This is an unusually personal piece. I wrote it last October while my grandfather, or “zaida” in Yiddish, was dying of cancer and finished it shortly after he passed away. My zaida was a holocaust survivor and an amazing man who was an inspiration to the whole family and beyond. There are few survivors left. In a few years there may be none left, aside from a few people like my Dad who were children during the Shoah or in the DP camps after the war and can remember very little of what happened.
It is 1951. My zaida is a greenhorn just arrived in New York City. He has spent the last 12 years trying to survive and save his family from pain and death at the hands of their foiled executioners, millions strong and armed with guns, warplanes, radios, and all of the resources of the most advanced country on earth. He has succeeded.
He cannot speak english. He is looking for his one surviving brother, who is much older than him. Because this one brother left the old country for America when my zaida was a child, my zaida was later kicked out of the Russian army for having American ties and sent to a Siberian labour camp. He survived that too. My zaida’s name, Myer, means “light”. His wife, my baba, has a name which means “beautiful”.
Myer is following another Jew down the street. They are speaking Yiddish together, and Myer has gone from being lost to being found.
My zaida Myer is led into a room where the voices add Russian to Yiddish. An old man sits among the others playing cards. It is his long lost older brother, the only other survivor.
His brother and the other New York Jews set Myer up with a room to stay in, money, food, and friends. He has never had it so good. After a few weeks he begs them to find him some work but they are not in a hurry. They know what he has been through.
Myer has been arguing with his wife about whether they should stay or go to Winnipeg, Canada, where her parents Gedala and Hyitl have been resettled, having gotten out of Europe sooner. She wins, which he will complain about for the rest of his life.
1935. My grandmother’s father, Gedala, has put all of his money into sending his daughters Rya and Sarah to a tarbut, a new kind of Zionist Jewish school where they will learn the emerging modern style of Hebrew and get a secular education as well as education in Jewish culture. On the way to school every morning my Baba Rya and her older sister Sarah walk fearfully, their eyes peeled for non-Jewish Poles who gather to throw stones at them, spit on them, call them dirty Jews. My Baba will acquire Hebrew with a modern sefardit pronunciation. She will weather the humiliation of being pulled out of school one year because Gedala can’t afford it. She will learn to play the mandolin, and will do so until a nervous condition developed during the holocaust scars and disfigures her hands.
My zaida is late for shul. His older brother, who is an atheist and a marxist, slaps him for being late to the religious service. “Show papa some respect!”, he barks. Papa, Reb Shmuel, is an orthodox litvak, a non-Hasidic but pious Jew who teaches Talmud and Rashi in the synagogue and acts as a cantor during the high holidays. Myer will follow in his brother’s footsteps, join a Jewish socialist group, and hang out with the Red Army soldiers stationed in his town of Glemboka. It’s those soldiers who will tell him that the pact between Russia and Germany will fail and the Germans will come. They tell Myer to leave with his family before the Nazis get there.
When Myer tells his family he is leaving and why they are unmoved- they do not believe the stories of the Germans could possibly be true. Myer is adamant, already showing the prescience and cunning which will serve him so well later. He begs to be allowed to take one of his brothers, but his parents are firm that he will not break up the family. His father touches his head and bensches (blesses) him. Myer leaves alone and heads for Russia.
1941. My baba Rya is taking food and clothing into a detainment complex where her father is kept. Drafted into the Polish army, Gedala is now a POW. His wife Chayitl and his two daughters are staying near the camp and doing what they can to take care of him. One day the family meets a handsome young Russian officer, a Jew, who is helping to get some basic amenities to the many migrants and refugees who need it- firewood, boots, bread. The young officer takes an interest in Rya, who is a beautiful, diminutive teenage girl of 17. Eventually they will marry in a back alley somewhere in Russia, secretively, hurriedly, with a hastily put together minyan (quorum), Myer and Rya Gindin.
Through a series of unlikely events Myer has a key position in the leadership of a Russian munitions plant in Siberia. Months before he had been called before a committee of three men from the Party, one of them a Jew, to be examined as a possible candidate for helping with the plant. The men asked Myer a few questions and dismissed him. Myer took a shot. He had spotted the Jew. Figuring he might play on the man’s compassion, as he turned around to leave he faked a limp (which would mean he as useless as infantry). The man stopped him. “Amcha?”, he asked in Hebrew.Who are your people?
Yisroel, Myer replied in his ashkenazi Hebrew. He was given the position. Through superhumanly hard work he rose in the plant hierarchy, gaining the trust of the upper managers. They put him in charge of finding resources- scrap metal, industrial materials- to be turned into the weapons of war against Germany.
My zaida arrives cold and exhausted in Glemboka. He has gone back to see what has become of his family, and to tell them of his marriage. He rode the rails all the way there, a huge distance which took a weeks travel. The Jewish area of his village, the largest part of the village, is a ghost town. His family home is empty. In a shack erected outside of the home he finds the family’s shabbes goy- the gentile housekeeper they hired to look after the farm and house without the restrictions Jewish law placed on them. She tells him the story.
The Nazis did come, and they exterminated the town’s Jews. Myer’s family was lined up by a giant grave and gunned into a pit. Shmuel, his wife Bluma, Yankl, Shepsl, Yehuda, Baruch, Avraham, Zerah, Mendel, Ephram, Raphael, their wives and children….The shabbes goy saved some of their things in a locked room in case Myer came back. He takes a pair of boots for Rya and leaves the rest for her. He walks back to the train, back to Russia. For the rest of his life he will search phone books for Gindins. Maybe one of them escaped. Maybe.
