My paternal grandmother disowned me when I was a kid.
I have no real idea what happened.
She was angry at my mother for something. Or my father. There had been businesses in Washington Heights. A uniform store. A bakery. There was money. I don’t know if the money was grown entirely in New York City or if seedlings had been smuggled out of Germany. A family trust fund from which I was edited. One conjures the image of a rubber-stamp in extreme close-up (‘REJECTED!’) or the flourish of a feather pen. Probably my grandmother’s lawyer asked her a perfunctory question and she responded by pressing her coral-frosted lips together and staring out the window, nodding precisely once.
I have exactly three memories of Anna Ebel, my grandmother:
1) My grandmother and I are in FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, sometime around 1974. My grandmother says I can have anything I want. I ask for a stuffed animal. My grandmother says that stuffed animals aren’t for girls. I can have any doll that I want.
2) There’s a Kodachrome snapshot of my grandmother holding me. She’s tan, a champagne-blonde. Other colors in the background include turquoise and avocado. Heavy upper arms apparently dominate along both my maternal and paternal lines.
3) A crate of gifts arrives from my grandmother. Among the items is a Madame Alexander doll and a blue plastic typewriter.
This is my paternal grandparents’ marriage license, issued in Berlin in 1936.
My father’s widow sends it to me in a padded envelope, from West Hartford to Los Angeles.
I feel tenderness and sorrow for the crumbling document as I slide it from its bunk in steerage.
Look at the colors, faded and enduring.
Look at the doves and the wedding bands. Doves and wedding bands! In 1936! Three years into the Third Reich. The wreath looks like barbed wire from here, but it’s olive branches or laurel up close. Doves and wedding bands and laurel. But German all in caps sounds like a storm trooper.
Here’s the text:
DER VORSTAND DER JUDISCHEN GEMEINDE
ZU BERLIN WIDMET DEM BRAUTPAAR
HERR RICHARD EBEL
FRAU ANNA geb SALOMON
ZUR DAUERNDEN ERINNERUNG AN DIE AM
6 SEPTEMBER 1936
ZU BERLIN VOLLZOGENE JUDISCHE-RELIGIOSE
TRAUNG DIESE URKUNDE.
MOGE DIE UNTER ANRUFUNG GOTTES ERFOLGTE
EHESCHLIESSUNG GESEGNET SEIN,
UND EINE GNADIGE VORSEHUNG MANN
UND WIEB IN LIEBE UND TREUE GELEITEN,
IHNEN KRAFT UND ARBEIT VERLEIHEN UND
SIE INMITTEN DER GEMEINSCHAFT ISRAELS
BEHUTEN UND ERHALTEN!
BERLIN, DEN 6 SEPTEMBER 1936
VORSTAND DER JUDISCHEN GEMEINDE ZU BERLIN
Here’s what it sounds like to me:
DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND LITTLE JEWS?!
IN BERLIN YOU’RE A PAIR OF BRATS
MR. RICHARD EBEL
MISS ANNA SALOMON
YOU’RE DETERMINED TO DIE IN THE A.M.
6 SEPTEMBER 1936
WE THINK OF YOU AS JEWS
TRAUMA’S WHAT YOU GET
SINCE YOU REFUSE TO SEE THE SIGNS
YOU LITTLE MAN AND SWEET WIFE
WHO IN TRUTH WOULD BETTER OFF HUNG
YOU CRAFTY ISRAELITES
WHO SHOULD BE BEHEADED AND HALTED!
THIS 6th DAY OF SEPTEMBER, 1936
TAKING A STAND AGAINST JEWS IN BERLIN
If you are a nice Jewish girl in Berlin in 1936, what does your wedding day feel like? Is the air crisp, are the clouds thin and high, skittering across the city on a busy wind? The light golden? The trees in the park just beginning to turn? Did you have a light breakfast, the edge of a buttered roll and black tea, too nervous to eat properly? Are you already daunted by the prospect of thank-you notes? Have you already ordered new custom drapes for your living room?
Are you a virgin?
Are your feet killing you?
Or are you afraid? Scrambling for credentials, the scraps of bureaucracy you need as international calling cards, to prove you were once a nice married Jewish couple in Berlin when FDR peers down at you over his reading glasses?
Are you standing before the clerk in your platform peep-toe sandals, holding hands with your fiancée and pleased with your purse, while simultaneously packing, in your mind, the one steamer trunk? Cataloging the safe deposit box? Are you thinking about who you know in the States, where you can stay on Riverside Drive when you land, what your new husband can possibly do there for a living?
My grandparents stayed in Berlin for two more years. What were those two years like? Every day were they working through a To Do list, how to get out of Dodge and where to go? Every time the phone rang, did they jump? Did it dawn slowly, one laurel leaf at a time becoming barbed wire before their eyes? Or was it a sudden realization, their country has turned against them, throw some clothes in a bag and get the car out of the garage?
Part of the lure of German citizenship is the exit strategy. The EU passport.
The fall of American capitalism and all that.
Should we ever care to get out of Dodge. Or need to.
Part of the lure of Berlin is an ineffable home restored. Not a hand-me-down but a birthright.
For the first time, it occurs to me. I don’t get to skip from here to there without passing through the Holocaust.
On September 6, 1936, Anna Ebel nee Salomon was a young lady getting married.
And I can prove it.
With the crumbling, yellowed piece of paper that’s as close to a story as I’m going to get today.