01 Feb My Grandmother Survived the Holocaust
My grandmother told me this story. Her name was Charani. She was born in Poland and came of age as Hitler’s Reich swept across Europe with all the inexorability of the tide.
Her father, Kem, was a cobbler of extraordinary talent. He could create a pair of good, strong shoes from garbage. This was an unusual gift, and even though they lived in a more enlightened age, many of his neighbors believed it was at least partly magic. At some point the neighbors collectively decided that Kem could enchant shoes. So they came to him, asking for luck, wisdom, and – as that terrible death tide ebbed ever closer – safety.
Kem was such a successful cobbler that he and his wife, Zofia, began to hope that they might one day be wealthy. They dreamed of a large shoe shop for Kem, of purebred dogs for Charani, expansive gardens for Zofia, and a large, airy house for all of them.
It seemed not only possible, but certain. That the sheer force of Kem’s devotion and talent would effortlessly create a happy ending.
But as they would soon learn, there are things even a father’s love cannot prevent or overcome.
Now, Charani had many friends, so she naturally heard rumors of her father’s benevolent sorcery. These stories both frightened and excited her. One night she went to Kem and asked, “Papa, is it true you make magic shoes?”
He pulled her onto his lap, laughing. “Maybe I could.”
“But do you?”
He ruffled her hair. “I think I did once, and I suppose I could again, but only for those I love.”
Charani found this answer deeply unsatisfying. “What does that mean?”
“It means that love is the only real magic, my darling.”
He then ushered her off to help Zofia. Charani did as he bade, even though she felt annoyed and dissatisfied. Her father always spoke in riddles and nonsense poetry. But that, she supposed, was the price one paid for a kind and gentle father. And it was quite a low price, when all was said and done.
Because her father was so talented, her childhood passed unblighted by his heritage. Not until her eleventh birthday did the neighbors begin a campaign of harassment. It built so slowly that they hardly noticed it, until finally – one terrible, hot day – the butcher refused to sell meat to Kem. “All out,” he said gruffly. “Come back another time.”
Kem thought nothing of it, and moved on to the next shop, where he received the same dismissal. He tried other stores, other shops, and each one turned him away.
At first, Kem refused to believe that something was wrong. You see, Kem was a terribly sweet and loving man, hardworking, honest to the point of naivety. All he wanted was a good life for his family. Each day, year in and year out, his only goals were to keep their hearts happy, their bellies full, and their bodies warm and safe. Charani told me, always, that Kem was the perfect father.
But even perfect fathers cannot turn bad neighbors into good, brave men, and the shunning of Charani’s family continued.
At first, they assumed it was because Kem’s family was Romany. Outsiders, undesirables, rat people, gypsies, so low they were beneath even the Jews, who Hitler called the “race tuberculosis” of the world. As food became scarcer and people became more afraid, they turned on each other, casting even their kindest neighbors out of the fold.
And maybe Kem’s Roma blood was the problem at first. And it would have been bad enough.
But then a neighbor – some cruel, petty, panicked neighbor – reported that Charani’s mother, Zofia, was a Jew.
The Nazis came soon after, violently tearing Charani’s family and dozens of others away from the city and forcing them into a cold, filthy ghetto far away from home.
Zofia and Charani wept every day, and so did Kem for a little while. But a good father’s love and duty knows no bounds, so he pulled himself together and plied his trade within the confines of the ghetto. He had no materials with which to make new shoes, but with a few scraps and pieces of rubbish he could make any shoe as good as new.
Now, because of Zofia, the family had gone to a Jewish ghetto. Most of the people there refused to associate with Kem since he was a gypsy.
A few didn’t mind his gypsy-ness, however, and they brought their shoes to Kem regularly. They asked him for blessings, for magic, and – because it couldn’t hurt, because it created hope and hope is a beautiful thing, sometimes the only beautiful thing we have – Kem happily blessed each pair brought to him.
