My school’s Holocaust remembrance program today centered around sharing stories. As we moved around the room talking about family members who we hold close on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I immediately thought about the woman who I called bubbe but everyone else knew as Eva Winston. She was the grandmother of my high school boyfriend, and she meant a lot to me.
And I realized I’ve never told her story.
It’s never been my honor or my task to. She only passed away last year, and even when her life came up in conversation, there were family members and those who knew her more intimately than I who could weave together the threads of her life into a complete picture.
When it was my turn to share today, I felt the enormity of the task of remembering. Where do I begin? How can I capture someone so full and dynamic? I felt a similar loss of words when I was trying to put something together to share about her at her funeral. Out of the ninety-one years that she lived, I knew her for only the last four.
But here I am, needing to try to tell her story because to remain silent about her life is to do her the greatest disservice.
If there is anything you should know about bubbe, it’s that she had the biggest heart out of anyone I know. She always made a point to make me feel welcome in her home. It started from the second you walked into her house. “Hello, my darling!” she would call before she even saw my face. And then as I came into the living room, her eyes would light up and she would exclaim, “Well, this is a surprise! The best surprise!” even if I had told her I was coming over.
I learned after my first visit that you don’t say no when bubbe offers you food. She’s relentless about making sure you’re fed and won’t take no for an answer. When her health wasn’t so great and I would go to her house to visit, she’d fret that she wasn’t able to cook me something. Once, I went over to her house, and we made pierogies together. And we ate all of them together, and the leftovers went into the fridge. Most days, bubbe didn’t each much. But if you brought her food that you had made, she would eat every last bite.
Once you had settled yourself on the couch next to her, you were in for a treat. Bubbe expressed herself through story, and she was a master storyteller. You may have heard the same tale a thousand times already, but it didn’t stop you from listening for the thousand and first time. She had a thick German accent and an incredibly animated voice that swung from the highest tones of shock to the lowest mutterings of friendly conspiracy. Her laugh was infectious, which paired nicely with her great sense of humor. She loved to tell about how she cared for a little baby on the train that she took when she fled Vienna. Or the story about how she worked in what she thought was a hotel as her first job in England… only to find out it was a whorehouse! Or the story about how she left for America very pregnant and refused to give birth until she was in the states so that her baby could be American, and she gave birth right after she arrived. Or the story about how she joined the British army as a nurse, and they took all the new recruits in to the hospital, and they all passed out at the sight of the gruesome ward but not her! She was the last one standing and put to work.
There were many stories that bubbe shared with everyone, but there was one I felt that she kept in her pocket especially for me. For the first couple years that she knew me, I was a practicing Catholic. And once she found out, bubbe told me about the Christians she lived with in England after she fled from Vienna. She told me of how she had a Christmas tree, how she ate ham, and how much she loved that family. She’d always conclude by saying, “It’s all the same God, in the end. We’re not so different.” Later when she learned about my conversion, she stopped telling me this story. But it stayed with me as a sign of approval and acceptance, and I keep it close.
Bubbe’s stories might seem like rambling, but it was just her way of conversation. She loved to explain, and teach, and offer advice. She’d often wink at me and her grandson and say, “As long as you really love a person, that’s all that really matters.” Her favorite concluding line after telling a long tale was always “that’s how life is.” It’s a simple idiom I still use to this day when there’s nothing left to say. Bubbe didn’t just use her stories to tell you about her past- she wanted to give you something that might influence your future as well, if you listened close enough.
I realize that I can never truly tell the full story of what bubbe went through. While it is important to retell the details of the Holocaust so that we can never allow anything like it to ever happen again, it is also important to recognize how people like bubbe reacted in the wake of that tragedy, so that we too might know how to act when injustice happens to us or the ones we love.
Following the Holocaust, bubbe dedicated her life to serving others. Even though all she offered were snacks and conversation and endless reruns on the cooking channel, she somehow gave me everything that she had. The only physical thing I have of hers is a pair of pearl earrings she insisted that I take, and when I wear them, I think of her. She gave me so much that can never be measured- a Jewish home to belong in, a warm welcome, a treasure trove of stories, a fondness for late afternoon tv… But beyond that, she has shown me how to give of myself. She is my model for service to the Jewish community. Though I will be serving it in a different way, I will never forget the way in which bubbe opened her home and her heart to everyone, even shy high school girls like myself who provided nothing but a listening ear and a hand to hold.
You can read more about her life and how she survived the Holocaust in this newspaper article: http://www.ydr.com/story/opinion/columnists/mike-argento/2016/03/03/eva-winston-narrowly-escaped-holocaust/81276612/