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On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m thinking of the grandfather I never knew

I see him as a groom, and as a father. I imagine him in my life, and doing puzzles on the floor with my daughter. Even in death, he's so much more than a number
My grandfather, holding my father, as an infant. (courtesy)
My grandfather, holding my father, as an infant. (courtesy)

Growing up, there were only two photographs of my grandfather. They were hopeful images of a beginning that was promised, but never came to pass. Recently, I may have found a third, darker photo online.

Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we try to honor the murdered six million. They were two-thirds of the pre-war European Jewish population. Over a million of them are not named. They’re what Wendy Lower calls “the missing missing.” When whole families were murdered, when all the Jews in town were wiped out, there were no survivors to name the lost.

The math is beyond my comprehension. So, I’m focused instead on just one person: my grandfather, Alexander Brill.

As a child, I’d do as I was told, spreading my small thumb from my fingers to hold the outside edges, careful not to touch the precious pictures that had survived when my grandfather had not. I’d study my grandfather’s face, looking for something familiar. Could I see my own features in his?

On his wedding day, my grandfather is a dashing young groom. He’s taken off one glove to hold my grandmother’s arm with his bare hand. She’s a beautiful bride in a long white dress she sewed herself. During the War, she’ll cut up the train to make clothes for their children.

My grandparents, on their wedding day. (courtesy)

A few years later, my grandfather is now a proud young parent, holding my infant father, both bundled against the cold. It’s Belgrade, Serbia in the winter of 1938-39. In September, Adolf Hitler will invade Poland.

My grandfather, holding my father, as an infant. (courtesy)

Over time, my relationship to the pictures changed. At first, I wondered how this young couple could possibly be my grandparents, just as I marveled that my father had once been a chubby-cheeked infant.

Later, reading time-travel paperbacks and choose your own adventure stories, I imagined I’d journey back in time, armed with the Holocaust history I’d learned through studying every book on the topic in my temple’s small, dark library. But what message could I share with my grandparents? Even if in 1939 they’d been able to understand the incomprehensible, the looming nightmare that even thousands of years of antisemitic violence couldn’t prepare the Jews of Europe for, what could they have done? Where could they have run?

Eventually, I gave birth to my own children and sailed out of my 20s, past the age my grandfather was in the pictures from the 1930s. I began to marvel at how young he looks. Doomed by his murder at age 32 to a face forever free of wrinkles and hair that won’t gray. He will never look like anyone’s grandfather.

It was too late when my grandfather tried to run. He spent a large sum on false papers that never arrived. Under threat of death, in April 1941, the Nazis forced him and all Belgrade’s Jewish men to register. On the list they made that day, my grandfather is number 182. His 20-year-old brother Zil, a rebellious youth my grandfather tried to look after, who would later die fighting as a Partisan, is number 125.

Hundreds of Jewish men reported to Kalemedgan, Belgrade’s historic central fort. On the internet, I found a photo. The walls built to hold out the city’s earliest enemies now contain its Jewish residents. They’re smartly dressed as Europeans at the time were, in long cloth coats and collared shirts. In the forefront, one man checks his watch. The men fill the frame, but after the first few rows their faces blur. Although I’ve scanned the image so many times, I cannot find my grandfather.

Jews rounded up by the Germans in Yugoslavia. (Bundesarchiv, Bild/via JTA/via The Times of Israel)

In 2017, I visited Kalemedgan with my father and my daughter. People picnicked on the lawns and strolled the windy paths. When we visited, a group of school children shouted at the walls of a tunnel to hear the echoes, and in the ancient moat, tennis players volleyed on the red clay courts my father remembered from his childhood. There was no sign or other clues that, during the Occupation, this had been a crime scene.

Like most of Belgrade’s Jewish men, my grandfather was enslaved almost as soon as the Nazis arrived. He worked on a crew with his neighbors, repairing sewer lines destroyed in the Nazi bombing. At first, he returned home to sleep, then he was imprisoned in a labor camp in the capital city. My grandmother would bring him food. In the fall, he was shot, and buried in a mass grave not far from where he was held.

The Holocaust is not the distant past. My grandfather would have been 61 years old when I was born in Philadelphia in 1970. An age perhaps when he would have looked forward to retirement and spending more time with family. Maybe he’d have been spry enough to sit on the floor with his granddaughter and stack blocks or piece together a puzzle.

My grandfather was about much more than the way he died. Each of the six million were.

Today, I think of my grandfather I never got to meet.

About the Author
Julie Brill (she/her) is at work on a memoir that seeks to tell the story of her Serbian family, in the context of the largely untold history of the Holocaust in Serbia. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Alma, Kveller, the Globe Post, and elsewhere. She shares her family's Holocaust story to students through 3GNY.
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