© Copyright 2018 by Lauren Stein
One of the few surviving historical photos of my family depicts my grandmother as a little girl, crowned with a bow the size of her head, posing with her parents and three of her elder siblings. This was only half the family the older four children were elsewhere. The photo is in black and white and their expressions are all very solemn, as if they are already aware of the grim destiny awaiting them. Only one of those four children died a natural, age related death. Sometimes I look at that photo and I wonder, how was it decided which one got to live? They are there, healthy, normal people; and yet, including the parents, two will die of starvation, two will die from Zyklon B in Nazi concentration camps, one will succumb to exhaustion and illness on a death march. One will drop like a stone in her kitchen following a cerebral hemorrhage, but the last will die in her bed on the other side of the world, aged 95, floating on a cloud of morphine so she would feel no pain.
I don't think I'm spoiling the surprise if I say that it was my grandmother, the chubby-cheeked baby of the family, who outlived them all. Why her? And how? An answer always came from my grandmother herself: "Mazal", or in other words, luck.
It is certainly undeniable that luck played a remarkable part in my grandmother's life, just as it does for all of us, although perhaps its effect in her life is far more obvious. But I will offer my humble opinion that it was not just luck that saved my grandmother. It was also her attitude. "I was never depressed", she would boast proudly. "Never. I never said I would die here". As my mother refers to her, the eternal optimist.
Perhaps it helped that she was born on a sunny Mediterranean island in the height of summer, which is surely a gentler entry to the world than being born in, say, Siberia in January. She spent many illicit Sundays wandering the cobbled streets of the ancient town, free as a bird, while her mother attended to the many and never-ending needs of her family and community, too harried to always notice the child's absence.
My grandmother's birth was, ironically, considered unlucky, particularly by her oldest brother, who had already left the island. Another girl in a family which already carried the impossible burden of five girls and therefore the insurmountable obstacle of five future dowries, was bad luck indeed. On the other hand, however, the only other boy in the family had been very sick, but made a miraculous recovery as soon as my grandmother arrived. So they called her Salva, meaning savior a name which she despised and several weeks later were able to ring in the Jewish New Year, hearts beating strongly with relief.
My grandmother grew up, coddled by her sisters and cousins, attached to her mother, and spurned at the age of seven by the love of her life, a rejection she never forgot. She was a mischevious child, at 4 years old purposefully slicing her arm open one day at day care with a knife she found lying on the table. As she carved into her arm, she asked her small companion at the time: "Can you do this?" When they took her to the hospital for stitches she refused to let them touch her until she was given an orange, her favorite fruit. At school she excelled in French, Italian and Hebrew, and failed miserably at maths and science. She often sneaked for free into soccer games at the big stadium. Humid summer days she spent splashing in the clear Mediterranean Sea, until one day a boy frightened her with shouts of "whale!" She was so petrified of the purported whale that she rushed on to shore, never to set foot into the sea again.
At age fourteen, she left school and went to study dressmaking. When her mother began proudly offering her services for free to all the numerous cousins, my grandmother foresaw herself toiling endlessly like an ant with no pay or recognition. So she diplomatically quit dressmaking and went to work in a shop.
The simple routine of work and home was her life for almost the next decade, with little prospect of anything different. There was no marriage on the cards, as there was no money for a dowry that had all gone for the dowry of the eldest sister and no luck for a love match, as happened to another sister.
And then in the summer of 1944, the war, which had been creeping insidiously towards them in various ways including bombing raids - pounced like a wild animal and flung itself, in full predator mode, over the island. Within a short space of time, the Jews were gathered together in the town square. Standing amongst them in the broiling sunshine was my grandmother and her family, excluding her mother who had died of a stroke the previous year. They were efficiently loaded onto barges and then, on the mainland, stuffed into stifling cattle trains for a delirious journey to the unknown.
The crammed train cars, the unbearable heat, and the constant hunger and thirst - for they were given very little food or water as well as the fact that they could not anticipate the end of their torment as they did not know where they were going, bent and stretched time in mysterious ways. After ten interminable days that could also have been one hundred years, almost dead from lack of hope, the horror journey ended at place with a strange name: Auschwitz. It was August 15th, 1944, my grandmother's twenty fourth birthday.
