I am alone in my flat where the rain is falling so heavily that I wonder if it will start falling through the fireplace and who I will call on if it does. This is the first home that I’ve lived in alone, on nights when my children are with their father. The independence is hard-won, but it brings fear: when we do away with the family structure, what do we have to protect us? I am proud of my duck-egg walls, my William Morris window seat, the mantelpiece topped with cherished objects: a Mexican angel, a handmade vase and the menorah looted for me by my father from my dead grandmother’s house: an elaborate silver Hanukkah candelabrum that I have never lit. But the elegance and tidiness doesn’t hide the precarity of living on my own. Last week, I asked a handyman to install a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and to show me how to turn the household gas off.
In an hour’s time, my father will arrive with my seven-year-old son who he’s collecting from school, and I’ll pick up my one-year-old daughter from nursery. Family life will assert itself, toys will come out of cupboards, this room will be noisy and full of life. In the meantime I sit on my sofa listening to the rain, slouched over my laptop as usual. I tend to write here, or in bed, despite filling a large corner of the sitting room with a stately desk I brought from my marital home. I have moved it six times over the last decade and after its final journey to this flat, the movers said that the back panel would probably break if I tried to move it again. That’s fine, I said, we’ve moved enough now.
It was in the bottom drawer of this desk that I found, a month ago, a red leather diary stacked among the notebooks. It’s from 2006, the year of my marriage and the year I met and talked with my paternal grandmother for the first time, encountering that same menorah in her imposing flat in Antwerp. I remember long corridors, cream walls, gold picture frames, dark wood. I was there because my new husband, John, had suggested that we visit his brother Simon in Brussels, and meet my absent grandmother. John had ruptures in his own family: a year earlier his father had seen his own father for the first time in years. John had observed his father’s relief after that visit and now took responsibility for connecting me to the grandmother I hadn’t seen since she visited us in London just after I was born. Shortly after my birth, my mother gave up converting to Judaism. My grandmother, and the rest of my father’s family, cut off contact with us.
When John suggested the Brussels visit, I felt apprehensive. At twenty-six I was still easily embarrassed, and hated the thought of the awkward conversation I would have to have with my father. There were deeper insecurities too: growing up, I had learned to avoid noticing how painful my grandmother’s rejection of me felt. I was now fearful of being explicitly spurned. But I’d heard from my father that my grandmother was ill; I knew I didn’t have the luxury of years in which to change my mind. So I asked my father for my grandmother’s phone number and address, finding that it was in fact possible to talk about her as a living person, rather than the mythological figure he occasionally shuffled off to Belgium to see. His eagerness to help made me think that he’d been hoping I’d ask this for years. For the first time, he told me what he knew about his family’s experiences in the Holocaust, a story I’d only heard hinted at. My father told me that he, born in 1941, had been hidden when he was just sixteen months old with a series of three Christian families in Antwerp and Brussels and raised alongside their children. His father and uncle were sent to Auschwitz, and his mother and aunt were sent to Birkenau, where his aunt died.
The facts were so shocking that I found it impossible to imagine. I wanted to ask questions. How had his parents survived? How did they find each other again? And how did they know where their son was now hidden? But I wasn’t sure how to ask. We had never acquired the habit of talking about the past, whether because of the trauma of my father’s childhood, or the pain of my grandmother’s rejection of us, or the newer gaps and silences created by my parents’ separation. But though I didn’t have the courage to ask questions, my father wanted to talk and he went on to tell me that, after the war, his parents immediately divorced. His mother then married her dead sister’s husband and reclaimed her son from where he was hidden, in Brussels. She went on to have two other children: the aunt and uncle I had never met. The family rebuilt their life in Belgium and then, in the 1950s, moved for a few years to New York. They were understandably paranoid and frightened about the implications of the Cold War for the Jews. I was grateful for this conversation. I gathered our wedding photographs and my first book, a literary anthology of smell, and set off to knock on my grandmother’s substantial door, offering myself as an unwanted gift.
3 December 2006, Sunday, 11.30 p.m., Brussels
Sitting in the ‘dining room’ in Simon’s dusty flat in Brussels whilst John and Simon watch the news. Need to concentrate and write about my meeting with Granny Hilda today before I forget anything.
Phoned this morning 10.30 a.m.
‘Hello, I am Lara. Marcel’s daughter.’
‘I am Lara. Marcel’s daughter.’
‘Vat do you vant?’
‘I am on holiday in Belgium and am coming to Antwerp today and would very much like to come and see you, just for a coffee, if you would like . . .’ Drift into silence.
‘Here is my son.’
I explain my case to George. They talk Yiddish in the background. I hear him say ‘Marcel’s tokhter’. He seems to say she doesn’t have to see me. He comes back to the phone. She will see me, what time? What time does she want? More discussion. 3 p.m.
John and I arrived in Antwerp at 1 p.m. Ate mussels and settled him in the hotel next door to her. I rang the bell punctually at 3 p.m. It rang but I heard nothing. I went into the inside lobby. Rang again and waited. Saw the lift going up and then down. A woman (fortyish) comes out. Friendly. In the lift I ask if she’s George’s wife. She speaks no English. Must be the maid.
Hilda comes to the door. Elegant. Well dressed. Strange ill-looking pale blue eyes. We hold hands briefly. She is pleased to see me. Formal. Fusses to the servant about the (instant) coffee. It should be stronger. Asks me. I am prepared to drink caffeine and am grateful it is weak. She takes me into the sitting room – elegant, fussy. Changes her mind. There are two of us. We’ll drink in the kitchen. She is shaky (health? nerves?). She tells me she is very sick. Paralysed in the leg. Already? No but she can feel it and they have said there’s nothing they can do. Nothing? I only half believe her but am sympathetic. She asks (actually slightly earlier) who I am in Brussels with. I say ‘My . . .’
‘No, actually, husband.’
‘Oh. You are married at last. That is better.’
Later – more amicable – in the sitting room:
‘Why you take so long to be married?’
‘I wanted to be sure.’
‘Oh yes. That is better. Not like your father. He made
‘But he . . . wasn’t good at being married.’
‘Ah yes. He is better alone.’
‘And it’s better he married when he did. He has something.’
‘Yes. He has you.’
Anyway, the kitchen table. It is awkward and she makes it more awkward with her comment ‘You see. We do not know each other. We have no conversation.’ Sad, not accusing; but what to say?
I bring out photos and my first book. She is reluctant, but then pleased. The book – solid, hardback, and the name – ‘Feigel’ – there on the front. It doesn’t matter what the book is. But it’s the photographs that melt her. She doesn’t recognise Daddy and then is pleased that he’s so smartly dressed. I am proud. She says ‘You love your father, yes.’
‘Yes, I can see that.’
She thinks that I am beautiful in the photos. She is drawn to beauty. John is handsome.
‘You are happy, yes?’
‘Yes, I can see that.’
I think it’s before we leave the kitchen that she starts referring to the past. To my mother, who was beautiful. She is not apologising yet. She asks about John. What does he do. ‘Oh yes, architect. That is good. There is always vork.’ About Marcel. I say he’s busy. ‘Ah. That’s good. He has vork.’
‘He has enough money?’
I move my hands to say so-so.
‘You help him?’
You should help him, I want to say, but don’t.
Into the sitting room. She shows me photographs. Her children. Her grandchildren. They look like small-town American Jews. Plump, well fed, satisfied. Then her parents, dead before the war. ‘They were very religious. You have to understand. They were very religious. That is why I could not see you.’ I ask for photos of Daddy (‘Marcel’) as a child. She doesn’t have them handy. ‘You have not seen them. He does not have them?’ No. Another time.
We sit down. It’s still awkward, and she mentions it again. She says George is coming. Should she hurry him up? He’s always late. So’s Marcel. We share a Marcel-is-always-late moment. She calls George: ‘You have to hurry. She’s about to leave.’ Then somehow knowing that time is limited it gets better. She talks about my mother and how beautiful she was. ‘But I saw a photo of her a few years ago. She has changed.’ It’s as though her beauty almost justified her lack of Jewishness, but not quite. Hilda’s version of the story is that Mum started converting and then got ill and stopped. I agree. She asks if I have any Jewishness. I say, lying, that I went to synagogue a bit as a child but then wasn’t taken any more. NB all this in pigeon English, so much more difficult than it sounds. And her: ‘Your English is perfect. Too perfect for me. I cannot understand you.’
The maid is there. She likes the photos. Says I am beautiful. Hilda is proud. She spends a lot of the time staring at me, and saying at intervals how like Marcel I look. I agree. She says I must understand her. She had a difficult life. And Marcel. He had a difficult life. Does he talk about it? No. ‘He will as he gets older.’
She starts talking. About how he was hidden. What it’s like for a mother to leave her first newborn son. How whenever the trains arrived at the concentration camp she would look anxiously for Marcel. Then at last when he was five years old she went to fetch him and he didn’t want to come with her. Her love for him, as she said this, was utterly unmistakable and convincing. I think the main good thing to come out of the visit was to realise that he had been loved. Then she started to talk about her own time in the camp. She was alone. Her sister was sent straight away to the gas chamber because she had asthma.
Then George arrived and everything changed.
He was shown the book. Impressive but the paper was brown. ‘Why is it brown? It looks like an old book?’ Then he realised it was an anthology. I didn’t really write it. Then the wedding. Why Greece? Who married us? I mention the registry office in London and then the blessing in Greece. Who by?
Me: ‘A Greek . . .’
Him: ‘A Greek . . . Orthodox priest?’
Me: ‘No, no. A Greek . . . Mayor!’ Triumphant. Just convincing.
He asks about London. A pompous man of the world, comes to London every few months. Is not embarrassed to admit doing this and not seeing us. Mentions a property he could have bought in Canary Wharf. Only 36K. And Granny Hilda, oblivious, staring, saying I look like Marcel.
