About Lilly, My Mother 1909-1965

 In spite of her hopes and longing, the thing she took for granted never happened. My mother’s second pregnancy ended in great disappointment. She gave birth to a girl again. She, like the whole family, had hoped for a son. They never imagined otherwise, certain that after Aliska five years earlier, the boy’s turn had arrived. But even then, in her womb, I did not live up to her expectations. I pounced into the world ugly and dark as mud, a repulsive creature and – on top of everything – a female. The disappointment was so bitter that my mother as well as her relatives wept in despair. My mother’s tears and helplessness continued for a long time. My father, on the other hand, was consoled by the fact that I was born unblemished and stated, “The main thing is that the baby is healthy.” Since we were not religiously observant, they were not bothered by the concept that one had to have a son to recite the mourners’ Kaddish for them.

Mother never overcame the failure I represented and my sister clearly became the favored child, while I was the superfluous latecomer. I have no doubt that my mother didn’t deliberately discriminate against me, but as we grew up my sister resembled her, whereas I was the exact replica of my father. As a result, my father was always on my side and pampered me, while my mother did the same for my sister. Mother was fair to us; my sister and I both received new clothes for holidays, but for the rest of the time she was the one who received a new wardrobe while I wore what she had outgrown.

My mother came from an intellectual family. Her father was a professor of philology and she had attended good schools. My father was not a learned man, but he was charming and, presumably, love bridged the gap. Over the years, the marriage became a matter of habit. My mother came to regard me as the image of my father. I was the butt of sarcastic comments meant for my father, which she did not dare to direct at him. My sister, mother’s girl, was given jewelry that I was always too young to wear. These circumstances distanced me from my mother for most of her life.

To this day I am unable to explain why, with the best intentions, she offered to give me, not my sister, to her sister-in-law. Was it by chance, or did it stem from something deep in her subconscious? The incident is engraved on my heart. It was the end of 1944, in Slovakia. A few thousand of us were assembled in the square where the ‘Selection’ was taking place. Families clung to each other, to be together. It was there that my mother made her offer. But the Camp Commander ordered the men to move to one side, childless women up to the age of forty to another side and we children with our mothers and the old people to remain where we were. My mother made her beautiful gesture in a fraction of a second, saying, “Take Vera as your daughter so that you can be with us.” My aunt, who had the same family name as ours, said loud enough for me to hear, “Why should I take your Vera and die in Auschwitz when I am young and able to work!” She was sent to Ravensbruck where she perished, while we were sent to Auschwitz. However, the gas chambers had stopped functioning by then and our transport went on to Therezienstadt.

I was eight when we arrived at the Terezin ghetto. I was put in the children’s house and, for the first time in my life, became independent. After the war, the four of us lived together for two years, but mother was a broken woman. I never saw a smile on her face, she was inconsolable over the loss of her parents and beloved sister who perished in the holocaust. I remember my mother wearing the same unwashed housecoat, sitting in front of the radio and listening to the Seeking Relatives program, in the hope that her loved ones were still alive somewhere. She functioned automatically, running the house under a sort of remote control, giving instructions to the maid of all work who was with us day and night doing what was required.  It was a sad house and I was happy when I was placed with a foster family in the city because there was no high school in our town. This meant that I was again distant from my mother, a situation that continued when I was sent to Israel on my own, through the Youth Immigration organization.

It now seems strange to me when I remember that all four of us came to the country separately. This happened under the influence of the emissaries who persuaded my parents that our place was in Israel. Nevertheless, it still seems odd that my parents didn’t see to it that we all went together. My sister left first and was sent to Kibbutz Maanit, I followed two months later and went to Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, followed by my mother, who came on her own about a year later. My father stayed behind to settle his affairs. When my mother arrived, I discovered her ability to adapt to her difficult situation. Although she did not complain, I am sure she was suffering. Alone in a new country, she succeeded in being accepted as a guest for a few months on Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, where her cousin was a member. However, this temporary situation lasted much longer owing to the fact that my father was arrested and arrived months later, with no possessions. The same cousin made it possible for me to be accepted as a member of the youth sector of the kibbutz. But here, too, my mother and I did not become close. Maybe it was because I was in my adolescence, or maybe it was because we were both exhausted and busy with our own concerns.

When my father finally arrived, my parents moved to Nahariya. My mother was accustomed to having a maid and a standard of living different from the one in the prefabricated hut that was allocated to them, with an icebox and a primus stove and no electricity. Nevertheless, she girded her loins and began to help to earn a living. My father took whatever work came his way and my mother began to make plastic aprons and bicycle covers on a treadle Singer sewing machine she inherited from my grandmother. Despite the emotional distance between us, I admired her for mustering what strength she had left after the  illnesses that beset her. My parents succeeded to the extent that my father was eventually able to open a bicycle shop and workshop and build a fairly big house that could accommodate my sister and her husband, who left the kibbutz and came to live with them.

When the first grandson was born my mother was proud and happy. His birth compensated for her unfulfilled expectations at the time of my birth and the boy was named Gershon as well as Yair, after her father. Later, when she died, Gershon was erased, leaving Yair. My sister, her husband and the baby soon moved to a new neighborhood and my parents carried on as usual.

My father died suddenly, of heart failure. My mother then rallied, filled with energy and a renewed love of life in order to continue my fathers business. My sister, her husband and their two children moved into my mother’s big single story house, so that she would not have to live alone. I was living in Tel Aviv.

About a month before she died, my mother surprised me by announcing that she wished to spend Rosh Hashanah in Tel Aviv. She reserved rooms for herself, my husband and me. as well as places for the festive dinner. I was very happy that we would spend the holiday together.

As she and I were sitting in the hotel cafeteria, a heart to heart talk developed between us for the first time in my life. My mother found me, or in me, a daughter in whom she could confide her distress. She was elegantly dressed, as befitted a businesswoman and in contrast to the sloppy clothes she wore before she became a widow. All the customers of the business my father left so suddenly received assurances that she regarded his commitments as sacred and would stand by them. I believe she did so because she wanted to be his helpmeet even after his death.

