Title Our Authors

Diary of a Grandmother

By Mary Lou Heilman

Several times in the book, Sasha describes her apartment in a fashionable area of St. Petersburg, Russia, which she completely renovated. It had beautifully restored mahogany trim, a luxurious bathroom, and upscale kitchen appliances. But how had Sasha been able to afford it on her salary? Granted, she was a DNA specialist, but such an apartment would have been beyond her reach. Sasha mentions that she bought the apartment with her inheritance. A hidden diary reveals some secrets and the source of the money.

Sasha opened the door to Mr. Sergeeva's shop in a St. Petersburg side street. She was anxious to see the painting in its new frame. She wasn't sure when or if she would actually rehang the painting on her wall. It was not exactly hers, but according to the expert, Dr. Manning, it was an original De Bles, listed on the Holocaust Registry.

"I'm sorry it has taken so long for me to reframe the painting," Mr. Sergeeva said when he came to meet her, now helped along by a cane. My knee decided to give me a little vacation."

"Are you better now?" Sasha asked.

"Better, I don't know, but I was tired of the vacation, so now the knee is punishing me."

"Anyway," he continued, "I did want to give you the packing material and the remnants of the old frame. I was going to discard them, but technically they are yours."

He pulled out a paper bag and spilled its contents on the counter. Sasha looked at the largest piece of frame. Should she save it?

The crumpled newspaper and shreds that had padded the back of the painting lay in a heap.

"I don't see any reason to keep this," she added. "Although the newspaper could give us a clue as to when it was last framed." Her fingers pushed apart the shreds.

Why were her ears ringing…why…?

For a man who depended on a cane, Mr. Sergeeva moved fast. His arm shot out to grab Sasha's shoulder as he moved around the counter.

Sasha knew well Grandmother's script, in any language, even though she had rarely received a letter from her. She was seldom away from her. Of course she had Grandmother's recipes. And that handwriting was here in that crushed pile, unmistakably hers, even though shredded in parts.  Here, underneath the brittle blanket of German newsprint.

Sasha did not remember paying Mr. Sergeeva, did not remember his solicitous offer of tea, did not remember how she made it to her apartment.

Sasha set the painting aside. It hardly mattered now. Gently, scarcely daring to breathe, she extricated the clump of sheets from the crumpled newsprint. At one time they might have comprised a diary. It was hard to tell now.

Grandmother had instructed that all her belongings be disposed of when she died. How could Sasha in good conscience read through her hidden diary, if that's what these sheets are? And why had Grandmother hidden them in the picture frame? Even as she debated with herself, Sasha knew she had to read the diary. Even as she unfolded the creases, she knew that she should really wait until a paper curator, some expert could examine the paper, help her preserve the sheets.

She couldn't wait.

Some of the elegant handwriting was faded to undecipherable shadow, but there was enough that remained clear:

3 May 1944:

I don't have much hope for Tessy. She's easy to hide. She could even go to a shelter when the bo starts. She looks the epitome of Aryan ideal but sh

 That shred of the diary was readable…then nothing for a while. Script that faded, but then a few readable pages:

10 June 1944:

I've got to find a B  niform. It would be perfect for Tessy. Blonde, blue-eye young enough to pass for a member of the League of German Maidens. Tessy is for all her white-blond hair and blue eyes, is not even a Geltungsjude or a Mischling; she is a full Jew.

But I have an idea. There is someone, I'll not name her here, who could, a uniform. I will sacrifice anything to help…or almost anything. After all, what security I now have, what funds I have, I must give credit to Tessy's grandfather…so wrapped up in his collections. I hardly thought he knew I came with the doctor to administer to Tessy's grandmother. Give her insulin shots. His library door was always open but I tried to move soundlessly so as not to disturb him at his work. Then one day he called me into his library. And asked me in his courtly way if he was paying me adequately for my services, showing surprise when I said yes. He promptly increased my salary and set up an account and a safe-deposit box for me at his bank, explaining that he would keep the duplicate key.  Shortly after, when I stopped at the pharmacy to obtain the usual insulin supply, it was closed, the windows smashed, "Juden" scrawled across the door. And I could not find an alternate supply. I tried pharmacy after pharmacy, until some kindly soul suggested what I came to know as the black market. Finally even that source ended. It hardly mattered, as everything else ended as well. I wasn't sure what I would do as I knocked on their door. When no one came, I pushed it open and went up the stairs as usual. I found them in the bedroom, so still and peaceful, I thought they were both sleeping, until I noticed the bottle on the stand. And the note. And the duplicate safe-deposit box key. "Please wait for Tessy and take her with you. There are funds in your account and gold in your safe-deposit box for her keep." But now I can't go to the bank. No, no trail.

