About the Feature

Photo by Daryan Shamkhali on Unsplash

1. Judenfrage
We visited my grandmother Roberta once per season while growing up, always in her crowded Brooklyn apartment. It was almost a three-hour drive from our house outside Philly, but my grandmother never smiled when we arrived. Even when her husband was still alive, she sat away from everyone at a side table, photographs trapped under the heavy glass tabletop, her bitter iced tea sweating above. The blurry, pastel photos depicted every living Jew in the family, including my cousins, aunt, uncle, and father—no pictures of my gentile mother or her children, us two girls and my brother. But when I was born, my grandmother had baffled everyone by insisting on giving me my name, Basia, so she must have felt something special for me.

Even in the hottest, swampiest Brooklyn summer, my grandmother wore long sleeves to hide her number. That’s what we all called it, even though it was actually five numbers in a row. I only saw them by accident, when her sleeve hiked up. My grandfather also had a number. Kids in my neighborhood sometimes had grandparents with numbers, old people we never saw because they never left their rooms. “He has a number,” we whispered, and then played again. I don’t remember learning that my grandparents’ numbers were their tattoos from Auschwitz, or what happened in the camps. It seemed like I always knew.

My grandmother paid attention to me and not my siblings, and I didn’t know why. “Basia, sit here,” she’d call out, patting the empty seat next to her at mealtimes. She would show me how to eat, pressing astringent onion slices into the cream cheese and lox on my bagel, ruining it. Or she would show me how she matched that day, flipping up her gray wool skirt to reveal a burgundy satin slip, and then the burgundy bows on her gray pumps, snagging a shiny burgundy bra strap from beneath her suit with the burgundy piping, with a fingernail polished in burgundy. She had sewn all of it, even the bra. She was elegant but tired, her neck and ankles bloated with edema from her endless sitting, arthritis hooking each finger inward at its smallest joint. Nobody else sat with her, maybe because she didn’t smile or look us in the eye, or because of the gloom that leaked from her like a noxious gas. But for me she held the same kind of fascination as Halloween, or the heavy balls of mercury we used to roll around in our palms when a thermometer broke.

By the time I was ten, my grandfather had been dead for five years and my father was sick of paying for my grandmother’s expenses: her rent-controlled apartment, food allowance, prescription medication for her high blood pressure, bottles and bottles of single-lettered vitamins, discount acrylic paint for the thick pictures she painted of places she had never seen, and every now and then a five-dollar ticket for a local klezmer band that played at the Jewish senior center in nearby Crown Heights. My father added up her expenditures in a ledger, using a pocket calculator he brought on visits. I didn’t know if money was as scarce as he said, but I did know our dinners were skimpy, and he complained that his overcoat was twenty years old. He wanted her to begin collecting her Social Security money, but the paperwork he filed for her kept getting denied. “They say no such person exists under that name and number,” he said. “I need your Social Security card.”

“Tell them to check my elementary school records in Poland,” my grandmother said.

“Get real. I can’t use Polish records to claim Social Security. And you can’t get your money without the card.”

My grandmother was poor, always had been. In her younger days, she’d walk an extra twenty city blocks to save a dime on kosher meat, but she made sure both of her kids went to college. She now ate a quarter of a can of creamed corn for dinner each day, accompanied by a slice of stale Wonder Bread she had saved from her lunch at the Jewish senior center. She also saved the paper plates and plastic forks they gave her, brought them home and nestled them in brown paper bags in her closet “in case there’s an emergency.” But now she said, “I’d rather not have the money in that case.”

“Do you know how much money you’re talking about? Enough to live on,” my father said. “Do you have a card? Are you even legal?”

“Okay,” my aunt said, resting a hand on her brother’s wrist, and she asked in a nicer voice, “Mom, are you even legal?”

“I’m legal,” she said. A minuscule sneer.

My father shook off his sister’s hand. “I’ve been paying for you since Dad died. If you don’t give me your card, I’m just going to stop paying.”

“May God free you from your burden,” my grandmother said dryly, and then muttered in Yiddish, “Gey strashe di gens.” Go threaten the geese.

My father squirmed in my grandmother’s creaky chair. My aunt was an elementary school teacher and her husband was on disability, so they couldn’t pay for my grandmother. People would know what my father did to his own mother.

Finally, my grandmother said, “Part of the problem might be you don’t know my real name.”

The table stilled. Even my sleepy uncle turned his gaze to my grandmother, who sat straight in her boiled wool suit, her burgundy underwear hidden beneath.

“What are you talking about?” my father asked.

