My mother’s bedtime stories were about her father cowering in haystacks and holding his breath so as not to make a sound, as villagers, searching for Jews, thrust pitchforks in the hay. I remember her telling me, “Do you know what that does to a child?” To imagine your father, a giant of a man and your protector, so vulnerable. These were my bedtime stories too. My child’s mind could barely comprehend what it meant that my grandfather, Saba Yankel, had another family before ours: sisters, a father, nieces, a wife. An infant son.
As a child, my mother would go to the annual gatherings in Tel Aviv of the surviving villagers from Krasnystaw. My mother holding her father’s hand as they entered the room of strange faces, as always yearning to protect him from the impenetrable pain that, even on the happiest of occasions, seemed to lurk behind his blue eyes. Though such a little girl, she yearned to be bigger than that pain.
At the meetings, the survivors would look at salvaged images of their village and their slaughtered loved ones, and ask one another what they knew of their last moments, hoping for a story of mercy. I was told that, here, Saba learned of the gang-rape of his sister in the streets of Krasnystaw by the S.S. before she was murdered. Here that he learned of the murder of his sweet Branchale, the beloved niece whose name my mother carries. The weight of that name, so heavy on my mother’s small shoulders.
I later learned that when the Nazis entered Krasnystaw, they took my grandfather to a forced labour camp along with other young men. It was at the camp that he met a young boy named Eliyahu, barely a teenager. Saba took Eliyahu and became to him a protector, trading cigarettes for food for the both of them. They became to one another a family. And for the rest of their lives, my grandfather purchased every item in sets of two, one for himself and one for Eliyahu. Their families one.
Somehow the two were released or escaped from the camp, how or which of the two fates I am unsure, and Saba returned to Krasnystaw. He came back to nothing and to no one. It was here, I now understand, that he learned of the murder and torture of his beloveds. Eliyahu, a young boy, discovered he was left completely alone in this world, save for Yankel. Together, they joined the Polish army. When they found themselves fighting in British Palestine as part of the Jewish forces in Anders’ Army, they fled. They hid in a Kibbutz, protected by young pioneers, one of whom was my grandmother.
My grandfather passed away as a relatively young old man. My grandmother would live for nearly another three decades without him. And throughout those decades, without fail, Eliyahu would come to visit her every Friday. Her characteristic German manner did not always make it easy nor pleasant for him. But he always returned. And she would expect him. Honoring each other with this small ritual. Never doubting the other would be there.
Every night after dinner, my mother told me, Saba would sit next to the radio and listen to the only station in nascent Israel, always playing an endless list of names at that hour. People searching, in desperate hope that someone had escaped — that they would be listening. He never heard the names he wanted to hear, and eventually the radio stopped speaking the endless list. My mom tried to continue the search decades later. The only additional pieces of the puzzle she was able to obtain were the papers submitted by my grandfather to Yad VaShem. I look at these papers, bequeathed to me, with the names and ages of his family members at the time of their murder, ages imposed on them — Branchale, 12 years old. A baby son — reduced to scribbles in Yiddish. It feels so intimate to see his handwriting, and I imagine how his hands must have shaken as he filled out these forms. How he must have taken the trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for this purpose, leaving his children at home to honor his other children in this small available way.
As a child, I loved to sit with my grandmother and look at the few salvaged pictures, committing Branchale’s face and smile to memory. It was easier for me to connect with her than to the other unsmiling figures in black and white — the procession of names and faces, words scrawled in pencil on the back of the photos to keep track of how each met their end. Sobibor. Treblinka. I recognized myself in her child’s smile and her warm innocent eyes, as my young handsome grandfather, her uncle, wrapped his arms around her in the image. I recall feeling a hint of jealousy looking at that picture and seeing the light in his eyes as he held Branchale, a light that transcended the monochrome of the photo, a light that was absent from his eyes in all the colored photographs that followed in later years.
I remember considering why it was that all of my mother’s stories seemed to include a strange adult figure and how she spoke about them plainly as if she, herself, did not hear the absurdity of the story she was relaying. How sanity itself seemed crooked and skewed in her childhood. The neighbor who would scream maniacally during the night. Her best friend’s mother who would strip naked and run through the streets. The normalcy of it all. It took me years to realize what torture and murder and looking at evil in the eyes had done to them.
I cannot fathom the strength, the complex mental and emotional manipulations necessary to go on. To endure the brutality of a life that requires one to rise from the ashes and to carry that incomprehensible burden throughout another lifetime. A life which forces one to march on. To raise another family. To look into your children’s eyes and not see death. To remain in that haystack in your psyche, holding your breath.
I originally published a version of this story in 2016. Six months later my mom would suddenly die from an errant vein in her brain which decided that it was time for her to transcend us. The blue print she had agreed to when she decided to be born into this life of beauty and pain was finalized. I am so grateful to the forces greater than me which I do not doubt pushed me to share this story in time for my mom to see it. After she read it, she wrote me a letter.
Oh, you made me cry. Tears of sadness, of memories, of love and pride. The name they gave me carried so much weight, a weight I’ve been carrying my whole life. I often resented it, wanting to be lighter, to move more easily, but it was too heavy to lift and remove. And maybe I knew that if I did, I would lose too much of myself in this lifetime. You understand it. You penetrated to the core of that part of me.
There is a pull to glean a moral from these stories, but doing so feels alienating from those I seek to honor. On the best of days, it can feel demeaning to look for a silver lining in such horrors, a violation to search for lessons in the suffering of those who did not elect to teach us with their blood. And given the persistence and prevalence of the same hatred today, it seems trite and dishonest to speak of a moral lesson that was learned. There is no moral for these stories, certainly not a universal one that serves to devour and erase our loved ones. No moral for the enduring trauma that transcends generations and continues to run through the veins of our families and our identities. But their stories, our stories, should be told.
And perhaps we can find a personal beauty in the loyalty and love they found in one another. There is beauty in their choice to belong to one another after so much was stolen from them. Perhaps there is triumph in the gifts that we can give to one another too. Triumph in the last gift I was able to give my mother. To be seen and held in our pain and thereby, be relieved of some part of it.