January 27, 2019
The winter romances a person. “Just for a bit, just a little,” begs January with the same light, from the same sun as summer. Now that light teases as no warm kiss of air matches its brilliant, blinding light. The days lengthen to tease even more, but the wind persists with greater chill through February thaws, right up until those first ides of March. I run outside for a moment, unable to control my longing for sunlight no matter how chilling. I smile as I return to huddle indoors, hiding in sweaters among heaters and fireplaces. And soup. And hot cups of coffee.
Living in Wisconsin, I could care less at the duplicity of mother nature in winter “Tickle me with chills. Tease me with sunlight!” Minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit wind chills are nothing to fool with other than with my words. “Oh, romance me winter.”
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. I think of my relatives. I think of my father. I think of the nostalgia of the 1940’s and the pain. My eye catches the sunlight lighting my favorite chair, my spot for reading, writing and praying. I think of my years of writing through my own distresses and my own pain. I have so much more to write…
But today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the day which marks the Liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. I know of pain and I know of distresses but I know nothing of such suffering. And because I do not know such suffering, I wish to write today, of meaning and beauty.
I was a naive twenty-two year old when I married for the first time. In that marriage I had formed a dangerous, volatile union. I had been determined to prove something, I guess. There had been moments of innocent love. There had been moments of struggling as a couple to survive financially. There had also been moments of danger and of anger.
As we were separating, my grandmother’s health began to decline. My mother would travel to take care of her, then call so that my father and I could talk with both of them. The last time I spoke to my grandmother, we spoke over the phone.
“You are a Jew,” she stated simply. “We are Jewish. We are Polish Jews.”
“Are you safe, Stephie?” my grandmother asked.
“Yes, I am safe, Grandma.”
My mother returned to the other end of the phone. “Are you okay?” she asked me. “Did you hear?”
“Yes, mom. We are Jewish?”
Within a month, at the age of twenty-six, I was a divorcee. I felt tainted, but I was safe. And not too long after that conversation, my grandmother, Ida Agnes, passed away.
My grandmother’s father was not an upstanding Jewish man. He was more of the gypsy-type, those that scrounged, picked, dealt and resold. Commandeering a horse and buggy, he picked through others cast-offs. If you needed rags, he would get you rags. He dealt in rags.
Jews such as my great-grandfather were called ‘Sheenies”. He might have also been a bit of a drunk. There is no glory or glamour to what or who he was.
I never press my mother too much upon when she knew of our ancestry. When she was growing up, she could not even reveal she was Polish. She tells of the story when she was a high school student in the fifties, when her class studied ancestry. When it came to her turn in class, she said that her family was Bohemian, Belgian, German and Polish. When her father learned of her listing of nationalities, he demanded that when she return to school the next day, she must retract her statement. If she did not, he would. She was to say that she had been mistaken. She was not Polish. She was Bohemian. She was Belgian. She was German.
She was not Polish. My mother did as she was told to do.
If a person put a positive spin on her father’s – my grandfather’s – actions, I could conclude that to reveal a Polish ancestry would also reveal that she was a Polish Jew. Perhaps it was for her own protection.
Um. No. She was also banned from learning Spanish.
During World War II my grandfather, along with many workers in eastern Wisconsin, worked in aluminum and metal work factories. Building everything from ship propellers to weaponry casings to submarines, that part of the state immersed themselves in the efforts of wartime supplies. My grandfather – the same one who denied my Polish ancestry – was also a neighborhood watchman, patrolling streets during practice blackouts and alerts. With government contracts, these factory cities readied themselves for air attacks.
I look out again, at my writing window. I have written before of the humor my mother and I find, thinking of my grandfather’s fondness for my grandmother’s cooking of potato pancakes. At Christmas time, along with candies and trees, we would be treated to specialty plates of dried fruits and fruit filled doughnuts, colorfully arranged on Depression glass trays. Perhaps he knew he was eating Jewish food, perhaps not. I will never know.
But my grandmother was cagey enough, I would believe, to have never told anyone. I would never have a chance to ask her questions. I would never know more except her words, “You are a Jew.”
I think of her life, surrounded by her husband’s family – my Great Aunt Libby, my Great Uncle Stephen – who were possibly the most prejudiced people who, even as a child, confused me with their odd sounding pronunciations, mixtures of Bohemian and German, and stern harsh voices who both scared me and loved me, and surrounded with the characters found in her own family (my Great Uncle Johnny, my Great Uncle Emmet and of course, my favorite, my Great Aunt Mae). Both families were full of secrets and scandals (someday I will tell you tales of her sister, my Great Aunt Mae, whose story could best be prefaced with a wink. Or two. And a giggle.)
How strange it all is, the legacies of hatred, fear and secrecy. More so, how curiously strange was the notion of the acceptability of the necessity of it all. Even now, the child within me reminds me that there are desk drawers you just do not open. Or if you do, you never mention what your eyes have seen.
But within her story, within that drawer, within those deadliest of secrets, lies the beauty of character, of strength, of survival. There is, within those papers, a spirit passed from her hand to my eyes; from her lips to my ears. My grandmother, knowing we were safe, knew she was safe enough to tell me, “You are a Jew. We are Polish Jews.”
Many years ago, my father decided to honor my mother with a gift of a bracelet upon which one charm was her Star of David. I never knew what my father thought about my mother’s heritage. He had been raised Roman Catholic with a prideful Polish Irish French ancestry which he seemed to both revere and begrudge. His stance, I believe, was no stance. But the charm and his reverence was an intimacy with which he shared and honored my mother. After he passed away, my mother duplicated the gift to me.
Hmmm. The International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or The Liberation of Auschwitz. Or,
May we remember those feet. May we remember the feet of all who walked under the infamous sign.
May we remember those hands. May we remember those hands who worked.
May we remember those eyes. May we remember those eyes who looked up to the sky. May we remember those eyes who looked to the sky, who looked upward to pray, past the black iron words, “Arbeit mach Frei.”
“You are a Jew.”