In drips, she told the story. When she was a little girl in Poland, the other kids made fun of her because she looked “like a little grandmother,” so they called her Bubbe, and she began calling herself the same. Her goyish teacher was from England and thought they were calling her “Bobbie,” so she marked my grandmother in the school records as “Roberta” Frydman. Eventually, even her own parents forgot to use her real name. The only people who used her birth name were the Auschwitz administrators who’d seized her papers.

My father’s nostrils were in full flare. “Two grown children and one dead husband, and nobody ever knew who you really are?”

My grandmother said, “I’m Roberta. Not that other name.”

My father asked, voice rising, “Are you going to tell me your real name now, so you can get the goddamn money?” My siblings and I glanced at each other and then away. We knew that tone. Suddenly, my father slammed both hands on my grandmother’s table, shivering the ice cubes in the glasses, rattling the mismatched bone china. “Well, will you?” he shouted.

“No,” she said.


2. Untermensch
In contrast to my ever-present grandmother, my grandfather was rarely around. He died when I was five. I remember him ripping sticks of chewing gum in half for us kids whenever he was at the apartment, though he usually slipped away soon after we arrived, having only so much tolerance for crowded rooms, for my grandmother’s family lottery where we had to guess the number of matzoh balls in the soup. Only she knew the answer, and the one who came closest won nothing besides the same bowl of soup the rest of us got.

One summer day, shortly before my grandfather died, four friends from his shuffleboard club came over to visit while we were there. The five men gathered over a circular frosted-glass table in the apartment building courtyard, telling stories in Yiddish and gesturing, drinking my grandmother’s foggy lemonade. Whenever she approached to refill their drinks, they stopped talking, and then resumed their conversation as soon as she left again with her pitcher. It was ninety degrees and humid, and the old men wore wilting short-sleeved button-down shirts. I couldn’t stop staring at their arms as I decapitated my Barbie doll over and over. Five forearms tattooed with blurry, iron-colored numbers rested on the table, like spokes in a wheel with no hub.

Even the tattooed numbers looked like they had accents, weird sixes and fives, the sevens with lines running through the middle like a cross-out. I wanted to touch their numbers, feel if they were smooth like my grandfather’s or if their ink made bumps, if their skin tried to reject it. But even at five, before I knew what respect was, I knew to leave them alone.

My grandmother said my grandfather’s first job in the camps was to plunder bodies for valuables, after gassing and before cremation. Kapos had already confiscated the victims’ clothes, ordering them to strip for the “showers,” then shoving them into the gas chambers as they clutched bars of soap rumored to be made from the rendered fat of dead Jews. The kapos spread those rumors themselves, to cultivate more despair. Upon their orders, my grandfather ransacked what was left after the gassing, pulling eyeglasses from faces, cutting women’s hair for German ladies to wear as wigs. With pliers, he extracted gold fillings from warm mouths. Many of the gassed people were still alive. Many were children. Some, he knew.

My grandfather’s work unit was called the Sonderkommando, dealing with the problem of the newly dead and still dying. Trying to hold his breath, he pulled Jewish bodies from the chambers with meat hooks after the Zyklon B cyanide gas had aired. He shoveled coke into the crematorium furnaces and dumped prisoner ashes into the Soła River. He ate food scavenged from the bags of the people he had helped murder, while the prisoner orchestra was ordered to play rousing marches to mute the screams, or maybe to mock them. All day, every day, my grandfather considered disappearing into the gas chambers with the other prisoners, but what saved him from early suicide was a drive for revenge.

We don’t know how he got reassigned, but he was the only one from his work unit who didn’t end his life in the gas chambers too. “The Sonderkommando were also called Geheimnisträger, bearers of secrets, so it’s a miracle they didn’t kill your grandfather with the others to keep him quiet. He surely did something to survive that, Basia,” my grandmother wrote me in a letter once I was grown. She didn’t tell me what she’d had to do to survive.

My grandfather’s new work unit was easier, packing the gassed victims’ clothing for shipment to Lévitan, a department store in German-occupied Paris that resold the seized Jewish possessions. Prisoners called the warehouse Kanada, the German spelling of Canada, because Canada was a rich country and this warehouse held the stolen wealth of Auschwitz. My grandfather had somehow hidden away the dull scissors he had used to cut the corpses’ hair when he was in the Sonderkommando. Before he packed the coats and clothing for Paris, he secretly snipped every seam he could, so the clothing might disintegrate on the wearers’ bodies and they would be suddenly cold in the street with no coat, dress, pants. He eventually carried those scissors from Poland to Germany to Switzerland to New York, where he used them every day at his greengrocer job in the Lower East Side. Those scissors now lived in my grandmother’s drawer, and she sharpened them by cutting folded tinfoil, used them to cleave wrapping paper or nip the string binding a brisket.

