GRANDMA

GRANDMA

What did you say? Was it in Polish?
Sorry. I don't speak Polish, but I can understand some.
Well. Who told you that?
Morris? My nephew? I could guess!
That boy always had some weird ideas about everything!
OK. Not everything about this is wrong. Only most of it.
Maybe fifty percent. Because only the part about my Grandpa is true.
Yes. Both Grandpa and Grandma were from Poland.
But you can only call one of them a Holocaust survivor.
Because only my Grandpa was Jewish. My Grandma was not.
That was a problem for a while. Especially, after my grandparents arrived in America. When they came here, they did not know English. My Grandpa was fluent in Yiddish, so he could communicate with the Jewish community here, and he was able to get a job very quickly. My grandmother had problems with English to the end of her life. Our family joke was that Grandma was more fluent in Yiddish than in English and that she became more kosher than the rest of us, although she was a real gentile, and we were at least half or more Jewish. She never converted, but my father and his brother were brought up as Jews.
My grandmother ran a kind of Jewish home; even though we could never be called a religious family. My father and my uncle had a bar mitzvah, and my sister and I had a kind of bat mitzvah too. For a while, my father took it more seriously than Grandpa did, but all of this was done just to fit in with our neighborhood which was, at that time, almost 100% Jewish. You know, "when in Rome..."
But I suppose that this is not the subject you are interested in.
What can I tell you about my grandparents' life in Poland during the war?
My Grandpa would never talk about it. All that I know about it came from my grandmother. She told me the story only once; the year she died.
One cannot say that she was a happy woman. It seemed she never found her place here in America; as if she was left alone in the world. Especially after Grandpa died. It seemed the family was somehow ashamed of her. She was a simple woman and had difficulties following normal conversation. I was the only one she could talk to. This came about very late too, just a couple of years before she died. I must confess that we, her children and grandchildren, had difficulties understanding her. When we had to visit them, we preferred to talk with Grandpa. I became a bit closer with her after Grandpa died, and she lived alone. She never complained. Once, she said that what she did, she did because she loved my Grandpa. She said that she was never sure if he married her out of gratitude alone or because of love.
I never told her story to anyone because it is very special.
Grandma lived in a little town with her parents. She had an older brother who was involved in a gang, and he did not visit them very often. My Grandpa lived with his family in the same neighborhood. My Grandpa's family was much better off than my grandmother's family was. My grandmother's mother had a kind of cleaning job in my Grandpa's family house. My grandmother went there a few times when she was little. When she became a teenager, she helped her mother with her work. She saw my Grandpa there, but they were not friends. They were simply aware of each other. My Grandpa was six years older than my grandmother was. When the Germans invaded Poland, she was sixteen, and he was twenty-two. Her education went as far as primary school. My Grandpa, after completing high school had begun studying law.
In the beginning, the war hadn't changed my grandmother's family's life very much. My Grandpa, however, had to interrupt his studies, and he came back to town to live with his family.
Then it all started. The Jews in the town got ordered to move to a special area, called the ghetto. My Grandpa and his family also had to go there. In the beginning, the Jews could leave the ghetto if they had some valid errands or permission. After a while, however, life in the ghetto became increasingly difficult. Walls surrounded the ghetto and there were guards at the entrance gates. The Jews still tried to leave the ghetto occasionally because the food supply became critical. The problem was not only the German soldiers, gendarmes, or the Blue Police (mobilized from the old Polish police force). The gangs of young thugs who demanded money also persecuted the Jews outside the ghetto. Some gangs were not satisfied with just blackmailing Jews and robbing their money. There were some incidents where the Jews, after being stripped of all values, were beaten. Some of them so badly that they died in the street.
In the middle of 1942, the Germans began to empty the ghetto for people for good. They sent the Jews away in the cattle wagons.
One afternoon my grandmother was on her way home when she noticed a scuffle at the corner of the street. As she came closer, she could see her brother and a few other thugs kicking and clubbing someone who was lying on the ground. Suddenly, she realized that it was my Grandpa. She quickly ran up to them and began shouting at them to stop the beating immediately. As she pushed the thugs away from my Grandpa, they became angry. Her brother shouted at her that this was none of her business, and if she didn't leave immediately, she would get the same treatment. She was so angry with them that she began to shout at them even louder. She yelled that they would have to kill her first before they could harm the man lying on the street anymore. Their chieftain, her brother, then said that they were practically finished with the beating anyway. He told her she was welcome to bury the corps, and they left. My Grandpa lay on the ground, covered in dirt and blood. There were no other people on the street and it started to get dark. It was not that far from their flat, and my grandmother managed somehow, to lug him up to the second floor and into her room. To hide what happened, and thus avoid trouble, she cleaned the floor in the flat, the stairs, and the pavement in front of the building. Fortunately, nobody saw anything.
During all this, my Grandpa was unconscious, and she was almost convinced that he would simply pass away. For the next couple of days, he was on the verge. It was difficult for her to take care of his wound because she had no experience with this sort of thing. She was afraid to ask anyone for help. The only thing she could do was to clean his wounds as well as she could and to sprinkle some vodka on them as a disinfectant. Fortunately, he was unconscious at that time and did not cry out. To clean the wound on his head she had to shave it first. It was the first time that she tried to use a razor, and he ended with a couple of additional scars from it. He was unable to eat anything for several days. He only got some water, which she tried to pour into his mouth.
