Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Weight of Memory

I was born into a tiny Jewish community of less than one hundred families who all made their way from Europe to El Salvador in the first half of the twentieth century. My actual blood ties are few, but so many people have known me since I was born, have known my grandmother since she arrived in El Salvador from England in 1946, that blood ties have little, if anything, to do with my concept of family.

They tell me I was the first grandchild. Of course that is my grandmother’s generation. There were plenty of children born into the Jewish community before me, even as little as a couple of years, whose parents were the “middle-generation” – the ones born after the war whose ages cut right between my parents’ and grandparents’. But apparently I was the first of the second generation to be born in El Salvador, the first grandchild born into the group who had met in the thirties and forties.

There were those who spent World War II in El Salvador. Having attempted to get whomever they could out of Europe, they lived in the tropical sunshine, working hard and yet still hungry for news of their families “back home.” Then there was the wave that came after the war: when the Salvadoran, Jewish bachelors scoured Europe and Palestine for Jewish wives whom they then brought back from the ruins of war to a life with chauffeurs and maids and strange foods that sounded a lot like bodily functions.

When my grandfather arrived, young and ambitious, the group of Jewish people his age told him he was lacking one very important skill: he didn’t know how to dance. Though he had been a cook in the US army, though he spoke German, Czech and English and was learning Spanish, though he had gainful employment and buckets of determination, it would not be enough to find a suitable bride. So DS, a famously curvaceous woman who remained a friend until she died, taught my grandfather how to dance.

Years later, my grandparents needed little more than the first few notes of a good song -- light-footed and elegant, they enjoyed all kinds of music. My grandfather was a natural. He loved to dance and had found an enthusiastic partner in his young bride. It was in these little things that they recaptured all the fun they had missed during the war years. My grandfather’s hand strongly cupping my grandmother’s back, my grandmother tenderly holding on to his shoulder; they moved as if they had always known each other and the steps they would take as they drifted and twirled together, in tune with the music.

They would go to the movies back then. The lucky ones got to sit up top, on the balcony. If you got stuck down below, you would be pelted with garbage from above – shells of seeds, cigarette ash and candy wrappers rained down like thick drops, hindering the view of the film as you picked it out of your hair and shook yourself clean every few minutes.

After they married, my grandmother decided she would learn how to drive. Clinging to her shiny new licence, she told my great-grandmother that she was going to drive her home. They trooped into the garage, my grandmother turned the key in the ignition and promptly drove into the wall. The next day, my grandfather hired a chauffeur.

A few years ago, I had lunch at the house of one of my grandmothers’ best friends in Haifa. She had cooked something delicious, rich and very Ashkenazi tasting. Though I can’t remember what it was, I do recall the familiar taste, the comfort that I felt. When I complimented the chef, her response was “yes, it is wonderful isn’t it?”
Accustomed to more modesty, I replied “if you do say so yourself.”
My grandmother’s friend laughed and told me that she had learned to compliment her own cooking from my grandmother: “your grandmother is right,” she said, “What’s wrong with saying I like something if I do. Even if I made it! Who will compliment my cooking if I don’t?”

It is the generation that was forced to grow up in unimaginable situations, the generation that were adults before they had time to grasp that they were children. Nothing was explained, my grandmother has said on more than one occasion, things just were what they were. One moment you had a mother and a father, you had school and friends. The next your parents had been taken away and you were on a train heading somewhere unknown.

In my grandmother’s case, it was England. Many others were not so lucky.

About ten years ago, with friends of my grandparents, I watched Spielberg’s “The Last Days”, a documentary about the Jews of Hungary. This couple are part of my extended family even though they didn’t end up in El Salvador. They lived in Nicaragua. Over the years, I have noticed the tattoos on their arms, the row of numbers, the unforgettable mark of Auschwitz. Today, they live in Miami Beach. At 80+, he still plays tennis; she and I love to kibbitz about the hosts of The View, a women’s morning talk show. As the documentary skipped between interviews and footage of concentration camps, my grandparents - who had been spared those horrors as both had escaped Europe in time - wept. Their friends, on the other hand, sat rigidly watching the images.
“That was my job”, the wife, my grandmother’s friend, one of my favourite people in the world, said as they showed an inmate pulling the corpses out of the gas chambers and stacking them on a wheelbarrow, “I took them away.”

