My grandmother turns 90 this week, so I’m in Houston celebrating this wonderful milestone with her. Each time we get together (which isn’t often enough), we spend a little time talking about her experiences during World War II. These conversations almost never last very long; she inevitably breaks into tears and I’ve never had the heart to push things further once that happens. So I end up hearing very brief snippets of what life was like in Romania during the war, which I’ve tried to piece together into a coherent story over the past many years. It’s like so many stories you’ve likely heard before; long periods of suffering punctuated by brief moments of hope, of kindness and of horror.
This morning, my grandmother told me another story. It takes place shortly after the Russian army (which had been occupying her town) retreated from the territory. The Romanian army re-entered the area and began to round up all individuals who had supposedly “collaborated” with the Russians — including my grandmother’s family. (She believes that most of the people accused of collaboration were Jews, but she is 90 and her memory isn’t perfect, so it’s hard for me to say for certain if that is accurate.) The Russian army had already stolen most of her family’s material wealth, so there was nothing left for the Romanian army to seize except for her land and home.
My grandmother’s family, along with many others, was forced by the Romanian army to march a great distance to a resettlement site. The weather was cold, sometimes rainy, and they were utterly ill-clothed for the journey. Consequently, many people simply collapsed from the cold, malnutrition and/or exhaustion during the long march and were left to die. Friends and relatives were not enabled or even permitted to help them.
I’d heard all of this in previous conversations with my grandmother. But today, she shared a new detail. It turns out that at some point during the journey (the beginning, I believe), her uncle was one of the people to collapse. He’d been forced to stand in the cold rain and was soaked to the skin, and could no longer move his body. He was still breathing, but only barely. So his children asked my grandmother’s father (his brother) what they should do. He told them that if his brother were left in place, wild dogs would eventually devour him. So they decided to bury my grandmother’s uncle. The most terrible part for me is that it is unclear from my grandmother’s account whether they buried her uncle alive or not. She does not recall anyone putting her uncle out of his misery, but perhaps her father shielded her from it. Or perhaps they simply could not bring themselves to kill him directly. I don’t know. She believes he was still (barely) alive when they buried him.
It’s one thing to read about this stuff in books and watch reenactments in movies. It’s another to stare into the eyes of your aging grandmother and know that she’s relived these moments in her mind every single day for the past 70 years.