My grandfather, Jack, will never forget the day his father was shot to death in a city park in Grybòw, Poland, by a notorious Nazi named Hamann as he watched through a small office window. It was Jack's 22nd birthday. Next week he will celebrate his 92nd in Sarasota, Florida. Not a day has passed in the 70 years in between that Grandpa hasn't remembered what has come to be called the Holocaust. Today is the day designated by Congress for the rest of us to remember the grisly fate that befell the Jewish people of Europe under Hitler and his willing accomplices -- Holocaust Remembrance Day. But how can we in 2012 America begin to comprehend the events of that far off place and time?
For the past several decades Jack has spoken to schoolchildren and Jewish groups to tell his story, to put a human face and name to the outsize numbers and foreign locales of the Holocaust. Jack knows he belongs to that small and shrinking group of survivors who were old enough then to really understand what was happening and young enough now to still be alive and able to tell their stories. But, Jack is getting older. He's tired. This year, he told me, he doesn't have the energy to do it. Jack still feels his obligation to bear witness. He still fears what will happen when no survivors are left to testify about what they lived through. He just doesn't have the energy to do it. This year, Jack asked me to tell his story.
Though I've called him Grandpa all my life, Jack is not my real grandfather. Rather, he is my real grandfather in every sense of the word except biological. I never knew my mother's father; he was murdered by the Nazis in the Vilna ghetto or the killing fields of the Ponari forest just outside the city now called Vilnius, Lithuania. Of all the family on my mother's side, only my grandmother and my mother survived. They came to New York in June 1946 aboard the S.S. Marine Perch. It was on the deck of that ship that Jack first saw my grandmother. By the time I was born my grandmother had been married to Jack for more than 20 years.
Most of my young childhood memories with Jack are typical. He's picking me up off the ice at Rockefeller Center teaching me how to skate. He takes over rowing for me when I get tired of trying to propel our little two-man boat in a lake in the Berkshires. He's pushing me into Central Park to play on the rocks. I'm squeezed between him and Grandma on the front bench seat of his green Plymouth Satellite station wagon on a cross-country drive.
Some memories are less typical. Because he rarely mentioned his Holocaust experience to me, when he did, it seared. Like the time when I was about eight and I wouldn't share something - a toy, some food -- with my brother, and Grandpa sat me down. "When I was in Auschwitz," he started, "my brothers were not as strong as I, so I would always share my bowl of soup with them so they could eat, too." He told me after his day's work as a slave laborer building scaffolding for I.G. Farbenindustrie, he'd do special jobs late into the night in exchange for which he'd get an extra portion of soup. "Not just soup water like normal, but thick noodle soup," he said. This, too, he would share with his older brother. Chastened for the moment, I vowed to be better.
Later, when I was much older, he described the extra work he did to earn more rations. Besides repairing stockings and gloves of SS men, some of the camp kapos were homosexuals, he told me, and they had my grandfather use his expert tailoring skills to take in their pants. "They wanted it very tight in the tuches," he said, slipping into Yiddish as he does from time to time.
"How did you know how to sew so well?" I asked him.
"I didn't," he said. Before Hitler's army invaded western Poland in 1939, Jack had worked at his family's lumber mill near Grybòw, in the Krakow region of Poland. "But sometimes I've seen my late mother do it, so when they asked who could sew, I raised my hand," Jack said.
It was a valuable skill, and in my grandfather's inimitable way, he would learn it by force of will and fake it until he did. It was the same way he entered many of the odd jobs he took when he arrived in New York after the war -- slicing shoulder pads in a clothing factory in the Garment District, peddling women's lingerie to sunbathers on Long Beach, delivering phone books in unfamiliar neighborhoods -- before he finally learned upholstery and opened his own shop.
After surviving two death marches, Jack broke free in April 1945, just before the liberation of Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald -- the first camp liberated by the Americans, with a room of dead bodies so gruesome it made General Eisenhower "a bit sick," and General Patton wouldn't enter. Jack shed his striped uniform, cut his hair short to even out the reverse mohawk shaved into his head to mark him as a prisoner, and accompanied American soldiers to identify Nazi guards trying to slip back into society. "We found an SS man, our Lagerfürer from Buna," a subcamp of Auschwitz, Grandpa explained, "and we gave him a good portion of our thoughts." In some amalgam of justice and mercy I fear I do not possess, Jack has always been mindful of the wrongs he and his family and his people suffered, but never been obsessed with vengeance.
