Tears I Don’t Have Anymore
The black and white portrait of Grandma’s family hanging from her bedroom wall was packed with more than thirty murdered relatives. I studied them all as they crowded around the Seder table. “I was the only one to survive,” Grandma told me.
Poppy had no photographs. They had been incinerated like his mother, father, and sisters. As a child, that was all I really knew about my grandparents’ Holocaust; they had kept their stories, the ones linked to the vein-colored numbers tattooed on their arms, locked away.
When I spent time at my grandparents’ Brighton Beach apartment, I searched for Holocaust clues.
“Grandma, tell me about the camps?” I begged between slurps of chicken soup.
The rooster’s wattle hanging from her forearm jiggled as she stirred pots and adjusted dials on the stove. She walked over to me, cradling a pallid blob in her wooden spoon, which could have passed for a whale biopsy, and plopped the tumor of gefilte fish into my bowl. Then Grandma drizzled some of the clear gelatin on top of the fish and spackled the grayish growth with purple horseradish.
“Not now. Eat tatehla. Eat.”
Food had two functions in Grandma’s apartment: It was a symbol of freedom from Nazi oppression and served as a tasty muzzle for my invasive curiosity.
“Poppy?” I asked.
“Not now sheine yingle.” He dealt us both another hand of cards. We played until I forgot my question.
They survived the concentration camps, scarred my father and aunt with stories of the war, and decided that the grandchildren should be protected from the truth. Yet I was relentless and dug for answers.
On the final day of the millennium, the digging stopped and I shoveled dirt onto Poppy’s casket. I felt as though I had buried the Holocaust forever.
“Mom, you should go for a walk on the boardwalk,” my father suggested months after the funeral.
“I should walk when you father’s in da grave?” she reproached.
Grandma grieved endlessly. Visits to her apartment ticked by so slowly. It felt like I was sitting through a Seder conducted by someone with a ruthless stammer. Without Poppy, she had allowed herself to atrophy for the better part of a decade. She even stopped cooking. And while Grandma sat at the kitchen table willing her Holocaust-trained body to fail her, I realized that this was the last chance to dig up the stories of my grandparents’ Holocaust: I visited the former camps and ghettos, and walked through the streets of my grandparents’ hometown in Poland; I unearthed hours of Poppy and Grandma’s testimony documented by Speilberg’s Shoah Foundation and from Grandma’s closet, I excavated boxes of photographs recording post-liberation anxiety; I tapped into the emptiness created by Poppy’s death and found the few people with memories of my grandparents in Europe.
Then, in 2006, when I told Grandma that I wanted to write her story, she decided it was time to stifle the tears for her husband and journey back into the Holocaust.
On April 25, 2009, ten days after the anniversary marking her liberation from Bergen-Belsen, I came to her apartment with the manuscript.
“Sit tateh sheine. Sit.” She ushered me to the kitchen table, which had been devoid of food after Poppy’s death. For the past three years, Grandma and I had used the site, which at one time balanced the greatest Jewish cuisine, to record her tragic story.
Now, for the first time in years, there were place settings in front of each seat and a jar of horseradish in the center of the table. She hurried back into the kitchen and hovered over a pot of boiling water. I was shocked to see a flame stroke the bottom of the white pot. I walked over and peered inside to find matzo balls gyrating in the boiling water. It was the first time she had cooked for me in over eight years.
“Eat, eat,” she said, severing some gefilte fish from a loaf that sat in a gelatinous puddle, buoyed with carrots and celery. “Grandma didn’t make da fish,” she admitted. “But I cook you soup. There’s a quarter chicken for you Noiach, and a quarter chicken for you Marissa,” Grandma said to me and my girlfriend. “Eat, eat. There’s carrots. And weggietables too.”
I devoured the meal like a vagrant discovering filet mignon after a decade of scavenging only half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches from garbage cans.
“Are you sure you want me to read you the book?” I asked Grandma, after finishing my fourth bowl of soup. She was up to twenty-one-and-a-half pills a day and had just returned home from yet another extended hospitalization. I feared the effects of reading Grandma the story.
Chapter one was mostly a safe harbor. It was saturated with loving memories of Poppy and Grandma. I even recounted the PG-version Holocaust stories that Grandma had once fed me when I was younger. A smile came to her face. But in chapter two, Poppy died, and it was the first time since delivering his eulogy that tears came to my eyes.
“It’s OK sheine keit. Take a break,” Grandma said. Her solemn eyes were tearless and consoling. “Drink something.”
I continued to read. I tangled the seeds of love in Grandma’s mind just as Poppy had done to her hair in the 1930s when he ambushed her in the forest with a bouquet of thistles. I reconstructed her city of Otwock and the opulent synagogue on Gorna Street only to burn it down chapters later. I filled her home on Berka Joselewicza Street with her uncles, aunts, brothers, and parents, but pages later fed them to the gas chambers or murdered them in the forests with the other twelve thousand Jews from Otwock. Together, Grandma and I stood in the barn where she hid with her mother in 1942. I placed Grandma’s hand once again into her mother’s grasp, but the Ukrainian soldier, who we both knew would be there, fired the shot.
She tried to run from the bullets that sowed into the earth around her, but her mother’s lifeless grip would not let go.
Marissa’s face was stained with tears. Grandma, however, considered each word with the impartiality of a judge and lawyerly objected to amend a detail.
“Are you OK?” Marissa asked as we went chapter by chapter through the destruction of her world.
“Tears I don’t have anymore,” she told us.
It was nine in the evening and we left off beneath the Warsaw Ghetto in the disease and excrement flooding the sewers—she had just escaped an ambush that left her comrades dead in the depths of the fecal stream. The Uprising was about to commence.
“Noaich. You’re forgetting Helen,” she said, worried that the book neglected her cousin.
“No, Grandma. You’ll see. She comes into the story once we enter Auschwitz.”
“Don’t forget Helen,” she warned.
“I’m scared to leave her,” Marissa said, watching Grandma package the leftovers. “Won’t she have nightmares?”
“Here tatehla,” Grandma said, handing me two small barrels of chicken soup.
“Are you OK?” Marissa asked Grandma again.
“Survivors are made of iron,” she responded and shuffled her tired, swollen feet across the kitchen floor.
“OK,” Marissa sighed. “What did you think of the story?”
“There was more that happened. Much more.”
That evening, as Marissa predicted, the nightmares arrived. When I got home, I checked my email. My brother, who was in Korea at the time and hardly wrote, sent a message titled Grandma.
“I had a pretty bad dream as you would call it. Is she OK? I have a very bad feeling. I hope it’s just that,” he wrote to my parents and me.
It was followed immediately by a second message, written just to me. “I had a really bad dream last night. Is Grandma alright?”
“Noiach,” Grandma said, calling me up the next day. (After Poppy died, she rarely called.) “When you gonna come over again and read me the rest of the story. What you want I should make?” she asked, planning our next session, when we would set the Ghetto ablaze and venture into the concentration camps, together. “Stuffed cabbage?”