My grandfather was born in Warsaw on October 26, 1911, the youngest of seven and the only boy. His name was Motel (pronounced mut-TEL) Rajsman. He had green eyes and thick black hair, although by the time I knew him, only silver wisps remained, clinging stubbornly to the sides of his pale head.
His father died when he was a young man, so my grandfather dropped out of school to help operate the family's butcher shop. All of his sisters were married with children. My bubbe once told me that the three oldest sisters lived in Germany and owned a chocolate factory. From papers that Bubbe prepared requesting reparations from Germany, I learned that the middle sisters were named Tema and Estera. The youngest sister, Doba, was my grandfather's favorite. My younger sister, Dana, was named in her honor.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler launched his blitzkrieg - lightening war - through Poland. The Polish government conscripted all men of fighting age. Sixteen days later, the Russians stormed in from the east. Doba's husband was sent to the eastern front. My grandfather fled.
Once, when I was in elementary school, I asked my grandfather what happened to his family. His clear green eyes clouded over and he was quiet for long enough to scare me. Finally, he shook his head, peered down at me, and yelled for my bubbe to bring him a pear. She scurried to give him one, then walked back to the living room where she had been crocheting an afghan. Grandpa held the light green fruit up.
"See this pear?"
"It's shaped like your bubbe's tuchus!" he said. We laughed and she turned to shake her finger at the naughty joke. I didn't ask him about his family again.
Whenever I imagine my grandfather's last interaction with his family, a mostly black and white film with splashes of color unreels in my head. I see three dark-haired women assembled at a large dining table. Their husbands are at work or in the army, their children are at school, and their mother, Pesha, is upstairs resting. Then lean into the center of the empty table, hashing out a plan. They need to save their only brother. When my grandfather returns from their butcher shop, six sets of green eyes look up at him.
"What?" he asks.
"It has been decided," Estera says. "You leave tonight for Russia." Although Russia is known for anti-Semitic violence, and is at war with Poland, it is the closet country not occupied by the Nazis. He might be able to slip through the borders undetected.
"No!" The bag containing provisions he has brought from the market slips out of his arms. Vegetables spill on the polished wood floor, a mess of colors.
The women shake their heads. (I costume them in wigs, as Orthodox Jewish custom dictates for married women.) Doba speaks. "We are women with children, and our mother is frail. The Nazis won't bother us. I can't bear to lose you." Her voice is quiet, like my sister's. She stares in her lap at her small folded hands. He agrees to leave.
The sisters pack a satchel of food and clothes. They collect money from the deep pockets in their simple dresses and count it at the table. They shuttle him toward the door. Doba presses the bills into Grandpa's hand, and Tema passes him the bag. They kiss him good-bye. As he walks down the street, he turns back one last time to look at them. Doba calls out, "L'shanah haba'ah birushalayim - next year in Jerusalem."
He never sees them again.