In 1966, he traveled to Bochum, Germany, where his father's murderer was being put on trial. Heinrich Hamann, chief of the Nowy Sacz Gestapo during the war, had been living under an assumed identity as a mailman for almost 20 years when he was exposed by a relative. Jack testified about watching Hamann shoot his father in the stomach and then in the head. He also described the day he was summoned to the forest as a slave laborer, where he watched Hamann try to pull a seven-year-old girl from her mother's arms. When he couldn't, Hamann shot a bullet through both of them and they fell into a pit with the bodies of other dead Jews, and Jack was ordered to bury them. "That girl, that face, with her mother... I could never forget," my grandfather says in his Shoah Foundation testimony. "Hamann used to say he would be worse for the Jews than the Haman in the Bible," my grandfather told me, a reference to the villain of the Book of Esther who ordered (at chapter 3, verse 13) "the destruction, slaughter and annihilation of all Jews, young and old, women and children." Heinrich Hamann was convicted and sentenced to life plus 10 years' imprisonment for complicity in the murder of 15,000 Jews, among them Eliasz Brodman, Grandpa's father.
Returning to Germany to testify was difficult, but Jack understood justice required it whatever the personal cost. It forced Jack back to that world he had left behind forever in 1946. Then, in the smoldering aftermath of the war, when it was not uncommon for Jews returning to their hometowns to be killed by former neighbors who had appropriated their property, Jack decided to leave Europe. He walked from Poland, through Czechoslovakia, to Germany. He walked. Bribing soldiers and townspeople with vodka and sausage for short rides now and then. From Germany he left for America and his new life.
In a way, this small, Polish man whose English has always had a heavy Slavic touch, is the most American person I have ever met. More fittingly, he represents the best of what America is. He has a pioneer spirit, an unflinching optimism, an indomitable work ethic. He has never thought the world, or the country, or anyone owed him anything. He has never had that much but he has always shared whatever he's had. He denies himself luxuries, but he's a big tipper. He is not without his foibles, but Jack is a self-made man in every sense. Our language needs to find new words for loyalty and generosity and courage after robbing them of their meaning by overuse.
During the six or so years when Alzheimer's disease ravaged my grandmother's mind, my grandfather cared for her almost single-handedly. Even when she'd lock him out of the house, scream at him, insist she didn't know who he was, or threaten to call her "husband" (my biological grandfather, perhaps?), he was her devoted companion. Theirs was a "great love," he has told me. "I fell in love with her when I saw her on the boat." That was more than 65 years ago, and I know when Grandpa closes his eyes, he can still feel the June sun on his face and see my young grandmother on the deck of the Marine Perch. I know Grandpa will think of her today, not because it's Holocaust Remembrance Day, just because.
Jack and my grandmother were still young when they married in New York, but they never had any children of their own. "Anya was pregnant once," he told me referring to my grandmother. "We both didn't want it." After what they had just been through, I understood that. More difficult to understand is how Jack always has a smile on his face and a kind word on his lips. He knows all the local butchers and maitre d's, the YMCA gym attendants and the shop girls. He's a bit of a flirt -- he's not quite 92, after all. Helen, the wonderful woman he married after my grandmother died, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who doesn't like to talk about her wartime experiences, doesn't seem to mind. She knows Jack is devoted to her.
Whenever I visit them in Sarasota -- where Grandpa moved after he was shot during a holdup of his Manhattan upholstery shop in the mid-1970s -- he likes to show me off to his many friends. "This is my grandson," he says, beaming. Then he goes on about some inconsequential accomplishment of mine. Besides the mild embarrassment all kids, however old, feel at being feted by their family, I always want to say, "This is my Grandpa. There's nothing Jack can't do." I wonder if there's any way he will understand how proud I am to be his family.
On my recent visits, Jack has talked more about dying. Last time I was there, he sat me down in front of his computer and pulled up his investment account statement on the Internet. "Some of this will be for you when I'm gone," he told me. I couldn't help but notice that part of his account password was the number hastily tattooed on his left forearm when he arrived at Auschwitz 70 years ago.
"That won't be for a long time, Grandpa," I said.
"I'm an old man," he said, "I'm tired."
So, today, if trying to remember six million dead and untold millions of destroyed lives is too overwhelming, think of Jack. Even if you measure yourself only by how loyal a friend you are, how devoted a spouse, how honorable a person, or how loving a grandfather, instead of how many times you cheated death, saved a starving brother, or helped convict a war criminal, Jack's is a worthy life to emulate. Holocaust remembrance is ultimately about humanity. And that's what Jack is, a real human being -- a mench as they say in Yiddish.