About a year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic was just picking up speed, I started this writing project. And while I didn’t know what its outcome would be at the time, I’m incredibly proud of where it landed, and I am excited to share it with my network.
While this has been a year of incredible hardship and tragedy for the entire world, it has also been a year of significant personal growth for me. When I started this project, I had become obsessed with doing something “worthy” with all of my newly free time at home. And with the hindsight of 2020, I now realize I have learned so much more than I could have expected.
For the majority of my career, I’ve been in social media and content marketing, which sometimes garners a frivolous reputation (although less so now, due to the major content and social value boom in 2020), I’m not sure that people outside this specific field realize the incredible pressure, responsibility, and power that comes with pressing “post” on behalf of an organization—no matter how big.
But if I obsess over how terrifying it is, I’d never get the job done. I’ve had the opportunity to make major decisions on causes and statements that a company will support, and while I’m an internal cause champion, I always get to hide behind the voice of the brand. I’ve never had the time to put much thought into what my own voice sounds like, or what I stand for because so much of my brain space is used making those decisions on my work social channels.
However, this year, in addition to my full-time role, I’ve also had the pleasure and honor of consulting for inspiring women, a New York-based OB/GYN whose mission is to make healthcare accessible to all women, and an executive director to an impactful non-profit organization that works to protect children from violence and sexual abuse.
Together, we’ve built their platforms to to raise awareness about issues in their areas of expertise, from Black maternal health to advocacy against childhood sex trafficking. These women have braved the scary and intimidating experiences of putting themselves out there in an online space to make real tangible change. Watching these women proudly stand behind their powerful voices to carry out their missions has made me realize that I may still be leveraging my expertise to hide behind them and the organizations for which I work.
It has taken a global pandemic for me to finally feel brave enough to use my voice, and here I am I realize that I’ve so often sat in a seat to be an advocate for important issues, but I’ve forgotten to be an advocate for myself and for the Jewish community.
So in March of 2020, I decided to interview my then 96-year old grandmother, Rose Tyger Lindenberg, who is one of the last few alive to have survived the Holocaust. While my older brother had interviewed her before—and she’s certainly done her share on the circuit of telling her story via synagogues, schools, and recordings—the social action and political issues our country was facing made value her wisdom in ways I hadn’t fully before. And, thus, from my own New York City lockdown, I began an important practice in listening, and took the opportunity to reach back into my somewhat dusty personal writing toolbox, and share her story. Perhaps it was the universe giving me a distraction to calm my rising anxieties over the unknown, or an exercise in understanding the value of perspective. Either way, I went from drowning in my frustrations to finding parallels in the past to help keep my north star calibrated.
While some of the details of her memory are fuzzy, what matters are the life lessons that shine through, and the wake-up calls it should give us all. I hope that you’ll not only read her story but also be more aware of the rising and rampant antisemitism that is taking place on the very the tools and platforms on which I’ve launched my career— from Facebook to TikTok— and in-person.
According to the Anti Defamation League’s most recent audit of antisemitic incidents in the United States, there has been a 12% increase of antisemitic incidents year-over-year (2019/2020), the highest level since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. Compared to other hate crimes, antisemitism is covered with much less frequency in the U.S. media. Not to mention: One of the most common antisemitic tropes is the belief that Jews control the media. How’s that for irony? In fact,
- Only 18 states in the USA require holocaust education.
- 19% of the millenials and gen-Z population in New York, the state with the largest Jewish population, believe the Jews caused the Holocaust.
- Over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos were established during World War II, but nearly half of U.S. respondents could not name a single one.
- 63% of millennials and gen-z did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust
With or without official statistics, antisemitism is undeniably on the rise, and it’s clear that Jew-hatred is borderless. Even today, in May of 2021, Jews are targeted simply for being Jewish. Influential members of society, with more social media followers than there are Jews worldwide, are spreading hate behind the guise of misinformed political statements. Even reputable news organizations, including CNN and The Associated Press, are using terrorist groups as reliable sources of information. While it’s clear that peace is complicated, it should be just as, if not more obvious that hate is not. I hope that through sharing this story, I can at least shed light on the endless Jewish fight for survival, and support my stance against terrorism and antisemitism.
“Everything is Cheap and Cheerful”
My Wake-up Call: A Slumber Party with my Grandmother
New Jersey, June 2019
“Live well. It is the greatest revenge.” – the Talmud
It seems like, we don’t know when we’re in the middle of an epiphany until much later when we look back and wish we realized how special that moment was. Some might think of their wedding, or college graduation—those peak moments that are supposed to shape you— but, as I mark my fortieth day in the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown with way too much time on my hands, I’m realizing that one of my major aha moments had already passed me by, during a slumber party less than a year earlier, with my grandmother.
It was the eve of my cousin’s wedding, and I was supposed to sleep in the bridal suite with all the bridesmaids. In true “introverted-extrovert” fashion, I decided I would sleep better without a big crowd, and luckily for me, my grandma had her own suite with two queen beds.
As I crept into her room after some time in the bridal suite before my cousin’s final night as a single lady, under a fully ageist assumption, I expected my adorable German grandma to be softly snoring as she slept—especially because the bathroom counter was littered with her floating dentures and capped-off night creams. I quickly realized, though, as I emerged from the bathroom, she wasn’t fast asleep dreaming about her great niece’s upcoming nuptials. She was propped up in bed like a teenager ready to “chat.”
We talked for hours, which wasn’t unusual for us, but this particular conversation was nothing like the various phone calls we’ve had over the years, voice thick with Yiddish-accented “how are you sweethearts” and “I love yous.” We giggled and left no topic left unturned I skipped straight to the tough stuff— the stuff I can’t ask on the phone. I asked her if she missed my grandpa, a man who separately survived the Holocaust, and with whom she spent almost 70 years,who died in eight years earlier,. She said she misses him desperately, and sometimes she still feels like he’s there on the other side of the bed. I asked her if she was afraid of dying. She said, “No, but it better happen the way I want it to.” I asked her if she’s lonely. She said being alone all the time is hard, and that made me a little sad.
But then, she reminded me of what she had, how lucky she was to be alive, and that she wasn’t supposed to live this long, given how many times her life was at risk during the Holocaust. Hearing those chilling words hit me like a brick, but it wasn’t until months later that it struck me —my “aha moment.”
Am I the way that I am, a type-A, driven like crazy, never feeling like I’m doing enough young woman—because on a sub-conscious level of my psyche,I feel like I owe it to her and my late grandfather, Holocaust survivors who fought so hard to give me life, to make my life worthy of their fight for survival? A life well-lived, like the Talmud says?
Is my obsession with history and reading every museum plaque my subconscious reminding me to never forget? Had I never fully absorbed the details of my grandparents’ Holocaust stories because I’ve been afraid to listen, and what it might mirror back about my own life and what I’ve accomplished (or haven’t)?
