On Shavuot she lit the candles. So many candles, melting into wax puddles in their flimsy silver tins. The small flames were a thin pale blue like the veins on the back of her hand. To me they were nameless and faceless, just empty heat and flickering light. But not to her.
To her those candles were people. They were family. Sometimes whole families, who had worked and struggled and lived and died. Aunts and uncles. And cousins, with whom she had played and shared and fought and laughed. To her this was a sacred duty, this remembrance.
In the cozy cheerful kitchen, cheesecakes cooled on the counter and blintzes fried happily in the pan. But here in the cool darkness of the dining room at the long mahogany table my grandmother sat to talk. Her hands shook slightly in her lap, but her voice when she spoke was steady.
“Remember good this day. This will be your parents’ yahrtzeit.” And so it was.
“You know, for the Hungarian Jews, Shavuot is special. But not special good, special bad. You understand why? Because that is the day we arrived. Over there. In Auschwitz.” She said that when she got to the barracks, dazed and confused, the Blockaltester told her roughly, “Remember good this day. This will be your parents’ yahrtzeit.”
And so it was.
She remembered the barking dogs, and the thick black smoke and the screaming. She remembered the long step down from the platform. Beside her a woman carried a jar of homemade lekvar, another clutched an antique brooch. My grandmother held her baby tightly in her arms. “Such a beautiful child, so blonde,” she said. “His cheeks were soft like velvet.”
She remembered the inmate in her tattered striped uniform, leaning to whisper in her ear. “Give the child to your mother. It will be better for both of them.” She remembered the stinging burn of her newly shaved scalp and the shoes lined up neatly against a wall. She remembered seeing her baby son beckoning to her with his tiny fingers from the shelter of his grandmother’s arms, as though to say, “Come, Mommy.” She called out to him, “I am coming, Peter. Wait! I am coming.” She said she tried to reach him. She only found out later that the man in the handsome suit at the head of the lines, the man with the heavy walking stick, was Josef Mengele.
She said she used her best German and her most polished voice when she spoke. “Bitte, Ich vill mit meine kinde gain” -- Please, I want to go with my child. She said that all the handsomeness disappeared from his face as he laughed at her. He answered, “Gai mitt deiner shvesteren, die blitte Judische kee” -- Go with your sisters, you fat Jewish cow. Then he lazily waved his hand, left, right, and mother and son were separated forever.
“Who kills babies?” she asks me now, her hands clenching and unclenching. “The child did not even know yet that he was a Jew.”
She said that she met her uncle there. His job was to pull the bodies from the gas chambers and load them into the crematorium. She said there was an endless emptiness in his eyes. He told her that he had burned, in one day, his wife and three small children. He told her, also, that he had found a siddur and hidden it. He wanted her to have it but she said no. She was too afraid to keep it. If it was found, they would certainly kill her. Later, she spoke with her sister and her sister-in-law and they agreed it was worth the risk. They would keep one page of the siddur.
She said they wrapped it in cloth and plastic and hid it in their mouths. And it traveled with them, beneath their tongues, as they went from line to line, roll call to roll call, camp to camp, for months. “We took the page with the Wayfarer's Prayer.” For were they not truly wandering Jews?
She worked without shoes in snow, and rain and hail. She unloaded cement blocks from a train.
“It happened like so,” she said quietly. “For their holiday season they were very merry. This merriness made them softer a little, even to us. And they gave us, for a gift, bars of soap. And we didn’t know. It wasn’t our fault.” She said that when they finally came home, to Budapest, the Chevra Kaddisha told them where the soap came from, told them that it was made of Jewish fat, Jewish flesh. Then they wrapped the small slivers that remained in tachrichim, burial shrouds, and buried the soap. The flesh of the ones who didn’t come home.
I listen, my eyes down, fingering the lacy tablecloth.
“What was a person over there?” she asks me. Her voice is thick with scorn and sorrow. “We were not human beings. We were animals. We looked like it and we were it. When we passed by, they spat at us.” Sometimes, the officers brought company to the camp. Sometimes they had small parties. “We saw them. Elegant people with fur coats and top hats, and we cried. We were human beings once too, but now we washed ourselves with water from the toilet.”
She said that they kept their eyes on the floor for bits of charcoal or burnt wood which could help those suffering from stomach pain. She said that they scavenged for beet peels from the troughs of the officer’s pigs, to rub on their cheeks. Sometimes, she said, a pink cheek could mean the difference between life and death. “Also, we stole. What we could put our hands on, we stole.”
She said that this is the wisdom of women, this peculiar intuition for salvation, the knowledge of how to stay alive. She said that the men did not know these secrets and so they died. “They were bigger than us and stronger than us, but they did not know how to save themselves.” Every day, wheelbarrows carted piles of dead men to the pits.
She remembered Tzeilappel, the roll calls, hours of standing in place in the bitter cold, of counting and re-counting. She remembered the planes flying overhead. “At the end, there was nothing for us to do. No work, no nothing.”
"What did you speak about?" I ask her.
“We talked of the things women talk about, always. Recipes and gardens, our babies and our mothers.” Above their heads, she said, “the sky was silver with planes. But they did not come for us.”
In the morning the whole camp was gray, covered with a fine coating of ash. “It was in your hair, it was in your mouth. And such a bad smell!"
She is silent for a time, considering. “The worst day, I think, was when they brought in the Lodz ghetto.” All that day and into the night the camp was filled with the wailing of the women, the sobbing sounds of children. And then there was only silence. In the morning, she said, the whole camp was gray, covered with a fine coating of ash. “It was in your hair, it was in your mouth. And such a bad smell! Up in the sky you could see, still, the fires burning.” She looks down for a moment at the thin skin of her hands. “All of them, that night, perished.”
One day an officer’s horse collapsed in the yard. And that very night they snuck out into the courtyard and brought back its head. In the darkness, on their thin cots they ate the meat of the horse’s jaw. She said that they picked the gums clean, she and her sister, until nothing was left but the teeth and the bone. Her father had told her, “Eat everything you can! It is a mitzvah to stay alive.”
She said they tried to observe whatever they could keep. On Passover they ate only potatoes and gave away their thin slices of bread. On Tisha B’Av they ate nothing at all.
She said that all week long they saved small pieces of margarine and when Friday night came they would put it on the floor and light it. “It burned for only a minute but we made a bracha. And for that little minute, it was Shabbos.”
I guess she must have seen the question in my eyes, because then she said, “What should I say to you Yael? Or you believe in Him, or you don’t. Me? I believe.”
Reprinted with permission from Shabbat Shalom