When the waiter arrived with the cake trolley, I was pleased that my mother remembered exactly what cake I liked. I was suddenly all hers. As we relaxed in the hotel armchairs, sipping coffee, she began a monologue:

“You know, Verka (Verka was my father’s pet name for me) they are not prepared to listen to me. I want to erect a black marble double tombstone for your father and me. They say that I’m exaggerating and that your father wasn’t Theodor Herzl or some other outstanding personality. They think an ordinary tombstone of the same kind of marble you can find in a working class kitchen is enough for us. After all, Verka, it’s money your father worked so hard to earn and save. But I’m in the minority, I haven’t the strength to argue with them. I know there’s no point in getting you involved on my side, in any case they won’t listen to you.”

My words in support of the fine idea were of no use. My mother did not calm down and obviously wanted to share all her troubles, so I listened with uncharacteristic patience as she continued her monologue:

“And as if it isn’t enough that my quiet house has turned into a mess, now they have started to modernize everything, throwing out furniture and the solid table we brought from Czechoslovakia. I was used to it, you see, I’ve loved it for twenty-five years! That big table is where I played patience and solved crossword puzzles. They’ve replaced it with a low salon table I can’t bend far enough to reach.”

The words stuck in my throat. I identified with her and felt helpless. It was clear to me that the subject of the tombstone was important not because of the impression it would make, but because of the deep appreciation she felt for my father and maybe because of her love for him. Reading between the lines and from the way she spoke about him, I understood that I had not correctly interpreted the relationship they shared.

To my sorrow, my mother did not manage to see any tombstone. She also died of heart failure a few weeks after the holiday. Perhaps, before her death, she had some sort of hope that her wishes would be respected. They were not.

Thus, at the end of her days, I got to know my mother from a different angle than the one I had imagined all my life. For the first time, I was favored with warm hugs and kisses. Both of us shed tears, on my part from the emotions aroused by the meeting and on my mother’s part, from sadness and disappointment.

I hope my mother felt my profound sympathy for all the troubles that befell her.

THE UNOPENED LETTER    ( from my mother )

If not for the letter you sent me

then, half a century ago

in my rebellious years,

I’d never have known

your motherhood.

AND I DIDN’T OPEN IT.

Didn’t read it, thinking you strange, odd,

sunk in yourself and holes dug

for your loved ones. You raised me unsmiling,

with neither hug nor caress. Your lips arched

by no kiss. There, but absent.

If not for that letter, whose folds

stayed closed, I’d never have known

what strengths you choked in yourself.

AND I DIDN’T FEEL IT.

As if after that devastating rupture

all you might caress was the never erected

tombstone on the ashes of your family

and to smile was to betray, to love was to deceive

and no kiss might be released from your tight lips.

AND I DIDN’T KNOW.

Now, having opened the folds of your letter,

I haven’t got you to console and be consoled.

The letter reveals you

as you were in your aching heart

where I the rebel only added anxiety.

On the page in front of me, in clear, beautiful

writing in a language my children don’t know,

just as they will never know you,

you support, encourage, strengthen and counsel me.

AND I DIDN’T READ.

Now, mature at last, I understand

you could not do otherwise, afraid

I’d inherit the same curse.

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Convert With Holocaust Survivor

She was late to breakfast on the second morning of the conference in Terre Haute, Indiana. Everybody had finished eating, apart from a couple silhouetted against the window. They sat facing one another, their heads turned outwards as they gazed at their separate horizons. The table was set for four and she asked, “May I join you?”

“Of course,” they nodded and the man rose to pull out a chair for her. He introduced himself as Joe, adding, “This is my wife, Dianne.”

“And  I’m Vera. Pleased to meet you”.

Joe was in his sixties, tall, heavy and rugged. His face had a tortured expression.                               

In his first sentence, he informed her that he was an inmate in Auschwitz and had personally known Dr. Mengele, the conference subject and the topic of the lecture Joe had delivered the night before. Dianne was young and blonde, pure Aryan in appearance, shapely and plump in the right places; as sexy as Marilyn Monroe. She spoke in a near-whisper, clearly and fluently. Born in Maryland, she had never left the shores of the USA. As soon as Vera was seated, Dianne offered to get some fresh coffee, probably to allow them a few moments to talk about the past. Actually, she felt she had nothing in common with the generation of European expatriates. She brought the coffee and immediately disappeared to arrange a plate of leftovers from the well-laden buffet. As soon as she reappeared, Joe grabbed the plate in both hands and emptied it onto the one in front of him. “Now go and bring some more!” he said, but Vera stopped her, saying that it was getting late and, anyway, she was not used to eating in the morning. The coffee was enough for her. Joe devoured the food and Dianne lowered her eyes. Vera took a sip of coffee and then left, saying that she had forgotten something in her room. That something was her wish to be alone. To digest what she had not eaten. She knew the source of Joe’s compulsive eating. Nevertheless, it had embarrassed her.

The following day, at the closing dinner of the conference, they kept a place for her at their table. This time they opened their hearts to her and told her that Dianne, who was many years younger than Joe, had converted for his sake. They were very nice to Vera and took an interest in her – where she came from and where she was headed after the conference. Vera told them she had come from Tel Aviv with the aim of meeting others of her generation in order to gather material for a research she was conducting. She explained that children up to the age of ten who were in Europe at the time of the Nazi conquest had not captured the attention of researchers. Not through indifference, heaven forbid, but because they were incapable of expressing themselves when the war was over.

With regard to her post-congress itinerary, Vera decided to give up her original plan to spend three days in Chicago. The effect of the congress weighed on her, causing her to lose the curiosity and serenity required for touring. She preferred to fly directly to her niece in Los Angeles. Hearing that she now had a few days her disposal, the couple gave her no peace until she agreed to be their guest. “After all, Bloomington, where we live, is so near!” What’s more, now that they knew she was a survivor they regarded her a sister.

The drive to their house took about two hours in Joe’s new, red convertible with the top down and the wind ruffling Dianne’s scarf as she leaned against Joe. The atmosphere between the couple was frankly intimate. Sitting in the back seat, Vera liked the way they caressed one another with the satisfied smiles that follow a night of pleasure.

After a while, they came to a big hospital building and Dianne explained that she had to go in for a few minutes to see her father, who was hospitalized there.

While Joe and Vera waited for her on a bench in the hospital garden, he took the opportunity to confide in her: “You know, to me she’s still a shiksa! And obedient! Just like the Nazi officers’ German women I saw in the death camps. Now it’s my turn to enjoy myself!”

