Photographs and Memories

by Oren Shafir

Oren writes: I am a truly international person. My mother is American. My father is Israeli. And I am married to a Dane, which explains why I've been living in Denmark for the last seven years. I have two amazing children and am expecting a dog in the near future (we just bought a house.) I work as a writer/editor for a software company in Denmark.

The story, "Photographs and Memories," is inspired by family stories told over and over by those who got out of Poland in time.


I am told that my great-grandfather, Moishe, used to get sick every year during the fast of Yom-kippur. His face would turn white; his eyes glaze over, and he would lie flat on his back moaning: "Oy veysmehr." My great-grandmother, Sara, on the other hand, never got sick on Yom-kippur. But my grandfather, Izzy, remembers catching her stuffing crackers into her mouth late at night.

"Mama, you're not supposed to eat," he said.

She followed his wide-eyed gaze up to the ceiling toward God. "It's okay, we have an understanding," she said.

Some members of my family still hold my great-grandmother responsible for my great-grandfather's death. Others claim that he never died and might still even be alive today (although he would be 104 -years- old). What is really confusing is that some of those who claim he never died also hold her responsible for her death. It's a strange family. In any case, the story goes like this.

One day, the Polish army came to the farm and drafted my great-grandfather, Moishe. My grandfather, Izzy, says that they singled out Moishe because of a neighbor who hated Moishe, lusted after Sara and happened to have a relative in the Polish army. Anyway, poor Moishe was gone, but Sara never gave up easily. She deposited her children at a cousin's house and rode into town. There she sold some jewelry and bribed an official to tell her where they had taken her husband. She rode her horse and carriage hard and actually arrived before the train carrying her husband had reached the same destination.

However, the officer in charge did not want her money. She pleaded with him using her children, God, humanity and whatever she could think of to try and sway him. Finally, he said their was a way if she was willing to make a small sacrifice which she might even find pleasurable (many women had, he claimed). Looking at the short, fat, balding and altogether repugnant man, Sara found that hard to believe. She considered all she had done to try and save Moishe and what Moishe meant to her and to her children, then she looked at the Polish officer, snorted in disgust, and marched out never to see her husband again.

My grandfather, Izzy, remembers the period after that with sweet nostalgia, probably because he got much more attention from his mother. Unfortunately, the quiet did not last. The neighbor who had gotten rid of Moishe came to collect his prize-- Sara. He did not even have the guts to come alone. He and two friends came waving a bottle, laughing and yelling, "Sara, your Abraham is here."

The door flew open. Sara stood with her legs parted and her eyes ablaze. The moonlight outlined her body and highlighted her long black hair. Slowly and deliberately, she lifted a large shotgun and pointed it at the neighbor's head. These men had never seen a woman with a gun. They stood in shock. They turned around and walked away in a stupor. But the neighbor turned back and said," Wait until the wind blows in this direction, Jews."

Sara turned to her seven-year-old son and asked, "Izzy, do you know how to shoot this thing?"

He shook his head.

"Neither do I," said Sara.

Then one day the wind was blowing hard in the direction of their house, and it burned down. This was what made my great-grandmother, Sara, decide to move to the United States of America.


The house had not changed in thirty years: plastic slips protected the couches; a stack of National Geographics lay on the coffee table and decks of cards were everywhere, although no one used them anymore. Jonathon smiled sadly at his grandfather. He wanted Gabriella to see what Grandpa Izzy had meant to him. He wanted her to hear the stories he had told her about his ancestors from the man who had passed them on to him. Jonathon wanted Gabriella to feel the love and memories. But Izzy's memory was deteriorating rapidly. Once, Jonathon had gained a sense of identity from his grandfather's stories. Now, the old man could not even remember the names of his children and grandchildren. The evening became pathetically funny as each time Gabriella spoke, Izzy surprisedly said, "Oh, she speaks English.

"She only speaks English, Grandpa. She grew up here in the States," Jonathon kept saying. Gabriella would touch his arm and try to calm him with a smile.

Jonathon surveyed his grandfather. Izzy's silver hair, bright eyes and healthy look belied his mental failing. Izzy looked at his grandson and smiled, "I'm so happy you came to visit, Daveleh," he said.

"Grandpa, I'm Jonathon. David's my brother."

"Oh right, right, and who is your mother?"

"Miriam, your daughter."

"Oh, Miriam. She's such a good girl. Why doesn't she come and visit me?"

"She visits you every week."

"Really? No, I would remember. Does she know Miriam?" Izzy asked pointing his large nose at Gabriella.

"Why don't you ask her?"

"I don't speak Spanish."

"Grandpa--"

"Yes, I know your daughter," Gabriella said.

"Which daughter?"

"You only have one. Her name is Miriam, and she is my mother."

"What about Sally."

"Sally is not your daughter. She lives with you and helps you take care of the house and stuff."

"Oh yeah. You know, my memory's not so good sometimes."

"Yes, I know.

When they started looking at old photographs, the situation improved. Grandpa Izzy stopped asking Gabriella if she spoke English, and he even remembered the names of the people in the photographs. One picture showed Izzy as a strong young man, alert and with mischief in his eyes. He was holding a fat-cheeked little girl in diapers.

"That's me," Izzy said.

"Who's the little girl?" Jonathon asked switching roles with his suddenly lucid grandfather.

"Why, that's your mother, Miriam."

Jonathon looked closer. There had not been that many pictures taken of her, and he had never seen a picture of his mother so young, maybe one-year-old. But he gradually recognized the large eyes and shy smile.

"Can I take this one?" Jonathon asked.

"Sure, tataleh. I have too many pictures, anyway."

Then Jonathon pulled out a picture which at first seemed to be a double-exposure, but then he realized it was of twins: smooth-faced identical cherubs. They wore dark suits and ties. Yalmukes almost completely covered their round heads. They looked comical, like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee at a bar-mitzvah, but something in their faces, a shy sweetness and vulnerability made them appealing.

"This must be those cousins you used to tell me about. What's their names?"

"Yes, that's Lalek and Adek," Izzy said in a confident tone.

"Are they still alive," Gabriella asked.

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