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Home: The Toast

Like many Jewish grandmothers, my grandmother’s measure of success for her granddaughters is babies. (For her grandsons, it’s a medical degree and babies.) This is nothing new. But for Grandma Eva, a great-grandbaby holds special significance. She reminds me of this fact often, in ways she thinks are subtle, discreet. That’s great that you got into graduate school/are moving to New York/landed a teaching gig, but what about boys? Work isn’t everything, you know.

Her first choice would be that I procreate with a Jewish boy, obviously, but she has recently started to admit that a goy would be all right, as I’ve now reached the age she was when she was dressing up my dad (her “little Shtevie”) in leiderhosen and a cowboy hat in small-town Texas.

This past April, Grandma told her story publicly for what she claims is the last time. It’s a story she has been telling to school groups, interfaith conferences, tolerance groups, and random strangers for forty-five years, a story sanitized and boiled down to twenty minutes for squirming fifth-graders and fleshed out for the church groups, with dramatic pauses for audience gasping and tear-wiping. It’s her story of surviving the Holocaust as a child—the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Stutthof, the Dresden bombing while working as a slave laborer in a munitions factory, a Death March, and liberation at Terezin—followed by a move to Ludwigsburg, Germany, where she and her parents began rebuilding their lives. As she neared the end of her spiel that night, at the Oklahoma Yom Hashoah program, to a standing-room-only crowd at Tulsa’s B’nai Emunah Synagogue, she beamed down at the second row of pews, where I sat next to my sister Phoebe.

“People often ask me if I feel vengeful about what happened to my family and me during the Shoah,” she said. Her dyed-brown hair stuck up a bit in the back as she leaned in closer to the microphone. “I tell them that I got my revenge. My son Steve and his wife Ellen and their two girls are here, Sophie and Phoebe. And my daughter Michelle, with her husband David and son Jacob.”

She motioned for us to stand up. The entire sanctuary swiveled their heads as the seven of us rose reluctantly to our feet.

“My family,” Grandma said, her voice breaking for the only time during the talk, “is my revenge.”

A burst of applause.

 

When I was a teenager I always paused in front of Grandma Eva’s substitute for a wedding picture, a photo that looks more like a movie still than a snapshot. Grandma, thin and red-lipped as a movie star, melts into Grandpa Herb. One hand is on her popped hip, fist curled below her tiny waist. They pose in front of an ivy-veined stone wall, and the sun makes them squint, dark brows arched. Grandpa is not a big man, but Grandma is so small that her head barely reaches his shoulder. He is in uniform, buttons glittering on his chest. Their smiles are huge and playful, like it was hard to get the two of them to stand still for a photograph. They are so young.

Grandma Eva and Grandpa Herb

What I thought I knew of their marriage lived up to any movie I’d seen or novel I’d read: a beautiful Holocaust survivor falling for a charming American G.I. and escaping with him to New York. A wedding, a road trip out West, snapshots of Grandma curled onto the hood of a boat-like Buick in a silk skirt, that lipstick. Oh, and she was nineteen, a year older than you are now, can you believe it? she reminded me once. No pressure.

One of Grandma’s favorite words is bashert, Yiddish for destiny—usually in the romantic sense, although she uses it for any instance of fate. She and Grandpa were bashert; my parents are bashert, even with the whole interfaith issue. (My mother was raised Catholic and never converted to Judaism.) Meeting someone in the old Radagast station in Lodz, Poland who knows a med school friend of my dad’s, bashert. To her, everything doesn’t happen by sheer chance—for the important things, there is always a degree of bashert involved. This made her love story with Grandpa even more romantic, I thought, if it was wrapped up not only with war-torn Europe and love, but with some sort of magical Yiddish fate. I was eighteen years old and just starting to write Grandma’s story, as she had asked me to do. Ever since I first began working on the research and interviews, I looked forward to this part: the love story, those chapters after the ghetto and the camps and the Death March, the story I had imagined for so long.

 

I didn’t begin to poke holes in her story until I fell in love myself. I had been dating my boyfriend John for almost a year when it happened, the falling in love. When I was twenty, I returned from a summer in Paris and flew to Oklahoma City to visit him. We traced the old Route 66 while blasting Blonde on Blonde, heat waves squiggling above the red dirt, giant crosses gleaming white above the billboards, and it was all more beautiful than the Paris skyline on those nights following the Seine with a bottle of Monoprix wine and a boy with dark, scraggly hair and a wrinkled flannel shirt, a boy who was published in literary journals I pretended to hear of andclaimed he “got” the impenetrable Cortazar novel we read for class. I missed John.

The following fall I started asking Grandma about her love story with Grandpa Herb. I needed a break from my Lodz Ghetto research—the archival records, the Polish translations, the photo collections of bundles of rags trudging through dirty gray snow. I sat at her kitchen table in Tulsa with my tape recorder. I asked her to tell me how she met Grandpa, about their first date.

“Our first date?” she asked. “There was no first date. My mother met him at the shop and brought him home to play gin rummy with her.”

Somehow, Grandma says, her mother detected Private First Class Herb Unterman’s Jewishness when he came into their shop in Ludwigsburg after the war to buy German tchotchkes to take back home to his parents and bubbe in the Bronx. A natural schmoozer, Herb struck up conversation with my great-grandmother, Esther. She asked him if he was Jewish, and he pulled a tiny silver mezuzah on a string from his collar. He became a regular guest in their little apartment near the castle. A postwar law stated that any Jewish refugees in French and American-occupied Germany had to be given a place to stay and a means to earn money. Grandma’s parents ran a shop in the tiny town outside of Stuttgart, where the train they snuck onto terminated. Grandma claims that she wasn’t very interested in Herb. Instead of talking to him, she preferred to work on her sketches at the kitchen table. She was nineteen, a part-time student at the art institute in Stuttgart and a window display girl near school. She spent her free time helping out her parents in the shop and fantasizing about moving to New York and becoming a fashion designer.

