Gutmann at 17
At age 17, Marta Gutmann, my Omi, ran away from a death march in Eastern Europe. Frail and thin, she managed to slip out of the sight of SS officers. As she ran, she told herself that, even if not caught, her death was certain. She found her way to a small house that belonged to a gentile family. They took pity on her, and allowed her to sleep on piles of hay among their horses in a dank cellar on the Pest side of the Danube — very different living conditions from her big bed with the pink comforter and white frilly skirt back home in Košice, Czechoslovakia. This could barely call be called a bedroom. She ate stale bread and potatoes. At night, Omi lay awake remembering her life just months before—walking to school with her friends, giggling with her sister Eva, and attending the local Jewish Community Center. When she finally fell asleep, she dreamt of walking down a street in the center of town filled with shops and bakeries; here she would pick out a dress and a pair of kitten heels for her upcoming birthday.
At age 17, my aunt Mónica, Omi’s second daughter, lived in Mexico City. Mónica and her siblings, Shanik and Andrés, grew up in the upscale neighborhood of Lomas de Chapultepec. Her house was barred with metal gates at the entrance. Mónica’s bedroom was large, her closet filled with beautiful dresses and shoes that she would wear only on weekends when she didn’t have to conform to the school uniform. Shanik and Mónica had a competitive sisterly relationship: they were close in age, attended the same school, and shared friends in the same social circle; Shanik jokes that they even had a crush on the same boy at one point.
At 17, I, Gabriela, am Omi’s granddaughter. My bedroom is painted white, and the walls are covered with art from different street markets in Mexico City. I have a big bed, but I only like to sleep on the edge of the left side. I am in my sophomore year at Barnard, and my sister, Ariela, is in her senior year. We like going to workout classes together on the weekends, and studying at Joe’s, our favorite coffee shop on campus. Ariela and I have very different fashion tastes, but we love shopping together. I enjoy reading fashion blogs and writing.
Omi is humorous and vibrant. Her presence can catch anyone's attention, and not only because of her attractive appearance. Growing up, many boys wanted to date her, but Omi was more interested in spending time with her girlfriends and her sister Eva. She remains as sarcastic as she is kind and caring. Feisty and fierce, no one can tell her wrong. Like she was during the war, these qualities were hidden. At the time her hair was thin, her nails brittle. She was pale from being inside all day, her body underdeveloped due to malnutrition. At one point, she fell violently ill with tuberculosis and became covered with an itchy rash, likely scabies. For the first time in her life, she felt uncomfortable in her own skin.
Mónica had a daring personality and large, clear blue eyes that everyone envied. Her beautiful, long, dirty-blonde hair framed her face, and swayed in a particular rhythm when she danced. Mónica was a rebellious girl, but she was sweet, and cared deeply about others. When Mónica and Shanik were teenagers on vacation, they rode together —bikini-clad— on a motorcycle. They agreed to never tell their parents. When Shanik fell off the bike and scraped the side of her body, Mónica made up a convoluted alibi to cover for Shanik and her wounds. Despite drifting away from her heritage, Mónica embodied many of the Jewish teachings (like bikur cholim, caring for the sick).
Like Mónica and Omi, I too, stand out. I have a petite frame and hair that falls below my shoulders. I am hardworking and bright, but also wild and spontaneous. During my senior year of high school in Mexico City, I was known for crashing Jewish weddings with my friends. I celebrate anything and everything—even when it does not involve me in the slightest way. My parents say I break the rules too often. Just this year, I jumped at the opportunity to go to Beijing to study economics, despite not knowing anything about the subject or speaking one word of Chinese.
The family who owned the barn was told that the authorities had learned of the Jewish girl hiding there. Omi was asked to leave. Several years and dismal attics later, she found herself at a displaced persons camp for survivors, where she met Maximiliano: my Opi. Omi, without his permission and hardly knowing him at all, decided to shorten his middle name, Michal, and called him ‘Misi,’ a nickname that stayed with him for the rest of his life. This vignette is quintessential Omi: she forged her own path and set precedents for others. After two short weeks, Omi and Opi fell in love and were married. They travelled to Vienna and lived there for two years. Once they had the proper documentation, they were set to go to Australia to start a new life together, until Opi’s brother, Mauricio, convinced them that Mexico City was a better destination—that life there was as easy as the money flowed. Omi says it was in Mexico that she started to truly live again.
