Unlocking a photo: My daughter and I confront the Holocaust

“Do you miss your grandmother?” my daughter asks me, and she’s talking about the one who is only a photograph to me. “What was she like?”

“I never knew her,” I say.

And then, I know it’s coming, the question I’m not ready to answer. Curiosity in her singsong voice: “How did she die?”

I don’t want to explain the Holocaust to a young child; I’m not ready for her to know that jarring history yet.

When I was a child and asked about my grandparents, my mother said they died in Europe during the war. And my child brain pictured them, in old age (even though they were not) dying in their sleep while a war battled on in the outskirts of their town. I didn’t question this vision until I was 12 and read Anne Frank’s diary. Years later, after being horrified by the nightmare world of concentration camps in Eli Weisel’s “Night,” I did ask for the grisly facts of my own relatives’ stories.

At the crack of dawn on April 23, 1942, my grandparents and 132 other local Jews boarded a boxcar in Aschaffenburg, Germany. From my mother’s heart-wrenching research we can determine only these gruesome outcomes: Upon reaching Izbica in Poland they may have been shot by soldiers and buried in a mass grave, or they were herded into the Krasnystaw Ghetto where they possibly survived until they were sent to an extermination camp — either Belzec or Sobibor — where most victims were gassed upon arrival. We have no facts, no death records, no eyewitness account, and because there is no definitive death scenario, I have never allowed myself to imagine one.

And sadly, because of this, I have also not imagined my grandmother’s life.

I have no sense of how she felt or smelled, if her curls were coarse or silky, if her voice was melodic or deep. I’ve never tried to conjure her up, until now, when my own daughter asks for details. I tell her that Oma (my mother) will tell her how my grandmother died, that I don’t know everything about it, which is both a delaying tactic and the truth.

“I know how you can feel close to her,” my daughter says in our Oakland home.

“How?” I’m curious.

She runs across the room and comes back with her hand clenched. In it is a silver thimble, well-worn and beautiful with hearts etched around the rim. My aunt, in preparation for a move, gave it to me; it once belonged to her mother, this grandmother my daughter is asking about. “Here,” she says, as she puts it in my hand, “If you wear it … well, she wore it. Right?”

For the first time, I allow myself to imagine. I wonder aloud if she used this silver thimble when she hemmed dresses for her four daughters, wonder silently what she was like as a mother, what she would have been like as a grandmother.

It’s not the thimble — there have been other items of My Mom’s Mother Who Died In the Holocaust: the eiderdown comforter I slept with as a child, the tablecloth she embroidered, the Kiddush cup I drank from at my wedding — but it’s my daughter’s questions, her eager desire to know about her ancestors, that bring up feelings I’ve long pushed aside. Anger and resentment hover near the surface. At night I protest through tears: I should have known them. It didn’t have to be this way.

When it’s quiet in the house and I’m alone the next morning, I go to the glass cabinet in the dining room and pull out the bronze-framed wedding photo of my grandparents. They are younger than I am now, their heads tilt towards each other, curls touching, their intelligent eyes gazing intently at the photographer and out beyond, now at me. What would they say to me if they could? What stories and horror would they tell? What exactly do I want to know?

I’ll hand this picture to my daughter. She can trace her finger over the curls and the lacy fabric of the wedding dress, over the handlebar moustache of her great-great-grandfather. She can ask her own questions and I’ll pose mine, and we’ll ask my mother, her grandmother, together.

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected].