I remember the first time I heard the siren. We ran to the open window overlooking the square and stood there in silence. The busiest corner in Tel Aviv came to a silent halt as the siren rang out and echoed through the trees. Cars stopped and their drivers came out to stand in respect. The traffic lights turned from green to yellow and red and back again. My mouth became dry as I stood there open-mouthed and wide-eyed until the drivers went back in their cars and carried on with their days. Such is the memory of the six million murdered in the Holocaust –silent and breathtaking, yet seemingly fleeting. I still remember the chills running down my spine as I thought how glorious it is to be home, where the six million are honored, not just in that moment.
I am alive today because my grandparents escaped that statistic. I am the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, all with different stories and paths to New York City, where I was born.
Today I share a glimpse of two of their stories.
My mother’s parents came from the penniless shtetles of greater Czechoslovakia, the scenes of the stories that colored my childhood and cradled me to sleep in my warm American bed. The ‘old country’ was recanted to me like poetry, a paradise with thatched rooves and compact dirt floors.
My Papa would tell me how he used to sneak rock candy from his father’s store, sing in hader, and how the smells of the Shabbos chullent invited them from down the street in the town’s communal oven –until one day they came to round up the Jews. Soon my family was one of many packed like cattle into a Ford truck. Papa begged his little brother to join him, but paralyzed with fear he could not move, so Papa held his breath and jumped off the transport truck. His entire family was taken to the Kolomaya Ghetto and burned alive in a synagogue. Papa tried to hide on his own for a while, but was eventually deported to Nazi death camps.
As a carpenter by trade he was recruited to help build barracks and used his extra food rations to save lives. Papa had a love for life that I have yet to find in another soul, despite the fact that he had to resort to cannibalism in his darkest hour. The most ebullient man I’ve ever known actually ate the side of a human head in desperation.
Papa always looked at life through the eyes of a child. He was my superman and perhaps the only man in his 70s who was asked to “kindly not jump into the ball pit” in a Queens McDonalds with his granddaughter.
My grandma tried so hard to be strong, but her past would come out in her nightmares. Her mother was beaten to death by Hungarian Nazi collaborators. Her youngest brother was ripped from her arms and thrown into a smoke stack alive. On a death march in the height of winter her cousin succumbed to the trials of the march and dropped dead at nineteen. They were forced to dig graves for the dead using only their bare fingernails in the frozen earth, so my grandma did her best to secretly cover up her dear cousin’s body and continued on. Those moments forever haunted her.
By the time the British liberated Bergen-Belsen, my grandma was starved almost to death and riddled with Typhus. She was so delirious that she laid herself down by the many piles of dead bodies to die. She fought so hard for so long that she at long last took a rest.
Instead of dying, she fell asleep and had a dream. She dreamt so vividly that she was back in her Shtetle with her whole family and the most beautiful Shabbat meal on the table. She waited patiently as they sang the most wonderful zmirus and they dug in. Her desire to eat the food for which she so longed was overwhelming, but her stomach hurt so badly that she could not bring herself to pick up the fork. In her dream her mother gave her something to drink and whispered sweetly in Yiddish: “Nisht kein boch vay took” (your stomach will never hurt you again). And it really never did. My grandmother awoke with a grep (burp) as she was being pulled out from under a pile of dead bodies.
Papa and my grandma both survived five Nazi concentration camps, both including Auschwitz. Their large young families and countless relatives were exterminated like rats and their Yiddish world all but vanished from the Earth.
At the end of the war they found themselves barely with their own heartbeats and nothing to their names. They met on the boat to New York and could not have imagined how the world somehow continued to turn.
I was born in 1990 and the Holocaust made me who I am today. In all of my most significant moments, its memory has crept into my heart and mind. The moment I heard the news that I was accepted to the university of my dreams, my first thought was of my friendly ghosts. If only they could see how my family came from the ovens of Europe to the Ivy League! I wept for them at the Western Wall when I first touch its rough resilient surface, and then again every time since. When I made Aliyah I saw it as taking them all home.
So when that siren rang out over the lively streets of the first modern Hebrew city, my heart filled with love and memories of stories I never really lived, of the family I’ve never known. When I listened to the nothingness of the silence, I thought about all of the moments in which they were so present.
These horrors seem unimaginable, but they really happened –and not that long ago! This happened to the people who raised me.
On Yom HaShoah and every other day, I try to live to honor the memory of my grandparents. They will always be a part of me and my children to come. Wherever I go, whomever I’m with, I will always be their granddaughter, the legacy of the lost Jews of Europe, and I will shout it with my head held high until my very last breath.