My grandfather, who my sister and I always called Pop, was a physically strong man. Trim and powerful into his eightieth (and last) year, his large hands could open any jar easily and he could show you his strength whenever you asked him to, just by squeezing your hand. Those big hands were always very gentle whenever they touched my sister or me, he never hurt us for more than a second, to make his point when we pressed him. When we asked Pop if he was always strong he’d tell us about his youth back in Russia.
“They couldn’t put a finger on me!” he’d often say gruffly, meaning the many local Ukrainians, the goyim who periodically went nuts and started beating and raping Jews. He got along with the goyim, he told us, would take a wagon out to their farms and deliver goods, and he’d drink with them. He dressed like a Russian, he had blonde hair and pale blue eyes, he looked Russian. They respected him. More on this later.
The one story that stayed with me, and will stand in for all others, was about the time the wagon Pop was driving, a horse drawn flatbed that carried groceries out to the surrounding farms, broke a wheel. To replace the wheel they needed to jack up the wagon, prop it aloft for as long as it took to do the work. They were in the middle of nowhere when the wheel shattered and they had no way to prop the wagon up while the work was done. So Pop lifted the wagon off the ground on the side with the broken wheel. He held it up on his shoulder until his companion pulled off the broken wheel and replaced it with a good one. Then they went on their way. All in a day’s work for Pop. To hear Pop talk about his youth, he was one strong, silent, tough young Jew.
One night when my sister and I were quite young Pop babysat for us. We were older than babies, probably six and four, or maybe eight and six, but that’s always the word that’s used, isn’t it, babysit? Pop was in the kitchen, right next to the dining room, and my sister and I began to argue in the dining room. Things escalated quickly. Pop came out to intervene just as I grabbed my sister by the neck and started choking her. (My sister usually did just fine in physical and psychological battles, no worries, gentle reader). I don’t remember Pop putting a hand on either of us to separate us, I think it was his pure horror that made me drop my hands, made my sister and I instantly stop fighting.
Pop was so upset he retreated to the kitchen and started throwing up in the kitchen sink. My sister and I felt so bad we left the rest of our fight for the next time. There would always be time to continue our intermittent war, I guess we both reasoned, we were concerned about Pop who couldn’t seem to stop crying.
Many years later my sister and I were having lunch with Pop in the apartment in Miami Beach. Our grandmother had just narrated how Pop had gone next door to talk to their neighbor, a tough-talking old Jew both of them suspected (possibly because he always bragged about it) had been a Jewish gangster in his earlier years in Brooklyn . When the guy didn’t answer the door, and Pop could see him through the screen door, sitting in his usual chair, Pop tried the door, found it open and walked in. He found the neighbor dead.
“Wow, Pop, you must have been shocked. Weren’t you scared, standing there next to your friend’s dead body?” my sister asked.
Pop scoffed. “A dead man, to me?” he said, and flipped the cloth napkin on the table with the back of his hand. My feelings about a dead man, his gesture said, are not even worth the couple of words it would take to dismiss them.
I knew, even as a boy, that “one day the letters from Europe just stopped coming”. The coins Pop’s father sent to my mother, and the Russian stamps, stopped in 1942, when my mother was 14. She used to practice her Yiddish writing to the grandfather she’d never meet. Nobody would ever meet him.
Along with the rest of Pop’s family the old man was marched (if he’d survived the privations of a year of hellish ghetto life– his home had been designated the eastern edge of the ghetto), by local Ukrainian goyim who couldn’t put a finger on Pop, supervised by Nazis who regarded Jews as dangerous, gigantic insects, to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town.
Eyewitnesses describe the ravine, raked in preparation by local Ukrainians, the softened earth waiting to receive layer after layer of dead Jews. I have read the chilling testimony, by those who saw the execution and somehow lived to talk about it. Fragments of bone from this killing place blow in the wind to this day, skitter across the dry ground, according to someone who visited and wrote about the town for the New York Times not long ago.
I never wondered, once I learned, as a boy, that the rest of Pop’s family (but for one I learned about recently, apparently as strong and tough as Pop, who survived the war in a series of harrowing Russian prison camps after being accused of disloyalty as a draftee in the Red Army) had been made to vanish, how somebody as strong as Pop could be so full of fear, and sometimes prejudice. They hadn’t put a finger on him in Russia, perhaps, but that was as much pure, dumb luck as anything about Pop’s impressive physical strength.