I never really understood Holocaust survivors until I moved to Israel.
I never understood how they could so easily blend into a crowd while their hidden tattooed arms swung quietly by their sides. That their presence broke the silence that engulfed a room.
I did not know that survivors were somehow always telling, speaking, sharing, by keeping receipts and watching the news during dinnertime. By taking the bus to doctor appointments and trips to the supermarket to buy chocolates for their grandchildren. They shared their stories while standing in line at the bank, reading the newspaper, crossing busy streets.
Here’s the thing about Holocaust survivors, they speak with their living.
I had not seen survivors in real life, only the sentimentalization of them in movies and in books. They were martyrs, saints, flawless immortal beings flickering on a screen. They were celebrities in Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
I was watching and not listening to the fabricated Hollywood plots, fast and dramatic.
Until I sat on the couch of a survivor watching him flip through the channels monotonously, I had not realized how steadily listening worked. Unlike the celebrities on the screen, Shlomo’s story came out slowly and softly, unhurried, as his cracked fingers gripped the remote, thumbing the buttons as his glossy eyes softly blinked with every push.
I had not realized that survivors did not need words or Hollywood stories to speak, teach, tell. It was about more than talking for them, it was about living. And all I had to do was listen.
Every Sunday morning, for the majority of my childhood, my dad would wake me and my brother Dori up by poking his flashlight into our rooms, the light peeling our eyes open. After hesitantly climbing out of bed, we would head down to the kitchen for bagels and cream cheese. We would sit across each other at the kitchen table, the pink and green speckled flower plates holding the sesame bagel for me and plain bagel for my brother.
The kitchen chairs never quite fit us properly throughout our childhood, and so two pairs of cold bare feet awkwardly hung above the wooden floor as the crunching sound of toasted bagels danced around in our mouths.
After breakfast, we got ready for Sunday school held at our synagogue down the street, Temple Sinai. Temple Sinai, a blue carpeted, dusty smelling conservative synagogue that to me, served a congregation of strictly old people. It was a serious building with a historic look about it, the walls felt old and the furniture ancient, but the children never seemed to notice.
We were always allowed to decide what we wanted to wear to Sunday school, my mom’s subtle way of apologizing for the extra day of school we were forced to attend. Sometimes I wore clothes that I wasn’t allowed to wear at my public school during the week. Sweatpants, spaghetti strap tank tops, ripped jeans.
When we got older, Dori and I were allowed to walk to Sunday school by ourselves, which was exciting because we could walk slow and get to school late. Or we could walk fast and play basketball at the park attached to the synagogue, and then get to school late.
When entering Temple Sinai, we would run past the long carpool lines stuffed with minivans and crying babies, and into the main lobby where we were greeted by our teachers that smelled like retirement homes. It was the only school in which Dori and I and all the other kids in our class were allowed to fool around without any serious consequences. The old teachers could never chase us or keep up with our endless amounts of energy. And so our bad behavior was left untouched, our lack of patience ignored, and our firm frustration with the elderly guaranteed.
In the main lobby of the synagogue were two main rooms. In the small chapel, long wooden benches stuck to our thighs during Friday night services held in the summer months, and a brick wall to its left made the room feel smaller and scarier. On the right, however, the sun always peaked through the stained glass mural to say hello to all the children dreaming and longing to play under its warmth.
The glass stained of red, blue, and yellow swirling around the room brought life to all the dust particles in the air waiting to dance. The other main room was a hidden room tucked in the back corner of the lobby that had pinkish salmon colored couches and small coffee tables. There was a coat closet attached to its back part that served as an excellent hiding spot on high holidays when large fur coats filled the room.
However, a part of the main lobby that always seemed to blend in and go unnoticed was the Holocaust memorial wall.
The memorial hung on the left side of the lobby, adjacent to the coffee room with the pinkish salmon couches. On the memorial hung large gold words in all capital letters, reading, screaming, shouting, REMEMBER US.
I remember when Elie Wiesel came to speak at my synagogue. It was a big deal that Sunday. I could tell because all the adults ran around the synagogue the morning of his talk arranging the chairs and the cameras and all the pamphlets. They seemed frantic, excited, nervous. We didn’t have prayer services that morning in the chapel which I was excited about.
I was even more excited when I found out that the good cookies were bought for the event. Not the ones they gave to us for snack on Sundays that came wrapped in blue plastic containers, but the ones that were half white and half black and the ones that were shaped like seashells and covered with rainbow sprinkles.
