The thud of the dirt that first hits the pine box. That’s the sound that always gets me. As does the site of the shovel, slowly maneuvering from hand to hand, and then lifting up the dirt from the mound that rests besides the grave. We’ve all been through this; it’s one of life’s interesting tid-bits that no matter our station, we will invariably go through the ritual of burying a loved one. Sometimes, we witness the event through watery eyes. Others, we solemnly watch from the back, our thoughts meandering. And no matter if it’s sudden, or a long time coming, it hurts just the same.
The first funeral I remember attending was of my uncle, my father’s brother. I was 11 and two weeks prior, moved from my comfortable surroundings in Long Island to new, uncharted (for me) waters in New Jersey. He was 36, two-plus years older than I am now. Over the next year or so, there seemed to be more funerals than I care to remember: my grandfather (mother’s father), my great-grandparents (father’s maternal grandparents), my uncle (mother’s mother’s brother). And then it was a long time before I had to visit a cemetery. A friend’s father, and then my wife’s grandfather, and then both of my grandmothers all passed away a few years apart. And now, what should hopefully be the last time for a long time that I have to attend a funeral, my grandfather; my father’s father.
Vilmos (aka William or Bill, or as I called him, Grandpa W.B — which according to my dad stands for Wild Bill, because, well, grandpa was a patient man. My dad has an interesting sense of humor.) Sternberg was born on February 9, 1918, one of ten children to Fani and Julius Sternberg, in a town called Munkacs, a town that was part of Czechoslovakia when he was a child, became a part of Hungary when he was in his twenties, and is now part of the Ukraine. From Wikipedia:
On June 4, 1920, Mukachevo officially became part of Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Trianon. In November 1938, a part of the territory of the former Kingdom of Hungary was re-annexed by Hungary as part of the First Vienna Award. Mukachevo was then the only town in Hungary with a Jewish majority until 1944, when all the Jews were deported to Auschwitz by the Nazi German Eichmann Commando. The Hungarian Jewish community was the last Jewish community in Europe to be subjected to deportation, and then only partially.
It’s always interesting going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. I came across this passage about my uncle, my grandfather’s brother, Eugene Sternberg (an equally amazing man):
Adolf Hitler‘s Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Because Sternberg was offered a scholarship to the University of London‘s Bartlett School of Architecture he was fortunate to leave Czechoslovakia in 1939, the only one of his large Jewish family to be able to do so.
Eugene “was fortunate to leave” because, as the story goes, grandpa made him go. Understanding what was about to come, legend has it, grandpa put Uncle Eugene on a train to London to escape the pending atrocities. My grandfather was able to escape the concentration camp, but wound up on labor camps in Yugoslavia and Hungary. He also spent some time in the
Russian Hungarian Army as a medic (UPDATE: turns out, it wasn’t the Russian Army. A social worker who worked with my grandfather emailed to say: my “grandfather was actually forced to be a medic in labor battalion controlled by the Nazi-aligned Hungarian forces, not the Russians. This is an important distinction because it enabled him to qualify for German compensation under the Article 2 program.”) Trained as a tailor, the Russians Hungarians put him on as a medic because he could sew.
Grandpa was not only a patient man, but a kind one; a man that everyone knew and loved because he had an empathic connection to others. That’s the kind of person I want to emulate. I’ve written before about my grandfather; he’s always been a large presence in my life.
This one uses Yad Vashem’s Google tool to look up people who died during the Holocaust — in this case, my great-grandparents, my grandfather’s parents. This one is my favorite, because he’s singing (go ahead, click through. You’ll dig it. I’ll wait here). My grandfather loved to sing. In fact, the lead picture of this post is of my grandfather singing “Beseme Mucho” at my wedding. When he was done, he handed the microphone to my mom and said in his thick Hungarian accent, “That was a good mic.”
My dad called me last Wednesday to tell me that grandpa was close to the end. Always a tough call to receive, can only imagine how tough it is to place. He told me that when he went to visit grandpa in the hospital on Sunday, he put the phone to my grandfather’s ear. My sister was on the other end, and then my two-year-old nephew. My dad said that he could tell my grandfather was able to hear because he saw a tear in my grandfather’s eye. That hit me like a ton of bricks. If a ton of bricks actually feels like that, I don’t want to be hit with a ton of bricks. The mere fact that my grandfather was able to meet his great-grandson is amazing.
Sitting around grandpa’s death bed, my mom said something interesting that I keep thinking about: “I’ve known your grandfather longer than I knew my own father.” My mom’s dad died in 1990, when my mom was 37. My mom and dad met in 1974, so she’s known her father-in-law for 38 years. I don’t know why I find that interesting, but I do.
The older I got, the closer I became with my grandparents. I’d call them every week just to chat because I knew that they were the only people who actually appreciated hearing my voice (I think I’ve used this line in another post about my grandparents. Sorry.). One of the funniest conversations with my grandfather was a few months before my wedding; he told me a joke — not sure if he made it up or heard it along the way.
“There are three rings in life. When you get engaged, you give an engagement ring. When you get married you get a wedding ring. And then, comes the suffering.”
My family has a strange sense of humor. But when you’ve watched your family become decimated by Nazis and then outlive your wife and one of your children, I guess you kind of need to have a strange sense of humor. Though, a couple years later, he added a fourth Ring: pleasuring.
My grandfather lived a long and remarkable life; I can only be as fortunate. I inherited his unruly eyebrows, but unfortunately, not his thick head of hair. He was loved by everyone he came in contact with. It’s actually quite amazing, but it stems from his life experiences before, during and after World War II. He would always tell me, “hope, hope, hope.” As I wrote in an earlier post (the one with him singing. Go head, click through if you didn’t above. Again, I’ll wait):
At times it sounds like a defeatist plea, but the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s an optimistic call. That without hope, we have nothing. That hope can be dangerous, but ultimately, is a positive light in an otherwise dark tunnel. That things are, as the lyric goes, C’est Magnifique
Josh: a stirring commemoration of the man I knew as Uncle Villie – he truly was a pleasant and dignified soul who always greeted with a smile. Thank you for sharing your perspective…may your family draw strength from one another and from extended family and friends who will gather around you in this difficult time.
Samson (Fran and Shelly’s son)
Josh, this is your cousin, Janie. (Ask your father — like you, I’ll wait.) Your dad called me a few days ago to tell me that Bill was non-responsive to those around him and that sometime soon, he would leave us. And he called me again this afternoon to let me know Bill had slipped away early this morning. He’s leaving corporeally (is that a word?). To those of us who knew him, he’ll remain with us — a strong man, a strong spirit, with a gentle soul. I always tried to call him on or near his birthday, and for years he told me the same “ring” joke. He’d sing to me over the phone. He always told me he loved me. We hadn’t seen each other in, literally, decades but he’s one of my very favorite people. I use the present tense because, as I tried to say above, he’ll continue to live in my heart and mind. You’ve been so lucky to have had Bill in your life for so long. Thank you for posting the songs — they brought a smile through the tears. I send my love to you and the rest of the family.
Uncle Bill was indeed loved by everyone who knew him – including me – and he was certainly nothing if not kind, gentle, patient, understanding and a pleasure to be around and to talk to. I hope that he completed this earthly part of his journey with a minimum of pain or discomfort, and I know that he’s now much happier and in a better place together with his dear, beloved Claire. I am sad that he passed, but I’m inspired by the amazingly full & rich life he led and glad that he no longer suffers. Rest in peace, Uncle Bill. My thoughts and sympathies are with you, Sternberg family.