My Grandma’s Hidden Holocaust Heroics

We grew up idolizing grandpa for surviving death marches and beating up Germans, but grandma was always just, well...a sweet old lady. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Noiach, a crumb!” my brother shouted. He was wearing Grandma’s blue muumuu.

“A crumb,” I concurred, draped in her yellow housedress.

We attacked the matzoh flake in the rug with our hands and the carpet sweeper. The family applauded our skit. But Grandma stood there with her arms crossed; her Auschwitz tattoo — all five numbers — pressed against her belly.

“This is what you think of Grandma?” she asked.

It was.

We harassed her constantly, lovingly. We’d always compress her brand-new perms, or jiggle her hanging tricep skin, exposed when she stirred the soup. All my life, she had lived like a stereotype — a neurotic cartoon character who had embedded herself into my reality.

Grandma censured us a bit more for the mockery, then kissed our faces, and ran off to the kitchen, panicking about a pot unattended on the stove.

To us, she was an old Jewish woman who had somehow survived the Holocaust. Poppy, on the other hand, had fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and survived death marches and concentration camps. Grandma had too, but for whatever reason she didn’t seem like the same survivor. Perhaps I was just a blinkered boy, who could only turn men into my heroes. Or maybe it was because the stories that I had overheard — “He beat up some Germans,” my father told company — always featured Poppy.

Poppy could make muscles that I could not crush; Grandma only ever cooked and cleaned and kvetched.

I had always wanted my grandparents’ Holocaust stories. More accurately, I had wanted Poppy’s. But because my grandparents had greatly troubled their kids by recounting Holocaust memories, they were silent about the 1940s around the grandchildren.

“Poppy, what was it like in Auschwitz?” I’d ask.

“Poppy loves you,” he’d say, defending secrets with non-sequiturs. He’d raise the television’s volume; the violent charade of wrestling played louder than the violence of memory.

When I was eighteen, Poppy died. Grandma stopped cooking and cleaning, shrinking her life’s work down to a more detrimental form of kvetching. (Really, it was severe depression). For half a decade, she mourned relentlessly.

Even though he had barred me from his Holocaust stories, I had held on to the hope that he’d share them someday with me. Now that he was gone, those memories were buried forever.

But a few years later, I traveled to Poland and stood on Poppy’s street. More than ever, I wanted to dig up those stories. I did everything I could, from viewing the VHS tapes with his testimony, which he had given to the Shoah Foundation a decade earlier, to interviewing those who knew him.

I learned that Poppy had been a sewer rat – one of the boys who traveled through Warsaw’s sewers to help secure guns and potatoes for the uprising; he had been a gravedigger in his hometown, forced by the Nazis to bury four thousand of his Jewish neighbors who had been murdered in the woods; he had been a fugitive, cutting the bars on the cattle car and jumping from a train heading for the death camp Treblinka; he had been a slave in six different camps; and he had been a righteous killer, running a pitchfork through some Nazi’s throat, leaving the German dead in a barn.

I knew he had been tough, but never this tough. Even from the grave, he found a way to surprise me.

“I was thinking about writing a book about Poppy,” I said to Grandma, as we sat at her kitchen table, where she used to serve Poppy and me soup, interrupting our card games.

“Write a book. Who’s stopping you?” she said.

“I need your help though.”

“I don’t want to talk about Poppy.”

Her statement was incredible. In Grandma’s lonely apartment, Poppy, in absentia, had become a god. Around her neck, she wore an image of him — his saintliness laser-printed into gold — and she chanted his name to his photograph, which stood at center table, but also traveled with her around the apartment. This woman who still kept a kosher home and fasted on Yom Kippur — a time she reserved for remembering her mother, who had been murdered in front of her in 1942 — no longer had qualms about breaking the commandment against false idols.

“Remember Poppy?” she always asked, as if he had been a ’90s cult television show.

Now, it seemed, Grandma was choosing to not remember.

I trudged forward with the questions; we were going to talk about Poppy.

“Tell me about Poppy as a sewer rat.”

