This is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when a moment should be spared to reflect on that putrid, festering, awful sore on world history. If I cannot take off my Tilley hat, shove my beer aside, and wipe that grin off for an hour today, I should relinquish my Human Card.
So Grandmother, this one’s for you. And all those who suffered such unspeakable anguish in that unspeakable time.
I’ve wept three times in my adult life. The last time was for a woman I never knew and whose life is still a mystery to me, but whose glittering strength popped out of the Ethernet and swelled my heart. Her son was my father, who never spoke much about the war until his last few years, when he spoke of little else. A few years before he died, he returned to his native Poland to receive a medal for his patriotism as a resistance fighter between 1939 and 1942. In 1995, he self-published an account of his experiences in WW2. Then he went home to die in Alberta, bathed in feverish sweat and lunging at German soldiers only he could see.
But his mother was an enigma. I met her when she came to visit in Norway in 1956, but I was too young to remember much beyond a stout, dour woman with a fuzzy black boa who seemed more interested in my infant brother. The only other time I was near her was twenty years later, when I traveled to Warsaw and stood before her grave. I barely noticed the Star of David on her tombstone, since religion had never been part of my life. I didn’t give it much more thought. Since Dad’s autobiography had only barely mentioned his father and a half-brother, I was unforgivably apathetic about it all.
With retirement many years later genealogy became one of my puttering past times, but finding Polish data is extremely difficult for an amateur. I could only reliably establish that my grandmother had married in 1921, to one Stefan Jadach. In frustration, I reached out to a Polish web forum and poured out the little I knew. Eventually, a wonderful fellow named Leszek Templewicz offered to poke around a bit in his spare time.
Within a few days, he’d found that Anna’s other son was born in 1918 and died as a pilot in 1939. Leszek had found his grave and sent me a photo, adding that the markings on his tombstone indicated he was of noble birth . Then he wrote to me that Stefan Jadach was an engineer and officer in the Polish infantry. He’d died in Auschwitz in 1943.
A few days later he sent me many pictures of my grandmother’s grave, and the very special plaque heading this blog. That’s when I wept. Translated, it reads: In honour of her saving Jewish children during the occupation.
With sudden clarity came the blurs of nascent tears. I’ve no idea when or where or to whom she was born, but she was certainly wrested from the bosom of nobility somewhere between the chaotic years of 1918 and 1921. Then she had my father. Then she lost her first-born at the outset of the war. Two years later, her surviving child darted off into the forest to battle the occupiers, and she only ever saw him once again. Just after he left, her husband was hauled off to a death camp. And that’s when she undertook to hide desperate children.
She risked her life to save lives to snub those who took lives.
It made me proud. And ashamed. I would love to stand with her and feel both proud and ashamed to be beside a person so much braver and better than I. I’ll probably never know whether she was Jewish or insane or a fallen countess. It doesn’t matter. She was a human who encompasses the anonymous glories of so, so, so many who suffered and shone under grotesque duress. She’s my hero. And a grandmother.
So: January 27, 2018
I’m sorry I didn’t know you. I’m sorry I didn’t care much. I’m sorry you are forgotten with all the others. But I think of you, and especially on this day I thank you for showing how heroic we can all be. You are remembered, Grandmother. Somehow, I love you.