When my grandfather died fifteen years ago, the new rabbi from his temple came to my parents' house the night before the funeral to talk to the family and learn more about who he was. We gathered at the battered dining room table, sharing stories. I stared at a section of veneer that was peeling off the side of the table, but my eyes remained dry as my dad recounted his father's life story. My mother chimed when my dad fell silent. "I remember when Michael told a joke, his eyes twinkled," she chuckled.
"Yeah! The dirtier the punchline, the more they'd glimmer," I added, laughing louder and louder until suddenly, my body heaved with sobs.
It always amazed me that Grandpa could laugh at all, let alone relish telling jokes. Most of his 84 years were anything but funny. He was born in Warsaw on Oct. 26, 1911. His father died sometime when my grandfather was in his teens, and if I really found the grave of his father Tzvi, on the 1st of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, which translates to late October. The only other thing I knew about his early life when I was growing up was that his mother, six sisters, and his sister's families died in the Holocaust. My own father was born premature in the Ural mountains in 1946. If my grandparents had not put him in an oven for warmth, he would have died, too. Ultimately, he was my grandfather's only child.
What I learned in October 2009, 14 years after my grandfather died, furthered my understanding of grandfather's use of humor as a coping mechanism. After he left Warsaw in 1939, he lived in Bialystok, another Polish city. Bialystok was then controlled by the Russians, who arrested him sometime in 1940 and sent him to a gulag (forced labor camp) near Leningrad. Death from starvation, cold, prisoner abuse, and overwork was very common in gulags.
He was released in 1942, possibly as part of a deal between the Polish government in exile and the Soviets once Germany turned on its Russian ally and attacked. From the gulag, he worked on a kolkhoz (forced collective farming community), and then after two years, worked in a factory in Magnitogorsk. Maybe this is where his life improved a little, as he married my bubbe there in Sept. 1945 and my aforementioned father was born prematurely eight months later in May.
My grandfather never wanted to live under communist rule, so he took his family back to Poland in the summer of 1946. I always thought he went to Warsaw, but it turns out that he heard that Warsaw was in ruins (85% of the city was destroyed by the Germans in 1944 in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising), and they went with a friend to Liegnitz aka Legnica. Liegnitz/Legnica was a formerly German town that was given to Poland after the war to compensate them for land they ceded to the Soviet Union. Jews were "informally" urged to go their and take the place of the Germans who were driven out by the Poles rather than do back to their actual homes and try to reclaim them from the Poles who took them during the war when the Jews fled the Nazis/were rounded up by the Nazis.
Anyway, my grandfather worked in the black market in Liegnitz/Legnica. That summer was marked by pogroms across Poland, and my grandfather essentially said fuck this place, spit on it, and swore never to return to his home country. He sneaked across the Czech border with my bubbe and father (possibly as part of Bricha, an illegal immigration movement in eastern Europe). They wound up at a Displaced Persons Camp run by the US government in Austria near Linz, then another one, and then a third one.
While in the first two DP Camps, my grandfather worked as a camp policeman. (Grandpa is the tall thin man on the far right.) He quit to work on the black market, which was apparently more lucrative. In 1950, he was granted permission to come to the United States, where he lived in Chicago until he died almost 45 years later.
My memories of my grandfather are overwhelmingly fond. He took very good care of me and my sister. We were his pride and joy. Although the jokes he liked to tell his friends were always in Yiddish and often about sex, he also made little stories for us. When he washed the dishes after dinner, he asked us to help him by inspecting them to make sure they were clean. To do so, he turned on the "magic light" (a florescent bulb over the sink). Together we held up a plate or a glass or a pot and chanted, "Magic light, magic light, is it clean?" For some reason, this delighted us. Who else had a magic light to help with dishes?
Fifteen years ago today, the day after my grandfather's 84th birthday, the magic light went out for good.