I got a call from my Nana the other day. “Ari, we sold the condo! We close on the first of May!” It wasn’t just her voice that tipped me off to her excitement, but the fact that she had called me in the middle of a weekday. You see, she doesn’t like to call me during the day when I might be juggling a nursing baby and a hyper toddler, no matter how many times I tell her “It’s fine, Nana, I want you to call; I can always call you back if it’s too busy here.” That’s just my Nana.
Nana and Papa are in their mid-80s and have been spending their winters in their Florida condo for the past 20 years. They’ve decided to move back, permanently, to their summer home in Massachusetts, where they can be close to their family. They have three children, eight grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. All but one live in, or adjacent to, Massachusetts.
And apart from some distant cousins, that’s it. Their whole family is the one they created together after meeting and marrying over 60 years ago. They are Holocaust Survivors and they both lost their parents, their brother and sisters, their aunts, uncles, and grandparents as adolescents. They lost them in a way that was tragic, traumatic, horrific, and outright disgusting, as if adjectives could ever convey the depth of what they experienced.
But they are Survivors. Through strength, bravery, fortitude, and often just dumb luck, they made it through a time fraught with perils that you and I could never imagine. A time in their lives when a wrong breath, an errant twitch, or just where you stood in a line could have meant the end.
They are Survivors; I have known this from early childhood, even before I could attempt to fathom what they had survived. And when I was in middle school, and we studied the Holocaust in a program called “Facing History and Ourselves,” Nana told her story to my classmates, and all of my friends knew my Nana; she was a Survivor. Even after what she had been through, she was willing to re-live it for the sake of future generations. She must have spoken to hundreds of classes like mine, telling them of the abominable events she had lived through, so that people could learn the power of hate and find a way to prevent it from ever happening again.
And my Papa, he was President of the New England chapter of the Holocaust Survivor organization, a group that met and drew strength from one another, from their stories of survival, from their stories of success in their new country. A group of Survivors that had lived to create beautiful families of their own, children that would also have an opportunity to grow up and succeed in this great country of ours.
They are Survivors, my Nana and Papa, I’ve always known it, and I’ve always been proud of how they’ve succeeded, no, thrived, despite what was done to them, to my great-grandparents, to my great-uncles and aunts.
It is something to draw strength from. They are not victims, they are Survivors. This is how most of the world sees them. This is how my classmates saw them. This is how they see each other.
And I would never try to take that away from them. Why would I? But Nana, Papa, I want you to know, to me, you are SO MUCH MORE.
Papa, you are a man who came to this country without a high school degree and without knowing the language and worked plucking chickens to feed your family. You are the man who worked his way from janitor to part owner of a textile business, an engineer without a degree, whose innovations improved and advanced the machinery that manufactured your wares. You are a grandfather who played endless games of checkers and cards with me on your couch whenever I came over to stay at your house. Which was often. You are a great-grandfather that never fails to have a smile on your face for my children, their “Papa Morris,” that they love and miss when you are away.
Nana, you are a woman who, with no help from sisters, aunts, or a mother, raised three children while in a new land where you had to learn a new language, new customs, a whole new way of life. You are the the woman who loved to have me sleep over as a child, and would tell me stories of your brother, sisters, and parents and make me feel close to relatives I never got to meet. You are a woman who showed no fear at filling your car to overflowing with grandchildren and taking us all out for a full day of bowling, lunch, and a visit to the toy store. Regularly. You are the woman that my toddler can’t wait to get “home” from Florida, so that he can come play at your house and eat cheerios and cookies. You are a woman that gives and gives and gives of yourself, even when you know that means you will have nothing left for yourself. As long as you can make your family happy.
Nana, Papa, you are strong, hard-working, caring, loving, vital people. I am blessed that you are my role models, blessed to have you in my life. I am blessed that you are an important part of my children’s lives.
You are Survivors, but always remember, even if it’s a positive term, those bastards didn’t define you. You made yourselves what you are today. You are my Nana and Papa, and I love you very much.