Sunday, April 23, 2017

An Extra Plate


My grandfather died two weeks ago. After the funeral, my family sat around my grandmother's living room, talking about the nice memories we had with him. All of us grandchildren mentioned how he always spoke in different voices when reading, even if it was just the newspaper. We spoke of the stories he used to tell us about his childhood.

My grandfather was born in Poland in 1929. He was 14 when his family was captured by the Nazis and taken to Birkenau.

He never told us grandchildren what it was like in the camp. We never pushed for him to. From what I understood, he had once had 2 younger sisters and a younger brother, as well as 3 older sisters and 2 older brothers. The 3 younger children were killed upon arrival to the camp. During their stay, his family was torn apart. He would never see two of his older sisters again, they died after a couple weeks of being there. His mother also died very soon after they arrived.

My grandfather and his remaining family were liberated in 1945 when he was 16 years old. He suffered from major PTSD for the rest of his life. He met my grandmother when he was in his late 20s after moving to America and they soon got married and had a family.

My grandfather seemed like a very normal man. He never became senile, not even in his last years. By the time he was in his 60s, he no longer suffered from major PTSD, and by that I mean he no longer woke up every night screaming, or feared small spaces, or became debilitated with fear any time he saw a Nazi flag. He was the strongest man I ever knew, mentally and emotionally.

However, there was something that my grandfather did that always seamed very odd to me. Any time we had a meal with him, he would serve an extra plate. Even in restaurants, he would order two meals. But he never ate the food on the other plate, and he never let anyone else eat from it.

I remember asking him why he did that when I was a kid, and he would always say what he said anytime anyone asked: "Old Polish tradition." I believed that until I went into college and began studying my background and reading all about Polish culture. I kept what my grandfather always said in mind, and tried to do research about this odd tradition, but never found anything.

So, as we were recounting our favorite grandfather memories, I decided now was as good a time as any to try to find out why he really did that. I brought it up, and everyone began to discuss it, and we all began asking my grandmother if she knew why.

She hesitated for a moment, but then she decided to tell us.

"Birkenau was a very harsh place. They never had enough clothing to shield them from the terrible winters. Everyone was sick. Everyone had fleas. Your grandfather was a smart man, his father before him had served in the first World War and had taught the boys all he could about survival in a tough environment. The inmates were not given very much food at all. Your grandfather had an idea to form a pact with a young girl his age, so that each day, they would take turns getting the food that belonged to both of them, so that instead of everyday not getting enough to eat to even make a slight difference in their hunger, they would be full one day and then they'd fast the next.

This worked for a little while, but the longer they stayed in there, the sicker they got. Eventually the girl contracted typhus. She was too weak to stop him. He was blinded by his hunger. He would tell her he'd feed her, but he never did. He kept her food for himself. She was too sick to comprehend what was happening, and shortly after, she died. The camp was liberated soon after that."

We sat there dumbfounded before she began to speak again.

"After the camp was liberated, he couldn't tell anyone what he had done. He was so ashamed. He tried to live his life like normal, but his life was no longer normal. He broke down and told me once that every time he would sit down to a meal, he would hear weeping in his head. That's how it started. But eventually he would see her, sitting at the table with him.

I thought that this was just his post traumatic stress disorder messing with his mind, but then I saw her too. She sat at the end of that table over there," she pointed to her long dining room table, "she wouldn't speak, she would only weep. We could never eat together without her being there. Eventually the house began to smell of death and sickness, perpetually. A coldness took over the entire house, even in summer. We'd find dead animals in the house, with bite marks taken out of them. This had to stop. So one day, Abraham got the idea to set a plate out for her at dinner. Conditions got better as he did this every day, every meal, and even every snack he had. Eventually the house no longer smelled, the cold went away, and the animals stopped appearing. Also I stopped seeing her. We never actually saw her again."

None of us knew what to say. Grandfather was a skeptic of everything. He didn't even believe in God, despite attending temple every friday of his life. I guess we all sort of chopped it down to his PTSD getting the best of him.

That is, until we all heard the weeping.

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