By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA
When I am cleaning my kitchen and the paper towel I’ve been using to wipe clean the counters and cabinets begins to lose its strength and all but disintegrates in the palm of my hand so that I must reach for another sheet to pull of the roll, I find myself, every time, pausing for a brief moment, thinking “have I really used as much as I could of this?” The leftovers in my fridge never go to waste. I wear my shoes until the soles of my feet can sense the biting cold of the concrete they walk upon. This April, Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom Hashoah) falls on April 24. But I remember the Holocaust every day.
I was born and raised by a mother who was born and raised by two Holocaust survivors: Abraham (Auschwitz) and Anna (Dachau). What they instilled in her, she
|Anna and Abraham|
The only way I know how to preserve is to write. To write. To share. To say: this happened. What crushes me most is the understanding that neither writing nor photography allows for permanency. These modes of documentation may help us remember, but nothing tangible lasts forever. It’s the reading of the writing and the viewing of the photographs that makes the difference. I have few photographs of my grandmother’s family and none of my grandfather’s from before the war. But I have their stories. I listened.
When she was sixteen, before the war began, my grandmother’s father owned his own business. She considered herself lucky. They were successful – stable. She was married
|Anna (child) with her family|
Before Dachau was a Concentration Camp named Stuictholf. The German soldiers, she said, found particular joy in watching the women naked in the showers.
In Dachau, she had two friends. They would share a cup of dirty water every few days to wash the grime from beneath their fingernails, to ensure the other was still alive. She was given a number. Beaten with a rifle on the head for no reason.
She had to walk. She walked for six weeks with no shoes in the deep snow of winter, the infamous Death March and evacuation of Dachau. At the end of the walk, the German soldiers locked my grandmother and the survivors she walked with in a stable in a small town in the middle of who knows where. They were given two potatoes each and remained there, locked in, for two weeks. She recounts how one day the scent of gasoline wafted through her nostrils; how, one morning, a man came dressed in German clothes but identified himself as Russian. He told them the war was almost over, said he would come back to save them. She remembers all of this, even though she was half unconscious with typhoid. A few days later, the Russian soldiers returned and the German soldiers ran. She was liberated. She was filled with lice. She was brought to another camp, this time for survivors.
The story of my grandfather’s survival is more dramatic, but the pieces I know are like those of a puzzle I’ve yet to put together. Scattered fragments without any explanation of how or why. Some of the pieces go like this: He escaped Auschwitz in stripes with a pistol. He fought, underground, against the German soldiers. I know that after the war, Abraham and Anna met in Germany and they left Europe in 1949 because everywhere they looked they were reminded of blood and sorrow. My grandmother’s horror started on June 21, 1941 and ended sometime in March, 1945. I do not know these specifics about my grandfather. See, my grandfather died before I was born so I never got the chance to listen or to question. All I have are remnants from what other people have heard.
All in all, my family is lucky. We have these truths, these miraculous stories of survival, and we keep them with us as reminders and as warnings. But the truth is, when we remember the Holocaust and honor the survivors, we must not only
|Abriana and Anna|
I do not second guess my paper towel usage or hold on to as much scrap paper or wear my sweaters even when the holes in the shoulders are more obvious than not because of the stories I do know. I do not write just because of what I know. I do so in honor of those who lived a life I can’t imagine, who suffered in ways the youth today visualize in horrific video games and movies but could never fathom in reality; I write for those who never made it out alive to share their strife.
And, when my daughter, Anna, is born, I will ensure she does this too. My mother is the first, I am the second, and my daughter will be the third generation of women who will remember. We will share. We will listen. And we’ll never forget.
Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, educator and the bestselling author of 50 WHISPERS.