“He wasn’t a rat,” she chastised. She took offense to the term “sewer,” too.

I clarified what I had thought was survivor jargon.

“What should I know about this?” she said.

Grandma did tell me what she remembered about Warsaw’s sewers, but it tunneled us somewhere else. When the Nazis were sending thousands of Jews from the ghetto to the camps, where they would work or more likely be marched into the gas chambers, a group from Grandma’s bunker had attempted to escape. Grandma waded with them through the piss and excrement beneath Warsaw. When her group reached an exit, the leader lifted the manhole cover.

“They shoot him and his body falls into the shit,” she told me. “We run and I get this sewage splash in my face. But I’m not thinking about this because I know they gonna throw a grenade.”

I watched the fear of this near-death return to her eyes. I felt a chill.

The Nazis or Poles who killed the group leader didn’t throw a grenade after all, and Grandma made it back to the safety of the murderous ghetto.

Grandma offered me more store-bought gefilte fish.

When I asked about Poppy in the camps, Grandma swatted the air: What should I know about this?

“The Nazis made us move boulders.”

“Who: you or Poppy?”

“Who? Who? I should know of Poppy? Me. I did this. And the next day we return them to the same spot.”

This was in Majdanek, a concentration camp that was the setting for many more of the horrors she still lived with so many years later. Majdanek: where she had tossed her youngest brother bread, only to have a Nazi witness him reach for it and beat him to within inches of death. Majdanek: where she had pushed a wheelbarrow filled with potatoes, allowed a few spuds to fall, and took a beating that left her unconscious. Majdanek: where she picked poison ivy for the nightly soup.

“What do you mean poison ivy for the soup?” I asked. “You can’t eat poison ivy.”

“What should I tell you, Noiach? We were sent to the fields to pick poison ivy. We had to, so we ate.”

She told me about Auschwitz, when the barbed wire had ruined her foot (just before the fifty-mile, winter death march); the run-ins with Josef Mengele (twice); the girls she had saved (by risking her life); her luck (the little bit that went a long way); and the countless murders (of the boy who only wanted to enter the ghetto, of the girl in the blue dress at Auschwitz, of the dead woman she sat on in Bergen Belsen because the ground was completely covered with corpses, of the child who hid with her in the barracks, of all the others). These were the horrors that she had survived and the stories that remained with her in the empty apartment after my visits ended.

“There was another Nazi from Warsaw that I remember,” Grandma said after taking a pill to calm her. “He finds me in the street and tells me to follow him.”

She did so, and when they turned the corner, Grandma felt the heat: the Nazis had started a bonfire, where they were burning books.

“The Nazi told me to go up into the apartments. To throw down the books. He tells to me ‘If I see one book left up there, I’ll throw you into the fire.’ This is what he said.”

Grandma climbed the staircase, opened the door to the apartment, and entered the empty room. On a small wooden mantelpiece stood a modest collection of religious texts. She lifted the Siddur, Humash, and Gemara and flipped through them, noting God’s name on each page.

“I could not throw the books from the window, Noiach.”

Instead, she found a string, stacked the books, and made a tight bundle.

“The German who tells to me to go up into the building sees me. He says throw down your…” Grandma paused and looked at the imaginary pile. “He said ‘shit books,’ Noiach. He says this about sacred books.”

She turned from the window, defying the Nazi, and walked down the stairs.

When she reached the Nazi, he screamed at her for not obeying. He put his hands on his rifle; Grandma closed her eyes. She was prepared to die for the God who had allowed all of her relatives to perish.

Who was this woman?

The German ripped the books from her hand and she ran off.

Grandma shivered and limped toward the kitchen, shuffling off from the conflagration she had reignited at the table.

I couldn’t believe I had ever laughed at Grandma.

With each new story, I felt more foolish for how I had begun this project: I want to write a story about Poppy. What had I expected now and in my youth? That she had survived Hitler under a rock?

Grandma popped open her pillbox again and took another horse-sized tranquilizer. “You have more questions about Poppy?”

I shook my head.