All of the Sunday school children did not have to purchase a ticket to the event. And in lieu of class that day, we were all brought to the florescent lit auditorium filled with all of the old people looking serious, a sea of pamphlets bobbing as the old people chitchatted and nodded their heads in conversation. My teacher Chana made me the line leader as we walked single filed out of our classroom and headed towards the main lobby. Her bright lipstick caked her wet lips and turned the white goo that covered the corners of her mouth to turn pink. Her lips hushed us aggressively, her spit landing on my cheek as I looked up and observed her face, remembering the excitement in her eyes and the delicate wrinkles that sat below them. She brought us into the auditorium and had us sit criss-cross on the floor in the front of the room, directly below the stage.
On the stage was a podium, a chair, a glass of water, and a man that looked very old and very serious.
I knew what the Holocaust was. I knew it was something important and scary. I knew that a long time ago people were put into showers and killed because they were Jewish. I also knew that our teachers and parents and all of the adults at Temple Sinai always told us that we were the last generation to ever meet Holocaust survivors. I didn’t know why they kept on saying that to us. Every Sunday and every year. So I started to tune them out.
I do not remember what Elie Wiesel said or anything particularly vivid said during his speech. But I do remember turning around to look for Dori, eyeing down the rainbow sprinkled refreshments that sat at the back of the room for when the old man was finished speaking.
The only words I remember being said that day were by a boy in my class named Stephen. He raised his hand, his small fingers peering above our heads.
“What was like it to be in the gas showers? You went in the showers right?”
I was always told by my teachers that there was no such thing as a stupid question. For the first time in my academic career as a third grader, I remember thinking, now that is a stupid question.
The next years to follow I somehow came to think all of my questions I was asking my Sabba Shlomo, my great-grandfather, were stupid questions.
I could never muster up the energy to ask the raw, sore, real questions that made any survivor scrunch their nose and wipe their brow sweat before taking a deep sigh before answering. The type of questions you always wondered about but never asked. Sabba Shlomo Palivoda, my mother’s grandfather, escaped Poland as a young boy. He was held in a Russian prison for the majority of the war, alongside his father. The rest of his immediate family that he left behind in Poland were all murdered. To this day, I have never been able to remember the names of his siblings and mother left behind in Poland.
For the first 10 years of my life, I thought that Sabba Shlomo had survived and escaped Auschwitz like the celebrity Elie Wiesel that came to speak on the Sunday when Hebrew school was cancelled and Dori and I ate sprinkled covered cookies. I told everyone the story that I had memorized of Sabba Shlomo stealing a Nazi’s uniform and escaping out of the camp one night. I told Chana every time we discussed the Holocaust in Hebrew class. I told my teachers at elementary school when I was asked to speak about the Holocaust on National Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I told everyone that would listen.
When I finally learned that Sabba Shlomo was a Holocaust survivor but the kind of survivor that was not sent to a concentration camp, I remember feeling slightly disappointed and embarrassed. So I stopped telling my friends that my Sabba was a survivor and instead I would tell them that he fled Poland during the Holocaust.
When I was a teenager I began to record Sabba Shlomo in an attempt to document his story every summer when I came to visit him in Israel. How he escaped, how he spent his time in the prison, the stories he had heard during the war, the loss of his siblings and mother. But he was hesitant and mainly bored by all of my attempts. I remember wishing he would just talk already.
I was frustrated with him—the old man that stood on the podium spoke for a whole hour. Why couldn’t Sabba talk?
My summers spent in Israel consisted of slicing cucumbers and tomatoes alongside Sabba as we squeezed into his small kitchen and prepared lunch together. The Israeli news brought a soft hum to the room as a woman spoke quickly about a stabbing in Jerusalem. Sabba would shake his head and continue chopping as we spoke about the next dish we would prepare. One day Sabba let me look through all of my grandmother’s old clothes, who had died when I was six years old. Sabba stood by her closet with his hands on his hips as he watched my fingers brush against the knit sweaters and sequined tops.
“You can pick one to take home with you to America”, he said.
I continued fingering through the hangers of shoulder pads and sleeveless blouses, when, all the way in the back of the closet, sitting in dust, I saw a brightly colored green and pink floral button-down sweater. It was missing the bottom button and instead a safety pin latched onto the empty hole. Sabba told me it was the first sweater he had bought for my grandmother when they moved to Israel. It was the most worn down sweater in the closet and it looked just like the speckled flower plates we had at home. I picked it up and placed it in my bag.
