I’m not even certain of the year, but it was sometime after the tattoo and before the death march. Aron Lieb was in his early twenties, but he felt elderly. He was working in a coal mine, forced by the Nazis to supply fuel for their war effort. Every night after he emerged from the earth, guards sprayed the black dust off him and his co-workers with powerful hoses. The burst of water was so sharp that he had to hold his head down to keep from being blinded or drowned. One day he realized he couldn’t bring his head back up after the assault. That was the day he decided to die.
His younger brother was at the mine, too. It was close to Birkenau, close enough that they could both see the smoke of burning people in the sky. Lieb wanted to go anyway. He didn’t think he could work another day.
“You’ll die,” his brother said.
“I know,” he replied.
His brother begged. They knew he would be grouped in the next selection with the weak — those chosen to go to the gas chambers. Lieb asked to leave anyway.
As a child, I was made to feel as though I were the beneficiary of an enormous and exclusive trust that would earn interest over the course of my life. My brother and I had been gifted the rich and complex inheritance of our grandparents’ survival, and none of the other kids we knew had received a birthright so special. It paid out in dribs and drabs, mostly on Friday nights after kneidlach and kugel, until we were old enough to swallow their story whole.
After a potato dish was served, my grandmother might deftly segue like this: “You know, during the war, I used to gather moldy potatoes and bits of coal that fell off the back of a train so that your aunt should have what to eat.” An hour-long recitation would commence, we’d absorb it, and fall asleep during the car ride home dreaming of Siberian soldiers and snowfalls.
Sometimes we made requests. “Tell us about how you found Uncle Henry after he was liberated from Auschwitz,” we might ask. “Tell us again about when the Nazi punched Papa in the face.”
I knew, logically, that many other kids had Holocaust survivor grandparents. And maybe if I had grown up in New York instead of Los Angeles, I might even have known some of them. Instead, I got to feel smug. So when, at the age of 30, a guy I was interested in revealed during our earliest Internet correspondence (no, it wasn’t on JDate) that not only were his grandparents survivors, but that he could share their story with me merely by cutting and pasting a link to the foundation that supports his deceased grandmother’s 36 lush and intricate fabric art panels that detail her survival story, I didn’t know how to feel. I envied. I bristled. I think I even swooned.