In the grey luxury of the mundane, it is difficult to picture suffering, even when the victim is describing it themselves, in person, sitting half a meter away. They say we have been desensitized by violence on television and in video games, but is it possible to even grasp such a concept as torture, as starvation, as hell in London, in Miami Beach, in New York City, when it is only that: a concept?

A few weeks ago, my mother and grandmother spent ten days here in the UK. We ate lunch and then dinner in that way that sometimes tourism feels, when everything becomes a stop-gap between meals. We got drenched and enjoyed a good few days of beautiful sun. I took them around my neighbourhood and the restaurants where the manager knows my name (and dietary restrictions). They came to the first fitting of my wedding dress.

My grandmother walked up to our fifth floor apartment and then all the way back down – four times!

We took the train to Gloucestershire where we enjoyed dinner and then lunch with D’s parents, aunt and uncle and his ninety-six-year-old great aunt. It was the first meeting between our families and it went rather well.

At the lunch, a couple of friends of my grandmother’s joined us: L had come to Britain as a refugee during the war with her mother, and had become friends with my grandmother because, as my grandmother put it, “we were both poor refugee girls.” L had met and married J, an Englishman, and they still live in the same town over sixty years on. Armed with hearing aids and old notions of one another, the three talked and laughed.
“Your grandmother had all the boys after her!” L told me.
“I wasn’t such a sex-pot!” my grandmother retorted in self-defense.

She always had admirers though, I know that. That morning at breakfast, she had confessed that one of her former boyfriends had been from the town where we were staying. “I’ve forgotten his last name,” she lamented. I think part of her would have wanted to look him up, if only she could remember his name…

The night before, with mischievously upturned lips, she had declared that I should write about an old woman who comes to the Cotswolds to find her old lovers.
“Who would that be?” I asked her
“I don’t know…” she grinned, looking like she must have when the boyfriend she now couldn’t remember had given her flowers all those years before.

She confessed that L’s husband, J, had originally taken a shine to her.
“But since L was so crazy for him, naturally, I resigned,” she told us, proudly.

I take after her in so many ways. I can see my face in hers, my body has the same curves, the same penchant for amplitude that my mother’s tiny, more delicate frame does not. And we are both moody people, with an inner pendulum that swings from joy to doomsday with little rhyme, reason or warning.

Good days are great: happy, grateful, productive. On the bad days, I am alone in this cold, cruel world, just like my grandmother.

At age fourteen, I used to walk the kilometre to my private Jewish school in my grey and blue uniform. I usually lived at my mother’s and had lunch at my father’s. My biggest problems were that I felt I deserved a later curfew and that the guy I had a crush on didn’t know I existed. When she was fourteen, my grandmother arrived in the tiny English village of Sheepscombe to stay with a Quaker family who had agreed to take in a Jewish refugee from mainland Europe. She would often walk the three miles to the next village in the pitch dark of the Black-Out.

Throughout my adolescence, I lobbied to be sent away to boarding school. My grandmother was left behind in Vienna when her mother was able to obtain a visa for herself and my great-grandfather to leave the country. It was a one-way ticket out of Europe, and the only way to get her husband out of Dachau, where he had been taken after Kristalnacht.

As a result of my childhood, I spent years in therapy, talking about “what I went through.” My grandmother, on the other hand, spent years in silence. To this day, the abandoned child rears her head from time to time, in those bad moments when she is alone in the world, left behind by parents who couldn’t afford to take her with them. Though I wasn’t there with her, I carry her sadness in my DNA, in my love for her, in the way I feel some days when nothing can cheer me up. I too am the abandoned child, though I was surrounded by luxury and parents who, if anything, were too protective, too controlling -- to the point of suffocation.

