Always buy solid gold, not the hollow stuff,” my grandma told me. ‘Always solid. Always buy diamonds. Diamonds are good. You can sew them in your clothes.”
I was the oldest granddaughter My grandmother and I spent many hours together, shopping and talking. I learned my grandma’s brand of survival.
“Keep silver coins,” she told me. “You never know when you will need them. Real silver is better.”
When grandma died we found every purse she ever owned filled with silver dollars, half dollars and quarters. Over 30 purses, hundreds of silver coins. We checked every coat pocket, every pants pocket, every dress pocket, every drawer. We continued to find money two years after she died. I carry, in my wallet, one $10.00 bill I found, for an emergency that still has not occurred. Grandma has been dead for 19 years.
At 16, grandma came by herself to the United States from Poland. It was 1922. She had already lost her mother and younger sister Behind she left her father, two brothers and another sister, her friends and cousins. It did not matter. She was leaving Poland!
At 16, grandma moved into her aunt’s apartment in New York City. She had to do the housework. She had to work outside the home for an income. She went to night school to learn English. She spoke and wrote several languages: English, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and German.
At 18, she met her husband. Her aunt did not approve and wrote to Europe demanding my great-grandfather end the match. The aunt wanted her to marry a different man. In Europe, my great grandfather checked out grandma’s choice and found him lo be from a good, pious family. So my grandparents wed.
Grandpa worked. He was a baker. His breads, rolls, crumb buns and chocolate cookies were without compare. I can still close my eyes and see the bakery and smell the warm scents of the ovens. I see the laugh crinkles around my grandpa’s eyes, and the quick smile on my grandma’s face.
Grandma worked. She sold the bread. Kept all the silver coins that came into the store and played the stock market. She put away quite a bit of money. But it was never enough. You never know when they might go after the Jews.
The pantry was always filled to overload with nonperishable foods. In the basement, behind a certain beam, hidden in dirt, were buried bags of money and jewelry.
“You can always bribe your way out with diamonds. Diamonds are best,” she told me. “Emeralds and rubies are good. too. Always get jewelry that can be taken apart.”
Diamond rings, diamond watches, diamond necklaces, diamond earrings. So much jewelry, she could not wear it all, She did not wear it all. These jewels were not for show, they were security — a way to escape, to save her family.
I keep mine in the bank vault. I rarely wear diamonds or emeralds or rubies. The jewelry from her is kept safe. But, I do not keep it buried in the basement.
I am not afraid. Or so I think. Every once in a while I get this urge to bring it all home. To hide it. To feel her feeling of security. I wonder, will I ever need these to save my family? In the vault, the jewels will not help. Should I be like grandma? Should I worry?
This mentality, she left as my gift. This feeling sometimes of dread, unknown fear. I’ve never been to Poland. I was born in New Jersey. I should have no fears. But then, every once in a while I hear grandma’s voice.
“They hid me in the basement. It was dark,” she told me. “I had to get out of Poland. And I did.” Later she saved her father and sister from the Holocaust by bringing them to the United States in 1936.
Now. 78 years after grandma left Poland. 19 years since she died, I still see her. A young girl with long brown braids. A wealthy woman with jewels and secure place in life. A mother and grandmother. An independent, intelligent woman. A scared soul always ready for escape.
Ellen Rosenberg Portnoy, of Overland Park, Kansas, says her childhood was enriched by her close contact with her grandmothers, Thelma “Tova” Szenk Amsterdam and Esther Goldman Rosenberg.