Sabba scrunched his nose at me, “You want that one?”.
I always returned for yet another year of Sunday school at Temple Sinai after coming back from my summers spent in Israel. The memorial wall served mostly as a backdrop to the rest of my years spent in Sunday school. It morphed into the lobby, becoming a part of the brick wall that covered the synagogue’s old foundations. The memorial sat there every Sunday, patiently and quietly. Year after year.
I never really noticed it. But it was always there. REMEMBER US.
I remember in 5th grade when Chana retired from teaching. She kissed me on my forehead and squeezed my cheek tight as I gave her the chocolate my mother had purchased for her and wrapped up so beautifully in yellow tissue paper with a pink ribbon around the box. Her bright lipstick left a mark on my face that took two scrubbings to get off in the synagogue bathroom.
The next year, Matthew Goldstein was my new teacher. He was a heavyset man who wore small circular frameless glasses and had a young face. He was always sweaty and had large sweat stains that would sit under his armpits, making me feel nervous and itchy as I watched them grow larger as the class period went on.
Matthew would always tell us very long detailed stories of his life. He was a drama teacher at a rough school in downtown Philadelphia and would come to Sunday school with sad stories that always made me feel bad. Matthew once told our class a story from when he was in college. This story was to show “how important it was for us to study the Holocaust”, he explained:
Matthew was a freshman in college and attended some school in the Midwest in which there were very few Jews in his class. One day Matthew was talking to a classmate about the Holocaust and about a book he was reading, when another classmate came up to Matthew during his conversation and mocked the Holocaust. This other classmate, Matthew named him John for the sake of his story, incorrectly stated the amount of people murdered in the Holocaust, severely undermining the severity of the victims lost. Matthew could not remember the amount this man had said, so he made it up and shouted in John’s deep manly voice “it was like only 3,000 Jews killed. What’s the big deal here? We’ve lost more men in a day to war!” Matthew acted this part out, slowly, dramatically. He was very good at telling stories, knowing when to raise his voice at important times, and when to pause for effect.
Matthew sat down on the table in the front of the class, wiping the sweat off of his head. He looked me in the eye, speaking in his dramatic high pitched voice “six million people”.
“SIX MILLION!!!”, he shouted.
“NOT 3,000”, he stated.
“ S-i-x m-i-l-l-i-o-n” , he whispered it out as he picked up a piece of white chalk and scribbled the number on the board:
Matthew was coming to end of his monologue performance as class time was over,
“We must educate the world, class. It is our responsibility”.
When class was over that day, I felt the sweat stains forming under my armpits and the itchy feeling of the responsibility Matthew spoke about. When Dori tried to joke around with me on the walk home that day, I was not in the mood.
“Dori. We have serious responsibilities. We can’t fool around anymore”.
And so I walked home ahead of Dori, angry.
The next week was the 5th grade field trip to a Holocaust memorial in Philadelphia. We spent the day meeting survivors and watching old black and white videos. I remember feeling odd that I had already watched videos and met survivors since I was a little kid, while my non-Jewish classmates in school were watching videos and meeting survivors for the first time.
I thought about Matthew’s story, about my responsibility. As we finished the videos and the speeches, we lined up in the parking lot as the yellow school buses pulled up to take us back to school. I remember standing behind a boy in my class who was talking to another boy telling him how the Holocaust only lasted one year. I tapped him on the shoulder and as I attempted to correct him, I began to cry. He was taken to the side by our teacher and scolded.
I felt bad for years after that.
Fall semester of my junior year of college, I took a Holocaust studies class while abroad at Tel Aviv University in Israel. My professor, Dr.Perry, pulled me aside after class one day.
“Shlomo is a Holocaust survivor and it’s important that you regard him as one in your writing”, she said as she handed back the paper I had written for her class, pointing out the correction that I needed to make on the first and third pages.
“But he was never in a camp or in a ghetto. I mean he fled and hid in Russia but what can I make of that?” I asked.
“There is no making of anything. He was forced to leave his home, his family. He was a victim then and he is a survivor now”, she stared at me.
I looked down, “Yeah I guess so.”
So I started calling Sabba Shlomo a Holocaust survivor again.