1943. My zaida is standing trial before an army tribunal, court-martialled. He is on trial for black market racketeering. He was turned in by a man, a barber, who he helped get a pair of boots. Someone planted whisky in his room, and he is being accused of hustling resources and moonshine. His government appointed defence lawyer is useless and Myer is sentenced to ten years in prison.
That night his dead father, Shmuel, comes to him in a dream. Make an application, my son, he says, and you will be freed. Myer awakes to see a white bird tapping on his window, and then it flies away. Myer follows his father’s advice and gets an acquittal.
Myer and Rya cross European borders underground, looking for safe haven.They end up at one point in Ural, Siberia, where their first child is born. They name him after Myer’s father Shmuel. Myer refines his hustling abilities, making one potato become, after a day of trading among the poor, a small meal- maybe a loaf of bread and condensed milk for his wife and child.
A Jewish organization called bracha (blessing) gets them into Austria as the Allies win, and they end up in A DP camp on the river Danube where they will live in squalid, cramped conditions with other holocaust survivors for five years awaiting a country to immigrate to. The camp is near Linz, where Hitler was born. My Dad, whose Hebrew name Yehuda derives from one of Myer’s murdered brothers, is born there and lives there until the age of five.
My baba and zaida tell me of their flight into Austria, walking through snow covered forests with broken shoes, my baba’s pregnant belly poking through her undersized dress. They sneak across the border at night, my zaida begging one year old Shmuel to be silent, which, miraculously, he is. As soon as they step into the warmth of the safehouse Shmuelke begins to wail.
After my baba and zaida moved to Winnipeg my zaida took several jobs: a denim cutter, laying floor tiles, cutting glass. They lived in the poor part of Winnipeg’s North End. Myer eventually bought into a convenience store, and then borrowed money to invest in real estate. Working constantly, figures dancing in his brain, forming alliances and cultivating connections, Myer eventually bought and sold dozens of hotels and parcels of urban real state and became a wealthy man. He supported his sons, buying them property, paying off their debts, buying them businesses, making investments on their behalf. He helped put his grandchildren through school, financed their housing, flew them to Florida to visit him and Rya in the Winter or Winnipeg to visit them in the summer. Nights he did not sleep. He read voraciously, mostly about WW2 history, Jewish history, European history, understanding what happened in ever finer detail, spreading out through trajectories of historical space and time.
It is 2003 and I am a Buddhist monk. I am sitting on a wooden platform in hand-dyed burnt orange robes, with a shaven head and eyebrows. My Zaida Myer, and my uncle Sam are there, in an impossible and surprising gesture of solidarity. They are sitting across from me on a wooden bench peppering me with questions. They will ask me more questions in 20 minutes about the logic and intricacies of Buddhist monastic life than I have received in the previous two years. They head back to their motel room after agreeing to return the next morning to spend the day together.
The next day Sam, Myer and I go to a bookstore for coffee. Sam goes to the bathroom and my zaida leans in toward me. “Mettyu”, he says in his Yiddish accent, “I want you to know something. I might have my ideas about what you should do. And you might have your ideas. But whatever you do, and wherever you go, I will always love you.”
2015: My father’s voice sounds lighter on the phone now. He has had a night and day to digest his father’s diagnosis with terminal cancer, and his natural philosophical optimism is kicking in. “I gave him the Feldman argument”, he said, citing the good death of his friend Bill Feldman a decade earlier, “People die all the time without knowing it’s coming. This way you get to put all of your affairs in order, say goodbye to everyone.”
In the background I can hear my zaida talking, then singing. My Dad holds up the phone so I can hear his amused, Russian-Yiddish sounding singing voice intoning, “I’ve got plenty of nothing….and nothing is plenty for me!”
A week later My zaida gets the prognosis: 3-6 months. “What if I want to make it quicker?”, he asks. The doctor changes the subject. We visit him a couple of weeks later. My son lies in bed with him and they make funny noises.We talk privately. He says to me, “70 years of work, what did I accomplish?”
Thinking he is fishing I say, “What did you accomplish? You built an entire family! Everything we have is because of you. You built everything.”
“Did I?”, he asks, “Maybe it was God. I don’t know.”
The next day I am asking him questions about the war, clearing up parts of the story. He tells me my Dad got him a book about Jesus (Killing Jesus) a couple of months before. “Do you believe Jesus existed?”, he asks.
“Sure”, I say.
“Who killed him?”, he asks.
I am not sure what to answer with, so I choose what seems safe: “Pontius Pilate.”
“Both sides played a part”, he says correctly, making a matching hand gesture. “So we both have blood on our hands.”
“He was a socialist”, he says dismissively. “If they hadn’t killed him nobody would remember him.”
I don’t say anything. He begins talking about God, denying his existence. My baba told me in the night he was asking her why God was punishing him. “He doesn’t talk like that”, she said. I begin asking him about his father, who came to him in a dream and saved his life after his death. I want to do a small something to turn his thoughts that way. Where did his father come from? Might there be something beyond the grave? Family members come in and disrupt the conversation. I make one last attempt: “Your father, he came to you….where did he come from?”
“He was dead!”
He loses the thread, starts talking about his trial. About going back to Glemboke during the war. He begins weeping. “When I walked into the forest, blood came up through the soil.”
We talk a little more, and then it is time to go. We exchange gestures of affection and I tell him I will call him the next day from Vancouver. When I call from Vancouver after that he is not well enough to talk. Two weeks later he is moved, at his own request, into hospice care. Before he goes to sleep that night he turns to his wife and asks, “Do you want to come with me?” That night he dies during his sleep, like a heavy, broken tree falling finally to the earth.