12 November 2008

A grandmother's legacy

A few days ago I received an email from my father... He had attached a scanned 21-page document hand-written by his mother a couple of years before she passed at age 95. In it, my grandmother, Matilde, recalls the numerous trips she took from the time she was a youngster traveling with her family to her travels as a married woman. A few pages before the end, she started writing about meeting my grandfather... We all knew the story, but seeing it in my grandmother's own writing struck deep into my core and brought back a flood of memories and emotions!!

My grandfather, Heinz Feist, was a young jewish salesman from Solingen, Germany. His father, Alfred, owned a cutlery manufacturing company called Omega, and my grandfather would travel all over Europe as a company salesman. Twice a year he would visit Lisbon and Porto, in Portugal.

My grandfather Heinz and his father Alfred

In 1930, while on a three-week stay in Lisbon, he attended a Mardi-Gras dance at the German Club, and my grandmother happened to be there, too. She recalls that, at that time, it wasn't proper for ladies to dance with gentlemen they hadn't been formally introduced to, but that night, the club director, wanting the party to be a bit more informal and fun, announced that everyone should consider themselves introduced to each other!!! Heinz went over to Matilde and asked her to dance... They danced all night, song after song!! She said in her long letter that my grandfather announced to her that night his interest in pursuing her...

It was late, and as Matilde was getting ready to go home, she realized she had misplaced her handbag. There was confetti everywhere, which made it harder to find... Heinz offered to look for it and bring it to her house the next day, which he did. This is where both of their stories differ: she said he hid the handbag on purpose so he would have a pretext to see her again, and he said she left if behind intentionally so he would come to her house and see her again!! This sweet argument was still going on well into their late years!! After a few years of long distance courtship, they were married in August of 1934.

My grandparents on their wedding day

Because of Hitler's rise to power, they decided, after a short stay in Germany, to settle in Lisbon. Heinz was an only child, and eventually his parents left Germany and followed him. Some of his family members had a tragic end, and I still recall stories told about cousins and uncles and aunts hiding from the Nazis. If it wasn't for his decision to settle in Lisbon, I wouldn't be here talking to you... Portugal was considered a neutral country during WWII, and a safe haven for many Jewish people (it was also, due to our window to the Atlantic Ocean, a fairly secret port of departure for many jews who eventually settled in America)

Rosel and Alfred Feist, my great grandparents

My father was their firstborn. He would be followed by a girl and a set of twin boys. I have very fond memories of my grandparents, as I would often stay with them when my parents traveled. I grew up eating sauerkraut and rote grutze, playing in their piano, and learning cross stitch from my grandmother. Even after almost 60 years of living in Portugal, my grandfather still had a very strong german accent, and, when I worked for the family business, to which he was the patriarch, I still remember him following us around the office turning off all the lights in empty rooms...!! I still have a memo we got from him asking us to utilize used envelopes for internal comunications, and proudly announcing that he had NEVER purchased a paper clip in his life, but simply re-used the ones he had received!!! These life lessons still echo through me to this very day...!!

My father, Pedro

On the last day of this diary, my grandmother revealed that, even thought she was a devoted Catholic, she had decided, already in her eighties (and with much pressure from her husband), to convert to Judaism, for the sole purpose of being allowed to be buried together with the love of her life in the Israeli Cemetery in Lisbon. She asked that her tomstone read "Jewish for Love".

In 2003, the year my son was born (on her birthday!!), she passed, quietly sitting on a chair, after a Mother's Day lunch with her loved ones. She now lays side by side with my grandfather, who had died 9 years earlier. As she said in her last written lines: "I converted so we could stay together forever, so that no one could touch us, after we died... After all, it is the only religion, I believe, where gravesites are eternal."

Addendum: on a different note, but in the issue of preserving memories, have you heard of a website called Snapfish? It creates books out of you favorite pictures... Well, today, while I was folding clothes in my bedroom, I had the Oprah show on (pertinently about de-cluttering your home...) and I couldn't believe it when she said that her viewers could log on to and get a FREE personalized book, valued at $30!!! But you have to act fast, you have to claim your coupon before Friday night (then you have until Sunday to complete your book)!! Isn't that an amazing offer? My mind kept going, trying to decide what kind of book to create... In the end, I decided to create a book for my mom with some great pictures of her grandchildren... I think she will love it!!


