Not all the lessons of the butterfly story were dark. I knew from my grandmother’s example that triumph could come after tragedy. That you could lose everything, but you could get everything back, too. That the ugly didn’t have to last forever, if you were strong and persistent, and lucky, too. That you could go through the worst thing possible and still come out a loving and loved person. That you could have a butterfly collection again.
Still, decades later, after Bubby had survived starvation, death camps and all the horrors of the Holocaust; after she’d raised a daughter, after her first granddaughter was born, she remembered the day she had to leave her butterflies as if it had happened the week before. I carried the story of the butterflies around with me like a secret. The panic, the impermanence, the uncertainty, the importance of the story being retold and remembered. If I didn’t understand and carry it with me, who would?
Somewhere along the way, I thought I figured out how I could keep safe, untouched. If I did everything right, bad things would never happen to me. If I were the best, the first, the most, the prettiest, the smartest, then I would never be left behind or singled out. No one would take me away, so to speak, if they knew how special I was. I wouldn’t be caught in an awful situation like Bubby and her butterflies if I stayed in control, if I were on top of everything, if I were the best.
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IN THE BEGINNING
In my family, the Holocaust was this thing. Our thing. Like most anything else that is a part of who you are and how you’ve grown up, it seemed, at the time, as normal and natural as anything else in life. It was my Bubby and Zeidy whose story informed and was incorporated into every aspect of my life. It was their tragedy, their heroism and their history that everyone wanted to know about. It was their story, and my grandmother’s in particular as time went on, that was center stage within our family and also within the communities of which we were a part. It was this story that created my mom, that had my mom believe she had to
marry my dad, that brought me into the world. I knew it so well and yet, even now, I can’t imagine what it was like: The
ghetto. Auschwitz. The gas chamber. The branded number on my grandfather’s arm. The watery soup. The stolen potatoes.
The wiped-out family. My grandparents as new immi-grants to the United States with next to nothing—no family,
no material possessions, no English.