By AVIYA KUSHER
Here, deep in the thickness of northern Germany, dogs travel glamorously, in their own spacious compartments. Apart from the dogs, who are large and meticulously groomed, there are only a few passengers on the local train heading north from Hamburg. I see a man with black hair, carrying a leather folder bulging with carbon paper—a traveling salesman, perhaps. There are two old ladies in pastel cardigans, their cheeks wrinkled and stern, and three tanned backpackers, loudly sharing Muesli and what looks like bottled carrot juice. Other than that, there is just my blue-eyed mother, nervously staring out the sealed window.
Finally the train swerves out of the station. As the din of Hamburg quickly fades into smooth silence, all we can see is soft green vastness. We are leaving the city, the hustle, the dirt. We are heading to a place two hours past the orange neon lights, fresh fish stands, Turkish immigrant fruit sellers, and prostitutes of the Hamburg train station, past the place where terrorists are rumored to trade visas. We are traveling to see a section of a small city of wheeler-dealer merchants and crusty sailors and their descendants, a place where there were nintey-nine Jews before the war, according to Nazi records, and zero afterward.
I think of this week’s Torah portion: va’etchanan. The word means “and I have begged God.” It is the portion featuring the heartbreaking scene of Moses begging God to enter the land of Israel. I am not sure what I am begging for, not sure what I am even looking for, what land I am about to see.
I do know a few things about Bremen. I know about the Roland statue, the huge medieval sculpture that my grandfather loved as a boy. I know that near the statue there was a fountain, where my great-grandmother would rest with her packages of vegetables before Shabbat. I know, too, that near the statue and the fountain there was a street of artists, where my grandfather, a small Chassidic boy, would go watch the painters. He wanted to take drawing lessons, but that wasn’t part of a Chassidic upbringing. Instead, his mother—meine mameh, he called her—indulged him by letting him go watch the painters. Just watch.
For as long as I can remember, he has loved color and line, painting and sketching. Since no one else in my family does, I think this love of his went directly into me. I, too, am obsessed with color, moved and motivated by it. I sometimes cry in front of beautiful paintings, and like him, I need to look at them every so often to feel alive, connected to those who came before me.
The most important thing I know of my long-dead great-grandmother is this: faced with the usual wall between Judaism and visual art, she chose to look the other way. She may not have approved of my grandfather’s interest, but she allowed it. She didn’t say no to a love of painting that competed with the divine. “Atah hachilota l’harot l’avdechah.” It’s the next verse. “You have started to show your servant,” Moses says. You have started; that is what matters. One of my brothers, Amiad, had this text as his bar mitzvah portion. He sang it, recited it line by line at the dining room table for months. Atah hachilota—“You have started.”And so here I am, starting.
I am traveling deep into Germany because of my Chassidic great-grandmother, Rachel, whom I never met. She is part of the huge hole of the Holocaust, so I know very little about her, except for the name of the city where she last lived.
I do know several things about Bremen: that the teacher beat my grandfather for being tall and speaking perfect German, that one by one his classmates said “Sorry, Zigmund,”and then “Heil, Hitler.” One by one they joined Hitler Youth, put on the uniforms and the hats and the boots, and soon my great-grandmother was being beaten right outside her apartment, her groceries strewn on the hall floor. Money was scarce, and the food was crushed. My grandfather’s classmates were the ones who beat her, who stomped on her vegetables.
Looking out the train window, my mother and I see graffiti that says Nazis Raus: “Nazis get out.”
My mother is thrilled. “See,” she says, “no one agrees with that anymore.”
I am terrified. “If someone needs to write ‘Nazis get out,’ that means they’re still around,” I say.
On the local train, I feel stared at, observed. I’m wearing a fuschia shirt, as usual for that summer, and I suddenly hate my clothing. The old ladies in cardigans look at me intently, and the salesman stares openly. The train clatters, and then, when we least expect it, we are in Bremen.
