By Rutie EckdishEvery morning, I get up, walk to my bathroom, turn on the hot water and stand under the shower to get my 60+ year old bones to work, and I think of my grandmother. No, I don’t think of the fake showers of the concentration camps, as you probably thought. When my grandmother, Flora Lotte Paradies, nee Loëwenstein was 60+, she was, indeed, taken from her home, along with most of the Jews of southern Germany, and sent west to one of the many German “holding camps” on the Spanish-French border, known generically as Gurs.
I am now about the same age she was when she was taken away from her home. When she was my age, Flora Lotte had no shower, no hot water, no running water, no food, no paper to write on, no band aid to put on a sore finger, no cream to put on her face. She had no towel, no toilet paper, no toilet to speak of. And in those conditions, she lived for over 4 years.
When she was my age, my grandmother was put on a train with her husband, Julius Paradies, taller than she was by 2 feet and 2 years younger, and sent west to the unknown. The trip took several days, and if she had a place to sit, she probably shared it with him, or with other people. They each had a suitcase, probably, packed with the things you take when going to the unknown. Toiletry? Towels? Toilet paper? Books? What do you take when you don’t know where you are going to nor for how long or what to expect? Do you take slippers? Shoes, I was told by others, was the first thing you lost as you stepped off the train and set foot in the muddy soil of the Pyrenees mountains. Do you take your address book with you? Your favorite fountain pen or a pencil? And what do you do when you ran out of ink? How many clothes can you stuff into one small suitcase, and what happened to the coat you took off in the suffocating, stuffy, airless train ride?
When the train stopped, Omi and Julius and the others on that train arrived in Gurs, or in Récébédou, or in Nexon, or in one of the other satellite camp in the PyreneesMountains. The camps were originally erected as interim housing for 15-20 thousand Spanish refugees after the Spanish civil war by the French government. The Germans took it over in 1940 and housed, by some accounts, over 120,000 people, most of them Jewish, with no upgrades: no baths, no showers, no running water, no food, no shelter from the rain other than leaking roofs, no shelter from the scorching heat other than tar-covers roofs in the long summers, no shelter from the howling winds other than drafty walls in the awful long winters. No place to hide your few valuables you brought along to barter or bribe or maybe save. No where to place your spoon if you brought one or if you found one. No place to hang your towel, if you had one. No closet, no shelf, no cover, no pillow. No safe place to put your glasses when you take them off at night. No soap, once the piece you were smart enough to bring with you was gone, or maybe fell into the mud and you lost it when you walked for the first time to the make-shift sink.
No place of your own.
For over 4 years.
When I was little, I had various nicknames. My favorite was ‘the Little Paradies’, because, so I was told, I looked like her. I could never see it, of course. I recall being about 8 or 10, standing next to her and asking her if I will ever be as tall as she was. In no time, she answered me, though I could not see it. Just a few years later I towered over her 4’-10”, and she reminded me of that conversation. She was protective and she loved me, and she laughed with me. She was all that a grandma should be: loving without reservations, generous, smiling, and above all imbuing in me the sense of worth of my own importance as a person.
I have pictures of my Omi and me as I grew up, and as I age I see the family resemblance. I have pictures at home all around me of both my grandfathers whom I never met and of my Eckdish grandmother who was deported and died in the Piaski Camp, in the east. I have since lost my father, and my mother who died 34 years after him. I come from a line of longevity: My Omi died peacefully at her home in Israel near me and with my mother (her daughter) present, at the age of 92 of heart failure due to old age.
As I grow older, I become more aware of my parents and grandparents. I am less angry at what was not said or not shared; and I understand that much better how they lived, loved, interpreted their realities, what they learned and what they taught me. And what I learned from each. The older I get, the closer I get to the visceral and existential survival of the daily horrors. I get up every morning, gingerly and safely walk to my bathroom, turn on the hot water to the right heat and stand under the shower to rinse my eyes and start the day – and I think of my Omi. I can’t help it: I feel guilty for having the luxuries she was denied for over four year. And I cannot shake the sense that I would not have survived her ordeal. My Omi was not a hero, and I am not a coward. She came out of this imprisonment without ever calling it hardship, imprisonment, captivity, or denial. She put it behind her and never talked about it. My sister and I never asked, fearing of awakening in her nightmares she probably had and never shared. My Omi never told us about it in fear of awakening in us nightmares.
So I have my day-mares.
I feel guilty when I pick up my glasses off the shelf, take out clean underwear from the drawer, pick out another clean shirt I did not wear yesterday, lace my shoes up, and sit down to have a breakfast of champions. Every morning, as I get up and walk to my bathroom, turn on the hot water and stand under the shower to get my 60+ year old bones to work, I think of my warmly smiling grandmother who would probably have the right words to say to sooth my pain of guilt and inadequacy.
Few books were written about the endurance of the concentration camps that were not the crematoria or did not have death march, did not have the horrible factories, the hundreds of camps that were not freed by the Allies, the thousand of people who endured day after day for years in camps that no movie were made for. So, I carry the guilt of mundane forgetfulness, too.
One of my 7th grade students came back from a trip to Europe and asked to share his experience with his the class. No special occasion, no Holocaust day. Steven brought to class 6 x 8 pictures and passed them around. The pictures showed the long benches of the concentration camps, the mounds of shoes and glasses, and the likes. I have to admit I was unmoved by seeing it again. Then, Steven showed a picture of a niche with a bucket and said: this was the bathroom. There were some uncomfortable giggles, and then the questions: where is the door, or a curtain? Water? Sink? And then the giggles became very uncomfortable, when the realization set in: this was not about 6 million, or about the endless rows of torture. This is about the daily humanity stripped. And this bathroom – so to speak – is a universal value, it seems.
The Holocaust is indeed the attempt not only to annihilate the existence of Jewish people, it was an attempt to strip individuals of their humanity and human values. Among the few things Flora Lotte Paradies brought with her from the camp is a piece of brown paper with some colored drawing, a thank-you note from one of her colleagues for the piece of bread she shared on her friend’s birthday. And that is what I think of as I step out of my warm shower into my day.
Rutie Eckdish is currently a full time freelance Hebrew – English court and conference interpreter as well as medical and legal translator. She is a veteran Hebrew teacher and now teaches adults in private setting.