The eyes of my grandmother always had an intensity to them, an urgency, a piercing force harnessed within their clear blue radiance. There were layers to her eyes, onion-like, almost- When some were peeled back there would be a bitter stinging that would give way only to tears, slow sliding droplets that worked feverishly to alleviate the pain and dissolve the sorrow. All I know is that hers were eyes with an intense mystery to them; a secret carefully veiled behind the lens and nestled within her soft, aged eyelids.
The voice of my grandmother had a beauty to it that I cannot fully describe. From the time I was a small child she would sing to me in haunting Hungarian melodies-not a syllable I understood. She would rock me in her arms as her voice rang out with a far-off look in her eyes. I remember how those tunes used to remain in my ears long after she would leave me. When I got older, she used to sleep over at our house for Jewish holidays, and I would find myself exiled to my little sister’s trundle bed down the hall. At night I would pass by her bathroom and would hear the familiar tones of her singing as she washed up for bed. They were different tunes in those days, not the ones I had heard cradled in her arms when I was young- They were bolder, more robust, and would tumble off of the brown bathroom tiles adding an eerie echo to the melodies. Knowing that I was an interloper, I would stand outside the door captivated by her voice, close enough to be considered the best seats in the house, and far enough away to allow me to bolt if I detected a twist in the shiny doorknob. I would remain there, captivated by her voice until a crack in its tones would break me out of my reverie. She cried during those melodies. Often, she cried. And I would scamper down the hall at the sound of her sobs, not knowing why she was crying and knowing even less what to say, lest I be discovered as an intruder on a private moment.
The hands of my grandmother had a talent in the kitchen unlike anyone else in our family. Her signature dish was stuffed cabbage. The perfect union of spice and spirit, it was a personification of my grandmother, brought straight from the old country. My mother has often relayed to me the story of how she and my grandmother met. As most Jewish mothers are infamous for, my grandmother was very protective over my father, her only son, and time and again rejected his girlfriends as not being right. She was a little unsure of the new one (my mother) that was coming for dinner in the spring of 1975, but she instructed my father to ask what her favorite food was so that she could prepare it for the meeting. As destiny would have it, my mother said “stuffed cabbage,” and in a matter of months my father and mother were renting out a wedding hall.
She taught my mother how to prepare the dish before the marriage- how to roll the slippery cabbage into tight bundles of meat and rice, a piece of the family’s legacy. I can still remember entering my grandmother’s tiny apartment and being attacked by the thickness of boiling tomato sauce, simmering ground meat and frying onions that permeated the air. And when there were tears in her eyes as she looked up to greet me, I always just assumed that it was because of the onions.
The advice of my grandmother had stark sincerity. From the time I learned to walk she turned her piercing blue gaze upon my freckled cheeks and told me certain “inalienable truths” about life. She spoke about family, about working, about treating other people, about getting what you want. But mostly she spoke of love. I could never really understand why it meant so much for her to tell me repeatedly to never let the person you love go, but I listened to her and would nod my head at the incessant message. I took it all in, every piece of advice, gleanings of gold that she sifted from the gravel of life’s road, not because I had not heard these things before, not that each word hadn’t been told to me by others numerous times- but because there was a power to her words, and strength in her eyes that made you know that she knew of what she spoke. There was sincerity beyond any sincerity I have ever known. My grandmother never gave me advice; she implanted it into the core of my being.
The arm of my grandmother had a scar. Nestled within the soft pockets of skin above her elbow, a branding of the Holocaust that was her young adulthood amidst the fires of Auschwitz remained with her long after the flames of Poland had been doused and the smoke had cleared. The reason why she always seemed to be in two places at once, could be right in front of you and locked in a million miles to the east all within the confines of a moment, had existed within that wrinkled patch of skin all along.
It must have been spring in Chicago during that unforgettable weekend, because I distinctly remember the sunlight shining off her face when I slid the back door open to go check on her. She had been sitting outside in one of our rickety lawn chairs for hours, enveloped by both a blanket (if my memory serves me correctly) and a faraway look. I pulled a chair close to her, gave her a slow-spread grin, and we sat together for a few moments. To this day I do not know why, but it was then that she pointed to the scar. My eyes traced over the purple bruise until her heavily accented voice pierced the silence that the warm spring wind had blown over us. “Its still here,” she said.
Confused, and still very much in my own world, I tried to understand what she meant. “It’s from the concentration camps,” was all she had to say. It was the tone of her voice that jarred me out of my universe and transported me thousands of miles away. Within moments I was in 1930’s Europe beside my grandmother, implanted in a world of black and white with very little room for grey.
The story began. Death from starvation was rampant in the camps. There was a sympathetic man on “the outside” that took pity on my grandmother and would throw her some bread over the fence whenever he had a chance. It was an airborne link to existence that materialized on certain days as if fallen from heaven.
One day, however, an SS woman officer witnessed the bread exchange and grabbed my grandmother. Enraged, she struck her with a blunt object, and branded her for life with a physical reminder of the horrors of where she had been and would never fully be able to escape. More horrific things happened in the camps. Ironically, death was a way of life during those years and the bodies piled high around the perimeters of her barracks. She helped save her sister from the gas chamber lines, dodged the line many times herself, and lost around half her family in the fires of Auschwitz. She had fallen in love before the war and gotten engaged, only to have her fiance be one of the first people to be dragged off while she was left alone with nothing but images of the past in her mind. She told me that she had somehow felt and known that he was dead before the letter actually arrived at her door; A glass shattered for no reason in front of her very eyes and she felt at that moment that she had lost him. Around this time Nazis came to her home and pulled out her father’s beard.
That afternoon was a daze for me- a dream where you are being sought, pursued, and hunted, and have no idea how to save yourself until it suddenly dawns on you to wake up. I woke up as her voice finally trailed off and her more pacified tone transported me back to the sunny afternoon in quiet Skokie, IL. From the look in her eyes, however, it was clear that she was struggling to regain consciousness, enter back from the chilling winds of Poland, into the warm, spring air. It took a while, but eventually I felt that with phenomenal effort, she had returned.
I remember telling my father about that afternoon, assuming that he knew every detail. Hadn’t he been raised with the story of the SS officer and of mass executions? Hadn’t he sat around the dinner table with tears surrounding him whenever they would eat a crust of bread? Instead, I was shocked to learn that he knew next to nothing about her story. She had never talked about it with him, and it had never been discussed in their house. Sometimes his parents spoke in low voices in foreign tongues, but their past was never part of his present. So, what did this mean? Had she only told me? Did I peel off more layers of those piercing blue eyes that afternoon than anyone else ever had?
I wanted to know more. There was a weird part of me that was drawn to her story, fascinated that her tiny, vibrant frame could sit in front of me in one piece after her life and her world had once been torn to shreds. Questions took hold of my mind, “After being enslaved can a person ever really be “liberated”? With no where to go in the world, where does one go? Does one walk all the way to another country?” I would ask her, would pry gently into the past, would wait to shed my technicolor existence and be swept back in to her world. But somehow the medium of transportation had been closed to me- she never again opened up like that incredible afternoon where the only thing that out-shown the fresh spring sunlight cutting across our lawn was the power in her eyes.
I still struggle with this nowadays, as all I have left of my grandmother now are my memories. I berate myself for the details of the stories I heard that afternoon that have already been lost forever. I sit sometimes and wonder why I did not run to a pen and paper, and lock myself within the ink until every detail, every heavily accented word, every break in her voice had been recorded for my family’s future generations. So many details have already been lost. I cannot fathom why it is that I only remember certain pieces of her voice when the whole mosaic of that afternoon has had a profound effect on me ever since.
I fear that with the generation of Holocaust survivors slowly disappearing, my grandchildren will never know what it was like to encounter these precious souls and their stories firsthand. To stand in their presence and feel their strength of character, resolve, and self sacrifice- something that seems lacking in the ‘me’ generation that is emerging. How will I relay what my grandmother meant to me- The moments cradled in her arms to the slow tune of Hungarian ballads, the smell of stuffed cabbage absorbed into her kitchen paint, the way she would impart things to me as if our lives were inexplicably intertwined, as if she needed for me to vicariously learn from her mistakes. How does one put a tiny Hungarian woman with rosy cheeks and piercing eyes, with swollen legs from a life-long journey, who would sometimes speak to you in Hungarian when she wanted to tell you a secret even though you told her that you didn’t understand a word, who would then register the comment and proceed to speak to you in slow Hungarian as a solution, who could make you laugh like no one else in the world just by speaking colloquial American phrases in her accent. How does one portray a phoenix from the ashes, a voice of six million, a person who describes her journey through life itself as a “survivor”, the barer of a small purple mark just above her elbow?
I might never be able to fill in the blanks, the fuzzy lines of demarcation between Poland and Illinois, the split second thoughts between the powerful notes that she hit behind a bathroom wall and their crescendo into sobs, the urgency in her messages to me. But with a mere picture in my mind, I can see the intensity of her eyes, the onion-like layers, the sea of blue whose waters are always working to be calm after the storm. One thing is clear. The arm of my grandmother has a scar. And by direct correlation the soul of my family will forever have one too.