Vera didn’t like the comparison. She wondered what Dianne found in the relationship.

When Dianne returned, Joe didn’t enquire after her father. However, she was obviously pleased that Vera had asked. “He’s much better, thanks,” she said.

When they arrived, Vera noticed a mezuzah on the door frame of the apartment. Inside, Sabbath candlesticks stood beside piles of sheet music on the piano. They explained that Dianne (who had graduated from a music academy) gave singing and piano lessons.   

They sat in the small living room of the modest rented apartment, drinking wonderfully fragrant coffee prepared by Joe in his new expresso machine. There were also brownies to go with the coffee.

Dianne suggested that Joe should show Vera some pictures of his family and he agreed. With her usual briskness, Dianne darted into the bedroom and emerged with a shoebox. The photographs were saved by the gentile neighbor who emptied their house when the family was taken to Auschwitz.  Dianne was lifting the lid of the box when Joe roared, “Who are you to dare touch my family! Give me the box! Now!”

Dianne turned white and ran to the bathroom in tears. Unmoved, Joe laid out the photographs like a deck of cards for a game of patience. He gave Vera a detailed description of his whole family in the brown rectangles. The photographs were faded, but his memory was as sharp as his tongue. The whole family had indeed been annihilated. Vera sensed that she, too, had ceased to be present. She wanted to get up and go to his wife, but he stopped her and continued with exactly the same pathos he displayed in the lectures for which he received two thousand dollars almost without asking. Joe had no steady job, the burden of support was on Dianne’s shoulders. Most survivors took no fee for their testimony, on the contrary, there were those who were pleased for a chance to ease their distress, or felt they had a mission to relate their experiences in the name of those who had perished.

Dianne emerged from the bathroom to say that she had to go to her father’s farm to do their laundry, since they had no washing machine of their own. Joe offered to take Vera on a tour of the city, but she preferred to join Dianne. She explained that it would be a rare opportunity to see a real farm. Joe was actually relieved and said that if so, he would go for a game of cards with his friends; he’d be home late.

Dianne also had a car and on the way to the farm she revealed a bit about her life.  “I was adopted after my mother died, you know. My father is too protective. He can’t stand Joe! He  says, as long as you’re with that crazy Jew, you’re out of my Will!” She drove slowly, lengthening the time it took to get to the farm because she wanted to tell Vera that her father was a city dignitary and the owner of a well known newspaper.

As for Joe, she added, he was divorced, with two grown sons who had severed relations with him.

“We aren’t married, but we’ve been living like a married couple for three years already. You know, Joe can be very nice. It’s the conference that’s upset him. He’s got pills, maybe he forgot to take them. Don’t worry – it’ll be OK.” She tried to make Vera feel better, but it didn’t work.

Her fingers tapped nervously on the wheel, as if playing the finale.

When they reached the farm, Vera felt as if she was in a fairytale world. She didn’t know what to look at first. She was particularly impressed by the butter churn, which reminded her of her childhood visits to her grandmother’s village in Slovakia, where she was always pampered. The kitchen utensils all seemed to have been brought from the village. But, three double-barreled hunting rifles hung at a slant next to the door leading to the yard. Each rifle was of a different make. Further on, they came to a big kitchen and Dianne’s father’s study. The study impressed Vera, she had seen such rooms only in films. There was a huge table with thick, carved legs. On it were neatly arranged papers and there was also a pen and pencils stand in the shape of two lion heads.  The room seemed to have been vacated only seconds before, a fountain pen lay on a sheet of paper, waiting to be used. Shelves of books on every wall rose to the ceiling.

The bedrooms were upstairs and Dianne showed her the room full of toys that was hers when she was a child. The room resembled a doll’s house in a museum; everything neat and orderly, a little bookcase, a rocking horse and a closet full of dolls. Vera was startled by one of them: it was exactly her lost doll! How did it come to be here? Till that moment it had been erased from her memory. In fact, her childhood until the age of six was a black pit. All her older sister’s efforts to revive the memory of their nanny, or their games were in vain. All of it was lost. Now she remembered the little brown teddy bear with orange glass eyes. No, Dianne had no such teddy bear, but the doll was like the twin of her doll. It turned out that Dianne’s father brought it with him when he came back from Europe, where fought in the American army when America joined the war.

Vera never forgave her parents for not allowing her to take any toys to their hiding place. How she had pleaded, at least for the beloved teddy bear. But she was firmly told that there were more important things. Later, in the railway car, nothing more important was there to console her. If only the teddy bear could have watched over her…

“Dianne, do you remember who brought you this doll?” She pointed to the doll.

“Of course, it was father! He was mobilized for the war in Europe! I was just a baby, but he brought me the doll anyway. When I was older, I read some of his reports from the front. Daddy was a military correspondent.”

Vera heard, yet didn’t hear. For a moment she was disconnected. What a coincidence. An ocean away, with the help of a doll, her thoughts drifted back to the house she never saw again, but she said nothing to Dianne, she kept it to herself.

“Would you like a whiskey, or beer?” Dianne asked, placing bottles on the dining room table.

Vera was thirsty, “If you have some ice,” she said, “I’d like a whiskey.” Although Vera didn’t know the difference between fine whiskey and ordinary whiskey, that whiskey on the rocks was the best she had ever tasted and the conversation flowed.

The housekeeper and gardener were on leave, which was apparently known to Joe, because the door slammed suddenly and there he was, despite the fact that he wasn’t allowed to set foot on the farm!

“The guys decided to take a break, so I’ve come to see how you are.” Dianne, stood with her mouth open, not daring to rebuke him.

Vera couldn’t recall the exact sequence of events, but she remembered that Joe took two sips of whiskey, which loosened his tongue and he made fun of the guns and began to mock her father for claiming to have fought against the Nazis. He said that he knew her father was only a military correspondent. No wonder he came back from Europe with a fortune looted from Jews! He established his newspaper with Jewish blood!

Dianne didn’t answer. She flushed angrily and whispered to Vera that the newspaper was founded in 1900.

