On Zeida’s knee

Stories from a world that was

By: Lorraine Winnett

Way back in the 1950s, Jewish grandparents had the (understandably) mistaken belief that grand children must eat. Experiences of deprivation and poverty, pogroms, and other atrocities were always present and hauntingly all too real in their minds. Children starved, and I, alone, had the supreme responsibility for eating grilled liver and fried onions, as other children could not bear it! It was irrelevant that I detested this delicacy, as it would definitely bring a glow to my sallow complexion. I was a little girl, four or five years old. It gave such nachas to my family when I grimaced and swallowed.

My Zeida would promise to tell me stories about “Aheim” (the old country) if I would eat. I remember sitting on his broad lap, leaning against his chest, the rough grey pullover scratching my neck, and listening to his breathing as he slurped scalding hot Russian tea from a glezzele (small glass) and he began to speak in his broken English, his unshaven cheeks rubbing against my delicate skin.

I preferred him to speak in Yiddish as he was more eloquent in mama loshen (mother tongue) and was able to transform my world into his own, stimulate my imagination, and give his words life as we travelled together back in time to a distant past.

My Zeida described his childhood back in Lita (Lithuania), where he lived in a little village called Radvilishik. The market place was the centre of the entire village, a meeting place for selling produce, bargaining, and gossiping, along with the occasional disagreement and discussion of Yiddishe philosophy. This cacophony of voices competed with dogs barking, donkeys braying, and cattle mooing to be milked, not forgetting the mischievous young boys grabbing apples or bagelach from a stand, laughing, and running away, as they chewed in delight and celebrated their ill-gotten gains.

In the winter months, when the snow lay thick on the ground, my Zeida and his friends would ride their wooden sleighs up and down the small hills surrounding the village, fall into the soft snow, and throw snow balls at each other. I wished I could be there too; it seemed like such fun, joyful childhood abandon.

I was so mesmerised that I listened between swallows, oblivious to the fact that I was eating. Zeida told of his revenge on a cruel teacher who lashed out at young boys seated on wooden benches if they could not recite assignments accurately enough. The teacher would twist the boys’ ears until they bled or loosened, the blood dripping onto their shirts. My Zeida was one of those boys and he decided to teach this man a lesson of his own. He braved the wrath of the teacher and poured large amounts of salt and pepper into the delicious aromatic bubbling stew on the little coal stove in the corner of the dark, dank, so-called classroom. The teacher had so carefully prepared his stew and was looking forward to his meal.

The boys were filled with mirth and frivolity as he tasted a spoonful, then spluttered and coughed, his arms waving in the air, enraged. “Who did this terrible thing to me?” My Zeida was a hero to his friends. His childish pranks followed him later on in life, as he played tricks on other people too. I admired him so much.

My Zeida joined the Russian army at the tender age of fourteen years old. He described how he marched in the icy winds and deep snow of the Russian winter through the frozen wastelands of the Ukraine and watched boys his age fall in the snow. They were so weak, frost-bitten, and starved that they simply couldn`t stand and, sadly, perished as they lay in the snow. He managed to survive by sheer determination.

Zeida was so strong and brave that he rescued his precious white mare (viesa klatsa) from freezing cold water when rider and horse galloped over the thin ice, their combined weight cracked the ice beneath them as both horse and rider fell into the icy depths of the river. Zeida managed to swim, ignoring hypothermia as his legs and arms were numb, dragging the huge, terrified, struggling animal to the safety of the river bank, murmuring soothing sounds of encouragement. He saved his horse, his faithful friend, when he miraculously escaped from the Russian army in 1914. Did this really happen? I will never know. I can only believe that it did. And I want to.

In 1925, Zeida “found his way” to South Africa and tried to find his fortune as so many other landsmaniche foen aheim tried. He had many disadvantages, included among them: total ignorance of the English language and tremendous naivety. He was caught with “stolen goods”, arrested and imprisoned. How could he make them understand his innocence in Yiddish? He was rescued by an unknown benefactor. From then on life improved. He taught himself a trade, how to be a butcher, as well as how to drive a car.

Back in Lita, my Bobba and her two young daughters (my mother and her older sister) had to leave their home in Radvilishik, as it was 1939 and the surge of World War II loomed over the horizon and threatened the whole of Europe. My great grandmother forced her daughter and two young granddaughters to flee. She promised to follow later. A promise she couldn’t keep as Nazi tentacles seized anyone with even a trace of Jewish blood for deportation to a destination so terrible that it goes beyond the imagination. Many years later, after the war, we heard that my great grandmother was lined up with her remaining daughters and systematically and methodically shot down.

My Bobba, my mother, and aunt posed as tourists. They had to catch a train from Berlin station, where German soldiers eyed them menacingly, especially as they had the dreaded Stars of David sewn onto their coats. The train took them to England, where they boarded the last ship, the Dunbar Castle, from South Hampton on a three week stormy, harrowing journey to South Africa, wrought with forbidden food and plagued by constant sea sickness. Eventually, the forlorn little family docked in Cape Town.

My Zeida had such an influence on my life; we shared precious moments together during my childhood and adult life. He protected me from parental punishment. I wasn’t allowed to get a hiding ever. I could do no wrong and his word was final. I was his einikle, his meidele (his grandchild, his little girl). I remember sleeping under the stars in the veld one night when his favourite cow was labouring with a difficult birth. He and the vet tied rope to the baby’s hind legs, heaved together, and dragged the baby out, its soft, pink, velvety nose nuzzled my fingers as I patted its head. I wanted to keep it for a pet – impossible, absolutenik – said my Zeida good-naturedly. Zeida poured salt over the calf to encourage the cow to lick the little body in order to give it strength. He just seemed to know everything.

Zeida was adept at mincing meat in the old-fashioned mincing machine. It seemed easy enough, so in my five-year-old logic I decided to emulate his example and stuck my fingers into the mincer while turning the wooden handle. Suddenly I felt a searing, burning pain and blood squirted all over the machine. In a terrified panic, I screamed for Zeida to help me. He immediately wrapped what was left of my mushy flesh in newspaper and poured vinegar over it. Miraculously, the bleeding ceased, my fingers were intact. He saved them.

He would hug me and tell me how much he loved me and how good we were together.

As I grew up, there were conflicts and trauma in my life, but Zeida was always there with wisdom, financial assistance, and sound advice. He never judged or criticised me. I was the most important person in his life. No one could equal the magnitude of his devotion to his “kind”, even as a grown woman. I was the first to get a higher education. A teacher, my Zeida was overwhelmed. He was so proud.

And then, one terrible day, it was a Friday afternoon just before Shabbos. Bobba phoned me to come quickly. She couldn’t wake him. I found him slumped over, sitting on his bed, his eyes a vacant stare. He was no more. His powerful hands, which could tear an apple in two, were purple and limp.

Zeida, you will live in my heart and memory, I love you so.

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