The forgotten

A few months before my father and grandmother died, I had a dream that my two top teeth fell out. My husband told me to fast, because losing teeth is one of the dreams mentioned in the Mishnah Brurah that warrants one. “But don’t worry about it,” he said when he found me fingering my teeth in the mirror, trying not to think about death. “Just put it out of your mind.” A few days before my grandmother died, I started having more premonitions. Nothing specific, just disjointed dreams that woke me up when it was still dark and prompted me to check the doors and  windows and sleeping children; a sense of dread that hit me right in the stomach while bentching licht,  tying the laces of little shoes or washing dishes.  “It’s nothing,” my husband said. “Don’t give it any credence.” He was right, I knew, so I tried to ignore it. If the premonitions meant something, I wouldn’t have thought they were about my grandmother; I would have thought they boded ill for my father, who was in the hospital with a serious infection. So when the phone rang at 6:30 in the morning, a traitorous sense of relief was the first thing I felt upon hearing the news, right before I was flooded with grief. I felt crushing guilt too—we’re capable of feeling so much at the same time—because things happened, as they do if you let them, and I hadn’t called her in weeks. What kind of person doesn’t call her grandmother in so long, no matter what is going on? But now I couldn’t call her. She was gone. My mother told me that it was quick, that she probably didn’t suffer. I pressed my ear to the phone and clutched it until my knuckles trembled and listened as my mother asked if my husband could say Kaddish because my father obviously couldn’t; my father hadn’t been able to talk in years. I agreed on his behalf. 

What is the torah

When I hung up, my husband tried to usher the kids out of our room to give me space, but they were looking at me and they were scared. I tried to remember what frightening words they might have heard from my end of the conversation.  The words we use to comfort ourselves as adults can be very scary to children. We lost Bubbie. She left us. How confused, how frightened I would have been in their place to think that Bubbie could get lost or that she could pick up and leave forever. I would have to be succinct and push past the wooden emptiness to find the right words.  I took a deep breath. I focused on their slightly blurred outlines. (I wasn’t wearing my glasses.) I hadn’t even washed negel vasser yet; the phone had rung before all that to tell me that Bubbie died. “Bubbie died,” I said to them. “She was niftar. The part of her that made her Bubbie, her neshamah, went up to shamayim, and is very happy to be near Hashem and to see Zeidie again, but we are sad because…” I fumbled, my lips feeling heavy. “Because we’re going to miss her.”  Libby asked how high shamayim is and if it hurts to “get” niftar, and then asked for cornflakes in the white bowl. My husband set them up at the table and took the baby from my arms; I hadn’t even realized that I was holding him. I wandered around my room in the sudden quiet, looking blankly for my blue scarf. “Bubbie,” I said out loud. But my Bubbie wasn’t here anymore in this world, my Bubbie with her matching suit and shoes, my elegant Bubbie who put on a sheitel before we took a spontaneous family picture and never got the hang of that newfangled answering machine. She was aristocratic and fanatical about cleanliness and made the best potatonik in the world. She also had a wicked sense of humor.

When my father died soon afterwards, I was glad that she had died first and didn’t have to experience losing her son after all she’d been through in life. That’s when I finally let my mind go there. Were we her first family? There was so much about her I didn’t know, like her experiences during the war, and now I never would. How important was it, really, to know her full story? I thought it was probably important. Five months before she died, I was in America and my sister and I were at her house, being served melon and cookies. The cousins were playing together—my kids from Israel, my sister’s’from Mexico—and it was a wonderful, wonderful day. Bubbie took a book down from the bookshelf and laid it down reverently in front of me. “I got a signed copy,” she said, smiling proudly. “I’m friends with the artist and writer. She’s both, you know. Such a talented woman.” I opened it up, curious. It was full of pencil drawings of the insides and outsides of small houses, a view of a town near the countryside, little girls in braids and little boys in caps running through a field. “It’s her town,” Bubbie explained. “It’s the town where she grew up in Poland. She drew out of her own head, from memory. It looks like my town, so if you look at these pictures you can get an idea of how it was when I was little. Before.” I knew what “before” meant, but her face didn’t change expression when she added, “Before the Nazis came. Before they knocked on our door and shot my brother when he answered it.” I knew what happened next; my grandmother had run out the back door, screaming to her Polish neighbors for help. She’d grown up alongside them, but they turned her away so she kept on running, a girl of 19 whose life had just gone up like a poof of smoke. She never really spoke about any of it. My grandfather had, but up until now my grandmother had only mentioned it once, to one of her two surviving brothers.