  1. What a sweet story the last photo. I am sure you have quite a few stories of your life and travels that you should put in a journal for your children!! xo Cindy

  2. Isabel that is such a sweet story, I had tears in my eyes thinking of the sacrifices made for the future of their family. These things are so important for our children to know! You are very lucky.

  3. What a beautiful and touching story. How blessed you are to have a tangible reminder of your grandparents. Thank you for sharing. P.S. I think Granddad hid the purse. Clever man! Deb

  4. What a wonderful story and how great to have the documentation in your grandmothers hand. Loved the pictures too.



  5. It was a heart touching story, told with love. I envy you knowing your history. My daughter asks about ours, but I have very few answers, other than my Mom said we were black Irish, and grandma said american Indian. Not much to go by. You are blessed that you can pass on what was behind.TTFN

  6. TIA!mesmo ja sabendo esta historia toda, adorei ler este post!adoro historias da familia, principalmente da nossa, que dava um livro!pode mandar-me a digitalização da carta da avó?gostava de ler também! muitos beijinhos e obg por pôr aqui estas lembranças!bjs! NENA

  7. I love your story telling-Your English is fabulous!
    My Grandma came from Germany & there are many stories about her, married with 2 kids & living in Norway during WWII;- not being able to visit her family. Etc, etc!
    Your Grandma & Grandpa were so handsome in the pictures! What a legacy to give your children.
    Auf wiedersehn,

  8. A beautiful tribute to your wonderful grandmother and grandfather, Isabel. She was amazing to have written that beautiful documentation of her life. I so love the part about the handbag. It is like an O'Henry story, the one I recall being The Gift of the Magi, although this one with an obvious bit o' humor.

    You have the same marvelous talent. Good work, and thank you for an inspiring story of the beauty and love that the human condition forever returns to.


  9. Love the old photographs, juts lovely!
    Sandra Evertson

  10. What an interesting story of your family history Isabel. I was so taken by it; read every word. It is amazing how much of our history builds our character. What a sweet story of love and family. I am a new blogger and would love for you to visit my blog too. blessings, carrell

  11. What a wonderful love story. What a treasure to have the copies of her letters. Thanks so much for sharing their story.

  12. Now this is a LOVE story. Commitment and romance. Thank you for sharing.

  13. What a wonderful story. I could actually visualize it in my mind.
    Love like that doesn't happen everyday.Why don't you do a little book just like your blog and cover it in a beautiful silk or velvet fabric. That would make a great gift for your father. Thanks for sharing this lovely story.

  14. What a wonderful tribute you have created here. I loved reading the story of oyur grandparents and seeing the beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing. It was really a trat for her to leave a written memoir for the family to keep. Perhaps you could have it turned into a book to pass down through the generations.

  15. Wow, Isabel what a beautiful story, and how wonderful it is that you have that legacy in your Grandmother's own handwriting. You are blessed. Hope to see you soon.


  16. What a treasure to have, esp. in your grandmother's really makes one think about the choices we make and the impact for the future...THANKS for sharing the sweetness!
    Have a great week,

  17. What a story! I love it. Sat here and bawled the whole time. I'm a love story sucker. Especially love stories from a time that we can't even imagine how it was.
    Thank you for a wonderful touching post.

  18. I arrived here through Corey's blog.
    I started reading and glancing over your sweet blog and then... I stopped in your "grandmother's legacy". I was touched reading what you wrote about your Granny story with your grandfather, about your Avó and Avô. And even more touched when I read her handwriting in portuguese.
    Such a beautiful story!

    Que linda, linda história de amor. E comovente.
    Agora percebo porquê que uns posts mais acima, a Isabel dizia que o Thanksgiving era herdado! ;)

    Fiquei contente de encontrar est blog através do blog da Corey: uma portuguesa em Portugal, descobre o blog de uma luso-germano-americana(?) através do blog de uma americana a viver em França... small world!

  19. I got to this post so roundaboutly. I was looking for information on a pocket knife that I found in my own Grandfather's workbench when he passed away - and it is a Joseph Feist knife.

    How pleasant is it to meet a part of the family attached to the making of this knife. Great story and writing.

  20. Isabel what a wonderful story. No wonder you are such a sweet person!
    Your friend,


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