The scope of destruction of the Nazis reached so much further than the concentration camps and the millions murdered. There are generations of Jews still recovering from years of persecution, from being stripped of even the most basic human rights, from property and education, from being separated from friends and loved ones, parents and siblings without a chance to say goodbye, from spending formative years in unimaginable situations – in the woods, in strange countries forced to call strangers auntie and uncle, in cellars and attics, in underground holes. The list goes on and on, each example uniquely devastating in its own way. And to think that that generation did not have Freud who himself fled Vienna under the threat of deportation.

My grandmother and her contemporaries had their childhoods cut short. They were never given the proper tools to cope with adulthood. The question of why has been asked so many times but no one has been able to come up with a satisfying answer. My generation has been oversaturated with memories and emotions kept safely pent up that are now coming to light. “Never again” they say to us, as if we would have any more control over it than they did back then.

When the head of the Jewish community of El Salvador was kidnapped and murdered in the late nineteen seventies, the Jews fled, many of them for the second and third time in their lives.

My parents ended up in Belgium. When I was in high school, one of our teachers organized an afternoon at a Flemish (state) school. They had never met Jews and we, in our microcosm, had little, if any interaction with local kids our age. It was the first time I experienced prejudice, but it wasn’t anti-Semitism. Those kids associated Jews with money, because all they knew about us was that we were diamond dealers and drove Mercedes and Porsches. And for the most part, though it was a gross generalization and stigmatization, they weren’t wrong.

Historically Jews have dealt with easily moveable goods like diamonds or money mainly because they weren’t allowed to own property or land and because they were often persecuted and forced out of their homes with no prior warning. So what came first, the stereotype or the reality of the situation?

These days, I make a joke out of it: when asked where I’m from I call myself the Wandering Jew. But really, when I’m honest, it’s not as funny as it is true. Fleeing is in my genes. It is in my DNA, it is the first thing I think of in almost any situation. I have no roots, no one place to claim as mine, and I know that deeds and contracts can become worthless in less time than it takes to sign them.

Walking with my grandmother around the picturesque English village where she came on the Kindertransport in 1939 was an incredible experience. She showed me where she’d lived, the garden with the ping pong table that still exists (though the table itself has probably been replaced many times), the shortcuts she used to take through the school that still functions as one, the way to the forest where she rode horses. In a way, even this is home to her.

When she moved to Israel last year, my grandmother was often homesick for Sheepscombe. She would dream that she was there and wake up very disappointed. Upon waking, she would keep her eyes closed for a long time, yearning to stay there for as long as possible before returning to the new insecurity of life in Israel. Israel may be the home of the Jews, but it took a while for it to become my grandmother’s.

When she lived in Sheepscombe, my grandmother was free, probably freer than she has ever been in her life. She was not yet a wife or a mother, and there was no Jewish community to dictate the correct way of doing things. She was a very conscientious young woman, with strong values and a deep moral sense of right and wrong. At that time, though she was on her own, she was rarely alone. Constantly surrounded by friends and young men, my grandmother may have had to become independent through necessity but she was definitely elegant in her strength and way of coping with the situation.

When the war ended, with the help of generous contributions from the Jewish community, she made her way to El Salvador to be reunited with her parents. But the young adolescent who had been left in Vienna had become a young woman and my grandmother refused her mother’s insistence that she be chaperoned. After all, she had survived alone for years and was old enough to take care of herself.

Later on, when the political situation became too precarious, my grandfather announced without prior warning that they were moving to the United States. My grandmother did not want to leave, but she was not given a choice. As a good wife, she was to follow her husband’s wishes.
“I don’t want to leave El Salvador with only a little suitcase like I left Czechoslovakia,” was my grandfather’s explanation.

When they arrived in Miami, my grandmother confessed that she still felt like a refugee, regardless of how much they had brought with them.
“Once a refugee, always a refugee,” she says when she tells the story.
When she arrived in Israel last year, she felt the same. Even though there had been no political turmoil, no external pressures forcing her to move, even though the decision had – for the first time in her life – been entirely hers.

