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Croak and Dagger

A writer finds echoes of the Holocaust wherever he turns

Shalom Auslander
December 02, 2010
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; laptop photo: Brian Pennington/Flickr; Auschwitz photo: Turbo Mi/Flickr.)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; laptop photo: Brian Pennington/Flickr; Auschwitz photo: Turbo Mi/Flickr.)

Mid-June. A pleasant summer morning. 11 a.m.:

—Shalom, are you going to mow the lawn?
—I hate mowing the fucking lawn.
—The Andersons will be here soon.

All Frog Junior will remember, years from now, is that one day, Papa never came home. He’ll remember getting rides on Papa’s back in the summertime, and the time he got stuck on a lily pad and Papa jumped out to save him. But of the slaughter itself, he’ll remember nothing.

But Mama will.

She’ll remember the beautiful early summer day, how clear the sky seemed. She’ll remember how Papa and their two older children went off for food, perhaps to warm themselves for a moment in the golden morning sun. And she’ll remember that sound—that horrible sound of death—as he, LawnBoy Hitler, started his walk-behind mower at the far end of the lawn.

She called for them to return—Papa! Papa!—but already it was too late; how could they ever hear her over the sound of that evil, whirring death machine? She watched in horror, frozen in fear, as it moved slowly back and forth across the lawn, slicing newts in half, grinding crickets and spiders into mulch, and beheading an innocent garden snake trying to get out of its way.

It was the day her mother always told her would come.

“Not here,” she had insisted. “It can’t happen here.”

“You think this lawn is so different?” her mother had scoffed.

And then it happened. LawnBoy Hitler came around for a final pass (What have we done to deserve this? she wondered. Why us? Because the Andersons were coming? What did that have to do with the Frogs? Why did everyone always blame the Frogs?) and Papa jumped out, running for the safety of the woods. The boys followed, but they were all, tragically, too late. With a horrible ka-THUNK, all three were eaten up by the awful mower, may its name be erased from memory, and spat aside.

This is the moment she’ll wish to forget, but always remember.

She’ll remember not being able to breathe, remember not being able to move at all.

She’ll remember how LawnBoy Hitler stopped his mower, and wiped his brow; “Goddamn it,” he said. The carnage was too great, even for him, and he looked as if he might vomit.

And she’ll remember one more thing, the last thing LawnBoy Hitler said as he surveyed the underneath of the cutting deck and saw what evil he had done:

“Man, I fucking hate mowing the fucking lawn.”

Thanksgiving. Home of Paul and Stacy. 3 p.m.:

—Oh, wow, Paul, that’s quite a turkey.
—Stacey, thank you so much for having us.
—It’s our pleasure. Shalom, do you prefer white meat or dark meat?

The young third-grade turkeys walking solemnly into the school auditorium were silent, both out of respect for the import of the day and for fear of their turkey teachers who strode beside them, their distinguished snoods heavy with sadness.

No one dared gobble.

No one dared cluck.

Though they were only in third grade, the young turkeys already knew what to expect; they had been through this sort of assembly before. It was the younger kindergarten turkeys that didn’t know what was coming. They often began to cry halfway through the presentation. But could you blame them? Were they too young to know? Or does the burden of memory fall on young and old alike?

The principal, a heavily waddled male, stepped to the lectern, from which hung a sign that read Never Again. And, after a moment, he began to speak.

“They called it,” he said, pointing his clicker at the giant screen behind him, “Thanksgiving.”

An old picture appeared, taken years ago in the year 2010, of a butcher’s refrigerator case, filled to overflowing with beheaded bodies of innocent turkeys wrapped in plastic. In those dark days, he explained, dozens of mass graves like this could be found in every village and every town.

“They considered it,” the principal continued, “a holiday.”

Some of the younger children gasped.

“And this,” said the principal, pointing his clicker at the screen again, “was how they celebrated.”

He clicked, and on the giant screen appeared the ghastly image of a roasted Thanksgiving turkey on a festive ivory serving tray, surrounded by all the traditional fixin’s.

“What’s the brown stuff?” cried a kindergarten turkey baby, or whatever a young turkey is called. (I don’t think it’s a chick.) “Oh dear God, what’s the brown stuff?”

Silence filled the room.

“They called it,” said the principal, his voice trembling with rage, “stuffing.”

Late Fall. An ordinary Monday morning. Rush hour:

—Train 235, your 7:41AM to New York’s Penn Station, now arriving on Track 1. That’s Train 235, your 7:41AM to New York’s Penn Station, now arriving on Track 1.

It was cold that day at the station as the people huddled together for warmth. Nobody spoke. Nobody dared speak. The train would be here soon, and though they didn’t know where it was going, or how long it would take them to get there, at least they would get out of the cold.

Where were his wife and sons?

The man refused to think about it. They were hiding at home, and he had to tell himself they would be okay. They would be together again someday, when the madness was over, when the war had come to an end.

To his left, a young family much like his own stood together, their bags beside them.

“When will the train be here?” asked the little boy.

“It will be here soon,” said the father.

“Do they have food on the train?” asked the little boy.

“We’ll see, son,” said the father.

At last the train pulled in, bringing even colder air with it as it arrived. The doors opened with a bang; it was clear there were already way too many people crammed inside to begin with. How would they ever fit?

The man handed the officer his ticket and pressed his way into the train. It was stiflingly hot, even after the frigid cold outside, and he had to walk together with the others for many many cars until at last he found a seat. He sat down, and saw that in the seat next to him was the father that had been standing beside on the platform; his young sons were seated together across the way.

“Morning,” said the father to the man.

“Morning,” said the man as he pulled out his laptop and started to work.

“Whatchya working on?” the father asked.

“A book,” said the man.

“You a writer?”

“Sometimes,” said the man.

“What’s it about?” the father asked.

The man paused.

“The Holocaust,” he said.

“Yowza,” said the man. “Fun topic. Hey, do you know if they have the food car on this train?”

The man nodded, and said that he believed they did.

“You want an egg sandwich or something?” the father asked.

The man politely declined.

The father rose then, and took his sons, and together they went to get food. It would be a long trip.

Were his wife and sons okay?

He forced himself not to think about it.

He only knew two things, and he could, in this situation, at this present time, only allow himself to focus on those. He knew that in five minutes, the whole car was going to reek of egg sandwiches, and he knew, most of all, that he was sick of writing about the goddamned Holocaust.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament, Hope: A Tragedy, and most recently Mother for Dinner. His new memoir, Fehwill be published this July. He writes The Fetal Position on Substack, so make that seven Nazis.

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