My mother and I are both silenced by what we see when we get out of the train. We are standing in the Hauptbanhof, the central train station, the place my grandfather had described hundreds of times as the place he last saw his parents and his four brothers—Yitzchak, Pinchas, Mordechai, and David. We understand what is happening: we are walking into the story.
My grandfather was twenty-two. His youngest brother was thirteen. I am twenty-three. My mother stands beside me. Like my grandfather, I am the oldest of five. I remember the way my grandfather said: “I was just a boy. I was so sure I would see them again. I don’t even think I turned around to wave, to say goodbye.”
The Hauptbanhof is clearly the same as it was in 1936. It looks as if it hasn’t been remodeled for a hundred years. Outside, it has an ornate curved brick façade, and several carvings of what seem to be angels. It’s hard to see in the sun, but it is certainly beautiful, as my grandfather described. Inside, it is huge and gray and imposing, and the letters on the signs saying Frankfurt and Berlin are old and scratched. I realize that I am standing on the very platform where my great-grandmother last saw her oldest son. More than sixty years ago, my grandfather left this place, never to return. And now I, a granddaughter, am coming back, standing on the same ground.
My grandfather told me how dangerous it was in 1936, when he left, for an entire Chassidic family to accompany him to the train station. The trip back must have been frightening, and they were probably beaten. My grandfather was on his way to Frankfurt, and then eventually to Palestine, on what turned out to be possibly the last legal boat out of Germany and to Palestine. He thought of it as an adventure, a year abroad and a way to get away from the economic troubles of his home city. Like all Jewish residents, by that point, he was not allowed to work. He was not allowed to go to school. The idea of Palestine started because he had begged to go to school—the unemployed Jewish professors, including Martin Buber and other luminaries, had set up a university in Frankfurt. My grandfather was starved for education, and he wasn’t alone. Among the young men of Frankfurt, Zionist operatives searched for recruits. “Get out! Get out!” they screamed. They offered tickets, a new life, a hope of work, and eventually my grandfather was persuaded.
My mother and I look up at the high, curved ceiling of the Hauptbanhof. People rush by us; families reunite. Slowly, my mother opens her pocketbook and takes out a carefully folded piece of paper. I recognize the handwriting immediately—the careful, artistic script with the aleph that looks like the letter k. My grandfather’s writing.
“He mailed me directions to the house,” my mother says. “He says it’s a very long walk from the train station, and we should see if we can get a train to the house.”
We walk to the tourist office right outside and ask for a map. When we mention the street name, the lady insists it doesn’t exist. My mother looks at the street name, repeats it. Still nothing. I scour the map and find it. Meanwhile, the lady tells my mother that she has a perfect Bremen accent—a comment we will hear again and again, whenever we ask for directions.
It is a huge street, Vahrerstrasse. I can see on the map that it’s a sort of avenue. “Oh, that’s a long way off—almost out of the city,” the woman says.
While I try to figure out where to go, I leave my bag at a counter. Two minutes later, an older man comes out and offers it to me, telling me I forgot it. He is so courteous, so polite. I find myself wondering just how old he is. Did he work there sixty years ago, too? Would he have given a Jewish woman her pocketbook back in those days?
My mother and I begin to talk in Hebrew, as we often do, especially when we travel. Suddenly a dark young man comes up behind us and answers us in Hebrew. We are shocked—here, in the most non-Jewish of places, a Hebrew speaker! It turns out that he is a young Israeli who lived in Bremen until he was fourteen, with his father, an international businessman. He asks us what we are doing there, and he is so moved by our project that he offers to be our guide. “I speak German,” he says, “and I know nothing about the Jews who were here. I want to come with you.”
With him as our guide, we have an easy time finding the trolley car. It turns out we’ll need two trolleys and a bus to get to Vahrerstrasse. So far everything is as my grandfather said. His home was very far from the Hauptbanhof. He said the street was green and full of leafy trees, with a long, narrow center island of bushes. When we arrive, we see several old women—about my grandfather’s age—getting off the bus with us. We immediately wonder if they knew him, but we don’t ask. They look healthy, aging well and without worries.
