I was nine when I first found out about the Holocaust and how my grandfather’s family perished in the fires of the concentration camps. When I was eleven I discovered I had a cousin living in Israel who was just a month older than I. At nineteen I went to Jerusalem to spend a year at the Hebrew University. It was right before I left that I first heard the story of my grandmother’s pearls.
Grandma and I were sitting in the kitchen playing canasta. In her house, playing cards was the best form of recreation and bonding. Grandma taught me many card games over the years. She also taught me how to always win at solitaire. But that’s another story. In any case. Grandma often would speak about her life while we played cards. I learned how she came to America by herself when she was sixteen. How she met my grandfather. What it was like to leave her family behind in Poland.
Today, however, Grandma had a new story to tell.
“So, you’re really going to spend a year in Israel. You’ll visit my brother,” Grandma started.
“Yes, I know. I will see Uncle Isaac as much as possible. But remember, I’ll be in Jerusalem. He lives in Haifa.”
“I haven’t seen my brother since 1932. Forty-three years,” Grandma said.
I knew to be quiet. It was her remembering time.
“I took your mother and uncle to Poland when they were very young. I saw my family and your grandfather’s family. They are all dead you know. Grandpa’s parents and brothers and sisters and her children. All dead. You were named after Grandpa’s mother, Chava.”
“Grandma,” I interrupted, “I know about Grandmother Chava.”
“Yes,” she answered. “But I want to tell you about the pearls. They should have been yours.”
“The pearls?” I was surprised. “You never mentioned pearls before.”
“Shhh. Let me tell you. When I went to stay with Grandpa’s family, I took Stanley and Frances with me. Your Grandmother Chava gave me two pieces of Jewelry. The ring you have. The pearls, I wore while I was there.
“One day I went to wash myself. I took off the pearls and left them on the sink. When I went out, I forgot the pearls. A little while later I went back in. The pearls were gone.”
“Gone? Who took them?” I asked.
“Who took them. That goniff, that thief. Your grandfather’s cousin, Zeisel, was the only one who had been in the bathroom,” Grandma said. “He never gave me the pearls. He never said anything. But I know it was him. Your Grandmother is dead and her pearls are gone because he stole them.”
“Grandma, are you sure? It’s been 43 years!” I was amazed by the anger in her voice.
“He also lives in Israel,” Grandma added.
“He does? Where?” I asked. But Grandma was done with her story… for then.
Later that evening I asked my mother if she had heard of Zeisel Feuer. I found out that he was the “messenger of death” in our family. He alone had survived to bring the news of the concentration camp murders.
I soon left for Israel and forgot about the pearls. I was busy getting settled, learning Hebrew, meeting relatives, making friends, listening to Richard Nixon resign from the presidency, and living. I was just 19 years old.
Grandma wrote to me every week. Her letters were warm with love. I visited her brother and family many times. I became close friends with my cousin. I loved Israel.
I had been there about five months when a different sort of letter arrived from Grandma.
“Next time you are in Tel Aviv,” she wrote, “you will go visit Zeisel Feuer. The goniff finally admitted stealing my pearls. He will give you four hundred and twenty five lire ($100) to pay me for the pearls. The money is yours. Buy yourself something special.”
I was shocked. Zeisel had really stolen Grandma’s pearls and after 43 years wanted to pay her back. What could I do. I wrote to him and said I would be in Tel Aviv in two weeks.
He wrote back. I was to go to a bakery across from the market in Tel Aviv. I was to ask for him. He worked there.
It didn’t surprise me that he worked in a bakery. My grandfather was a baker.
I met Zeisel in December. I was looking for a goniff. Instead I found an old, bent man, who spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice. He seemed very happy to see me. We walked back to his apartment, where he counted out the money.
“I never was a religious man,” he told me. “When I saw the pearls on the sink, I thought, why not? She lives in America, she can get more pearls. So I took them. But then everyone died. My wife, my children, your grandfather’s family. They did terrible things to us. And I thought maybe, if I hadn’t stolen the pearls, my children might have lived. So now I am a religious man. I go to services every day. I must return the pearls. So here is the money. Now I can rest.”
I took the money, but I didn’t say thank you. It didn’t seem right. I told him about the family in America. About my brother and sister and cousins. Then I had to go.
“Visit me when you are in Tel Aviv?” He asked. “Come to the bakery and ask for me. I’ll give you a glass of tea and some cake.”
“I’ll come,” I said. And I did. I visited him several times. And he always gave me something to eat and something to drink.
Now, 17 years later, my grandmother’s pearls haunt me. I can’t remember what I did with that $100. What did I buy? If my grandmother were alive I could ask her. I’m sure I wrote to her and told her what I bought. But I can’t remember. I can’t remember what I did with my grandmother’s pearls.
Ellen Rosenberg Portnoy teaches high school journalism at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. She says that both of her grandmothers—Thelma “Tova” Szenk Amsterdam and Esther Goldman Rosenberg—were major influences in her life.