Whispers persisted of gypsy magic and dirty fraud, of course. But customers still came, intent of buying one last piece of hope. Prayer wasn’t working, you see, and gypsy magic had become their last defense against the hideous rumors coming out of the east.
Charani didn’t know how long she lived in the ghetto, only that it probably was not as long as it seemed. Toward the end, Kem became more obsessed than ever with shoes – specifically, new shoes for Charani and for Zofia. Back in the city, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Here in the ghetto, though, there was almost nothing to work with. So he improvised. Charani didn’t have the stomach to confirm it, but she suspected a few rats and cats sacrificed their skins for these shoes.
Kem worked for weeks on the shoes, frantic and feverish. “You need them,” he told Charani. “You’ve outgrown your old ones. Winter is almost here, and I’ll be damned if I don’t fulfill my duty to you.” He said this often, at least once a week, and wept every time.
Finally, on her thirteenth birthday – just as the season’s first bitter snowfall drifted down from a cold iron sky – the train came for her family.
The Nazis stuffed them into crowded, icy cars with hundreds of other people. There were no blankets in the train cars, no straw, not even solid walls. Holes bored through the cheap wood, and the planks fit together badly, leaving large cracks around which ice blossomed.
By this time, all three of them were terribly ill. Zofia had it worst: a deep, wet sickness had settled in her chest, squeezing her lungs and stealing her air each time she drew a ragged breath.
That illness claimed Zofa on the second night. She died with her frail body curled around Kem’s. Charani desperately held her mother’s hands and breathed on them, praying the warmth might revive her.
But it didn’t, and Zofia died as the moon rose over the hills, spilling heartless cold light through the cracks and holes in the siding.
Charani wept helplessly as Kem – in his own way, equally helpless – began to work. Charani cried herself to sleep. Kem labored into the night, working his stiff, withered hands to the bone.
Sometime midmorning, Charani awoke wrapped in her mother’s stiff arms. She disentangled herself and noticed that Kem had removed Zofia’s shoes.
Charani screamed and used all her strength to try and pry her mother’s shoes from her father’s hands. But Kem was far too strong for her, far too determined; no matter what she did, he continued to work, impervious to her rage.
So profound was Charani’s pain that she didn’t even know what Kem was doing, nor did she care.
On the fourth day at sunrise, the train stopped. Around her, surviving passengers wept and screamed and clutched the dead bodies of their lost loved ones. Despite her anger and deep sense of betrayal, Charani crawled to her father as the doors shuddered open, blinding them with clear morning light.
Kem held her, whispering nonsensical assurances as the guards boarded the car and threw everyone off.
They’d been deposited at a rail junction. Their train, newly empty, chugged off the way it had come. Two other trains waited, engines sending stinking clouds of exhaust into the otherwise pristine air.
Charani noticed none of this; she was only painfully, deliciously aware of the frosted grass under her feet, of clear yellow sun and the dramatic interplay of light and blue shadow on the mountains around them. A stream burbled nearby. She ran to it, heart aching; Charani hadn’t seen running water in what felt like a hundred years. She collapsed by the stream. Grass and soft earth cushioned her fall. In spite of her sickness, she dipped both hands into the stream and splashed her face. It was terribly cold, so cold it hurt her skin and stung her eyes and sent sharp pains rocketing through her skull, but it was beautiful. It was clean.
Kem came up beside her and swept her hair back from her face. “Charani. Charani, my darling. They are going to separate us.”
Horror and desperate sorrow seized Charani.
“I heard them,” he continued. Tears shimmered in his eyes. Charani began to cry. “They are separating the men from the women. Take these.” He presented the shoes, her mother’s shoes – only they were not her mother’s shoes, at least not entirely; new leather and sturdy soles gleamed in the morning light. As she wept, Kem slipped her old shoes off and laced the new ones on. “Don’t take them off. Not for anything or anyone, not until you are safe.” He tied off each shoe, then grabbed Charani’s hands. “I love you, Charani. More than anything, more than my life, more than God.”
Before Charani could answer, the guards came and pulled them apart, because there are things even a father’s love cannot stop.
