January 19. I don’t usually think about the day my father died even though it is Jewish tradition to do so. I prefer to think of him on his birthday. This year January 19 is a national day of mourning in Poland in memory of Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, who was stabbed to death last week. It’s the 6th anniversary of my father’s death. 2019 is also the year my father would have turned 100, so he’s been on my mind more than usual.
My grandmother’s youngest sister Zelda was born in 1919 as well. I know little about her. From my mother’s memoir, “Dry Tears,” I know that she had red hair and was unmarried, and her parents thought her too choosey when it came to men. My great-grandparents were worried she would never get married. She never did. The Germans murdered her before she had a chance.
A few years ago when reading my aunt’s memoir in Hebrew, “Skating on Thin Ice,” I learned that Zelda sang and played the guitar beautifully. Learning this seventy-five years after her death was a small gift–a piece of her that came back to me. I thought I would never learn anything else but then it happened again. In my latest reading of “Dry Tears,” which I have read many times, I paid attention to something I had not noticed before. My grandmother saw her sister being taken away in a truck, and ran after it in vain, only to see Zelda reach out and beg her to help in some way. Of course my grandmother could do nothing and was devastated. Perhaps because I had felt her devastation I had not taken in what followed in the book, which was that my endlessly resourceful grandfather found out what happened next. Zelda had been taken away and put on a train bound for a camp, she had jumped off that train and was hiding with non-Jewish Poles in the countryside. To me it’s amazing that Saba Roman (my grandfather) was able to discover so much detail. Not only that, but he was able to get word to Zelda that she was invited to join them. She refused however, believing that she would have a better chance of survival where she was.
My mother, her parents and her sister were one of three nuclear families out of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews to survive the Holocaust intact. None of my grandmother’s siblings or their children survived. And of my grandfather’s siblings and their children only his brother Gerszon made it. Who knows if Zelda would have survived if she had come to join her sister’s family. Would adding another person to the group have placed them in danger? Would she have been able to pass? Did she know Polish fluently like her brother, or did she speak it poorly like my grandmother? We will ever know. If she had survived I could have easily known her. As I said, she was the same age as my father. For that matter I could have known my great-grandparents Syma and Hersz Pejsach Finkielsztajn, who were both born less than 90 years before me—Syma, less than 80 years before me. But that was not to be. The only people who survived from my mother’s closest family were her parents, her sister and her uncle. (For info on my newly discovered cousins in Poland see an earlier blog post—a cousin did survive).
When I was little my mother used to light a candle on the day of her father’s death. That was the only person she lit a candle for. Most Lublin Jews were murdered in 1942. Most in the span of three months, but we don’t know the particular days that each of our relatives died. When should we light the candles for Golde, her husband and her four boys; for Chana, her husband and her children including Avigail; for Icek, Topche and their children: Chanina Dow, Nechemiasz Dawid and Henek; for Zelda; for Elka, her husband Shmuel and their children; for Cyla and Eljusz; for Syma and Pejsach and for all the other cousins and their children?