22 Mar My grandma’s wooden box
The young lady half-smiling in the picture—what I assume is one of the first selfies in history—is my grandmother. In the 1930s she worked as an apprentice for a photographer and one evening she took this self-portrait after the shop was closed.
She passed away one and a half years ago on the 19th of Kislev, 5774. She was one hundred years old. She was sharp as a knife until the last days, reading and watching the news and following her life-long love, football. I remember her astounding me at the tender age of 90 with sentences like “David Beckham’s floated crosses last night were superb”.
My grandmother was born into a multilingual, but predominantly Hungarian Jewish family in a town that today belongs to Slovakia, but back then was part of Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. I know – it’s complicated. Actually it was about to get more confusing.
She came into this world at the worst possible time: in the spring of the last year of peace, 1913. Ahead of her was the entire bloody 20th century. Not much was anticipated about this on the day she was born. That morning in Vienna, capital of the Monarchy, sixty-odd miles away from my grandma’s hometown, Hitler and Stalin, the two men who would set the world on fire in the decades to come were probably just having their breakfasts.
My grandma lived to see a century that was actually rather a millennium. She survived two world wars, the Shoah, two revolutions, a Nazi and two communist dictatorships. Living in poverty was normal. Being fired because she was Jewish was nothing unusual. Dodging the bullets of the Nazis was just something one did to survive. So was hiding in the closet from liberating Soviet soldiers who wanted to rape her. She lived through all that with wit, extraordinary strength and humour.
And amidst all this turmoil, she miraculously managed to keep an old wooden box. It was quite literally her only personal belonging that survived the Holocaust. A friend of hers hid it under a pile of coal in a dark basement.
The box held family documents and pictures. My grandparents wedding photo in which my grandfather shows a stunning resemblance to Cary Grant. (Unfortunately not much of his looks were passed down to me.) Birth certificates, a ketubah, her notebook from childhood, letters from my grandfather – pieces of her life.
As a historian I’m very aware that most of the documents of my grandmother’s life are not in that box, but are scattered in many archives and collections. Her matriculation records from high school, her census registry sheets from 1941 meticulously indicating “Izr.” (Jewish) next to her name. An inventory of her confiscated belongings so accurately written up by the Hungarian authorities in 1944, the registry of her charity contributions to the Pest Jewish Community, her name on the list of those who signed up for emigration to Israel. Her burial documents issued by the Chevra Kadisha. All the documents that need to be explored, copied, put into that wooden box and passed on to my daughter.
For me, Yerusha is my grandma’s wooden box – a place where we gather our scattered documentary heritage and pass it on to the next generations.
Gabor Kadar is the Project Director of Yerusha. G.Kadar@rothschildfoundation.