It is extremely hot. The street is long, and we’re parched. But we continue, amazed that we have come so far. We see the greenery, the thin center island. My grandfather wrote: “Look for a house on top of a bar that sells only beer. On the street there will be several bars, and all will sell beer and wine and other things, but one will sell beer only. That is the house.”
There are indeed several bars, and we begin to peruse menus. “The Germans live in their houses for hundreds of years, so many of the neighbors should be the same,” he wrote. “The landlords are a very mean family. Whatever you do, do not talk with the landlords.”
Our guide had no idea that Jews once lived on the street. He tells us that there’s increasing commerce here, a strip mall being built. My grandfather said he grew up across from trees. Eventually, we see the outline of a massive Walmart. And then, right across the street, is the house—number 182. On the ground floor is a bar. We walk in to look at the menu, and confirm: only beer.
Suddenly we hear rustling. Above us, a man is in one of the massive trees. His face is shocked, grotesque. “Get off my property!” he screams at us, according to our guide.
“We just want to go to the bar,” the guide says.
“It’s closed,” the man yells, brandishing a saw. “I’ll call the police.”
He comes down from the tree. Then he sees my mother. His face goes gray, blue, then all of the color leaves. “Who are you?” he says, but it is clear he knows exactly who she is. I start snapping pictures like mad—the bar, the apartment, the yard, the landlord. “I must look like my grandmother,” my mother says in Hebrew.
The landlord starts addressing me in German. Because I am tall and have lightened hair, people mistake me for German all the time. I can’t answer back, so I keep taking pictures. He lunges for the camera, but I’m fast, and I’m young.
“This is Zigmund’s daughter,” the guide says. “Do you remember the Traum family?”
“No, no, I do not remember them,” the landlord says. In his eyes we see that he does.
He looks about seventy-something. “The landlords are mean people, and they had a little boy, with bulging blue eyes,” my grandfather had written. I knew I was looking at him.
“I am from Kiev,” the landlord says, in his perfect German.
The guide laughs. “From Kiev?”
“Yes, from Russia,” he says in an impeccable Bremen accent. “Now get off my property or I will call the police!”
“We would like to go inside, to see where the family is from.”
“They are not from here! You cannot go inside!”
I walk to the courtyard anyway. The door to the house is slightly ajar, and I can see a polished wooden staircase. I remember the story that a man from a neighboring town told my grandfather, about how when the Nazis came it was late at night, and my great-grandmother begged to take her sheitl, her wig, with her. My grandfather heard the story in 1958 in Israel, after he saw an ad in a newspaper telling anyone from these areas with relatives they hadn’t heard from to come to a hotel in Tel Aviv and learn what happened. My grandfather went to find an empty room and a man from a neighboring village at a table with a white tablecloth. He had climbed out of his own grave, he said, and he saw my family—all four boys, the mameh and the tati—shot, then fall back into the dirt. My grandfather thanked him and went home, eternally alone.
Suddenly I imagine that they threw my great-grandmother down those very stairs. I click and click; I want to have proof that I have been here, that someone has come back.
After I finish up all my film, we walk to Walmart, buy cans of juice, and then buy more film. I stand in the median of Vahrerstrasse and click until I can’t click anymore. The house is quaint—a two-story cream-colored brick house. The upper floor has a porch that is fenced. I’m sure my grandfather will be happy to see the photos.
In Israel, visiting my grandfather, we wait a whole day to mention the photos. In my grandfather’s white concrete house in the Galilee—the house he built with my grandmother with their own hands—we feel we are carrying a pleasant secret, a stash of surprise.
But when we finally pull them out, my grandfather doesn’t want to see them. He sits in a white plastic porch chair—moved to the kitchen, right in front of his carefully arranged, beautiful blue drinking glasses—when my mother leans down next to the chair and waves the photos of Bremen.
He waves her out of the way. “Those were difficult times!” he shouts. “Very difficult times! It was a horrible place!”
