By Eden Witelson
My grandfather’s name was Wolf Witelson.
In an old photograph, he is a teenager, standing in front of a wall covered with a white cloth, smiling at the camera. He wears an old coat, and holds a wooden plaque with his name on it. My family called him Limey, but I called him Saba (“grandfather” in Hebrew). Saba Limey.
In a faded memory of Hanukkah from my childhood, many people that I don’t know are sitting around a large table with my Saba at the head. It is warm and loud, as conversation and laughter light up the room. My parents are there, my aunt, my uncle—and Rosa, an old cousin of my Saba that I have never met before. I see Rosa approach Saba, and I can sense his tension when she asks him if he was “there.” She says that she has a photo of him from “there.” The darkness in his eyes threatens to overwhelm the light in the room, but Saba just tells her that she’s wrong. She brandishes her arm to reveal a tattooed number, and asks him if he has a tattoo from “there” too. The old photograph of him is in her other hand. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” my grandfather snaps, and with that, he rises from his chair and goes outside to smoke. The outburst goes forgotten.
When Saba Limey was alive, I was too young to hear, much less understand, the stories about his life. Even as I got older, the details remained obscure. I was told that at merely the age of ten, he and his parents were taken to Ghetto Lodz by the Nazis. His parents saved his life when they put him on a train to England. I can imagine the fear he felt on the train, hear the words his mother spoke to him just before parting ways, and experience the crushing loneliness that must have enveloped him. In England, feeling abandoned by his parents, he refused to live with a foster family and joined the naval academy, becoming a captain at a very young age and adopting the British sailors’ nickname, Limey. He never saw his parents again.
In photos from that holiday party, I am a young boy playing with the other children. My grandfather stands reluctantly for photos, next to Rosa. What was their conversation all about? Where was she, and why did she think that Saba was there too?
In the last years before Saba Limey passed away, my family learned that my grandfather’s story was only a partial truth. From Lodz, my grandfather did not board a train to England, but to Auschwitz. From Auschwitz, he was sent to Gross-Rosen, where he lied about his age, pretending he was older. He survived until the end of the war working in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. That old photograph was taken at the end of World War II by relief workers that helped displaced children locate their families. [Editor’s note: the photograph was taken at Kloster Indersdorf.] Saba concealed this part of his life for more than sixty years, concealed it from his wife and his children, never telling another soul about it. Did he not want them to have to carry the weight of his past, as he did? Was he trying to confine his memories, his demons, and his pain within himself, grappling with them alone? If so, his choice seems to me a selfless one that must have taken bravery and courage.
People have different ways to heal from trauma. When I look at the old photo of him smiling at the camera and holding up the plaque with his name, I wonder if he already knew then that he would change his truth. I wonder if he succeeded in his effort to close the gate to his past. I wonder if the pain subsided. Did he end up believing the escape story that he created, or did it only become more painful because of the constant effort to forget, to hide it, to bury the experience within himself so deep that it would never resurface again?
I may never fully understand the gravity of my grandfather’s life, but I remember what he was like. I remember his loud, gruff voice; the strong, military air that he exuded; his furrowed brows and gnarled arms. He was a tough, hard man, a man who faced life’s horrors, survived, and kept on living. I don’t think I am betraying Saba Limey by trying to understand the memories he tried to forget. I hope I am honoring him. I know my grandfather’s life is an integral part of who I am. I wish I could have taken some of his pain away, helped with the heavy burden of his memories so that he would not need to endure it alone.
I wish I could go to the boy in the photo and tell him that he will have a family that will carry his name and remember his past, that we will know the truth and never forget.
Eden Witelson lives in Tenafly, NJ.