My grandfather could never tell his lemonade friends he had been a Sonderkommando. They might have rejected him, or tried to kill him. His children didn’t know, nor his grandchildren. Only my grandmother knew, and she kept his secret alongside the secret of her name, until she wrote me a letter about him thirteen years after his death.

When I read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in college, I underlined “We who have come back . . . we know: the best of us did not return.”

There was no revenge for my grandfather. He never faced Nazis or kapos at the greengrocer, nor anywhere in New York. He stabbed nobody with his scissors.

His only revenge was against himself when he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge into the freezing East River, twenty-nine years to the day after liberation. When he washed ashore a week later at Buono Beach in Staten Island, his corpse was bloated beyond recognition. My grandmother identified his body from the number on his left arm.


3. Daseinskampf
As I grew, I studied my grandmother during every visit. I watched her clip pictures from National Geographic to paint later, or file her nails to a point, or stifle a burp into a hand-tatted handkerchief soaked in Estée Lauder. I learned details, but not the part of her as unfathomable as the inside of a lightning bolt or volcano or swarm of bees.

This is what my parents told me about her: her red, puffy parlor chairs weren’t for sitting; you could sit only on furniture colored brown. Don’t ask her questions. The framed ladies’ gown designs in the hallway had come from her pen. She painted Asia and Africa, but never went on vacation. She would not move away from Brownsville, one of the few neighborhoods willing to rent to Jews after the war, but she was the only Jew left in her building now.

I have never been Jewish. My Jewish side is the “wrong” one, my father and not my mother, useless in a matrilineal religion. In Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, you are all Jewish or zero Jewish, so I was zero according to my grandmother. Hitler wouldn’t have agreed. I was Jewish enough to be murdered, but not Jewish enough for a bat mitzvah. Still, something strong stirred in the Ashkenazi molecules of my blood, amplified only when I left for college and began thinking for myself. I wanted accountability; I wanted evil to answer to me. I thought the secret of human existence must be hiding where nobody can stand to look—inside its total annihilation.

With every bowl of soup I ate, I wanted to know what it felt like for the prisoners to eat thin, half-rotten gruel in the cold, how every calorie was the thinnest armor against death. I wanted to know if Jews died from keeping kosher rather than eating the rationed slop, or how many died in the uprisings, how many of them wrested away a gun and shot and shot until they were shot. I wanted to know how I would have fared in my grandmother’s place, and if I had inherited her strength, and where that strength now lived in her. When I went away to college, I began writing her letters, and I always received a response in my college mailbox exactly two weeks later, beginning with “Basia,” at the top, skipping the “Dear.”

I asked my grandmother how she survived three years in an extermination camp. She wrote back that they had run low on white paint at the Jewish senior center so she was mostly painting night scenes. I asked her which work unit she was assigned to in Auschwitz, and what her duties were. She wrote back about her job at the garment factory after the war, with a sketch of a plum-colored dress she had designed but could not afford to make, so she had to wear a schmatta to work. I asked her what liberation had felt like, to be rescued by strangers. She wrote back about a day cruise she took once after the war; Mary Pickford was onboard, but my grandmother didn’t see her.

I asked her about my grandfather, and she told me everything.

Right before Germany invaded Poland, my grandfather had miraculously managed to secure passage for my father and my aunt to a Swiss orphanage through Kindertransport. My father was three, his sister, five. Miraculously, the SS arrested my grandparents together, identifying them in the street from their yellow Star of David badges with “Jude” inscribed in the center, and they helped each other survive the cattle cars. Miraculously, both of my grandparents survived three years in Auschwitz. Miraculously, my grandmother and grandfather found each other after liberation, even after the Nazis forcibly evacuated my grandfather to Buchenwald during the last months of the war. Miraculously, my grandparents found their kids six years after they had parted. So many miracles for my lost grandfather. The reunited family traveled to America by boat, third class. Officials at Ellis Island could not spell their Polish surname nor their original Russian one, so they gave the whole family a German last name. “Your name,” she said.

I asked my grandmother about the rest of our family, lost to the Holocaust. In tight script, she wrote a long list of names and ages ranging from eighteen months to eighty-two years. It was two pages long. I wrote away for their records, but they didn’t exist, part of the masses of Auschwitz evidence the Nazis destroyed during the last months of the war.

I asked my grandmother about her son, my father, what had happened to him in that orphanage in Switzerland. She wrote back she had never liked processed cheese, but the government still sent it to her every month in big blocks. “Tell me, Basia. How can one widow possibly use all that cheese?” she asked.

