I remember the day my mother was taken away.
They had arrested my father less than eight months before, so her going away has become secondary. Life is strange that way.
Not knowing whether or not we would ever see either of our parents again, we had to go on. They’d become Enemies of the State, leaving my sister and me on our own. Thousands of people disappeared left and right, during the day and during the night.
I remember a ten-year-old boy who a year after our mother’s arrest had brought us a note (he’d had quite a few of such notes) that she would be on a train in a Sorting Station outside of the city. From there the train would make a long, torturous journey to the labor camp at an unknown destination. We rushed to the station site, not knowing when the train was to leave. We’d managed to see our mother twice during the week the train was at the Sorting Station.
Both times we waited our turn among hundreds of children and adults who came to try to see their beloved mothers, daughters and sisters through one small barred window. Both times we saw our mother for just two minutes. Her face filled with surprise and disbelief. Her image framed by the window was imprinted on my mind, a picture impossible to hang on the wall. A vertical bar separated her eyes, and a horizontal one sliced her mouth. With noise coming from all directions, we tried to catch every word. A lot could be said in two minutes or nothing at all. What do you say to a mother you may never see again? What if she didn’t survive the labor camp? I don’t remember the words that left my lips. I don’t remember what my sister or my fiancée said. I hoped it reassured my mother. Made her believe we would endure without her, made her believe we would not lose each other.
Rumors of the train’s imminent departure reached the relatives of the damned, and crowds flocked to the freight cars. We traveled to the Sorting Station a third time. The authorities were well prepared this time, and refused to condone any contact. Guards with attack dogs surrounded the train. The dogs threatened to harm at any who attempted to approach the tracks.
We waited in vain to say our final good-bye.
I remember not being able to leave the spot. It was impossible for me to walk away. I was paralyzed.
My mother returned five years after her arrest. To the last day of her life she believed it was all a mistake and not a systematic annihilation of the intelligentsia.
My father never returned. Decades later, after the death of Stalin, many had returned from the gulag, and many more had not, we have finally learned the truth. My father had been shot soon after his arrest.
I remember the summer of 1944, hot and muggy, the summer I had to wear a coat, my one and only dress too small for my growing belly.
I remember returning to our city liberated from the Nazis. Our apartment, forever diminishing in size, emptied of the last stitch. The bare bed frame, left untouched because of its heft, made me cry for the first time in a long while. I remember buying back our own sheets and towels from the neighbor upstairs who managed to collect everything from the apartments owned by Jews and stow the loot in her two small rooms. I paid her with the money I had, my baby needed diapers.
I collect memories of events I was not a part of and make them my own reliving their pain.
I was there at the train tracks. I was my grandmother and her sister.
I remember when I was seven, my family punished for owning a sack of wheat, we had to leave our home with whatever we could carry.
I remember the bridge we’ve struggled so hard to build under the enemy’s unrelenting small arms and machine gun fire. Once it was finished our troops began crossing the river until the bridge full of infantry, trucks and tanks sank in a blast of the first artillery barrage.
I remember liberating a small concentration camp somewhere in Germany. I remember the survivors hugging me in amazement that they were freed by a Jew, in a uniform with the rank of a captain. I was there when some died from gorging themselves on the food brought in by the troops.
I’ve lived through forty years of silence, of not being able to tell my children and grandchildren the truth about our past, through forty years of fighting to achieve a semblance of normal life without ever knowing what it meant.
I was my grandfather.
I was in Berlin two days after the war ended. I remember the photograph of my grandfather and his friends taken in front of the fallen Reichstag. He didn’t look happy or sad; he looked to his future. I was my grandfather. I was his future.