Grandpa used to regale us with stories from his youth, before the world was flipped upside down. My cousins and siblings and I and all of our mothers and their husbands and ex-husbands can recite them by heart by now.
I don’t even remember the first time I heard this story. It feels like I was born with it, same as I was born with brown hair and a crooked smile. “Well, I was walking to my grandparents’ house through the mountain. My mother, she sent me on an errand,” Grandpa would begin, his thick Yiddish accent turning ‘w’ into a ‘v’.
“And I’m walking… all of a sudden, I see two bears on either side of me. And they come running towards me, mouths open, big teeth. And I need to protect myself. So I take with one hand and put it inside the bear’s mouth, catching his tongue. And I take with my other hand and put it inside the other bear’s mouth, catching his tongue.”
Long sinewy arms outstretched before his audience, Grandpa always had our full attention at this part.
“And I take with both my hands, with the bears’ mouths wide open and I smack the bears heads together, and they fall to the ground.” His hands in fists, Grandpa would finally crash them together as if the bears were still there, still barreling towards him sixty years later. Gasps were de rigeur at this point.
“But Grandpa, how do we know you’re telling the truth?” Someone would always ask. And it was always the youngest person in the room, because everyone else knew the ending already, and knew that Grandpa had an answer.
“Look,” Grandpa would say as he ran his large hands up and down his arms. Those of us who knew what was coming said it with him. “No scars.”
Grandpa did carry other scars, though, which reared their heads at night, at the Shabbat table, when his grandchildren wore stripes, or said casually, “I’m going to camp.” Some of those scars got passed down to us. Among other atrocities, my mother’s father was forced to work in a Volkswagen factory during the Holocaust. We carry his scar by not buying German cars. We process this burden by laughing at anything remotely German related. You can say, “Pass the salt,” in a German accent in my house and you’re guaranteed a laugh. Double that laugh if the other person responds back to you in a similarly rigid fashion. Triple that if you sneak in a pun.
We have a strict family rule now, though — no Holocaust jokes in front of the non-Jews. My sister and I made that mistake once. Our father’s friend’s horror was only amplified when we tried explaining through our laughter, “No, it’s fine, our grandfather was a Holocaust survivor!” It was hard pivoting the dinner conversation afterwards. Everyone needs a release from that weight; ours is laughter, Grandpa’s was eighteen year-old Glenlivet.
One time, one of my older brothers was on his way to class at the local community college. Grandpa was dropping off something for our mother, and stopped my brother in the kitchen. “Yosef, tuck those in,” he said, his accent changing the ‘o’ sound in my brother’s name to an ‘oy’. He was pointing to my brother’s tzitzit, the ritual fringed garment worn by Orthodox Jewish men. “You can’t be so open about these things. You never know.”
Yosef looked like he was about to argue, but decided not to. But what about his yarmulka? And his name? Grandpa, how can we hide these things? The world is different now. We don’t need to. I followed Yosef’s lead and said nothing. He shouldered Grandpa’s scars for that day. I remember him coming back from class in the evening, not a stray string to be found.
Family gatherings were celebrations and beautifully painful reminders of what was lost, and the cost at which it was regained. At his only surviving brother’s funeral, Grandpa said that he and Uncle Isaac used to call their kids and grandkids “the lost souls.” Yes, us jeans-wearing, pop music-loving, only English-speaking, not an ear-lock to be found among us-children, who are worlds away from the provincial Romanian village of our ancestors, are the lost ones and the found ones. We are the scars and the salve of our family’s trauma. We represent what was lost, what can never be regained, and what was forged in the terrible aftermath of that total decimation.
The scars are written in our names, Old-World syllables falling on tongues that mangle their authentic sound. Moshe Yisrael. Mattel. Miriam. Mendel. They are apparent in our light eyes, our height, our red streaked hair, our hands with fingers that bend slightly towards each other at the top knuckle. But the salve is created through our actions, what we do with these hands, the way we move through the world with that height, how we see ourselves and others, and the identity that we shape from the wreckage and renewal of our family.