As I sit writing this story at my new in-law’s kitchen table after temporarily relocating from Manhattan to a suburb of Washington DC,.during the most out-of-control reality I’ve ever experienced, in a typical control-freak fashion, I’m trying to grasp something I can at least influence. I’m voluntarily working multiple jobs on top of my full-time position, taking online courses to further my education, obsessively exercising, and overall driving myself (and probably my new legally-bound family) crazy about what the future holds for us. I keep telling myself that I don’t want to look back on this time and regret not making the most of it. I’ve latched onto the philosophy that I should come out the other side of this pandemic a better version of myself than I was before.
In reality, I have learned that I can add to and check off as many items on my to-do list as possible, but what can I do that will make a difference? What will be memorable? Well, what would I regret less than not calling my grandmother, who is isolated in her apartment, and finally slowing down my own mania, and absorbing her story?
I’ve read enough Holocaust books to know that hers isn’t one of the bravest, scariest, or most dramatic, but I that believe the realism and relatability of it make it one worth sharing. I think it will be one to help us put our time in lockdown, isolation, and quarantine into perspective. How can we complain about being forced to stay in our homes with our families and Netflix, while her family and community were hiding or forced into horrific conditions just trying to survive? Hopefully help us all move forward into the next chapter.
On April 20th, 2020 I decided to interview my grandmother on the phone, and while I wasn’t exactly able to ask direct questions since she couldn’t hear me well, she still told me everything. This story is me, trying to channel her thoughts, feelings, and stories, 80 years later. I’m optimistic it will help me, and I hope others will make sense of 2020, of the most painful years in history, by reflecting on another time of incredible hardship, World War II. For me, listening to someone open up about their history, no matter the context of the story, was enlightening, and I know for my grandmother this was a meaningful way to spend her time during quarantine.
Munich April 27, 2014
It was my last day in Munich, Germany, on a weekend away while studying abroad in Italy, and it was a miserable rainy Sunday. I was dreadfully hungover after a long weekend at Springfest with my friends, and I could still feel the Radler beer and pretzels from the days prior churning in my stomach. The last thing I wanted to do on my last day in Germany before heading back to Rome to finish up my semester abroad was board a bus headed to a concentration camp.
For context: Five years earlier, I completed a March of the Living tour in Poland and Germany, where we visited five concentration camps and other sites of Nazi atrocities (many of which are still morbidly intact). As the granddaughter of survivors, and with parents who always stressed the importance of knowing where I come from was important to me. But as you can imagine, after visiting five camps in under two weeks, once you see the claw marks on the gas chambers, the faded blue highly poisonous Zyklon B pesticide marks on the walls, the mountain of ashes in a football-sized open urn at Majdanek, the piles of children’s shoes and clothing confiscated upon their arrival at Auschwitz, trust me when I say it’s enough trauma to last a lifetime.
Anyway, as I said, it was pouring and the thought of sitting around in a so-so hostel with strangers who didn’t speak the same language as I was even less appealing than joining my friends in Dachau, so I relented. As I walked through the tour watching the color drain from my friends’ faces while they absorbed the trauma, I felt a little numb to it all. I didn’t think I could open that door again. So I wandered off and ended up finding the victim lookup computer terminal, and while waiting idly tried my hand to see if I could find any names of relatives.
After a quick text to my mom (at what was surely the middle of the night for her back in New Jersey) to ask if I had any relatives that were at Dachau concentration camp, she instructed me to look up the last name “Tyger,”my grandmother’s father, Moritz (on my dad’s side) who died there. To my dad’s credit, I am told that my mom got this information from nudging him while he had been soundly sleeping, CPAP machine firmly in place, and he still managed to gasp out my great-grandpa’s name in a choking Darth Vader voice.
Info in hand, I was able to find my great-grandfather, the date he died, and what he did as a worker in the camp. He was a tailor, which means he probably helped make the prisoners’ uniforms. Knowing this was somewhat soothing to me: He spent his days in this horrible place providing the closest thing to comfort that the prisoners might have had. While the stark, blue light of the computer;s screen provided minimal detail that connected me to him, it did reveal one fact that stopped me in my tracks: Moritz Tyger’s confirmed date of death was April 27, 1941.Exactly 73 years ago from today, my great-grandfather was killed in the very place where I was standing. I was able to say Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) for him on the anniversary of his murder, and I was the first relative—to my knowledge, at least—who had stood in this spot as a witness to both his life and his death.
If that detail doesn’t send chills down your spine like it did mine, you might not want to read the rest. It means this story probably isn’t for you. But if you, like I am, are interested in the remarkable details of what may seem like an unremarkable story when compared to other Holocaust survival stories, then let’s do this, together.
Wuppertal-Elperfelt, (Rhineland), Germany March 1928
I remember my childhood being a happy one. After all, I was the youngest child of a loving family and we were as happy as we could have been. As far as I was concerned, it was going to stay that way forever. And then one day in 1928, when I was four years old, everything changed: My mother was terribly sad seemingly all the time. Maybe it was because three children, my recently orphaned cousins, moved into our house in Wuppertal-Elperfelt, Germany. I was later told my aunt, my mother’s sister, had been ill and died at the tragically young age of 32. She asked my mother to take her children as her own, and she did.
Even as a toddler barely able to comprehend full sentences yet,I vividly remember that I felt there were too many children in the house. We always had enough to eat and we had a roof over our heads, but money was tight. to the mind of a three-year-old, the attention I received from my parents and siblings had diminished almost overnight to the point that I felt unwanted.
Maybe I was, I thought. After all,my mother sent me away to live with my maternal grandmother, Bubbe Mindel and her son, my uncle Leib in Łódź, Poland. Of course, now I realize that my mother had her hands full, and as the youngest, I was the biggest drain on her energy. So I moved away from the only place I’d ever known to live with relatives I hardly knew.
I lived in Poland for a year, and, to my surprise, I was happy there. My time spent there made for a very classically happy childhood.There were no other children in the house, so I was spoiled rotten. My grandmother and uncle offered me the kind of love and affection that I craved and, quite frankly, needed. And I got used to that kind of love. They taught me how to sing and dance, and I was the center of their little world, growing and learning in the close-knit Jewish community mired with history and culture. And the food, oh the food! It was wonderful, and they stuffed me with homemade love, fattening me into a little rolly-polly girl.
During the truly joyful year of joy with my grandmother, I frequently visited my paternal grandparents, Nuete and Hinda Tygar on the outskirts and suburbs of Łódź in a city called Jeradov.It was the second largest city in Poland at the time,and it was a drastic change in scenery for me. My father had five siblings, most of whom were still living with my grandparents, along with their children. It was chaos, but they were loving and hardworking, and I was happy there too. I learned to speak Polish, but the most valuable lesson I’d learned there proved to be a survival tactic: to become a people-pleaser.
A year and a half later, my mother journeyed by train to pick me up, and, by then, I was old enough to come home and enroll in kindergarten at my hometown’s synagogue . Over the years, I would go back and forth to my uncle and grandmother’s house in Poland, and it was just how it always was. I spent summers there, which I loved because they ran a penzion ( a summer camp with a main house and four small cottages that were rented out to guests.)
While my parents were overwhelmed, family was everything and we made it work. I think it’s how I kept my sense of humor and learned adaptability so young. It was not what you might consider a traditional childhood, but it was a happy one and I was grateful for it.