Joe took one of the guns from the wall and before Vera could warn him that it might be loaded, a shot rang out. Like a canon!! There were holes in the kitchen cupboard a pace away from Dianne. Perhaps he had missed? Vera was frightened. Was she witnessing a settling of scores? She couldn’t absorb the events that were drawing her in. It was like a movie.  All three were pale, but Joe was first to recover, shouting, “See what an idiot
father you have? You goyim! Stupid as the sole of my foot. Who leaves gunpowder in a rifle magazine?” Still shouting, he went outside with the gun. Another shot was heard and Vera thought Joe had committed suicide. But someone like Joe would not kill himself! He threw the gun into the garden and yelled, “I’m leaving! Never want to see you again!”

They listened to the sound of the car retreating in the distance and breathed in relief. Dianna hid her emotions. The washing machine finished its cycle just then and Dianne transferred the load to the drier. It would be at least half an hour before they could leave the farm. Meanwhile, Dianne went in search of the discarded rifle, which she replaced on the wall. She found some wallpaper in the store room and cut flowers from the pattern to cover the bullet holes in the cupboard door. It looked “cute”.  Dianne was a resourceful woman and Vera was amazed by the successful camouflage of the damage.  Dianne finished folding the laundry, washed the glasses and swept the sawdust left by the bullet holes. All this with serene chatter and smiles directed at Vera, who stood tense as a spring and wondering how she would spend the night with them.

All sorts of thoughts flitted through her mind, including severe self condemnation for having fallen into this incredible situation. She was comforted by the open date plane tickets. Meanwhile, to get away from the smell of gunpowder, she came up with the idea of inviting Dianne to have dinner with her at some pleasant restaurant of her choice.

Dianne’s eyes shone, their beautiful blue emphasized by the thick mascara on the lashes. According to her, it was a long time since she was pampered in a restaurant. Joe had cut her off from all her friends.

They stayed talking and enjoying themselves until the restaurant closed.  When Vera asked what she saw in Joe, she lowered her eyes and said, “I was standing at a bus stop when he stopped next to me in the red cabriolet sports car that has become his trademark. He pulled over and asked, “How’s it that a pretty girl like you has to travel by bus?” I was swept off my feet. From then on, he never stopped. It was the first time anyone courted me. I surrendered to the smooth Don Juan compliments he showered on me. I was dazzled.” She continued, “When I discovered that he was Jewish, I agreed to convert. So that we could get married. I only found out later that he was married and had two sons. When he told me what he’d gone through in Auschwitz, I saw his behaviour as the result of the suffering he experienced in his life, and became even more attached to him.  I ignore the fact that lives off me. By day I work as a secretary and afterwards I give piano and singing lessons.

Vera listened intently, trying to understand what made an educated young girl from a spoiled, bourgeois home enter into such a relationship. Dianne was living the life of an abused, humiliated woman. However, Vera did not think it would be right to interfere or give advice. The fact that Vera was listening to her was enough for Dianne to emit a sigh of relief and it was she who changed the subject by asking questions about Israel.

When they returned, Dianne noticed that Joe had removed all his belongings from the house. Maybe it was all for the best, thought Vera, but she refrained from saying so. Since Dianne had to go to work as usual, Vera decided to leave for Los Angeles on the following day.

Dianne looked beautiful that morning. The worry lines had disappeared from her face and she laughed with Vera as they drank their coffee.

They exchanged reassuring embraces and promises to stay in touch.

After which Vera left for the airport.

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My Muselmann

Since the end of the war, he is submerged in me. I hold a sick dialogue with him. I embrace him, he is close to my heart, he is unique, mine.

Nowadays, I am able to regard the connection between us over a distance of time. I remember when I first saw him. In the beginning, I thought I was drawn to him under the influence of the media – documentary films, photographs in newspapers, encyclopedias. After creating an image of him from a small slab of wood, like a child making herself an inseparable rag doll, I sought an answer to the key question: Had I ever actually seen a muselmann with my own eyes, when I was a child?  

I turned to a trusted source, the father of Ruth, my childhood friend. He and his family were veterans of the Theresienstadt ghetto. I used to think that he was one of the founders, but I learned differently from Ruth. She informed me that a hundred sturdy men, including her father, were selected to carry out a secret, subterranean mission in the heart of Germany. As expected, it was hard labor under inhuman conditions. The men were promised that their families, would be exempt from the transports to the east. Amazingly, the promise was kept. The hundred families were transferred to the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942, where they remained until the ghetto was liberated in 1945. Ruth’s father, her little brother, mother, grandmother and Ruth herself, all survived.

The Germans converted the Theresienstadt ghetto into a concentration camp for Jews as early as 1941, with the first dispatch of forced laborers – Arbeits Komando [AK] 1 – to  build three floors of cramped bunks in the Maria Terezia barracks in order to crowd the maximum number of Jews into the minimum space. The ghetto was used to create the fraudulent impression of a wonderful place to re-settle Jews. A scenario for visits from Red Cross delegations. However, these things are well known by now and I will not go into detail. I want to speak only about my muselmann.

Ruth’s father was close to ninety when I met him, in Israel, at the annual get together of survivors of the Theresienstadt ghetto. I knew that he, ever my trusted source, would have the answer to my question:  “Is it possible that I saw muselmanns in the ghetto?”.

“What a question!” he answered. “Of course you did, you couldn’t have avoided seeing! They had already sent me back to the ghetto after the work in Germany, so I was there when they were dismantling Auschwitz and the other death camps. Even though the end was near, the Germans left no hope for the Jews. Those who were still alive were sent on death marches. Some were sent to our ghetto. I well remember my shock when I saw them. Human shadows in striped rags dragging themselves through the gates.”

For many of them, the ghetto was the last stop. They straggled in, skeletons leaning on one another. At death’s door. Suffering from typhus among other ailments. In spite of efforts to halt the spread of typhus, the epidemic broke out and struck without mercy.

Obviously, it was impossible not to see them and it seems I was “cut” by the dreadful sight. I was only eight when I saw my muselmann in Theresienstadt, but he penetrated my heart and seeped so deep that to this day I am still not free of him.