George is struck by John’s height in the photos. Asks it in metres. I say two metres. He is impressed. Asks where he is. I say the hotel next door. It takes Hilda a while to understand this but she is pleased he is waiting: ‘He is a good husband.’ She doesn’t want him to come up though. She is too sick. The whole conversation is punctuated by how sick she is. ‘I thought I was about to become happy but instead this happened. I am sick.’ George ignores her. Then at the end she says again, ‘They say I will be paralysed’ and George starts interrogating her. ‘Who is they? You haven’t told me this.’ ‘I . . . I didn’t tell you?’ (Hesitant.) ‘No.’ He is breaking her. It seems unnecessary. Let her have her pity. She deserves it now. But he is given a different complaint every day. He cannot pity her.
He fusses about a tray the maid put coffee on. It is too valuable to use. It is part of his collection. He puts it on the mantelpiece proudly, pompously. She is oblivious, frail.
It is time to go. His wife is coming and we will collect John from the hotel to see Antwerp. She tries to feed me. A sandwich? She’s anxious about the lack of food. An apple? I accept the apple and she fetches it with a plate and knife, which I use. I am good at cutting apples and hope to impress her.
She asks if I have seen and liked Belgium. The weather has not been good; I am unlucky, like her earlier (I told her she was lucky to escape the concentration camp – she said, ‘I was lucky. But now I am unlucky’). I mention her holiday house in Knokke. She likes it. I like cycling. They cycle there. I suggest I come. She likes the idea. George is enthusiastic. She thinks she may be too sick to go this summer. A plan is half formed, though.
We stand up to go. She takes my hand and says she is pleased I came. I say I am pleased. She is obviously regretful. I am emotional. She says ‘I love you’ out of the blue; direct, childlike. I burst into tears. George lingers discreetly in the sitting room with the maid. She starts hugging and kissing me. On the cheek, the neck. She is more affectionate than I could ever have imagined her. Calls me ‘pookie’, says ‘You are sensible [French pronunciation] like your father.’ She seems to overflow with love. She says she is sorry for what she did. I have to understand. She did it for the family. How could George and Marilyn’s children hold their heads high if they had a non-Jewish cousin? But times are different now. There is more intermarriage. She regrets what she has done.
‘How old are you?’
‘I have wasted twenty-six years when I could have known you. I didn’t know what you were like.’ George comes in. She says to him ‘You see what I have given up. I haven’t known her. And it was for you. For the family.’ She says, as though to make up for it, that normally no one is allowed to come and see her. That she let me come. Then, more emotional, that now her door is always open to me. I promise I will come back.
I remember I have a camera. George offers to take a picture of us. She clasps me to her, clinging, as though she doesn’t want to let me go. I am crying as I write this, silently. John is laughing at the television in the other part of the room, his brother now in bed.
Then I left. Collected John, anxiously whispered to him that we were married by a mayor, and took him to meet George who was collecting his wife. The walk with them was anticlimactic, odd. George was a Jewish stereotype in a different way from Hilda. Obsessed by money. Impressed John was an architect. George told John about the flat in Canary Wharf (‘It kills me’). They walked us to the bridge and back and then for coffee in the station. Anxious to show John the building work in the station. Then at the end ‘Regards to Marcel.’ I can see how he puts Daddy down every time he comes. I want to be at a family dinner with John so that we can defend Marcel. Can show that he’s worth ten of George. Which I think in a way Hilda realises, I think she misses him, is sad about whatever happened between them. It’s sad – it seems like it wouldn’t be too late for any of us if it weren’t for her Alzheimer’s, but as it is it’s almost pointless – to forge a new relationship that she will only forget.
I wanted to write about Perfume which we saw this evening. Showed that literature is better than film to portray smell. Will write about it tomorrow.
This diary entry is comprised of nine pages from a reporter’s notepad, stapled into the red leather diary that I hadn’t taken with me to Belgium. The handwriting is neatly looped, modelled in adolescence on the writing of a girl I admired at school. She was, as it happens, Jewish, as were more than half of the girls at my school: Jewish girls who didn’t think of me as Jewish. It makes me cry when I read it, as do many of the entries surrounding it, recording the minutiae of the marriage that I committed to with such determined optimism. I am, as Hilda said, sensible, sensitive despite my briskness. And so, it seems, was she.
Reading the diary, I must come to terms with the feeling of helpless anger that surfaces in the writing alongside the sadness that I found easier to acknowledge at the time. My ‘pompous’ uncle, those cousins I dismissed as ‘small-town American Jews’: I seem to have felt that within the competitive family dynamic, I needed to lash out at the Belgian relatives in order to defend my father. There had been years of exclusion and I responded in the only way I knew, attempting irony and literary laceration, because in the act of writing I could overcome my helplessness and be in control. It makes painful reading because the anger feels so hesitant. I suspect that I would have stopped dismissing them if only they had accepted me, as I had longed for them to do. My yearning is there in that peculiar epithet ‘Granny Hilda’. I suppose it was my parents who’d decided in my childhood that my grandmother should be known by that name, but in retrospect it was a very odd way to describe this French- and Yiddish-speaking woman. I must have known that as I wrote the diary, yet I persisted in using that misleadingly cosy and English appellation because what else could I call her? I clung to ‘Daddy’, to ‘Granny Hilda’, a child in need of protection despite the almost-convincing nonchalance of my writerly voice.