Another fragment:                                                                                                                 

6 August 1944:

Tessy can't believe her family is gone. She lives in a shadow world. I even have to remind her to eat. I know I shouldn't resent her lethargy after I spent hours waiting in the bakery line.

But Tessy, she is not even trying to help herself. It's as though she wants to either die or be captured. Yesterday I found her conversing with the mailman! She didn't understand why that was dangerous. I'm afraid if I explain again that she is endangering me as well as herself she'll just leave. Sometimes she sits for hours with that small package cradled to her chest, rocking, rocking.

Another sheet, more introspective.

Unknown Date:

I'm getting older…why has war robbed me of any life and joy? There's no place for me. I should not pick up that mirror again. If it had a soul, it would weep for me. Weep for what once was: porcelain skin, plump with health, shining eyes, sparkling with joy, rounded mouth, curved in a smile. No more.

January 19, 1945:

No food. The last coupons spent. I had thought of suicide. Better than starving to death. Then, last afternoon, not full dark, as I came in the door, dragged in actually, a man materialized from the shadows. "Let me help you, Schwester Garibova," he said. He handed me a stack of coupons, then dematerialized. A wraith, really. I could have imagined it, except for those coupons. Today I spent the best part standing in several lines. It would not do to try to exchange too many coupons at one store. But, success! I am too hungry to worry that this is a trick to catch us. He could be a Spitzel. Goebbels proclaimed Berlin Judenrein last year, but then he proclaims many things. I did not realize it till later, but the man used my name, my real name. I should have been immediately on guard, but hunger slows the brain. How did he know my name?

He came again.

That was all she could read of that sheet.

Maddening, those faded spaces, larger now as Sasha lifted another precious sheet from the pile. Who is he? Or was he, Sasha wondered.

February 1, 1945:

More coupons…this week, more coup or butter! How long can I walk to differe…redeem the coupons? Thank God today is as warm as spring. A Gotterdammerung spring, but fine weather makes it easier to avoi…ling over the broken sidewalks, easier to avoid putting a foot wron…leg in a pothole or a rubble pile. But easier to crave lif…end of war, the end of Berlin, is at hand. Bombing day and night now. A relay: U.S. covers day, hands off to English at night. How have we avoided a hit?

He came in this time, when I invited him, finally allowing me to show some hospitality. Tessy was sleeping, so we talked quietly. How could he travel about as a man? Even when he goes about the city at night, it's still dangerous. When I asked him, he only smiled. How have we come to this? Boys, boys hanging from trees and lamps, strung up for being "traitors."

He said his name is Rudolf Friml…just like the composer…his parents' love of operetta overcoming their usual good sense. Is that really his name? I doubt it, but at least I have something to call him now. When I asked him wh…him after a Jew, he shrugged. "As I said, their usual good sense was absent. And then…I doubt if they even knew Friml was Jewish, as…were not. And they named my baby sister Rose-Marie, a Christian name. And that was before…all this."

In spite of the famine, even with his coupons, he has not escaped dystrophy. No meat, no fresh vegeta… take their toll. But, what I wanted to say is that he has the face of an Adonis. He stirs within me something that lies dead…dead, but perhaps there is some aspect of loving still. What a strange idea, to think of being a woman, not a thing. That thing that only craves food.

The rest of the page was undecipherable. What happened that night? Could that Adonis be my grandfather? Sasha hoped so. Not to be impregnated by rape, but by something else, maybe not love, but at least pleasure. Perhaps the increased rations, especially the fat in the butter, allowed Grandmother's body to do what a healthy woman's body allowed.

