By Elaine Rosenberg
All our lives, my sister and I had heard about my father’s aunt,
how she had stayed behind with her elderly parents as her
sisters and their husbands and children fled towards the Soviet
The lull, following the first days
of the war, had ended. The Germans were advancing towards their
town, Ulanow, Poland. A Yiddish speaking Russian soldier had
knocked on the door of their wooden house and said, “We’re
leaving in the morning. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll
come with us.”
My teenaged father, five younger
siblings, his parents, two aunts and their families, started
their trek eastwards.
But Ruchel [Graff-ed.] did not go with them.
She was twenty-seven, unmarried and lived with
her parents, Ita and Rafael.
She was the child of their old age.
“I remember her standing there on
the side of the road, waving at us,” my father’s youngest sister once
told me. “She wanted to come with us. But she didn’t.”
“Are you sure that your grandparents
couldn’t have made the trip?” I asked.
“They would have died on the way or
“When grandma survived the war,” I
said, “she was one of the few people of her generation left
alive. Her parents, siblings, everyone were gone. I wonder how
She was silent.
“What was she like?” I asked.
“Oh, she was very pretty. She had
“What color eyes?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Grandma had green eyes. Did
have green eyes?”
“I was just a child.”
“Did you ever find out what happened
to your grandparents?”
She shook her head.
“How did they die?”
“No one knows.”
“I heard that they died in the
street. I heard.”
“Maybe Belzec. Maybe.”
For years, my sister and I heard
Her act silenced us.
Whatever problems we faced,
questions we had, the image of Ruchel waving at her departing
family made all pale in comparison.
She was one of eight children.
Dozens of her nephews and nieces lived in Ulanow. As the maiden
aunt, she was a figure of affection, warmth to them, giving them
treats, an admiring word.
For decades, Ulanow’s location
remained a mystery to me. No map listed it. Then, one day, I
found it in a book titled Macmillan Atlas of the Holocaust.
It was perched at the divergence of the San and Tanew rivers.
Ulanow was real, not just a tale
told by my father, another story of “the other side” as my
relatives termed pre-war Europe.
Ulanow had been an important town in
the first days of the war. The Russians had taken it, and then
withdrawn. The Germans had occupied it.
A photograph of Ruchel revealed a
young woman who wore her hair in a bob. Her expression was
determined. It seemed to say, that given the right set of
circumstances she would have left Ulanow and moved to a city,
gone dancing, been held by a man.
“When was this taken?” I asked my
“She had a nice dress.”
“She could sew.”
“I loved my grandparents,” he said.
“I spent more time with them than my own parents. Whenever I
would visit them, my grandfather would call ‘Ita! Give the boy
something to eat!’”
My father, hobbled by
osteoarthritis, sat in the sun of his Florida independent living
facility and remembered his youth.
I wondered at how fortuitous his
survival had been.
He and his family were transported
by cattle cars to Siberia. Two years later they were relocated
He was chosen to be
the chauffeur and bodyguard of the Governor-General of the
region. He carried a sidearm. He was exempt from the military,
obtained privileges and food for his family.
“After the war, did your mother ever
talk about her parents?”
I looked at my father. I recalled my
sister’s phone calls detailing his increasing medical problems.
His face was ochre colored, his eyes red rimmed. Purple
splotches disfigured his hands. Still, he was as handsome as a
matinee idol. His eyes, unencumbered by recently removed
cataracts seemed more hazel than brown.
“C’mon, Dad. It’s time to go in for
dinner. Let me help you.”