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Paula Herrmann, My Grandmother 1889-1986
It's not only the living who gather within me. Every time I pass by this junction on the corners of Gaza, HaAri and Metudela, I get the urge to stop at Sigmund, a small neighborhood bistro that has become legendary. Growing up, I would go upstairs to my grandmother's on summer vacations. She lived right here. 1960s Jerusalem was whole, different than the one that was joined together.
The brick wall built to protect incomers from shelling is still there, at the entrance to the stairwell. During the War of Independence, this was the front. Time stood still here. A dark, eerie and cool stairwell, with the same smell that takes me back to those visits that felt like going abroad. Just like those cool Jerusalem evenings, and the talking, in German only, that I'm slowly forgetting.
I come across Grandma every day in our living room in Nataf too, when I rest on the couch. In the living room in her apartment, this couch was my childhood bed. Grandma was a nurse during World War I. When I contracted Polio at the age of 2, she moved in with us in Tel Aviv to take care of me. I only discovered that recently, my sister told me about it when we talked about the lockdown, and her experience as a 6-year-old girl who was not allowed to attend school for over a week when I was sick.
I loved Grandma Paula very much. When I was 10, I started to travel to her house on my own, by way of adolescing. It was great fun to spend my summer vacations at her home in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. All the apartments in the building were home to widows of Zionist leaders. My encounters with them, and the time I'd spent with Grandma, revealed another dimension in me that I hadn't known. Her scrutinizing eyes softened when she looked at me. Her love was so different than the one I experienced from my parents.
I loved Grandma's Czech cuisine, bread dumplings, Spätzle – a kind of small pasta, which she would serve with meat or roast in white garlic sauce. Everything was prepared just before the meal. There were two straw stools in the small kitchen, and I would sit and watch her make homemade bread crumbs from leftover Berman bread that I had bought earlier in the week.
Grandma Paula was also the bridge to my grandfather, whose portrait observes me with watchful, penetrating eyes as it sits, framed, on the radiator in her room. My grandfather passed away in 1940. We have a different kind of connection, one that's over and beyond. A connection that began back in that life.
In the basement of her building, Grandma curated the history of the Zionist revolution in which Grandpa had taken an active part in neat boxes. Why did Grandma keep them all? She never told me, and I never asked. Back then I had already begun this journey into my curious, imaginative child's soul, that led me to connect to grandpa's past. To a certain extent, I also connected to parts of my father, Gabby's, past, because he didn't tell us much about himself, or share what he was going through, or had gone through, whether as a child or in general.
Over the years, I've explored the source of my father's powerful love for us. The deeper I delved, the more I realized that he had produced it himself. Dad was like a little love factory. His living conditions while growing up at Grandpa Hugo and Grandma Paula's house didn't exactly deliver what he had asked for. I say this carefully, and with great respect for Grandpa Hugo, whom I did not know, and whose work I truly appreciate, as well as for Grandma Paula, whom I had the privilege of knowing, and was a very loving, almost second mother to me.
Perhaps I had experienced as a grandson what my father had not experienced from his mother. Of the few stories he told us, we realized that he had to create an alternative to life in his parents' home, and had chosen to produce love.
Grandma Paula died at the age of 96, long after my father had passed away at the age of 67. They both donated their bodies to science.
These days, as I add entries to my website in English, my life story as a person and artist do not begin with me. My encounter with Grandma Paula is reflected in my life in many ways.