When I was nine years old, my grandmother came to live with us. She had a hard time doing things by herself, but stubbornly insisted upon doing her share. Grandma cooked dinner most nights, giving my parents a chance to relax after work. After supper each night, she would sit in the chair near the wood stove and tell me stories of her life in Germany.
Grandma’s stories were light-hearted and simple with descriptions of pastry and homes like dollhouses. She decorated her past life so beautifully, that even my innocent mind wondered if all of it was true. When my teacher taught us about the Holocaust, my suspicions were confirmed. I was determined to have her tell me the truth about her life.
“Grandma, what did you do during the Holocaust?”
Grandma’s face paled and she looked down at her lap. She was quiet as she stared at her own hands, as if trying to figure out what to say. She sighed. It was a deep, reluctant sound of sadness, but when she looked up at me, her eyes were fiercely bright.
“You are much too young to be told these stories. But, there were many younger than you who lived and died during those times. Perhaps it is best for you to hear the truth from my mouth rather than from your teacher.”
My face reddened. I felt like I was being chastised for my curiosity.
“Don’t worry my little one. I know what it’s like to be filled with a burning desire to know. I was young once too.”
She patted her lap, inviting me to sit with her. I climbed up and snuggled into her arms. She had a way making me feel safe.
“I was still a young woman, when my country went through the first war. We were devastated. But, then a new power began taking control of Germany. He used hate to build himself up and told us what we wanted to hear; that we were a supreme race and must be preserved from the evil Jews.”
Grandma pulled a tissue that had been hidden up her sleeve and wiped her eyes. I could see a blue set of numbers on her wrist.
“His name was Hitler. Many of my friends were told to wear stars upon their clothes and treated like dirt. There were stories of what was happening when they were sent off to the camps, but we had no proof. Just fear.”
She straightened up in her chair. Grandma’s eyes were far away, staring into the past.
“They hid in abandoned buildings, secret closets, wherever they could. And I helped. My family didn’t have much, but we had blonde hair and blue eyes.”
Grandma slid her hand into my hair and twirled a curl with her finger.
“I had a brown, cloth bag that I’d fill with bread, cheese and sometimes meat if we could spare some. I’d even take chocolate. Then I’d cover the food with old magazines or rolls of cloth and find my hidden friends. It was very dangerous for them and me. But it was worth seeing their faces light up.”
She stopped and I knew that something awful must have happened. What she’d done was so brave, but even then, I knew that fortune doesn’t always favor the foolish.
“Word must have gotten out. One of the SS followed me, but I didn’t see him until I was about to enter the building. He came over to me, like a cat that had just caught a juicy mouse.”
“Fraulein, where are you going to on this fine day?”
“I’ve been collecting magazines for my grandmother. The abandoned homes have plenty left inside.”
Grandma looked at me. Her eyes were wide and frightened and I could see the fear she must have felt that day.
“He looked at my bag and saw the magazines inside. He thumbed through a few and I prayed that he wouldn’t see the food hiding underneath.”
“Be on your way. A beautiful woman like you should not be out in the streets alone.”
“The SS walked away as I hurried home. I slammed the door shut behind me and thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t been caught.”
“Were you still able to help the people in the building? What did you do after that?”
Grandma smiled and hugged me.
“I found other ways to help. Those stories are best left for another day. Now off to bed with you.”