I always visited Sabba on the weekends during the six months I spent in Israel. It took me a few tries to figure out which train to take from Tel Aviv University and then which bus to transfer to get to his apartment, but eventually I got the hang of it and visited him often.
He lived in a small apartment in Netanya, in a rotting, derelict apartment building where many of his neighbors were also survivors. He always had me sit on the couch with him and help him navigate his digital photo album that he adored. As we fidgeted with the buttons on the side of the frame, pictures of his grandchildren started to appear with the onset of various effects with every new picture swirling in. He had me insert various SD cards given to him by all his grandchildren and their families to display different pictures as he smiled and watched the photos dissolve into the screen. I was always more interested in the dusty photo albums he had sitting in his bookshelf, but he preferred the digital one instead.
A few months into my time abroad in Israel, I decided to join Stuart, an old hippie biology professor of mine, on a field observation jeep trek down to the Judaean Desert.
Israel felt its truest self in the desert, I thought. The country was saturated with complexities and traumas ever since I could remember; Sabba and I listened to the woman on the news telling us of more deaths and political tensions summer after summer.
But in the desert, the country felt quiet.
A few hours passed when the peach gave up and slipped away, wiping its bleeding contents over the sky in a mess as Stuart told us stories about Israel’s complicated eco-system. After the messy contents of the peach were cleaned up, wiped down back to the clean, black slate, we headed back to the center of Israel.
On the way home, the taxi driver asked me where I wanted to be dropped off. I thought of going back to my quiet apartment in Tel Aviv next to the university, it would be nice to shower and get to bed early. But instead I muttered, “Netanya”.
Naturally, the first thing I always had to do when I walked into Sabba’s apartment was to insert my SD card and show him all of my new pictures I had taken. He loved the pictures of the sunrise in the desert, upset with me since I should have taken more.
I always brought my videocamera with me on my visits, recording Sabba Shlomo frequently. I did not want to forget any moment we spent together, even if he never spoke of the Holocaust. He would make tea or watch the news and I would videotape. He would tell me a story about his trip to the supermarket and I would videotape. I would videotape his bathroom and his kitchen. I would videotape him looking for an old photo, adjusting his hearing aid, trying to send a text to his doctor, fidgeting with the chocolates on the coffee table, wiping the sweat off his lip, buttoning his shirt, getting off the couch, swallowing his pills, staring at me, cutting his nails, rubbing cream onto his dry hands.
Maybe, I thought, I could gather some meaning from it all. Maybe he would speak about the Holocaust one day.
One day, I ventured into his bedroom with my camera. The bed was neatly made, the white comforter tucked tightly into the edges of the corners of the bed. His glasses, medications, and flip-phone sat on the small wooden table next to his bed. I scanned the room with my camera trying to capture the small little nooks of his room. I scanned the carpeted floor, the sweater filled closet, the empty drawers, the papers that were stuffed in his desk. I scanned the walls, noticing the old wallpaper peeling off. I moved over to the left side of his bed to the large portraits that neatly hung in a square on the wall. I had always known they were there, the pictures of his murdered brothers, sisters, and mother framed and nailed onto the wall beside his bed.
Their eyes stared ahead, looked at my skin, my smile, my eyes. They asked me, REMEMBER US.
I once wore a pair of ripped jeans on one of my visits to Sabba Shlomo. On that visit, I asked Sabba Shlomo if he would be interested in me recording his story about the Holocaust. He showed no interest by the way he drank his tea and grunted at my pants. I felt particularly ashamed sitting in his living room that afternoon in my ripped jeans. My armpits started to sweat as I felt the itchy feeling of my knees poking out of my pants, parts of my bare legs visible through all of the holes, wishing I would have just worn regular pants instead.
The next week I met a girl named Weronika in my Hebrew class at Tel Aviv University. She was from Poland, a student at the University of Warsaw who was studying abroad to improve her Hebrew. She wasn’t Jewish but had a passion for Jewish and Holocaust studies. After class one day, I asked her if she would care to join me on a visit to Netanya. She was happy to. I went home to grab my camera, took off my ripped jeans, and slipped into a dress before we headed out.
Suddenly Sabba Shlomo began to talk, fast. The words flowed out of his mouth in Polish with delight, skipping around the room in a foreign manner that intrigued me “Polska! Polska!”.