She takes a step back.
“You do not know!” he thunders.
He thunders for hours. The times and the place, what Germany was. How when he was a boy and Hitler was running for election, his father sent him to hear the candidate, to report back and tell him who Hitler was. How he hid under a bench and heard the future dictator scream a campaign speech. How the crowd was enthralled. Wild, they were, with delight. How he was frightened under the bench, listening to Hitler’s campaign and to the crowd’s applause.
They applauded, he says. They were entranced!
My mother tries again to get him out of the 1930s. “Abba, don’t you want to see the statues?”
“Take them away!” he yells.
My fingers rifle through the photos, trying to find the ones where the house looks best.
“I don’t want to see it! I don’t want to remember it again! You don’t know! You don’tknow!”
My mother tries to show him the postcards of tourist sights—the Roland, the fountain, the artist street. It turns out that that street now houses a Paula Modersohn-Becker museum. No, he’s not interested. He doesn’t want to see any of it. “It was a bad place, those were very hard times,” he thunders, over and over again, until I am numb to the loudness.
I decide not to tell him other things. I don’t tell him that in Bremen the night we were there, there was a small march of neo-Nazis. I remember one girl in particular. She looked about nineteen, with straight brown hair, fishnet stockings, big eyes with lots of eyeliner. She was carrying a huge sign with a swastika.
Nazi displays are illegal in Germany, but I saw it. But I have not forgotten her, the eyes, the stockings, the makeup. I think of her whenever I see fishnet stockings, and I wonder if to be a Nazi is sexy again.
My grandfather asks me to stay a little longer. I stay two weeks, and I hear him cry—Raachel! Raachel!—my mother’s name, and his mother’s name, in the night. His legs, grown purple, show his age, but his large blue eyes are young, his shoulders broad, and the wit still there. We feast, as usual, despite the oxygen tank he now needs. With the thermometer showing 98 degrees, we drink white wine at lunch from his best crystal goblets.
Foolishly, I try to have only one glass. “Eintz is keintz,” my grandfather says. One is none. “You must have another glass of wine!” And so I drink. “First-rate,” he says. “This winery got first prize with me before everyone else. I bought three cases. ”
“The wine is delicious,” I say.
I know I have to praise the wine; it’s part of the routine. The beautiful items must be praised. The beautiful things, these are important.
“Agnon, did I tell you?” he says, referring to the prizewinning Israeli writer. I shake my head, to give him the pleasure of telling me again. “I bought him before anyone else did. He had the Nobel Prize in Literature from me. I was the first.”
Books are also part of the ha’dvarim hayafim—the beautiful things. It is my grandfather’s favorite phrase: ha’dvarim hayafim. It takes me years to understand thatdvarim means not only “things” but also “words,” as in aseret ha’dvarim, the Ten Commandments.
“Aviyarifka,” my grandfather says suddenly. He’s the only person in my life who uses my first and middle names all the time, blended together as if they were one. Rivka was my grandmother, his wife, who died of breast cancer at age thirty-six. “We need music, no? I am preparing for the Bayreuth. I know the whole schedule. I have it here, in German, everything that will happen.”
The Bayreuth, I know, means Wagner is coming up.
“This is the best stereo, the best. It makes Wagner the way he should sound,” he says. Wagner comes blaring into the un-air-conditioned heat. My grandfather leans back on the couch in the library, staring at his figurines and singing all his favorite parts aloud. He knows every single word.
Nude figurines stand proudly next to the towering Talmud. Art and religion are friends in his library, and Wagner is welcome to share air space with Tehillim, the Psalms, those poems of begging and comfort. Ha’dvarim hayafim. The beautiful things.
I admire his newest acquisition: a wild, super-modern white lamp that literally arcs across the room in front of us. It is impossible to walk across the room without ducking under it. “Just because I’m eighty-four doesn’t mean I can’t have style,” he says. “I saw it, I said, I have to have that lamp. I like what young people like—the newest model, the top of the line. It’s beautiful, no?”