Reeking of sweat and trembling with trepidation, the people shuffled weakly off the train, clinging to each other. Children screamed from hunger as their exhausted parents tried helplessly to soothe them. Standing on the platform, baking in the summer sun which was still warm despite the fact that they were now much further north, destinies were decided with a casual flick of the wrist: Right, to work. Left, to oblivion.
Having been squashed in a corner for the past ten days, my grandmother had stomach pains and couldn't stand up properly. Instinctively, they all understood the importance of appearing healthy and strong, so the two sisters closest to her in age linked their arms with her and supported her upright. The ruse succeeded, and all three were cleared for work. They underwent the dehumanizing rituals of all new prisoners: they had their heads shaved, their arms tattooed with the identification numbers that would almost replace their names, and their bodies disinfected.
Their elderly father, oldest sister and her two small children, and many others who had endured that torturous journey, did not survive their first night in Auschwitz. They were sent directly to be gassed. The last my grandmother saw of them was a plume of smoke rising from the crematorium, and the scent of barbecued meat in the air. Later they were given a lump of a greyish substance. "Whats that?" my grandmother asked a guard. "Your family," came the response. It turned out to be soap made from the ashes of the dead.
Existence in Auschwitz was precarious and frequently dependent on luck. After a short time in the camp, undernourished and exhausted from standing for twelve hour shifts in an ammunitions factory, my grandmother caught the measles. A cousin, afraid of catching the contagious disease that could easily become fatal, told her bluntly: I'm going to betray you". To betray her meant that the Nazi guards would be informed of her illness, and she would be automatically marched off to the sick bay, whose miserable occupants were regularly sent to the extinction of the gas chambers. The cousin did in fact betray her and she was promptly sent to the sick bay, but to her good fortune, the sick bay had been cleared of its hapless inhabitants just two days prior. By the time it was cleared again, my grandmother had recovered and been returned to her barracks, which itself had been partially cleared during her absence. During that clearing, one of her sisters was taken, although the cousin that had betrayed her survived. By shear serendipity my grandmother had escaped being gassed.
My grandmother never blamed her cousin. "I understood her. I would have done the same".
The Polish summer is brief and it didn't take long for the weather to turn brutally cold. The lack of food also reduced their ability to cope with the sub-zero temperatures, and umpteen prisoners, including my grandmother's brother whose life she had "saved", died of starvation, cold or disease. As 1944 waned and pressure from the approaching Soviets grew, the Nazis murdered many of the prisoners who did not die themselves, mostly in the gas chambers.
My grandmother's turn for the gas chamber came in October. She and the other wretched occupants of her block were rounded up and locked in one of the chambers. They were not naοve new prisoners who believed they were going to be disinfected, as was sometimes told to new arrivals. They were perfectly aware that they were about to be suffocated alive.
They sat in the gas chamber, huddling together, anticipating the gas. The walls of the chamber were marked with the frantic escape attempts of previous desperate prisoners. They waited. Each second was as full as a lifetime, and also empty of everything. They waited. The gas chamber was not silent while they waited. It was full of the shifting of emaciated bodies, of rapid breathing, even the occasional muttered sentence. "Well, at least we're warm here," my grandmother's sister pointed out. She was right; the building was completely sealed, sheltered from the icy wind and outside noises. They waited. There was no hysteria; they were too weak and too numb to panic, and sat in a strange apathy, waiting for the end.
Except it never came.
After a suspended, immeasurable time that could have been mere minutes or entire years (in reality it was probably something like an hour), the heavy door was opened. They were sent back to their barracks without a word of explanation. My grandmother never knew what happened and believed that there had been a mechanical failure.
Many years later, my mother, during her endless research, read about the Sonderkommando Revolt of 7th October 1944. During the revolt, prisoners, made bold by the prospect of imminent death, staged an uprising in Crematorium IV. My mother discovered that the revolt was quelled within a matter of hours, but because of the chaos, a group of prisoners in the gas chamber of Crematorium V were not gassed as planned. This is presumably the truth of what saved my grandmother, that time.