In 1931, when I was about seven years old, I came home after a long summer to attend a German public school in Wuppertal, where I was one of only two Jewish children in my entire class. The other was named Ursula Hamm, and despite being a third-generation German, she was subject to the same virulent antisemitism that I was in school. (I believe that, like me, she also survived the war, having escaped to England.)
While the early onset of antisemitism may not seem like a big deal, it was everything. It was the beginning of me feeling alone, isolated, and different for the very first time, and the onset of experiencing rampant antisemitism that infected Wuppertal like a virus. Allegedly, the painful and overt hate for Jews that was reborn during that era was incubated in our town long before Hitler even rose to power. I don’t actually know what happened to Ursula, but while many details have since escaped my memory at 96 years old, she has stuck with me.
Almost instantly, the bright and warm light that was my innocence gave way to a darkness that I couldn’t comprehend. The sunny summers I spent enjoying pastries, listening to music, singing, and dancing became a distant memory. And my experience at school was terrible: The students and teachers were cruel, and they, the kids and adults alike, threw stones at me on my way home from school.
Right before my eyes, my name changed from Rose Tyger to Dirty Jew. The community became so quickly brainwashed to accept and perpetuate the thoughtless hate. In fact, lashing out against the hated Jews was not condemned, but rather encouraged. Remembering the good times was nearly impossible as I, just a young girl, started to consider suicide.
From then on, I was unable to form a positive relationship with school, which marked both the end of my formal education and the beginning of a decades-long anxiety around learning. I became insecure about my ability to learn through my many years of verbal, and sometimes physical abuse at school.
What felt like a lifetime later, my young son, Mark tried to teach me Hebrew since he was sent to a parochial school at the insistence of my father-in-law, Henry Lindenberg. Equipped with his own Hebrew primer books, Mark sat with me and became my teacher. We enjoyed my lessons. When he was sixteen, both he and my son-in-law tried to teach me how to drive, which felt like an impossible challenge. Despite the fact I had a driver’s license, which I needed in the 1960s to work in a segregated Miami Beach, I never even drove, despite having a license until my late 80s. I was proud of the fact that I had one of the cleanest driving records in Florida history!
Germany and Poland
After so many days of coming home from school, a place where I was supposed to feel safe and protected, bleeding and bruised, I became so emotionally broken that, for the sake of my sanity and safety, my mother decided to send me back to my grandmother and my uncle in Poland. Like the last time I was there,I felt happy there. And I enjoyed being so close to the big cultural center of Łódź. It didn’t hurt that my Uncle Leib was just the best. He was a handsome, fun guy who treated me so well.
Unfortunately, I could not enroll in a local school because I wasn’t a local and my sub-par Polish wasn’t classroom-ready. I ended up missing two years’ worth of school, which, of course, set back my education.
After two years in Poland, I was old enough, my parents thought I could tolerate antisemitism, and came home. Of course, they didn’t want me to suffer, but they didn’t want their youngest child to go through life without a proper education, so they brought me back to Wuppertal, and things were actually okay at first.
Looking back, I thought life couldn’t have been too bad. My parents were still able to make a living. My father had begun researching ways for us to emigrate, but his Polish citizenship made it difficult to go anywhere. In fact, at that time, Poles had a hard time legally getting anywhere at all.
During my time back home in Wuppertal, luckily, both my parents were still working. My father, Moritz, was a custom tailor, and my mother, Lena, had a trousseau linens business, most frequented by fashionable newlyweds looking to outfit their homes with tablecloths and bedsheets. Once Hitler became the single most powerful person in Germany, Nazi-leaning thugs smashed in both of my parents’ stores, an event so traumatizing thatmy parents packed up their wares and tried to start new businesses in a nearby factory. But this time, my father was trying to sell ready-to-wear clothing alongside 12 employees, and he was finding moderate success. He faced antisemitism, of course, but always said that he was too old to leave his home, so there was nothing we could do and there was nowhere to go.
Once I was back in school, all of the familiar struggles returned: The teachers and students were still horribly antisemitic, and the only thing that had changed was my age; I was finally old enough to understand what antisemetism was. Though it was nearly unbearable, I wasn’t alone. I found solace in a new Jewish classmate as we suffered together in a classroom beside with Nazi children. After school, we attended Hebrew lessons at the local synagogue, but that was our only reprieve. Those few hours before the sun went down were the only time we didn’t feel alienated.
At this point, I’d had about four years total of school, and as you could imagine, my grades were not impressive. My oldest brother, Yitzak, tried to step in and tuto mer, but it was too late. Between my negative attitude toward school and how behind I was, I was held back. However, it didn’t even matter because by then, it was illegal for the Jewish children to attend school.
It was 1933, and Hitler had just been named chancellor of Germany. For me, though, it was the beginning of the end; the political shift that changed the world after which, I would never be the same.
It Was a Slow Boil
Almost immediately after Hitler was appointed chancellor, the treatment of Jews in Wuppertal worsened, but part of me was still naive enough to think we would be okay. The weeks that followed Hitler’s rise to power made me remember a parable my parents would tell me as a girl. The fable was about boiling frogs. Suppose you want to cook a frog but aren’t quite sure how to go about it. You could place the frog into a pot of hot water, but as soon as it feels the heat, it will jump out. Instead, drop the frog in a pot of cool water and then turn on the stove. Not sensing danger ahead, the frog will stay put. As the water steadily warms, the frog relaxes and starts to feel at ease. By the time the frog realizes it’s in danger, it is too late to take action.
We didn’t know it at the time, but my parents were the sweet little frogs, innocent creatures unaware of their imminent doom.
Tragically, the tragic fate was the same for amphibians as it was for European Jews. I had to hear the story only once to understand the moral behind it, but it was the hardest lesson of my life because the price of learning was my beloved family member’s lives. The lesson? Unlike the ill-fated frog, be vigilant. Don’t let unexpected change catch you off guard. The success of their newly founded businesses let my parents feel comfortable in the pot of water that was slowly getting hotter. It wasn’t until the water was boiling that they realized what was happening around them. And at that point, it was too late.
Though open antisemitism was widely acceptable behavior, we figured it was nothing we couldn’t handle—considering we had been well-versed in hatred towards us for this long. We thought things would pass and eventually return to normal. Of course, we were very wrong. One night, the Gestapo came to our home to arrest us—all of us. Before we left, though, my father pack a little suitcase, and as I watched him anxiously shoveling belongings into the luggage, I didn’t realize that it would be the last time I would watch my father do anything
Though the Nazis formally arrested the men, they let the women go. We left reluctantly knowing that this very well could be the last time my mother and I would see my brothers and father.
Deep down, I knew I was lucky to still have my mother with me, as she easily could have been rounded up and thrown in prison with the rest of my family, but I didn’t feel lucky; I felt angry. I wasn’t the only one experiencing blinding rage at our powerlessness in the country we’d considered home. Shortly after arriving at our newly empty house, we’d heard about a Paris-based 17-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, who learned that the Nazis had exiled his parents from Germany to Poland, and in a moment of passionate anger, shot a German diplomat. This one small act of defiance became the catalyst to one of the most brutally violent nights I can remember.
Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, resulted in the gruesome deaths of myriad Jews, and the irreparable destruction of synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, and homes. Who knew that this night of stunning bloodshed and carnage would be just the tip of the anti-Jewish iceberg? That night, nearly one thousand Jews were slaughtered, and another 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and forced into concentration camps. At the same time, 267 synagogues and more than 7,000 businesses were destroyed beyond repair, and bystanders just sat back and watched. It was as close to hell as I could have imagined, and I was just a little girl in the middle of it.
The only piece of good news we could cling to was a report about my brother Sam and first cousin Joseph Michowsky who allegedly escaped to Russia together. I like to think that my father did everything he could to help the pair of them escape.
Several months after Kristallnacht, the Gestapo came back to my family’s apartment building. They knew where my mother and I were living, and they were looking to take us. This time, however, we knew they were coming, so my mother could prepare. She didn’t pack her valuable belongings or try to arm herself; she swiped a freshly sharpened knife off of the kitchen table and, without hesitation, sliced my feather mattress in half as if she was butterflying a chicken breast. She told me to get in and not make a sound. I thought she was joking. How could my bed, a refuge in which I took comfort, suddenly bear the responsibility of saving my life? And if my mother’s plan didn’t pan out, my burial shroud?
Luckily, I never found out because our very kind non-Jewish downstairs neighbors told the Gestapo that my brothers and father had already been taken, and that there was no one left to arrest. For some reason, the Gestapo relented and left me and my mom alone. As far as I’m concerned, our neighbors’ small act of kindness saved our lives.
Watching her only remaining child climb out of a feather bed, my mother made a difficult decision that she had made before: She had to get me out of Germany for my own safety. She never admitted it, perhaps because she couldn’t quite accept it, but I think she knew that there was no chance for her own survival. Only one of us could live, and my mother decided it would be me. After all, my father was already gone and my brothers were in the wind. She must have known that by the time I got out, Germany had become like a safe whose door was swinging shut too quickly for her to slip out unnoticed.
It’s Time To Leave
From Germany to Belgium
Just before my great escape, we noticed that a number of teenage girls around my age were seemingly vanishing without a trace. Of course, they weren’t disappearing; they were escaping by way of a woman from Rheidt who was smuggling young Jewish girls out of the country by pretending they were her children.
As you can guess, I was one of the 14 that she smuggled into Belgium, where I had a relative and many close friends.
To pass as the Rheidt woman’s daughter, my mother and I spent three nerve-wracking days in her home on the border between Belgium and Germany, where we memorized every minute detail about her and her family. After all, I wouldn’t be able to cross the border without a thorough interrogation, so I had to be as well-versed in her family as she and her actual family members were. It was the hardest test I had ever taken, but both her life and my own depended on it, so I had to do well.
Once I was ready, the three of us went to the train station in Aachen Hauptbahnhof, and, before parting ways, she told me to eventually make my way to England, and she’d meet me there when it was safe. And for just a fleeting moment, I felt relieved knowing that this wasn’t the end for us, the pair that survived the Nazi’s clutches thus far. Little did I know, that day in Aachen Hauptbahnhof was the last time I would embrace my mother, my protector. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back after all these years, I think she knew that this was the end. What’s more: As we said our farewells, I caught a glimpse of Hitler, the man who took everything from me, transferring train tracks with his entourage in tow at the very same station.
Now as a mother (and a grandmother, and great-grandmother,) I can’t emotionally comprehend the devastating sacrifice that my mother must have felt that day as she watched her last child grow smaller and smaller in the distance until she disappeared entirely. Plus, did she feel as if she made the right choice, or did she wonder if she was protecting me or putting me at risk? I wish, more than anything, that I could tell her I made it.
A Not So Smooth Ride
The Trip to Belgium
As we predicted, my fake mother and I were questioned at the station, and, to both of our surprise, I passed. For a student with a bad track record when it came to learning, I managed to correctly answer every question, keeping the red flags at bay.
The Gestapo may have thought I was her daughter, but she knew who I really was: a desperate and naive child who needed her to survive. I had already paid her, but after stealing a glance at the only two valuable heirlooms my family had left (an Art Deco men’s platinum and diamond ring and a Swiss Leica camera), which, of course, were in my possession, she raised her price. After passing the Gestapo’s test at the train station, they took the Leica camera, so the Rheidt woman settled for the diamond ring, the only thing on this earth I had that connected me to my family.
The stubborn woman refused to take me to the destination, Belgium to live with my Uncle, unless I gave her the ring. Having already lost so much, I couldn’t relinquish the only possession I had left, and after a brief moment of introspection, I figured that I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees. I told her that if she tried to take the ring from me,I would start screaming and turn in both myself, a Jew, and her, a traitor and enemy of the State, to the authorities. We argued for a long while, but she ended up taking me to my uncle in Belgium with the ring on my finger.
I know that I might sound ungrateful since so many were much worse off than I was, but I was miserable. Though I was met with a type of relief I’d never known, it was shrouded in a heavy cloak of misery as I aimlessly strolled the streets of Brussels. Only fourteen years old and without a franc to my name, I was living with an uncle who my mother considered the black sheep of the family. I was grateful that he had taken me in like the stray dog that I was, he was clearly not equipped to care for a teenage girl who suddenly found herself alone in the world. Not to mention: It was a disgusting place to live. Within only a few days in my new home, I was covered in lice.
In his own way, he was good to me, but he was a strange man, constantly trapping me in uninvited affection. In any case, it was an impossible situation, and I wondered why my mother, famous for her resourcefulness, chose this man to secede her as my caretaker. Then I remembered: This wasn’t my final destination; England was.
Given the last several years, I was in no position to believe in the concept of happily ever after, but after one fateful night in Belgium, I was forced to reconsider my stance on fairy tales. After less than a week in my strange uncle’s home, a close family friend, Henry Lindenberg, pulled up in a black cab from Antwerp to take me with him. My thoughts went immediately to my mother, who must have arranged this. Though my uncle wanted what was best for me, and going with Henry was definitely the best I could have hoped for, he was confused and offended that I’d so readily leave with a stranger when I had family to look after me. He had a point, but as I weighed my options, Henry seemed like the obvious choice, so I thanked my uncle for opening his home to me, and left.
Our Family Legacy Is Born
“Paradise” in Belgium
The Lindenbergs, our closest family friends, lived in Belgium. I didn’t know them well, but having grown up in the same town, my father had known Henry all his life. They were almost mirrors of one another: They studied together, became tailors, and ran their clothier businesses in the town where they grew up.
The Lindenbergs took me in, and I couldn’t have been happier there. For one, it was the polar opposite of my experience at my uncle’s home. Plus, it was like heaven on earth. It was a good time. They loved me.The Lindenbergs knew who I was and where I came from, which, like the Art Deco ring I cherished, made me feel connected to the family I so tragically lost. I stayed there for eight beautiful months.
