The words you are about to read were originally written for my second book but since a lack of cohesion was one of the major downfalls of my first tome, I’ve decided to share them here.
Truthfully, I don’t think the public wants to read about my family history, although I will be including the events of this summer. My summer on the sidelines has proven more challenging than I could ever have imagined; hopefully the world will share my fascination with my identity crisis. I’ll guess we’ll see – assuming I ever finish Book Two, that is.
But enough about me. As you’re about to see, my personal crisis is nothing compared to the challenges my forebears had to endure…
What’s Past is Present
The creator of my creator left this world long ago. I still see her face in fevered dreams and deep meditative slumber. She calls to me. I cannot make sense of the words, but I pay my failure little mind. After all, her greatest lessons have already been imparted.
“We came to Canada for a new start. We weren’t alone.” – Grandma Dzieyzk.
How many real conversations have you had with your grandmother?
To clarify, I’m not referring to discussions about whether or not her eggs were runny or if that sweater she bought you for Christmas itches. I’m talking about conversations that touch on life’s BIG moments, the events that shape a person’s life irrevocably.
I’m going to guess the answer, for most of us at least, is a resounding “no”, and that’s a shame, it really is. For most of us grandma and grandpa are people we visit against our will after our parents have either bribed us or tranquilized us and dragged us to the car on Sundays and holidays when we’re children, and in nursing homes or hospitals when we’re older. Our most powerful memories most often stem from the events surrounding their passing.
For me, though, the most significant memory of my grandparents, the one that has defined their role in my adult life, is one that doesn’t involve a special day or an expensive gift. No, when I think of my grandparents, I think of the courage they displayed one fateful summer day in Brantford, Ontario.
The broad strokes were all that my grandmother chose to share with me one particular afternoon as we drove across the city streets of Niagara Falls following one of our many shopping trips together. We had an unspoken agreement: I’d walk into her apartment and before my coat left my frame she’d turn on a burner or two and before I knew it, a plate of food sat on a TV tray before me. We’d watch The Price is Right or some other program in silence – grandma only spoke when she had something worth saying, a quality in short supply these days – and then we’d grab our coats and head out to a grocery store or ten. Grandma would cook. I’d eat. Then we’d shop. That was the deal.
As she spoke that day, the writer in me itched to press her for details, but the young man she helped raise knew better. Revisiting those days was comparable to slicing one’s wrist and being unable to stop the bleeding. And so she spoke in a quiet measured tone and I listened. That was another of our unspoken agreements.
It was shortly after the war ended and my grandparents settled in Brantford, a city in southern Ontario, which is connected to Woodstock in the west and Hamilton in the east. Or so the official description reads. The truth is, the entire country of Germany represented heart-wrenching loss and this quiet little Canadian city represented victory. And so Ellie and Boleslaw joined many of their countrymen and women in the search for a new life in Canada.
But the past followed them.
It was a beautiful summer day. The Good Guys had won the war and the Bad Guys had all been pushed back behind their borders, imprisoned or blown to bits on the battlefield.
The Second World War was over and sun shone upon clean, unclogged streets that were free of noisy, noxious chemical-spewing-automobiles. The skies were virtually pollution-free. Citizens, who were immaculately dressed in suits and dresses regardless of their vocations, warmly greeted one another on the street.
No one had heard of twerking, tweeting, or the paparazzi. In many ways, it was a golden age of humanity.
A small group of Eastern European citizens had gathered in a bar in an area of town populated largely by their own kind. They stuck together to ensure a sense of continuity. The men shot pool and chatted about whatever Eastern European men chatted about back then (I know it wasn’t sports, and so I’m guessing it involved oxen), as the women discussed the latest technological advancements in kitchen appliances.
I know the feminists reading this are seething with rage right now, but please don’t judge me too harshly; I know my grandmother well enough to know she wasn’t discussing the post-war socioeconomic climate of Canadian society. She had just survived a world war that unleashed horrors she could never had imagined in her darkest nightmares. Trust me, she was embracing the mundane.
After enduring untold horrors born of the dark minds of men. Normalcy was a precious commodity to these people.
They fought for it. They bled for it. Millions of their countrymen died for it. Many of them risked their sanity, their very humanity to ensure they would live to see a day when they could return to the everyday business of life in a free, sane society.
But everything they had fought for was jeopardized when a lone figure strode into that tavern with all the flourish of a king. To the untrained eye he was a gentleman; his suit was tailored, his hair was perfectly styled, his manner and demeanor reflected that of a member of a civilized society. As he gazed across the crowded room, his eyes met with each occupant.
And the world froze.
Any and all laughter and conversation ceased. The street din outside faded. The music died in the air. The mechanical whir of ceiling fans paused. He had total control of the room and the complete attention of everyone in it.
And he relished every moment.
A short time earlier, a lifetime to some, he was a high-ranking SS officer who many in the room knew far too well. He used fear to command a false sense of respect from any and all who encountered him. Much has been written about the Holocaust and the near-extinction of the Jews to maintain the “purity and strength” of the Aryan race, but as the grandson of a German immigrant I feel a responsibility to never forget that the first race the Nazis conquered was their own.
“He was the kind of man you never forget,” was all the insight to his nature that my grandmother offered, “but he wasn’t a man at all.”
