Grandad’s story of loss and sur­vival

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JAN ED­WARDS JO SUGARMAN

MY GRANDAD, Jan Imich, has al­ways seemed the same to me, smartly dressed and soft­man­nered, but forth­com­ing and ap­proach­able. But on this Sun­day af­ter­noon as he greets me with a brief but warm hug, dressed in a checked shirt and wear­ing his slippers, he seems some­how dif­fer­ent. A lit­tle un­com­fort­able and more ret­i­cent than usual.

I have al­ways known that Grandad was Pol­ish and that the coun­try was oc­cu­pied by the Nazis when he was a child. But I didn’t know much more than this and as he ap­proached his 86th birth­day, I re­alised that un­less I asked him, I never would. Would he be will­ing to re­lay such painful mem­o­ries?

I some­how knew that this part of my fam­ily his­tory was in­te­gral to my un­der­stand­ing of my own story and sense of iden­tity. For a uni­ver­sity jour­nal­ism pro­ject, I needed to in­ter­view some­one about their life. It was time to talk to Grandad.

On the day, his East­bourne flat seemed darker than usual. As we sat on the sofa, he smiled his fa­mil­iar smile, which, I would soon re­alise, hid years of de­spair and trauma. But his smile also con­veyed hope and strength.

“I was peace­fully asleep in my room when a loud noise woke me up. I ran to the win­dow and saw the Ger­man planes fly­ing at rooftops. My fa­ther left the fol­low­ing Mon­day hav­ing been called up to his unit. The Ger­mans oc­cu­pied Krakow two days later.”

Grandad told me that as he watched the Ger­man army march­ing along the main street, he never imag­ined the hor­rors that would en­sue in the next five Jan Ed­wards’ portrait of his grandad, and (be­low) the two Jans

Iyears, through­out which he never saw his fa­ther.

Sit­ting op­po­site him, I’m aware of the bound­ary I am cross­ing by ask­ing him to tell me more.

At the start of the war, he was sent to live with some non-Jewish fam­ily friends. His mother de­cided this would be safer than stay­ing with her. For four years it was. “Some­one in­formed the Gestapo that my guest fam­ily were har­bour­ing a Jew. I had to show my false ID when they came to the house. But one of the agents was Pol­ish and de­cided there was some­thing strange about me. He took me to the toi­let, bran­dished a gun in my face and told me to pull my trousers down. I was ar­rested in­stantly”

Jan winces as he speaks. Even 70 years on, the mem­ory seems vivid. I wince, too. It’s de­grad­ing, and hor­ri­fy­ing beyond com­pre­hen­sion.

“I was shoved in a rat and dis­ea­se­in­fested cell of a lo­cal pri­son with 20 other Jews. Here, we be­came guinea pigs for SS doc­tors test­ing for anti-ty­phoid in­jec­tions. We all be­came very sick. Luck­ily, my body was young and strong enough to sur­vive such trauma.”

A pang of guilt hits me. A self­con­fessed nee­dle-phobe, I shy away even from get­ting a blood test un­less it’s an emer­gency. Grandad had no choice. I had no idea that vac­cines had been tested on pris­on­ers.

“Once I had ful­filled my pur­pose, I was shoved on a train and trans­ported to a con­cen­tra­tion camp, called Gross-Rosen,” he con­tin­ues. “We were forced to sleep in aw­ful con­di­tions and were of­ten de­prived of food and wa­ter for days. One could al­ways sense death in the air at this camp. It was never far away.”

I swal­low and look away, des­per­ately try­ing to avoid eye con­tact.

“There were dead bod­ies ev­ery­where. Peo­ple who tried to es­cape would be hanged on meat hooks and we were forced to watch. Many oth­ers com­mit­ted sui­cide us­ing the elec­tric barbed wire sur­round­ing the camp.”

Grandad senses my unease and gives me a wa­tery smile. “Death, to many, seemed a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive”.

He stares out of the win­dow fac­ing the sea as though lost in his mem­o­ries, his smile fad­ing like the last rays of sun. Our eyes meet for a split se­cond, be­fore we both look away, as if scared of the pain we will find there.

But I want to ask him some­thing that has been both­er­ing me as we’ve been talk­ing. When I was 10 he’d told me his hear­ing was af­fected by an ac­ci­dent in a swim­ming pool. But this no longer rings true.

“Grandad, how ex­actly did you lose your hear­ing?” I ask ten­ta­tively.

“I once stopped to pick up some po­tato peel­ings to eat on the way to the bar­racks be­cause I was starv­ing. The next thing I feel is the crack of a guard’s ba­ton against the back of my neck. I could never hear prop­erly again.” Sad­ness hits me, as I pon­der my own child­hood, how I would moan if I wasn’t given pocket money.

How lucky I was.

“You know I was very re­luc­tant to let you do this in­ter­view” Grandad says, as if he knows what I’m think­ing. “I didn’t want to fo­cus on the bad things. I wanted the mes­sage to be one of hope. Be­cause, in the depths of all that mis­ery, a sin­gle act of kind­ness saved my life”.

I look at my Grandad and see for the first time, a flicker of pro­found sad­ness ap­pear on his face. He tries to sup­press it. But it’s too strong, evoked by the mem­ory of all those who didn’t sur­vive, in­clud­ing his mother, who he never saw again.

And yet, he has al­ways seemed so pos­i­tive.

“In the camp, the pris­on­ers were given dif­fer­ent coloured triangles, de­pend­ing on the type of pris­oner they were.

“The guard who reg­is­tered me in the first camp knew I was Jewish, but gave me a red tri­an­gle which sym­bol­ised a political pris­oner, as op­posed to a yel­low tri­an­gle which sym­bol­ised a Jew. Ev­ery­one with a yel­low tri­an­gle was to be slaugh­tered. That man saved my life.”

It dawns on me sud­denly that had it not been for this, I would not be here my­self.

As a gay man, I know how it is to face prej­u­dice sim­ply for be­ing who you are, but never to the un­think­able ex­tremes faced by my grandad.

Be­fore to­day, I’d never thought of my­self as “Jewish” but I be­gin to re­alise that my Jewish her­itage forms an im­por­tant part of my iden­tity. I am proud of my story, and have learned so much about my­self and the sig­nif­i­cance and fragility of life.

When I leave, we em­brace but this hug feels dif­fer­ent to the ear­lier one. It’s an ac­knowl­edge­ment that some­thing has changed between us; that I now know what his early life was like and that I can­not take my own for granted.

Never have I been more proud to be named af­ter the bravest man I’ve ever known.

The guard saved my life with a red tri­an­gle

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