What I Brought Back from a Holocaust Survivor's Estate Sale (So Much More than Things)

Have you ever had an object speak to you without words, something precious and imbued with meaning, something which attracts you as if sensing the appreciation and respect you have towards it? It’s transcendent. I felt the weight of the panels even after we carried them to the car to take them home, a weight beyond size and material and mass. It was the weight of history, and far more than that of a couple’s long life together.

 

By David Jones

Today I spent a lot of money for a calendar.

It didn’t have pictures of adorable kittens, favorite Star Trek or Star Wars scenes, or even photos of tropical beaches I could die happily on. It was two framed sets of panels written in English and Hebrew. I’m not very good at Hebrew anymore—actually I was only ever barely passable with it—and the calendar only runs through a year or so. But it’s a treasure to my heart.

This was the only estate sale we were hitting today, and that’s probably a good thing. I walked through the well-kept house, past roomfuls of furniture, Japanese artwork, suits and dresses, nearly two closets full of shoes, and the accumulation of two long lives.

Many things stood out to me as people streamed past the silver serving sets, Disney VHS tapes, and paperbacks of Murder, She Wrote, but four things stuck with me:

  • A book in Hebrew. I know to start at the back of the book and read right-to-left, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about beyond it being a short, lightly illustrated tale of a family.
  • A shofar. It was clearly an authentic used ram’s horn shofar.
  • An empty box engraved with the words My Purim.
  • Most importantly, those two framed calendar panel sets, featuring copies of illuminated pages from Maimonides’s Mishnah Torah.

Have you ever had an object speak to you without words, something precious and imbued with meaning, something which attracts you as if sensing the appreciation and respect you have towards it? It’s transcendent.

I felt the weight of the panels even after we carried them to the car to take them home, a weight beyond size and material and mass. It was the weight of history, and far more than that of a couple’s long life together.

The owners had been Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

I stood and listened to anecdotes from one of the estate sale workers who knew their stories. While people edged behind me to see if that beautiful bedroom set was still available or if there was a pair of shoes in their size, I fell into a world I could never know or properly imagine.

It was a world of barred windows and years in concentration camps, of hiding on your own property knowing that it could offer no protection from a hate-filled government which wanted to destroy you.

I sat down with my wife, temporarily unmoored from all the plans for the day. The bed headboard we were wanting to buy no longer seemed desirable. She sat with me in the silent understanding that I was not prepared to leave without those two collections. My son helped me carry them to the cash register, and we paid and walked to the car, but I hardly noticed; something had changed in my life.

I realized that even though I’d never know imprisonment or severe deprivation, I was now a small part of their story,  simply because of who I was—and they had now become a part of my story too. I wouldn’t know the depth of their struggles or the height of their courageous determination to survive what happened to them.

They survived, they thrived, and this was a piece of them.

They will grace the walls of my study, above my bibles and study materials, as a reminder that one’s faith and strength really doesn’t reside in holy writings or external things. It comes from the unquenchable fire within, the quiet dignity and human beauty which no regime can strip us of.

We each have our own story and our own path, but we should never forget that we are all connected, interwoven into the fabric of life and everything in it. May these calendars remind me that I’m also connected to those who suffered and still suffer, to those who caused suffering and still do, moving me to not only have compassion but always act in compassion.

I’ll never meet or know the Jewish couple who had a shofar and a VHS copy of Dumbo. But I’m now a part of their story, and they have become a part of mine. I can only wish that one day my life can touch someone as I have been. If anything of my legacy moves someone to deeper love and compassion toward others, I’ll be thankful.

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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