Growing up in rural Flanders in Belgium, my extended paternal family felt like it only existed in an abstract sense. I didn’t meet my Canadian cousins until I was about 15 years old. When I first saw photos of them I thought they looked like stock photos from a calendar picked up in a fancy shop. When we did see members of my overseas family, it was usually my great-uncle Heini and his wife, Marita. Even in my earliest childhood memories, their visits stand out like bursts of colour in an otherwise dreary Flemish landscape: Marita in her Jackie-Kennedy-like bright blue suits and Heini wearing a handsome trench coat and hat like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Visiting each branch of the family once every few years, they were the glue holding our extended clan together.
A few weeks ago I got a message from my Canadian family saying that my great-aunt Marita had suddenly passed away in New York. Due to the current public health crisis, only two members of our family were able to attend her funeral. To me, the grief felt particularly acute in the midst of a pandemic. As a recent immigrant to Australia, living far away from home, I not only grieved the loss of my great-aunt, but also the different cultural worlds that had separated us over the years. Torn apart by the Holocaust decades earlier, our family had been scattered across the globe like a set of marbles dropped on the floor; everyone had ended up in different corners of the globe. Most of my family lived in Canada, the USA, or Israel; my grandparents, my father, my sister and I were the only ones in Belgium.
Due to the current public health crisis, only two members of our family were able to attend her funeral.
Over time we’d grow very close with Heini and Marita; they’d visit my grandfather every other summer for a week or two. When they weren’t in Europe, my father would summon us to the phone every so often to say hello to Marita and Heini five thousand kilometres away. I learnt my first English and German words from them, carefully pronouncing every newly learned syllable as Heini and Marita cheered me on from across the ocean.
As the years progressed, Heini and Marita’s visits became less frequent, until they eventually stopped altogether. The next time we saw them wasn’t until the early 2000s. The entire extended family flew to New York from their respective corners of the globe to celebrate Heini’s 100th birthday. My uncles and cousins made speeches about Heini’s survival during the war. I promised myself that I would go back the first chance I got, but I didn’t make it in time. Heini died a year later, at 101 years old.
While I felt like I knew Heini and Marita well, their existence was light years away from our lives: we went to Catholic school in Flanders, didn’t have a lot of money, wore secondhand clothes, and lived in a small rural town. Marita and Heini lived in one of the most exciting cities on the planet, spoke a mixture of German and English and travelled around the world. Our relationship with them was a Venn diagram: a lot of difference and a little overlap — our family name.
When I look at our family tree, and the continued survival and thriving of the Leitner family, it feels nothing short of extraordinary.
Marita and I didn’t talk as often later in life. I moved to Australia to be with my partner, and never told Marita I was queer. She was from a different generation; I wasn’t sure she’d understand. She got older and mostly kept to her New York apartment. Even though our conversations were less frequent, or as open and honest as I would’ve liked, my love for her never wavered. It was this deep affection that made me realise that our differences weren’t important, and that I should focus on our commonalities — like our shared family history — instead.
The first time I ever saw our family tree, I was gobsmacked by how two entire generations had been almost entirely wiped out during the Holocaust. It was the first time I truly grasped the weight of the grief my family must have felt after the war, and the resilience it must have taken to build up a new life in a very different country. Seeing the thread of our family continue, however precariously, after the war made me realise how miraculous it was for us to be alive.
Marita was the last surviving member of our family’s generation who survived the war. When she died, I not only grieved her as a person, but also what she represented: the last link to our family’s shared history. She was the person who connected us as family. She held the knowledge and the stories: she knew firsthand how our family tree had been shaped and moulded by a will to survive.
It’s this resilience I hope to find in myself when confronted with difficult times, and the same resilience I hope to pass on to my children one day. When I look at our family tree, and the continued survival and thriving of the Leitner family, it feels nothing short of extraordinary. It reminds me that the extraordinary lives Marita and Heini lived are something remarkable to be remembered, cherished and, above all, celebrated.
Lise Leitner is a freelance writer.
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