“Yes, it’s very beautiful,” I say, laughing.
“I like beautiful things,” he says.
We sit in his library and I glance at his books on Renaissance art.
“Titian is like God,” my grandfather says.
“But Rodin—” I say.
“Aaah, Rodin probably studied with God,” my grandfather interrupts. “He had to, to learn how to do hands like that. Do you know hard it is to draw hands? Every bone, every knuckle, every human being different. I have his whole book of hands right here,” he says, pointing to the lower left wall. I smile appreciatively at the Rodin book. I remember the artists’ street in Bremen, and think: This is what he took from Germany—an appreciation of the hand of the artist. Wagner gets louder, and my grandfather sings, sings as if he has never left Germany.
I look just above and count not one but six sets of the complete Talmud. He tells me the library will be my parents’ someday, and that each set of the Talmud is for one grandchild. He gives the girls the same books as the boys. None of that religious rhetoric of “no Talmud for women.” Just as my great-grandmother Rachel did not close the door for her son, he has not closed the door on art or religious texts for me.
The next morning my grandfather is up early, as usual. He’s discussing shirts, hats, fabric. Uh-oh. He wants to go shopping. I had almost forgotten in the years since my last visit. No one loves to shop as much as my grandfather. We take a cab to the most elegant store in northern Israel, and he sits in a chair at the front and says he won’t leave until I pick out five hundred dollars’ worth of clothing. He sits in his stiff elegant hat and his ironed shirt and his long pants, cane on the tile floor, and surveys the bounty. I see him looking at the Italian handbags, the suits, the scarves. He is in a state of pleasure.
I am just out of graduate school, not sure what to do with these elegant items. I can’t find much that will work in my life of coffee shops, writing, and teaching, but he insists. We’re not going anywhere until I meet my quota. I buy a pair of flowing black pants and a gorgeous brown pocketbook from Italy, along with several tank tops in red and purple. He is thrilled.
“Very beautiful, the beautiful things,” he says. “I want you to have some beautiful things from me.”
I smile. I know.
“It is important to have beautiful things, and a beautiful environment, and also a beautiful mind. You should have all good things—Torah, and chuppah, and the man who is the answer to the requests of your heart.”
I look up and smile. I knew he’d somehow get back to the question of weddings. And I love that he found the phrase from the prayers I love most—mishalot libech, the requests of your heart. I think back to my last birthday. The card was, as it always is, a reproduction of a piece of Jewish art. “Aviyarifka, I have been thinking,” he wrote in his distinctive handwriting. “All the old people want grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren, and they bother their children for them. I do not want to be like all the old people, badgering you to get married. I have decided this is not right. I will not annoy you about getting married. What I wish for you is bechir libech—the choice of your heart.”
That night, I model the purchases and he touches the fabric, elated. My brother Davi comes over and we stop talking about silk. Davi knows it’s hard for my grandfather to get to synagogue these days, so he sings parts of the Bible for him. My brother does not want to discuss the silk of a skirt, and I will remember that reluctance again in all the years when I am left to think of how different my grandfather was from most men.
Davi chants without a book, the whole thing memorized. We sit outside in the tremendous emptiness of the Galilee, where hundreds of feet separate the white concrete house from the big road. There is no grass in the backyard, no greenery or even the hint of it in the dark of night. There is only baked and charred dirt, the lemon trees and plum trees of my mother’s childhood memory.
We listen to Isaiah echo against the dark hills of the night:
Nachamu nachamu ami yomar eloheichem.
Comfort oh comfort my people says your God.
Isaiah 40 moves along the hills like an old man who knows every stone, every weed in his path. My brother’s voice is sure, and it is coming out of the air, from his body, from his heart.
Dabru al lev yerushalayim—“speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” V’kir’oo eleha. “And call to her.” That word, “to call,” is the same as “to read.” “Read to her,” a stranger to Hebrew might think. “The time has come, it is over. She has suffered doubly for all her sins.” Then suddenly the lines are talking to each other:
A voice rings out: “Proclaim!”