In the middle of the next page, a readable selection:

We sang. We actually sang! My dear friend Rudolph. He knows every word of those songs: "Rose-Marie," "Indian Love Call," that voice. He must have had training. No n

Another scrap, ink fading, no date that Sasha could read:

How did he know me? Why had he sought me out that night? The very night of my despair.

Further down on the same page:

Now, at least I know. At least I know how he knew me, not how he found me. His sister, Rose-Marie. His baby sister, not a baby then. I do remember. But so small in the bed, she could have been overlooked in the ward. I read to her. Books, books took her to places she had never been, would never be. Night after night we went through so many of my favorite books. Visited so many places I will have little chance to see. Not really children's books, but adventures, escapes. What would a beach on a Hawaiian island be like?  Would it have white or black volcanic sand? Would there be a luau with poi served on a breadfruit leaf? What about Mexico City? That scooped out bowl held high in the fingertips of mountains. Would we take an excursion to the pyramids…Chichen Itza, Teotihuacan, Tulum? To climb the stone steps of a pyramid…we'd have to be careful, so careful…but the view from the top! Or Alaska. Would the Eskimos allow us to see their igloos? A world made of ice and snow. How would we keep warm, furs?

I held her hand as I read. How did I overlook her handsome brother? He confessed that when he saw me with her, he did not interrupt. He hid from her sight. But he listened. He saw the look on her face as I described some mountain, some bazaar, some ocean beach that I had never experienced, but imagined.

It worked almost to the end. I knew I could not keep her body alive…the ancient scourge loved to devour the young. Call it consumption, tuberculosis, bleeding disease….the Great White Plague. Rich and poor alike could not escape.

 But my little patient, I treasured her spirit. One more day. That was my goal, but my tales were not enough to keep her alive. I was there in the end; I closed her eyes. I did not go to her funeral. I could not.

Another scrap:

"Now I have a plan. If I survive Berlin, I'll return to my beloved city. I dare not include Rudolph in my plans. There is not much left of Peter's city, I know. If the news is to be believed, the Germans destroyed Leningrad, the summer palace, maybe even the winter palace, but it cannot be any worse than the rubble that is now Berlin. Destroy, destroy, that's all they do."

Another undated fragment:

Tessy, she's turned me into someone alien. Can I admit I gobbled up Tessy's leftover food? Supposedly she had a stomach ache, couldn't eat.

Undated:

Does Rudolph have a death wish? He told me, 'Do not be surprised or alarmed, do not… see tomorrow night, by anything you see. No matter what. Is… , he lightened these warnings with a wink and a smile. What was I to believe? He begged me to go to a concert, someone he knew wa… enefit wounded soldiers. He gave me a ticket. I went. The singer was an elegant woman, n… ay she dressed, in the way she held herself. Tall, imposing in front of the grand piano. Yes, there are places not bombed, beautiful instruments not destroyed.

The soprano's notes hung breathtakingly clear above us. "The Last Rose of Summer," started out softly, sweetly, her expression pensive. That last rose. Or is it the last something else…a dream? We listened to her lament, each of us caught in sadness, perhaps. Then, near the end, her voice swelled, climbed, climaxed as she carried us along to an incredible, crystal-reverberating height. Her triumphant smile belied her words. Was it joy at her performance, achieving that ending note, or was it belief that Germany could still be victorious? At any rate, I have not heard Strauss, Gounod, Lehar interpreted in a way that transported us, carried us along, a wind sweeping away our public expressions and exposing naked longing – for a place, a time no longer possible. The yearning eyes of the officers decked out in full regalia, for that moment at least made me believe that they could have once been human beings, before the war, before the poison distorted their souls.

Even one officer. Where had Rudolph gotten the Waffen SS uniform? I know he has read Poe's "The Purloined Letter," and ascribes to the hidden-in-plain-sight strategy, but will there be a Dupin to identify him? The singer, how well does she know him? Music must be their connection, but would she keep his secret? And how were these officers allowed the time away from their unit? Soon they would be dead men. If I weren't terrified, I would have been furious, was furious as soon as I reached home and safety. He has gone too far this time. No more, no more deceptions.