In a world filled with so much senseless evil, the Lindenbergs were proof that good, generous people still exist. Not only did they accept me like they would their long-lost child, but they also took in a friend of mine, Friedel. Like I, Friedel enlisted the Rheidt woman’s smuggling services to get her into Belgium. Once she arrived, though, her uncle, the man who was supposed to provide a safe haven for children feeling a people who wanted her dead in the ground, was scheming to send her back. If it weren’t for the Lindenbergs, who took in yet another child who didn’t belong to them, Friedel would have perished like the millions of others. The Lindenbergs didn’t have room for any more lodgers, but they couldn’t turn away a homeless child. After all, they were refugees themselves, having escaped from Germany to Belgium using false papers.
After nearly a year with the Lindenbergs, my mother, still alive in Germany, had arranged for me to journey to England to live with my great aunt, Sher. I met her years earlier when my family traveled to England for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1937, but I hardly knew her. Before my mom was taken, she had begged my aunt to let me stay there and go to school for a few years. I think my mom saw the writing on the wall and knew that she and my father had no chance of getting out, but she wanted to save me.
Like any sensible woman in her 70s, Sher was resistant. She wasn’t exactly the picture of health, either. She loved my mother and was desperate to help her, but in her condition, she simply couldn’t take on the responsibility of being a guardian to a helpless teenager. With a sick husband at home and a business to run, it was just too difficult. Earlier in the war, my mom knew in her gut circumstances would change, so she had previously arranged to leave jewelry with them in case she were to ever take me.
During my time at the Lindenbergs, behind the scenes my mom had been doing everything to get me papers to get out of Belgium. She had to appeal to the refugee committee and it wasn’t easy, but with her persistence, she got me the papers to be a part of the Kindertransport (German for “children’s transport”) to go to England. The Kindertransport was an organized rescue effort that took place during the nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Nazi-occupied Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the Free City of Danzig.
The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools, and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust. The program was supported, publicized, and encouraged by the British government. Importantly the British government waived all those visa immigration requirements that were not within the ability of the British Jewish community to fulfill. On August 20th (1939), the entire Lindenberg family, including their son, Leo, who I had become increasingly fond of, saw me off.
I went to England to live with my great aunt (who my mother had begged years earlier) and her daughter, among my second and third cousins, and although it may have appeared so, it was no walk in the park. We lived in a large townhome with ten rooms, and one cousin had a 10-year-old son who lived with us too and a daughter who was about my age. Unfortunately, though, I had very little relationship with them outside of the room and board they provided and being their employee.
England was not easy – there was no love for me there. I had shelter and I had food, but it was really strange. I had no way to communicate with anyone as I spoke very little English and it was very difficult. I had to go to work right away in the family clothing store in women’s apparel. It was very very hard, and to make matters worse, I was a teenager, arguably entering the most emotional and unstable years of life without my parents or any sort of familiarity. While my English family was not unkind, they felt distant and I felt awkward and a burden, having been foist upon them.
New York, June 2020
I know it isn’t traditional to break the story with a note from the author in the middle, but it’s important to share that a lot has changed since I started this book as an early-quarantine project during the coronavirus pandemic. I began writing while living with my in-laws, but have since moved back into my apartment in midtown Manhattan right outside Madison Square Park. My urban life has drastically changed, and while at first working from home and not having to socialize or lead our normally busy leaves was a welcome reprieve, it’s started to take a toll. I went from the hustle and bustle of a New York City-based young, newlywed professional whose schedule was so full she had to order a kitchen whiteboard to keep it all straight, to a house-bound couch potato with no plans to write down. The whiteboard has remained blank. I’ve been less motivated to tell this story, and my headspace just hasn’t been the same.
To layer onto the uncertainty of the pandemic, not only are we on day 90 of the total shutdown of New York City with over 200,000 confirmed cases and nearly 20,000 deaths in the city alone, with freezer trucks parked nearby as temporary morgues but also we are in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, following the death of George Floyd.
The protests are happening globally as a result of another Black man’s outrageous unjustified murder at the hands of a police officer. These protests are long overdue to fight for equality and justice for the Black community in the face of a long history of systemic racism. Not to mention this is happening on the brink of the next presidential election.
People are rightfully hurt, angry, and confused — and to top it off, we’ve been essentially locked in our homes for three months. The energy is so intense, it might just be enough of a perfect storm to implement substantial systemic change and reform to finally bring about change.
The reason this is so important is that I intensely feel the absolute parallels we are experiencing while writing my grandmother’s story. With two weeks of protests came looting, and just about one of the scariest nights of my life. Unfortunately, there have been opportunist antagonists who have taken advantage of the peaceful protests and used it as an opportunity to bring destruction nationwide.
Last night, I watched from my second-floor apartment as multiple rounds of looters jumped out of cars with baseball bats to shatter windows and ransack the small businesses below my apartment. A police officer rolled up to hold one of the looters at gunpoint until he retreated from the optical store that was looted. Dumpster fires were being set one block north, and Molotov cocktails being tossed onto occupied police cars three blocks south. I held hands with my husband and just prayed we wouldn’t have anyone light a fire underneath our unit, and experienced a sad, sleepless night of angst and anxiety.
Naturally, it brought me to thinking about the targeting of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, and it reignited my literal fire to finish this book and share my grandmother’s story. While it’s finally become safe enough to walk around New York City (while wearing face coverings and staying distant from anyone outside of your household), it’s even more apocalyptic than before.
Because of the justified protests that resulted in offshoots of violent riots and lootings, the entire city was boarded up and there was a curfew for the city to shut down at eight o’clock every night. Deafening sirens and ambulances roam the streets sounding like a broken record, to the point where heads rarely turn when they drive by anymore. I only notice them when they stop in one place, particularly outside on the street by my bedroom window since it lights up the entire room and is electric red, white, and blue.
While I’m not the person who is going to write the many stories that come out of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, it had to be mentioned as I think it adds a significant layer to the underlying context of my story. I’m writing this during one of the most unbelievable years of all time, with a resurgence of antisemitism, the brink of a broken culture that has systematically supported racism against the Black community for hundreds of years, and one of the worst pandemics the world has ever recorded.
Let’s hope my next interlude is filled with more hope than the past two.
England is Cold- Inside and Out
It was winter of 1940, and one of the coldest winters England had ever seen. I wasn’t useful inside my family’s store because I couldn’t speak the language well enough to help the customers. So, they put me outside the two-story, inexpensive clothing store on Oxford Street in the middle of winter to try to convince people to come inside. Everything in the store cost one pound and a shilling, similar to what you might see at a dollar store in the states, but this was specifically for reasonably priced clothing.
Don’t let the cheap clothing fool you though, it was a very pretty store. Two grand staircases went up both sides, and we had two heaters! It looked grand and implied my family’s success.
The store was very busy, especially during the war, and my cousins made a lot of money. Things became rationed, and somehow (perhaps through some black market connections) my relative who owned the store had access to get inventory. This experience is what led me to finally learn the broken English that got me through the following years. Like you might remember your child’s first words, I will never forget my own first English words from this time.
They had me standing outside in the freezing cold trying to schlep customers through the door with frostbite on my nose and toes with gloves up to my elbows. A muffled, bundled, and miserable “Everything is cheap and cheerful” were my first English words. “Please come in. It’s nice and warm inside.” Unfortunately, I never felt quite cheerful and missed my own family terribly. Despite knowing how lucky I had been to escape from Germany, I often felt sorry for myself.
