There is Passover and there is survival.
|Aunt Maude was my cantankerous Great Aunt but I was forbidden to even think the 'Great' bit. She and I got on well together after she caught me sneaking out the back door for a fag*. Her hand, with its tremor, held her lighter at the ciggie's end and the flame danced all over the place. Finally, I managed to pull a drag and felt the smoke crackle down into my lungs. Glancing up into her face, I watched the wrinkles shifting as her mouth changed shape. A smile made her head even more skull-like.|
'You will come with me to Paris next Wednesday.' The only clue to her French origins was to say 'Pareee.' And that was that. She had spoken. We were going to Paris, on the Eurostar, leaving St Pancras International at 8 a.m. and arriving at Gare du Nord about two and a half hours later. It took longer to go through customs and passport control than to cross England, barrel through the Channel Tunnel and zip through a wet and dismal French countryside.
'The taxis are over there.' I dragged our suitcases through Gallic crowds, dying for a cup of tea. 'What's the name of the hotel?'
'The driver will know.' My French is more than passable but Aunt Maude's was thick with a Yiddish accent. It was also a very Aunt Maude answer. I interpreted it to mean that she had not bothered to book one. Hopefully, we could find somewhere, it was mid November, not the full flush of the tourist season. When we, at last, managed to climb into a taxi, Aunt Maude leaned forward and spoke in pure, aristocratic tones. 'A good hotel in the centre of Drancy.'
'Oui, Madame.' No one ever argued with Aunt Maude. Except a concierge, when the hotel is full, but he knew a hefty tip when he saw one and booked us in a smaller, and cozier place a few streets away. His brother-in-law's, and, as soon as we arrived, I knew they were Jewish. Not only by the name, Feldtman, but also by the decor. It was a home from home.
'Tomorrow, I will shop.' Aunt Maude announced. 'I will be back here for dîner, so you may amuse yourself until then. On Friday, we have a task.'
Friday, thankfully, was dry. It was a day of a battleship sky, heavy and low, trapping a layer of dank cold that wormed it's way between clothes and skin. I was toasty in my walking gear but Aunt Maude wore a threadbare astrakhan coat, a moth-eaten furry thing like a dead wombat on her head, thick, black, woollen stockings and elderly, but still sensible, shoes. Imperiously, she indicated an over-stuffed rucksack and led the way out of the hotel. With map in hand and many a muttered profanity in French, she led us through a maze of streets. Just occasionally, she would pause, take a few deep breaths and look away. It was cold enough to make her eyes water and her lips turn blue.
'Voilà! Nous sommes arriveé.' Folding the map, she tucked it in her bag and stared at our destination. 'It is the same, but different. Look, child, and learn. This is Drancy Internment Camp, we were taken from our homes and put in those apartments.' There was an ugly example of five story, blocks of flats and a large, white-and-glass building. 'This is the Shoa Memorial.' Her voice was flat. 'And over there, in the park, there are sculptures and memories.' Was there a crack in her words? 'This is the last place that Mama and Papa and Gabriel and myself were a family.'
We walked and rested and walked a little more. When we came upon one of the cattle trucks that were used to transport Jews, Gypsies and others, Aunt Maude turned away and strode to the white and glass building, the Shoa Memorial, 'Enter, Meditate and do not Forget'. We entered. The Holocaust is part of my family's history. It is part of European history. It is part of everybody's history.
'Come!' Aunt Maude limped to the reception desk, she needed her stick but refused to use it. Nevertheless, she had the same command in her beckoning finger as she always had. 'Wait here.' She pointed to a chair and turned to converse in low tones with the girl behind the counter, who made a phone call. Shortly, a dapper, elderly man appeared and waved us through into an inner sanctum and then out, into a small, private courtyard with a picnic bench. 'Unpack the rucksack.' She said as she sank onto a bench. 'And set it out properly.'
It was a seder meal, although it was neither Passach, nor yet Shabbat. The ka’arah* itself was old, with a chip on one edge. The wine a good vintage Merlot. There were the bitter herbs, the lettuce, the salt water, the matzah, the charoset and a picnic of Jewish delicacies. When I opened the wine, Aunt Maude recited the kiddush.
'It is important to lean on our left side as we eat our matzah. We are free. The bitterness of the Holocaust and the hunger of those days are here and the salt tears shed because of it.' She gave a long stare back through the decades. 'I made a promise to Mama when we arrived at Dachau, I would celebrate a Pessach when we were free. She was taken to the gas chambers and I never saw any of my family again.'
I have celebrated Passover many times with my family, it was always a happy time but, with honesty, it was just something we did, because we are Jewish. This was my first, real, seder meal albeit on the wrong date and time. It meant something.
Aunt Maude died a month after we returned home. Her heart finally gave out.
*fag - British slang for a cigarette.
*ka’arah - seder plate.