My Last Visit with My Last Grandparent

I didn’t know it at the time, but April 11th, 2015 marked my last visit with my last grandparent.

Joseph Achtman (Zaida) died two weeks later, and I am so grateful not only for my final visit with him, but also that I took the time to journal about our visit right after the fact.

Here is an excerpt from exactly what I wrote in April 2015.

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Does Tragedy Confer Dignity?

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the 2010 plane crash in which 96 people, including Poland’s then president Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, died.

They were en route to commemorate the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre in which more than 20,000 Poles had been murdered by Soviets.

Those on the flight composed an official delegation and so many of the other crash victims were political, church, and military leaders in Poland.

I still remember a religious sister guiding me toward a monument commemorating victims of the crash in the Lublin cemetery. She whispered, “Some do not refer to this as the Smolensk disaster but rather as Katyn the Second.”

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Bonhoeffer’s Worldliness

On this date in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant pastor and theologian known for his ardent resistance to Nazism, was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Reportedly, an SS doctor who saw his execution testified to Bonhoeffer having been “devout, brave, and composed.” He said, “His death ensued after a few seconds . . . I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Today I am reflecting on this excerpt from a 1944 letter that Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend in 1944 in which he reflects on what he calls “the worldliness of Christianity.”

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With Eyes Open

I first heard the following story told by the incredible storyteller and guide Michael Bauer during the 2010 March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.

Shmuel Gogol was a Polish Jew who was born in Warsaw. His mother died and his father was expelled from Poland. For a time, Shmuel was raised by his grandmother before she eventually brought him to Janusz Korczak’s orphanage.

One day, Shmuel saw a boy playing a harmonica and he immediately longed to have one of his own so that he could learn to play it. Janusz Korczak finally gave him one for his birthday.

As I have written about before, Korczak and 200 children of the orphanage were deported to the death camp called Treblinka. However, Shmuel was not among these children because his grandmother had smuggled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to stay with his uncle in a different Polish town during the war.

However, despite these efforts to protect him, Shmuel still ended up getting deported to Auschwitz.

At Auschwitz, all of Shmuel’s possessions were confiscated, including his harmonica.

Time went on and, one day, Shmuel could hear the sound of a harmonica from within the concentration camp. So intent was he at the prospect of once again having a harmonica that he traded several days of food rations in order to obtain it from the other prisoner.

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Remembrance in the Living Room

In 2010, some friends gathered in a living room to discuss the Holocaust, the testimony of survivors, and its impact on society over time in an intimate and familiar setting.

Since then, this experience has become an annual international initiative called Zikaron Basalon, which means “remembrance in the living room.”

The event usually takes place on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s official date of commemoration for those who perished in the Holocaust.

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“Your listening is medicine for me.”

Tomorrow, April 7th, is Genocide against the Tutsi Memorial Day.

Nine years ago, I participated in the Reflections on Rwanda program to study this genocide, especially through encountering rescuers and survivors and listening to their stories.

Some of my family and friends were not sure why I wanted to go on a genocide study a trip.

I even met a professor (of Genocide Studies, no less) who described travelling to the sites of historical genocides as voyeurism.

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We are all terminal, so what’s your decision?

One of the best things about doing this daily blog is that my friends now think to share with me anything particularly good and interesting about death or dying that they’ve seen or heard lately.

And so, quite a few of my friends have brought up this homily by Fr. Mike Schmitz’s from Palm Sunday:

In it, he says, “We’re all going to be dead at some point and I don’t think that that’s the problem. I think the problem is that we pretend that we’re not. We pretend that that’s not true and then, when tragedy happens, when death cuts close, I think it cuts through the illusion that my choices don’t matter.”

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The Longest Line to See Nothing

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a place to which thousands of pilgrims flock every day to see what isn’t there.

It is quite amusing, in fact, to wait in line for hours in order to see a place that you know to be empty.

Life is filled with a great many paradoxes. It is a paradox that the cross, which was an instrument of torture, became an instrument of divine reconciliation and the most enduring symbol of Christian faith. It is a paradox that the empty tomb became the sign of the fullness of Christian hope – that we “will not all die, but we will all be changed” and that “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

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Where are your wounds?

Thanks to a dear friend of mine who recommended this fantastic episode of The Rubin Report in which David Rubin speaks with Bishop Robert Barron and Rabbi David Wolpe about what Easter and Passover teach us about freedom and hope.

I am equally recommending the episode and could not be more impressed by the quality of Jewish-Catholic relations presented in this cordial and substantive conversation.

In the course of the discussion, Rabbi Wolpe says, “This South African author, Alan Paton, has a beautiful scene in one of his novels about a guy who goes to heaven and he comes before God and God says, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And he says, ‘I don’t have any wounds.’ And God says, ‘Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?'”

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Responding to Death with Poetry

My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:

A Tribute to My Grandmother

I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one

My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be

When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’

So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter 
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’

I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy

My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever

In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail

I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave

Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined

My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways

Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.

In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.