My Grandma Is Telling Me From the Beyond To Write My Book

I haven’t called her in six years.

Camille Beredjick

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A sepia-toned photograph of a young woman and her son kneeling before some pigeons, preparing to feed them
My grandma (young, lovely) and my dad (a baby, really) feeding the pigeons in the 60s or early 70s.

My wife and I got tattoos at a new-to-us shop a couple weeks ago. Next to us in the back were two college-age young women, each getting a tattoo of a butterfly with the year “1943” written down its body. Later we asked each other: did you see them? What could that have meant?

Because I am a gigantic nerd, my brain went directly to a choral work I sang in high school. It’s called “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” and it’s based on a collection of children’s drawings and poems from Theresienstadt, or Terezin, a concentration camp in the Czech Republic where Jews were held before being transferred to death camps. The poems are from 1942–1944.

It is obviously very upsetting to listen to. The notes are discordant and jarring; the chords make you cringe. There are times when the music is shrill and militaristic and imitates the stomping of an army — deliberately, of course. And even if the music were soft and beautiful, well, the lyrics are based on children’s reflections on genocide. Difficult on the ears, difficult to sing. It’s been 15 years and the music hasn’t left me.

Butterflies are a resounding theme, per the title. They symbolize fleeting beauty, freedom, hope, but also the innocence of what’s been lost. And the year 1943 falls squarely in the center of the work, one of many traumatic years when it comes to war and death and the general worst of humanity. I googled a little further to confirm the dates and learned, with horror, that the “butterfly” was a type of bomb used by the Germans in World War II. I should mention here that butterflies were my grandmother’s favorite; we passed out little monarch pins at her funeral.

I summarized my research for Kaitlyn: is this what I think it is? Are these girls descendants of survivors — or perhaps victims — like me?

Maybe they are even more similar to me than I realize; maybe they were also chorus kids who sang this song of terror and devastation as children themselves, and maybe they were also the only Jewish kid in a choir full of mostly extremely Christian girls and didn’t know where to put their feelings about this song, which echoed the precise fear that their grandmother went through when she…

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Camille Beredjick

Writer in Chicago: LGBTQ issues, mental health, family, relationships, & more