Another asks, “What shall I proclaim?”
“All flesh is grass,
All its goodness is like flowers of the field.”
This section of Isaiah is my brother Amiad’s bar mitzvah haftarah. The words belong to us, and they belong to these hills, this air. I sit and listen to Isaiah, a prophet I have loved. I sit and listen to my brother. And then I listen to the darkness, to the hills. “Comfort” repeats; it is an imperative verb. Everything in these sentences is doubled, from the punishment to the soothing, and then the voice itself splits into two—speaker and listener, who are also one and the same. Finally, the comfort of Isaiah 40 is over. My brother and my grandfather fall into conversation, in German, a language that is familiar to me but one I do not speak.
Eventually, we go inside and watch the day’s French news, followed by German talk shows, which are a sleazy parade of mistresses demanding rights and men who admit that they hate children and prefer dogs. My grandfather loves that I can understand the French news, and he happily follows along with the Hebrew subtitles. The last time I was here, I came straight from Paris, after studying abroad as an undergraduate, and he is still in that mindset that I was in then: he loves French magazines, television, radio, and food. I indulge him and watch the French news, which I imagine he has paid extra to receive.
At one a.m. my grandfather is still wide awake, discussing Heine with my brother during the commercial breaks. Both of them sit in their white T-shirts. In the darkness my brother looks like an old film actor, with his thick hair and big, light eyes, with the slow way he moves along the porch, his hand swatting the occasional loud fly.
I have tried to hear Isaiah again as I heard it that night. I have tried to hear it as the only sound for miles, the way it sounds on my grandfather’s porch in the hot summer quiet:
Nachamu nachamu ami yomar eloheichem—comfort oh comfort my people says your God.
I have spent five years reading Isaiah intently in Hebrew and in translation, trying to make it mine. And all I have learned from all that labor is that what is interesting to me is the dvarim hayafim—the beautiful things, whatever those things are. What is even more interesting is what the English translation of the Bible made me realize: the beautiful things are also the beautiful words. In Hebrew, words and things are synonyms.
The call comes on a Thursday night at the end of October. I’m in my bedroom in Boston, really a living room with huge bay windows that my roommates and I converted into a sleeping space. I am enjoying the thrill of receiving my M.A. in poetry, which was signed and sealed at the end of September—all the beautiful things. When the phone rings, I am thinking that it is beautiful to love poetry, to memorize it. It is beautiful and miraculous that a girl like me can write a poem in English at all. That I have lived, and lived in this way.
“Saba Shmuel died a few hours ago,” my father says softly.
And just like that, my grandfather is no longer alive. I write no longer alive, not dead, not gone, because neither of those has really been true.
My mother cries through the whole flight to Israel. She doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, sits there fingering her ripped shirt, her sign of mourning. When we finally get to Tel Aviv, my grandfather is not there to meet us. We take a cab he has not ordered, and for the first time in our lives, have to give the driver—who is not Abed—directions to the house.
I walk in first and cover all the mirrors. Then I let my mother inside, where she sits on the floor. I mourn my grandfather for a week, as is required, and for a year, as is traditional for a parent but not a grandparent. I make a vow, the only serious vow I have ever made and kept, that I will go to synagogue on time every Saturday for an entire year.
I am never anywhere early, barely anywhere on time, but for an entire year I am at synagogue at nine a.m. I want to hear all Five Books of Moses sung aloud, along with every single haftarah, or prophetic portion. I decide that I will say every single word of the Bible out loud, and I will remember my grandfather. I will look again at what he grew up believing, the faith he left after losing his four siblings and two parents to Hitler, and the faith he returned to after losing his wife when she was only thirty-six. I will honor his faith by investigating it; I will respect his endurance; and I will let him teach me something—anything—one last time.