Once in Mexico, Omi and Opi changed the family name from Mandel (‘almond’) to Martin, which, according to Opi’s wishful thinking, sounded “more French and dignified.” In truth, he felt he needed a name that was less overtly Jewish. Thousands of miles away from the horrors of the Holocaust, he still lived in fear, going so far as baptizing his three children in fear that anti-Semitism would one day pollute Mexico. Growing up, Omi and Opi abandoned the norms of keeping kosher, and ate pork and lobster. They suppressed their Jewish identities by assimilating into Mexican culture, and continued to live this way decades after the war had ended.
I sat beside Omi on a stool in the bathroom when I was nine years old. “What is that?” I asked Omi, as I watched her bring an incredibly scary-looking apparatus up to her eye. “An eyelash curler —to make your eyelashes pretty so you can wink at the boys,” Omi responded. Omi has always cared tremendously about her appearance—without fail, her hair and nails are always perfectly done. To this day, Omi does not leave her apartment or get up from the table after eating a meal without putting on a fresh coat of lipstick. She carries a hairbrush and a makeup bag in her purse wherever she goes, even if it’s just to the movies with my cousins. I allowed her to curl my lashes and spritz me with her strong perfume. If wearing Chanel at age nine meant being like Omi, it was something I wanted to do.
These small beauty tricks Omi taught me years ago are now ingrained in my morning routine. I spray myself with perfume and curl my lashes every single day. I consider this a Gutmann ritual. Every time I see Omi, she reminds me to never pluck my eyebrows. She tells me that if I pluck them, the hairs will never grow back. While I know this is not true, I always follow her beauty advice. Omi knows best. Like hers years ago, my brows are dark and thick, filled with character. I put a lot of thought into what I wear and how I present myself— at an event in New York City, in a sea of black dresses, I wear sequins and feathers and dance in my six-inch stilettos. I really am my Omi’s vnučka.
After getting married in her early twenties, Mónica moved to Veracruz with her husband Gerardo. They had two sons: Gerardo Jr. and Carlos. Mónica worked as a successful TV and radio sexologist, and danced for hours on end in the afternoons in studios near her home. She never lost her passion for dance, even winning first place in a competition while on family vacation. Her smile lit up the whole audience when she received a bottle of champagne and flowers as her prize. Everyone watched in awe as she made the most complicated moves look effortless. Mónica did not engage with her Jewish heritage beyond attending family weddings and my father's Bar Mitzvah—her own wedding (to a Mexican Catholic businessman) had no chuppah or any of the usual trappings of a typical Jewish ceremony.
Three years ago, Mónica fell ill with cancer. On a mission to boost her spirits after losing her hair during chemotherapy, I was determined to find a wig that closely resembled her beautiful hair. I drove to the wig district in Mexico City and after looking at hundreds of wigs, I decided on a brown one with blonde highlights and bangs. Omi, Mónica and I were connected through our attention to outer beauty—wearing extravagant dresses, bright red lipstick and having our nails painted. This religion of sorts connected us across time, space, hardship and faith. Our shared appreciation for fashion and beauty is about more than just our exterior appearances. It allows us to express who we are and where we come from.
I rang the doorbell to Omi’s apartment six times. When someone finally answered the door, I ran into the living room and saw Shanik, Omi and Mónica sitting around the coffee table, eating biscuits. They knew I had something to say. Without a word, I pulled the wig out of a brown paper bag and showed it to Mónica. She stopped talking, her eyes grew wide, and a smile lit up her face. It was a look I had forgotten. Mónica immediately asked me to bring her a mirror from Omi’s bedroom. I put the wig on her head, and she adjusted it. She called for her husband, Gerardo, telling him to come see her new look. She told me she felt beautiful for the first time in a long time.
