Apr 1997

Photographs and Memories

by Oren Shafir

I am told my great-grandfather, Moishe, used to get sick every year during the fast of Yom-kippur. His face would turn white; his eyes glaze over, and he would lie flat on his back moaning: "Oy veysmehr." My great-grandmother, Sara, on the other hand, never got sick on Yom-kippur. But my grandfather, Izzy, remembers catching her stuffing crackers into her mouth late at night.

"Mama, you're not supposed to eat," he said.

She followed his wide-eyed gaze up to the ceiling toward God. "It's okay, we have an understanding," she said.

Some members of my family still hold my great-grandmother responsible for my great-grandfather's death. Others claim he never died and might still even be alive today (although he would be 104 years old). What is really confusing is some of those who claim he never died also hold her responsible for her death. It's a strange family. In any case, the story goes like this.

One day, the Polish army came to the farm and drafted my great-grandfather, Moishe. My grandfather, Izzy, says they singled out Moishe because of a neighbor who hated Moishe, lusted after Sara and happened to have a relative in the Polish army. Anyway, poor Moishe was gone, but Sara never gave up easily. She deposited her children at a cousin's house and rode into town. There she sold some jewelry and bribed an official to tell her where they had taken her husband. She rode her horse and carriage hard and actually arrived before the train carrying her husband had reached the same destination.

However, the officer in charge did not want her money. She pleaded with him using her children, God, humanity and whatever she could think of to try and sway him. Finally, he said their was a way if she was willing to make a small sacrifice which she might even find pleasurable (many women had, he claimed). Looking at the short, fat, balding and altogether repugnant man, Sara found that hard to believe. She considered all she had done to try and save Moishe and what Moishe meant to her and to her children, then she looked at the Polish officer, snorted in disgust, and marched out never to see her husband again.

My grandfather, Izzy, remembers the period after that with sweet nostalgia, probably because he got much more attention from his mother. Unfortunately, the quiet did not last. The neighbor who had gotten rid of Moishe came to collect his prize—Sara. He did not even have the guts to come alone. He and two friends came waving a bottle, laughing and yelling, "Sara, your Abraham is here."

The door flew open. Sara stood with her legs parted and her eyes ablaze. The moonlight outlined her body and highlighted her long black hair. Slowly and deliberately, she lifted a large shotgun and pointed it at the neighbor's head. These men had never seen a woman with a gun. They stood in shock. They turned around and walked away in a stupor. But the neighbor turned back and said," Wait until the wind blows in this direction, Jews."

Sara turned to her seven-year-old son and asked, "Izzy, do you know how to shoot this thing?"

He shook his head.

"Neither do I," said Sara.

Then one day the wind was blowing hard in the direction of their house, and it burned down. This was what made my great-grandmother, Sara, decide to move to the United States of America.


The house had not changed in thirty years: plastic slips protected the couches; a stack of National Geographics lay on the coffee table and decks of cards were everywhere, although no one used them anymore. Jonathon smiled sadly at his grandfather. He wanted Gabriella to see what Grandpa Izzy had meant to him. He wanted her to hear the stories he had told her about his ancestors from the man who had passed them on to him. Jonathon wanted Gabriella to feel the love and memories. But Izzy's memory was deteriorating rapidly. Once, Jonathon had gained a sense of identity from his grandfather's stories. Now, the old man could not even remember the names of his children and grandchildren. The evening became pathetically funny as each time Gabriella spoke, Izzy surprisedly said, "Oh, she speaks English.

"She only speaks English, Grandpa. She grew up here in the States," Jonathon kept saying. Gabriella would touch his arm and try to calm him with a smile.

Jonathon surveyed his grandfather. Izzy's silver hair, bright eyes and healthy look belied his mental failing. Izzy looked at his grandson and smiled, "I'm so happy you came to visit, Daveleh," he said.

"Grandpa, I'm Jonathon. David's my brother."

"Oh right, right, and who is your mother?"

"Miriam, your daughter."

"Oh, Miriam. She's such a good girl. Why doesn't she come and visit me?"

"She visits you every week."

"Really? No, I would remember. Does she know Miriam?" Izzy asked pointing his large nose at Gabriella.

