Badlands – Alexa Bryn

In fifth grade, Bubbie came to speak to our class on Holocaust Memorial Day. We were finishing up a movie about Anne Frank when she walked in, and I was happy that I didn’t have to get up and greet her in front of everyone.  It was a warm afternoon, shorts weather, and even Ms. Montgomery was wearing a sundress. Bubbie stood in a corner at the front of the classroom, out of place in her lavender suit and chunky pearls. She’d caked on eye shadow for the occasion, and looked like a child who’d used her mother’s makeup for the first time.  I smiled at her nervously, wishing she hadn’t tried so hard.

I slunk back in my seat, annoyed at Dad for volunteering her on Parent Teacher Night without asking me first. He was always doing these sorts of things, getting Ms. Montgomery to give me extra writing assignments and discuss books with me during recess, calling up that reporter to write about my poetry prize at the Youth Fair.  I knew this was something different, but for some reason it felt the same.

After a few minutes, Ms. Montgomery announced to the class that we had a special guest with us today, a real Holocaust survivor who could tell us more than we’d ever learn from the movies. She gestured towards Bubbie to join her at the front of the room, and everyone turned and stared. This courageous woman is Hannah’s grandmother, and she’s going to share a story of survival that you kids will never believe. I want you all to pay close attention, so that you never forget the horrible things that the Nazis did to the Jewish people.

The whole time Ms. Montgomery was speaking, Corey kept poking me to get my attention. He sat next to me in most classes because we both had “W” last names, and was always telling me things I didn’t care about when I was trying to listen to the teacher.

“Does your grandma have a tattoo?” he whispered.

“Nope,” I said, keeping my head straight.

“My grandpa does,” he said, “he was in four different concentration camps.”

“That’s cool,” I muttered, my eyes fixated on Bubbie.  She looked nervous up there, fumbling around in her purse for a tiny wad of notebook paper. She unfolded the sheets slowly, smoothing out the creases a few times before she began. As she opened her mouth, I noticed a lipstick stain on her front tooth.

“Ha-llo,” she said, her eyes glued to the hand-printed speech before her, “Thank you for invi-ting me to your clessroom today. My name is Esther Veinberg, and I am Chanah’s Boo-bie. I vas born in Varsaw, Poland – ”

I don’t know who giggled first, but within seconds, it became a howl. I looked around the room and it was coming from everywhere. My eyes pleaded with Ms. Montgomery, begging her to make them stop, but even she seemed like she was trying to suppress a grin. I tried not to look at Bubbie, standing there frail and confused in her lavender suit.

Eventually Ms. Montgomery quieted down the class and whispered something in Bubbie’s ear.

“Forgive my mistek,” I heard her say, her face slowly going pale, “My English still is not so good.”

“Don’t be silly,” Ms. Montgomery said, “It’s the students who owe you an apology. Why don’t you wait outside for a moment so I can have a word with them before you continue?”

Bubbie nodded and walked out of the classroom as quickly as she could in heels she wasn’t used to wearing. I thought about following her, but didn’t know how to explain what had happened or what to say to make it better. Instead, I stayed in my seat and listened to Ms. Montgomery lecture us on respect and demand that we write apology letters to Mrs. Weinberg as a homework assignment that night. She expected them to be heartfelt, with perfect spelling and grammar too.

“Hannah dear,” she said, “would you go out and call your grandmother back in now?”

I wanted to refuse, unable to look Bubbie in the eye, but knew I had no choice. I walked as slowly as possible, and when I finally got outside, she was gone. I checked all the hallways, the bathrooms, the cafeteria and the parking lot. Bubbie was nowhere to be found. I thought maybe I should call Dad from the front office, but decided against it, unsure of how I’d even start explaining. Instead, I came back inside and told Ms. Montgomery that Bubbie had gone home because she wasn’t feeling well.

“Of course,” she said, avoiding my gaze. “I’m sorry about everything, Hannah.”

“Now that you’ve successfully made an old woman ill,” she told the class, “I guess we’ll have to spend the rest of our period on long division. And you will be tested on the material tomorrow, so I suggest you take notes.”

“But we just had a test yesterday,” someone said, “it isn’t fair for us to have a test two days in a row!”

“Yeah,” someone else said, “you’re not allowed to give us a test without telling us a week in advance! Look it up in the handbook!”

Everyone was pretty upset about the test, but I don’t remember much else about the lesson. I spent the rest of the class staring down at the note I found on my desk when I got back to my seat: Dear Hannah’s Boobie, I’m sorry that you’re so flat. I heard some boys laugh when I opened it.

Marcus’s mom was supposed to drive me home that day, but I told him to tell her I got another ride so that I could walk instead. He was the type of boy who was nice when his friends weren’t around, and I knew that because we’d lived across the street from each other forever.  His mom, Cheryl, was mom’s best friend, and we used to do stuff like have our birthday parties together when we were kids.

“If this is about today…” Marcus said, staring down at his feet.

“It’s not,” I said, “It’s a nice day out, I might as well walk.”

“I told those guys they shouldn’t have done it.”

We stood there for a moment, looking at each other.

Finally he said, “They’re just jealous of you Hannah, for being smarter than they are.”

I wanted to ask him to stop for ice cream at Jackson’s and then buy rolos from the stand outside like we used to do with Mom. But then I remembered how I’d looked at him and he’d been laughing too, so I just mumbled a thank you, turned around, and started the long walk home.

When I got back that night, Dad was by the stove. He was making spaghetti and meatballs, which he does almost every night now, ever since I told him it was my favorite.  He’s not much of a cook, but I remember the food smelling particularly good that night, and wishing I were hungrier. Dad was playing a Springsteen CD, moving his hips and singing along as he stirred. He looked peaceful, happy even, and I didn’t want to ruin it.

He pulled out a seat for me and said, “So, Hannah Banana, how’d it go today?”

“You haven’t spoken to Bubbie yet?” I asked.

“No. I called over there a few times but Marta said she was resting.”

“Oh,” I said, unsure of what to do next.

“So what did they think of her story?” he beamed, “They must’ve been pretty blown away.”

I paused for a moment, thinking of Bubbie and all the lies she’d had to tell to survive. I hoped to God she had one more in her.

“It was great,” I began, “They loved her.”


Alexa Bryn recently graduated from Penn with a BA in English and a minor in Jewish Studies. In the fall, she will begin a master’s program in secondary English education at Columbia Teachers College. She writes fiction, poetry, and arts criticism and lives in NYC.

2 thoughts on “Badlands – Alexa Bryn

  1. Adele Mendelson

    I like this story because it didn’t end predictably–that somehow the terrible insult to the grandmother would be overturned and she and her granddaughter would triumph. This didn’t happen.
    What the author did was something much truer, more credible and ultimately more affecting.
    And the poignancy of a holocaust survivor willing to tell her story to children and being ridiculed for it–this is both heartbreaking and at the same time understandable.


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