This morning when I walked into our sun soaked kitchen, light was refracting off the colored cut wine glasses that are perched on shelves in the window well. They once belonged to my grandmother Paulina. They travelled with her from Nazi Germany, along with whatever other goods and personal items she brought as comfort and treasure.
I only have two physical things from this grandmother. One is a distinctive slightly bent little finger on both hands that assured me of my paternal parentage, at a time when I so wished for my father to be someone other than the man he purportedly was. I would gaze hopefully into the faces of men who had access to our home and lives, searching for curly hair, for freckles, for left handedness, for a certain way of being that might suggest kinship. My hands next to my grandmothers shut down that inquiry in one casual glance.
The second legacy piece are those drinking glasses which I prize beyond reason, especially since we do not even drink wine. There are nine, each a different color, hand blown old, very old, almost undoubtedly from Czechoslovakia.
When we first walked into the house which would eventually become our home, I saw the open shelf and visualized the glasses already at home. To my knowledge they have already lived in Czechoslovakia, Germany, South Africa, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada, the US. I cannot begin to know their story before they landed in my grandmothers care, but after so many moves, they would again have their own settled home, at least for now. They remind me of her and her flight to a new world which she resisted vehemently.
Accounting for 25.00% of my almost pure Ashkenazi bloodline, I remember her as somewhat stern, old school German, old fashioned, the most amazing baker. How I wish I knew more about her. I was a child, and as such assessed my surroundings by what they could give me. She didn’t give me much as she strongly favored my sister and as such didn’t take time or interest to develop a bond with me. However, I was a contented tag along to the weekly visits to her apartment which I remember vividly to this day, 58 years later: dark, north facing and filled with the feeling and mustiness of a different time and culture. Heavy furniture, Persian rugs, the smell of Linz torte and the silent weight of unremitted glumness.
She had begrudgingly found her way to South Africa to be safe from the raising tide of fascist Germany. My father, her son, had been the forerunner, a young man venturing forth to a rough new country parting the waters for the rest of his small family who were fortunate enough to be able to follow him out.
She brought her belongings with her, as she was still allowed to do. It was early days. Whatever comprised the family’s small holdings were liquidated, transported in currency, in jewelry, and the personal stuff through which we sometimes locate ourselves. She arrived in modest but comfortable enough style in the early thirties to Cape Town, South Africa, a backwater bright brash place that thrived from the energy of those who forged new paths.
Now as I write this Cape Town South Africa is the first major city on earth on course to run out of water through climate change drought, but all I remember from my 12 years of childhood spent there was a sunny, lush land so alive ,in such stark contrast to her gloomy apartment. It was no wonder that that she felt no resonance, in fact she was utterly appalled.
She endured several stoic years, silently bearing the heat in her high collared dark serge dresses, the lack of culture, the bugs, the language and maybe worst of all, the indignity of the unfamiliar. She eventually succumbed to her own internal pressure for home, which was Germany. She went back. Walked straight back into the jaws of hell and fire. She returned just in time for Kristallnacht Novemember of 1938, the great turning point in the history of the Nazi party and all those who lived in Europe at that time and beyond.
Every financial resource she had managed to accumulate travelled back to Germany with her, monies and jewelry. All went ‘home’. All were taken. In a few short weeks, she returned to South Africa, traumatized, broke and broken. That was the woman I came to know.
It fell to my father to set aside his personal dreams of studying to become a lawyer so he could make a living doing real estate. This gave him the income that enabled him to care for all her financial needs for the rest of her life.
When I sat myself down to write, this is the story that kept tapping me on the shoulder as daily my eye traveled the colors of the rainbow, dancing off prisms of light.
I had two grandmothers. My maternal grandmother Alice, after whom I am named, but never knew, could not face the reality that came ever closer as the Nazis rose to power. She refused to leave. She said, ‘It will pass’. That’s what we say too, that’s what we hope, as we watch all manner of intolerances’ rising to the surface of our social and cultural conversations and action. She said, ‘An old tree cannot transplant itself’. She accounts for another 25.00% of my DNA. She was by all accounts sweet, kind and trusting. She trusted that in the end, the best of humanity would prevail.
My grandmother Alice died at 62 in Theresienstadt concentration camp in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia not far from where many craftsmen to this day still hand make cut glass. My grandmother Paulina died in her own bed at 82.
Inside her closet were unopened yet evaporated bottles of perfume. Beautiful gifts given to her over the years by her son, all neatly stacked in her closet, laying fallow in their original boxes. She was saving them for a time she might really need them.
While we, while I, may yearn for a mentor who models a way of living that resonates and speaks to my values and heart, it is also true that I have learned as much from examples of failed stratagems as I have by those whose examples I find inspiring and worthy of emulation. Like many of us, I mix and match.
I love that old Sufi saying which says, A wise man learns from his mistakes, but the fool (which means the truly wise in Sufi speak) learns from the mistakes of others.
How to reconcile and learn from these two bloodlines. One who was wily enough to escape with her life but not resilient enough to shed the skin of habit, not willing or able to pass through the needle of grief and loss, to come out the other side into a new life. After all, there are so many ways of living a life. The limitations being our own insistence that it only be one way, the way we are habituated to.
My other grandmother Alice was the one who naively trusted the people of German to find their hearts, yet she didn’t trust herself enough to survive being transplanted, so she didn’t even try.
We live in times that test our core values, that challenge and stretch. It may get worse, it may turn around, it may get more bloody and certainly, it is already mean. Do I pack the glasses in an attempt to find more benign soil? Do I stand with that deep relief that says (through never aloud), at least this time, I’m not the target. This time I’m no longer the immigrant, (although of course I was), not a person of color, not the undocumented, not the one fleeing from a war tattered country, am not the one fleeing genocide. Only an older white Jewish woman! Not on the endangered species list. At least not now.
Apparently, there are no guarantees. We know that we will not get out alive, however we live our lives prior to that.
Might as well open the perfume, I reckon, smell that essence, knowing well enough that it will evaporate, whether we open the bottle or not. That is the biggest open invite that I have not yet fully stepped into. To stop, to see the light coming in through nine different colors of glass, each reflecting a different hue, to smell the essence of whatever gift or pain a day may bring. To stop preparing for the great journey ahead, instead, fill the glasses with precious water, salute the stalwart folks of Cape Town, who are now our forerunners, and drink deeply.
My love to you all, as the season turns towards renewal, yet again and here in Southern Oregon, the daffodils are already showing their full heads of pale yellow.