On Holocaust Remembrance Day, A Story For Branchale

By Reut Amit

Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — has landed upon us once more and, as always, I find myself a spectator, observing what has become a relic. This thing we are tasked to remember feels distant, drowned in numbers so vast — 6,000,000 — and horrors so beyond the scope of comprehension that they bury our loved ones in the impersonal narrative, just another commemorated historical event. Their stories are lost along with our own. Stories of the brutality of a life which forces one to march on, to continue living after death. Stories of the realities of intergenerational post-traumatic stress that continues to run through the veins of our families and our identities.

My bedtime stories were of my grandfather, a giant of a man in my mind’s eye, cowering in Ukrainian haystacks as villagers thrust pitchforks in the hay, searching for Jews. My child’s mind could barely comprehend what it meant that my grandfather had another family before ours: sisters, a father, nieces, a wife. An infant son. He didn’t know of their fates for years.

As a child, my mother would go to the annual gatherings in Tel Aviv of the surviving villagers from Krasnostav. My mother holding her father’s hand as they entered the room of strange faces, as always yearning to protect him from the impenetrable pain that, even on the happiest occasions, seemed to lurk behind his blue eyes. Though such a little girl, she wanted to be bigger than that pain.

At the meetings, the survivors would project salvaged images of their village and their murdered loved ones on the wall and ask each other about how those lost ones had met their end, hoping for a story of mercy. It was here that my grandfather learned the rest of his family’s story. The gang-rape of his sister by the S.S. before she was murdered. The murder of his sweet Branchale, the niece whose name my mother carries. The weight of that name, so heavy on my mother’s small shoulders.

Every night after dinner, my mother told me, her father would sit next to the radio and listen to the only station in nascent Israel, which was playing an endless list of names. People searching, in desperate hope that someone had escaped — that they would be listening. He never heard the name he wanted, and eventually the radio stopped speaking the endless list.

As a child, one of my favorite things was to sit with my grandmother and look at the few salvaged pictures, committing Branchale’s face and smile to memory. It was easier for me to connect with her than to the other unsmiling figures in black and white — the procession of names and faces, words scrawled in pencil on the back of the photos to keep track of how each met their end. Sobibor. Auschwitz. I recognized myself in her child’s smile and her warm innocent eyes, as my young grandfather, her uncle, enveloped her in an embrace. I recall feeling a hint of jealousy looking at that picture and seeing the light in his eyes as he held Branchale, a light that transcended the monochrome of the photo, a light that was absent from his eyes in all the colored photographs which followed in later years.

I remember considering as a child that all my mother’s stories seemed to include an insane authority figure. How sanity itself seemed crooked and skewed in her childhood. The neighbor who would scream maniacally during the night. Her friend’s mother who would strip naked and run through the streets. The normalcy of it all. It took me years to realize what torture and murder had done to them.

I cannot fathom the strength, the complex mental and emotional maneuvering necessary to go on. To endure the brutality of a life that required you to rise from the dead and to carry that burden throughout another lifetime. To raise another family. To look into your children’s eyes and not see death. To remain in that haystack in your psyche, holding your breath, and waiting for a God that would never come.

I have no moral for this story. No happy ending to tie together or modern lesson to glean. Only the feeling that my grandfather’s story ought to be told today. Branchale’s story. Krasnostavs story. My mother’s story. My own story.

***

Lead image: WikiCommons/Rudolf Kessler

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