However, in the years that followed, I didn’t give much thought to him. With the liberation, we were preoccupied with desperate efforts to return to normal life, if life in general could be called normal, particularly in the aftermath of such events. Nothing returned to normal. Those who emerged from there were broken, too. Till the day she died, my mother found it hard to smile. She was efficient and functioned as she should, even adapting to life in Israel, but she simply could not smile. Or embrace. My father came back only after a long period of uncertainty, during which we fluctuated between hope and despair. All we knew was that he was eventually sent to Sachsenhausen camp. There they drained his strength by hard labor in an ammunition factory under conditions of constant near-starvation. When Sachsenhausen was liberated on April 22nd 1945, the 3000 prisoners who were still alive were left to fend for themselves as best they could. No wonder Father only found his way back to us by circuitous paths some six months after the liberation.

After the war, like many children, my sister and I were sent by the Youth Immigration organization to Israel. My sister joined the first group of older children on Kibbutz Ma’anit and, two months later, I was sent to Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk. Our parents remained in Europe and followed us about a year later.

After my senior year on the kibbutz, followed by my army service, I joined my parents, my sister and her husband in Nahariya, where they had settled.

During the day I had a regular job in a bank, but in my free time I began to devote myself to the muselmann, who floated up from his deep hiding place. Before I dared approach him, I occupied myself with ceramic sculpture.

Later, I decided to convert the garden shed into a work space. I asked my father to improvise a work table with a vice and some wood carving tools.

As always, Father said, “For you – everything,” and in no time I had a studio with a hammer and chisels on the wall and a big vice clamped to a solid table. I felt like the Geppetto, the old carpenter who created Pinocchio.   

I had no training apart from a ceramics class. However, I did have physical strength, a will of iron, the energy of a young woman and a high work ethic acquired on the kibbutz. Endorsed by an inflexible desire to clear sediment.

My first “victim” was a pine board from a refrigerator packing crate. A very simple wood, narrow and of the right thickness. I
started hammering, moving the chisel at a slant, removing angles, rounding corners and searching out the gaunt, somewhat stooped muselmann. His hands hung limp, his oversized feet stood close together and his skull was set between his shoulders. I worked without a sketch or picture, solely according to my memory of those people dragging themselves into the ghetto.

Father came to see. He made no comment, but I saw a look on his face, one not meant to be seen by others. Outwardly, Father was jovial, a bit of a clown. I saw him as a kind of Good Soldier Schweik.

The flakes of wood fell slowly until the muselmann I knew from those days appeared before me. Gaunt and catatonic. The chisel chipped and grooved at him, revealing the kilograms he had lost. I decided not to smooth the wood, not to sandpaper it. To leave him in a primal state. I thought it wrong to beautify him. Afterwards I stood him on small cube of box wood and thus he stands to this day, in the art collection of the Yad VaShem Museum.  Earlier, he was with me in all the apartments I rented, and they were many. He was always first to be packed in the box with my belongings. The muselmann was not given a place of honor in the house I shared with my husband. I wanted to stand him in an important, open position, but for some reason he was treated like a superfluous object. When I learned that Yad VaShem Museum was collecting works of art created during or after the Holocaust, I contacted the curator.

“Send us photographs and a description of the sculpture as well as the measurements. The Committee will meet and decide and we will notify you.” After much hesitation, I sent them a photograph of my Muselmann sculpture. A few months later, I received a letter saying that the Museum was interested.

I was happy, pleased and mainly relieved. I used to feel that after my death the muselmann would meet his end in a bonfire. I won’t deny that I was happy and flattered for him, too. My muselmann was accepted! It was as if I myself was accepted: See, I am also acceptable.

I brought him to Jerusalem, packed in a small cardboard box, comfortably wrapped in cotton wool, like a rare and precious etrog. When the curator unwrapped him, I heard her breath catch in her throat. 

As mine does now, writing about my muselmann.

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Am I “Anonymous”?

At times, over the years, I find myself looking at the title page of the book “There Are No Butterflies Here”: Children’s poems and drawings from Terezin Concentrtion Camp, 1942-1944.

There is no information concerning the identity of the child who made the collage on the cover. Maybe that child is me?

I clearly remember the scraps of coloured paper in the collage, that is, I remember the activity of tearing them from a notebook with coloured pages and pasting them on sheets of paper; a pleasant occupation. What proof did I have? I was an eight year old girl in the Terezin ghetto. Who knew what the day would bring, or what would become of the finished work. Most of us already had no parents or proud grannies to save the pictures and drawings and note the date on which the talented child made them, the way they do these days, the way I do with my granddaughter Naomi’s creations.

And why do I have this urge to become ‘famous’?

I remember the stack of coloured papers they gave us, for art work, in the children’s house and as I look at the title, There Are No Butterflies Here, I quiver with emotion – something familiar, something I have seen before, something engraved on my memory; I can’t get rid of the feeling that I am the one who tore those strips from the notebook and pasted them on the sheet of paper! I even remember the flour and water paste. A mixture that tempted us to lick, but we were disciplined, we knew it was nothing but glue. But I have no proof! And to whom and how should I prove? And actually, what do I care? Yes, I was there! So what? Does it entitle me to dress up in feathers that might not be mine? Believe me, these are troubling thoughts. Ever since the book was published in Prague in 1964, I have made a mental effort to remember precisely the many pleasant hours during which our tutors kept us busy there in the children’s house in Terezin. Until now, I have never spoken about it to anyone, this is the first time I’m revealing my uncertainty.

The whole subject is embarrassing and not worth delving into. After all, we aren’t eternal! We are a passing, sometimes miserable, episode. And if the scraps of paper were those that I tore, so what? Should I be getting royalties? Or some sort of prestige? We were there, they kept us occupied as best they could. We had the best available tutors, aristocratic personalities, who granted us hours of happiness and creativity. I have seen pictures we drew there to pass the time. The tutors managed to rescue some of the work by hiding them in all sorts of places safe from humidity in the ghetto. The Terezin drawings were transferred to the Jewish Museum in Prague, which has a gallery of children’s drawings from the ghetto next to the Old Jewish Cemetery.  Part of the collection of drawings by the Terezin children were moved, apparently by private individuals, to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which I visited twice.

There, too, I saw pictures composed of pasted coloured paper scraps like those from the notebooks. Some of them had no names and had “Anonymous Artist” on a tag below them. I was illiterate. I could not go to school until the Liberation in 1945, when I was almost nine. However, on one of the pictures my name is written in pencil, because the children in the ghetto helped me to copy the letters. In fact, some of the unsigned pictures were the ones that reminded me of my own work. Is that reason enough to cling to uncertainty and lack of exact information and win fame at the expense of a child who perished? I acknowledge that one of the pictures is mine, almost certainly mine, but over the years I have amassed enough maturity to let the matter rest.

