The woman in this unfortunately blurry picture is my great-grandmother, Johanna Baer. The man, sitting next to her, is my great-grandfather, Arthur.
When I was a tyke, I’d visit my Grandma Marta’s apartment in the city, and she had the photograph sitting atop her dresser. I’d look at it often, because I knew Johanna had died in a concentration camp, and I knew that it broke my grandma’s heart. My grandma never spoke of the Holocaust, and on the rare times it came up (or her mother would come up) she cried. As a little kid, I never understood. Gradually, I began to get it.
Tonight, for no reason I can think of, I went to the Yad Vashem website and looked up my great-grandmother. This is what I found:
Johanna Baer nee Wallerstein was born in Hockenheim in 1886 to Louis and Regina. She was a businessman and married to Arthur. Prior to WWII she lived in Karlsruhe, Germany. During the war she was in Karlsruhe, Germany. Johanna perished in 1942 in Auschwitz, Camp at the age of 56. This information is based on a Page of Testimony (displayed on left) submitted by her granddaughter.
My Grandma Herz was probably my favorite grandparent. She lived in New York City at the same time I did. We spoke a couple of times per week, and we always scheduled lunches and dinners together. I always told her, “I really think of you as a friend as much as a grandma.” I think she liked that. On the day she died, I received a call from my mom. I sat in my apartment and cried all alone, then hopped in a taxi and went to her apartment on 181st Street in Washington Heights. I still remember exiting the elevator and seeing the door slightly ajar. As I walked down the hallway toward the dining room, a police officer asked me if I wanted to see her. I turned to my left, peeked through a crack in the door and there was Grandma, lying on her bed, eyes closed, moth slightly open. She had suffered a heart attack a few hours after leaving the theatre with her friend, and died in bed. She was only 85, and I wanted her to live a lot longer. But as far as ways one can die, it was a pretty darn good one.
Anyhow, that night I took my grandma’s handkerchief from her pocketbook, because it smelled like her. Nine years later, I still have it in my closet; still smell it from time to time. The next day I returned and grabbed the picture of my great grandparents. It reminds me that the Holocaust is real. It reminds me that there was a Johanna Baer, and that she died along with 6 million others.
Mostly, though, it reminds me of my grandmaâ€”who I continue to miss terribly.