Grandpa Jack would roll up his sleeve up to show us both his forearm. On his arm was permanently imprinted a bar code. As a child, this was not something you easily forget.
At ten and eight years old respectively, Jason and I didn’t quite understand what Grandpa Jack’s bar code meant. Until we did.
His were holocaust brands, irremovable markings imprinted upon him for life, a tattoo saddled with memories that you didn’t want and could never remove.
For the rest of his life, Grandpa Jack wore that ink as a source of both pride and shame, pride that he had made it out alive, shame that atrocities like that could ever happen to another human being, never mind millions of them.
Grandpa Jack wasn’t my grandfather, although he might as well have been. Grandpa Jack was Jason’s grandfather. I grew up without a grandfather, only a great one, Grandpa Sam, who would regularly bring me to temple and who, in his eighties, passed away when I was very young. A venerable, paternal influence was something I craved, especially with a biological father whose presence was as memorable as his absence.
For a short time growing up, my mother and I lived with Jason, Grandpa Jack and my mother from another, Natalie, who always imparted upon us the importance of carrying on our Jewish faith. After everything Grandpa Jack had been through, we were not getting off that easily. Thanks to our time spent growing up together, Jason and I have an inexorable and inescapable bond. For, he is my brother. Together, we share fond memories of Grandpa Jack.
Grandpa Jack was stern yet comical, intimidating yet light-hearted. Picture Danny Devito as a thick-accented Jewish man, with a similar sense of humor but considerably more solemn considering what he had seen. While wanting to impart his memories of struggle, he spared us stories of friends and loved ones lost. We could only imagine. That would be our Grandpa Jack.
At ten years old, you can’t quite comprehend the rolling of that sleeve when you see it for the first time. As a young man of Jewish faith, you’re made aware of the crimes and hatred that have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against your people and others, and exactly why practicing the faith, and caring for others, remains so important. Any discrimination is a somber reminder of our continued misunderstanding of each other’s beliefs. As if his purpose, Grandpa Jack’s forearm, tanned, hairy, wrinkled, muscular and proud, reminded both Jason and I what it meant to be Jewish. To fight. To remember. To survive. To understand.
There’s been talk lately, in a still divided and miscommunicative America, of how someone perpetuated myths on his social media outlets, based on a film that promoted the idea that these things never happened, much like our history books glossed over what really happened when Columbus “discovered” America.
When discussion of this news broke, I couldn’t help but think about Grandpa Jack’s forearm, about all the times I was looked at differently, about all the times I’d mentioned, and still mention, the fact that I’m Jewish only to see someone’s offput reaction, about all the times I’d shamefully hid that information because I no longer wanted to face it.
That forearm, and those faded but not faded enough numbers upon it, left an imprint upon me that last to this day. Years after his passing, I’m sure Jason, now in his fifties with a beautiful daughter of his own, would give anything to have just one more conversation with Grandpa Jack about what went down, how he made it out alive and what he thinks of the world today.
Recent events triggered some old emotions about being teased for being different, about the shame others could impose upon you because of their own fears, ignorance, meanness, and lack of understanding. They also drummed of memories of Grandpa Jack, and how he reminded me the importance of being proud and being Jewish. Over forty years later, these memories are as vivid as ever. For that, I will always be grateful.
To the memories of Grandpa Jack, Natalie, Grandpa Sam, Grandma Norma and Grandpa Jerry, your souls live within me forever. I carry on your tradition and can only hope I’ve done you proud.