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Apr 8 2013

The Holocaust, Through the Stories of my Grandmother

By at 9:52 am

dirty lunch bag

Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For more on talking to your kids about the Holocaust, click here.

I was probably in the second or third grade when I asked my mother what a swastika looked like. We were sitting at the long wooden table in the kitchen at my grandmother’s house where we were living. Copper pots hung above our heads and a pot of freshly made tomato sauce was simmering on the stove.

My mother was clearly surprised by my question. She looked at me pensively for a minute or two, and then walked over to the small wooden box on the counter where my grandmother kept her pens and pencils. My mother inspected each pencil until she found the one she wanted. It was covered in deep, jagged scratches, as if someone had bitten into the wood over and over again. The small metal ring at the end was rusty and bent where the eraser had once been, meaning that anyone who tried to erase their words would end up tearing the paper. 

She then walked over to the pantry closet where the garbage can sat on the floor. I watched in horrified curiosity as my mother–a woman who obsessively washed her hands before hand washing became popular–opened the lid and reached in. She rooted around a bit and eventually settled on the small brown paper bag that had carried my school lunch that day. On one side was a drawing; my mother used to decorate our lunch bags with pictures of silly stick figures or cartoonish cats. The other side of the bag was covered with greasy stains and smears of jelly. My mother put the bag on the table with the soiled side up and without saying a word, she drew a swastika.

I looked at the bag, that piece of garbage, and the old pencil in her hand, and then at my mother. She had an odd look on her face, one that I couldn’t quite decipher. It may have been sadness, or perhaps anger. Whatever it was, she was far away. She stood up from the table, dropped the bag and the pencil in the garbage, and washed her hands.

I couldn’t identify it then, but I realize now that she was remembering. Perhaps she was remembering something from her childhood, from the years she spent with my great-grandmother, her Nonna, a short, white-haired woman with deep wrinkles on her face. Nonna lived with us, and I avoided her whenever possible because she was old and only spoke Italian and once I saw her take her teeth out and put them in a glass. I was scared of her. But my mother wasn’t scared of her, my mother adored her. Perhaps in that moment she was remembering the stories Nonna had shared about our family’s life in Italy during the war, when Mussolini reigned.

The Blackshirts took my great-grandfather into the fields and forced him to drink castor oil. They imprisoned my Nonna for cursing Il Duce as she waited in line to turn over her wedding ring and all of the family valuables. My grandmother, a young woman at the time, narrowly avoided execution by the Nazis when she was waylaid as she rode her bicycle through the streets of town to deliver papers to the underground. Mussolini’s fascists destroyed the Jewish community of Mantova, which now exists only in the memories of a few, in a small plaque on a wall in what used to be the Jewish ghetto, in a name carved into the stone at the Valley of Destroyed Communities at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem.

These are the stories of my family, of so many Jewish families. I feel the same deep sadness each time I hear them, but the reality is that they are only words to me. I am the child of a blessed era for American Jews, a time when I can write openly about my faith and my family without fear of persecution. God willing, my children and I will never truly know the fear of bombs falling, of fleeing across the countryside in a horse-drawn wagon because there is no fuel available for the car, of knowing that but for a stroke of luck, I too may have ended up slumped on the ground against a wall, the victim of a Nazi bullet.

But what I do know is the shock I felt, the deep impression that my mother made on me that day as she drew the swastika on that stained bag. The emotional intensity of that moment is burned in my memory, in a place beyond words. I’m not ready to talk to my daughters about the Holocaust yet, and they’re not yet old enough to hear about the horrors that will forever cast a shadow over our people. But one day they will learn, and they will remember, this history that can never, that should never, be erased.

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