In the snow and the rain, I go. It’s a half-hour walk to synagogue, and I go dressed in my finest clothing—as elegant and glamorous as possible, as he loved. I play with my best rings, thinking how much he enjoyed the fact that I was alive, that I had lived at all. Once, that last summer, he asked me for a glass of water, even though he was inches from the refrigerator. When I poured him water in one of his gorgeous blue glasses, he said, “Eizeh ta’anug l’kabel mayim mi’nechda!”—“What a pleasure to receive water from a granddaughter!”
What he was telling me was: I have a granddaughter; I alone, among my brothers, have lived. I have endured. And I know, as the oldest of five, that the last thing an oldest sibling wants is to be the last one left.
In synagogue, I sit in the back, open a book, and begin my slow task of reacquainting myself with my entire history, with his history, with the beginning. I learn about slave law and animal sacrifices and adultery—artifacts of the past. Slowly, I learn that there are rules and laws, stupidity and wisdom, that there is a space for anger and lyricism and comfort. The Bible covers murder and rape and poverty: it catalogs every kind of ugliness. And it also includes birth and continuity, constant lists of children and grandchildren, those who have survived.
Like many women’s sections, the left side of the mechitza—the wall, the border between the men’s section and the women’s section—in the Orthodox synagogue in the Harvard Hillel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has many women who sit silently. No one else reads every word aloud. I am twenty-four years old, and already I am afraid that I will forget my grandfather. I want to possess something he had, to carry it with me.
It gets colder, and I think of the winters of northern Germany, of my great-uncles shivering naked in the snow. I wonder whether they died immediately, when they were shot, or whether they lay there, bleeding, inhaling earth for the last time.
The century turns. The year of official mourning is over. I am aware that there was no year of official mourning for my great-grandparents, for my great-uncles.
In 2000, I move to Jerusalem. By the summer of 2001 my brother Davi is living in Berlin, working as a translator. Now he’s the age my grandfather was when he left; now he’s the curious one. He is the tall strong boy with only life ahead of him.
We talk easily, Berlin to Jerusalem. We are in almost the same time zone. No censors, no threats of death, no returned packages that my grandfather described as the norm for Germany-Israel communication. Poor, living off grapes he stole, my grandfather scrimped and borrowed to send his starving family in Bremen some dried salami in 1938, preserved food that could travel. Eight years later, after the war, it was returned to him, moldy, with words scrawled across the brown paper, over my great-grandparents’ name and street address: Address unknown.
My brother wants to see the house, so I agree to go with him. But my grandfather is gone, and so are the directions. I remember the number 82, and I remember that the house was on a long and green street called Vahrerstrasse and that it was far from the train station, but that’s it. Because it’s a Friday when we set out for northern Germany, and we cannot travel on the Sabbath, my brother decides we should hurry and take a cab from the Hauptbanof. And so for twenty dollars we get a tour of Bremen.
Beyond the castle-like downtown that an Allied bomber did not want to ruin by bombing, the city reminds me of rows of gingerbread houses. The place looks like it was made lovingly, by a woman with gentle hands. Everything is cute and pastel. It is pretty, well-landscaped, as if awaiting our arrival. There’s the gorgeous water, where my grandfather once watched ships sail to faraway lands, and a windmill welcoming tourists to Bremen.
“This is one of the few places where it’s bigger now,” my brother says in the cab. We both know he’s talking about the Jewish community. It is one of the oddities of history that there are now a hundred thousand Jews in Germany, most pouring in from the crumbling former Communist bloc. I think of the nineteen-year-old I just interviewed, a Russian Jew who told me his grandfather liberated Germany, and how he thinks of him all the time. He could not have known that his grandson would choose to live among the grandsons of Nazis.
“One hundred thousand people, mostly Russians,” Davi says.
Jews in Germany tend to know where other Jewish communities in Germany are. There are no “unknown addresses” in a country that still makes its residents register by religion.
