At the edge of my grandfather’s gravestone in Jerusalem is an inscription to the memory of his family that were murdered in the Holocaust, invoking God’s vengeance of their spilt blood. He never spoke their names but I know that his wife and all five of their children were murdered as my Zaidy was hauled away to Auschwitz. At the war’s end he was nearly 40 years old. My grandfather had every excuse imaginable to abandon all the realities he had known. Every reason to throw away his faith and tradition as many of his contemporaries did. My Zaidy chose to stick with the program.
He never spoke much about his wartime experiences. There is a family tradition that he managed to keep his Tefilin (phylacteries) with him through the Camps. There is also a haunting picture of his brothers, sister in law, his parents, a niece and a nephew taken outside the family home near Sighet many years prior to the destruction of European Jewish life; nearly all of the people in that photo were murdered as well. After the carnage, my grandfather somehow managed to forge ahead, apparently as a result of that past. He met my grandmother, herself a survivor, then less than 20 years old; she and two siblings were all that was left from 11 children of a shoichet (kosher butcher) from Munkatch. They were married. In a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, where they also had their two children, one my mother.
Since his sister had been a pre-war immigrant to the United States, they were eventually able to take the “high road” to America, as opposed to the Land of Israel were Bubbie’s sister ended up. But they struggled on the Lower East Side as refugees; that’s what they were derogatorily called by their own Jewish brethren in Manhattan. They worked odd jobs cleaning the mikvah (ritual immersion pool) or sweeping floors at the local Bais Yaakov school. They managed to get their hands on but one mattress which the children slept on; Zaidy would rest the night away on but a hardwood floor in the early years. He begged for my mother to be able to attend the Bais Yaakov instead of public school; after all that was the point of the whole endeavor. That was his vengeance.
A co-worker of mine marveled this evening that I was still in the office even though nightfall will momentarily bring Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) upon us. I responded that for me every day was Holocaust Remembrance Day. I told her about so many elements of my persona that are directly impacted from being but two generations away from the carnage; actually one generation away considering my mother’s aforementioned DP camp birthplace. In my family we weren’t supposed to leave any food on our plates; had to eat every last bit since it was deeply ingrained in the family psychology that we might not have any provisions for the next meal, just like in the concentration and labor camps. The story goes that Bubbie would spoon-feed me with butter as an infant to make sure I would have reserves to survive (and plenty of those reserves have survived to this day).
Bubbie and Zaidy worked tirelessly to sustain the family. And once there were grandchildren, well, we could do no wrong. Zaidy didn’t live to see me married or enjoy my children, but his example, direction, perseverance, faith and commitment reverberate onto the next generation. When my daughter stood under the chuppah a few months ago, Zaidy was there; if not for his decision of faith and tradition when he was nearly my own age, there wouldn’t have been any Jewish wedding that night in Jerusalem with his great-granddaughter, fourth generation to the Holocaust. When each of my boys drafted into the Israel Defense Forces I told them, invoking the name of my Zaidy and the names of my parents, that there is nothing – nothing – they could ever do to bring greater pride to their memories and souls then to don the khaki uniform, red boots and beret of an Israeli paratrooper. In our family, we don’t need any one special day. For us, every day is Holocaust Remembrance Day. All because Zaidy stuck with the program of continuity which is the vengeance and our sacred existence.