It was at the end of winter 2005. I found myself sitting in the living room of a 2.5 bedroom apartment I knew too well. The curtains, sofas and paintings on the walls reminded me that I was in a safe place, they have been a part of this house my entire life. But I was terrified. This was the first and only time I saw those beautiful light blue eyes tear up.
My grandma was over 85 years old at the time. She was the rock of the family. Always optimistic, always on the move, doing something, working, cooking or volunteering at “Wizo” (Women’s International Zionist Organization, a volunteer organization dedicated to social welfare in all sectors of Israeli society and the advancement of the status of women) and always showing the world and us love. Up until my visit, she was also always silent about her past. Don’t get me wrong- we knew. It’s hard to keep silence when you have a tattoo of a number on your arm. She was an AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU survivor.
Although one of my first memories as a child is waking up in the middle of the night from loud, horrible and horrifying screams in a language I didn’t understand (German) coming from the next room, my dad and aunt say she never spoke about her life during the Second World War.
My visit that day had a purpose- asking her some questions, as I was scheduled to participate in a teen’s journey to Poland. This is one of the main activities the Israeli education system uses for teaching students about the Holocaust. As I entered her apartment I didn’t know what to expect. Will she finally share her story?
I sat cozily in front of my grandma, asking my list of questions: Who was where? What hut number was she in? And what happened to her mom Rosalia and baby sister Ibolya (“Iby”)? The atmosphere in the room up until that moment was interview like. All I got were cold answers, but her eyes were full of love and compassion. In a single moment all had changed. She was already crying when I got up and set beside her. She describedthe vicious dogs who waited on the train platform when she arrived at the camp. The selection process and how she was fit for work, meeting Mengele and parting from her family which where too old or too young to live. They were both dead that same day. As I found out later on via the “Yad Vashem” institute, it was 6\6\1944. She knew all those years.
Still with tears in her eyes she kept on talking. It was clear to me she was overcoming the biggest pain imaginable to be able to speak to me. It took me years after to soak in her description of how they took her, stripped her and shaved her hair and humanity in the process. Even as I am writing this story now, I am crying for my beautiful, chic and modest grandmother.
I don’t know why she blessed me that day with her story. Maybe she realized I was the last generation who could hear the story first hand. Maybe the length of time that past since the end of the war made it safe for her? The only thing I know for sure is what a role model she is for me. The way she lived her life after the horrors she went through, the optimism, the love and the compassion she taught me are what guide me in this life.