Ilana Shalit

A Glance That Opens Notes

This an imaginary letter which I wrote to my grandmother who didn’t survive the Holocaust.

(In memory of my grandmother, Leah Greenstein, 1903-1944, and in memory of many other grandmothers)

Dear Grandmother, we don’t know one another. That is, not in the usual sense of the word, the way a grandmother and her granddaughter know each other. Because I am alive and I am here in the Land of Israel. And you are not and you are there, part of the “Land of the Slain”. I believe that only children who grew up in Israel have another country added to the countries of the world in the imaginary atlas of their minds, the “Land of the Slain”. An amorphous country of sorts somewhere in the skies of Europe, whose gloomy Holocaust darkness overshadows all other countries in the continent. It isn’t quite delineated, but it is totally there. Perhaps like every loss, whose absent presence overshadows all other existential domains.

You are that kind of a grandmother to me: “Grandmother from the Land of the Slain”. And we don’t know each other in the usual sense. I never sat on your lap, you never stroked my hair, nor pressed your cheek against mine. I never felt the touch of your fingers, nor tasted your simmering food. I never slept over at your house, nor shared with you my day at kindergarten and in school. I never had the chance to tell you If something was bothering me. You never watched me grow up and I too never saw you. Not in your essence and not in your transformation. I was not familiar with the manner of your deportment, your bearing, the appearance of wrinkles around your eyes and on your forehead, and your hair streaked with white. I was never able to gaze upon you and you never gazed upon me. Perhaps the Land of the Slain should be called the “Land of the Thwarted”, and for every thwarted person in the Land of the Slain there is an entire family in the Land of the Living.

Yet, we do know each other somewhat through my father, your son. For sure, many things have been transmitted from you to him and from him to me, your granddaughter. Thus, in fact, we can get to know each other through who I am. Because that is how it is with grandparents. In one way or another, they leave their imprint upon their children and their children’s children. Though thwarted time and again, it is the way of the world. In addition, you and we were lucky (as far as luck goes in regard to the Land of the Slain), for you wrote poetry and your poems were published in journals back then in Lithuania. Many years later in Israel, Grandfather and Father found your poems. Father translated them and published them and, in so doing, enabled your words to “make Aliyah” to Israel as well, even after you yourself were no longer.

if not you, then at least your words. For apparently the Holocaust can be executed against people. But it cannot be executed against words. And through the words, you expressed yourself and also transmitted on to us, your grandchildren, many years later, something of your thoughts, of your mind, something of you.
The words reached us from Lithuania. There you lived with Grandfather about eighty years ago. You were young parents to two children. Grandfather was a Hebrew teacher and you worked as a nurse. And both of you wrote. You were occupied with your desire to express your creativity (believe it or not, your poems are now taught at the university). In 1936, when you were 33 years old, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Rumors of it must have reached you and so you wrote. You wrote without knowing what was about to be unleashed upon you as well.

“Blood in Spring”/ Leah Greenstein

Blood in Spring
Blood in the sun…
A spray of blood
Splatters on the lily-white bud.
The tree shakes itself:
-Rain always falls upon me
But now – blood?
By what hand?
From which heart?
-The heart of murderers,
The blood of children
Innocent and pure –
Rasps the bloody spray…
(Taken from: Leah Greenstein,”To Flicker”. Carmel Publishers, 2010, originally translated from Yiddish by Shalom Eilati).

Or perhaps you did know? Is it possible that even then your “motherly instincts” already sensed what was about to erupt into your world as well in but a few years. Three years later, World War II broke out. Grandfather is exiled to a labor camp. Rumors spread like wildfire and you are left alone with your eight-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. You cling tightly to your work and to your contacts and try to continue maintaining a family nest for your children. But the chariots of terror come closer and closer. People disappear and terrible stories reach your ear. You discern the edges of events yet try to continue protecting your children and your home. But then the ghetto closes in upon your home and your soul and the worst of all is about to happen: The children are to be taken from you. You understand that you no longer have a choice and that you must smuggle your children from one side of the ghetto to the other side, the side of life. Together with you it is not possible. So it will be without you. You begin weaving a plan of escape, a parting of sorts, perhaps forever, in order to rescue them, perhaps forever. The “Inconceivable” and the “unbearable” in one of its potential manifestations. At first, you smuggle out your daughter, and then your son as well. A while later, in your desperate attempt to escape from the ghetto, your efforts come to naught, you are caught, shot dead on the fence. As if frozen in the moment of your desperate effort to try and pass over to the side of life. Smuggling your son out met with success (for he is my father), but your daughter did not make it.

