Rakefet Kopernik is a Jewish, queer, experimental fiction and poetry writer. She is the author of The Other Body, forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press (2017). Her work has also appeared in several publications, including El Balazo, Duende, Restless and others, was shortlisted for the Black River Chapbook Contest, and received an honorable mention for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Naropa University and currently lives in Minneapolis. You can find more of her work here: http://rakitime44.wixsite.com/mysite/writing
Only my mother and her mother look at the camera, or the man behind it, my father. My gangly eight-year-old brother stands in front of my grandmother. He’s looking down at me, grinning. I am five years old and have little brown braids. I am sitting beside our mother. She looks young and fresh. My uncle is stretched out in front of me on the grass, propped up on one elbow, twirling a blade of grass between his dark fingers. His son looks like a tiny version of him. He’s kneeling, looking up at his father, mouth half open like he’s saying something or wants to. His left hand rests on his father’s shoulder. Behind my uncle is Saba, our grandfather, one hand on my cousin’s back, the other on mine. Saba is looking at me with a wide smile. I’m looking back at him, my eyebrows raised, holding a little monkey doll on my knee, whose round head blocks my face a little. It’s summer and everyone is tan and happy. But Saba and I, in particular, are sharing our own moment.
The photo was taken in front of my grandparent’s small two-room house on the kibbutz where my mother grew up, where I spent every summer of my childhood. The kibbutz, Nir Am, is just outside of Gaza. You can see Gaza from the fields behind their house. Having spent the rest of each year in America, I didn’t experience my extended family the way most of my American friends did, Sundays with grandparents, cousins at birthday parties, big spontaneous family events. My family was all packed into one chunk of time each year.
I loved visiting my Saba. He felt comforting to me, like an old quilt, worn and soft. Even as a child I found him to be cute. We had a grandparent-grandchild bond, the beginning and the end of a circle that seem to almost touch. A secret, psychic understanding of one another.
Saba was a humorously skinny man. He wasn’t unhealthy, just naturally very thin which made it okay for my mom and me to laugh and joke about this gene neither of us inherited. His thinness was also an amusing juxtapose to my thick and overbearing, though loveable, grandmother. He wore the same clothes every day: navy blue button down work shirt with navy blue work pants or shorts, and thin brown socks under heavy brown work boots. He smelled like an old quilt too, a sweet musky scent I wanted to breathe deep into my lungs, linger it there for an extra couple of seconds, hugging him from the inside.
Some days after swimming in the kibbutz pool, my cousins and I would walk over to the silverware factory on the other side of the kibbutz where he worked, for years longer than he had to, just to keep busy. It wasn’t far. Everyday he rode his rusty red cruiser bicycle with the little blue basket on the back, from one end of the kibbutz to other through narrow walkways – there is only one vehicle road that runs around the outskirts of the small community, perfectly oval like a racetrack. There were lots of grandparents in the factory, all wearing those same navy blue work clothes, all smiles and laughter, so delighted to see us nechadim, us grandkids. When I was little, I thought the factory was just a hangout for grandparents. I knew it was where they made silverware, the kibbutz’s income, but I never actually saw anyone making it.
In the earliest years, when my parents, brother, and I would arrive at the Tel-Aviv airport, Saba and his son, the uncle in the photo, would be waiting for us with generous smiling faces and bags of cheap Israeli candy. My brother and I fought over this candy year after year for its too-sweet, sugary savor, for the richness that sweets possess when someone who loves you so much, gives you. Saba would place his creased old man worker hands on my face, one on each side, smile and kiss each cheek with laughter, then again.
“Mamalé, bubalé,” he’d say.
I’d kiss his scruffy cheeks back, taking into my lungs that musky scent, overwhelmed by love. We’d do this every single day.
The kibbutz was guarded by reserve soldiers. Most of them lived there. When we’d arrive from the airport in the borrowed kibbutz van, my uncle was friendly with the guard. He too was a reserve soldier. Pulling up to the Nir Am gate, seeing the man with the M16 in military fatigues, was strangely comforting, like the smell of gasoline and bus fumes; disturbing but familiar, childhood, my second home. We’d pass easily through the gate then drive up on the dirt to Saba and Safta’s little house among the trees. Shlomo and Miriam, the neighbors whose little house was connected to Saba’s like a townhouse, were always there to greet us. Like Shlomo and Miriam, my grandparents built their house, with the rest of the kibbutz, after the war.
Saba and Safta met in Romania. Along with many other Jews, they felt a strong pull to build their lives in Israel as Europe became heated with anti-Semitism. Saba left first, with a group of friends in 1940. Under British rule there were limited opportunities for Jews to enter Israel, but with a special certificate, a married person was allowed a spouse. And so, though committed to my grandmother, Saba married his friend Sara, only on paper so that he might be allowed into the country. One year later, he sent word to Safta to join him. She also banded with a group of friends to travel, illegally, by boat. There were many boats attempting this journey. Some of the boats were caught by the British and sent back to Europe, some were sent to camps in Cypress, and the most unfortunate drowned. Safta’s boat was caught and, though they were allowed in, they were put into Atlit, a prison camp near Haifa that was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by British soldiers.
The prisoners were taught Hebrew and, once in a while, a nice soldier brought candy for the kids. Babies were born there but men and women were separated, with one hour per day to visit for married couples. There was a seven pm curfew. On arrival, prisoners had to strip naked and wait in line for a shower, much like in German concentration camps. Only the showers at Atlit were actual showers with water. But those who escaped from places like Auschwitz were traumatized. Atlit was not a concentration camp, but it was a prison. Until it was disbanded, prisoners didn’t know when, if ever, they would be released.
Safta spent a year and a half in Atlit, until it was emptied and shut down. When the British finally closed the camps, my grandparents were reunited and found their home in Kibbutz Nir Am. They were married in 1944 and two years later my mother was born. She was the oldest of three.
Sixty years later, after living more than half her life in America, my mother would return to Israel. She would stay for the longest stint since I was a child, to care for her ill father. She would turn sixty watching a machine breathe for him. Then after a month, he would die. Sixty years after my mother was born, I will find a picture that will send me back two decades into a past that is slowly dissolving, leaving me to wonder if it ever happened at all. I will be reassured by the ache in my chest that it did, then be drowned by the guilt of loving someone so unconditionally, yet hardly knowing him at all. I will surround this picture with white candles and pink cosmos and cry until there is nothing left, until the candles are burnt into helpless puddles of wax and the flowers are dried to crumbs.