By Jessica Hutt
Her aquamarine eyes formed two minuscule seas—escaped droplets of the Mediterranean she now studied with fervid intensity. Lured into the hypnotic loop of the everlasting waves, together, we fell into a hushed, reflective trance. The muted moments that followed expressed more than our words ever could; in silent solidarity, we bonded over the rich history that connected us to this land—our homeland. It was almost a religious experience—witnessing her reunion with the waters she had once sacrificed to protect was deeply personal, and stirringly emotional. The experience was vaguely unsettling, and I fought a pressing urge to remove myself from the scene and allow my grandmother and the sea to finally join together again in undisrupted peace. At long last, she spoke.
The dialogue that followed is beyond my memory, and to replicate it, I feel, would be a dishonor. Reality had seemed so deeply altered in these moments, as though in a jet-lag fueled whirlwind, I had stepped into an alternate universe.
A universe in which I was no longer a child, no longer someone to shelter. A universe where I could finally be told the whole and honest truths about our past.
For what seemed like hours, my grandmother stared at the sea and spoke its stories. Tales of a dreamlike life she once lived—a life wealthy both in family and in riches. A life which had been stolen away from her far too soon, her innocence trailing just behind.
She told of cousins and brothers, of aunts and uncles. Her voice trembled as she spoke, as if struggling to decide between nostalgic splendor and incurable heartbreak.
For a moment, she was lost in the world she had created with her words. I could feel that she was no longer present, that she had reverted back into a life she had once lived. A life where her home was just down the street from her cousin Eli, who she would sit next to during Sunday family dinners. A life where each day she would wake in a beautiful home filled with loved ones, and go to school with friends. A life of normalcy and youth, of hope and camaraderie.
A life in which she would never fathom that she would live to see the epitome of human evil; humanity in its darkest hour. A life antithesis to the incomprehensible suffering of Auschwitz.
Crashing down towards the dark pitfalls of reality, my grandmother’s eyes glazed over, reflecting the glinting light of the Israeli sun. So beautiful, yet so damaged. Her voice, which just minutes ago had been filled with great wonder and joy, now became bitter and broken. She spoke slowly, with long, pregnant pauses between her words. Whether this was a futile attempt to control her tears, I could not determine. I could not move. I could not breathe. I simply existed in the moment, totally and completely enraptured.
Still lost in the sea, she let the words tumble out. Cautiously, of course, for the sake of my well-being, which hindsight highlights with irony. At my then-current age, my grandmother had already lived through persecution, starvation, and isolation—yet, she worried for me, hearing the story of it all.
What a joke.
She took me through it all. The cattle car. The terror in her heart as she was shoved into a sea of strangers. Everything they tell you in your history classes; every atrocity that you cringe at from the safety of your classroom: it was all real and it all happened to someone I loved. The sheer thought of this was overwhelming.
What a tragedy I was suffering.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know—I did. I knew from childhood that my grandparents had survived something very terrible. I knew what the Holocaust was, at least a little. But, never had I truly faced their horrifying realities, never had I given their tragedies real-world value until then.
It did not stop. The words came mercilessly. Tragedy followed tragedy. The selection lines. Men to the left, women to the right. Chaos replaced confusion. Loved ones disappeared without the chance to say goodbye. Left, left, left. They all left. Her father. Her brother. Cousin Eli. Left and never seen again.
Right. They went right. My grandmother, her mother, and her sister. There was no other option. Her mother forced a frantic vow.
“Rivka.” In her native Polish tongue, she urgently pleaded my grandmother’s sister. “You must be like a mother.”
They were too young and faithful in humanity to understand. To them, it was nothing more than a shower. Her mother kissed them goodbye. Then, she turned her back, and stepped into the chambers.
Orphaned in the toughest Nazi camp—an unthinkable nightmare became my grandmother’s truth. Once a privileged daughter in the beautiful Polish countryside, my grandmother now became subhuman.
Tap. Tap. Tap. They commanded her to dance.
Oh, how the ironies continued. That they could cage the bird that pleased them so.
A bread crust landed at her feet. The ultimate act of generosity.
This bread could be the difference between life and death for a starving laborer. Yet, it only stood to remind her of how far she had fallen.
In this moment, she wished for nothing more than the liberty to cry. To let the tears cleanse her of her sorrow, and remind her of her humanity. Of course, she could not. Any sign of weakness meant certain death.
So she smiled and danced, and they laughed and clapped. It was all an act; sick theater. A disgusting game.
Looking back on my transition from childhood into adolescence, I consider this day to be a turning point. Not only was it the first time I had been involved in an adult conversation, but also the first time I had been presented with the opportunity to embrace my identity as a secondhand witness to the Holocaust. This role came with the duty, I learned, to try to disrupt a vicious cycle of xenophobia and violence. My grandmother taught me that it was only through open-mindedness, acceptance, and awareness that this could be done. I found it greatly inspiring that she still had hope for a world that had been so cruel to her, and highly generous that was always willing to share her wisdom with the next generation. I did, and continue to, believe in her beautiful vision for this world.
My grandmother’s story taught me that life gets better. At a painfully young age, she had already experienced more tragedy than most do in many lifetimes. Yet, here she sat, sharing her story with her granddaughter in a beautiful hotel on the Mediterranean. After liberation, my grandmother went on to live an incredible life. She fought for the Israeli army, came to America with only seven dollars, and eventually married the love of her life, had three children, and two grandchildren. She had been so grateful for these gifts. When you grow up believing that you will die young and gruesomely in a Nazi death camp, then live to marry and see your children and grandchildren grow, you have an unimaginably great appreciation for them. When you lose your parents, uncles,and cousins to gas chambers, and then years later see a new, beautiful family be formed, you have an unbelievable gratefulness for the blessings you have received.
Her aquamarine eyes sparkle as she gazes at the sea, soaking in all of its beauty. She is so blessed to live in such a beautiful world, to be free to bask in all its splendor. She is filled with love for life, with gratitude for each moment on this Earth. She takes it all in; her family, the country, and the sea, and thanks God for the life she has been given.
Jessica Hutt is a junior at The Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. She currently enjoys serving as the Editor in Chief of Tangible Movement, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring, educating, and providing support for young adults struggling with mental illness and abuse. She also writes for her own personal blog, Jess for Success, as well as online publications Redefy, Balter Monthly, SPEAK, and Pressing the Future. “Gloria’s Dance” was the winner of the 2018-2019 Justin Society Literary Competition In Memoir.
(tagged: personal essay)