TROPHY

THE TROPHY

So you are that person who is interested in the Holocaust survivors and their stories.
Pity that you cannot talk with my father. He could tell you a lot. He was in the Majdanek concentration camp, and he was one of the few who managed to get out alive.
But he cannot tell you anything. Because he died a few years ago.
Anyway, I doubt if he would have told you anything. He never talked about it.
It happened only once. And it was not pleasant at all.
What did he say that one time? Nothing about his survival.
But it was enough to ruin two lives.
Yes. The past can be a cruel thing and can easily ruin the future.
What it was all about? I don't know if I can tell you.
It still hurts, even though it happened in the last decade.
That story hurt the whole family.
We do not discuss it. Not even amongst family members.
It has an indirect connection with the war and the Holocaust.
The story started quite normal. With my daughter, Ava.
She was always a jolly kid. It seemed like the sun was shining brightly and warmly everywhere she went. No one could withstand this child's charm.
Even those old grumpy Jews across the street, where you could never see a trace of a smile on their faces, acted like a bunch of giggling ducks when they saw her.
She was, of course, Grandpa's, my father's, darling. By the way, she was named after Grandpa's older sister, who didn't survive the war.
She was a clever child too and learning and everything was a piece of cake for her.
She passed high school as number two in her class, and she was accepted at Penn State University. She did quite well there. As a rookie, she was quite active. Not only in the classrooms, but also in sports and the youth associations.
Then she got to know Henry. He was also a bright lad. But it seemed that she became preoccupied with only one topic. Of course, she continued her studies. This was not a problem. But all other things had lost her interest. She still participated in University life, but she did it half-heartedly. All her emails and letters were filled up with Henry. Henry this and Henry that. And plenty of pictures. Almost all of them with Henry.
Fortunately, this obsession was mutual. The next Thanksgiving she did not come home. Henry's parents invited her! And they were thrilled with Ava, especially Henry's mother, who happened to be an old Flower Power girl. Even Henry's grandmother accepted her at once. Which, according to Henry, never happened before!
Henry also visited us, and we could see and judge that wonder in flesh. Handsome, six feet tall, with blond hair and stridently blue eyes. He happened to be a very lovable person. Straight away, polite, smiling, and interested in almost everything. With no trace of pretense or the likes. It felt very sincere and natural. So he thrilled all our family. Except for my father. What he had against Henry was that Henry's family was from Germany!
Ava was crushed. She could not understand it. She knew very well that her grandpa had lost his closest family during the war because of Germans. But all that misery was caused by Nazis! It was in the past! More than sixty years ago! Why would Grandpa not accept that Henry was an American German when Henry and his family could accept Ava as an American Jew? How many generations needed to pass to erase the guilt of the ancestors? Neither she nor Henry could see the reason to be affected by Grandpa's opposition. They continued their connection as if nothing happened. Except for Ava's ties with Grandpa that became more "loose".
Before the next Thanksgiving Ava informed the family that she was coming home for the family reunion with Henry and that they had an important announcement! We could guess what it was but played the game.
At the afternoon table, Ava told us that Henry had proposed and that they were officially engaged! We began to congratulate the young couple and Ava showed the engagement ring and a special gift she got from Henry. It was a gold necklace with a gold pendant formed as a hand, where the small diamonds formed a kind of eye placed on the top of the fingers. Its beauty thrilled all of us.
Except for my father. When he saw the jewelry, he became pale, faltered, and was close to fainting. We were very worried because it looked like a heart attack. But after a couple of minutes of rest and a glass of water he recovered. Then he asked Henry where he bought that extraordinary piece of jewelry and if he knew where it came from.
Henry answered "Yes. Sir. This is an extraordinary thing. And it has a special story too!" "Can you tell us that story?" my father asked. "With pleasure!" said Henry.
Last month his grandmother invited him to her place. She asked him to sit and listen carefully because she wanted to tell him her and his grandfather's love story.
