Last week I received an email that has thrown me for a loop. A good loop, I think, yet one that has released a flood of memories, a feeling of loss and perhaps even a glimmer of hope for the future.
It started simply enough, with an email on LinkedIn that had as its subject one single word: “Family.” I opened it on my phone and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was from a woman, Lori, whose grandmother had been my grandmother’s first cousin.
Now before I go any further, let me tell you about my grandmother. A 4’10” spitfire, Miriam Salamon survived it all: cancer, two heart attacks, diabetes and just as heroically, the Holocaust, where she lost her husband and two young sons.
Growing up, I would repeat that story, “She lost her husband and two young sons,” and not really understand the enormity of what I was saying. Now, as a mom, I think back upon the tragic and painful anecdotes she allowed herself to share with me, and I can’t possibly imagine how she survived. More than once, I’ve looked at my daughter and wondered what I would do if SS soldiers came in the middle of the night and ripped my child out of my arms as they did with hers.
But my grandma did survive, as did Lori’s. Thanks to the subsequent emails we began to exchange after that initial one on LinkedIn, I learned that our grandmothers had unexpectedly reuinited in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, where it took a minute for Lori’s grandmother to recognize mine because her head had been shaved bald.
As I reread this sentence, my heart is pounding. I imagine the vulnerability and the shame my proud grandma must have endured. It’s also another piece of the puzzle in my grandma’s life I never thought I’d find. First Terezin, then Aushwitz, then a displaced persons camp. After that came marriage to my grandfather and a relocation to Israel, where my mother was born. Hope renewed.
But it wasn’t all sunny. The past has a way of not only creeping up on us, but lingering around the edges, ready to pounce at any moment. I watched over the years as my grandma’s pain deepened and spread to the point where even her bones ached with loss. My grandpa died and then, one by one, everyone else from her generation said goodbye.
“Why am I here, Wendy?” she would ask. “Why am I the last one?”
“Simple,” I would tell her. “Because I need you.”
I wasn't exaggerating; I really did need her presence in my life. This dynamo of a woman, who scared the bejeezus out of me when I was little with her strong European accent and traditions, became my role model, mentor, life coach and best friend. I discovered in her a treasure of a woman, with her funny, sarcastic, over-sensitive nature and her pure love for her only granddaughter. I rejoiced in her.
And, thanks again to my correspondence with my long lost cousin, I discovered that my grandmother was wrong, that she was not the last survivor. Little did we know that her first cousin was still alive, although they had lost touch with each other when my grandma entered a nursing home. My grandmother died on October 13, 1995, and, as it turns out, Lori’s grandma passed away the very next day. Hearing that brought the loss home once again and made me wish I had been able to keep them in contact with each other over the last few years of their lives.
So here I am, with a new family tree in my hands, one that I see has been updated to include my daughter, my husband and me. I can't help but wonder how time will treat all of these cousins whose branches intersect with mine. What memories will Lori’s six-year old twins and my five-year-old create? Will they continue to tell the stories of their great grandmothers, tales of fear, inhumanity, unexpected generosity, survival, courage and hope? I’m not sure, but I’m about to find out.
(photo credit: morguefile)
Filed under: family