I recently attended a gathering organized by Reconciliation Canada, hosted by Elder Dave Courchene at the Turtle Lodge on Sagkeeng Territory. It was called In the Spirit of Reconciliation and brought together leaders from faith groups and communities across Canada to reflect on the relationship between spirituality and reconciliation, and on our role as leaders in advancing reconciliation in Canada.
To open the gathering, we were led in a pipe ceremony. It was an overwhelming experience, in which all senses are brought to life. The scent of the herbs from the smudging ceremony, the sounds of the hauntingly beautiful prayers from the drummers, the light dancing in the smoke all took me to another place.
Throughout this sacred ceremony, I was filled with memories of my maternal grandmother and the sudden feeling that she was there, watching over me. This was not that surprising, as she had very much been on my mind. In the weeks leading up to this conference, as I prepared for the March of the Living, I reached out to my mother, her sister and my uncle to gain a better understanding of who my grandmother was and her story as a Holocaust Survivor. This part of her history has significantly defined my life and the paths I have taken, even without truly understanding who she was.
My grandmother, Annemarie, was the only child of Elsa and Paul Klauber, who moved from Czechoslovakia to Vienna, where they lived as a wealthy and assimilated family. Following the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938, my grandmother’s “uncle,” Fritz Grunbaum, was arrested and taken to Dachau. Seeing the writing on the wall, her parents sent her to England on the Kindertransport. Paul died in 1939 because, as a Jew, he was denied his diabetic medicine. In October 1942, Elsa was arrested and sent to Maly Trostenets, an extermination camp where she was murdered.
My grandmother passed away when I was nine, so my memories of her are sadly limited. In a way, it made complete sense that my visit to Turtle Lodge evoked her spiritual presence. When I think of her, my memories focus on nature – on swimming in the lake, feeding the chipmunks on the cottage porch, walking in the forest, where she told us stories of the fairies who lived there, how the green moss was their beds, the logs their homes, and the forest the site for all their adventures.
She never talked to her children or grandchildren about the Holocaust, in what we must infer was a desire to erase this painful past, although it left her to wrestle with its demons on her own. In all honesty, I can’t remember when I became aware of our family’s loss during the Holocaust. Following my grandmother’s death my mom and her siblings found a letter, which my great-grandmother, Elsa, had written two months before she was deported and murdered. This letter expressed desperation and hopelessness and her longing to see her child again. At some point this letter also became one of the most important documents in my life. This was how I came to understand the personal pain caused by the Holocaust and the lasting effects of pure evil.
In their eulogy, my mother and her siblings talked to the grandchildren and highlighted my grandmother’s many attributes and how they survive in each of us. For me, my grandmother is the source of my powerful instinct for solitude and serenity, something that 21 years later still remains one of my defining features. I know my grandmother is entrenched within me in so many ways and that her powerful legacy has driven me to be strong and to speak out against persecution and hatred. It has brought me to where I am today.
In her dedication for her thesis, my brilliant cousin, Sasha, wrote: “for my grandmother, Annemarie Klauber Wittes, who only ever wanted to forget.” My grandmother’s desire to forget inspired each of us to be torchbearers into the future, carrying with us the importance of memory and, in our own way, demonstrating the impact her story continues to have on our lives. As I embark on the March of the Living, I carry my grandmother, and all of my family who were murdered, with me on this significant journey. I carry not only her pain and loss, her trauma and sorrow, but also her happy moments, our legacy, her abiding love, and, of course, the fairies.