She asked him to write it down for her so she never had to speak about it again. I read her account. The most jarring thing about her story was not what was written on those pages but what was omitted. She spoke about her family of 14 souls that became 12 when two babies were lost to childhood diseases, and how her mother was considered a lucky woman to have lost only two while the rest of them made it,strong and beautiful, to adulthood. They were a well-off family and one of the most prominent in their town. They were furriers, and the Nazis had knocked on their door because they needed furs to send to their soldiers on the Russian front. The Nazis took her brother’s life, and the furs. My grandmother spoke—on those pages  she dictated to my great-uncle—about running; about meeting two of her brothers, who told her that everyone else was gone; about living a life in hiding with them; being liberated and meeting and marrying my grandfather in the DP camp. Which is where his story finally tangles with hers. My grandfather was liberated by the Russians, but he did not trust them. Knowing that they needed workers to make uniforms, he claimed that he could sew.  This was an untruth; he’d been a carpenter’s apprentice before the war, so he asked for some quick lessons from the two brothers working beside him in the factory. They had been furriers and knew their way around a needle. He was eventually introduced to their sister, my grandmother, when they all arrived at the DP camp, and their engagement lasted a long time; they waited two years for someone who could write a kosher kesubah. My father’s older sister was born in the camp, among the displaced Jews of Europe. My father was born after they arrived in America, followed by a younger sister. And my grandfather continued to sew, to create needlepoint masterpieces that he presented to each grandchild upon their bar or bas mitzvah. That’s where my grandmother’s story ends. Now that she is gone I cannot ask her, “Bubbie, if you were in hiding the whole time, if you were never in a concentration camp, why are there numbers on your arm?” Because there were numbers on her arm,branded into her soft skin.

How did she get them? I’d never asked, and now I’d never know. But it’s my husband’s grandfather that I am thinking about now. Because only after he died did his family find out that they were not his first family. His first wife had been a woman by the name of Eva, and she and two small children, a boy and a girl whose names are lost to us, were murdered by the Nazis early in the war. He remarried right after the war and never revealed his secret. “I don’t know why he never told us,” my husband said in answer to my question. “We’ll never know. But maybe he wanted to embrace life, not death. He wanted to live. He wanted to move in the light, stay out of the shadows.” I thought about him, a man I’d never had the privilege of meeting but whose presence is a light in the eyes of those who did. I thought about him and about his first family, forgotten, unmourned by anyone but him, as I sat at my grandmother’s table eating melon and cookies with my sister while our kids played in the background and looked at pictures of a long-forgotten town brought back to life by a memory. I am thinking now about that day because as we were flipping through the pages of the book my grandmother had said, almost to herself, “You don’t know what it was like. You just don’t know.” My sister and I had glanced at each other. “We don’t know, Bubbie,” my sister said carefully. “We won’t know unless you tell us.” “What can I tell you?” My grandmother had moved the book until it was at a perfect 90-degree angle. Then she moved the tray of cookies. Then the melon. She looked at her fingers. We all did. My eyes rose until they rested on the numbers on her arm. “Tell us anything, Bubbie,” I said. “Tell us whatever you want. We want to hear.” “What can I tell you?” she repeated. “You want to hear about my brother answering the door, getting shot, falling to the floor and dying right where he stood? I ran out the back door and my neighbor sent me away. Do you want to hear about that? Do you want to hear about running and running from the Nazis? Do you know what it means, running from the Nazis? Do you know what it means to run, to leave everyone you love behind, to just run away from the Nazis while pregnant?” Time stopped.

