Secrets and Lies

When my mother committed suicide somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1985/86, someone made the decision not to tell her mother, who was about 90 at the time. This was a woman who watched 4 of her six children get taken away to concentration camps, witnessed as her husband was shot on a street in Belgium and had worked miracles to keep my mother and my uncle, the two youngest children, alive. As mentioned in previous posts, she somehow found her way to the Jewish Underground and found a couple to hide them in their Bruxelles-area basement for about 2 years.

The way I understand it is that she was told that my mother was living in Arizona in a restful and peaceful place where she couldn’t be contacted (I refer you to my post about my dreams.) I can’t imagine that she believed this and when I found out about it, I was stunned. I know it was to protect her but I didn’t agree with the decision.
My grandmother was a very loving woman, barely 4’11 who spoke only Polish and Yiddish and a smattering of English. She lived in a teeny little apartment in Brooklyn and was most proud of a painting she had of a fountain that when plugged in, lit-up and simulated falling water. When she knew I was coming to visit she’d fill her bowl of sour balls and go out to buy pound cake. She would wait outside for us and would beam with delight when she saw us, and walk us to the car, waving her sweet little wave when we left. She spent most of her time sitting on a bench outside with her friends with her cash stuck into her bra. She lived to be close to 100 subsisting apparently on boiled potatoes and Manishewitz.
My mother and her mother had a very strange relationship. On the Jewish holidays when my grandmother would come over and help cook Passover dinner, there was a lot of yelling in Yiddish. My grandmother would say “SHA” to quiet things down. I have absolutely no idea why my mother seemed to dislike her so much. What it did for me, was to model a mother/daughter relationship where my grandmother was so desperate for my mother’s love, and my mother just seemed annoyed all the time. One of my biggest regrets in my life was not taking the time to know her, while emulating my mother’s indifference and annoyance.
When she slept over, my grandmother would take her hair out of her tightly wound bun and I would be sort of freaked out by her silver hair that reached 3/4 down her body. She would brush it while wearing her white nightgown and often brush my hair while I just got annoyed that she would accidentally brush my face. She would take her clacking teeth out and put them in a glass and leave them in the bathroom. She never went out without lipstick.
Many years ago I found a document, written in French which came from an Israeli governmental agency addressed to my grandmother. It’s not so hard to make out the language that starts out (my loose translation):
Dear Mrs. Kempinksi, I regret to inform you that (three of my four aunts and uncles are listed by name with their birth and death dates and the concentration camp numbers they were assigned) and died here:
Malines (Mechelen) concentration camp was situated in a former barracks by the river in the city of the same name in Belgium. It was appropriated by the Germans in 1942 to serve as an assembly camp for all the Jews of Belgium and other ‘undesirable’ groups. The camp was divided into several groups including those to be deported; nationals of neutral countries or Germany’s allies; borderline cases (ie mixed race); political prisoners and, in the final stages of the camp’s existence, Gypsies.

There was a set of boy/girl twins. The girls first name was Minda which is now my daughter’s middle name. One of the sons is listed as whereabouts unknown.



  1. Mother/daughter relationships are complex and challenging. I can hardly imagine what experiences like those your family went through add to the already difficult territory. It's sad that many of us don't realize until it's too late that we should have spent more time getting to know our families. Even knowing that my Grandmother was sick and didn't have long to live, I was unable to be in the moment and put it in perspective. I wasn't patient enough, I neglected to ask her the right questions and now I can't believe she's gone and I won't ever have the chance to really know how she felt about so many things. I think it's very important that you're sharing these stories, Gayle. I hope they're healing for you and I'm sure they are helping your readers come to terms with issues within their families. Keep being brave and sharing.

  2. What a haunting, but fascinating post. Thank you for sharing such a private, and likely painful set of memories.

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