Thursday, April 19, 2012
“She died a few years ago,” I explain.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Kayla says.
“It’s okay. She died at an old age, considering she was a Holocaust survivor,” I say.
Kayla looks at me blankly. “What’s a Holocaust survivor?”
I’m shocked at Kayla’s ignorance. Why has the Jewish education system glossed over such an integral part of Jewish history, of Jewish identity? How is it possible that a second grader attending a religious school is so unaware of her roots?
“It’s…it’s a long story,” I say, trying to think of how to react. I think back on everything my grandmother and mother told me. Kayla’s face begins to spin before me, bringing me back…
I open my eyes and find myself in the middle of a bustling town. I look to my side and recognize a much-younger version of my grandmother, Feige, as she watches her brothers and father assemble a sukkah. Every year during Sukkos, she would tell me all about how her family’s sukkah frame stayed up all year. Until the Nazis came, at least.
“Feige, could you bring us some lunch from the store?” her father asks.
“Of course, Apu,” she says. I follow her into her family’s store next door. The interior is vibrant and warm, full of colorful local and international produce and potential buyers browsing through the wares. Feige heads straight to the counter. I recognize the woman behind it as my great-grandmother Ita, a savvy businesswoman who exponentially increased her family’s fortune. I never met her in person, but I know her face from my aunt’s wedding album.
As Feige walks through the store to get lunch for her father and brothers, she greets almost every customer. I know that the Jewish community in Beregszasz, Hungary has a huge Jewish community, so it impresses me that she knows everyone. I imagine that she figures someone from her family will always run the store, live in the house next to it, put up the sukkah every autumn.
Suddenly, the scene before me becomes fuzzy. When everything becomes clear again, I realize that I’m no longer inside my great-grandmother’s store. I am witnessing a hell unlike any I have seen before, a hell called Auschwitz. There are hundreds of women, skeletons of people wearing filthy rags, lined up in perfect rows. It’s dark, sometime before sunrise, and freezing cold.
“Anyu, eat the meat, don’t trade it,” I hear a Hungarian whisper. I turn around and see two women standing next to each other. At first I think I don’t know them, but when I walk closer I can recognize what used to be Feige and Ita in their faces.
“I’m not eating this treiferei,” Ita responds to her daughter. She spits on the ground, looking truly disgusted at the thought of letting non-kosher pass her lips. As she spits, her skin stretches even tighter across her bones. “You won’t eat it either, so don’t be a big shot.”
“You’re older than me, you need the nutrients more than I do,” Feige says desperately, trying to cajole her mother into eating the meat.
“No. You know you want me to trade it,” Ita responds.
“Well…” Feige wavers.
“I need to go. I said I would meet her at sunrise,” Ita says. “It’s starting to get light now.” Before she can change her mind, she walks off. I notice a bulge underneath her clothing and assume it’s the offending meat.
Even though she’s gone for what feels like hours, my great-grandmother’s absence isn’t noticed. As the sky gets increasingly lighter, the women just stand in their perfect rows, waiting for roll call to begin. When the sun reaches a certain place in the heavens, I notice some women mumble the morning blessings and thank God for giving them one more day.
Finally, Ita comes back. I notice the bulge in her clothing is larger, and a different shape. “You got them?” Feige asks.
“I got them,” she says.
“Oh, thank you,” Feige responds, looking relieved. “I wish I could smoke right now, it really calms me down.” She reaches out to touch the bulge under her mother’s shirt. I realize that Ita traded her meat for cigarettes for Feige to smoke. I almost feel like laughing. Well, that’s the Berger women’s spirit for you.
“After roll call,” Ita says to her daughter. I see a twinkle in her eye.
I stand with them for hours, holding vigil with my ancestors. When I hear the sound of Nazi boots stomping, my vision begins to cloud yet again.
When I can see clearly again, I’m standing in front of little Kayla. She looks at me expectantly, waiting for an answer to her question.
“What’s the Holocaust?” she repeats impatiently.
“Let me tell you a story,” I tell her. “In the 1930s, there was a girl named Feige…”