My grandad, Jan Imich, has always seemed the same to me, smartly dressed and soft-mannered, but forthcoming and approachable. But on this Sunday afternoon as he greets me with a brief but warm hug, dressed in a checked shirt and wearing his slippers, he seems somehow different. A little uncomfortable and more reticent than usual.
I have always known that Grandad was Polish and that the country was occupied by the Nazis when he was a child. But I didn’t know much more than this and as he approached his 86th birthday, I realised that unless I asked him, I never would. Would he be willing to relay such painful memories?
I somehow knew that this part of my family history was integral to my understanding of my own story and sense of identity. For a university journalism project, I needed to interview someone about their life. It was time to talk to Grandad.
On the day, his Eastbourne flat seemed darker than usual. As we sat on the sofa, he smiled his familiar smile, which, I would soon realise, hid years of despair and trauma. But his smile also conveyed hope and strength.
“I was peacefully asleep in my room when a loud noise woke me up. I ran to the window and saw the German planes flying at rooftops. My father left the following Monday having been called up to his unit. The Germans occupied Krakow two days later.”
Grandad told me that as he watched the German army marching along the main street, he never imagined the horrors that would ensue in the next five years, throughout which he never saw his father.
Sitting opposite him, I’m aware of the boundary I am crossing by asking him to tell me more.
At the start of the war, he was sent to live with some non-Jewish family friends. His mother decided this would be safer than staying with her. For four years it was.
“Someone informed the Gestapo that my guest family were harbouring a Jew. I had to show my false ID when they came to the house. But one of the agents was Polish and decided there was something strange about me. He took me to the toilet, brandished a gun in my face and told me to pull my trousers down. I was arrested instantly”
Jan winces as he speaks. Even 70 years on, the memory seems vivid. I wince, too. It’s degrading, and horrifying beyond comprehension.
“I was shoved in a rat and disease-infested cell of a local prison with 20 other Jews. Here, we became guinea pigs for SS doctors testing for anti-typhoid injections. We all became very sick. Luckily, my body was young and strong enough to survive such trauma.”
A pang of guilt hits me. A self-confessed needle-phobe, I shy away even from getting a blood test unless it’s an emergency. Grandad had no choice. I had no idea that vaccines had been tested on prisoners.
“Once I had fulfilled my purpose, I was shoved on a train and transported to a concentration camp, called Gross-Rosen,” he continues. “We were forced to sleep in awful conditions and were often deprived of food and water for days. One could always sense death in the air at this camp. It was never far away.”
I swallow and look away, desperately trying to avoid eye contact.
“There were dead bodies everywhere. People who tried to escape would be hanged on meat hooks and we were forced to watch. Many others committed suicide using the electric barbed wire surrounding the camp.”
Grandad senses my unease and gives me a watery smile. “Death, to many, seemed a better alternative”.
He stares out of the window facing the sea as though lost in his memories, his smile fading like the last rays of sun. Our eyes meet for a split second, before we both look away, as if scared of the pain we will find there.
But I want to ask him something that has been bothering me as we’ve been talking. When I was 10 he’d told me his hearing was affected by an accident in a swimming pool. But this no longer rings true.
“Grandad, how exactly did you lose your hearing?” I ask tentatively.
“I once stopped to pick up some potato peelings to eat on the way to the barracks because I was starving. The next thing I feel is the crack of a guard’s baton against the back of my neck. I could never hear properly again.” Sadness hits me, as I ponder my own childhood, how I would moan if I wasn’t given pocket money.
How lucky I was.
“You know I was very reluctant to let you do this interview” Grandad says, as if he knows what I’m thinking. “I didn’t want to focus on the bad things. I wanted the message to be one of hope. Because, in the depths of all that misery, a single act of kindness saved my life”.
I look at my Grandad and see for the first time, a flicker of profound sadness appear on his face. He tries to suppress it. But it’s too strong, evoked by the memory of all those who didn’t survive, including his mother, who he never saw again.
And yet, he has always seemed so positive.
“In the camp, the prisoners were given different coloured triangles, depending on the type of prisoner they were.
“The guard who registered me in the first camp knew I was Jewish, but gave me a red triangle which symbolised a political prisoner, as opposed to a yellow triangle which symbolised a Jew. Everyone with a yellow triangle was to be slaughtered. That man saved my life.”
It dawns on me suddenly that had it not been for this, I would not be here myself.
As a gay man, I know how it is to face prejudice simply for being who you are, but never to the unthinkable extremes faced by my grandad.
Before today, I’d never thought of myself as “Jewish” but I begin to realise that my Jewish heritage forms an important part of my identity. I am proud of my story, and have learned so much about myself and the significance and fragility of life.
When I leave, we embrace but this hug feels different to the earlier one. It’s an acknowledgement that something has changed between us; that I now know what his early life was like and that I cannot take my own for granted.
Never have I been more proud to be named after the bravest man I’ve ever known.