"Why don't you ask her?"

"I don't speak Spanish."


"Yes, I know your daughter," Gabriella said.

"Which daughter?"

"You only have one. Her name is Miriam, and she is my mother."

"What about Sally."

"Sally is not your daughter. She lives with you and helps you take care of the house and stuff."

"Oh yeah. You know, my memory's not so good sometimes."

"Yes, I know.

When they started looking at old photographs, the situation improved. Grandpa Izzy stopped asking Gabriella if she spoke English, and he even remembered the names of the people in the photographs. One picture showed Izzy as a strong young man, alert and with mischief in his eyes. He was holding a fat-cheeked little girl in diapers.

"That's me," Izzy said.

"Who's the little girl?" Jonathon asked switching roles with his suddenly lucid grandfather.

"Why, that's your mother, Miriam."

Jonathon looked closer. There had not been that many pictures taken of her, and he had never seen a picture of his mother so young, maybe one-year-old. But he gradually recognized the large eyes and shy smile.

"Can I take this one?" Jonathon asked.

"Sure, tataleh. I have too many pictures, anyway."

Then Jonathon pulled out a picture which at first seemed to be a double-exposure, but then he realized it was of twins: smooth-faced identical cherubs. They wore dark suits and ties. Yalmukes almost completely covered their round heads. They looked comical, like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee at a bar-mitzvah, but something in their faces, a shy sweetness and vulnerability made them appealing.

"This must be those cousins you used to tell me about. What's their names?"

"Yes, that's Lalek and Adek," Izzy said in a confident tone.

"Are they still alive," Gabriella asked.


Then Izzy told one of his stories. How he used to play soccer with Lalek and Adek in Poland, and how he would always let them win because, although they were good losers, it made them sad to lose. Adults would let them do whatever they wanted. Yet they never did anything bad. No one could stand to see their soft faces sad. Everybody loved to see them smile. Then Izzy told them what had happened to them after he had left Poland, as if he had been there with them. Perhaps he had heard the story from a survivor. Perhaps he invented the story as he told it.

The twins were separated from each other on the train. The nazi train. Neither boy ever smiled again, Izzy said. When Lalek went into the gas chamber, he looked up at the nazi guard with pity. The nazi did not pity Lalek, but he did notice something distinct in the boy's face: it showed no fear, just sadness. Yes, the nazi must have noticed Lalek's face because one week later, when he saw Adek going into the gas chamber, the man shrieked in terror. Perhaps the man carried a vision of Lalek and Adek with him when he shot himself—long before Germany had lost the war.

While his grandfather was speaking, it seemed to Jonathon he was okay again, and that Jonathon was a little boy again. However, like a puff of smoke, they saw his coherent thoughts disappear before their eyes.

"Have some cake," Izzy said.

"We just finished cake."

"Nu, you're so fat?"

"Tell us some more stories about Poland," Jonathon said. "The one about your step-father's chess games."

"Chess games? Say didn't you used to visit me in Poland?"

"I've never been to Poland, Grandpa."

"Never? Who's your mother?

Jonathon and Gabriella exchanged glances.

Did you know Lalek and Adek?" Izzy asked.

"No, they died many years ago in holocaust when they were 14 or so. You just told us the story, remember?"

But he did not remember. It was as if he received the news of their death for the first time. The sparkle in his eyes faded. "Oy, they were such wonderful boys. I used to play with them. Did you know them?"

"Only from your stories, Grandpa. Only from your stories."


The man who would become my Grandpa Izzy's step-father was no stranger to anti-Semitism, but he fled Poland for different reasons than Izzy's mother, Sara. Gershon Bogopolsky had seven older sisters, all of whom loved and adored him as did his parents. Gershon was a genius, or so my Grandpa Izzy tells me. Anyway, apparently mischievous and clever, he used his wits to get himself in and out of trouble. When not trying to get rich quick from some business scheme, he would sit at his favorite cafe, gambling at cards or chess or something else. He would take on three to five chess opponents simultaneously, or one but blindfolded, memorizing the board and every move his opponent called out.

