By E. Hazan
We often spent entire Sunday afternoons in the Jewish Old-Age home of Milan. We made many friends there, like the old man who spoke to us in Yiddish. He was probably the only person in Milan who openly spoke Yiddish, before a new wave of school teachers and Rabbis came in. But he had nothing to fear in the Home.
He cracked jokes all the time, and my friends and I understood only half of them, but it was a pleasure to spend time with him, all the same. A young Israeli student was usually at his side, volunteering during his free time. He would feed him as we watched and tried to entertain him. What was his name? I must find my friend and ask her.
I was thirteen at the time. I remember that the Italian nurses were always busy and running to and fro, but they were usually gentle with the elderly guests.
There was a small dining room on one floor, where the self sufficient guests could eat supper and watch television. If I remember correctly, one little old man was always looking out for a certain woman, and telling the nurse to put more food on her plate. Or maybe the man was actually a woman, I forget.
Signora Vinograd though, I cannot forget.
She had her own private room, a real privilege. Entering that room was like leaving the Old Age Home. Carpets everywhere, little trinkets, music sheets, a round wooden table covered with hard cover books- Hitler, The Warsaw Ghetto, The second world war, Auschwitz- at the time I wondered why she had those books. Did she read them? Did she buy them so that visitors would be able to read into what she had been through, without her having to say a word?
She never spoke to us about her past. We knew that she had been in a Polish Ghetto, and that she had survived a concentration camp. We knew because she had told my friend's mother, who in turn had given us the bare details, so that we would understand what lay behind Mrs. Vinograd's piercing eyes, her nervous gestures, the books on her wooden table.
She spoke about the importance of bread, when we brought a fourth friend. Hadassa was a chubby 11 year old, and she had a distinct Slavic look. Mrs. Vinograd immediately hugged her, and stared at her for a while with tears in her eyes, saying that she reminded her of home, of the good early days in Poland. That's when she told the rest of us that we should be as chubby as Hadassa. "You don't know what it means to be hungry", she told us. "Bread is important".
Signora Vinograd was tall and wiry, and we were always a little scared around her, because a wrong word could anger her. She often quizzed us on our studies.
I went back to the Old Age Home before graduating middle school, to interview two Holocaust survivors as a school assignment. I knew that I could not ask Mrs. Vinograd any of the questions on my list. She wouldn't talk to a child about such things.
But I knew that hers would have been the most interesting story of all. It was in her eyes, and on that wooden table.
from the September, 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine