A woman who misses her grandfather, a deceased Holocaust survivor, stumbles upon an unlikely find that brings him close to her again.
Posted in , Jul 17, 2018
Sometimes when you’re looking for a story, other stories find you. That’s what happened to me a few months ago. I was working on a story for the August/September 2018 issue of Mysterious Ways, about my grandpa Jacques and how he appeared to me one night in a dream, shortly after he died in 2016 at the age of 88.
My grandpa Jacques was always intriguing to me growing up. He wore heavy cologne, had a thick European accent and a deep, booming voice. He had a strange tattoo on his arm, too. It was drawn with thick lines. A rose. I later discovered that it covered something more sinister. A series of numbers. You see, Grandpa was a Holocaust survivor, and without his determination and fierce will to live, I wouldn’t be here. Sometimes, when life gets hard, I think of Grandpa. His strength and resilience continue to inspire me every day.
At 14, Grandpa was sent to the Blechhammer death camp along with his grandmother, mother, and younger brother and sister. Grandpa and his brother, Bernard, were the only two to make it past the entry gates alive. He later survived a 200-mile death march through Eastern Europe in January, wearing nothing but pajamas and without proper shoes. After he was liberated, the first thing he did when he was strong enough to leave the camp was to travel to the neighboring town and have his photo taken—to show that he was a person, and a survivor. There’s a photo of him from that day—gaunt, but smiling, still wearing the Nazi-issued striped death camp pajamas and beret—that he brought with him when he immigrated to the U.S.
Grandpa eventually settled in California, where he married and raised five children. I grew up in Los Angeles in a home that showed signs of Grandpa’s new beginnings. Framed in our kitchen were the menus that Grandpa and Uncle Bernard saved from the ship they took to the U.S. Over our mantle hung matching gold and silver pocket watches—the first thing Grandpa’s uncle and his friend, who had immigrated to the U.S. before the war, bought in New York City with their first paychecks. That uncle later sponsored Grandpa, making it possible for him to come to America. Those watches signified new opportunities. Starting over. A deliberately chosen future.
Grandpa’s success story was the backdrop of our childhood. But he never discussed the horrors he went through in the camps. Not with his kids, and definitely not with us grandkids, though it was clear that the trauma followed him his whole life.
As I researched the story, I couldn’t help but think about my Grandpa Jacques. Was he truly at peace? I typed in “Jacques Ribons photo” into the search bar. A bunch of results came up. One of them was a link to a story on Huffington Post, a spotlight of an artist’s work—painted portraits of survivors.
The artist herself, who goes by the name Lydia Emily, was a survivor of violent assaults, debilitating disease, and countless hardships. She’d found solace in painting portraits that showcased the strength of the human spirit. I scrolled through her beautiful paintings until two side-by-side portraits stopped me in my tracks. There, on the web page, were two paintings of Grandpa: One, of him smiling boldly as a boy wearing a death camp uniform, and one of him in his eighties.
Tears filled my eyes as I realized that Grandpa Jacques is more than just an inspiration to me. His spirit lives on to remind others that thriving after unspeakable tragedy is possible. I looked closer at the second painting. Grandpa looked just the way I remember him last. Just like he did in my dream. Smiling, his wispy white hair ringing his head like a halo, his piercing blue eyes fixed on the viewer. Happy. Resilient. Peaceful. In that moment, I knew Grandpa had led me to that portrait. To show me again what he’d told me in my dream: That he is, indeed, at peace.
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