I can thank Willi Groag, who was my tutor in the ghetto, and his mother for the honor I received some years ago at Theresienstadt House in Givat Hayim. During one of the annual meetings there was an exhibition of drawings by children on the Slovakian transport that had reached the Terezin ghetto in 1944. At this exhibition I saw a drawing of flowers with a collage of paper stickers which aroused the same sense of recognition in me – the feeling that I had made it! Willy approached, gave me a fatherly hug and pointed to the drawing signed VERA. He said, “This one is yours!”  To convince me that there was no mistake, he emphasized, “See, you even signed it! There was no other Vera on the Slovakian transport.”

Perhaps I should say, “Enough.” Nevertheless, whenever I see the title page of There Are No Butterflies Here, I think, “Mine? Nonsense. Why should I get involved in pettiness? I’ll never be able to prove one way or the other. And if it isn’t mine? What if, heaven forbid, I grab the rights from a child who can never counter the claim? It would be terrible.

According to the estimates, some fifteen thousand children lived in Terezin ghetto. Some, like me, were placed in the children’s house and others in crowded accommodation with their parents. Their stay was temporary. Transports to “the East” – straight to the furnaces – were frequent.  It is estimated that only a few hundred of us were left. Maybe a little more. It is still difficult to be exact about the number of children who survived. I eventually came to the conclusion that it could not be my work on the book cover, because it was chosen from among the drawings by children who came to the ghetto before me and the collection that they left behind was hidden in a cache that reached Prague. My drawing arrived at Kibbutz Maanit in Willy’s suitcase.

Some say I should be grateful for being destined to remain alive, whereas I torture myself, wondering, Why me?

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A Kapo In Our Family?

Hedika was my late father’s cousin. I heard the disturbing details about her burial plot from my sister, when I asked her for news of our Hedika.

“What, didn’t you know? She died! You won’t believe where they buried her! You’ll have a hard time finding the miserable plot they gave her!  They buried her next to the fence of the  segregated section for suicides and other disreputable Jews!”

“So what?” I answered, “What does it matter – and who’s interested?”

“Nu, really, her husband’s so well-off and they were always such a loving couple, don’t you think they should have a double tombstone in the VIP section? Now it’s obvious that she’s an outcast, an abomination. She got what was coming to her!” And as if this wasn’t enough, she added, “I’m surprised her children didn’t fight for a better place to bury her.”

I’m not usually at a loss for words, but I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to say. 

Being naturally suspicious when it comes to gossip, I went to see the deceased’s “punishment for being a Kapo in Auschwitz”. Although I don’t know exactly what branch of my father’s family she belonged to, I remembered that my father had a special affection for his cousin. In fact, it is possible that his attitude to her may have stemmed from something he knew about her past in the concentration camp. Could it be that my father was one of the few, apart from her husband, who knew the woman’s terrible secret? When I saw them together, they seemed to be connected by a kind of thread, a code of understanding. It seemed to be more than empathy based on the fact that my father had also been in a concentration camp.

Camp survivors hated the Kapos, few remembered them for humane and merciful behaviour – instead they remembered the punishments they handed out and the food they smuggled to their relatives. The Kapos must have suffered pangs of conscience and some were left with nightmares and guilt feelings for the rest of their lives. As for my father, he accepted his relative as she was, in spite of what she was said to have been in Auschwitz.

I knew Hedika, her husband and their little children personally and after her death, her husband mentioned that their son remembered me as their occasional babysitter. Hedika was beautiful, with blue eyes, black hair and a Mona Lisa smile. Following liberation from the camp, several strange rumours circulated among the survivors. People whispered that the female Kapos were chosen for their beauty: that the Nazis wanted to improve their own conditions. I eventually discovered that the facts were completely different.

Now and then I used to see her when she came to visit and was welcomed with a warm embrace from my father. Because so few of our family survived the Holocaust, it was natural to cling to those who did. Father told me that Hedika was “a kind of third cousin, or something like that.” Still, I was rather jealous of her.

At the time, I was already in my late twenties, self involved and only slightly interested in distant relatives. I remember hearing talk of her heavy, protracted bouts of depression, but on her good days she struck me as very pleasant. I also remember that on her good days she baked excellent cakes which she brought to us.

The short, four digit number tattooed on her forearm – she was in the first transport of sixteen year old girls – was very prominent and left a strong impression on me. It was said that she had suffered the cruel fate of seeing her parents murdered in front of her, leaving her and her sister the only survivors of the family.

Her husband adored her beauty and loved her dearly. They were the object of jealousy among their acquaintances. An exemplary couple. When she fell ill and he had to assume the role of mother on top of wage earner, their children understood and accepted the situation.

In spite of the wind and rain I made up my mind to cycle to the cemetery and visit her grave.

“Where’s the fire? Wait, the weather’s going to clear, the rain’s going to stop. Go and lie down!”

As a rule, I listened to my older sister, but this time I insisted on going at once. I felt I had to see with my own eyes what punishment had been meted out to her after her death.

The cemetery is near the beach and the wind around there is very strong, making me pedal against the wind. I left the bicycle under the roof at the entrance to the cemetery and, not detouring to visit my parent’s grave, I started to walk along the fence. And the fence was long! I walked for ages in the rain until I found her tombstone. A single stone. I stood there for a long time. I was distraught with sorrow. My heart went out to her, I stroked the cold, rain-wet stone. Although I didn’t cry, I felt that the heavens were weeping for her, with me. Maybe my father also shed a tear, up there. The fact remained that she had been buried in a new section in the third row from the fence with no objection from anyone. Later, however, I learned that the new section was opened simply for lack of space.

I met her widowed husband some years later. We had worked in the same firm and our meeting took place on an outing for the firm’s retirees. The years had not been kind to him. I hardly recognized him. He was stooped and low in spirit.

We sat and talked after dinner. Although he was looking at me as a woman with whom he could spend an evening, for me the encounter only served as an opportunity to clarify the matter of the burial plot, which still troubled me. I asked if he would allow me to ask a few embarrassing questions and he answered frankly: “You can ask anything.”