I kept my hand steady as I held the videocamera, capturing all of his stories and memories of Poland as he spoke faster and faster “Mój dom. Moja szkoła. Mój dom!”. Weronika translated every word, every sentence to me. Weronika told me the address of his old home in Poland, and sat patiently listening to his marvels of its beauties, she listened to his favorite Polish dishes, his old grade school, neighborhood friends, siblings.
I had hours of video footage recorded on my camera at the end of our visit. Weronika and I were buzzing with excitement to work on translating and editing the footage. We walked to the train station that night brainstorming and collaborating. Perhaps Sabba Shlomo will be interviewed by Yad Vashem, perhaps he will want to speak at synagogues or return to Poland with young Polish teenagers! Perhaps he will be a celebrity like Elie Wiesel! Perhaps his story will be shared with millions! Polska! Sabba! Polska! Sabba! Polska! Sabba!
I never got around to editing the footage.
It was all too messy, too complicated, too scary, too important. The dates were all confused. Sabba’s stories were all mumbled into foggy memories. When I tried to write down the first page of Sabba’s story, my hands lingered over the keyboard, not knowing what to write or where to start. I thought to include the story Sabba told Weronika of the first time he came back to visit his old home in Poland right after the war.
“I knocked on the door, this woman came out. She was angry and told me never to come back here or she would have me killed.”
“So what did you do?”
“I never went back.”
So I continued to watch the footage and write down the broken stories and mumbled memories, hoping that together, collectively, they would mean something.
After a few days of transcribing my notes from my videotapes of Sabba’s talk with Weronika, Dr. Perry had handed out our upcoming assignments for the remainder of the semester. I skimmed the updated syllabus, at the bottom of the page read: Night by Elie Wiesel, due January 5th.
Reading Night gave me an excuse to stop writing down Sabba’s story. I figured I would come back to it after I had finished reading the book. As I held the coffee stained, teared pages of Elie Wiesel’s story, I couldn’t help but feel connected to Elie. We had met when I was younger, although I did not remember his story, I had heard it in his voice. I tried to remember the figure standing behind the podium, hoping to remember anything he had said.
But I couldn’t.
So instead I imagined the figure reading the preface to me, as I sat criss-cross on the floor of the auditorium as Chana watched ahead and the rainbow covered seashell cookies waited patiently.
In the preface and behind the podium Elie asked himself, “Why did I write it?”.
I found myself asking the same question. Why am I writing Sabba’s story?
Although I could not answer Elie’s question, I found comfort in the fact that Dr. Perry was right, there was no making sense of any of it. I couldn’t make sense of my grandfather, how could I make sense of the Holocaust?
I never wanted to forget, but when I tried to re-watch the footage and write the stories Sabba Shlomo spoke of, I felt as if I was going back to the uneasy, aching nauseous feeling that overcame me when I tapped on my 5th grade classmate’s shoulder.
I felt as if I was sitting on the floor of the synagogue’s auditorium looking at a foreign old man with too many words for me to process.
I felt Chana’s spit landing on my cheek
I wanted a cookie with sprinkles.
I felt the adults at Temple Sinai telling me I was the last kid to meet a survivor.
I wanted to tune them out.
I felt Matthew’s sweat stains forming under his arms.
I felt Weronika’s Polish luck that made Sabba talk.
I felt the shouts and cries of the babies in the minivans on Sunday morning.
I felt my thighs sticking to the wooden benches.
I felt the piercing flashlight wake me up.
I felt my bare feet hanging above the wooden floor as I ate my bagel.
I felt the stupid questions forming in my lips.
I felt six million not 3,000.
I felt my ripped jeans rubbing up against my legs as I sat on my Sabba’s couch.
I felt my responsibility.
I felt guilty and confused and frustrated, why did he have to talk?
Why was I writing?
I felt the Holocaust memorial wall that sat patiently in the main lobby of congregation Temple Sinai all my life.
I felt the eyes of Sabba Shlomo’s murdered mother, brothers, sisters staring at me, screaming, shouting, begging: REMEMBER US.
When I left Israel, I sat next to an older Israeli woman on my plane ride back to America. We spoke about my time abroad and if I felt different after spending time in a land so full of complications.
I told her the story of Sabba knocking on the door of his old home, I sighed and said,
“I can’t imagine if I was taken away from my home. And then I get home after such a hard journey and I knock on my door and I’m told to go away and never come back. Where would I go? What would happen of me?”.
The woman smiled at me, her Israeli accent thick, “Welcome to Israel.”