Corn poppies, the national flower of Poland. via Flickr/Smo_Q
There is a tattoo on my nana Hana's left arm.
The first time I paid attention to it, I was four. We were playing Go Fish when I asked her why somebody had doodled on her, and for a moment she seemed confused, before realizing what exactly I had noticed. The letter, the numbers. I don't remember much of it, just that one of my parents stepped in, ready to defuse a conversation too complicated for a small child, too dark, too incomprehensible to adult minds let alone a child's – and that my grandmother held up that hand and stopped them, then extended it to me, took mine.
"Because some people didn't know how strong I was," she said, "but I proved them wrong."
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 Allied front approached. Her father, mother, and three older brothers were murdered at Birkenau.
But 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 a displaced persons camp near Munich. Her little body had been ravaged by malnutrition and then 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 herself wrong.
When she was 18, 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. Within a year of their marriage they had moved to the United States, and were looking to start a business together. It was the week they arrived in Los Angeles that Hana learned she was pregnant with her first child – 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 how to prepare 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 English words to her to test her memory of the Polish equivalent, 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."
I hope and pray that I did, and that I do.
Last Monday, I took the overnight shift at Hana's bedside. It had been a long time since she had been fully herself, but the last six months were a swift decline. It was painful for my mother and her siblings, incomprehensible, and they did not quite know how to communicate it to us, her grandchildren, shocking us all in the last six weeks with just 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 have arrived stateside last week for a prior commitment when my father called, told me what my mother clearly couldn't – that I should come home.
It was shocking to me how distant Hana was, how frail, how drastically her vibrance had fled her in only a few months. Crass or thoughtless as it was, I could not help but think of the teenage girl she had once been, alone, thin, scared, struggling to communicate, liberated yet hardly free.
I was alone with her and one of the night nurses when she started to cry, fidgeting, weeping with obvious and palpable distress, "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 him, said she needed him to help her. I knew she could not comprehend that he wasn't there. All that came to me was to try and convey to her, somehow, wordlessly, that he was coming, and soon. At least, I prayed he'd come to her soon – that he'd be there for her on the other side to help her on her way.
I tried to hold her hand again, but she flailed away, and her 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 the bruise she left prominent on my face, by then that desaturated blue-brown-purple of decay, too painful to the touch to attempt to conceal with makeup. A person like Hana should've been riddled with bruises, permanent ones, the invisible ones of injustice, trial, sacrifice, loss. But she found light in the rainbow of color through which bruises heal, reveled in the journey, multiplied what happinesses she could, the better to ward off whatever pain came. As we grew up, she'd ultimately tell us the stories of her childhood, her adolescence in the ghetto, of Auschwitz. But then she would tell us with delight of the day she saw our grandfather for the first time, how a corner of her pain transformed to hope when he smiled at her. There was no malice in her, no hate, all of it repurposed into the life she led, one of professional success and personal victory, of passing through then rising above circumstance. The 9-year-old girl forced into a ghetto lived to nearly 90 in a free country. The young refugee who thought she could never have a family was buried with the help of her great-grandchildren.
The bruise she left me is an ugly yellow now, fading. I went back to work early this morning, and the makeup assistant asked about it as she covered it, painless now.
"Got in a street fight?" she asked, jokingly, innocently.
"Underestimated my nana," I said. "I didn't know how strong she was."
Zichronah livracha. May her memory be a blessing.