I still couldn’t understand the costs of surviving, which pieces of yourself you have to trade. I abandoned the dorm cafeteria and stopped eating and drinking for two days, to see what starvation felt like. I lingered on balconies, imagining my grandfather’s last steps off the cold bridge, a free man. Nothing made sense, and I was missing my life. In the bleak Iowa autumn, I felt abstracted, like I was dissolving into my grandparents’ legacy until I was nearly imaginary. Nobody I knew at college was interested in genocide or torture; everyone was living now. My father used to ask, “Basia, if everyone in the world jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” I would. I didn’t want to be the only person in the world.

When I switched dorms, I somehow lost the letters my grandmother had written me, even the one with the names of the dead. I couldn’t ask her for them again. Maybe I lost them on purpose. My Holocaust obsession was over, and it felt pointless now. I had my own teenage devastations—boys, unfair professors, exhausting jobs. Next to my grandmother’s story, how could mine mean anything?

How could her story mean anything?


4. Endlösung
I still sat with my grandmother every time I came home from college. The rest of the family clustered around the television, but my grandmother and I drank weak, sugary coffee at the side table with the trapped photographs, still none of me. After the Crown Heights riot, she stopped visiting the Jewish senior center and refused to leave her apartment; she was lonely, and our letters had unlocked something between us. As family noises throbbed in the background, my grandmother shed her secrets.

She said our ancestors had been exiled beyond the Pale of Settlement before the emperor recalled them to the Pale’s shtetls and pogroms. “Our family lived in eastern Siberia, north of Mongolia,” she said. “That’s why I look Chinese.” I didn’t know if she looked Chinese, but her eyes had a partial epicanthic fold. I didn’t realize then that only men were exiled that far beyond the Pale; that they would have intermarried with Mongolic Indigenous women and not Jews who would carry the matrilineal line; that she was telling me she was not a true daughter of Abraham. That she was like me.

She said, “I hated being a mother.”

She said, “I don’t believe in God anymore.”

She said, “Everything I know, I don’t want to know.”

She said, “They made us buy tickets to ride the cattle cars to Auschwitz.”

She said, “I’m glad my husband is dead. He was dead when he was alive.”

I hoped her confessions meant we were getting closer, but when I told her my secrets, she pressed her lips together, as if I had said something rude. Her gaze always drilled through my face to someplace else, some facet of herself reflecting a shard of light back to her eye. So when my grandmother told me her secrets, this was as special as I got. I felt wonderful but single-use, like a cigarette, treasured until it burned all the way through.

I was twenty when my grandmother said, “I’m going to tell you my biggest secret, Basia.” She didn’t look at me, so I wasn’t ready when she said, “I’m going to tell you my name.”

I thought, No.

I didn’t want it. My grandmother had assigned her pain a name, her name, and made it as secret and unutterable as YHWH, the forbidden name of God. Even after a decade of asking, my father didn’t know her Auschwitz name; he still wrote her a check every month and badgered her about Social Security. Priceless, his ignorance, his existence, when total extermination was just on the other side of his mother’s name, a name worth everything and nothing, the price of stolen life. Hair, teeth, coats, eyeglasses, shoes, rendered human fat, złotych paid for a one-way cattle car ticket to Auschwitz. No. I felt myself disintegrating again against the pressure of her pain. I wanted to be happy.

I considered walking away, never talking to my grandmother again. It would be easy to slip her—by then, she rarely left her chair. I could try to chat up my cousins. I could bully my brother into a game of cards. I could see if I was needed in the kitchen. But nobody ever needed me besides her.

She had already grabbed my forearm with her burgundy-tipped fingers, and I flinched at her touch. I felt sick, but I couldn’t pull away. The kitchen hummed with family who didn’t notice us, would not rescue me. My grandmother’s silk blouse was cinched tight at the wrists as always, but her shoulder tugged the fabric up, exposing the corner of one blurry number. Please, I thought. I’m barely here as it is. Don’t erase me.

My grandmother’s chair creaked as she drew close. Her Aqua Net globe of hair shimmered in the lamplight. Black dots clogged the pores of her nose, and every tooth was chipped, as if she had eaten stones. Her hot breath lodged itself in the folds of my ear. It was too late. She was in me already. I was made of her.

“My real name is your name,” she whispered. “Basia, you have my name.”

She leaned back in her chair, and I joined her in the land of the missing.

About the Author

Erika Krouse is the author of three books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation, winner of the Edgar Award and the Colorado Book Award. Her collection of short stories, Save Me, Stranger, is forthcoming in 2024 from Flatiron Books.