Improbably, he had evaded capture and made his way into Canada. Now he was standing in what he should have considered the lions’ den. Inconceivably, he was deluded enough to believe the old rules applied, that he could walk amongst the still-frightened sheep unmolested and untouched.
And that was just what he did. Several of the men rose up, prepared to launch savage attacks against him, but the presence of their wives kept them in check, or so my grandmother said. Unchallenged, he circled the room as every pair of eyes traced his movements.
No words escaped his venomous lips.
They would have been unnecessary.
His presence alone spoke volumes. The message was as clear as the morning sky:
“I survived. I’m here. And there is nothing you can do about it.”
His message delivered, he moved for the doors and as they parted he delivered a stinging valediction, “See you tomorrow.”
This is where family lore is cleaved asunder, spinning off into two distinct directions. According to my mother, the keeper of the family faith, “Your grandfather made some calls and an investigation was started. The authorities took over and that was that.”
And so ends her version.
My grandmother, however, related a vastly different ending as we rounded a corner that day.
“But there was no tomorrow,” she said, her head dipping slightly as she stared out the window, her gaze fixed directly into the past, “at least not for him.”
As much I loved my grandmother, her ambiguity nullified our agreement in my eyes, and so I pressed her for details. After a few moments of tense silence, she delivered.
“The men, your grandfather and a few others, went out after super. They found him that night.” she recounted.
“And they killed him.”
Her words hung in the air for a moment, before surrendering to their own weight. The sounds of the road and the quiet drone of my cheap car stereo dominated; if there were words that fit this situation, they eluded me.
At the beginning of my tale I alluded to my grandparents courage, this is where it comes into play. I realize murder is not considered a courageous act to most, but try, as I did that day, to imagine yourself in the following scenario:
You’ve survived a global conflict that played itself out in the very city streets and countryside you played in as a child. It began, as these things often do, with a series of small, unassuming events. Local elections, rallies and parades that stirred the hearts and minds of a tired, desperate population looking for someone to blame for their troubles.
But those events sparked moments of blinding hate and rage in virtually everyone around you and before you know it, you’ve been told it is the God-given right of your people to rule the world.
And then your world explodes into violence and mayhem. You watch in quiet horror as an entire race of people are herded into the streets and asked a single question, upon which their very lives hang in the balance, “Are you a Jew?” For some the answer led to a bullet in the foot. Or the head.
Those that survived this initial culling were herded into boxcars and taken away, their fate unknown to you. But you push such thoughts aside, allowing racial resentment and jealousy to rule the day.
You and your friends become rebels, a ragtag group of armed soldiers who answer to no one. This freedom inspires false bravado and so you become reckless and irresponsible. Time loses all meaning as the days bleed together and before you know it, your friends are lying dead in the streets, their bodies aflame, as soldiers laugh and people silently sob.
You watch your sister as she is beaten and raped by Russian soldiers. Her cries for help from a seemingly-heartless God echo in your mind every single day of your life. This is only one of several mental and physical scars that will haunt you for the remainder of your days. Indeed, your greatest secret is that ghosts exist and are present in every crowd, around every corner.
Finally, reason prevails and peace returns, but chaos reigns and you’re thrown behind barb wire like an animal. The people who slam the gates shut are haled as “liberators” and “heroes”. Somehow you manage to find a kindred spirit in a foreign soul and love blooms like a lone flower on a blood stained battlefield.
You leave everything you’ve ever known behind and settle in a country whose people still view you as the enemy. But a community of your fellow displaced countrymen is quickly formed and hope rises from the ashes.
Then a man walks into a place where you all come together, a place that represents the few precious memories that remain of the past. He mocks the freedom you fought so hard to regain. And he promises to do so the very next day. And every day after that.
What would you do next?
Would you trust the authorities of a land that is still very much unknown to you to dispense justice? Or would you take matters into your own hands, risking your newfound freedom in the process? Writing this chapter has reignited several nagging questions that have scratched away at my subconscious for years now.
“How exactly did it all play out? Was there a savage struggle between a group of victims turned executioners, or did the hunter, after seeing the fear, desperation and crimson rage in his former prey’s eyes, surrender to his fate? What does the act of murder actually require of a human being; does one have to summon darkness from deep within or is it always simmering just below the surface, ready to be released in an instant?
My grandfather and his friends had just emerged from a world war where death was commonplace. But the war was over and this wasn’t a battlefield. Nevertheless, they took a life. And that act is at the heart of my final question: After embracing the darkness fully, how does someone step back into the light?
In my grandfather’s case it simply wasn’t possible.
I refuse to judge my grandparents’ actions that day. The world they were living in at that time was a different place. People took words like “truth” and “justice” to heart. Today we look the other way all to often when it comes to injustice. We need laws to keep our society from spiraling into anarchy but without justice we truly are lost.
Sometimes you can’t look away, because wherever you look, the truth is staring back at you. My grandparents’ lives, dark days and all, serve as the moral compass that guides me through my life as a husband, father and a bellman. (When faced with a particularly challenging guest, I always think “Grandpa wouldn’t hesitate to put this guy in his place, why should I?”)
So there you have it, the past dies and is resurrected as the present. The present dies and is resurrected as the future. The future dies and is reborn as the past. That’s symmetry, kids. I hate symmetry.
But I loved my grandparents and all they stood for.