My Aunt Maja, sister of my father, just passed away. She was 92 years old. Below is a draft of my account of visiting her during my perimeter bike trip in 2011/2012 when she was still living in Miami Springs, Florida.
Warnings about biking in Miami traffic, accumulated. We decided to take them seriously, caught the monorail in Hallandale, then walked into Miami Springs to stay with my Aunt Maja in the home she had lived in for 70 years with her husband and four children. There was not room inside for us, so we put our sleeping bags out on the porch. I spent the next afternoon in the living room, Maya in her wheelchair and me on the couch, talking about her mother — my grandmother.
I was eleven when grandma died. Maja, with her lilting German accent, is my connection to her. She also inherited grandma’s authoritative personality – kindness and firmness intertwined.
“My mother was a nurse during World War One” Maja reminded me, then added a detail I had never heard. “The radiologist she worked with was killed. She took his place. Eighteen years old and no medical schooling. She was incredibly proud of her military service.”
Despite her loyalty to Germany, Grandma somehow knew before many of her Jewish neighbors, that to survive they had to leave the country. “She sent your grandpa away a year before,” Maja explained, “so when the Gestapo came looking, he was already gone.”
Dad had told me about Nazi soldiers tearing apart their home, looking in closets, under the bed, in drawers for his father. Dad was five years old at the time. He remembered thinking these places were much too small for his father to fit. The apartment was always dark after that, shades drawn.
Grandma snuck the children out of the country assuming someone else’s identity. She left parents and siblings, knowing she would probably never see them again. They tried to get into Switzerland but were denied entry, a fact I discovered in 2005, when I received reparations from the Swiss government.
Maya was ten years older than my Dad and their memories reflect their age gap. On the ship to the Americas teenage Maja flirted with young men, meeting the one she would marry. Dad hid under his mother’s skirts, watching Orthodox Jewish ladies in the women’s room take off their wigs, revealing bald heads. They landed in Havana and lived in a refugee camp there. Dad remembered his mom had a job pulling the heads off chickens. Maja remembered standing on the Havana shore, watching the MS St. Louis come into harbor so close she could touch the outstretched hands of excited children hanging on the railing. She watched in horror as the ship of German refugees was turned away by Cuban authorities. The United States and Canada also refused them harbor and the boat sailed back to Europe, sending passengers back to battlefields and concentration camps.
To get from Havana to Miami where my grandfather was waiting, my Grandma went regularly to the embassy to see if her name was on the list. When another woman whose name was called did not show up, she claimed to be her. She sold her jewelry to the Havana synagogue to pay for their passage to Miami. In 1987 I visited that synagogue in Havana. They had a display case of the jewelry refugees exchanged for passage.
In Florida, Dad and his other sister Helga started school. Dad remembered first grade, the sting of mispronouncing “h is for hatpins” so the last syllable sounded like “penis.” Maja got a job to help provide for the little ones.
When the family moved to New York City, Maja and her husband stayed in Florida and bought the home along the canal in Miami Springs, where on hot November morning in 2011, we ate sweetbreads with cousins.
I asked Maja what kind of music grandma liked.
“She had no time for music.” she said shortly.
Then for some reason I asked, “What would the soundtrack for grandma’s life sound like?”
She did not hesitate. “Da Da Da Dum. Beethoven’s 5th.”
I wish I had asked Maja what her own soundtrack would be. I would imagine it would be something equally strong and embracing.