One day a well-dressed, middle-aged gentleman walked into the cafe where Gershon loitered. The man sat down, ordered blintzes and checked the time on a beautiful gold pocket-watch. Gershon was in the middle of simultaneous chess matches with three opponents. He made his move on one board, took a bite of koogle, made a move on another board and said to the stranger, "I'll bet you those blintzes you ordered are better than the ones your own mother makes."

"What?" asked the stranger.

"If you agree with me the blintzes they bring you are better than your own mothers, then I get that gold watch of yours. But if your mother's blintzes are better, than you get... " Gershon check-mated his first opponent, picked up the hat his opponent had wagered and said, "You get Yaacov's very expensive silk-lined hat."

No one makes better blintzes than my mother," the stranger said.

The blintzes were brought out, and the chess games temporarily stopped as all were interested in the outcome of this side wager. The stranger took his time, rolling up his sleeves and gingerly cutting a small piece of cheese blintz with knife and fork. All gathered around and watched as he daintily chewed, and everyone smiled as they saw the surprised expression on the man's face. Without saying a word, the man removed the watch from its chain and handed it over to Gershon. Gershon went back to chess. The stranger seemed to be a good sport staying to finish his blintzes and obviously enjoying them.

"Tell me, he said to Gershon, "how did you know I wouldn't lie and say my mother's blintzes were better."

"I'm a good judge of character," Gershon said finishing off another opponent.

"Okay, granted those were the best blintzes I've ever tasted, but why were you so confident my mother's blintzes weren't just a little bit better than the blintzes in this cafe?"

"Because," Gershon answered, "the blintzes in this cafe are my mother's. It's her cafe."

Everyone laughed and shook their heads, as Gershon finished off his last opponent. The stranger then introduced himself as David Cohen, talked amiably with Gershon for a while and then turned the tables surprising Gershon with a wager of his own. "You're quite a young fellow," Mr. Cohen said, "bright, charming, and uh, industrious in your own way. I'll play you one game of chess—"

"You want your watch back," Gershon interrupted.

"No, no nonsense. That watch has no sentimental value to me. It's just a possession. I can go into a store and buy a new one. It's a matter of money which I happen to have enough of."

"So what is worth more than money?"

"A daughter."

"I don't have a daughter," Gershon laughed.

"But I do," said David Cohen, "and if I beat you in chess, you will marry my daughter, Gittle."

At this Gershon's mother flew out of the kitchen. "Wait a minute mister. If you want to talk my son's marriage, you talk to me."

David Cohen replied calmly, "Listen, Mrs. Bogopolsky, with all due respect, your son can't lose from my proposition. If I win, he marries my daughter, and I pay for his education, whether it's university, trade, apprenticeship, whatever he wants. If I lose, I'll pay for his education anyway, and he doesn't have to marry my daughter if he doesn't want to."

"Well, what are you waiting for? Set up the board," Mrs. Bogopolsky told Gershon.

"You don't happen to have a picture of your daughter, do you?" Gershon asked.


"C,mon tataleh, you never lose at chess," Gershon's mother said.

"That's true," Gershon said and started setting up the board, but to himself he thought: there's always a first time.

After a few minutes of opening moves, Gershon knew he was facing a master. After the first hour, the other chess players knew Gershon had met his match. After six hours, Gershon's shirt soaked with sweat. His mother said, "So, is marriage such a bad thing? At least we know the bride comes from good stock."

"Thank you," said Mr. Cohen.

"Oy veh," said Gershon.

After he had lost the match, Gershon assumed an optimistic disposition. He decided to study engineering and, with the help of his future father-in-law, he even enrolled at the University of Warsaw. A meeting was arranged between Gershon's parents and the bride to be. Gershon would meet her at a later date (possibly at the wedding). His oldest sister, Nechama, also got to attend the meeting. Nechama, who was eight years older than Gershon, worshipped her baby brother. Before they left for the meeting, Gershon cornered Nechama and whispered, "Try to get a photograph."

Hours later when they returned, Gershon's parents were all smiles going on about the lovely house and what fine people the Cohens were.

"They have silverware imported from France," Mrs. Bogopolsky said.

"And cigars from Cuba," said Mr. Bogopolsky handing one to Gershon.

