In the beginning the family stood in the yard, not on the porch, for the photos. That beginning was in December 1938. My grandparents and youngest uncle left Germany shortly after the Kristallnacht* and bought a small farmhouse on an acreage of land outside Stillwater, Oklahoma. For me, that house represented unconditional love since inside it lived three people who loved me dearly; my grandmother, my grandfather, and my bachelor Uncle Max and they never disciplined me.
In the early pictures my relatives stood ramrod straight with serious expressions and small smiles. It was around the time I was a toddler, the mid-fifties, when the setting began changing to the porch. As time went on it became a tradition to have a group picture there whenever we had family gatherings. Over the years the family became more and more relaxed when being photographed. Instead of standing like soldiers we sat or slouched and threw our arms around each other. With each year the crowd on the porch looked more and more America.
After my grandmother’s death the house was passed on to my Uncle Max. By then the German language was rarely heard inside its walls. English had become the language of choice. After making the big move to Israel my part of the family began to speak more and more Hebrew and less and less English with each visit.
It’s been almost seven years since my Uncle Max died. My husband and five of my children accompanied me to his funeral. Afterwards all the family returned to his home. Twenty-four of us gathered on the front porch for another family picture. Although the majority were American-born there were still two alive who’d been born in Germany and my youngest daughter, a native Israeli.
At the time I thought it would be the last family picture on the front porch but I was wrong. Recently I accompanied my middle son and five of his children to Oklahoma in order to get American citizenship for them. Of course, our itinerary included a stop in Stillwater and a drive by the old farmhouse. Only my son wasn’t content to just drive by. He pulled into the gravel driveway, stopped the car, got out, and knocked on the front door.
There was a pickup truck in front of us and horses in the side yard. Someone obviously interested in farming was living there. I wondered if they appreciated my spot of unconditional love. Would I find out? Even though it looked as if they were home no one answered the door. Not ready to give up easily my son knocked again and again no one opened the door. Just as I was about to tell him to get back in the car a young couple emerged from the back. My son shook hands with the husband. As I watched the three of them conversing animatedly I decided to join in.
The two were a sweet pair, happy to hear any stories I could tell them about my uncle and the house. Then they shared a story of their own about some of the furniture that had been inside. Back in 1938 the Nazis had forbidden Jews to leave the country with any cash so my grandparents had taken their money and used it to buy new furniture to bring with them to America. Obviously, that furniture was no longer new when the young couple saw it but that wasn’t what impressed them. What fascinated them was the marks of an ax on the back of one or two of the pieces, marks I’d never known existed, but marks that were the courtesy of the Nazi thugs who came to my grandparents village on the Kristallnacht.
Seventy-nine years have passed since the Nazis staged the biggest pogrom Europe had ever seen. They tried to destroy every remnant of my grandparents but they didn’t succeed. Anti-Semites come and anti-Semites go. The Jewish people live on. My grandparents and youngest uncle were able to flee for safety and join my father and Uncle Max in America. My grandmother witnessed the survival of her family with the birth of six grandchildren.
Not only that, my father whose tenth yahrzeit** is this week, merited meeting four of his great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren to the grandparents the Nazis wanted to murder. Those four live in the Land of Israel and follow the laws of the Torah. What a sweet revenge against the Nazis.
Standing in the yard with this young couple I felt a comfort. Even though they weren’t family and weren’t even Jewish they shared our outrage at the atrocity of the Nazis. And so I was compelled to ask them to join us for one more family picture on the front porch.
*For more about the Kristallnacht see The Tenth of Tevet, December 25th, 2011
** Anniversary of a death