Shortly afterwards, the Nazis stopped gassing prisoners at Auschwitz and certain other concentration camps. With the Soviets inexorably advancing from the east, thousands of prisoners, my grandmother among them, was marched out of Auschwitz. During that cruel march in the barbarous weather of a European winter, they walked more than seventy kilometers into Germany. From there, they were redistributed to other camps, far from the eastern front.
My grandmother was put to work again, but the Nazis' nerves were beginning to fray. They were starting to realize that their dream had failed and the Third Reich was collapsing. Instead of murdering 'inferior peoples' in order to fulfill their glorious vision of the perfect Aryan race, mass murder was now used as a tool for eradicating witnesses to their brutality. The meticulous organization that had stood them in such good stead through the war continued even in its dying days; there was a timetable for the slaying of prisoners. My grandmother was scheduled to be gassed on the 15th of May 1945. She knew that a second last minute reprieve within the gas chamber was so unlikely as to be impossible. The remaining time rolled on ruthlessly, trickling away as the appointed date drew closer.
The Soviets were also drawing closer, and on the 8th of May, a week before she was due to be gassed, Soviet soldiers liberated the camp.
My grandmother had survived. She was the only one of her immediate family who had been deported to do so, although she didn't know it yet. She was also one of only approximately two hundred survivors remaining from an ancient community that had numbered around two thousand at the time they were sent to Auschwitz.
From the camp, shell-shocked and traumatized, my grandmother and her fellow survivors were sent to Switzerland to recuperate and come to terms with the fact that they had lived. They were overwhelmed by the scale of their loss. So few were left, although it would be many months, even years, before they were able to comprehend how so very many of their community had died.
In Switzerland, she and a few friends who had shared that hellish experience, starting from the journey from their home and into Auschwitz, made jam from the biggest cherries they had ever seen, adding plenty of sugar to try and soothe their aching souls. Afterwards they were repatriated to the Italian mainland, which was not where they had been born, but their island home no longer belonged to Italy. They had nothing to go home to anyway, so it didn't matter much.
In Italy, they toured the great sites of Rome and attempted to gather strength to go on living. I don't know how they did it. How do you lose everything, see the absolute worst humanity has to offer, and decide that you are still capable of living in such a world? Some survivors, understandably, could not deal with such a burden, and committed suicide. Others lost their minds.
In the chaos following the war, it took time to determine who had lived and who had died. Every day my grandmother scanned lists of survivors, heart beating in anticipation of finding the name of a sibling. One day, the name of one of her sisters jumped in front of her eyes, and the world was suddenly glowing brightly her sister was alive! But the euphoria was short-lived. She soon discovered, choking with disappointment, that it was a cousin of the same name who had lived and not her sister. It quickly became clear that only the elusive elder brother whom she had never met was alive, safe in America.
Very slowly, my grandmother and her friends built up the courage to face the future. They gained enough strength to endure the painful fact that they had lived, even though so many others were dead. They began, tentatively, to make plans, trying valiantly to build new lives from the shards of what remained.
My grandmother wrote a letter, in Italian, to her brother, informing him of all that had happened and notifying him that out of their immediate family of eight siblings, she was the only one left. Fortunately, she remembered the address of her brother's house in Seattle. Unbeknown to her, however, her brother and his family had moved house during the war, which in those days - without internet and other modern methods for tracing people from across the ocean could easily have meant the end of all potential contact with him. But with another one of those singular strokes of luck that had saved and changed her life, the postman who was tasked with delivering that fateful letter knew her brother's new address. So the letter was delivered successfully, despite the incorrect address, arriving at an opportune time the day of her nephew's bar mitzvah.
It is easy to imagine that receiving a letter like that after years of ominous silence left her brother reeling. I have read that letter. It is written in my grandmother's typical dignified, gentle manner. The writer's poise reflected in that missive is part of what makes it so devastating.
At the bar mitzvah reception that night, they sent around a collection tin. The money that was raised was used to pay for my grandmother's passage from Italy to the US.
She travelled by ship with several of her friends, who had also one way or the other managed to get the funds to reunite with distant family members in America. My grandmother spent much of the Atlantic crossing prostrate in her bunk, weak from debilitating seasickness, while her friends attempted to comfort her. Eventually they arrived in New York. There she and her friends parted to continue their individual odysseys in life and in America, although bonded forever through their shared infernal experiences. Her recovery from the travails of the voyage was so successful that she was able to visit some distant cousins in their apartment for a delicious home cooked meal before catching the train for the cross-continent trip to Seattle.
As she spoke no English, her cousin prepared for her a small sign, stating that she spoke French, Italian, Spanish, and some Greek, and was eager to chat. My grandmother boarded the train, armed with her sign, looking hopefully at the other passengers, but no-one could speak any of the necessary languages. The journey was four days long and very isolating. Once, a sympathetic lady on board showed her friendliness and good intentions by giving my grandmother some Danish pastries. Steaming with frustration and loneliness, my grandmother flung the pastries out of the window of the moving train. Fortunately things took a brighter turn at one of the stops, when a friendly woman took my grandmother for dinner at a Greek restaurant. The relief of being able to communicate, and the food similar to what she knew from home, warmed her heart and helped her to continue to trip with a calmer spirit.
In Seattle, my grandmother finally fulfilled the dream of meeting her long-last brother. For him, this unknown sister's presence must have unleashed an all-enveloping storm of guilt: guilt for having condemned her for her gender at her birth; guilt for being safe and warm while everybody else had suffered so terribly; guilt for being alive; guilt for having been helpless. It is safe to say that his shame devoured him whole. He could never bring himself to question his sister about her ordeal, and not once did he ask about any other family members. In later years, he found solace from his demons in copious shots of arak, which he drank on Sunday afternoons as a way to escape.
Life with her brother's family was challenging for my grandmother. Her sister-in-law's friends often displayed a fantastic amount of insensitivity, continuing to ply her with probing questions about her experience in the camps even after she was driven to tears. Others refused to discuss the subject at all. She started attending English lessons with two magnificent teachers who magically placed the correct English words in their students' mouths. Her sister-in-law refused to speak with her in public in their Judeo-Spanish mother tongue, insisting that it was rude, although my grandmother was not yet fluent in English. One of her nephews, though, was particularly tolerant and would repeat English words for her over and over until she grasped them.
Seattle's notoriously grey weather did not help matters either. Coming from a sun-drenched Mediterranean island, my grandmother was not used to the cold and constant drizzle of Washington State. Returning home one winter's day after work, her brother solicitiously enquired of her how she was. To his surprise, he received a flood of tears in response; amidst the torrent he discerned the complaint that "I haven't seen the sun for four months!"
Shortly after this episode, my grandmother decided that she had had enough of the constant drizzle of Seattle and the melting pot of personalities in her brother's house, and moved with no regrets to Los Angeles to live with a cousin and her mother. The sunlit climate there eased her depression. She settled in quickly and found a job in a garment factory, and started having all sorts of adventures, such as undergoing a tonsillectomy whilst fully conscious (fortunately, at least with the benefit of local anaesthetic and large quantities of ice cream afterwards).
In Los Angeles there was a large community of expatriates from their common island home most of whom had been lucky enough to leave before the war and my grandmother often encountered people who she knew, either directly, by association, or because they were the cousins of cousins.
One evening she went to synagogue to celebrate the light-hearted festival of Purim, which is a festival with a background that, if one was looking for symbolism or freakish parallels, shares some eerie similarities to my grandmother's history. The story of Purim features a government minister, crazed with jealously, who plots, with the support of the king, to kill all of the Jews in the vast kingdom. Although ultimately the plot is unsuccessful and the evil protagonist ends up swinging from the gallows, the intervening story is not without pain and fear for the Jews. During the service, a woman sitting behind her tapped her on the shoulder and introduced herself. She was about 15 years older than my grandmother, and she and her entire family (including all siblings) had left before the war, so they hadn't known each other personally, although my grandmother had known this woman's elderly mother and had even often helped her to cross the road. The woman was friendly and they had a pleasant chat, and there was nothing at all to suggest that their meeting was another example of my grandmother's unusual luck, but it was.
Across the ocean, in the dark heart of Africa that was then the Belgian Congo, there was another expatriate community of Mediterranean Jews. Living there were some cousins of my grandmother, to whom she had sent a recent photograph of herself. I have seen that photograph. It is very flattering and my grandmother is smiling broadly. She looks beautiful. Her cousins obviously also thought so, and displayed it prominently in their lounge room, where it caught the eye of a visitor. The visitor, a debonair man who had come to seek his fortune in the colony, inquired about the subject of the photograph. Upon being informed that the woman in the photo was his hosts' cousin who lived in Los Angeles, he wrote to his older sister, also residing in Los Angeles, to ask if she had come across her. Coincidentally, his sister had indeed met her in synagogue on Purim, and gave her whole-hearted endorsement. And so, armed with his sister's approval, the man who would become my grandfather obtained her address from her cousins and wrote his first fateful letter to the woman who would become my grandmother.
That letter began a written courtship where they got to know each other's values, preferences, experiences, and expectations for the future. After six months, without ever having heard the other's voice or laying eyes on them in the flesh, my grandfather proposed to my grandmother. Defying her sister-in-law's scorn ("how can you marry a man you've never met?!"), my grandmother accepted, even though it would entail another dramatic life change: while her fiancι had applied for an American visa, he had not yet received it, so she would have to come to him, in Africa.
Perhaps because of the brutal emotional recalibration and reshuffling of priorities she had undergone after the loss of regular existence and her family, my grandmother was never one to dither over decisions or have qualms about the past. Once she had decided to throw in her lot with her future spouse, she went about serenely, preparing for her new life, unbothered by her sister-in-law's objections, even though she must have realized that she would most probably never see her brother again. In an era without Skype and just at the very dawning of the jet age, intercontinental travel was still expensive, impractical and far out of the reach of the majority of people.
She arrived in southern Africa in September 1949, and married my grandfather in a synagogue in what was then known as Salisbury, Rhodesia. In the photograph they are both dressed in their wedding finery and look very happy. You wouldn't know that they had only recently met in person for the first time and that neither of them had a single family member present.
They set up house in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a neighborhood of whites who were not considered amongst the elite but whose lives were still worlds away from those of the poverty-stricken blacks living in townships in other parts of the city. The long-awaited American visa eventually arrived, but by then it was too late. They had already built lives in South Africa and could not face the thought of another uprooting.
My grandfather was a typical husband of the era and a perfectionist to boot. My grandmother was an exemplary housewife of the time, never answering back, and priding herself on preparing home cooked meals and fresh fruit salad every day. They lived together peacefully enough, despite the aching wounds my grandmother still carried on her heart. She often suffered from vivid nightmares.
My mother was born in July 1950, after an uneventful labor which my grandmother had initially mistaken for indigestion, having eaten an exorbitant amount for Sunday lunch at a restauraunt they had been to the previous day. This didn't stop her from eating breakfast at home, before they set out for the hospital, and then eating a second breakfast in hospital a mere two or so hours before giving birth. Mother and child stayed in hospital for ten days, as was the custom at that time, and then were sent home.
I don't know how my grandmother's early days as a parent were; presumably difficult, as they are for all new parents, although perhaps for her even more so. She had no family members whatsoever to help, and, as a newcomer to the country, no close friends. I don't know how much assistance her husband could provide. The one advantage was that domestic help, in the form of black servants, was readily available, and I imagine that my grandmother, in those early months, hired people to help maintain the house and possibly care for the baby. Somehow or other, my grandmother managed, and the child grew and flourished, as yet unaware of the heavy burden of loss she was born carrying.
When my mother was a year and a half old, my grandmother took some food to an acquaintance sick in hospital. On the way out of the hospital, crossing the road to the bus stop, she was hit by a car. Just like in the movies, she was able to blurt out her name and address and that of her daughter, and then she passed out. She was in a coma for six weeks. When she finally woke up, she had a broken collar bone which had not mended well, and a scar on her leg, but was otherwise unscathed.
Several years passed, and at the age of five her daughter became a big sister when my grandmother gave birth to another girl. For many years, their external lives were more-or-less typical, if somewhat lonely in their predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish community. However, the violent extermination of my grandmother's family had left a vast open space that was far greater than their presence would have been. My grandmother, although a loving and caring parent, seemed to display a degree of "blank effect", as psychologists call it. She was never like, for instance, the grandmother of a classmate of my brother's, who had told her small daughter when she found her crying over a broken doll: "You think that's bad? My whole family was killed." But if one of her daughters was stranded at school a two hour walk away - or had no way of getting home from a friend's house on a winter night, my grandmother, who had never learned to drive, did not seem overly bothered. Her response would be "sort it out yourself".
Once in a while, shiny black shards of grief tore their way through all the protective linings formed by time and routine, into real life. One day, for example my grandmother was in their large garden with my teenaged mother, and she saw a piece of fabric with a spotted pattern on it. I don't recall how the fabric came to be there. Her sister had had a dress of that same fabric, and the memory unleashed within her was so strong, and the loss so enormous, that she broke into ragged sobs there in the garden, with her daughter by her side.
The girls grew up, struggling with a painful inheritance and an isolated childhood which created in them an almost pathologically intimate bond. There was a strong emphasis on aesthetics and materialism in the society in which they grew up, and they came from a background which had never been wealthy and glamorous, but they did what they could to fit in, with varying degrees of success. The emphasis on wealth and appearance left deep scars on their psyches which would never be erased. Upon finishing high school, they continued studying at university, much to the consternation of their traditional, patriarchal parents. Although my grandparents were proud of their daughters' intelligence and never prevented them from getting an education, they were terrified that this education meant they would never marry marriage being, of course, the ultimate and only goal for all proper young women. However, to their parents' tangible relief, both eventually married and, later, had children. Shortly after her marriage, the elder daughter moved reluctantly with her new husband to Australia, feeling it a violent wrench from her family which neither sister ever recovered from.
My grandfather retired from his job and my grandparents moved to a seaside flat in Cape Town, close to the cousin my grandmother had hoped was her sister, and to others from their hometown. They lived there contentedly for several years. Just three weeks after the birth of their third grandchild and first grandson, my grandfather, watching television one night, complained of feeling unwell, and asked my grandmother to phone the doctor, which she did. He was dead before the doctor arrived, of a sudden heart attack.
The unexpected blow was a hard one; my grandmother plunged into deep depression. Her son in law flew in and brought her to Johannesburg for the funeral. Her daughter and granddaughter arrived from Australia, and they stayed for several months. My grandmother never returned to live in Cape Town. She moved in with her younger daughter, where, despite the natural challenges of housing three generations under one roof, her new grandson gave her reason for life. She nurtured him and kept him close to her, and he helped to fill the aching gap in her heart. Because of the comfort he provided her, he became the favorite grandchild, and never lost that elevated status.
Slowly, having walked the difficult road of grief before, my grandmother regained the will to live. Two years of living with her daughter's young family was enough, for all concerned. She moved into her own apartment on the top floor of a building on a busy main road. She spent her time cooking, and playing cards, and flew several times to Australia to visit her daughter and grandchildren. Having spent almost forty years in an - albeit loving - marriage where gender roles were strongly reinforced the man was always lord and master my grandmother flourished before her daughters' astonished eyes. Although she had always been a dictator in the kitchen (and remained that way) and had also always possessed a keen sense of humor, other aspects of her personality changed. She began to display sparks of cheekiness and spunk that had probably characterized her as a child, but were new to her daughters. She often spent time baking for when she hosted card games with her friends, but upon discovering that they bought the refreshments for the times when they hosted, she decided that she, too, would buy things like apple pie, because why should she bake when the others didn't?
Several years into her new independent life, the random pendulum of luck swung again, changing everything. The youngest of her five grandchildren, a bold 4-year-old girl, was at the local tennis club with a group of other children for an after school activity. The early spring day was windy and perhaps the facilities at the club had not been built or maintained as they should have been. A tall brick wall collapsed onto the children, instantly killing two and badly injuring two others, including her granddaughter.
In hospital, her granddaughter was intubated and stabilized, but no one could say whether she would survive or the extent of any brain damage. The injured child's aunt arrived from Australia, and a desperate vigil began. Family members from both sides prayed and promised everything in exchange for the child's health. My grandmother, whose faith was potent despite all she had experienced, prayed too, in her typical quiet way. Her granddaughter lay in a coma for nearly two months, and then haltingly opened one eye. When she came out of the coma, and it became clear that there was a long journey ahead in her recovery, her aunt departed for Australia, taking my grandmother with her. Her sister was too preoccupied with organizing critical rehabilitative therapies for her daughter, and could not keep an eye on my grandmother as needed.
My grandmother's time in Australia was possibly originally intended to be temporary, but weeks extended into months and it was painfully obvious that circumstances had changed and she could not go back to her flat in Johannesburg. And so began the decade of her eighties, for the third time making a new life for herself on a new continent. For the first three years, she lived with her daughter and her family, but the frustations that had existed when she lived with her other daughter after her husband's death had not diminished. The claustrophobia of an empty house and locked doors during lonely weekdays also dredged up long-suppressed unpleasant memories of life behind electrified fences.
Initially extremely reluctant, she moved into a Jewish aged care facility, where to her surprise she found that the other residents, who appeared to be bland old people, also had personalities, and that there were plenty of activities to keep herself happy, entertained, and well fed. At her new home, my grandmother practiced her French and Italian skills with volunteers, faithfully attended synagogue on Saturdays, avidly watched the news and sports on TV in her room, and every Sunday came to her daughter's house to cook. She participated in quizzes and bingo games that they held in one of the dining areas, for many years her only downfall being worsening hearing. This was an old nemesis, one which had begun to rear its ugly head in the days of apartment in Johannesburg, and one that was aggravated by her obstinate refusal, then and forever, to wear a hearing aid, which eventually lead to her increasing isolation.
Some Holocaust survivors are reticent. My grandmother was always chatty, and had no qualms discussing her Holocaust experiences, usually with dry eyes. When my mother was a small child of about four, she wanted to know why her mother had a number on her arm. My grandmother told her that it was her telephone number. Later, as her girls grew older, she gradually revealed to them everything that had happened to her. My grandmother was also agreeable to being interviewed for her grandchildren's school projects and those of their classmates, and never hid her arm tattoo, which various doctors commented on and even photographed.
As her grandchildren discovered more about the Holocaust, we could understand, and further appreciate, our grandmother, who of course like all people was not perfect, and was sometimes annoying and sometimes bossy (especially in the kitchen). But as we learned more and more, the scar, these twin loads of bereavement and isolation that had until then been shapeless and vague, took on a defined and demarcated appearance in our psyche. This scar was inherited, and passed down, in various forms, from my grandmother, to her children, and to her children's children. The effect on her grandchildren's children is yet to be seen.
As she approached her nineties, my sweet natured, gentle grandmother started to display aggressive behavior, which was completely out of character. Ever vigilant, her daughter took her to the doctor, and early stage dementia was diagnosed. She was immediately put on medication, which helped to slow the progression of her mental decline. She remained good-natured and cheeky. One day, having spent a few days in hospital, an ambulance returned her to her home. Unloading her at the door to the facility, her daughter was on hand to help, but my grandmother was too quick. As soon as her feet were on the ground and her walker in her hands, she set off nimbly inside, not bothering to thank the paramedics or wait for her daughter to accompany her. On another occasion, visiting her daughter's home, she found a box of chocolates on the table. She didn't wait to enquire who they belonged to or whether she could have any; she promptly helped herself, popping several into her mouth and a large handful into her pocket. She continued to love and appreciate nature, especially plants growing in the garden, playing cards and winning and was still authoritative in the kitchen, even when she no longer did the cooking herself but only the supervising. She gradually became less talkative and her hearing deteriorated further, but she maintained her legendary dignity.
