A letter to my grandson, about what happened to his family in the Holocaust
Monika Sears, whose son Oliver runs an art gallery in Dublin, survived WWII but her father did not. When her grandson was born, she decided to tell him her story
Monika Sears with her grandson Edoardo: “When Edoardo was born, I watched as my grandson in a basket next to his mother, was brought home, his quiet, warm country home with no rat or gun in sight. I decided to write him a letter, for him to read when he was older”
Monika, aged 2, in the Warsaw ghetto
In 1946 I arrived in England with my widowed mother, who very soon remarried. A month short of my eighth birthday, I was deposited with my suitcase in Horsham, Sussex, at a boarding school. My brief, and I was given no choice but to accept it, was to learn to speak English with no trace of a foreign accent and to become an English girl.
The first I managed very quickly. I speak beautiful English with an accent lilting elegantly across English shires. No problem.
The second was impossible.
By the time I understood enough English to gather what was going on around me, however, I also understood that nice (pronounced “naice”) little girls, never, ever talked about rats and hunger and shit and guns and jackboots and corpses. Too, too unpleasant. The school was obsessed with gymkhanas and ponies so I gritted my teeth and pretended that I liked horses. I learnt to eat with my elbows skewered to my sides and to place my knife and fork together at exactly half past six on my plate, when I had finished eating. I learnt not to mention the food and not to question why I had margarine whilst the teachers ate my ration of butter. I learnt that to stand out in any way was “showing off” and not to be tolerated. I learnt to obey rules and regulations that had everything to do with hierarchy but made no contribution to survival. Above all, I learnt to shut up.
Three years and two terms later, with my perfect English and my acceptable imitation of a nice English girl, I was sent to a wonderful school in London. Some talent in music or sport would have been applauded and nurtured but I had nothing to offer in either field. The lesson in Sussex had been learnt well, however, and I knew that my childhood was strictly off limits. Oh, I admitted to being Polish; my parents had those funny accents and inevitably my new friends met them. How I wished that my mother wore nice, flat shoes and a headscarf instead of high heels and that feathery nonsense on her head. They cut a disturbing swathe into my English identity. One or two new friends asked intrusive questions. But I never allowed the rats and the hunger and the guns etc. to creep into any conversation. I had to shut up and I did. I played lacrosse and worried about Latin homework.
I read English at university, married and had three sons. Time passed.
My eldest son, Paul, married and lives in Italy with his wife.
When Edoardo was born, I stood on the doorstep of their home and watched as the gates opened and their car drove slowly to the door and stopped. My grandson in a basket next to his mother, was brought home, his quiet, warm country home with no rat or gun in sight. This was bliss indeed.
I decided to write him a letter, for him to read when he was older.
From My War to Your Peace: Love, Nonna by Monika Sears was published last month