Six months after standing outside getting customers to come into the store, I finally learned to speak English with a British accent. So British that when I later came to America, they called me “limey.” Between working outside the store and all the English movies I would see on Sundays I learned to speak the “Queen’s English.” I had no friends, and I wasn’t close to my relatives, so on my one day off I would go to the movies and memorize the lines to English movies alone in the theatre, and come home and read books. I devoured books, all that I could get my hands on, and much like my future granddaughter, I loved escaping into a story.
I have to give myself credit, that no matter where I lived in my life, I was able to adopt the local dialect quickly. When you’re a Jewish teenager during the Holocaust who has been orphaned for years without anything resembling a stable childhood, you have to learn to adapt in all aspects. And adapt is what I did.
The Bombs are Falling
Much to my surprise, I finally started to settle in a bit. I wasn’t happy by any means, but I was getting by and trying to move forward. However, as bumpy as the rest of my life had been, this stage was no exception. The Blitz began in 1940 as a German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom, and it was terrifying. There was a bomb every single day for a year and a half. The family I was staying with had built a shelter in their backyard, but nothing significant had happened yet locally so we weren’t using it.
The very first bomb dropped by the German army was intended for a nearby armament factory. Instead, it landed in the maid’s quarters of the home I was sleeping in. It fell right through to the garage. The bomb didn’t explode, but it did land on the few personal belongings my mother had desperately sent over to store at my extended family in hopes that she might make it out. It included her linens, personal finances, keepsakes, and things like that. We thought there was a chance she’d make it as a domestic so she sent her things ahead of her arrival. Her belongings were destroyed, and when I was digging through the rubble, all I was able to save was a little bag that you store boxes in.
Somehow, my cousin Syliva and I made it out of the bombed bedroom without a scratch. We were scared to death and in complete shock, but we did not get hurt. My family sent me and the cousins I was living with to a safehouse in Wales to wait it out for six months, yet another incredibly unhappy experience. I was lucky — they paid for my keep, and I survived, but as a teenager, it’s hard to understand just surviving. It was a boarding house filled with eight other young people, and we even managed to have a little fun there.
When we came back to England, the house I had been living in was destroyed, but we were able to go back to working at the store soon after, which luckily made it through the bombing with little damage.
After this experience, I decided I needed to try to move on. I was so unhappy with this outdoor job, and I had felt that my family never even gave me a chance. If I bought a dress from a store to replace my old tattered clothing, I had to work for three months to pay it off. But, I had shelter, a nice room, and food, which was a miracle. It was severely rationed but they did feed me. But, just like my job outside, they were very cold people and I was craving warmth more than ever. They treated me like an unwanted stepchild. They were undevoted and I felt very unloved.
So, I took what little belongings I had and one morning I got up and walked three blocks away to a bus stop and I moved on. I wanted to go stay with my other very distant cousin who was willing to take me, in the city of London.
I naively thought things would be great at my cousins’ house. I needed a change. They were an older couple who had a son who was over 40 years old living there as well. They were sending children my age away out of the United Kingdom at this time to either India or Australia, so my uncle had to sign for me that I wouldn’t be a burden on the government. So, I got myself a job as a seamstress in a factory and paid my keep. I appreciated that they took me in, but I ended up in yet another undesirable position. I was very miserable in that house. I missed home, even though there was nothing left to miss. There was something there that bothered me terribly. The son in particular was a bother to me because I think he liked me more than he should have. So I only lasted eight months. I tried very hard, but I was just so deprived of love for so long I couldn’t stand it. I just couldn’t stand it.
One morning, I got up and went to work in the factory making uniforms. I had never sewn anything in my life, but they gave me a job to mark the pattern to show where the pockets went. I made something like $50 per week and I would pay $35 for my keep. I got along fine with my aunt, but her son, my uncle, was impossible because he was infatuated with me.
My uncle wanted to marry me. Can you believe it? He was like the age of my dad who was only 45. I mean, come on, at that time I was only 16! Anyway, I had gone from the frying pan into the fire, and then I went from the fire back into the frying pan. I went back to my cousins in England. The second time around, I saw that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I stayed there until I got married!
I settled back in, worked at the store, and took it for what it was. At this point, I was old enough to wrap my head around what had happened. I found one guy my age who wanted to marry me. I thought I liked him, but really, I just wanted a home. I wanted to get out of the house. I wanted to get married, not just to anybody, but he was personable and only a little older than me. He was from a wealthy family as his father was a bookmaker in London, which was legal in England. They had a lot of money, and they were happy. I wanted a part of that happiness.
The family was happy that their son, who was Jewish and had never dated a Jewish girl before, was finally dating one. And I thought to myself, what have I got to lose? So I got engaged, but he had one very bad trait. He was a gambler. His father was a bookmaker, and they have to be the straight ones. They can’t afford to gamble and lose sight of the books. My then-fiancé should have been afraid to gamble but he wasn’t.
He took me to a race outside of London, and he lost my three pounds and fifteen shillings. He lost all the money we had brought with us, so we had no money to get back to the city. Luckily, his father sent a taxi for us, but I went back to him the next day and I gave him back his ring and his watch. I said, I’m sorry but I can’t do this.
I went back to my uncle whose house I was staying at because I was so torn about what I had done. Was it impulsive? And he said listen to me, with this guy, you’re going to have more dinner times than dinner. He’s going to be a rich man one night, and then the next night he’s going to be a pauper. You don’t need that, and you can do better. So now, I was “fancy-free” as they called it, and looking to move on.
Belgians Come to London
A few months after my breakup with the gambling addict, my family friends, the Lindenbergs, came to London to buy goods for their business. Henry, my father’s childhood friend, owned a custom suit business, and they bought all of the high-end materials from London. Henry Lindenberg was one of the top tailors in this business, and this was a very high-class operation. He brought his son Leo with him on the business trip.
They looked me up since they knew my aunt’s name. Somehow they found me, and I was so happy to see them. I didn’t think they had survived. I already knew my parents and family had perished, except my two brothers who had run away to Palestine and Siberia. I was so thrilled to see the Lindenbergs — finally, people who knew who I was. Everyone in London looked at me like I was from outer space.
When I saw Leo, I said, Leo, “I’m going to find you a nice rich Jewish girl to date” — even though I was completely in love with him, and had been since I was 14 and lived with his family back in Belgium! I loved him to death. He was completely gorgeous. Leo, and his brother, Benno, were the most handsome guys in their entire city. But, Leo wasn’t interested in me. He always liked older women. He was only two years older than me but very sophisticated. Did I mention that I loved him? He didn’t give me any signs of mutual affection except he would pinch my behind and even bring me a bar of chocolate. He knew how much I loved chocolate!
When he was in London, he truly was like my best friend. At least that is what I convinced myself because I finally had found someone alive who was the closest thing to a warm, loving family. Somebody that survived. My aunt, who I had now lived with for almost ten years in England, she was the closest thing I had to a mother since I had last seen mine, said “Are you crazy? Make a move! What’s the matter with you? He’s gorgeous and he’s Jewish! And he knows who you are! It’s not going to be easy for you here!” Every Jewish mother wants to influence their children’s choices.