As she sat, eating her fish and chips in Sheepscombe, at the same pub where she had sat so many times as a girl, my grandmother pointed to her friend L, and told me how L and her mother had fed her.
“L’s mother worked in a nursing home. She would always have food for me. It was war time. I wasn’t starving, but you were always hungry.”

My grandmother almost always eats whatever is on her plate. She will wrap up leftover cookies and pieces of cake “for later.” She is always afraid that people will give her too much and even the oldest articles of clothing in her closet are in better shape than mine after a couple of washes. These days, my grandmother no longer wears cast-offs from her wealthy cousin like she was forced to as a child. She prides herself on her Missoni tops and her Ferragamo shoes.

But even back then, L’s husband, J, remarked that he remembers my grandmother as being the best dressed of the lot. And he is not the only one.
At the orphanage where she lived before she left Vienna on the Kindertransport, she befriended Y, a girl her age who was trying to make her way to Palestine. A few months later, Y wrote to my grandmother to say that her plans had fallen through and asked whether there was anyone else in Sheepscombe who would want to take in a Jewish refugee girl. My grandmother was able to find a place for her friend. Y, who had been sleeping in abandoned train carriages and under bridges, never forgot how beautiful my grandmother looked when they met at the station.

As she sat beaming at her friends from across the table, and as she got to know D’s parents a little, I saw her, not as my grandmother or as my mother’s mother, not as a wife or a woman of a certain age; but as the girl who wasn’t afraid to walk three miles through the countryside in the pitch black, the children’s nurse whose boyfriend was shot down over Germany, the young woman who, as she pedalled through the village, probably had crazy dreams of all she was going to do in her life. She laughed with abandon and blushed with glee at the compliments and the memories. Her flirty charm came back as she entertained all of us at the table, without a thought about her usual reticence.

Before the weekend, I had entertained a somewhat romantic notion of our trip to Sheepscombe. In my head it was a symbolic gathering of the generations, as if by being there my grandmother would somehow pass me along to D in one way or another. What actually took place was, in many ways, the exact opposite. I was able to glimpse the young girl who had once lived a day-to-day existence in those very streets, unaware of the years to come, the moves, the children, the grandchildren -- because at that age, who thinks of growing older. Watching my grandmother as a young woman, I felt myself start to age in anticipation of what is to come, what I am looking forward to in my own life – children, grandchildren, moves.

Often, when my grandmother speaks about the past, she is unable to fall asleep and so I am careful about asking too much. That day, however, questions were unnecessary: it was all there on her face. The day, the sun was shining. Though we were all wearing jackets, it was mostly out of habit. We were surrounded by the lush, green English countryside and it was difficult to imagine blackouts and wartime rations. Not much has changed in the village in the past sixty plus years and for that hour and a half, my grandmother was back to being the young girl who skipped and ran along the lanes, who rented a room above the post office and bought a bicycle after she’d missed the bus to work a few times too many.

The next morning, when I asked her how she had slept, she looked at me with a wistful expression and told me she had dreamt she was walking without her cane: “I was walking so easily,” she said, “walking along without a care in the world. My legs didn’t hurt, my hip was fine, and I was just walking along so beautifully, so happily. Then suddenly I remembered my cane. I had forgotten it somewhere, and I had to get it. But I was walking so beautifully.”

It’s true, many of my memories aren’t only mine. They belong to the world around me, to my history, my community, the places I have lived; but that doesn’t mean I don’t carry them around in some way: in my love for my grandmother, my wedding invitee list that is made up of many members of the Salvadoran community, in the subjects I choose to write about, in my dreams and fears and decisions.

I guess, in the end, it’s not the memory that counts as much as what we choose to do with it.


ciara byrne said...

I've noticed a common thread running through your posts - your need for a home, a sense of belonging. As a constant traveler myself I understand this need but I also realize that only those who don't belong can truly move freely between worlds. To be a writer this is a necessity... Your writing is lovely, fresh and invigorating. thanks for sharing.

Andréa N. said...

This is so beautiful, G. I love knowing more and more about you and your family through these amazingly well written entries on your blog. And many questions I've always wanted to ask you were just answered. Beautiful family. I can't wait to meet them.