It turns out that Bremen has a new synagogue, within walking distance of my grandfather’s old house. Today, the Jewish population is more than ten times that before the war. Of the ninety-nine, these are the ones who survived: one, my grandfather’s cousin, Mary, who survived by walking to Russia, and another, also a cousin, Fanny, by walking to Belgium. Still, as far as the Germans are concerned, everyone is gone. The only survivor to have children who returned was my grandfather. At the new synagogue in Bremen, there is a plaque honoring the town’s murdered former residents, but none of the new Jews remember them.
How can I complain when I can barely remember myself? Already I’m wrong about the house. Number 82 doesn’t have a bar underneath, and Davi is getting mad. We pace up and down the interminable street, and finally we see an older man, who immediately comes to talk with us. “Can I help you?” he asks, with impeccable courtesy.
My brother begins to ask him—using his perfect German—if he is from the area. “I have lived in this house all my life,” the old man says, “and I know everything on this street. But I do not recognize you.”
“Oh, I don’t come to Bremen often,” Davi says. “But I’m looking for an apartment that is on top of a bar that sells only beer.”
“Aaah, yes! I know exactly which house you are looking for,” the old man says. “It is right across from the Walmart. When you walk, you will see several bars selling wine and spirits and other things. Keep walking, about fifteen minutes, and you will see the one that sells beer only. It has been there ever since I remember. The number is 182.”
We know immediately that that’s the house. We soon find 182, and my brother sits down on the picnic tables in the front yard. I didn’t notice those tables before. I don’t see the landlord, and my brother gets comfortable. He’s wearing a sweatshirt with Hebrew and English letters on it, from our yeshiva high school in Manhattan, and a baseball cap. It’s easy to pick him out as an American Jewish tourist. I’m worried, and a little annoyed that he dresses so dangerously, but my brother doesn’t care. Davi takes out a bottle of water and takes a swig.
“This is not a nice place,” he says.
It’s that swift. He doesn’t have to think about it. He doesn’t want to see the inside, the staircase, the awful alleyway, the trees. He doesn’t even want to see a German Walmart from the inside. This is not the Galilee, where Isaiah can echo freely off the hills. This is a place that tried to empty us.
We click a few photos, but my brother wants to get out of there. I do, too. We take a bus back to the Hauptbahnhof, which has been remodeled. It’s only been two years since I was here with my mother, but the train station is not the same. Between 1998, my first visit, and 2001, my second, a large underground mall has replaced the platform where my grandfather said goodbye to his mother, his father, and his four brothers. The place shines, a gleaming deception.
The past is already buried under a Sbarro restaurant. Even the destruction of European Jewry can be hidden by the same stores that homogenize stories all over the world. The old train station survived the destruction of most of my family, and it outlived my grandfather, but it has not outlived me.
I know now why I came to Germany the first time, and why I returned: I came to look at what I didn’t really want to look at. And I struggle to remember it all as it was. I know I must do it, must struggle to remember, even if I don’t particularly want to.
I sit in cafés in Iowa City, and then in New York, and try to remember the Hauptbahnhof, exactly as it was the first time I saw it, in 1998. And I think of what other writers have tried to tell me about memory. I interviewed a great poet once. He told me of the loss of his father, saying, at first you remember everything: the face and the voice and the man. Then time passes and you forget a little bit of the man. A year and the voice is hazy. And then, suddenly, you forget the face.
I have not forgotten my grandfather’s face yet, but I can already feel it happening. It is different with the words of Isaiah: there are official reasons to repeat and repeat them. There is a yearly schedule, a calendar, and in the repetition, there is a balm. Comfort oh comfort my people says your God. Young boys are told to memorize what their grandfathers before them memorized, so the words live, even if the boys don’t.
Yad hayinu, my grandfather used to say about his four brothers and himself. “We were a hand.” And wherever I have traveled, in the years since my grandfather left the world, I have taken two books with me—Isaiah and the Psalms. The tiny book of Psalms is always the one he bought, small enough to travel, small enough to fit in my right hand.
From the book THE GRAMMAR OF GOD by Aviya Kushner. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Aviya Kushner.