At age ninety four, ninety years from the time the black and white photo was taken with her family, she became a great grandmother. For her ninety-fifth birthday, her great grandson arrived with his parents, uncle, aunt and grandparents from South Africa to celebrate the milestone. By this time, after several years of stable health, my grandmother's memory was failing in a big way. She did not recognize her grandchildren from South Africa, whom she had not seen for many years, although she did recognize her daughters, and seemed to understand that the laughing baby boy was her great grandchild.
Some weeks after the birthday celebration, she was moved to the high care wing in the old age facility where she lived. She had never been fat, although she had always had a sweet tooth, but now she no longer had much interest in food, not even chocolate. She stopped talking and her quality of life plummeted.
One day, she had difficulty breathing, and her temperature rose. A doctor diagnosed aspiration pneumonia, and an ambulance arrived to take her to hospital. In the hospital, she was administered antibiotics and IV fluids, with no obvious improvement. The doctors in the hospital decreed that nothing further could or should be done, and she was sent back home. The specialist geriatrician, who had been her doctor for some time, concurred. Her daughter in South Africa had great difficulty in accepting this, and argued for further treatment. In the meantime, one of her granddaughters arrived for a planned visit with her husband. It was a lucky thing that the timing had panned out as it had, and that at least one of her grandchildren could be there at this time. Several days after her granddaughter arrived, her daughter flew in from South Africa, still convinced that her mother could recover. After many long discussions with the geriatrician, her daughter gradually accepted that her mother had come to the end of her physical journey. Now, the emphasis was on keeping her comfortable.
During this time my grandmother had been semi-conscious, and seemed more alert than she had been for several weeks. She appeared to recognize her grandson when he called on Skype, kissing the screen of the tablet lovingly, and responded to the caresses of her daughters, granddaughter, and grandson-in-law. Occasionally she lifted her arms, as though reaching for something, or sipped from a glass of water offered to her through a straw. Up until this point, the medications she had been receiving appeared to keep her comfortable. On Friday afternoon, her son-in-law, granddaughter and grandson-in-law visited, whilst her daughters were keeping vigil. As they kissed her good bye, they wished her Shabbat shalom, to which she replied in a whisper "Shabbat shalom". They were her last words.
On Saturday night, she became agitated, eyes frantic, moaning loudly. Her daughters were understandably highly distressed, and asked for the nurses to administer the morphine that had been prescribed. The nurses, misunderstanding the prescription and the situation, refused to give her the morphine, and so she suffered through the night, her daughters suffering along with her. The next morning, however, a doctor arrived and the morphine was given, and she sank into blessed oblivion. She spent the next few days drifting gently in an opiate mist, oblivious to everything, including the leaking roof which dripped water onto her face until her bed was moved.
On Wednesday night, with her eldest daughter sitting beside her, my grandmother gave a deep sigh and stopped breathing. She departed this world quietly, aged 95 years and eight months, seventy one years after she was liberated from the Nazi death camps.
Within little more than a year after her death, the granddaughter who had been so badly injured, got married, and three other grandchildren each welcomed daughters. It was unfortunate that this woman who had undergone so much in her life just missed out on celebrating these happy events, but it was just another illustration of luck, this time bad. We simply had to accept this latest manifestation of luck and life with all its oddities of fortune, and attempt to get on with it.
That, I think, is my grandmother's greatest legacy as a person and not as a generic victim of great tragedy: her demonstrated ability to acknowledge that life can throw anything at all good, bad, or indifferent at you, and her excellent example of making the best of it.
I hope never to undergo the grueling trials she faced during life, but whatever challenges I face, I aim to emulate my grandmother's dignity and faith, and ability to stubbornly keep going. After all, even if today was terrible, one never knows what may happen tomorrow. It's all a matter of luck.