Look. Look. Don’t forget.
I used to blame Maami Babka for being alcoholic; for my father’s violent drunken outbursts; for my own poverty and powerlessness. I was angry, sometimes, at the silences which stole our words and ran with them into the brightness of the day.
But, she wanted me to forget. She didn’t want me to grow surrounded by the barbed-wire, vacant eyes, and dead blackbirds of her memories. She wanted the ‘hungry smoke’ to be a nightmare I never knew the meaning of. She wanted me to blossom untouched by the roots of our history.
The shimmering hollows of her eyes told another story. They cried
dikh. dikh. na bister.
She was fourteen when the war broke. Already married to my grandfather, Paapo František (Frank). They heard whispers of Europe collapsing in on itself, but thought that if they just kept to their roads, their lives, their songs they’d be safe. Summer, Slovakia 1941 and a cousin’s wedding. Uncles, aunts, and children never arrived from Poland. Words fell slowly like the summer rain, they were gone.
I can’t imagine the coldness that washed over them in that moment. The realization that death was stalking them, hungry for their scent. Cousins told rumour of places like Dubnica nad Vahom and Ustie nad Oravou. Concentration camps, full of death and disease. They told of smoke and ‘wolves in the woods’ – SS Einsatzgruppen – who killed entire families in their sleep.
Our family fractured like broken bones and fled.
Paapo’s family rolled their dice the wrong way and ran straight into Poland. They had no idea of the monsters that waited for them in the dark. Heading for their summer grounds in Jurmala, Latvia where family waited, cold stiff fingers outstretched, calling their last words
dikh. dikh. na bister.
Most of them never made it. Most of them are dusty memories now; wooden carts, laughing children, distant songs.
Maami and her family fled towards the Czech Republic, Southern Germany and France, heading back to the UK. Paapo had gone with them, protecting his young wife, who was also possibly a new mother at this time. But, the darkness caught them. Great Grandmother Nada, Great Grandfather František, two of Maami’s sisters, three of her brothers, and most of their children were caught and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Maami told me, “We thought it lucky they didn’t shoot us like dogs. We were wrong.”
Maami and her siblings, Lemija, Dinah, Elias, and Anelja escaped the shadows and fled with Paapo, his sister Albina and her family. But, the darkness soon caught up with them too, and Albina, Lemija, and Dinah along with half of Albina’s family disappeared.
She never told me how they escaped. How along with Paapo, Elias, Anelja, and a handful of others, she managed to stagger safely onto English soil. She never said anything about those days other than, “there was always smoke and death and hunger.”
Only Great Grandmother walked out of Auschwitz. Two of her children Džordže and Zorana also survived, though we never did learn how.
Lemija alone left Dachau.
My family was decimated. Their voices and eyes stolen by the hungry smoke.
All they had was each other and the family who’d lived untouched in the quiet hills of England. Their souls and minds and voices half eaten by the darkness they’d lived, silently suffocating under the weight of our family’s ashes.
dikh. dikh. na bister.
Maami wanted to protect me from the terrible things that scuttled through her mind at night or when she was alone. She wanted to hold back the darkness herself, planting me full-face in the warmth of the sun. But, try as she might I saw her demons, hunched and horrid. I heard their rasped and slithering voices as she emptied yet another bottle of whiskey. I saw the fear, transformed into anger on the face of my father as he fought to shake the darkness that he had been born into.
I didn’t even know how to ask. I didn’t even know what the war was, what the Holocaust was, not really. All I knew was alcoholism, silent brooding darkness, and some of their names. I knew stories of hungry smoke, wolves in the dark, and a world gone mad.
I used to be angry. I used to be afraid.
I grew and I listened and I learned to read.
Not just the words, sparse as they were, like flowers among the mountain rocks, but to the silence and the breaths between words.
I am a daughter of the Holocaust. Born into poverty, silence, and bathed in alcohol. Drunk for the first time aged eight, my path could so easily have ended in the same silent anger as the generations before me. But, one thing is clear to me.
Maami Babka, Paapo František, Kako Elias, Bibi Lemija, Bibi Anelja and all the rest who survived the devouring of the hungry smoke, they couldn’t forget.
And we, survivors in our own right, owe it to them to remember. No matter how painful, disturbing, and sickening that remembrance is.