She gave me the kick in the right direction that I needed, and slowly after Leo went back to Belgium we started to write each other letters and that’s how the mutual affection developed.
Meanwhile, Leo had lived with a non-Jewish woman who hid him during the war, and he had promised to marry her in return. She was seven years older than him, and she had already been married and had two children. As the war ended, and Leo’s parents had survived, given the strong religious and cultural affinities toward marrying within your group, they did not want him to marry her. And the best part of the story is that I didn’t know any of this! Nobody informed me! So all of a sudden, he said “I’m coming back to England so we can spend real time together.” He was working for his dad so when he wanted to take off work he could do that and they were happy that he went back to see me.
Look, I had loved him when I was a child and always thought I didn’t have a chance with him. But then he realized he loved me too, and that was it! After a few visits, we got engaged about a year and a half after I saw him for the first time in London after the war. We took the time to get to know each other again, in a world with much less desperation and much more freedom of choice. We didn’t rush it.
When we finally did get married, we could have stayed in England but he hated the way I was treated by my family and we wanted to start fresh and put the horrors of our past behind us. I wasn’t treated like a daughter, although in the end they tried to do their best and they made a nice wedding for me. After all, I felt like I earned at least a small wedding to celebrate our love. They never paid me, and my parents had perished. I worked there for 10 years, 12 hours per day, six days per week. I was barely given pocket money. After they ultimately hosted an expensive wedding, we knew we should leave because they would make me work in that store for the rest of my life to pay them back for it.
Luckily, I did have a beautiful wedding. My great aunt who I was living with told my uncle who owned the store “She’s been a slave for you 12 hours a day, six days a week, if you don’t throw her a beautiful wedding, I’m going to the temple and I will tell the Rabbi. This is terrible.” So, he threw me a beautiful wedding. They had a big family, but I didn’t have any friends. I lived there for ten years at this point, and at almost 24 years old, was completely friendless.
After I was married in October, as a thank you, I stayed to run the store until February while the family went on vacation to the South of France. When they came back they tried to make me stay longer to work for the store, and my old aunt said “Are you crazy? You’re leaving your handsome husband alone? You better hurry up and get your butt to your husband!” It was hard to get out, but in the end, they were very good to me.
Leo and I both decided we were going to America. I wasn’t happy in England, and it bothered me so much that I could never break the ice with my family. I was a people pleaser and I have been that way all my life. I couldn’t warm up to them even though they tried. They tried to save my mom by coordinating her journey to England, and they certainly saved me.
They even tried to save my dad, whom we found out later escaped prison and was able to return to his store to unwind his business, but when he got there soldiers were waiting for him at the door and they immediately transported him to the Dachau concentration camp. He only survived six months there. Earlier in the war, we had heard that just a few days before Germany went into Poland that my father could be bought out for $1,000. I went to all six of my cousins in London to collect the money to try to save my dad and get him out. If there would have been enough time he would have been able to get to Shanghai where they were taking some Jews, and where quite a few Jews ultimately survived.
Amazingly, they gave me the money! We sent it to Belgium wherever they told us we should send it, but then the war broke out and there was no way that it could be done. We never got the money back and that was a lot of money. So, I have to remind myself of these people in a kind way.
They couldn’t give me love. They didn’t know me and I wasn’t one of them. If I had been six or seven when I arrived with them I might have had a chance but I was already a teenager. But, they saved me anyway. I tried to save my dad. And my mother saved me by sending me out.
Finally Feeling at Home
I finally had a home with Leo, and parents (in-law) who were still alive and who truly cared about me. The Lindenberg family was such a big part of my story and always wonderful to me. We were able to partially put together the missing pieces of what happened to my family. After the war, Leo and I went back to my hometown of Wuppertal and paid to put up a stone and fixed up the grave for my parents.
Even though my father only survived six months at a concentration camp, he was given a funeral in our hometown while my mother was still alive. Ashes were sent back to my mother and she made a small Jewish funeral for him in Wuppertal, Elperfelt, so we do have a grave there. But, who knows if it was his ashes. We also tried to find my mother, but we still don’t know what happened to her. Survivors in our town told us that she survived two years hidden by a mixed-marriage couple as a seamstress, and even worked for some of the Nazis. Supposedly they told her to go to the train station with a small suitcase and they were going to send her back to Poland since she was a citizen. But, she never arrived at the destination and she’s still considered “missing.”
I know that I was very fortunate. They were difficult times, and they were far back to remember every single detail. I experienced a lot of heartbreak, but a lot of blessings. I can not ever say that I was hungry. I was often freezing, but not hungry and I always had a roof over my head. I was never homeless. But, like my son always says to me, “Mom. You’re a truck.” and I say “Yep, that’s me. I made it to 96 and counting.”
I am truly blessed. When I look at what I have now, a home, four wonderful children, four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, what can be better than that? No amount of money can pay for that.
Coming to America
New York to Florida
While I don’t want to bore you with the rest of my life story, which I feel lucky enough to call ordinary depending on who you ask, there are things about me I want to make sure you know.
Europe had nothing left for us, and we desired the freedom America tempted us with, so we began to plan to move to America, and received sponsorship from an Uncle in New York. When we were approved, we boarded Queen Elizabeth in November, 1950 to join my husband Leo’s brother and his wife who were already there. After a short time staying with our brother and sister and law in Queens, New York we moved into a local apartment building called The Floridian, which we didn’t realize at the time was ironic since we’d move to Miami a few years later.
After my first child, Linda was born, we were lucky enough to have Leo’s parents join us in America, who often babysitted while Leo worked as a fitter at Saks Fifth Avenue and I worked at a “five and ten” which is like your modern day dollar store.
After a short stay in New York City, we headed south for the weather because our daughter developed Asthma and other health issues that were worsened by the cold , and we had a nice life living on Miami Beach, which some might even call an American dream, but we certainly never had a lot of money for financial security. We lived in a nice house, we both got blue-collar jobs – Leo as a massage therapist and health club manager and me as a hostess/waitress. We educated two children, and while we weren’t wealthy, we managed to have a nice life. We moved to what was often called paradise, one of the most glamorous places in the world. As Leo used to say “What’s your complaint? People pay thousands of dollars to vacation here.” While I would sometimes complain about the heat, looking back, it was the best decision of my life that we came to America, and I was never sorry about it.
While we didn’t make a lot, we also never saved any of our money. I have to share self-diagnosed psychoanalysis behind why I wasn’t as frugal as I should have been. On that train I took from Germany into Belgium, there were quite a few other Jews traveling in secret as well. I watched as they smuggled money and diamonds on that train. When we came to the crossing near the border the Gestapo came onto the train, and in a scene you could never have imagined, there were a bunch of desperate Jews throwing diamonds out the window to not get caught.
What a scene, people tossing diamonds like they were breadcrumbs feeding the ducks. This memory stuck with me my entire life. When it came down to saving their lives, money and jewelry didn’t mean a damn thing. It means that life cannot be bought with money. From that time on, the concept of saving never stuck with me.