She screamed and kicked as they dragged her away. Her father stood by the stream, watching her with haunted eyes. Only then did she see that her father, her poor helpless father, was barefoot.
She struggled, shrieking at the top of her lungs, until a guard hit her in the head with the butt of his rifle. Stars rocketed across her vision, and darkness overtook her.
Charani never saw Kem again.
She woke aboard the new train, only fifteen minutes from the camp.
As the prisoners exited the train, guards sorted them into groups. The vast majority of the women and children were shunted toward low grey buildings belching smoke into the sky.
Charani expected to go with them, but one of the guards – narrow-faced, with luxurious black hair – pulled her aside with an appraising look her. Then – even though she was frail and white-faced, half-starved and clearly ill – he shoved her toward the other line. Toward the strong-bodied workers.
Guards took rings and papers and trinkets and all remaining belongings from the other prisoners. Charani expected they would take her shoes, but they merely shoved her through without a second look.
Life at the camp was a frozen, lonely hell, although it quickly became apparent that Charani was decidedly less frozen than her companions.
Though the cold, deadly winter subsumed the camp, the Nazis gave no quarter; every inmate, no matter how ill, hungry, or frail, was forced to work. Even as shoes wore down to nothing and clothing drifted away thread by thread, the Nazis made the prisoners perform pointless – and pointlessly cruel – labor for hours each day. Infection and frostbite ran rampant. On the worst days, Charani watched in horror as women and men, delirious with fever, snapped their frozen toes off one by one.
Charani’s toes never froze; her father’s shoes made sure of that. In fact, no part of her froze. She was not comfortable, not by any means, but she was all right. Even on the worst days, the coldest days, the days she woke up to the frozen corpses of her fellow inmates, she barely even shivered.
Most amazing of all, the nights were tolerable. Charani rather believed this was the hallucination of a deluded mind, however. Because on the nights when she was most comfortable, she would feel something warm and liquid creep up from her feet and spread up over her head. As winter raged on, visions began to accompany this creeping warmth: translucent fur, smooth and short, like the house cat she’d fed in the ghetto. Even more strangely, dim stars shone within the fur: tiny yellow pinpricks, twinkling in the soft, warm darkness.
She could still see the barracks through this queer invisible skin, still hear the cries and screams of the women around her, even the wails from the men’s barracks. But she felt insulated from all of it. Separated.
Delusion or not, this warmth allowed her to rest when no one else could, and kept her reasonably healthy even as people withered to frozen revenants around her.
It made Charani sad, but distantly so; she had no friends in the barracks. She’d seen the way they snuck and stole from each other, the way they raided the fresh corpses every morning. She’d seen the other inmates eyeing her shoes, seen the covetousness in their eyes, and was deeply afraid that she would be killed for them.
One brutal winter morning, during a pointless mission dragging logs all the way across the camp, she heard something so beautiful she thought it was a hallucination. A soft, sweet voice, drifting up and down in a beautiful, wordless song.
Charani glanced around her. The guards paid her no attention. They were miserably cold and deeply disgruntled, stamping their feet and conversing amongst themselves as the inmates toiled. The black-haired guard was there. He glanced at her once, then returned his attention to his companion.
Charani saw her chance and ducked away.
She found the singer pressed against the fence of the farthest barracks. He was small and frail, barely taller than Charani. His face was terribly pale and monstrously thin, but his eyes were beautiful and kind. Like her, he wore a threadbare uniform. Unlike hers, it was emblazoned with a faded pink triangle. Charani thought it rather pretty, and told him so.
He shook his head blearily, then smiled. Charani scanned the area. The guards were still occupied. So she leaned in, curling her fingers around the frozen wire of the fence, and said: “You have a beautiful voice. What is your name?”
The man shook his head and made nonsense sounds. When she still didn’t understand, he sang a swift, liquid scale, holding his mouth open. That’s when she saw: he had no tongue.