I brought her my makeup bag; I put my favorite blush on her cheeks and painted her lips with a bright pink lipstick that she loved. She sat at the coffee table, twirling her new hair around her finger, too enthused by the wig to engage in any conversation. After months of avoiding her own reflection, she finally began to recognize herself.
Two weeks later, Mónica passed away. I walked into Omi’s bathroom to find her applying her favorite Dior mascara to her lashes, as she did every morning. It was clear that she did not yet know that she would soon have to bury her daughter. When I broke the news, she looked at me with disbelief and started to wail her daughter’s name. Tears streamed down her face. It was the first time I saw Omi with so much as a hair out of place. A few days later, Mónica was buried in the Jewish cemetery. I sat next to Omi during the service, squeezing her hand as she screamed Mónica’s name. I feel a sharp pain in my stomach every time I think about those screams.
Today, Omi lives in Las Lomas, Mexico in a beautiful apartment filled with art and her dog, Bruno. She has eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, most of whom live within a short car ride. Omi spends her time doing word searches in several languages and playing card games with my cousins. She says these activities keep her mind sharp in spite of her physical decline. At age 94, Omi relies on a wheelchair and the assistance of a nurse and Paula, her caregiver, who has worked with — and become part of—our family for over 50 years.
Several times a month, my cousin Karla hosts Shabbat lunches at her apartment for the whole family. Omi goes every time, each week in a different exquisite outfit with a beautiful leather handbag. On the high holidays, she goes to synagogue. On Hanukkah, she lights the candles with my younger cousins by her side. Despite her manifest pride in her Judaism, she has only spoken about her experiences in the Holocaust a handful of times, to those closest to her. This silence about the topic stayed with her for most of her life, even when she was raising her three children. To this day, the scars of her suffering at the hands of the Nazis are evident. Omi has suffered from depression, though through it all, Omi has used her perfect hair, makeup, nails and handbags to cover up these scars. With her decadent furniture and jewelry box filled with pearls and diamonds, Omi is determined to lead the lifestyle that the Nazis so abruptly took from her. Omi’s bedroom is decorated with hundreds of items depicting the evil eye. She doesn’t like them to be touched and says they are for her protection.
Omi remains ambivalently attached her Judaism: evil eye amulets indoors continue to multiply, but an outwardly visible mezuzah would be unthinkable to her (“you want them to know where we live?”) Mónica opted to walk away from the connection to our family’s faith. I respect their views and their choices. I, in turn, feel lucky to be unburdened in the way they were: I have been involved in Jewish organizations my whole life. Growing up, I had Shabbat dinner weekly and went to synagogue every Saturday morning with my three siblings and parents. While my father did not grow up with a strong Jewish influence, he encourages me and my siblings to engage with our Judaism. I currently live in the Bayit, a proud Jewish cooperative on Columbia’s campus. Omi was forced out of her Jewish home into hiding and assimilation. I explicitly choose to reside in a Jewish home, where I am free to express my values and beliefs. I cook Shabbat dinners with my friends every week, and go to synagogue whenever I can. I love engaging in conversations about religion with my Jewish and non-Jewish friends and learning about what religion means to them. I have the freedom to express exactly who I am, and I feel lucky to uphold a strong connection to my Judaism, something that, at age 17, was stripped away from my Omi.
As 17-year-olds, regardless of where they were and how they lived, Omi and Mónica were fun-loving and strong-minded teenagers—just like me. As Gutmann girls, our Judaism played vastly different roles in our teenage years. I walk around proudly wearing my Star of David around my neck. My Omi could not do so; Mónica opted not to. I express my Judaism freely and publicly, wearing my identity as a badge of honor. For me, it is a priority not only to take advantage of the freedoms I have as a Jewish woman in the 21st century, but to celebrate them as well. Regardless of how Omi, Monica and I practiced our faith at age 17, we all have a shared history that we are connected to in one way or another. My Omi is a constant reminder that the Jewish people are a living and breathing force, and that we continue to thrive and grow despite our past.
//GABRIELA MARTIN is a sophomore in Barnard College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos courtesy of Gabriela Martin.