One of my biggest regrets, after I left, is that I did not keep in touch with my old aunt who had been so good to me. She passed shortly after I left. I was in shock, I didn’t have it together. I hope she forgave me. I still feel bad about it after all these years.
All of a sudden I left, I was Mrs. Lindenberg with a husband and a new family, and truthfully, she was the only one in the whole family who cared about me. The little bit of love that I got as a young teen was from her. I would go visit her every single week because when you’re old, as I now know all too well, you can feel a little bit forgotten.
It’s how I feel now sometimes. Old news, filled with a lot of blank spots. I have a pretty good memory for someone my age, but some things are getting blurry. Sometimes, especially with the monotony of the pandemic, I forget what happened yesterday. But, when I talk about what happened years ago, it feels like it was yesterday. It’s unbelievable how the human mind works.
When it comes to Holocaust stories, mine is a different story from those illustrated by popular books and movies. It’s not a concentration camp story, but it’s a story worthy of telling. I can’t even get into how gruesome it was when I was living in Poland. The world stood by. Jews in America stood by too, and it’s not like nobody knew what Hilter was going to do. He wrote a book outlining exactly what he was going to do. What he wrote in the book is not even five percent of what he did. It wasn’t only the Jews who were systematically targeted as a mortal threat to the German race, it was also the Christians who tried to help us. It was also the Gypsies, as well as Germans with mental and physical disabilities. It was also Poles who were viewed as ‘subhuman,’ captured Soviet soldiers, real and suspected political opponents, and men accused of engaging in homosexual acts — and the list went on.
That’s why I tell you honestly when I look at our last president, he reminds me of Hitler. It’s hard to compare anyone, but Hitler thought he was God. Trump also talks like he thinks he’s a king, and I don’t care for this man. I get goosebumps whenever he speaks or if I think of him because he dredges up these terrible times in my life.
Yet, I can’t help but look and appreciate what I have now though. Who can compare with me? I am still living on my own, and with many family members who I see and speak to regularly. Who is as lucky as I am, to have survived and live to see so much more? And the best part is I have a few of my marbles left! I can’t see that well, I can’t hear very well, and I have terrible aches and pains, but I’m here. And, I can do this! I can share my story, and I hope that my reflections on a life well lived gives perspective to the issues many are facing today.
When my children, grandchildren, and now my great-grandchildren would complain about their ‘issues’ — whether it be with a problem with a friend, a bad at school, a conflict with a boss, something breaking in the house, etc., I always want to say, “Listen, you can work through that. Those are not issues. Issues are when you are ripped away from your parents, people are trying to kill your family and friends, and the world stands by and watches.” Issues are what we need to work toward solving in society, through education and using our voice — whether in activism, voting, and speaking up.
I hope this makes a useful short story. Looking back from this lens, I can say that It was a very colorful life. Some of it was sad, but I was able to make the most of it in between and after when I could. I’m sorry I waited so long to share it. Who knows, five years ago I might have remembered even more!
What Does it Mean
New York, 2021
That is my grandmother’s story. It’s now February 2021, nearly an entire year after I started during the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 500,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19, and while multiple vaccines have been developed to inject a glimmer of hope, the world has changed dramatically since I began this book, and so have I. Just a month before I started this book, I was obsessing over wedding dates and birthday brunches, travel plans, and big work presentations. I was having anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out) all at the same time. I was a new wife, a new daughter-in-law, a relatively new boss building a team.
A year later, the death toll keeps rising and the economic impact has been equally devastating for many, much of it attributable to gross mismanagement by our government. Stories continue to be heard of many Black Americans being shot and killed wrongfully by our police force, our country is tumbling toward a recession that can’t be compared directly to any other place in time, and hate crimes – particular antisemitism and anti-Asian — are on the rise, with plenty of new digital mediums to spread the vile. A survey by the Claims Conference of 11,000 Americans recently came out stating that 23% of respondents believe the Holocaust is a myth. Arguably the most iconic supreme court justice of all time, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, and the rights to our bodies and to whom we marry, plus much more, are at risk. I am scared for our country, my safety, and our future.
With this in mind, I frequently call my (not so forgotten) grandmother, who, in the highest-risk population, has once again had to spend her life in hiding, feeling both unsafe and trapped. Thankfully, a perk of her age entitled her to an early vaccination opportunity and there is now a small light at the end of this long dark tunnel.
And also thankfully, I no longer feel like the same anxious person I was six months ago, and in reflection, I do think that strength runs in our blood. I think the power to make a change runs in our blood. My grandparents weren’t activists in a traditional sense during their working years when they were focused on making ends meet and fitting in, and were not comfortable with sharing their stories. However, with the perspective of time, and the resurgence of hate in ways she never expected to see again, especially in America, my grandmother has become much more comfortable helping to educate people on Holocaust awareness, speaking in local schools and community events. I think 96 years later, it’s about time that my grandmother has earned a break and I am picking up the baton and making sure this story can be told for generations to come.
While my inner control freak is struggling for so many different reasons with what’s happening in the world right now, we can each only tackle so much at once. With a cause like this so close to my heart, and a primal drive and sensitivity to the subject, likely as a result of my family’s generational trauma, I feel more compelled than ever to do my part to make sure these atrocities never happen again.
However, that alone is an overwhelming thought. What can I possibly do to make a difference beyond the usual? I vote, I donate, I educate myself and others. However, my professional strength is the ability to communicate — especially leveraging today’s new media, and I’ve learned that sometimes people make the most impact when they play to their strengths. Therefore, I will use my voice to share our stories and encourage those who read this to take action:
- Donate to organizations that are combating hate
- Support organizations that help the disenfranchised members of our communities — from those struggling for voting rights, to immigrants, to the homeless, and the hungry
- Educate yourself and those who you can with facts so that horrors of our collective pasts do not become a history that repeats itself
- Speak up — in person and online — our silence equates to being complicit
As I finish this story, we’re one month into a new presidential administration under Joe Biden, and 11% of the U.S. population is vaccinated. While there is much work to be done, I’m feeling much more optimistic than I was at the start, and so much more appreciative of the simple things that matter – the people you love, the comfort of family whether (blood or chosen), and your health.
While I learned that not everything in her life was certainly not cheap or cheerful, I will never regret the time I took with my grandmother to learn enough to tell her story. The conjured image of my bundled grandmother, frozen on the streets of England, doing what she could to survive while never losing hope, with a sense of humor and the morals that grounded her, is something that will stick with me forever.
“According to a memorial book I found for Wuppertal, “Moritz Tyger, born on December 27, 1893, came from Poland to W.-Elberfeld in 1919; until October 1938 he ran a tailoring shop as an intermediate workshop in Karlstr. 28, until their forced abandonment. He was deported to the Poland / Bentschen border camp on 28.10.1038; but returned to Wuppertal after a short stay in Warsaw to settle his personal affairs. He was arrested on September 12, 1939, and transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on December 21, 1939, and was transferred to Dachau concentration camp on September 3, 1940, where he died. The urn was transferred to Wuppertal; he was buried in the Jewish cemetery on the vineyard.”