Reflections from Cinderella’s Granddaughter

You think you know what Cinderella looks like: A willowy Disney blonde with big doe eyes, a blue ball gown and wayward glass slippers, birds and mice at her beck and call. But I know better: Cinderella was short, no-nonsense, with dark hair, searching eyes, and a Yiddish tongue.

“You know I was the real Cinderella,” my Bubbe used to tell me, raising a sparse-white eyebrow. Her thick Eastern European accent added an authenticity to her words; her voice was thick with old world fairy-tale magic. “I even had the evil stepmother.”

This is true. My grandmother’s story is as tragic and implausible anything Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm ever wrought. Her once-upon-a-time began in 1918 in Czechoslovakia, when her beautiful, virtuous mother died giving birth to her. In Jewish tradition, there are not “Jr” or “Sr.” or “the III”; names are given in honor of those who have passed away. So a mother and daughter do not typically share a name. But since this mother left the world as her daughter entered it, her name was bestowed upon her daughter — a name that, as it happens, sounds suspiciously like a certain princess: Chana Leah.

Little Chana Leah’s father remarried, and her new stepmother had no love for the half-orphan girl. She made her do extra chores, stop going to school to help care for the new children, the ones who belonged to the step-mother. She made her do even worse things — things that I promised my grandmother I would not write about until all of her half-siblings have passed away. And while my grandmother died in 2011, two of her younger sisters are still alive. She loved them, and did not want to disparage their mother, who “was good to them, just not to me.” Such is the way of evil stepmothers. They are not fully-evil; they are cruel only to their Cinderellas.

The strange difference in my grandmother’s fairy tale is that her stepmother’s cruelty is what saved her. It is ultimately what gave her one of the very few happily-ever-afters of her generation. Because the abuse became so awful that my grandmother ran away, crossed borders, sailed across a stormy sea to put an ocean between her and her stepmother.

She was one of the last ones who managed to cross that ocean before Hitler’s shadow fell across the old world, and Americans turned refugees like her away from the new.

Soon after my grandmother fled, frightened not of the political fury around her but of a danger far closer to home, her entire family found themselves in concentration camps. Her father, stepmother, and five of her brothers and sisters perished at the hands of the Nazis. Her two half-sisters and one half-brother survived Auschwitz, making it after the war to America with haunted eyes and numbered arms.

My grandmother’s narrative is an unlikely fairy tale, since the rest of her family’s became a ghost story.

America was my grandmother’s fairy godmother, ball gown, and Prince Charming, all rolled into one.

Cinderella in her sixties

She became a citizen and loved this country. She learned English, her seventh language. She worked hard at a deli in Toledo, Ohio. She married a kind widower with four children, gave him another three children (including my father) and vowed to be “a good mother and stepmother.”

She had grandchildren she adored, and even got to enjoy a handful of great-grandchildren before she passed away. She lived into her nineties, a matriarch whose tenacity inspired us all.

She never knew my daughter, who occasionally makes faces so very like my Bubbe’s that it makes me gasp aloud. Someday, I will tell my baby girl the fairy tale of her great-grandmother’s life, in its full dark, strong, foreboding detail. I will tell her that we are not only the descendants of a survivor, but of victims, and we must always remember that. My great-grandfather and almost all of his progeny perished; I am inches away from having never existed. I will make sure my daughter knows that painful truth.

I used to think the happily-ever-after ending would be the easy part of the story, but now even that chapter is complicated.

Because today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the new United States President signed executive orders to make it harder for refugees to reach this land. These families and would-be-Americans are running away from their own evil old-world villains, and their new-world happily-ever-after just became more mythical. They already had a near-impossible nine-step vetting process to make it here. Now we will place even more stumbling blocks between them and their happy ending.

These are dark and scary days. We need to make things right before we repeat a truly ugly story. Knowing how these stories go, we need to make sure we do not become the villain in this chapter.

Take it from the real Cinderella’s granddaughter.