I was named after my maternal grandmother Sarah. Sarah was not a concentration camp survivor, having immigrated with her family to the United States well before the Second World War. Originally I was under the impression that Sarah was from Russia since that is where I was told my maternal grandfather Morris lived before he and his siblings sailed to America in the early 1900’s. However, after receiving my grandmother’s death certificate, her place of birth was listed as “Russia/Poland.” This actually makes sense given the many changed hands under which Poland was ruled. Indeed, my grandfather’s own hometown of Bolkovysk, Russia (also spelled Wolkovisk in Polish and Volkovysk in Belarusian) became a volleyball between the Russian Empire, Poland, and Belarus. However, regardless of the spelling or government in control, Jews from the Pale of Settlement were no strangers to pogroms.
Almost everything I know about my grandmother Sarah comes from the vital statistics found on census data, and the few photographs my mother Beatrice, or Beatie as she was affectionately known, so meticulously labeled. Oddly, there is only one picture of my mother with the woman after whom I am named, and that is a family portrait, not a snapshot of mother and daughter. Given how close I was to my mother, I nonetheless cannot discern why this was.
I do know that my mother and grandmother were no strangers to grief, though their suffering occurred due to acts of nature and not “acts of man.” Before dying of breast cancer at age 39, my grandmother’s slightly older sister Elsie had already passed away from illness, as had Eli, the youngest of my grandmother’s three children. While dying early was not uncommon during those times, that fact does not make the suffering any easier.
But it is a different kind of sorrow from the misery that possessed Holocaust Survivors, and likely still possesses the few Survivors alive today. At least that is how it appears to me based upon my father’s behavior. The holes in the hearts of the grief stricken who experience a loved one’s passing from “natural” causes are not generally filled with intense indescribable rage. There is a distinction for them between the deep sadness they feel and a heart mutilated by unspeakable violence. In the former, hearts are broken but souls are intact. For Survivors, their hearts were tortured by the agony of what they witnessed, forever tormenting their sense of being, irretrievably rupturing their souls.