My grandmother only told part of the story of her escape from Europe. I know her brother and father died. I know she ended up in Switzerland where she met my grandfather. I know she was very beautiful, from her own telling and the photos, and that her beauty helped her get by. I know she missed Paris, where she saw Edith Piaf singing on the street when she was just a girl. I don’t know a lot more than this. The memories of the ugliness of humanity must have stung too deep.
My grandmother was Hélène Diamant, mother of my mother, and she died in October 2017. She was not a pinch-your-cheeks-and-bake-you-pies kind of grandmother. She’d rather discuss what she’d seen on MSNBC and force feed you soup. There were moments of softness in her South Carolina home when I was younger; teaching me to sew a bit, laughing at my grandfather’s jokes. The two could not have been more opposite—he a perennial optimist, she a total cynic. Her cynicism, I think, kept her sharp. She did not suffer fools. She got behind political candidates who were telling her truth. She argued fiercely with everyone who disagreed with her. She liked to drink water with a large squeeze of lemon and some Splenda.
I wish I knew more. I wish she’d talked about her brother and father so I knew more than just their names. I wish she had shared her full experience so that we could retell it and honor her memory, her hardship, her personal triumph over evil. When I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in high school, I wish I could have asked her questions afterwards, to create a more personal connection to the powerful experiences I had there.
I know one thing, though, and it’s that my grandparents’ experience helped shape my activism today. Because I know that if any of us are not free, none of us are free. That we are able to fight for justice, and it is our responsibility to do so. That we cannot sit idly by and just watch evil happen to our neighbors. My grandparents’ strength to survive all those years ago, even if I don’t have the full picture, has made me who I am. So despite the fact that Hélène kept so much from us, she gave me her fighting spirit, and the unwillingness to accept that there are things in this world I cannot change.
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