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Searching for My Grandmother

Even as a child, I knew we didn’t have real grandparents

I never had a grandparent.

Both my parents were orphans. Hashem sent me a precious aunt and uncle, and others too, who all became my substitute grandparents. But somewhere inside I needed to connect with that lady looking down silently from my bookshelf.

She was my own, real grandmother. The photograph, taken just before World War II, is in shades of fading gray. I detect softness in her eyes, a silvery empathy deep inside them. But it’s as if she’s in a mist, ethereal, behind the curtain of those who died long before I was born.

Would we have had long talks between us? My mother always said she was a good listener and people came to her to unburden themselves.

Back to 1939. My grandmother, Fanny, managed to reach England just before the war broke out. She was already a widow. My grandfather had been arrested and detained in a camp with many other key figures of the Munich kehillah on Kristallnacht. A lawyer by profession, he’d protested and at some point was thrown out into the snow, later to die from exposure to the cold.

My grandmother’s brother, Uncle Martin, saw the writing on the wall and managed to get the family over to England. He rented a house in North London for the whole family, including my grandmother.

And then the horrific happened: During the Blitz, while Hitler pounded the civilian population, one bomb exploded in the area. It was a direct hit, and it fell on that house. Five of our family members were killed at once.

 

 

Miraculously, my Aunt Hanna and Uncle Martin weren’t there. Considered an enemy alien by the British, Uncle Martin had been deported to Australia, while his wife had been sent to the Isle of Man. The children who lived in the house had been evacuated to the countrified areas of Britain, and thus their lives, including my mother’s, were saved.

My Aunt Hanna once mentioned that she hadn’t hesitated for even a second before taking my mother and her other niece into her home to bring them up as her own. With extraordinary self-sacrifice on their part, she and her Uncle Martin cared for the newly enlarged family though they barely had a livelihood for themselves. Their children and the cousins became one unit. No one could quite work out who was whom in this group of lively youngsters.

Time passed and my mother married. She kept up her close relationship with my aunt and uncle. Once we children were born, for all intents and purposes, we were grandchildren to my aunt and uncle, and enjoyed the same gifts and treats as the “real” ones.

Still, even as a child, I knew we didn’t have real grandparents. Certain chance comments became cemented in my mind.

“Well, they have grandparents,” my mother used to say when our neighbor’s children paraded down the road in their brand-new coats. I wasn’t jealous, I just knew something was missing. I was also keenly aware of my mother`s deep gratitude to her uncle and aunt, and in my childish, limited perspective, that was somehow embarrassing. I didn’t want to owe anything to anybody.

Only later, as an adult, did I begin to appreciate what my aunt and uncle had done for my mother, and by extension, all of us. It was time to move past my childish outlook. Time to give as well as get.

On my aunt’s yahrtzeit, I took out my Tehillim. It was then that I rather sheepishly discovered that I didn’t know her full Hebrew name. I quickly found it out and gave some thought to the quiet, unassuming woman who had once told me that she’d managed to get through the war only due to bitachon.

There were other elderly people in my life too, whom I adopted as substitute grandparents. My parents had old-time friends, a couple with no children. I was their little girl, invited to cut up pineapple and taste the cream cakes before the guests arrived when they hosted get-togethers in their rambling old house. Eternal students despite their age, they were always interested in my schoolwork, and later in my teaching. They came for Pesach every single year, and I waited for them eagerly.

Then there was my great-aunt who was also childless. We were her substitute grandchildren, or so I felt. Our Monopoly and other expensive Chanukah gifts came from her, and she always made us feel special. Totally deaf and confined to a high-rise flat she couldn’t leave, she would write notes to me and let me sort out her shelves that needed no sorting, then allowed me to come home with an assortment of knickknacks that she “didn’t need.”

She was devastated when we made aliyah, and I can still see her passing a newspaper clipping of a job ad to my mother, hoping my father would take it and stay in England.

When my children were born, in our own community in Israel, there was Sara, a retired journalist who was always there to read my fledgling bits and pieces and encourage me to write more. There never seemed to be an end to our conversations, held as we walked back to her retirement home on Friday nights, or while we sat in my car on late evenings.

And yet, underneath it all, I was still searching for a connection to my own grandmother.

Over the years, this elusive figure made fleeting visits to my life. At around the age of seven, I asked my mother how she felt when her mother was killed.

“So many children lost their parents then, it wasn’t anything special,” she said.

I couldn’t accept this. Losing a parent was tragic, horrendous, terrifying. I cried for my mother, shed the tears I didn’t see her cry. I lay in bed and tried to imagine what it would be like if someone were to take my mother away from me.

The world, as I saw it, was a forest of ominous, threatening trees. Life was about trying to make it through without getting hurt on the way, dodging the obstacles and hoping there would be no new world war causing them all to come crashing down upon us.

It seemed to me that all tragedies possible had happened in the family; surely now there was a chance we’d make it to the finishing line intact. It didn’t cross my mind that Hashem had orchestrated a plan for our lives and for the victims of the war. Everything was meant to be the way it had played out.

Eventually, my grandmother faded away to the recesses of my mind until she abruptly reappeared. I was a student in college, helping out in the public relations department. One morning, an elderly gentleman from England was sitting in the office.

Soon enough, I found out that he’d lived in London during the Blitz. Yes, he knew about the one bomb that fell in North London. “That was my grandmother and her family,” I said. He looked up.

“I was the air-raid warden that night,” he said softly as I held my breath. “I removed the bodies and I can tell you that the people killed weren’t wounded. They were untouched by the blast.”

I was immensely relieved, as if the picture in our living room was now a whole person, rather than a static part of a tragedy I was unable to fathom.

I was thirsty for more.

I asked my brother, the historian of the family, if he had more clues about my grandmother’s personality. He sent me scans of letters I’d never read, written during the Blitz to my mother, who’d been billeted in the country.

Ironically, she writes: We’re all right, we are going to have the cellar strengthened so we can take refuge there when it becomes dangerous.

You must put your cardigan on underneath your thin coat when you are cold.

Many kisses,

Mum

Grandmother, you talk so much like my mother, thinking of all the details to make others happy and comfortable. Making sure that no one worries. Full of affection.

And where is your perfect English from? Were you talented at languages like my mother is?

I see a document written in spidery brown German script — it’s your kindergarten teaching diploma. So you, like my mother, must have had a special touch with young children.

I’m beginning to form a picture. The chain is no longer broken. With this comes the startling but obvious realization that I’m your granddaughter.

And today, as I hug my own grandchildren, I feel the need to know more and more about you.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 715)

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