"And the father is a very educated person," said Mrs. Bogopolsky. His brother is a rabbi." She whispered this as if it were top-secret.

But Nechama wore a grim expression. She motioned Gershon to step outside. Once outside she pulled a photograph out of her sleeve and handed it to Gershon. Gershon peeked at it cautiously and then said, "So, she's ugly. That's no surprise. What's she like?"

"Gershon, my darling brother, listen. This girl whines when she says hello, giggles when she's asked a serious question, and she appears to only recently have learned how to use a knife and fork."

"What should I do?" asked Gershon.

Nechama reached into her brassiere, pulled out some money and said, "This is all I have. It'll get you on a boat to America."

"But I've never welched on a bet before," said Gershon.

"There's always a first time," said Nechama.

So, strange fate helped Gershon to miss his own wedding and the holocaust. While the rest of his family perished in the war, he lived a long life. I never met him, yet I think about him. In fact, I think about him whenever I check the time on the gold pocket-watch which he gave to Izzy and which Izzy gave to me.


As soon as Izzy's live-in aide, Sally, came home, Jonathon took Gabriella outside. He needed to vent his frustration.

"He remembers the name of the girl who's paid to take care of him, but he can't remember his own daughter's name, for God's sake."

"C'mon, you know he can't help it. Think how it must be for him."

"He looks happy to me. Did you see him goose Sally?

"He did not," Gabriella playfully smacked Jonathon in the head, and they laughed.

"I know it's not his fault," Jonathon said shaking his head, "it's just hard, that's all."

As they reentered the house, Jonathon heard Sally speaking in a strained voice, sharp tone of voice unlike her usual patient, friendly one. He heard Izzy say, "I don't have space," in a similarly labored tone of voice. "Izzy, I think that's Miriam," Sally said.

"I don't even know this person," Izzy said.

Jonathon opened the door. He saw his grandfather's face—strange, distorted, angry. He looked down at Izzy's hands. Purple veins jutted out of wrinkled leather. Izzy's hands held a photograph. Jonathon looked at the black and white photo. At first, he did not recognize the girl posing coquettishly in the picture. Then he realized this teenager was his mother. Izzy's hands shook violently, then jerked ripping the photo in two. He dropped the pieces into a plastic bag with other torn photos.

"What are you doing?" Jonathon whispered barely able to get the words out.

"I'm making order. I don't have room for all these photos."

"You don't have room for photos. You save plastic bags, but you don't have room for photographs of your family."

"What are you getting excited about? I don't even know that person."

"That's my mother. Your daughter. Your throwing away a picture of your daughter."

Jonathon rifled through the bag taking out pictures of his mother, his brother, himself.

"I don't need them. They take up too much space," Izzy said, the frustration and anger now gone from his voice and his face. He looked like a little boy cornered with a bad report-card.

"Grandpa," Jonathon said waving his hands in the air, not knowing what to say, "you're not supposed to throw away photographs. Don't ever throw away photographs."

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Oh Grandpa," Jonathon said falling into Izzy's arms and holding him.


My Grandpa Izzy said that even on the ship before he arrived in America, he felt he was already in the United States of America. On the ship, in the middle of the ocean, he felt free. He whizzed about the deck peering into the multitude of colors in the sea and the horizon. When curious adult passengers asked him about his family, and why they were leaving Poland, Izzy slyly embellished the details of his life, reinventing his family history. His mother could not keep up with him. One day Sara searched so thoroughly for Izzy, she began to believe he had gone overboard. Then she saw him on the deck sitting across from a man. As she moved closer, she realized they were playing something. She called to Izzy, and the young man turned and said smiling, "I taught your boy to play chess. He's very bright." But Sara did not reply because she was wondering and thinking. She was wondering how the man could play blindfolded. And she was thinking his was the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. And she was also wondering what to make of the strange intuition in her gut and the voice in her head which said she would one day marry this man.


Oren is a truly international person. His mother is American, his father is Israeli. He is married to a Dane, which explains why he's been living in Denmark for the last seven years. He has two amazing children and is expecting a dog in the near future, having just bought a house. He works as a writer/editor for a software company. The story, "Photographs and Memories," is inspired by family tales told over and over by those who got out of Poland in time.