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Heirlooms: Photo of my grandparents, “the dreamer and the realist”

This photo is of my paternal grandparents, Itche Mayer and Ruda Fuks. I was told that my grandfather wrote commentary on religious texts but he earned a living as a sign painter, and also sculpted lions and eagles for synagogues.

Michael Fox - grandparents photo

The author’s paternal grandfather Itche Mayer and grandmother Ruda Fuks Courtesy of Michael Fox

What’s unusual about this picture is that it seems to be a candid portrait during an era when most photographs were formal. They’re wearing their tog-teglekhe (everyday) clothes, not any finery. My grandmother is wearing her shaytl but it isn’t very visible in the low light of the photo. My grandfather’s long and delicate fingers make me think of the beautiful paintings he was known to have painted and the magnificent sculptures he was said to have carved. He held his brushes in his mouth as he painted in gold and silver leaf, which had a high lead content. He died shortly after this picture was taken, likely of stomach cancer.

Someone who recently saw this photo called it “The Dreamer and The Realist.” That seems apt. My grandfather loved to create and engage with beautiful things, were they physical or sacred. My grandmother was down-to-earth. A descendant of the great Tshekhenover Rebbe, she masterfully took charge of the household. My father told me that she also helped her own impoverished siblings. She was the one who bought and owned the family home in Lodz where she lived with her husband and four children.

My grandmother survived incarceration in the Lodz Ghetto but she was put on the last transport out of the Lodz Ghetto and died in Auschwitz.

When the war was over, after my parents and brothers and I returned to Lodz, my father made inquiries and received government documentation that the house was still in his mother’s name. But he knew that many survivors who tried to reclaim their houses in Poland after the war often did not survive the rage of the Poles who refused to be displaced, as in the notorious 1946 massacre of Jews in Kielce. He decided it was best not to go.

I’m now in possession of the original documents. They’re a link to my grandparents and the home that could have been mine. I don’t know what to do with the handwritten papers with their official seals and stamps. There is no way to reclaim what they symbolize.

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