Then, one evening, Herb asked Eva if she would like to accompany him to the American service club in Stuttgart. She agreed.

I asked Grandma if it was a romantic date, and she shrugged. “I ate my first hamburger,” she said. “Imagine that! I was in heaven.”

I pressed, asking about dates after the USO club.

“I think you and I have a different definition of the word ‘date,’” she said. “Sometimes we went for pretzels and eggs at a little restaurant by the castle. I liked to hear him talk about New York.”

Back then, Grandma spoke only German and Polish, very little English, and Grandpa spoke only English, and a bit of Yiddish, but only enough to talk to my great-grandmother, not Grandma. I asked if it was hard to talk to him. She shrugs.

Herb brought Grandma along to a couple of weekend trips with his fellow G.I.s, but Grandma claims that she went along for the adventure, not for the romance. She shows me a snapshot of her, at a table, surrounded by American G.I.s. Her eyes are glazed, a laugh spilling from her red lips. A shot of her in a dirndl on a motorbike, eyes teasing. She tells me the names of all of Grandpa’s friends.

“They were all the sons of immigrants,” she said, “dark little Italians and Jews born in Brooklyn like Grandpa.”

A few months later his tour was up and returned to the States. He promised to write, but it took him a very long time to send that letter.

“Were you sad to see him leave?” I asked. “Did you miss him? Were you worried he wouldn’t write after all?”

“I suppose,” she said. “Then he wrote and asked me to marry him, so that’s what I did. It was a very big affair, my moving to the States. Mother made me a whole new wardrobe.”

A few months after that, she was stomping on a glass with her new husband at a synagogue in Toronto. She tore up her Canadian work visa and crossed the border into New York. I asked her what the consequences were of ignoring immigration law—she was on a domestic service work visa that was supposed to keep her in Canada for one year.

“After all I’d been through, do you think I cared about consequences? It’s not like they were going to kill me.”

In all of those hours caught on tape talking about Grandpa Herb, she did not once utter the word “love.”

 

Grandma didn’t talk to Grandpa about the Holocaust for decades. “Their commander took them to see Dachau after it was liberated,” she says, “so he had an idea.” She makes it clear that what she liked about was his sense of humor, his inclination to turn everything into a joke. The little Ludwigsburg apartment heavy with the shadow of the unimaginable, the unmentioned, and he came in and regaled Grandma’s family with stories of New York, the center of the universe. Americans were heroes, and America was Grandma’s dream. She became attracted to Grandpa because he represented the carefree American, the New Yorker, the war hero. She married him largely for adventure, a ticket to New York, the promise of happiness. She was twenty when she waved goodbye to her parents at the train station in Stuttgart in a cashmere coat and a little upturned hat, suitcase loaded down with a trousseau and clothes sewn by her mother.

I was the one who made it all into a sappy love story, because I wanted it to be. But as I transcribed those tapes in the school library, I realized it was also an adventure story. Everyone always says that I remind them of Grandma. I look like she did when she was my age—same hair, same eyes, smile, penchant for wearing stylish, blister-inducing heels to nudge ourselves over five feet tall. But while I am a romantic, she is not. She is practical, a trait that probably came out of a sense of survivalism I have never had to adopt. When I gushed to her about midnight strolls with John down St. Charles Avenue and sunsets spent watching the sun sink over the Mississippi, she asked me how it would work if we had kids—would they be Catholic like John or Jewish like me? Surely I wouldn’t follow him to Alabama, where I told her he landed a teaching job to start after graduation. To her, John and I were far from bashert.

 

Judaism stresses, along with this concept of magical romantic fate, reproduction. A lot of it. Hasids popping out a dozen babies, the concept of repopulating our supposedly dying population. In Sunday School they showed us the chart—this is how long it will take for Jews to go extinct if intermarriage keeps up. They tried to kill us and we survived, now let’s have babies.

I am a fluke; a Jewish child born of interfaith parents; what’s not supposed to happen. I am also revenge. Grandma challenges my romanticism in all of this, all of these numbers and studies, the practicality of marrying a Jewish man and having Jewish babies, of escaping post-war Germany by any means necessary, of flirting with any Jewish-American G.I. who bought her mother’s “Souvenir of Germany pencils.” The fact she never used the word “love” to describe the beginning of her relationship with Grandpa kept bothering me. Were they even in love, or was it purely an adventure story that maybe turned into a love story eventually?

I called her up recently and asked her point-blank, which I had never before done, maybe because I was scared of what she would say. She said it was a love story, just a more complicated one than perhaps I could relate to. It was love plus adventure, falling in love with that specific G.I. who bought her pencils, who lit up her parents’ house and had the potential to open her up to an American world free from the Holocaust.

She and Grandpa Herb made their own bashert; they both wanted an adventure, and they got one, an escape from post-war Germany and the Yiddish-speaking Bronx to the Wild West. And they both got love, a happy marriage that lasted almost half a century.

She was right about John—we didn’t last. For a while after we broke up, in a phone stand-off after graduation, I sometimes wondered if we didn’t last because there was no risk there, no adventure. I will always want my love story—that is, after all, part of the whole revenge plot—but I know it’s not the whole point. There doesn’t need to be a legally shaky immigration or an escape from war-torn Europe, but I am determined to try and mix in some adventure before I pop out my own revenge, my own addition(s) to the family tree.

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Sophie Unterman is an M.F.A. candidate and soon-to-be creative writing instructor at Columbia University.

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