On a cold day in February, before the world was forever changed by Covid-19, my family and I stood beside my grandmother’s grave as she was laid to rest. At 96, she had lived through and survived the Holocaust, emigrated to America, raised a family, and seen the birth of three grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. When I think back on my last moments with her, holding her hand as she breathed with the support of a ventilator, surrounded by those she loved in a comfortable hospital room, I’m grateful that she didn’t live to experience our new reality.
Growing up, I was very close to my grandmother. Some of my earliest memories are of the Friday nights we spent at my grandparents’ home for Shabbat dinner — I remember fondly the table filled with food and the sound of conversation. Food was very important at our family gatherings, and my grandmother set the bar high when it came to her matzah ball soup. No matter what holiday we were celebrating, we always insisted she make her soup with matzah balls that were hard as rocks. They needed to be cut with a fork and knife and could substitute for baseballs, but they were so very good.
My grandmother was many things to many people, but to me, she was always loving and devoted. For most of my teens and early 20s, she spent half the year in Israel and half the year in Cincinnati, where we lived. When she was in town, I would take her out to lunch or shopping. I would help her with her groceries, and we would always come back to her condo and watch movies together, usually Crossing Delancey or Fiddler on the Roof. Like the grandmother in Crossing Delancey (my favorite character), my grandmother was flirty and bubbly and just a little vain. She could talk to anyone and would often proudly declare, “Everyone loves me.”
Despite all this, she lived a life marked by hardship and loss. In the early 2000s, when I was in my 20s, I brought my 8mm camera on one of my regular visits to interview her. I knew she had survived the Holocaust, but she hadn’t shared many stories about her past. My husband and I were newlyweds at the time and discussing having children of our own, and I wanted to record my grandmother’s story for future generations.
When she began to speak, I was transported. She showed me photographs of family members — some I knew, and some I didn’t. She told me about her mother and father. She told me about the town of Olkusz, Poland, where she grew up before the war. She shared some of her memories of her time in the concentration camps. She revealed secrets she had never told anyone before. From that one interview, my novel What She Lost was born.
I’d always had a driving passion to tell my grandmother’s story, but it took 20 years from the time of that interview for me to write it. In the intervening years, I had two wonderful daughters that I watched grow into young women. It was important for me to pass along my family’s history to my own children and future generations. While I always thought I’d self-publish What She Lost, it was an honor to be acquired by a small publisher who released the book in October of 2019. The day I held the finished novel in my hands was one of the happiest moments in my life.
Although my grandmother’s health was failing and she was suffering from dementia at the time, I drove to the hospital, the book tucked into my purse. By this point, most of the time she was asleep when I visited. When she wasn’t, she stared at me with clouded eyes, whispering, “Come here. Come here.” I don’t know if she knew who I was, but somewhere in her expression I thought I noticed a spark of recognition. Did she remember the afternoons we spent talking? Did she know deep down how much she meant to me?
I placed a copy of the book on her table. I leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. “Thank you, Grandma,” I whispered. I wanted to thank her for so much, for the unconditional love she had always shown me, for the time she had spent sharing her life with me. Through her, I truly came to see what it meant to be a survivor. She was a survivor, a fighter, until the very end.
April 20 is Yom HaShoah, a day to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Today we are witnessing so much loss of life on a global scale from the coronavirus. When I was asked to help with our community’s observance of Yom HaShoah in December 2019, I had no idea how different our lives would be at this moment in time. When I attended the planning meetings for the event that was originally scheduled at our JCC, with multiple generations coming together under one roof, I had no way of knowing it would become a virtual commemoration spaced out over a span of days, viewed online from individual homes. It is a scary time, and it is easy to give into that fear.
Yet as I sit in my house, practicing the art of social distancing and stressing over how much toilet paper we have, I remind myself of what grandmother lived through. I remind myself that I am not being forced from my home to live in a ghetto. That I have a roof over my head and food in my refrigerator and pantry. That I have technology to stay connected to those I love. That the trees are sprouting white buds and flowers are blooming. I am one of the lucky ones. Our future may be uncertain right now, but the lesson I learned from writing this novel is that wherever there is despair, there is hope. Wishing everyone prayers of strength and hope for a better tomorrow.
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