I feel I cannot go further with my mother’s story unless I stop to acknowledge a number of relatives who didn’t make it out of war-torn Europe. Sorting through Franyo’s apartment after her death, I came across a box of old black and white photos. I grabbed that thing before my sister could get her hands on it, and have been entranced with the contents ever since. People in ski clothes and tuxedos, gatherings for weddings and bar mitzvahs, children in old-fashioned clothes playing with pets. I don’t know most of these people, but almost all look familiar. I study the photos and wonder how many got away? How many saw what was coming? I can piece together who’s related to who by recurring facial features, occasional scribbled names and dates, background settings that echo eerily, remembered snatches of gossip, and most of all from talking to my cousin Carmella, who was born in Germany but lives up the road in Dallas. Carmella, daughter of my mother’s older half-sister, would be the last to actually know or be able to identify some of the people in those photos. Except that she has Alzheimer’s. So we’re left with bits of lore and my imagination. About the gentleman below, for instance.
I have no idea who this is, but his eyes have the same dark, impatient snap as my grandfather’s (whom I also never met), and so I wonder if he was one of Julius’s five siblings. Studying his photo, I know he was left-handed, extremely neat and orderly, had no patience for fools, was brilliant and precise, probably had a trigger-quick temper, was very shrewd. I know from appearance he was related to me, but that is all I know since there was a major falling out among Julius’s siblings, and their history is unclear. Two of them died in concentration camps. Perhaps this man survived and went on to have a good life, but I have a sinking feeling that was not the case.
And then this lady:
Judging by her clothes and the shape of her nose and mouth, I believe she was Franyo’s maternal grandmother, Frederica, whose last name would have been Cohn. My mother frequently hallucinated about her at the end of her life, telling me about visits she’d had from Frederica, and how she liked to sleep because then she would have vivid dreams of being in Frederica’s apartment, where she felt safer than any other place in the world. In reality that apartment became a death trap. Frederica had three daughters. One was my grandmother, who escaped to Cuba. The other two, pictured below, never married.
They look very alike, both delicate and pretty, curious about the world, gentle. My mother referred to them with great fondness as her “sweet aunts” who loved to drink coffee, gossip and play cards. She enjoyed their company and spent many winter afternoons in their warm, cozy apartment. It wasn’t till I was an adult that I learned that these two ladies, who never did harm to anyone, were put on a train and sent to Auschwitz, where they perished.
It all depended on who you knew, how clever you were, what valuables you had to trade for transport and visas. My mother had her older half-brother, Waldo, already in the States, who did the paperwork to get her and my grandmother out. Carmella and her family ended up in what was then Palestine. My father’s sister, a staunch Zionist, also ended up in Palestine. I grew up knowing nothing of the stress these people went through, but I feel it in my blood – an ancient fear, handed down through generations, of pogroms and persecution. And so when I hear stories about mounting anti-semitism and heartless battles over religion, I literally get the creeps.
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