Sasha knew she must be breathing, but the world stilled as she read. Why had Grandmother never spoken of this? In Berlin during its fall to the Russian forces? But Sasha knew the answer. To reveal her life in Berlin would be thread unspooling another secret: Who was her grandfather? Could he have been Rudolph?

The tattered pile that was Grandmother's diary grew sparse as Sasha pulled out another fragment. Sasha hesitated, unwilling to come to the end of her treasure trove.

One more page, one less discovery:

5 April, 1945:

Found her unwrapping the package. Tessy showed me the painting…not really what I would choose to save, of all her family's art. But she clung to it. It had been in her family for so many generations, she said. Funny, it must not have been hung in her Grandfather's library, as I had never seen it. How to keep it safe? We could be bombed out any night, Tessy said. But the painting was so small, it could easily fit into a briefcase. Of all things to worry about, this was the least. Then Miss Drama presented the painting to me for safekeeping. One drab little painting was enshrined in all those wrappings of paper like a treasure. She showed it to me, expecting me to gasp in awe, but I could not, I could not accommodate her over the painting.

Another page:

Tessy hinted at a secret. Something to do with that painting. She started to give me the details, but I stopped her flat. I don't want to know. I don't want to be responsible for more secrets.

Another undated page, crumpled as if in anger:

Sasha wanted more, much more than this crushed tidbit. It was taunting her with its unfinished business. Most of the sheet relinquished its crumpled folds to Sasha's gentle pressure, but in retaliation began to separate. Spider web strokes were undecipherable, but there was one area Sasha could pick out:

Only God could find a way out now. The bombing pounded closer and closer last night, as if seeking us. Then toward dawn I realized that we were somehow safe another night. Not to be. Tessy doubled over in pain. At first I thought she was playing Miss Drama again, but then I realized the symptoms of appendicitis. I knew I would have to get her to hospital somehow.

11 May 1945:

Amazing – new Russian/German ration cards, and of course, Rudolph made sure we have plenty. These, on newsprint, were not a challenge to forge. Luckily we still have the butter, as there is no fat ration. And banks, Rudolph's bank, or one of his banks, survived, the Dresdner Bank. Not broken into or bombed. He doesn't tell me, but I suspect many of his other accounts are gone, destroyed or looted. But of course, ever optimistic, he ignores what is impossible. What good will those bank accounts do anyway? Now all financial assets are blocked – it has been decreed.

"But not all assets," Rudolph said as he pulled out a tiny soiled purse. He laughed as he bid me feel though the fabric…lumps, jewel-type lumps, and rings. "Where shall we hide it?" He surveyed the room. The Soviets could search here at any time. Surely they would find it. As usual, I underestimated Rudolf. "We aren't getting the benefit of electricity, so let's put those switchplates to use for something," he said. His Swiss army knife had a little screwdriver attached, so it was no trick at all to undo the plate and insert the little purse. "Now remember which one it is. All my girlfriends have these little hiding places, so I can't possibly remember yours," he teased.

13 May 1945:

Is the watch worth a man's life? Twice I've thrown it into the garbage. Twice I've retrieved it. I cannot bear to look at it, but how can I throw it away? I wanted to smash it against the wall.

I thought I could talk him out of it. I, a native Russian speaker, I should have been off limits to these Soviet Mongolian soldiers. What a fool I was to reason with a drunken man, stolen watches pinned inside his coat, wristwatches up and down his arms. Did each watch represent a conquest? I would have gladly given him the watch, given him everything he wanted, quickly, quickly, and sent him on his way. If only I had not wasted precious time arguing with him. If only I had just quietly acquiesced. It wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't resisted. It happened anyway. If only he had come earlier, then he would have finished his dirty business and been gone by the time Rudolph came. But Rudolph knew what happened. When he saw me, then the silly grin on the soldier's Slavic face and my watch pinned to his filthy jacket, all reason must have deserted Rudolph. He lunged at the Bolshevik, tearing off the watch.