I was sure he did not expect, on that relaxed occasion, to discuss his late wife’s burial. Nevertheless, after some hesitation, I mustered the courage to ask him certain tough and painful questions. At first, I beat around the bush, apologized and explained how important it was for me to hear the facts. Maybe I even stammered. Actually, he was cooperative. Although he was poker-faced, revealing nothing of his inner secrets, he gave direct answers to every question, with no hesitation. What pleased me most was that he was not angry with me; in such cases the messenger is in danger of becoming the “bad” character who is subjected to furious abuse.

“Weren’t you at the funeral?”

“No. I didn’t even know she had died.”

“If you’d been there, you’d have seen that I was in a bad state.”

It turned out that the facts contradicted the rumours. At the time of her death he was in hospital and arrived at the funeral by ambulance, in a wheelchair. The funeral arrangements were made by a good friend of his and the place allotted to her in the empty row next to the fence was incidental. A matter of order. Anyway, as time passed, her grave was three rows away from the fence.

He told me his wife’s story from her childhood, her suffering and the goodness of her heart. She was barely sixteen when she was sent on the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz in 1942, at which time it was called mobilization to a work camp. On arrival, she was assigned to work in the food and general storeroom and was thus able to save many from starvation and death. People remembered her for her kindness after the war, too. As a veteran inmate of the camp, she gave useful survival advice to other women and helped them to adapt to the difficult conditions. The Kapo task was given only to older women, so that she, who lived in hell for three long and terrible years, never served in that capacity. Life in the camp broke her spirit and it is no wonder that the depression remained with her till she died.

As he spoke, his expression became tortured and I apologized to him. I promised him that I would pass on the facts to others, mainly those who suspected his wife, but he muttered something like, “Not worth the trouble”. To me, to himself, he added, “It’s not going to change anything. Tell me, do people care if Hedika and I are buried together under a double tombstone? As for me, I don’t believe in the afterworld nor do my children and I don’t care where I’m buried.” I believed him.

Hedika’s story shook me. I remembered her as a dear, most positive, pleasant person. To this day, I find it hard to understand the hypocrisy of the people who had smiled at the unfortunate woman, had embraced her, while now, in the life after her death, they loosen their tongues and spill defamatory rumours about her and her close family.

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A Granny

How I’d waited for the moment. The renovations to my new home were complete and I could hang the pictures at last. I knew exactly where to place each one. I reserved the place of honor for the relatively large oil painting. The portrait of Granny had to hang next to the wide front window. It needed light! It was good that she could view the room from above the scratched black rocking chair that stood, somehow rebuked, in the corner. Maybe the ancient chair was as old as Granny? In any case, it certainly came from the same part of Europe, the same atmosphere, as she did. I like sitting in that corner, gently rocking, absorbed in memories.

Sometimes I like to sit there in the dark, especially when a ray of light seems to dart straight onto the left side of the portrait, illuminating Granny’s expressive face.

In order to hang the picture I tried hammering in a steel nail, which damaged the wall and left a blemish. The plaster fell, taking the nail with it. I tried again and again, hammering with the utmost care. No good. The white plaster peeled away to reveal dark cement. It took five attempts before I succeeded. I chose a higher point and the reluctant nail found a crack
between the bricks and was pushed in. The holes in the wall looked like the result of a volley of shots at a target, or from the firing squad above the pit at Babi Yar.

Yes, I know. It’s certainly my sick imagination taunting me. It’s hard for me to cure myself of black visions and the search for meanings in every action.

Fortunately, the painting was big enough to cover the damage.

The portrait showed her old and bent, crocheting something or other. It creates the ambiance of an authentic presence. It arouses nostalgia in me, at times the yeast smell of dough for everyday bread or the Sabbath loaf rises to my nostrils.

The date1896 is penciled on the back of the painting, indicating that I have a 19th century treasure. It seems that the painter was influenced by Rembrandt’s paintings in which light plays a major part. In my painting, too, only her wrinkle-furrowed profile and a small area of her hand are illuminated. Her protruding knuckle merely suggests that she is holding a crochet needle. Her dress is almost black, merging with the dark brown background. It looks as if she is smiling, but because of the inclination of her head, this is hard to ascertain.

When my children were small they called her Granny. I never found the opportunity to go into detail about which side of the family she belonged to. Unlike most schools at the time, the one my children attended did not have a family tree project. The children were not expected to delve into the place of the granny in the parents’ family history. She existed as a fact. Now and then, guests asked “Who’s the old woman in the painting?” At which the children immediately answered proudly, “She’s our Granny!” Our friends would then remark on the strong resemblance. Some suggested we have the portrait evaluated by Sotheby’s. However, I have no interest in what the painting is worth. 

I love “my” Granny, that I acquired under rather strange circumstances on a Friday when I was urgently summoned to the office of the bank’s Board of Trustees to translate a Will, written in Hebrew, for a client. My eyes fell on the painting of an old lady in the waiting room and it was love at first sight. I remarked that I didn’t see the connection between the painting and the bank’s office. “Inheritance,” they explained, “an item they didn’t manage to sell at the auction.” 

“What? Are you interested in this painting?” said the man from the bank, “As a bank employee you can even have it at a discount.”

I didn’t answer. I concentrated on the main issue, which was the client and his Will, which lay on the desk. According to him, he trusted only my translation to German. I translated, he signed and two witnesses confirmed the signature.

“Now I can surrender my soul to the Creator,” said he and the lawyers wished him health and a long life.

I also breathed a sigh of relief and as we left, I asked what price was being asked for the painting.  I was told that, since it was unsigned, the price was one hundred eighty US dollars.

I was surprised that it was so low, but I didn’t want to challenge fate by being greedy. I said I would like to think about it over the weekend and promised to phone and let them know.

I was worried about the Granny all weekend. I suspected the legitimacy of the sale and the low price, but the denizens of the executive suite reassured me and helped me to reach a decision. Early the next morning I phoned them.

“I want the painting,” I announced and it was mine by lunch time.

 But it wasn’t just an oil painting, not a mere possession. The painting became a part, however artificial, of the puzzle of my life that lacked so many pieces. I told myself: At last, I have a Granny!

True, the painting is unsigned and the painter is unknown.

