<p>I collected the fragments of stories she shared, the interrupted monologues, the almost silent memories and pieced them together. </p>
He told her not to look and she didn’t. The soldiers approached slowly, inspecting bags, assessing identification documents. When they were angry, they hit people over the head with sticks. They were always angry. They stopped at the man directly in front of them. She watched as his feet shuffled. The soldiers asked to see his rucksack.
Couldn’t open the zip in time.
Paused a second too long.
She did not know the reason.
The soldiers shot him.
She saw the blood splash on the cobblestones. Some hit her shoes.
They were next; her father was struck. The soldiers said it was routine. She clenched her father’s hand and shut her eyes tight. They were searched and the soldiers moved on. They stepped over the dead, nameless body, shuffling forward shoulder-to-shoulder, with the rest of the crowd. Blood trickled down the cobblestone street. As much as she wanted, she did not look back.
The story of my grandmother surviving the Holocaust has been lost and found again.
This is one of the earliest memories, her most vivid recollection of the war.
She was ten years old. It was 1939 and Poland had just been invaded.
The war became a constant intruder in my grandmother’s thoughts, reshaping her sense of self and the world. It informed the values of her family and my own ideas about society and culture and grief.
I collected the fragments of stories she shared, the interrupted monologues, the almost silent memories and pieced them together.
The war became a permanent marker, an ever-present reminder.
Before the war and after the war.
Chawa (Ha-Va) Zilbernadle was born in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Poland, in 1929. Although after it became a German territory, her birthplace lost all sense of the word ‘home’. Chawa found her small village dancing with wonder, curiosity and familiar safety. Her mother worked inside the house, her father supported them. She was the youngest of four daughters and, as you would expect, was often a source of jealousy for her siblings. She was the baby; everyone rushed to protect, nurture and adore her. Using this to her advantage, Chawa played pranks and teased her sisters. Pulling hair and stealing toys caused scrunched up faces and screeching.
Chawa celebrated Jewish festivals, helping her mother set the long table for the traditional Pesach Seder, dividing the chocolate coins in a competitive game of dreidel during Hanukah and dressing as Queen Esther for Purim. Chawa was never happier than when she got to dance the hora, holding hands with her sisters, singing loudly with her cousins and attempting to stomach awfully sweet wine. She was always first to spit it out.
Chawa loved her father, Moishe, more than anyone else in the world. He was a tailor, his last name Zilbernadle literally translated to ‘silver needle’. As Moishe’s small business became more popular, he would often travel into Warsaw for supplies. At special times, he would bring back lollies and chocolate for Chawa. She would always be waiting by the gate for him to return. When it got cold, she pressed her head against the front window, watching the driveway, her exhaling breath often masking her view.
Over time these trips slowly stopped. Anti-Semitism started to spread across Poland and Jewish people began to lose their businesses, homes and friends. The unknown pervaded communities, bringing with it gripping anxiety and unescapable fear. Moishe started to feel these effects and begged for his family to flee, somewhere, anywhere safe. His wife was scared and insisted he went with their eldest daughter, Fela, nine years Chawa’s senior, to settle elsewhere before they all joined. Chawa could not bear the thought of being away from her father, so pleaded and pleaded to go along. They had no choice but to agree.
That was all it took. Chawa would never grasp the change that lay ahead; the destruction and fear that would forever pierce her heart. Never again would she walk those familiar cobblestone streets and chase her friends around the town’s square. She would never see her father’s shop again, or hear her mother sing while cooking in the kitchen. She would never dance with her sisters and cousins. It would be a very long time before she had lollies again.
Together, Chawa, Fela and Moishe fled to Siberia, a small suitcase, containing nothing more than tinned beans, spare clothes and loose change, in tow. They had heard of other Jews heading there and at that time, it felt like the best option. Moishe promised to return to collect the others once they had found safety. Winter quickly enveloped them all, bringing with it a feast of sickness and starvation. With no money left, they made the move to Uzbekistan, the Asian area of the Soviet Union and settled in a small apartment near the Russian boarder. They were on the wrong side of the war.
Chawa made the confined living area of their Uzbeki flat her castle. She taught herself how to read in the dark – candlelight brought attention and school wouldn’t take Jews. She played games by herself and used scraps for toys. Her sister and father often disappeared for days, where they went, what they did, who they saw, she did not know. Sometimes they returned together, sometimes on their own, with food, without food, but always exhausted and forlorn. During the day Chawa followed Uzbeki families on the streets, begging for food. She would imagine that she was part of their family; skipping and holding hands with a foreign father, fake wrestling with an unfamiliar brother, tumbling around until they bumped their unrecognisable mother, whose anger would dissipate in a big, running-out-of-air hug.
One day, Chawa fell and broke her ankle. Fela had to stuff a rag in her mouth to conceal her screams. If someone were to find out there was a Jewish family in the apartment, they would be in trouble. For a month, she winced in pain, hobbling around the house, waiting for her sister who begged strangers for medicine. Moishe lay with Chawa as she slept, waking her during the night to make sure she was still breathing.
At night, Chawa dreamt she was back in Grodzisk with her entire family. She imagined her grandfather telling stories around their big dinner table, everyone captured by his masterful dramatizations. She dreamt of welcoming in the Jewish New Year with a Rosh Hashanah feast. Most of all, Chawa dreamt of the songs. Oyfn Pripetshik was her favourite. She heard it first from her mother, then sang it throughout her childhood, my mother’s childhood and my own. It offered points of calm through endless nights and hopeless days.
Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl, ~ On the hearth, a fire burns,
Un in shtub iz heys. ~ And in the house it is warm.
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh ~ And the rabbi is teaching little children
Dem alef-beys. ~ The alphabet.
Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere, ~ See, children, remember, dear ones,
Vos ir lernt do; ~ What you learn here;
Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol. ~ Repeat and repeat yet again.
Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshe. ~ Learn, children, with great enthusiasm.
Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre, ~ He among you who learns Hebrew pronunciation faster,
Der bakumt a fon. ~ He will receive a flag.
Lernt, kinder, hot nit moyre, ~ Learn, children, don’t be afraid,
Yeder onheyb iz shver. ~ Every beginning is hard.
Details escape my grandmother when it comes to the ending of the war. As her short-term memory worsens, she is transported to her fearful and desperate ten-year-old self. On bad days, there is crying and yelling and blaming. Every conversation from sport to school quickly circles back to the war. We jump from the ghetto, to Hitler, to Russia to the extermination camps in the space of one minute. What is true and what is false blur into each other. On better days, the story continues.
When news broke that the war was over, Chawa and Fela ran out of their apartment. Time stood still before chaos erupted. The streets flooded with people; some cheered, others wept, all searched for meaning. With the first real chance to look for his wife and other daughters, Moishe took to asking anyone he passed by if they knew of the fate of the Jews of Poland. With nothing more than an old family photo curled up in his wallet, Moishe returned home to Grodzisk. He began his search for the family he had left behind, the family that had never followed him to safety. Poland was in upheaval. Everything looked different, nothing was recognisable. What hadn’t changed was the anti-Semitic sentiment. It was pervasive. Stories of ghettos, of killings, of gas chambers, of genocide, grew from whispers to statements of fact. Chawa’s family were nowhere to be found. When Moishe finally realised what the war had destroyed, he saw there was nothing left to stay for. He wished he didn’t know.
All those displaced were gathered in groupings. Chawa, Fela and Moishe stuck by each other through each move from Uzbekistan to France, to Israel to Australia. Chawa found some meaning within her husband, Aaron, a Ukrainian Jew who too, lost most of his family in the war. With him, Chawa felt almost as happy as she was in her childhood. They were married on the 25th of December in 1952, and remained together for sixty-one years, up until his death.
As World War II became a history to be studied and the concept of survivor guilt better understood, our family was given titles we had not come to expect. Chawa became a Holocaust survivor. My mother and her sister became second-generation survivors. My brother, cousins, and I became third-generation survivors.
Chawa never thought of herself worthy of bearing the title of survivor. She was asked to light a candle on stage at the Yom HaShoah commemoration ceremony. People hugged her, thanked her, apologised. It all felt false. Chawa was never forced into a ghetto. She didn’t walk in a death march. She was never liberated. Yet, we always talk of the war and it is never easy. The thoughts of her mother and sisters never leave her. Chawa may be far from the site of her trauma, but it still lingers.