Much later, your son reunites with his father and they make Aliyah to the Land of Israel. Here he grew up, he developed and created a family of his own, and alongside his work he began writing as well (imprinting or not imprinting). Thus, fifty years later, through his talent and his words, he spun a painful and chilling description of the moment of your parting. What is that moment like ,when you pass from the Land of the Slain to the Land of the Living? This is what he wrote:

“… In fact, I didn’t really want to leave that morning. To emerge from the dim warmth of our only room, and my mother, to prepare to depart. But I had to…. Oars cut through the calm water, and I looked around me, wonderstruck. After years of the Ghetto, suddenly a river, so much space, and me to sail upon it, like long ago at summer camp.

As we neared the other bank, my mother quietly removed the two yellow patches, the threads of which she had previously cut and were now fastened only with a safety pin.

Her instructions were clear: once we reached the other bank, I was to march without stopping through the Lithuanians standing there, cross the road, and go up the path that led into the hills. All alone, I was to walk without raising suspicion and without looking back. Further up the path, a woman would meet me and tell me what to do.

…I proceeded according to my mother’s instructions, going deeper into the hills, farther and farther from the riverbank and my Mother. Only then did a figure with a sealed face approach me, and as she passed me she whispered that I should continue slowly, she would soon return and join me… I am not sure even today that I have fully digested what happened to me that morning. But the next day I received the first letter from my mother, written on a rolled-up scrap of paper, to be read and then burned: “I watched you move away, my child”, she wrote, “climbing all by yourself onto the bank of the river, walking past guards and people on your way to freedom. A day will come when a film will be made about your miraculous escape from the Ghetto.”
(From “Crossing the River”, Shalom Eilati, the University of Alabama Press, Yad Vashem, 1999).

I think to myself, what a courageous mother and what an impressive promise: “A day will come when a film will be made about your miraculous escape from the Ghetto”. How you were able at the moment of parting, which surely was so torturous and accompanied by so much uncertainty, to send your son away with a message about its wondrous future. As if, with your motherly spirit, you could foresee that not only would he survive, but that it would become a remarkable story. As if you had secreted away in his pockets spiritual nutrition that would accompany him along his journey into the unknown, saying: ‘My son, I must part from you now, but you are my hero. And now I am sending you over to the other side, the side of life. And you shall see, not only will you survive, you will go on magnificently.’ It seems to me that the remarkable survival of my father is connected to that same note, to your message which accompanied your leave-taking. The way you continued to watch him during those brief moments.

Here I would like to refer to the writings of Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst (he was born shortly before you and lived many years after you), who wrote about the developing ties between an infant and its mother. He related to the way in which an infant during its development gazes at his mother and in so doing in fact sees himself. How does that happen? He gazes upon her face, and her face reflects what she is gazing at. At him. Thus she reflects his self back to him. In other words, the child’s “self” is transmitted through its reflection in his mother’s facial expression. In what she sees. In the gaze that she returns to him. Thus, very slowly, increasingly, he knows himself.

It seems to me that my father’s knowledge of himself passed through your knowledge of him. And at the moment of parting, the very fact that he was able to see himself reflected in your gaze as “getting through it safely”, and even more so, getting through it “grandly, as a hero” and that one day it will become “a remarkable story”, imbued him with the ability to perceive himself and know himself as such, and imbedded within him inner resources that accompanied him through his continued journey through life.
Thus, the note you wrote to him in Lithuania – destined to be burned, eradicated and never read again – endured, to be read seventy years later, transformed through the power of a glance: At first hesitantly, but later expansively, opening a porthole to the air of the world that had closed upon it and unrolling its closed shrunken form, because in the end – every shrinkage must expand!

1. Lea Greenstein /To Flicker, Carmel publishing 2010
2. Shalom Eilati / Crossing the River, University of Alabama press, Yad Vashem, 1999.
3. Winnicott, D.W/ Playing and Reality. 1971

About the Author
Ilana Eilati-Shalit is a clinical psychologist living in Israel. The issues of the Holocaust, War and Trauma are issues which occupied her all the years. Through the years she writes. A short story she wrote was published in an online magazine for poetry and literature of the National Library of Israel. ("Living on a tree"/ HAMUSACH,62, Oct 2019). Ilana also participated in some discussions/evening lectures about the Holocaust with her father, who survived the war as a child. During these events she shares some stories she wrote about her personal and psychological understanding of her connection to the Holocaust as a second generation of the Holocaust.
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