I did not know my zayde was a writer until the day of my bat mitzvah in March 1989. Everyone was congratulating me on my bat mitzvah but also him on his newest book. For my bat mitzvah, he gave me beautifully bound hardbacks of his four books: Treblinka, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Ravensbruck.
I looked at their covers, leathery brown and embossed in gold. Then I moved on to my new boombox and the tape Simple Pleasures by Bobby McFerrin, playing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to the appreciative crowd as the first dance. My abba whisked me away to the dance floor as McFerrin sang. I imagine I had the only bat mitzvah in America to open with a reggae song.
The day after my bat mitzvah, Zayde invited me to his house for what he called “an important conversation”. He took me upstairs in the house, where his study was, where we children were forbidden to go. He showed me his collection of articles, journals, and books where he had written, he said, about what had happened to him during the Shoah in the camp in Hungary. He told me he had picked me, the oldest grandchild, for a special project. I was to help him organize and list the collection so the books could go to the local library when he died.
I said, “Zayde, I don’t want you to die.”
Zayde said, “My time is not soon — I have far too many stories to continue to tell. But we must prepare. Can you help me?”
I told him I could. So every Wednesday after Hebrew school, I would walk down the street to Zayde’s house — we were only three houses apart. My aunts and uncles lived in the houses in between. We would work two hours until almost sundown, then I would walk home. I typed so slowly on the thin onionskin paper that we would only type maybe a page of articles, stories, and journals — some twenty years’ worth by then, with him spending his days writing more.
As I got older, I would type his manuscripts for him from his writing, nearly illegible handwriting, to go out to publishers. He could get publishers for his articles and his stories, but his books I found out much later he had bound and published himself at great expense and gave copies to family and friends. He would write two more before he died — titled Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald.
We had completed the list of stories and articles he had published up to that point, but I was helping him type his manuscripts. He did not tell stories to the family, but I knew.
When I was twenty-one I married and left Madison for New York, where my husband worked. I had promised to continue to help Zayde with his work; however, I forgot about my promise to my zayde, being so entwined with my own work, my husband, and my later-to-come children.
He continued to work however, on his final book, titled simply The Shoah. He would write to me of his progress on it — he envisioned a thousand-page tome that would tell the complete history of it, from the Reischstag Fire to the Nuremberg Trials. He died with the dream still in his head and in his pages, laboriously typed as he grew older.
My Bubbe called me when I was forty. Zayde was eighty-six. We had not spoken in a year filled with busyness and my New York family. She said, “You must come. He wants to speak with you. He is about to give up the work. You must help him.”
So I flew home. Zayde was sitting up in his chair in the living room. He had kept up with typed pages many of the new articles he had published since I stopped helping him, but he still had a stack of magazines that needed indexing. I spent three days in his study surrounded by sixty-five years’ worth of writing about the Shoah as he sat in his chair downstairs, unable to climb the stairs to see me work.
I knew it would soon be time for him to be gathered to his fathers, so I worked quickly. I took what seemed to be rubbish downstairs, stacks of legal pads, only for him to stop me. “Those are the stories I could not finish,” he said. “Let us keep them in the collections in case someone wants to take the ideas and finish them.”
He wanted to live to see me finish the catalogue, but I had to go back to New York to take care of my family. I took all the old yellowed sheets of paper I had typed from the beginning and took them home to retype into a computer file in a race against time. I felt obligated to my zayde, who had dreamed of this library for forty years. The catalogue would be important to helping make sense of the collection.
I finished retyping the catalogue a year after my zayde died. I talked with my bubbe weekly as she kept his study exactly as he left it ready for me to return. When I did return, I picked one of the stacks of magazines on the floor and connected it in time with its listing in the catalogue. After a month I quit my job in New York to stay in Madison and finish the work.
What you see today is a complete collection of my zayde’s work — magazines arranged in vertical files, journals on shelves, newspaper clippings on microfilm, legal pads organized into boxes by year, and copies each of the books my Zayde wrote about the Shoah. Center stage are the typed pages of his unfinished book, laminated and bound into spiral binders for you to read carefully, as you would the Torah. We kept the unfinished stories to inspire others to continue research, taking up where my Zayde left off. Remember: LE’OLAM AL TISHKACH.
Julie L. Whitehead lives and writes in Mississippi. Her fiction has appeared in The esthetic Apostle, The New Southerner, and China Grove Press and is forthcoming in MacQueen’s Quinterly. She holds BA and MA degrees from Mississippi State University.