Setting: Bedroom, 3:00 A.M., Winter 1987
Characters: Father and Mother, attempting valiantly but unsuccessfully to sleep
Background: Howls from Baby Chezkel down the hall
Father’s voice (foggy, sleepy, hopeful): Maybe he’ll stop soon.
Mother’s Voice (sleep-deprived, skeptical): I doubt it.
Sixty very long seconds pass.
Mother’s Voice (tired): Are you sure there’s a point in this?
Father’s Voice (mumbled): We did it with the first two, and eventually it worked. He’ll stop. Eventually.
Within 120 seconds, the screams slow, lower, dwindle… and…
Stop. Parents lie tensely for 10 seconds, then inevitably relax.
Mother’s Voice (heavy with meaning): Do you think he’s done?
Father’s Voice (considering, then sighing): He’s just gathering strength…
Indeed, Father is correct. Baby Chezkel soon recommences crying loudly and lustily, much refreshed by his brief rest.
* * *
My grandfather, the youngest in his family, survived the War with his parents, two sisters and brother. His older sister Cheyved did not make it to their hiding place, and was shot by a German soldier herding the Jews of Dembitz onto cattle cars.
The fact that their family survived almost intact was an incredibly rare miracle. And yet, the loss of this one sister was a terrible weight on their shoulders. Her parents’ sorrow was so great that no one spoke her name for years. Zeide would see a yahrtzeit candle lit on Tishah B’Av in his parents’ home. He would look at his father, and see the grief in his eyes. The father would not say a word. But the son knew for whom the lamp burned.
Now, so many years later, we hear of her sometimes, mostly in relation to the story leading up to her tragic end. And yet, my grandfather’s joy for life is so great that it hides the agony of her loss. Once in a while, The sister Cheyved appears in other stories, rippling through my mind with a splash of slight surprise; she was a real person? But mostly, she is an unseen shadow; a presence that hides, emerges, and hides again. She is there and yet not there, the mystery sister so easily forgotten by a generation far removed.
* * *
I’m not sure how the conversation started.
“The shochet would always get one foot of the animal,” Zeide explains. “You put it into boiling water, then you took a knife and scraped off the fur and left the skin. You broke the foot and made galaretta…”
For some reason, I do not pursue exact details for this recipe. And yet, I cannot deny that I am fascinated. Images of Zeide Chezkele the shochet, bringing home furry calves’ feet for Baba Malya Raizel to boil in her pots…
“And she sold that, too,” Zeide continues proudly, picking up his praise of his mother as Mistress of the Home. “She always saved up her own money. She bought a bedroom set, a couch for the living room and nice curtains.”
This is fascinating. I almost bounce with excitement. My collection of stories, so often set against hazy brown wartime backgrounds, is now gaining a rich and colorful new setting. Who had thought…?
“She had a big mirror on top of a dresser that was part of the bedroom set,” Zeide says enthusiastically. I can see it right there in front of him; he is seeing it right now. “That set she bought when I was very little. I used to love to go into her bedroom because it was so beautiful. The polished matching pieces of furniture, the parquet floor…”
I watch a miniature Zeide in my mind, sliding across the shiny floor and making faces in the mirror.
Zeide continues seamlessly in the same tone. “When Cheyved was a little girl, she took a stone and threw it at the mirror, breaking it to pieces.”
I barely have time to gasp in my mind. Cheyved? The shadowed, half there-half gone Cheyved?
“Mother gave her petch for it,” Zeide says, his voice rich with sorrowful merriment. “Oh, that was her pride and joy, that mirror. It had taken her so many years to save up for it. It had three sides, so that when you looked in, you could see all sides of yourself.”
I see the three-way mirror on my mother’s dresser, transplanted to Dembitz, 1931. I see the pink in Zeide’s cheeks, heard the twinkle in his eyes, as he continues with gusto.
“They asked her, ‘Why did you break it?’ and she said, ‘I wanted little mirrors for myself, too!’”
I burst out laughing. What a kid!
“Oh, did Baba hit her,” Zeide says with that reluctant enjoyment again. “She was soooo stubborn… just like me.” I laugh again. Why does that particular adjective resonate so well in my mind…
“She did this in the morning,” Zeide continues. “Oh, did she get sore. She was crying the whole day.”
I hear it, right here, loudly in Zeide’s memory. It must have been yesterday, or even this morning.
“I remember the crying,” Zeide says. “It was driving me crazy. I was probably home sick; I was sick a lot as a child and often stayed home from cheder. I had to listen to her the whoooole day. She was screaming and screaming and just wouldn’t stop.”
I wait silently, mouth open, eyes wide. This is a new one.
“FINALLY she stopped.” I hear Zeide going for the punch line. “When she stopped, she saw everyone was soooo relieved.”
The scene appears, then populates, as I listen. Mother, perhaps Father… the maid? Other siblings home for lunch? Eyes wide with relief, glancing at each other, tentatively breathing easy sighs…
“She said, ‘Don’t worry, I didn’t stop, I’m just taking a rest.’ And later, sure enough, she started up again.”
My burst of laughter is joined by Zeide’s rich chuckles. I feel the heat of liveliness in him, as he feels his sister’s zesty oomph.
And I can only think of one thing. “Oh boy, Zeide… I guess she was a Reich… I guess she was a real Reich…” All the family stories — grandfather as a child, father as a child, us as children… and yes, in more measured tones, as adults… As my father is sometimes given to say with a sigh, “The Reichs are a stubborn nation…”
They tinkle through my mind, these memories. Baby Chezkel, gathering strength… joined now by little Cheyved, gathering strength to lustily scream out her injustice once more.
She is no longer a shadow, half-in, half-out, existing in stories and sepia tones.
This is Cheyved, Zeide’s dear sister. I was most like her out of all my siblings, I remember Zeide saying. Oh, she was a strong one, she was. Bits and pieces of feeling, streaming from memory into colorful life before me. Cheyved, who refused to go on the train, to be treated as an animal on the way to death. Cheyved, who threw her knapsack in the German’s face before she was shot.
But now the image is not clouded by tragedy. Now all I see is Cheyved, lustily alive, proclaiming the power of her existence loudly to the world.
It is this stubbornness that makes me laugh, that makes me see her, feel her, and know that we are of one blood. It is a push, a pulsing beat of strong awareness that says I am alive, pay attention to me. I will make my mark on the world. I will, I will; just watch.
As children, we may be called stubborn. And maybe as adults. But it is something special too.
This force, this drive, that says, I live, I live, and I will make this life worthwhile, I will, I will, I will be strong, despite everything, I will, I will… It is a hot force of life, knowing with clarity that you live, every moment, flowing through the generations, through life and death, through children and grandchildren, for all eternity.
This year I will join Zeide as he lights a candle on the eve of Tishah B’Av. I will stare into its depths, and I will see a flame that burned, and a soul that still burns on.
You are part of us, Sister-to-Zeide. And as long as we shall remember you, Cheyved, you live on inside us.