The noise the kids were making faded. I looked at my sister. She looked at me. “But Bubbie,” one of us said—I don’t remember which one of us finally unfroze her mouth—“Didn’t you meet Zeidie in the DP camp? After the war?” “Yes,” she said. Her eyes were bright and looked right into mine. “Yes, I did.” “So then why were you…” “Melon!” my Bubbie called out to the kids, standing up in one brisk movement. She looked back at us. “Who wants some melon? A shame, it’s sitting here and getting warm when it’s so much better cold.” “Does your grandmother know that your grandfather had a first wife before he married her?” I asked my husband a few days after my father’s shivah. His eyes widened. “No, she doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t. You didn’t say anything to her, did you?” What about you, Bubbie ? You were 19, old enough for the Bais Yaakov girl you were before the war to be married for a year or two. Did Zeidie know? I can’t imagine him not knowing. How had she lost her first husband? Who was he, the forgotten, the lost, the unmourned? How had she lost the unborn child? Had he been born? Was it a he? Or was it a she? Did she want to name him after her brother?I wanted to know. I needed to know. We sent away to the archives in Baden, Germany for information about my grandmother. We wrote the number  that was on her arm on the form. When my mother-in-law had received her packet of bits and pieces of her father’s life, she’d gotten a picture ID, the name of his wife and ages of the children and when they’d been killed, the names of all the camps he’d been in, and the paper he’d filled out in the DP camp expressing his desire to move to Israel, although they’d ended up in America in the end.

So even though he is long gone, his children have so much of him; they even have a blanket he took from the DP camp. (My husband saw an identical blanket in a Holocaust museum and realized where the blanket in his mother’s linen closet had originally come from.) But all we received from the same organization when we tried to find out about my  Bubbie were two pieces of paper. My grandmother had filled them out in the DP camp in her thin, spidery handwriting, and they were dated six months apart. The second one said that she had never been in any of the camps. The first one said that she had been in  Auschwitz. They didn’t have anything from Auschwitz with her name on it, as they did for my husband’s grandfather, but how else could she have  gotten the number on her arm? What happened in that six-month span that made her decide to erase all memories of having been branded? I got my older brother in on the search. He went to the library, downloaded files, searched for her maiden name. Over and over we saw the story that everyone knew, the night that the Nazis knocked on the door of the house and her brother was the first in their town to fall. The night my grandmother ran for help but was sent away and kept on running. “There must be more,” my brother said. “I’ll keep looking.” But he didn’t. He stopped looking, and so did I.

We stopped searching the morning that my mother called me to tell me that we should stop. “Why?” I asked. “Because Bubbie said to.” My brother had called my mother up at two in the morning. He had had a dream, he said, and the dream was not a dream; it was real. My grandmother had come to him and told him simply, “Please. Please stop.” So we stopped looking into her past. We stopped trying to find out what happened and connect the dots. Is it important to know her full story? I think it is. And I think about the months in between that day with the book and the melon and the phone call at 6:30 in the morning telling me that she was gone. Would she have said anything more if I’d asked her when I still had the chance? Well, there’s no way to know now. My Bubbie never got her mind wrapped around the idea that I could make a local call from Israel. She still thought of longdistance phone calls as prohibitively expensive and did not stay on the phone for more than three minutes.  “So Dina’le,” she would ask me when I called, “how are you?” “I’m great, Bubbie. How are you?” “Can’t complain.” “Bubbie, I was thinking about coming in for the summer. Tickets are really expensive, but I miss everyone very much.” “Oh, okay, dahlink,” she would interrupt, her eye, I knew, on the clock, calculating the cost of the call. “I love you, thanks for calling. Goodbye.” I love you, Bubbie. Goodbye.

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