My Grandparents

I never knew either of my maternal grandparents.  My grandmother, Helene Polajawer died in 1919 of the Spanish Flu, nine years after giving birth to my mother, whose name, incidentally, was Gerda.  I have a nice photo of my grandmother at her dry goods stand at a Berlin market, probably on Alexander Platz.  My grandfather died on March 6th, 1935, in Berlin, of natural causes.  He lived to be 85 years old, and my grandmother was the last of his three wives.  The reason I remember the date of his death so easily is that he died exactly a year and a day before I was born.  Hitler had already been in power two year when he died, and it may have been a good thing that he died when he did.  He wouldn’t have survived under Hitler in any case.  In 1941, 10% of Berlin’s Jews committed suicide in order to avoid deportation, and they may have been wise to do so.

After my grandmother had died, my mother was raised by one of her sisters, a not uncommon happening in those days.  My grandfather’s name was Abraham Schocken.  I believe he had eight children, but I only knew three of them.  I have no idea what happened to the others, except that one of my aunts wound up in Chile.

Schocken Grandmother in Market Stall

On my father’s side, I knew both my grandparents; however, I don’t remember their names, and there’s no one left who can tell me.    They too had made the forced trip from Berlin to Brussels.  Visiting them  was interesting.  I don’t know what my grandfather did in Berlin, but in Brussels he was a chicken butcher, and he did this in his apartment over the kitchen sink.  He would pick up a live chicken, give its neck a quick twist, and the chicken was dead.  Then came the job of plucking the chicken, and we all sat around doing it together, my father, grandfather, grandmother, and myself, as there were always enough chicken to go round, and we were careful about bagging the feathers, although I don’t know why.  Must confess to having enjoyed flexing the dead chickens feet and legs.  Sometimes a chicken would get cooked, and I’d wind up eating those legs.  It all may appear a little strange today, but at the time it was quite normal.

I’ve always suspected my grandmother of having been a Christian, but I can’t be sure.  She was an expert at coloring Easter eggs without using food coloring, and I have no idea how she did it.  At Christmas she also decorated a Christmas tree with real little colored candles, not a particularly Jewish thing to have done.

To this day I remember a Christmas shopping trip with my father and my grandparents.  I was hoping they would buy me a shiny six-shooter with an imitation ivory grip, but no, they decided to buy me pair of shoes.  I don’t remember why, whether it was the only pair available or whether other shoes were too expensive, but I wound up with a pair of shoes that were too small for me.  When I complained, I was told that I would get used to them.  There might have been a life lesson there. .  .

After the Nazis arrived I only saw my grandparents a few times.  The last time I saw my grandfather it was on his deathbed.  A priest was present, and I was told that my grandfather had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed as he breathed his last because there was no way to get buried in Brussels as a Jew.

I have no idea of how or when my grandmother died, but I do wish I could remember both my paternal grandparents names.

A.L.

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the “Final Solution” by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.

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4 Responses to My Grandparents

  1. James Vaughn says:

    Jennie –

    I am finding these stories fascinating and I hope you continue telling them. I am always amazed at the connections to history that my friends have. You might put together a simple family tree or cast of characters as it were to help track all the relations for the casual reader like myself. ; ) Hope all is well.

  2. Jennie says:

    Thanks, James! That’s a great idea!

  3. Mary Beth says:

    These stories are fascinating and yes, a family tree would help. I’ll keep reading and hope I find one! 🙂

  4. AlexLevy says:

    Dear Mary Beth,
    Would like to be able to provide a “family tree”, just had never thought about it because there were so few people on it that I knew at all. I only knew my maternal grandparents by the names on a photo of a headstone. I have no idea of my paternal grandparents names as I knew them only briefly, although I was saw my grandfather shortly before he died as he received extreme unction, having converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. My grandmother sort of faded out of my memory, and I have no recollections of what either of them looked like, although I believe (on the basis of no evidence other than a childish memory) that she was a Christian. I knew no other relatives on the paternal side. The relatives I knew on my mother’s side, were the children, grand-children, and great grandchildren of one of my maternal grandfather’s, Abraham’s, first two wives, who must have died prior to 1909, as my own mother (the child of his third wife, Helene) was born in 1910. You can see how such a family tree might be somewhat complicated, and not particularly relevant?
    Thanks for the nice comment.
    Alex

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