My Grannies also went to an unknown place. Often, as I page through books on the Slovakian Jewish congregation, I fall under the hallucinatory impression that here, for sure, I recognize my maternal or paternal grandparents. I recognize them for a moment and then come to my senses.

Whereas the Granny in the oil painting has become accustomed to me and has adopted me.

(Translated from Hebrew by Riva Rubin)

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Olga’s Cover Picture

The terrifying hammering on the door came again, that summer night in 1947. I jumped out of bed in panic. Anyway, I was a light sleeper. During the war, I used to be on the alert for any unusual sound; it was part of how I was educated to cope with the unexpected.  Well trained, I knew I had to act fast. I dressed, gathered my treasures from under the mattress and joined my parents, who were hurrying to open the door.

Although they had explained that the war was over, that it had ended when I was nine, two years earlier, I didn’t believe them. Why believe, when it was obvious that what grownups said could not be trusted. I didn’t trust them when they promised me that the Russians had killed all the Germans. I couldn’t think of a single promise they kept. I didn’t believe them when they promised that all those decrees that had prevented me from entering first grade or playing in the park were a thing of the past. I clung to the habit of alertness to cope with unexpected situations, like alarms or orders to get ready to move. As the days went by, I listened intensely to conversations not meant for my ears, mesmerized by the adult’s talk about survivors and their fate. I wasn’t able to follow some of the concepts and some of the references to places, but their stories accompanied by bursts of bitter tears were enough to cause me great sadness. I felt helpless at the sight of grownups crying, in my opinion crying was for babies. I seemed to be silently attending to my own affairs in the background, but my ears were tuned to everything being said. Some held on to the hope, however faint, of tracing relatives and eagerly grasped every scrap of information. I identified with them.

Even today, sixty years later, against all logic, I continue to search. I diligently trace every new documentary film mysteriously discovered in the legacy of German soldiers who filmed in secret. I am almost certain that one day, soon, I’ll identify my grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts. It’s hard to convince myself to stop trying, in spite of the fact that by now I wouldn’t recognize them anyway. They faded into the mist a long time ago.

On that night in 1947, we were living in my mother Lily’s hometown, Trebisov- Slovakia having come there for lack of an alternative. By we, I mean my mother, my fourteen year old sister Aliska and my father Zolly, who had made his way back to us from Sachsenhausen, many months after war’s end. At first, we went to Presov, where I was born and where we lived till the outbreak of the war. Since we had no house to return to, we were placed in a hotel where we waited, hoping Father would come back to us. We ran to check the Jewish community’s lists of survivors every day for three months until, at last, Aliska saw Father walking towards the hotel and recognized him! What joy!

Now that the family was reunited, my parents considered their next step. My mother opted for Trebisov, her birthplace, where her prosperous family had lived before being forced to leave. Many of the survivors first made their way “home” in the hope that somebody from among the family would be there, waiting for them. Clearly, my mother hoped to be there to meet her parents and sister when they returned.

My parents, at the door, were not dressed for moving, but I was. I stood next to them with my knapsack, awaiting what would come. Instead of praising me for my alacrity, they sent me to my room. Nevertheless, as I withdrew, I turned to look at the door. Since they were welcoming the pale, rather stooped man standing on the doorstep, I understood that there was no cause for worry. The man was breathing heavily, as though escaping from a Jew-hunting Aktion. Extremely agitated, he held out a weekly publication called “Kep Figyelo”, which he had brought from Budapest.

“She’s alive!” he cried. Taking a deep breath he continued, “Look! It’s our Olga!” Her eyes wide and staring, our Olga gazed at us from the cover. The caption under the photograph was: “Who knows, Who Recognizes? This woman is listed as unidentified and does not relate to her surroundings”.

It is impossible to describe the excitement that gripped all the adults when they saw the photograph, which was published more than two years after the end of the war. Nearly everyone believed that there was no longer any hope of finding her. Olga’s eyes seemed to beseech us to come and save her.

In the wake of the troubling information, I remember mainly that my mother went away for a long time. I was told that she went to Austria with Olga’s brother Alexander, to bring his sister home.

 And who was Olga Izso?

Before the war, which reached us on Passover 1942, most of the Jews of Trebisov lived in contented prosperity. The Izso family were wealthy and respected members of the Jewish community, owners of a house and a successful grocery store. There were four children, of whom Olga, born in 1920, was the eldest. Their mother, Ethel, was born in Trebisov and was a distant relative of my mother.

Then came the Aktions and the transports to the East. The family was wiped out, apart from Alexander, who fled to the forest and joined the partisans, and his sister Shatzi, who survived by escaping to Hungary.

After the war, only a handful of survivors of the community of 647 Jews returned to Trebisov. My mother, aged 38, was the only remaining member of her branch of the extended family and Shatzi and Alexander invited us to live with them.

They asked my father to help them to re-establish the family business. He agreed and quickly turned the grocery store into a wholesale and retail business selling everything from shoelaces, needles, nails, pots, paints and whitewash to motorbikes and agricultural machinery. Within the year the store was successful enough to provide a dowry for Shatzi, who wanted to marry and establish a home of her own. Her brother Alexander also became a rich man.

That day, the 21st of June 1947, on hearing the news about Olga, Alexander and my mother left immediately for the sanatorium in Lintz, Austria, to bring Olga home. All of us looked forward to her return, especially her sister Shatzi, who chose to wait at home with her husband. The joy and excitement are hard to describe. It was the town miracle. Shatzi, who baked cakes for the celebration, had a sister. The family was expanding! We were happy and optimistic. Although we knew that Olga was sick, we had no doubt that with her family’s encouragement she would soon recover.

However, to our great distress, it turned out that Olga had died two days before the arrival of my mother and Alexander. She was buried in Lintz and my mother and Alexander laid the tombstone on her grave. Alex decided to leave scorched Europe and immigrated to Israel in 1948. Shatzi and her husband settled in Canada.

My sister and I immigrated to Israel with the Youth Immigration Organization in 1949, followed by our parents in1950.

I have never seen Olga’s grave. I find no comfort in the fact that she was granted a grave and a tombstone.

In my opinion Olga is commemorated only by virtue of the cover photograph which my mother guarded like the apple of her eye.

When she died, the only family “photograph” we found among her effects, was Olga’s cover picture.

(Translated from Hebrew by Riva Rubin)

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