Deep sorrow crushed her, the worst she’d felt since they took her away from her father. She thrust her bony wrists through the fence and impulsively grabbed the mute man’s hand. He grasped it with both of his and squeezed. Tears spilled down his face, and he smiled again. He held up a hand, ensuring he had her attention, then reached down and raked a fingertip through the dirt, spelling out his name:
Then a guard finally noticed them. Flat gray sky glimmered off familiar black hair as he surged forward, breaking them apart and dragging Charani away. By this time, Charani knew better than to fight. She couldn’t help but look back over her shoulder. Lukasz of the pink triangle rose clumsily to his feet, looking stricken and angry.
That was how Charani met her only friend in the entire camp.
Every day she went to see him, bringing scraps of food – at first pieces from her own bowl, and later gifts from the black-haired guard. Lukasz couldn’t speak, but he wrote well and quickly. He was a singer from Berlin, only nineteen years old. He’d been incarcerated for homosexual behavior. When he disclosed this to her, he glanced up at her anxiously, awaiting judgment that never came. Charani did not care. Love was the only real magic in the world, and it didn’t matter to her who shared love with whom.
The men with the pink triangles were tortured and subjected to hideous experiments, more so even than the other prisoners. Lukasz had been injected with all manner of chemicals and poisons. When that failed, the Nazis had boiled his manhood away so that he could never practice his perversion again. Others had been used as targets for trainee SS officers. Lukasz himself was not sure why or how he was alive. He was thin, sickly, and crippled now. He proved this by pulling off his thin slippers, revealing several missing toes.
Every day, Charani held Lukasz’s hands and wished, from the bottom of her heart, for a second pair of magic shoes.
Their friendship was quickly noticed. The black-haired guard didn’t like their bond, and soon enough stopped sending her to Lukasz’s side of the camp. The guards found other women, sicker women, to perform their pointless chores, and confined Charani to the barracks. It angered her, but it was also a relief. She was able to sleep more, able to lose herself in the soft sleek fur and warm stars of her invisible shoe cocoon. The more time she spent inside it, the warmer it seemed.
One night, on impulse, she extended her fingertips and nervously began to stroke the air around her. He fingers touched nothing, but noticeable warmth grew around her. After a while, a low, comforting hum reverberated through her bones, a physical lullaby, and lulled her to sleep.
Still, Charani found little joy in her plight. She was forced to lounge about, wallowing in relative comfort she couldn’t share, as sicker women suffered and died.
And it got worse. Food became sparser, yet the black-haired guard insisted on slipping her scraps of food from his table. She hated him for it, and every day resolved to toss the food on the ground and grind it into the dirt. But every day she was too hungry, and every day she accepted his little favors, even as the other inmates starved.
It was worse, somehow, that anything else she had gone through.
Her only comforts were thoughts of her parents; her memories of Lukasz; and of course her strange, invisible shoe guardian. She’d taken to stroking it every night, thanking it – and Kem – for its protection.
As winter bled slowly into a crisp, bitter spring, her fellow inmates continued to die. At first the barracks refilled, but even that trickled to a stop. Whether it was because the Nazis had truly managed to finally kill all the Jews, or because they were diverting new prisoners to other camps, she didn’t know.
All she knew was one night, her last companion died, leaving her alone in the frosty barracks. As she lay on her thin, cold bed, dreamily stroking her invisible protector, the door clattered open and the black-haired guard entered.
Charani sat up, willing her heart to stop pounding. The familiar warmth evaporated, shrinking down to her shoes and disappearing.
Cold broke over her like a dark, cruel tide, and for the first time since entering the camp, Charani began to shiver.
The guard approached, boots snapping against the hard ground. Moonlight reflected off his black hair, turning it to blued silver.
He stopped before her bed. “You bitch,” he said softly. Charani recoiled. His voice was strange, almost dreamy. “You filthy, teasing little whore.” Each word produced a heavy cloud that stank of cheap liquor. “You know what I want. Every day I show you. Every day I give you food from my table. I go without, so that you can have something.” He angrily indicated the empty barracks. “Do you see? You are the only one left. That is because of me. I saved your life. I am still saving your life.” He wrapped a hand around her throat, a gesture that was falsely tender and gravely threatening. “You have never thanked me, but you will tonight.”
