February 22, 2020

Connecting to My Immigrant Grandmother

My grandmother was formidable, strong, built to last. After surviving the trauma of Auschwitz, she moved to the United States only to become a stranger in a strange land, struggling to make a decent living and learn a new language. In the face of all her challenges, she was indefatigable, unflappable.

At least that is the only way I saw her. During my entire childhood, I never glimpsed what was underneath all that strength, and while I grew up, it seemed as if there could only be more strength. For me, it took her death to really begin to understand who she was and what she meant to me.

Growing up as her deliberating, Americanized granddaughter, I felt as if we were on different wavelengths. I consistently second-guessed myself and got nervous about what to say when speaking with her because she always struck me as so serious, so sure of her opinions. There was not an indecisive bone in Grandma’s Hungarian body. She never deliberated or thought through things because that reflective process was unnecessary. Grandma possessed an innate sense of knowing that came from the old country and powered her through life. 

It was not that my grandmother had a handle on all knowledge. In fact, she wasn’t very worldly and didn’t care to know much about people and things that stood outside of her purview. But she had no questions or uncertainty when it came to things that were within her scope, her world. Lack of certainty would have been weakness. After conversations with her, I hoped that although I didn’t inherit her sense of sureness, maybe I could become more confident by osmosis.

My only real breakthroughs with my grandmother came from eating food she prepared. I think that is where she put most of the love she had for her grandchildren. She baked, fried, rolled, wrapped and stuffed it into her challah and kokosh and cheese danishes and nuckerlie and handmade pasta and tultott kaposta (stuffed cabbage). The vats of chicken fat we found in her freezer after her death were like finding a sacred storehouse, the secret ingredient that had held together our family for all these years. 

“She had no questions or uncertainty when it came to things that were within her scope, her world.”

Her stuffed cabbage was the Holy Grail and remains my favorite food to this day. She would often send my father home with portions just for me. On the one hand, she had this awkward habit of sending food to an individual person when there was an entire household of people who wanted to eat it. On the other hand, when it was my turn, and my father walked in the door with special stuffed cabbage just for me — well, those were the best days. Even after I moved away and got older, when I would come to visit, her first words were, “How you are? Vat you need? Stuffed cabbage, I made you. Go get it from the freezer.”

On some subconscious level, I may have chosen to live in Hungary with my husband for six months soon after we got married to work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee just so that I could be closer to her. Not because the committee brought her and my father to the U.S., but so I could learn about these foods she made. I tried taking Hungarian cooking classes, but could not replicate my grandmother’s dishes (at the time, I was unaware of the secret chicken schmaltz). 

She died less than a year ago, and as I look at the few leftover portions of stuffed cabbage still sitting in her freezer, I still wonder what was underneath all of Grandma’s strength and gumption. I sometimes wonder if she even knew, or if she had puffed up herself with so much confidence over the years that even she forgot about the insecurities and bad memories simmering below the surface. Maybe as an immigrant and Holocaust survivor, she needed to forget in order to move forward with her life. 

What I do know is that she left a legacy of looking forward in life that has had a lasting impression on me. It is unlikely that I will ever fully inherit my grandmother’s level of certainty and willpower, but she has given me something to aspire to. And if all else fails, I think I have a decent shot at replicating her stuffed cabbage.


Na’amit Sturm Nagel teaches English literature at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.