It turned out that his body was tougher than all the beating it received. He finally opened his eyes on the fourth day. On the fifth day, she was able to feed him a little. After a week, he was able to speak a little. After ten days, they had a new problem. He needed to go to the bathroom. She provided him with a bucket that she could empty at nighttime. She did all this without informing her parents who were living in the same flat! She succeeded to keep him there safe and hidden for two long weeks. Eventually, she had to tell her mother about it.
They both kept it secret from her father for another two weeks. They needed extra food and some bandages and medicine. My Grandpa continued to recover. He was finally able to sit and talk. He told my grandmother that his family received an order to pack that day because it was their turn to be transported to, as they said, a new labor camp. Some rumors were circulating that it was not a labor camp, but an extermination camp. That is why his father told him to run away immediately. He escaped from the ghetto not knowing what to do, just to be caught by her brother's gang.
By the way, one time, when my grandmother's brother came to visit their parents, he asked her what happened with the Jew they had beaten. She told him that she had gone immediately home and that there was no trace of him the next day.
It was the time to involve her father. He became furious and wanted to kick my Grandpa out at once. They convinced him that it would not be a good idea. What if the neighbors found out that they had kept a Jew in their flat for almost a month? It would take one scoundrel among them to inform the Germans. Not necessary to explain what it would mean after all those German orders. It also helped a bit that my Grandpa had some money and gold safely hidden away.
They decided to help my Grandpa to move to another place. They had a distant cousin, who lived near the mountains. The place was almost deserted, and the cousin was always short of workers. It would be a good opportunity for my Grandpa to find a job and a safe place to stay.
My grandmother convinced her parents that it would be safer if she went with him. She provided several good reasons for this. The first and obvious one was that my Grandpa did not know where their cousin lived. The second one was that the cousin would be very suspicious of hiring a total stranger. The third was a more sophisticated one. What if that stupid Jew, not knowing the way, got lost, became captured and when beaten told the Germans the whole story about hiding with them? She got permission to go with him. They got some food and left the following night.
They were afraid to use public transportation because Grandpa was still very weak. Besides, all his wounds and bruises would raise suspicion. She was familiar with the area and roads, and they traveled in the nights using small roads and pathways. They kept to the woods and rested in old shelters or abandoned barns. It was my grandmother, who took care of their food and water needs. She had a sixth sense regarding which road to take, what place was safe, or in which farm it was possible to get some supplies.
It took more than three weeks before they finally arrived at her cousin's place. By that time, my Grandpa's hair had regrown a little and the scars on his face were almost healed. Fortunately, he did not look like a Jew, but more like an escaped convict. Which was much more preferable. My grandmother told her cousin that her traveling partner was her fiancé. She said that he needed to be hidden because the Germans were after him. Because of his involvement in the resistance. When the cousin understood that they were both willing to work for him, in return only for the opportunity to have a place to stay, he didn't ask about anything else. On the same day, he sent them to a remote sheep farm, where they were to take care of the animals. They lived in an old hut with an old fireplace with holes in the walls instead of windows. It was very cold in the nights, and they warmed themselves with their bodies.
When did she first fell in love with him? Probably when he had lain unconscious in her room. He knew it, but it was she, who had to make the first move. From that time onwards, they lived together like husband and wife.
The work on the sheep farm was very hard. My Grandpa, despite his years of forced work in the ghetto, was almost useless in the beginning. My grandmother was more practical and had to show him what to do and how to do it.
On the other hand, he was an excellent storyteller in the evenings. She told me that, despite all their hardship, it was the best time of her life. It was the only time that they felt equal as persons. She had her practical sense. He had his knowledge and his ability to talk about fascinating places, interesting things, and books.
When the Red Army liberated the area they had been hiding, they decided to leave.
Back in town, they said goodbye to each other. She left to see her family, and he went to Warsaw because it was the place, where he could get some information about the fate of his family.
My grandmother's parents were very happy to see her return. At least in the beginning. They had been convinced that she was sent to a labor camp or worse. But the next day, when she told them that she spent all that time with my Grandpa, they became furious. A catholic girl with a dirty Jew? The day after, her older brother, who had become a police commandant in the new regime, came to visit their parents. When he heard the story, he called her a Jewish whore and a Jewish mattress. Her father showed her the door. He told her that she had no home and no parents. Her mother said nothing and didn't defend her.
My grandmother went out, not knowing what to do next. In a daze, she wandered to the railway station. And who appeared from the train that had just arrived? My Grandpa! She fell into his arms. She told him what just happened to her. He told her that he had found out that all his family was murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp.
He never told her that he loved her. Even at that railway station, he simply asked her: Do you want to go with me?", and when she answered: "I will go wherever you go", he said: "Now we only have each other. I cannot promise you much. But one thing you can be sure of. I will never leave you".
At last, I understood why, at my Grandpa's funeral, my grandmother was crying out like crazy in Polish "He promised me!"

Alex Wieseltier
April 2020