The Absence at the Table

The first thing I noticed was the place settings: There were a lot of them. Twenty, maybe, which was more than I’d ever seen at a family gathering. Gradually, the guests started to trickle in, and it hit me again and again that I knew nobody. I was the outcast, the oddball American treading in a sea of Israelis, Czechs and South Africans.

“This is your family,” my grandfather reminded me.

I was drawing diagrams in my head: great aunt, first cousins once removed, second cousins, relatives I didn’t even know how to label. They were all warm and welcoming, eager to get to know me. The conversation flowed easily; we talked freely and laughed often. Then, a shift, when cousins asked my great aunt Rachel: “What happened to our grandparents?”

I shrunk back in my chair. I had come to Israel to learn the answer to that question, but I wasn’t sure if a family dinner party was the place to bring it up. I didn’t ask then, but I had asked first, so I felt guilty, regardless.

My grandfather Jakab was the youngest of six. Before the war, all the siblings were still at home. They’d sit down to a meal, and everyone would talk, and tell their stories, and share their dreams of the future: what they’d like to do, and where they’d like to go, and how they’d like to end up as people.

But as the war drew nearer, the family scattered. Two of my grandfather’s sisters went to Prague to continue working with a Zionist organization. His brother and sister had gone to town outside Budapest, and eventually, Jakab would join them.

His parents saw the writing on the wall. In their small town, anti-Semitism ran rampant, and everyone knew they were Jewish. If violence erupted, they would have nowhere to hide. So they sent Jakab to join his brother near Budapest, where he could get lost in a large city. At the train station, his mother said, “Don’t worry about us. Just take care of yourself.”

That was the last time he saw his parents.

To this day, nobody knows what happened to them, or to Jakab’s siblings Deborah, Usher and Rivka. There were rumors, and naturally, we assume that they were among the millions of victims of the Holocaust. But Jakab and his two surviving sisters, Bracha and Rachel, looked. They returned to their home town, but their house was occupied by Russian officers.

Really, we can only guess the answer to the question: “What happened to our grandparents?”

Right before attending this family party, Rachel had shown me old photographs, some of which dated back to before the war. There were no pictures of their parents, but there were pictures of the siblings, laughing together.

I felt their absence at the table. If things had been different, if they had survived, there would be even more place settings at the table.

The entire gathering was bittersweet. A few of the party guests had started to cry as my grandfather and his sister told their family’s story, but I kept noticing how Jakab and Rachel held hands. It reminded me that, despite the tragic loss, the fact that we can have such a large family gathering shows strength, recovery, the ability to move on from tragedy.


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