It Happened There
The young woman in the old photo looks serene. She gazes at the camera, dark eyes unflinching, full lips closed but relaxed, nose distinguished, hair pulled back, perhaps in a bun, a wisp of curl escaping. She is more handsome than pretty. What I see of her dress is dark with a white collar, the fabric heavy, the sleeves long, appropriate for a woman from an Orthodox Jewish family. She wears a cameo on a chain. Is she fourteen? Seventeen? Twenty? I can’t tell, nor can I find out. Everyone in my family from her generation, those born in Hungary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is gone. And everyone from the next generation, my mother’s generation, is gone, too.
The photo is one of many in a box of Mom’s memorabilia. When I turn it over I see a notation in her handwriting. “Shayndel or Sorah.” Shock zaps down the umbilical cord that connects me to my ancestors. For the first time, I am looking at the face of one of my namesakes. Shayndel and Sorah were my grandmother’s two sisters. My great aunts. (Whoever identified the picture for Mom was uncertain which of them she was.) In the Jewish religion, a child is traditionally given the Hebrew name of the person in whose memory she is named as well as one in the language of her native country. My Hebrew name is Shayndel Sorah. My parents chose my English name, Sharon Sue, because it sounded similar.
My mother never met her aunts. Unlike my grandmother Blanche, Shayndel and Sorah did not immigrate to the United States in 1923. Unlike their brother Allen, they did not escape from a train packed with prisoners on a one-way trip to Poland. Unlike their brother Irving, they did not survive World War II and immigrate to New York. Unlike like their brother Yankel, they did not survive and immigrate to Israel.
Shayndel and Sorah perished in Auschwitz. They took their last breaths in a gas chamber.
My parents taught me about the Holocaust. About Hitler and the Nazis. About the concentration camps. I stared at tattooed numbers on the arms of my Uncle Bumi, Mr. Schoenbrun, my Hebrew school teacher, Mr. Froman, the kosher butcher. I have not seen the remains of Auschwitz. But I have been to Dachau. There I walked through barracks where prisoners slept, cramped and starving. I stood inside a crematorium where the bodies of dead prisoners were incinerated. And I toured the museum where exhibits documented the rise of the Nazi Party, displayed Nazi propaganda and prisoner photos, and chronicled Dachau’s history
I felt the same umbilical cord zap I felt when I turned over my great aunt’s picture.
Never forget, my parents said. I never can forget. It could happen again, they said. And it has. If not to Jews, to Cambodians. Bosnians. Rwandans. Darfuris. Rohingya Muslims. And more.
Now I wonder, could it happen here? In the safe, democratic haven of the United States? I see frightening signs. Demonizing and intimidating the free press. Vilifying refugees. Maligning minorities. Fear stoking. Hate churning. Misrepresenting. Outright lies. Tolerance of the intolerable: Neo-Nazis. Uber nationalists. White Supremacists. Self-aggrandizing bullies. Nativism. Isolationism. Demagoguery. Violence.
Am I irrational? Overreacting? Plagued by hereditary anxiety out of proportion to reality? Just plain paranoid? Or should I have an escape plan? In case America inches closer and closer to fascism. In case our rights are whittled away. In case persecution of minorities and refugees escalates. In case our country veers further and further from its foundation as the land of the free. In case it becomes one in which I no longer feel welcome or proud to live.
In that decades old photo, in my great aunt’s face, I see no inkling of her fate.
Sharon Goldberg is a Seattle writer who was an advertising copywriter in a former life. Her work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Letters, the Louisville Review, Cold Mountain Review, Under the Sun, Chicago Quarterly Review, the Antigonish Review, the Dalhousie Review, Gold Man Review, Prime Number Magazine, three fiction anthologies, and elsewhere. Sharon won second place in On the Premises’s 2012 Humor Contest and Fiction Attic Press’s 2013 Flash in the Attic Contest. She is an avid but cautious skier and enthusiastic world traveler.