What happened then is too painful to write. In the end, Rudolph lay dead. The world went black. I don't know how long I covered his body with my own. If only I could keep him warm enough, I could bring him back. My neighbor found us. She said nothing, just stroked me again and again.

15 May 1945:

I must write down where he is buried, before the location is scrubbed off my slate brain. No, not slate, stone, impenetrable stone. And I must find a way to thank Frau Anthau. She washed him, tried to wash the desecration off his beautiful face and body. Found a coffin maker. Found someone to transport him after dark to the perimeter of Nikolaifriedhof Cemetery. Found someone to bury him. But couldn't find a headstone, not yet, anyway. She marked the spot, drew a map for me. Why had I been so powerless? I am a nurse, used to death, used to injuries, used to shutting down my heart…If only I were an artist instead of a nurse. I could draw his likeness, his beautiful face before the monster…How can I engrave his face on my stone-brain? I have no photograph of him.

1 June 1945:

At least I can do this for Tessy. I discovered where they had buried her. How convenient to have a hospital garden. They call themselves a hospital. Where was the penicillin? She didn't have a chance without antibiotics. Not even soldiers received sulfa, never mind penicillin, the director informed me. I could not blame him. He was a destroyed man. To be a physician with the knowledge to save, but not the medicines. A Hell. No, Tessy had no chance.

 But I have not ink enough for that subject. Tessy. She was only wrapped in cloth. Was wood too precious to be used for her coffin? I hope that she would approve of being disinterred. I wish her grandparents could lie next to her. Wherever their final resting place was. I am sorry, so sorry I could not save Tessy, could not care for her as her grandfather wished. At least now she lies reburied in a Jewish cemetery that somehow escaped desecration, the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee. With the holy words – El mole rachamim, said over her. Finally, a Jew.

15 June 1945:

The waiting room was crowded with pitiful women, some not even women, but girls. Some grandmothers. No one talked. One by one we were called in. Still no one talked. When someone left, all eyes seemed to go to her, to see if she had received some magic, some drug or treatment to reduce the pain. It was hard to tell. When it was my turn, the doctor, a thin woman with gray hair pulled up in a bun, but not unkind, confirmed what I had guessed. She even offered to help me "find someone." But how can I do that? Suppose it is Rudolph's child? And even if it's not, this child carries part of me as well. Rudolph. Frau Anthau tells me that life will, must, go on. I guess she has wisdom, as I can write again.

Unknown Date:

Where are the men? Are they hiding? But why should I blame them? Could they stand by while their women are abused? Rudolf could not, for all the good it did him. I will know it is safe when I see men on the street.

30 June 1945:

The word has been passed among us women. Who to go to. Who is safe, who is risky. How much it costs. Are there doctors getting rich off these abortions, or "procedures" as so many call it? Or are the providers even doctors? I've heard the horror stories. How many women are dying from perforation, from infection, from disease? Many women, knowing I am a nurse, but not knowing I share their problem, come to me. "Give me a name, they beg. Food for a name." Will there be any babies with homes when all this is over? Or will these babies be left at hospital, then to an orphanage? Years from now when birthdays are celebrated, will anyone born in 1946 be isolated by knowing looks, sidelong glances?

15 July1945:

How can I do it? So many dead, I cannot contribute to the mountain of dead. Piled up they would reach heaven. No need for their souls to fly upward.

I have to stay. For the time being anyway, at least long enough until we can travel again…I visited the bank today. Thank God the bank still stands, but I am not sure what to do, whom to trust. There is talk of stabilization, but when? What will happen if inflation continues and Rudolph's money is depleted? Wads of money, wads of coupons. Rudolph assured me that although the coupons were forged, the money was not. At least his funds were not all in reichmarks. Where had he obtained French, Swiss, even English currency? …es, he made provisions for me. Did he have a premonition? …hid the purse? I cannot bring myself to take it from its hiding place, but I know I must do it soon. One wish, one wish only…if I do survive…let it be his, let this new life be his. I know my age is against me. If I die but the baby lives, wha

25 August 1945:

I could not ask Frau Anthau, so I confided in Eva today. Whether for good or for ill, she would take and raise him "if I cannot," as she put it. Eva, my beloved nurse friend, more than a friend…almost like a sister.

