I had a bad dream Sunday night.
Let me explain. I was chasing my Papa around the beach, through the tents and the recumbent chairs. He was dapperly dressed and riding an electric bicycle, never looking back. He died five years ago.
My mom’s father was the one who escaped. By some miracle, his entire immediate family made it out of Germany right before they would have been sent to the death camps.
As survivors, my family’s existential crises are somewhat different than most peoples. Most people, to stay sane, believe that if history had been slightly different then they themselves would be slightly different. I, however, know that if things had been a little off I would not exist. There would be no me to speak of. Survival is a lot hard work, the will to make it, and a little luck.
That last point is what was driven home this weekend. Papa and his older brother had always refused to talk about their experiences. “Why do you want to know that?! It’s ancient history…” What we do know is that after they escaped, the two boys went back over to Germany as spies for the U.S. Army Air Force. To us children and grandchildren this means that we are of that rare breed of Jew that not only survived. We managed to actively fight back.
Several strange and unexplained artifacts were found when we cleaned out his place, post-mortum. But that is where the information ended.
Sunday, my mom spoke with my Great Uncle Kurt, my grandfather’s brother. Apparently, November 8th 1933(?) is the anniversary of their escape. We were always told that they got on one of the last boats to leave in 1939. This is not quite true.
Uncle Kurt, on the same day decades later, told my mom that my Great Grandfather Gaston was friends with a member of the SS. The SS man was so fond of Gaston that a few days before my family was supposed to be rounded up, he told my Great Grandfather to get his family out of the country. His daughter, my now deceased Great Aunt Erica, was already living in Paris.
But more than this, this SS fellow let Gaston, his wife, and his sons hide out in his house for four days before they themselves made their escape to France. For now, the story ends there as Uncle Kurt did not want to go over any more on the phone.
That is it. My story is now more similar to the hundreds of others that managed to hide out. I owe my life, every day, to the kindness of a stranger. I owe it to the un-patriotism of someone who couldn’t be more in the establishment. I owe it to the network. It is all about who you know, and when. I owe it to being likable.
We didn’t just fight back, we were also supremely lucky. I don’t know why my grandfather refused to look back at me in my dream. I don’t know what that means. I just want to catch his memory.