“Are you going to fast today?” my sister asked my grandmother.
We had just buried my grandfather the day before, hours before the start of Yom Kippur, adding deeper levels of meaning as we observed it with fresh sorrow — which was all good and fine, but in no way was my grandmother going to fast today on purpose.
She didn’t think twice as she bandied about the kitchen preparing herself breakfast: “I fasted for three years in concentration camps. Never again will I starve for being a Jew.”
She had a point.
It’s one I heard some variation of all my life, along with many other quips piecing together the timeline:
“We spent years on the run, hiding from the Nazis.”
“We had nothing to eat in the ghetto. We’d go through the trash looking for scraps of food.”
“When we got to the camp, they shaved us here and here and here (pointing to gesture).”
“We were slaves. They worked us to the bone making airplane parts. One time, I took a small metal ring and put it on my finger just for fun (she was a teenage girl). The guard caught me, knocked me down and started jumping on my stomach.”
“When I was sick with diphtheria, the other prisoners hid me so the guards wouldn’t find out (they killed anybody who couldn’t work).”
“My father and older brother survived. The Nazis gassed my mother and 9-year-old brother at Auschwitz.”
Six million, as Stalin said, is nothing but a statistic. A faceless number, incomprehensible to imagine. The only way to empathize with the enormity of the Holocaust is to bring it to the level of the bitter human details.
My grandmother never spoke about her experience in the camps with my mother. It was too fresh and too painful for either one to imagine. But with me, she felt much freer and would talk about anything.
I remember asking her once how she got back to Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) after being released from the camps. She said the Nazis were running scared by that point and had marched them out of the camps in retreat.
It was a death march. They marched for days until you got there or died trying. Somewhere along the way my grandmother said she and another girl just plopped down in the fields out of near-death exhaustion. The Nazis must have thought they were really dead because everyone kept marching and they somehow made it to safety.
The suffering and loss my grandmother endured as a teenage slave in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau was tremendous in scope, but it wasn’t unique for a Jew of her time. Everyone around her had 99 problems – and being a Jew was the reason for all of them.
Remarkably, it didn’t stop her from living the next 65 years filled with joy and gratitude. What she carried most from the Holocaust were a few bags of regret.
“I could’ve made something of myself if I had the chance to go to school.”
“I was a good singer when I was young, I used to sing for bread in the camps.”
Losing her childhood and adolescence. Not getting a fair start in life. That’s what stuck with her the most over the years. The other stuff, she said, “happened so long ago it just seems like a bad dream now.”
Which it was for the rest of her life.
My grandfather experienced no part of the Holocaust, yet he spent decades waking up to the screams of my grandmother being chased by the Nazis through the streets of her nightmares. I’ve heard those screams myself. My mother grew up with them, as did most Israeli children in the 1950s. If it wasn’t the screams of your own parents, it was the screams of your neighbor’s.
The founding years of the state of Israel were a Freudian jackpot. Half the country was filled with survivors walking around with intense PTSD, although nobody knew what to call it back then. It affected every area of life, such as the daily radio broadcasts calling out the names of those still missing, trying to reunite them with whoever was trying to find them.
People never gave up, hoping from the depths of hope that their loved ones were still alive. That they had made it to Israel just like them. That it was only a matter of finding each other during a time when nobody had private telephone lines and every new immigrant changed their names upon arrival to Hebraicize their identity in their newfound homeland.
The radio broadcasts were effective in reuniting many broken families, though as time grew on they worked less and less. Still, people never gave up no matter how much time had passed. As late as the late ’90s, there were weekly radio programs interviewing people looking for lost family members they had reason to believe were alive and possibly in Israel.
I know, because my mother once called that radio show from America.
The day after the Holocaust
The day after the Holocaust was a different kind of suffering for the newly liberated Jews of concentration camps. Many who went back to their homes found other people living in them. Others went back to find nobody wanted them there to begin with.
And some who made it home after surviving years in the Nazi wilderness were greeted by roving pogroms finishing the job wherever Hitler missed a corner.
My grandmother’s family — now cut in half — managed to make their way back to Czechoslovakia, find one another and live as human beings again, but things didn’t magically get better the next day.
There was still no food, no house, no money, no clothes except the ones they’d been wearing for years on their long-suffering backs, the ones reeking of disease, death and Auschwitz.
And even though they were free now, they still weren’t safe living in Europe as Jews. The Russian soldiers who traded places with the Nazis as lords of the manor were nothing like the Nazis in how they treated Jews — except for the Jewish girls, who they raped exactly like the Nazis did.
My grandmother’s brother had the wherewithal to put a giant red cross on the door of wherever they were at the time, signaling it was a Christian dwelling and saving his younger sister from the unwanted Russian bear hug (something he had been unable to do with the Nazis).
In 1949, they finally made their way to Israel, where my grandmother and her brother both served in the IDF, eager to exercise their independence as Jews. The horrors of the Holocaust felt like another dimension, as they finally settled down into a normal existence, making friends and finding matrimony.
Her brother, my great uncle, married a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and they managed to have a son before my great uncle got sick with colon cancer, a result of the severe malnutrition he suffered in the camps. After he was liberated, he was found unconscious in the street with his stomach split open. It would take a few more years before the depth of the infection took over completely.
He died at the age of 27 — an independent Jew living in the land of Israel — leaving my grandmother alone with their father, the last two remnants of her once happy family.
Her brother also left a young widow with a newborn. Single women with young children were not a good look in those days. After my great uncle passed away, his widow took off with the baby, never to be heard from by my grandmother again.
Though she long gave up on trying to find him, my grandmother never stopped telling us she has a nephew out there somewhere.
Half a century after the Holocaust
My mother searched for this nephew — her first cousin — for years and never gave up, even hiring a private investigator, but nothing ever materialized from him or from that radio show. She also contacted adoption agencies and managed to find a crumb of information that confirmed her long-lost cousin had indeed been adopted in Israel by the man his mother married after my great uncle died, but there was nothing more they could tell her.
Until they could.
A few years later, she found the email of a woman she had spoken with at one of the agencies and sent her another message. She heard back a few days later. The woman no longer worked there, but she told her what she’d been waiting to hear all her life: “This is his name and number.”
One trembling phone call later, our lives were changed forever.
My mother discovered her cousin had been living in a moshav (farming community) in northern Israel all these years – 10 minutes away from where she grew up in Shavei Zion.
For a decade after the Holocaust until she moved to England, my grandmother lived within walking distance from the only blood relative she had left from the madness — and never even knew it until 40 years later.
Within weeks my mother and her new cousin met at my grandparents’ apartment in London. This was when people still developed film to send pictures. It all happened so fast that when they went to pick him and his wife up at the airport, they realized they had a problem — nobody had any idea what he looked like.
As they waited at Heathrow arrivals, craning their necks in the hopes of finding some glimpse of a clue, my grandmother called out, “That’s him. Over there. He looks just like my father.”
After a lifetime of believing she was the last branch in her family tree, my grandmother finally found the little bush her brother planted. It turns out her long-lost nephew had four kids of his own (one now in heaven ז”ל), who also had plenty more kids of their own.
My grandmother gained a nephew. My mother gained a cousin. And a decade later, when I moved up to Israel, I doubled the size of my family in one shot. We spend holidays together. We staycation at each other’s homes when they want a taste of the big city or I want the silence of the moshav.
When I was growing up, my grandmother always said her greatest revenge against Hitler was my mother, my sister, and me (now with the addition of a great-granddaughter to boot).
Half a century later, we discovered she got her revenge in spades.