My Zayde (grandfather) was a first generation American. His parents’ families came to Ellis Island from Ukraine in 1904 and 1913 as a result of Jewish persecution – which sadly still exists today in that part of the world. Their lives were not easy but they worked hard to raise their family and they loved each other.
When my Zayde was very young he began experiencing things he felt weren’t normal. I don’t have a lot of details on this but I do know that he went to his mother at one point – a sick, fearful immigrant woman who had traveled from a country where people hated her merely for existing – and he told her something was wrong with him. She wouldn’t hear it. “Don’t say these things – they’ll put you away” she told him. So he was quiet.
Shortly after marrying my Bubbe (grandmother) at 26 years old he began experiencing symptoms that he could no longer ignore. He was volatile and paranoid. I can only imagine how terrifying this must have been for both of them. Dreams of the future they would have together dashed in the face of invisible monsters. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia soon after. Her family and his alike encouraged her to institutionalize him – put him away, move on, and pretend it never happened. Out of sight, out of mind I guess. A sign of the times – in the early 1950’s that’s just what people did.
Well not my Bubbe – she refused. He did not deserve that and so she stuck it out – for 47 years. Through 4 children and nearly 15 grandchildren – and now nearly 15 great grandchildren that they sadly did not live to meet – they were together. They fought constantly…well she fought with him and he listened and then basically just did whatever he was going to do anyway (like most husbands). There’s an entire book in this relationship that might get written one day but the long and the short of it is that their life was not easy but they worked hard to raise their family and they loved each other. There’s a theme here, I think. They didn’t have a lot, he spent months and months hospitalized over years when my father and his siblings were children. Bubbe was left holding all of the responsibilities for her family and still they managed to survive it. There are no children or grandchildren who love their matriarch and patriarch more than we do. They were loud and crazy and over the top with everything but man did they know how to show love – big love. They never met a stranger and I don’t care what anyone says that is all there is.
Zayde used to say “Zie gezunt” in Yiddish this means “be healthy” or “be well.” It strikes me that a man who spent his entire life sick, who came from little and – other than his big family – was never able to attain very much success in the world – he didn’t say be rich or be successful or be better – he merely said be well “Zie gezunt.” Not that there wasn’t pressure to be great – but it was from the perspective of what kind of person you were going to be. They showed us by example how to show love to others, what compassion looked like, and that they expected us to make the most of our talents – that we had an obligation to use our talents in the world. I felt that pressure – at times to my own detriment because I didn’t want to feel obligated to perform it scared me; but in the end it also drives me and I am enormously grateful for that. Though it took some time to get out of my own way. And every so often I jump back into my own path and feel the insecurities, doubts, and voices saying “who the hell do you think you are to expect greatness!”
Over the last year I have been working with local Holocaust survivors in Richmond preparing for a couple of programs around the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in January 2015. As part of these projects we conducted interviews with 8 of the 25 remaining survivors in our community. Their stories are some of the most remarkable things I have ever experienced and the people themselves are beyond description. They are strong and kind, loving and powerful. They are heroes. They are also very human, very real, and very honest. In one of the interviews one of the gentleman was asked what he would want others to know – and his reply was so simple it made me cry:
“Zie gezunt” he said “Be well. If you are alive you should be happy.”
If my Zayde could live with this motto and Holocaust survivors can live with this motto – then maybe we can do it too.
Zie gezunt, family. Until next time. xo