November 14, 2018
by Alfred Münzer
My family, what some might call my biological family, lived in a box: a box roughly the size of a shoebox but much more elegant, a powder-blue flip-top box adorned with pink lilacs that had been used to display high-end perfumed soap bars—Boldoot or Castella—in Mom’s cosmetics store. The box was filled with photographs that introduced me to a world inhabited, in addition to my mom whom I had gotten to know in the flesh, by a dad, sisters, grandparents, and aunts and uncles whom I would otherwise never have met. I don’t remember when Mom first introduced me to the family in the box. It certainly wasn’t immediately after we had been reunited. I wasn’t quite four and my mom’s sudden addition to the family I already had—Papa, Mima, Willie, Dewie, and Robby—was more than enough for me to deal with. But I did come to understand soon after, that I had two sisters, portrayed in large, colorized photographs that were displayed wherever Mom and I came to live in those early years after we were reunited. My older sister, Eva, wore a blue dress and held her favorite doll, and my younger sister, Leah, wore a cream-colored dress. Eva had a broad smile, and Leah was more serious, apprehensive even. I must admit that I was somewhat envious of the attention my mother and others paid to my sisters.
Tante Jo—she wasn’t really my tante or aunt, but that’s what I called her—and her sister, tante Ko, lived next door to us before we went into hiding. They used to show me the books that Eva had been able to read when she was only four, Catholic children’s books with two columns, one headed by a color picture of a little angel, the other by a little devil whispering in a child’s ear. And Mom had saved all of Eva’s notebooks, and her handwriting was so perfect, something I couldn’t dream of ever achieving. Leah, Mom told me, was so sweet, so considerate of others. Was it she or Eva, my mom told me, who had recoiled in a neighborhood bakery when she saw a midget with a very deformed hand and then had quickly regained her composure and made a point of shaking the poor man’s hand, saying, “Goede dag Meneertje,” (Hello, little sir). How, I wondered, could I ever possibly match such tact? So, I was jealous of my sisters, especially Eva. Even today, Dewie Madna, my sister while I was in hiding with the Madna family, relates to me primarily, it seems, as the brother of her little playmates, Eva and Leah. Dewie is now 87 and still mourns Eva and Leah in a way that I never could because she had known them “for real,” while I only knew “about” them.
As time went on I slowly came to learn that Eva and Leah, like my dad and so many others, had not “come back.” I never questioned where it was that they had not “come back” from. Aunt Jo and Aunt Ko would tell me they were now in Heaven with God, the bearded man whose arms stretched over the little angel and the little devil in Eva’s books.
I am not sure when my mother first showed me the contents of the box and when I first really became acquainted with Eva, Leah, and my dad. Mom told me the stories that went with each of the hundred or so photographs in the box, stories that went back even further than our home on Zoutmanstraat, photos of my mom as a young woman that translated into humorous tales about her hometown, the pranks she played as the youngest of at least six sisters and brothers, —I never found out the exact number—heartwarming stories about my grandparents and the embarrassing words coming out of the mouth of her little nephew, my cousin Norbert, when my mom left home to join her siblings in Berlin. Norbert, she told me, would studiously look out the window of the streetcar and suddenly take the thumb he had been sucking on out of his mouth, point to the overhead wires and say “Büstenhalter” (brassiere)! Then there was the wedding picture that made her cringe at the memory of a hairdo that wasn’t to her taste and of the hurried replacement of the engraved wedding band that the Orthodox rabbi forbade my father from using in the ceremony.
But it was the stories spun out of the later photos in the box, the photos of my immediate family, of my mom, my dad, Eva and Leah, and of one uncle—my father’s brother, Emil, who, Mom told me, had come to join us from Germany—and photos of me, that placed me at the center of a family reassembled and recreated as if in a play in which I was a character, a family and a life that was cruelly disrupted.
As my mother held a photograph of me and my sisters and told me how the whole family had watched me intently as I, in my playpen, held a large biscuit in my fist, ate it around the edges, then dropped it and carefully picked it up with my fingers and finished eating it, I could sense their eyes on me, hear their applause, and feel their pride and their love, a love that has served me a lifetime.
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