father and said, “What I would have given for such a relationship with my father.”
Perhaps what distressed my grandfather the most about the way he said goodbye to his father was the fact that it was so fitting. They parted as strangers because, in essence, they were.
His longing for a father-son relationship, the trauma of having lost so many loved ones, and having witnessed such severe human cruelty, drove Pinchas to build emotional barriers around his heart, closing everyone out so that he would never have to hurt again. He interacted with others, but never intimately, and he always kept his distance.
For decades, Pinchas has reinforced these barriers, keeping others at arm’s length. However, these last few months have been different. He seems to be undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts.
A combination of physical reminders that he isn’t as unshakable and self-sufficient as he once thought, post-traumatic stress and a flood of painful memories triggered by the events surrounding September 11, and a desire to forge a relationship with his grandchildren have cause him to rethink his personal philosophy of life.
Our terrifying new world has reawakened 60-year-old feelings of helplessness and fear and has given him another chance to let his guard down, cry, reach out to loved ones, unabashedly care about others and be cared for, and express his feelings openly.
In September of this year, my step uncle (one of Magda’s sons) hosted an extravagant dinner party in honor of his daughter’s engagement. Magda escorted my grandfather as usual, and when I saw them enter the crowded room, I immediately made my way through the crowd to embrace them.
My grandfather wore a cast, a sign of his fractured invincibility, on his right arm from an incident that had occurred the month before. He greeted me, and we lapsed into a comfortable silence. It was understood that I wouldn’t leave his side for the rest of the evening.
As we wandered through the crowd, we greeted friends and distant relatives as a team. At times, he held my arm for stability and direction, and occasionally just to pull me closer. His pale complexion and scraggly white beard (which he grew just months after I had begun growing my own) dampened the stoicism, power, and control that I had so revered as a child. He was no longer royalty, he was just my grandfather.
At the meal, he made a valiant effort to cut his food by himself. For the first time, his need to press on independently seemed more like courage and perseverance than stubbornness.
But as the third course arrived, he admitted defeat. He looked down at the lamb chops that had been placed in front of him, put his fork and knife on the plate beside the meat, and slid the plate in my direction. “Could you cut this for me?,” he asked. Stunned, I immediately took his cutlery in my hands and got to work.
At long last, he was vulnerable and able to admit it. He was asking for help. Both redemption from his current trivial plight and the hopes of a new beginning rested in the hands of his grandson, an ambassador to a younger generation primed and ready to build a lasting relationship, if only he could do the same.
I slid his cubed lamb chops back in front of him and returned to my own plate. He thanked me, and we ate together in silence. The barriers have been lifted and a transformation has begun.
At last, Pinchas is learning to celebrate life rather than just survive it.