Growing up, my mother obsessed over the Holocaust. She learnt every possible detail. She would beg Chawa to tell her stories, over and over again, so she could understand the pain, the stillness. In her dreams, she was taken away from her family. Throughout her adolescence, there were very few nights that she slept undisturbed.
For some of my extended family, the trauma manifested itself in silence and distress. A heavy blanket of sensitivity was wrapped around us all. It brought a fear of suddenly losing relationships, and a necessity to defend. Yet, it also ensured the desire to find safety within love and care and protection. Safety within each other.
The Holocaust has influenced my life in ways I have not come to understand until now. Like the rest of my family, I am quick to respond to negativity or stereotypes about Jewish people. I feel the just-a-second-too-long pauses, the darting eyes, the clearing of throats when I reveal my heritage. There are polite nods. Rarely, are there questions. I feel the responsibility to uphold the importance of Jewish customs and celebrations. I fidget and make faces when people talk during Seder.
Before she passed away, Chawa’s sister, Fela, suffered from dementia. She thought she was back in the war. When I visited her for the last time in the brick-cladded Arcare nursing unit in Carnegie that she called home, I was pushed away. I was told that I was not safe as a Jew. That the doctors in white were the ones to fear. They were keeping secrets. They were on the side of the Germans. She tried to escape too; she told the staff that she was waiting outside for her cousins to visit from Israel. She made it halfway down the street.
Everyone is haunted.
Everything is haunting.
Upon her marriage, Chawa Zilbernadle, became Chawa Kraner; her new name another victim of anti-Semitism, of a war. A name changed from Sandler to conceal her husband’s Jewish identity. Some cousins have reclaimed the name Sandler. I hope to as well someday.
With the arrival of her daughters, Chawa quickly became Ima. And as her children sprouted their own, Chawa became Sapta, the name that became her identity through my eyes. Just recently her name was extended to Sapta Rabah, great grandmother.
Now eighty-seven, Chawa lives alone, in a red brick Caulfield flat, surrounded by the Jewish community. She attends lunches at the Jewish welfare organisation Jewish Care, where my mother now works. They laugh and cry and sing together.
These stories of resilience and power are all still unravelling. Five years ago, after a cousin visited Poland and found my grandmother’s birth records, we realised that she was three years older than was believed for her entire life. Her father had changed her birth date after the war to give Chawa a few extra years of childhood, to take back the years the war had stolen.
Sixty-seven years after the war, we learnt about the fate of our family; taken to Warsaw ghetto and then deported to Treblinka. They probably laboured during their imprisonment. They would have been given only bread and water, if that. Some likely died there.
Treblinka was an extermination camp; it had only one function. It was disguised as a transit camp for deportations further east. It had fake train schedules, names of destinations and a clock with painted-on hands. My family, like many others, were likely undressed, beaten, gassed and then burnt. That is if they had not died from exhaustion, suffocation or thirst in the overcrowded carriages of the train that delivered them.
They were told they would shower before receiving new work uniforms and orders.
It took them an hour and a half to die. The chambers became silent after 12 minutes.
Their bodies were never recovered.
Forty members of our family perished in Treblinka, they were among 800,000 Jews murdered there. Of them, at least 250,000 were transported from Warsaw ghetto. They were just two hours away from their home.
Our family is in the book of names. The children are listed in the Children’s Memorial. A photo of Chawa’s aunt is in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel.
When I visited Israel in early 2016, I saw these acknowledgements of the Holocaust. My head became filled with the fear and worry of those involved. Tears ran wild and my knees crumbled beneath me. The Holocaust is a part of history that is studied. But for me it is a history that is still lived. This tragedy is my narrative. It is personal and yet, a shared experience. There is a responsibility to remember.
For the family that I could have met, and the family that remain, I lit a candle and sang.
Ir vet, kinder, elter vern, ~ When you grow older, children,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn ~ You will understand by yourselves
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern ~ How many tears lie in these letters
Un vi fil geveyn. ~ And how much lament.
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn, ~ May you derive strength from these letters,
Kukt in zey arayn! ~ Look in at them!
Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl ~ On the hearth, a fire burns
Un in shtub iz heys. ~ And in the house it is warm.