If life is a light which shines bright at times and dims at others, then what happens to the spark when you die?
I wasn’t there when she died and prefer to remember her how she was – a shimmering but constant light which guided, supported and inspired me. But now she’s gone and I’ve come here to take a memento, to find something which reminds me of her. I will pack it carefully in my suitcase and take it home with me.
I turn the key and half expect to see Oma – my grandmother – sitting in the armchair, the red rug I bought for her 80th birthday draped over her legs. Her flat always felt unusually warm but now I shiver as I walk through into the hall and glance at where she had been that last time. So many separations, she always hated saying goodbye. Every time I visited we parted quickly with “see you soon” and “off you go now,” teary eyes averted as I hurried to the lift. Feelings are better not shown.
In 1936 lights dimmed throughout Germany. Already segregated from her non-Jewish friends and banned from her beloved sports, sixteen-year-old Edith left her home town of Mainz to attend nursing school in Geneva. Did she know that she would never return home or that her favourite cousin, uncle and two sets of grandparents would die in a concentration camp? These were questions left unanswered, never discussed.
Her parents, aunt and only brother escaped to Brussels and were later hidden by a Catholic couple until the end of the war. And it was in Belgium, in 1937, that she met my grandfather outside the casino in the seaside town of Knokke-le-Zoute. He asked her out for cocktails and their romance blossomed in the shadow of war.
I shake myself back into reality and hang my coat on the back of a chair before walking towards the kitchen. If I close my eyes I can smell roast chicken. It’s so real that I can almost see the knife slice into the meat and the juices run into the grooves cut into the wooden carving board. Deeply rooted in my psyche is the taste of that rich gravy scooped up with a teaspoon as I reach over from my perch on a chair at Oma’s side. It could be a Friday night or perhaps Sunday lunchtime. No matter, I always loved being her little helper.
I fill the kettle and flick the switch before bending on impulse to open the drawer under the oven. There it is. The carving board. Worn and marked by the sharp knives and oiled by juices of years past. I pause and smile to myself before closing the drawer, straightening up and moving into the living room.
In August 1939 Edith travelled to England on the ferry, one of the last passenger boats to cross the English Channel, and stayed forever. My grandfather Harry, her British fiancé, went to the port to meet her and persuaded officials to let her disembark; he was persistent and she was fortunate to be allowed in. Due to the threat of war they applied for a three-day licence and married on the very day that war was declared.
London’s endless rain spatters against the window panes. My eyes roam to the myriad of framed photographs adorning tables, shelves and window sills around the room. Oma was blessed with eight grandchildren and twenty-four great grandchildren from her two daughters and made an effort to know everything about each one of us. Hand-written birthday cards with “a little something to spend on yourself” arrived like clockwork; she gave relationship advice and academic encouragement; she was proud of every accomplishment but mindful of being over-emotional. Phone calls were kept to a minimum. Practicality was her rule.
In the glass-fronted dresser on the far wall, I catch sight of the silver-topped crystal sugar shaker which we all used to fight over when strawberries or other “sugar-needy” desserts were served. It is a beautiful antique piece originally belonging to her dear Aunt Erna with whom she was reunited after the war. I walk past the red rug folded neatly on the seat of Oma’s comfy chair, open the glass door with care and take it in my hand, running my fingers over the pattern of the cut-glass. Tears well up in my eyes as the family history floods my thoughts.
I stumble a few steps and sit down on the sofa scattered with cushions boasting Oma’s needlework, by force of habit reaching across the low coffee table to the little green china pot. It always had chocolate or sweets in it. A tradition of treats for us which continued well past our childhood and that of our own children. We never knew what would be in here. It was always a surprise.
“Something sweet before you leave,” she used to say, nodding knowingly towards the coffee table.
Today I lift the lid and the pot is empty.
My stomach tightens and my head drops forward into my hands. Instinctively I press those pressure points hard and with the welcome release of tension comes realisation – I don’t need to take a memento. All that I need is inside my head. My own special memories of her.
Moving towards the front door, I cast my eyes over the room for one last time noticing the layer of dust already collecting on the previously shiny surfaces. In the eerie silence I can feel my heart beating fast and strong sending me this message “you’re alive.”
The door closes behind me and, for once, I don’t look back. My eyes are fixed on the all familiar faded carpet. Tears blur my vision.
Wait a minute. Where am I?
The ground is unsteady under my feet, rocking gently as if … on a boat!
I feel unbalanced and push forward to grab the handrail and steady myself, taking deep breaths. I can see the sea now and feel the wind on my face, the fresh air filling my lungs. Someone has dropped a newspaper and I bend to pick it up, straining my eyes to see the date – July 15th 1946. I turn around to study the faces of the men and women talking, and children playing on the crowded deck. They look relaxed and happy. What exciting adventure is this?
Then I hear her voice with that unmistakable accent. She is bouncing a young child on her lap and singing very softly so as not to draw attention.
“Hoppe, hoppe Reiter … “
A second, slightly older girl is standing by her side and a tall, smartly dressed man is leaning in the doorway behind them, gazing into the horizon.
It is … it’s Harry. My grandfather. And now I recognise the two little girls to be my mother and her younger sister, Louise. The pieces of this unbelievable puzzle suddenly fall into place to reveal a familiar story. This is the first post-war journey they made together, crossing the Channel to be reunited with Oma’s family in Belgium. During the war Edith’s contact with her parents was patchy at best. The Red Cross sent telegrams when they could but letters were often delayed or lost on route through war-torn Europe. There were years when she heard nothing but she knew that they were safe in Belgium and she waited, busying herself with her young family.
“Fällt er in den Sumpf, macht der Reiter plumps!”
The child lets out a shriek of delight and I smile, remembering the many many times I’ve heard Oma singing that German rhyme of her childhood to me, to my siblings and cousins. And I continued singing it to my own children.
The deep cry of the ship’s foghorn brings everyone to their feet and I catch sight of the shoreline up ahead. The bright sun shimmers on the sea’s calm surface and for a moment the glare forces me to close my eyes.
The lift door opens and I step inside.
© Claudia Giat, 2018. All rights reserved.