The guard pushed her down.
And suddenly, Charani was flooded with warmth. Blazing, purifying heat. The guard screeched and reared back, falling to the floor. He stood, eyes blazing in the clear spring moonlight, and charged. The warmth disappeared from her suddenly. Panic immobilized her. The beautiful warmth had been her guardian’s last stand, and it was finally over.
She closed her eyes, waiting for the end as the guard screamed with rage.
Or was it terror?
He screamed again, but fell silent far too quickly, almost as if he’d been cut off.
After a long time, Charani finally opened her eyes.
Before her, barely visible in the darkness, was an undulating shape covered in soft dark fur and glimmering stars. The guard was nowhere to be seen.
After a while, the starry fur wrapped itself around her. Warmth, beautiful and soothing and hot as a summer’s day, enveloped her, along with profound tiredness.
“Thank you,” Charani whispered, and fell asleep.
The camp was liberated not long after. Charani was still the last in her barracks, but far from the last in the camp. She exited the gates, shouldering her way through the chaos trying to ignore the horror on the faces of the soldiers around her as she scanned the crowd for Lukasz.
Finally she saw him. Her face broke into a smile and she ran over, but quickly saw that something was wrong. Her smile turned into a frown when she understood: Lukasz was on the wrong side of the fence. Still imprisoned. He stared out at her with fear and a serenely profound sadness.
Panicked, Charani ran to one of the soldiers and tugged his sleeve. He reluctantly faced her, unable to hide the revulsion in his eyes. She pointed desperately to Lukasz and mimed unlocking a door. The soldier’s face hardened. “No. Criminals,” he said. “Crim-in-als. You understand? They stay here.”
Then he patted her head awkwardly and walked away.
Charani ran to a hundred guards, just as her father had gone to a hundred shops an eternity ago. Some laughed. A handful hugged her. Most, however, gruffly repeated the word: “Criminals.”
Soon, far too soon, it was time to leave. And still, Lukasz languished behind the fence. Charani would escape. She would survive. But Lukasz, poor sweet frail Lukasz, would continue to suffer.
She ran her hands along the fence, scrabbling for a weak spot, a hole, anything she could tear open. But there was nothing. After a while Lukasz gently took her hands and began to sing. Charani sobbed. Soon Lukasz’s fine wordless voice wavered, then broke, and then he was crying, too.
Suddenly, Charani had an idea.
A soldier came to her nervously. “Time to go,” he said.
Charani sat down and feverishly began to untie her shoes. The soldier watched, nonplussed, as she pulled the shoes off and heaved them over the fence at Lukasz.
“Put them on.” It was a battle to keep her voice steady, one she almost lost. “Don’t take them off, never take them off, not until you are safe.” Lukasz stared at her, frightened and hurt and terribly confused. “PUT THEM ON!” she screamed. This broke his paralysis, and he did as she asked, shucking his worn slippers and lacing the boots over his feet. Even though they were women’s shoes they fit him because his feet were narrow and he had almost no toes.
Then the soldier led her away. Unable to help herself, Charani looked back over her shoulder. Lukasz clung to the fence, watching her go. Maybe it was her imagination, but it didn’t look like he was shivering anymore.
A few years later, Charani married an American soldier and emigrated. I am happy to say Lukasz survived and that Charani’s husband, my grandfather, helped her bring him to America. Lukasz was still crippled and frail, and though he died long before I was born, he lived with my grandparents the rest of his life. My own father remembers him with utmost affection as Uncle Luke.
When they found him, he no longer had the shoes. With great hesitation, he wrote that he had passed the boots along to a friend, one destined to remain imprisoned long after Lukasz himself was released. He was afraid Charani would hate him for it, but she only smiled, because love is magic and magic is love, and even though a father’s sacrifice cannot always save the world, it can save the lives of his children and their dearest loved ones.
And it did.