It started at the beginning of the Thirties. They became sweethearts in their last school years. They had decided to marry each other the same year. Unfortunately, his grandfather was in a conscript age and was called up for military service in another town, and they lost the connection. She was devastated, but could not forget him. His grandfather has chosen a military career, and she did not see him until 1942 when he suddenly visited her. He was on leave before he and his unit were departing for Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. He told her that all that time he has never stopped thinking about her. He could not write, because he could not find her address, and he could not visit her because he was busy with his military duties. Despite the long period of not seeing their feelings remained the same. They talked about the future. He said that he was very disillusioned with Hitler and the Nazis. "Those bloody bastards told us that they would build Great Germany. I trusted them and did whatever it took to follow the orders. The only thing they achieve will be the downfall of the nation. I killed plenty of my country's enemies because I was convinced that it was necessary for the greatness of our nation. Now I know that the war is lost and that our nation will suffer defeat and misery. It will take a couple of years, but it will happen. I am a soldier and I will do my duty. I am going to Russia and the chance that I will come back alive is very small. I love you, but I do not want you to be a widow. If I come back, I will marry you." He took something from his pocket and gave it to my grandmother. "This oriental jewelry is the only trophy I took from all my fighting. Treat it as my promise and an engagement gift. If I come back and you still have it, we will be together for the rest of our lives".
They were apart for the next three years. He went to Russia. He was injured there. He got frostbites and his unit was the last one that escaped from the Stalingrad battle. As he predicted, the Germans lost the war. As an officer, he was interned for six months after the war ended. She was waiting for him all that time and kept that piece of jewelry he gave her. It helped her to survive the hardship of the war and the Allied bombings. She was happy to see him again after everything was over. They got married at once. But he was a haunted soul. He could not stand the people and the conditions in postwar Germany. Somehow, they managed to immigrate to America. They tried to forget all about the war. Grandfather never recovered from his physical and mental injuries. Henry only had some dizzy memories of a distant, distinguished, and an old-fashioned man. But also a warm and caring person. Only with Henry. Henry's mother said once that the person she saw with Henry was not the same person she remembered from her childhood. He died when Henry was still a little boy. That piece of jewelry was his grandmother's only memory of their adolescence and their love. The only thing she cared about. But that day his grandmother took the jewelry out of the box and gave it to him saying "This jewelry was the dearest thing to me all my life. Now it is your turn to give it to your special girl"
Everyone was touched by Henry's story. My father asked Ava if he could take a closer look at the pendant. His voice sounded harsh. Then he said, "Now I will tell you another story. As you know, I had an older sister. Her name was also Ava. She was much older than I was. She was very clever. She was the first one in the family with a university degree. For this occasion, our father ordered in a local jewelry shop a piece of specially designed jewelry. They called it a Hamsa pendant. It was made of 18-carat gold and embedded with a sea of sparkling diamonds. The order given to the artisan covered also an inscription inside the pendant with Ava's name in Hebrew. Unfortunately, in the written order, the last letter "A" was omitted, and the artisan understood that it had to be written a sign of the Jewish month Av, as a month of birth or something. Anyway, Ava was very fond of that jewelry and kept it on her neck almost all the time. She also wore it on the day she died. It was in 1940. It happened in the late afternoon. We were in the backyard of our house, and we could hear some shooting in the neighborhood. Just after that, some people ran through our backyard. Then the Germans came. They could see that we were Jews because we had to carry an armband with the David star on. A young, blond hair officer, with stridently blue eyes, asked Ava in broken Polish if she had seen some bandits. She answered that there are no bandits here, only ordinary people. The officer shouted in German "You are lying. Your Jewish sow!" She answered in the same language "And you are a very rude person". The officer grabbed Ava, took her necklace with the pendant off, and put it in his pocket. Astonished by the assault Ava managed just to shout in German "And a thief!", when the German took out his pistol and shot her dead!"
My father took the pendant, and to everyone's surprise, opened it and showed us the inside inscription! Two Hebrew letters. אָב‎, - AV. Then he said "Mazel Tov! My granddaughter is going to marry the grandchild of my sister's murderer!"

Alex Wieseltier
April 2020