But I feel good, energetic, even. We pass each other on the street, we with our little bulges. We don't acknowledge each other. But so many. Do others notice?

2 September1945:

Today was the first day of my new job. We all must have jobs, another of many decrees. I registered at the Rathaus. The swaths of fabric in my nurse's uniform will come in very handy now, cover up much. I must take care of a diabetic Soviet officer. When they found that I could speak Russian…I was careful to give it a certain awkwardness…it would not do to tell the real story. Their tolerance would quickly change. Would I be considered a traitor if they knew my nationality? And speaking English and French…they will never hear me speak those languages.

It's as though I have shed my skin, taken on someone else's. Papers? Of course I have the correct papers. Rudolph had seen to that. And now he's gone, Tessy's gone. And I have what remains of their possessions. Tessy's precious painting, it will stay in the brown wrappings. I will never part with it. Another way to honor her.

Unknown date:

Something happened today. I still can't decide if I am reassured or frightened by it. My officer patient is to report back to Russia. They have dism… is time for him to go back to his commanding officer. …will happen. He'll not survive long. He has been so polite, almost courtly to me, but I have overseen all his food preparation, inspected his feet and tested his blood daily, given him his injections. Who will do it when he leaves? Again and again I have tried to stress how important these things are, but he merely smiles. He knows his fate.

Sometimes I look up and see him staring at me. In that moment he was revealed. And this was the moment I could choose…choose by not even a word but a by gesture to invite him. Women know these things. It is their power over men. But I let the moment pass.

 Then, just when I turned to leave, he spoke again. "Schwester…Garmann, there are some things a German such as you should not forget…might be fatal to forget. Accents can disclose. Guard every word. Remember that. Comrade Beria's agents have ears. In the French sector it is safer. Remember that." His words came out in short spurts. Then his officers' training returned, stood him in good stead, and me as well, I suppose. He said no more. His eyes spoke for him.

So now I am to work as a translator at the hospital. How much longer can I disguise myself? Especially under the watchful eyes of other nurses.

19 February 1946:

I spend most of my time at the hospital now. It is much too cold to go back to the apartment. Luckily for me, there are several nurses in my condition, so there is much more sympathy for our state than there would ordinarily have been. What is strange is that it is a topic not discussed. But a bed in the nurses' dormitory has been allotted to me.

I must make plans before I leave, and before I am confined. The grave, Rudolph's grave. I cannot put a headstone on it. Not yet. Perhaps I can give money to Frau Anthau to buy a headstone when the time is right. I've tried to help her in any way I can. At least I gave her my ration of fuel.

26 March 1945:

It's funny, I don't feel like writing anymore. Everything seems like too much of an effort. Yesterday a friend gave birth. After she looked at the baby, she turned her head away. She, a blonde, took one look at the infant's swarthy complexion and her face crumpled. What to say to her? Will her baby "disappear" as so many have?

And me? When my time comes, will I turn my head away as well? Or will he even survive? None of us has gained much weight.

Question marks, so many question marks. I looked over my jottings today and all I saw were questions. It must be the times. The question-mark times.

It was cold in the kitchen. Deathly cold. Where was the rest of Grandmother's diary? Why did it end? When the baby was born, was Grandmother too busy, or too weak to continue writing? Understandable. And how did Grandmother and the baby get back to the Soviet Union under Stalin's domain?

Then Sasha tried to remember the day she and Grandmother returned from an outing to be told her parents was dead, killed in a car crash. She couldn't remember Grandmother's face, how she acted. But she could visualize how Grandmother must have felt. To have carried her daughter to term, somehow brought her back, undetected, to the Soviet Union, raised her under what must have been harrowing conditions, hidden her place of birth, circumstance of birth. To have it all come crashing down. With only Sasha left. Sasha, and the funds and jewels Rudolph had left her, and a small painting.

 

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