by Jenna Zucker
The camp lay quiet. Women in the other barracks were exhausted from long days spent at the factory. Some beds remained empty; women who were forced to work the night shift remained in the factory until the early hours of the morning. She and 15 other women stood by the small window in their wooden barrack. Behind them were the eight wooden bunk beds. There were no mattresses, only one thin blanket to keep them warm. It was a chilly December night; the darkness that filled the barrack marked the beginning of Hanukkah.
Earlier that day each woman gathered bits of the meager pieces of bread they received and stole scraps of materials from the factory. They took advantage of their frayed dresses; they tore off some of the strings of fabric at the bottom. The women pieced together their scraps and bread when they returned from the factory and created a set of small Hanukkah candles. One of the women in her barrack spoke perfect German as well as Hungarian. She had been selected upon their arrival to Allendorf to work in the kitchen. She stole a match for their celebration.
She lit the match and placed the fire on the first candle. The light brightened their tired eyes and for a moment the women escaped from the concentration camp as the Hebrew words flowed from their mouths. The prayer read,
The women thanked god for granting them life and allowing them to reach the occasion of Hanukkah.
My grandmother told me this story over the phone while I was at a writing camp in northern Michigan. I was there to try to make progress on an oral history project that I had started at my high school in New Jersey.
I wrote for several hours everyday and it seemed like the more time I spent writing about my grandmother the harder it was to stop. I found that when I wrote about her it was as if I was entering a black and white movie titled The Holocaust. One morning I wrote about her for four hours; I was not in the proper frame of mind when I had to attend a s’mores party and dance that afternoon. In between the required events I realized I had to write more and found a practice hut near my cabin. I was searching for the transliteration of the prayer the women had recited to insert in my writing but music was playing in the practice hut next to me and I couldn’t get the melody of the prayer right in my head. I decided to say the prayer quietly aloud, and as I did, tears formed in my eyes. I had never cried about her story before.
I took a short walk through the path nestled behind the practice hut in the trees. I was trying to understand what had made me cry during the seemingly random writing session in the practice hut. Throughout the walk I remembered each of the times I had said the prayer throughout my life; every Hanukkah and the first time I read Torah at my Bat Mitzvah. Through the process of writing this story I discovered her extreme dedication to her faith; the strongest I have ever witnessed.
“Who sits in a concentration camp and thanks god,” I asked my friend when she walked into the practice hut a few minutes later. More tears dripped onto my cheeks. Writing about my grandmother’s situation is the closest I get to feeling it. Watching her roll her eyes in disgust as
she recalls the worst days in her life is not enough; I must write it.
During my time in the practice hut and the time I spent at camp I began to realize how my grandmother’s stories were constantly on my mind. I thought about her when I heard the burning cold showers against the wooden floors of our cabin. I thought about her tossing and turning with guilt of her aunt’s mistake. I thought about how even now, even though she cannot remember the day of the week, 70 years later, thoughts of the Holocaust are constantly on her mind.
My mom went to visit their apartment one night while I was gone. She was sitting at their kitchen table when my grandmother erupted with story; one we had never heard before. Her aunt stood by Dr. Joseph Mengele and picked up a child without a mother. Mengele thought she was the mother and sent her and the baby to the right side; to the gas chambers. My grandmother became very frustrated as she told the story, she could not understand why her aunt made this terrible decision. When my grandmother stood in front of Mengele she was in survival mode. My grandfather began to notice her frustration building when he brought the conversation to the present day. She would not have it, interrupting him and bringing the conversation back to the Holocaust.
When my mother described this to me I could picture the pain on my grandmother’s face and the intensity of her eyes; when she erupts with story it’s as if a new person beaming with life is being shoved out of her and onto the kitchen table.
She still believes the camp was liberated because she prayed. To this day she maintains the traditions her mother taught her before the Holocaust. She lights two candles for Shabbat at sundown each Friday when she enjoys Friday night meals with my grandfather. On the Sabbath she controls the household. She will not use the washer and dryer. She will not use the dishwasher; just leave it, just leave it, she says. Food shopping can wait until Sunday. She will not let my grandfather take care of his flowers. She will not allow him to do his needlepoint. You must relax, she tells him. The only thing she does not have control over are her memories. No matter how much she has control over, her mind continues to turn from one memory to the next, new details resurfacing. Once there is a trigger for one memory she cannot stop, even on the day she is supposed to rest.
Author Biography: Jenna Zucker is a junior at Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts boarding school in Northern Michigan. She is a creative writing major and President of the Girls Learn International chapter, an organization that works to ensure girls’ education and human rights around the world.