The Girl Who Lived

Remembering my grandmother, whose improbable survival became the foundational story for my family’s existence

Ethel Safran Kaplan is pictured here in Poland, in 1946, when she was in her mid-twenties. She died in December 2018. (Courtesy of Franklin Foer)

There were the scissors that my grandmother somehow remembered to bring with her as she fled. She could hear the rumble of destruction in the distance. She could see the cloud of smoke that was the Nazi murder of her family and neighbors. Without forethought, she made the decision to run ahead, carrying with her the scissors and, despite the blossoms of spring, a winter coat.

In the seasons that followed, which piled into years, she kept on walking, from Poland to Uzbekistan, and then back again. Although she was a teenager, her body could barely sustain the 2,600-mile trek. Her legs would swell, and sores covered her trunk. She nourished herself with stolen potatoes, expertly hidden in the lining of her dress. When she came into the occasional possession of grains of rice, she saved them as if they were precious metals.

For decades, she said nothing about her escape. Then she gathered the courage to recite the story to her grandchildren, and she found that it fortified her against her nightmares. Narrating her life provided a sense of meaning to the improbability and pain of survival.

By the time I reached fifth grade, the scissors and the coat had become the foundational tale of my family’s existence. The small Jewish woman who turned her basement into a well-stocked bunker filled with enough bags of flour and boxes of Rice Krispies to withstand the next catastrophe emerged as our superhero. Her life was a testament to cunning, courage, and contingency. When I think about the scissors and the coat, it’s hard not to also think of the mountain of worn shoes at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the television clip that pauses to show the eyes of the child migrant. It’s hard not to think about the bare margin that separates survival from death, the decision made in a flicker that accounts for existence.

Her life connected ours to tragedy and history. I have piles of cassettes, compiled while sitting with her as she recounted her biography at her faux-marble kitchen table, sipping instant coffee from a red mug. She died 10 days ago. Now we no longer have her witness—in a time when Jews are slaughtered in Pittsburgh, when anti-Semites have regained power in the old blood-lands of Europe. My grandmother has become a memory, at a moment when the memory of the destruction of Jewry seems too faint to restrain the return of animal hatreds.

But right now, history feels small in comparison to the example she provided of how to suffer and to love. For some reason, I have in my head the story of what happened when, as an 8-year-old, I shattered a window with an errant throw of a rubber baseball. My expectations for punishment and sense of shame sent me into my bedroom closet, where I covered myself in clothes and cried. When she called my name, however, I came running. I couldn’t help myself. Hers was the voice of worry. Instead of chastisement, she showered me with the joy of reunion.

Whenever I entered her home or she came to stay with me, I felt almost overwhelmed by the force of her love. Nobody has taken more joy from my mere existence, nobody has hugged me harder or kissed my cheeks with greater suction. It’s easy enough to describe life as a “blessing,” but with her I felt that highest sense of worth. I never asked her pointedly, How could a woman who survived such horrors remain such a bottomless font of warmheartedness?

Our superhero came from another planet. Her accented English wasn’t an immigrant’s incomplete understanding of an adopted language. Somehow her language was richer, because she possessed an easy mastery of slang. When a granddaughter showed spunk, she would delight, “Oh boy, she is pistol.” Remarking on her height, she would say, “I’m a shrimp”—the comparison of herself to trayfe, which she never touched, was just funny. Even her malapropisms felt better than the idiom she intended. When we would go to Roy Rogers, she would insist that we order a side of the “french friers.” (To experience true joy was to go with her to the buffet in the strip mall and to know that you were encouraged to abandon all sense of human limitation in the face of such a miracle.)

Her instinct to live was an expression of the instinct to survive. Her presence was so full of life, and not just the way she whirled around her house, accomplishing tasks, making to-do lists and finishing them, filling used coffee tins with spare change that had been separated by the year of issuance, organizing immense piles of coupons for shopping trips that became gratis.

As a teenager, she was a communist, an act of rebellion in a small conservative shtetl. I imagine the intensity of her yearning for a better world, the romanticism that would lead her to dream like that. It was this rebellion, her sense that the Nazis might seek her out for special punishment, that prodded her to flee. Her story of survival was bound together with her capacity for free thinking and her ability to feel deeply.

Survival, in the end, feels like an insufficient word to explain her existence. To survive is to keep on breathing. But her talent was to relish a bag of Hershey Kisses, to place phone calls to distant cousins (albeit in a very loud voice and truncated to save on long distance), to suck the emotional marrow from a grandchild’s graduation, to clap her hands as she played with a baby, to loudly sing a prayer in synagogue two words ahead of the congregation. To be a survivor is to emphasize toughness. Her essence was sweetness. While her body withered and broke down, she distilled into this true self. She lay in bed, without ever remarking on her condition. She expressed gratitude for every sip of water and every stroke of her hair. Even as she died, she provided a master class in how to live.