Hana Brukner was nine years old when her family was incarcerated in the Łódź Ghetto, fourteen when deported to Auschwitz. By all reason, she should not have survived, not when so many others did not, not when she and her family were within one of the last waves deported to death camps, a liquidation of assets, a frantic act of genocide as the war looked to be lost. Her father, mother, and three older brothers were murdered at Birkenau. But somehow they didn't know how strong Hana was, and she proved them wrong.
Hana weighed only 80 pounds when the camps were liberated – or at least, that was the estimate of a doctor who saw her when she arrived in the displaced persons camp near Munich. Her little body had been ravaged by malnutrition and starvation, stress and trauma. At nearly sixteen, she'd gotten her period only a handful of times before it stopped coming. Her family was gone, and it seemed she would never have one of her own, one last injustice thrust upon her by the Nazis. But even Hana didn't know how strong Hana was, and she proved her wrong.
Just before her 18th birthday, Hana met Ahron Rosenburg. He had grown up in Munich, found his way back there after the war. He was alone, too, the only survivor in his family. But then they had each other, and they quickly married. Soon, they had moved to the United States, started a life together. It was the week they arrived in Los Angeles that Hana learned she was pregnant – a new life, in a new country. She went on to have four more children, one of whom is my mother, Leah. There was loss, too. Though she had five children, she had three more pregnancies that ended in miscarriage, and very nearly bled to death giving birth to her youngest, my aunt. She knew how strong she was by then, and proved it.
When Hana was 87, I asked her to come with me to Poland. She had not returned since the liberation, and while my mother and I worried over making her comfortable for the long flight, talked about preparing her if she elected to join me to introduce the film I would be there to share, she quietly mumbled to herself, convincing herself that people there would understand her if she tried to speak Polish, the language of her childhood. She worried the whole flight there, asked me to say random words to her to test her memory, grew frustrated if she slipped into Yiddish or German instead. But when we arrived in Warsaw, Hana pushed us out of the way at every opportunity, made her way to anyone to whom we were being introduced, would take their hand in her right, and grab me with her left, and say, "Moja wnuczka, Eleanor." My granddaughter, Eleanor. "Zrobiła film." She made a movie.
I had sought Hana's blessing for that movie. It was about something I had long avoided, a subject I'd told my agent I wouldn't consider, because it was my grandparents', but not mine. But she had brought me this anyway, a film set in Poland when my grandmother was a child, and so I brought it to Hana. We talked about it over many hours, most of which were selfish on my part, parsing the pros and cons with her patient counsel when the only opinion that mattered to me was hers. It was not about me, and I finally saw clear of my angst to just ask her. She took my hands and said, "They underestimated us, and now here you are. The world underestimates women, but here you are, here this story is. Go show them how strong we are."
The other night, I took the overnight shift at Hana's bedside. It had been a long time since she had been herself, but the last six months were a swift decline, painful for my mother and her siblings, made harder still that they did not quite know how to communicate it to us, her grandchildren, shocking us all in the last six weeks with how poorly our nana was doing, how much of her memory she'd lost, how much of herself. I've been working overseas, but I happened to be stateside last week for a prior commitment when my father called, told me what my mother clearly couldn't – that I should come home. I was shocked to a place beyond tears to see how distant Hana was, how frail. Crass or thoughtless as it was, I couldn't help but think of that teenage girl, alone, thin, in a different country, liberated yet hardly free.
I was alone with her and one of the night nurses when she started to cry, fidgeting, weeping with obvious pain in her voice, "Help me." I tried to hold her hand, stroke her arm, and she was having none of it. She asked for my grandfather, asked us to find Ahron, she needed his help. I knew she could not comprehend that he wasn't there, but nor did I have the heart to say the thing that came to me, which was that he was coming, and soon. At least, I prayed he'd come to her soon. I tried to hold her hand again, but she flailed away from me, and her left hand hit my jaw, hard. I didn't know how strong she was. One last time, she proved me wrong.
I went to Hana's funeral two days later with her bruise on my jaw. It was fully purple by then, that desaturated blue-black-purple of decay. A person like Hana should've been riddled with bruises, permanent ones, the invisible ones of injustice, trial, sacrifice, bittersweet joy amidst loss. But she found light in the rainbow of color through which bruises heal, multiplied what happinesses she could, the better to ward off the pain. As we grew up, she'd ultimately tell us the stories of her childhood in the Łódź Ghetto, of Auschwitz, of the day she saw our grandfather for the first time, how a corner of her pain transformed to hope. There was no malice in her, no hate, all of it repurposed into the life she led, one of professional success and personal victory. The 9-year-old girl forced into a ghetto lived to nearly 90. The young refugee who thought she could never have a family was buried with the help of her great-grandchildren.
The bruise is an ugly yellow now, fading. I went back to work today, and the makeup assistant asked about it as she covered it.
"Got in a street fight?" she asked, jokingly.
"Underestimated my nana," I said. "I didn't know how strong she was."