The Lie that Binds

In the Shadow of Lies — Discovering Family History

Before she passed away, my 99-year-old Aunt Irene asked if I would continue the upkeep of her sister Jean’s grave. It was something she had done for decades, since the bleak November morning when Jean fastened her hair into rollers, ordered chops from her butcher then hanged herself with the belt of her robe — an item from her trousseau. Jean had been married ten days.

“Of course,” I said, and we finished lunch locked in a hammering silence. But the request reeled me back to 1951 — a time of post-war jubilation — when many of my relatives had already said farewell to Brooklyn, taking up residence in the wide-open-spaces of Long Island.  Sadly for me, my aunts were no longer a jubilant skip or hopscotch away and visiting.

From the family photos of Sande Boritz Berger. Used with permission.
Source: From the family photos of Sande Boritz Berger. Used with permission.

Maybe her sister's new absence was why Aunt Jean, already past 40, decided to try her hand at marriage. She was brave, then, to become a bride, to leave her brother’s (my grandfather’s) comfortable home, and the family’s lucrative knitwear business where she’d worked since arriving in America at the age of sixteen. For her husband she chose an affable blue-eyed man she’d met through business and whose forearm bore the indelible stamp of Auschwitz. 

Max was not completely reticent when it came to recounting the horrors of a world both Aunt Jean and Aunt Irene had deserted thirty years prior. I recall his warm cheer while he responded to my rapid-fire questions while perched on his lap ─ my fingers tracing the blurry numbers emblazoned under his sleeve. With heads touching, Aunt Jean and Max formed a loving arc above my choppy bangs and pigtails.

Then, like a random flurry in April, my aunt vanished from my life. Desperately needing answers, I became a champion eavesdropper, hoping to decipher the strange, broken Yiddish our family spoke around us, the kinder.

Shaped like a beanpole, I leaned into dim-lit rooms to listen to the tribal sounds of grief: wailing followed by almost comical nose-blowing. But the only truth was the vivid imagination of a child left to fill in the blanks — a child whose suffering multiplied inside a fragile shell of the unknown. Day after day, while my mother primped me, I tried cracking the code: “Mommy, please tell, where is Aunt Jean?” And whenever she responded with more than a shrug, she said my aunt and her husband had gone on a “far away” trip. Some long honeymoon, I thought. And why never a postcard to her favorite little niece, the one she called her shana madele?

I became sullen, then angry at both of them for abandoning me so easily. They had to have been the biggest fakers. Then, on a sleepover at my cousin Franny’s, I was enlightened by her little brother. Uninvited, he came galloping through the bedroom wearing his cowboy Dr. Denton’s and a noose around his neck. “This is how Aunt Jean died,” he croaked between giddy-yaps, while I lay on the bed frozen in horror.

Everything clicked. Floating fragments of my naïve hope settled on the swirling carpet, instantly banishing the lie. Shivering with fear, I begged to go home.

Though my parents offered more outright denial, now, at least, there were discussions ─ a hinting at my aunt’s previous, undiagnosed depression. Another secret revealed: there was a younger brother who remained in Vilna while all his siblings fled to America. He, a wife, and small child were killed when the Nazis set the synagogue on fire.

It was soon after learning about their deaths that Jean stopped eating, hardly slept, and became plagued with hallucinations. While working in the family’s knitwear factory, sewing fleur-de-lis crests on a slew of cardigans, she became convinced that the fleur-de-lis were Swastikas and pleaded with my grandfather to remove them.

It became convenient to hurl blame on Max for sharing the atrocities he’d witnessed while imprisoned in a concentration camp. Some surmised it had been those tales that triggered Jean’s survivor’s guilt and each new bout of depression.

As I got older, I hated that our family’s shame about Aunt Jean’s death served to eradicate all memory of her. It was as though she’d never existed. Hadn’t she, as a kind, loving person, deserved some reverence? For too long, they shared a lie about her death rather than celebrating the fact that she had lived at all.

Ten years after Jean’s death, my grandfather bought a plot for himself and twelve remaining relatives 50 miles away from the cemetery where his younger sister was buried — a place no one but Jean's sister Irene visited.

After our lunch, my 99-year-old Aunt Irene handed me a stack of “important papers” bundled in thick, pink rubber bands. A thumbnail photo of her beautiful sister, Jean, spilled from the folder onto the flowered tablecloth. I pressed the image close to my face. “Oh, how beautiful she was,” I said.

Aunt Irene heard me, though our eyes didn't meet.


Used with permission.
Source: Used with permission.

Sande Boritz Berger’s essays and short stories have appeared in over 20 anthologies including Aunties: Thirty-Five Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother (Ballantine, 2004).  Her debut novel, The Sweetness (She Writes Press, 2014), is the parallel tale of two Jewish cousins, one who is growing up in Brooklyn, and one who is the lone survivor of a family exterminated by Nazis. The Sweetness was nominated for the Sophie Brody Award (A.L.A.) and is a 2015 Foreward Reviews Indie Fab finalist in historical fiction.

The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.
Rebecca Coffey

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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