My Omi used to have horrible, horrible nightmares. I remember this from the one time I stayed with her as a child. I was 10. She woke me up in the middle of the night, screaming “Hilfe, hilfe!” Help, help.
I ran into her room to wake her up, to help her like she was asking, and when she awoke she looked at me and said “Oh, Leina, Leina, you are here, you are alive, I have missed you so” and she hugged me so tight I couldn’t breathe.
And that was the first time I realized that people who weren’t Jewish died in the Holocaust. And that I was the spitting resemblence of my Omi’s younger sister, Leina Tilgner, who died, most likely, in a work camp for hiding a Jewish child in her home.
When I was just a little bit older, my Omi would say things like, “Don’t think it can’t happen here. It can happen anywhere. Don’t ever believe it can’t happen here.”
And I didn’t understand what she meant, of course. I was 12. This was the land of the free, home of the brave.
“Don’t ever believe that smoke is just smoke,” she would say, “No matter how sweet the lies may seem, smoke is always more than just smoke.”
It took 10 years, but I finally have a copy of my Omi’s old diary from her time in the refugee camps translated.
“And I will go I think to America, to be with Ernest, to live a better life. But then I think, the smoke is here, the smoke is everywhere, the smoke will forever be inside me, no matter where I go. I will eat sunflower seed soup tonight, I will try not to freeze. I will think again this deserves me.”