When I began work on a book about my mother and her friends I had only a vague notion of what I wished to do, much less how to go about doing it. My only thought was to resurrect the sounds of words, spoken and unspoken, that had served as the context for our lives and others around us.
That was the rationale behind my listening to interviews conducted by the Shoah Foundation. Not that my mother or father had been interviewed for the Shoah project: Neither of them had ever told of their wartime experiences in a systematic, coherent manner, despite there having been ample opportunity to do so. In fact, when I attended Brooklyn College it was practically a requirement for students taking courses in Judaic Studies to interview and record the testimonies and remembrances of anyone having outlived the destruction. I, however, never took classes in that department.
My hope was that the voices of strangers would awaken the sleeping sounds of childhood. Which is not to say I didn’t come across interviews with people my mother had known—either from Szikszo, her hometown in Hungary, or from Boras, the Swedish town where she and other women who survived Bergen-Belsen were brought by the Red Cross to work after the war.
In the stories of those “Szikszovers,” as she would have referred to them were she still alive, I discovered echoes of her childhood, if not mine: of the Hasidic father she’d loved more than life itself, his voice resounding in the Great Synagogue on the High Holidays, and the work he’d performed as chazzan, shoykhet, and melamed of Szikszo. I pieced together experiences that she could express only in fragments. I grasped for the first time how the emptying of Szikszo had unfolded, the initial transport consisting of its nominal leaders (including her father) who were brought to Kosice, and how that first group was forced upon the Jews in Kosice, explaining how it was that her religious family had come to lodge with assimilated and acculturated Jews who looked down upon them with undisguised contempt and who may have been related to her family. (Whether that was the case was never clear, for the stories she told were always changing: In one telling they were distantly related, a connection discovered via stealth and acknowledged in disbelief, while in others the relation disappeared entirely. Only their reproach—you are the source of our misfortune—was constant.)
Her stories, if we can call them that, were really a series of tangents and asides that in her mind added up to something, but that to my ear was an incoherent jumble. And if ever I asked her to clarify something, she would react with anger at my stupidity, my hardheartedness, my lack of empathy. For in her mind the scenes and memories were perfectly clear and transparent, and only a blind man, only someone willfully obtuse—norr a menuvel—would ask her to repeat herself.
Given the size of Szikszo—a city of 4,000 before the war, of which perhaps a fifth were Jews, of whom a fifth outlived the war—the odds of a true Szikszoer being interviewed for the Shoah Foundation archives were slim. My searches often turned up people who had very little to do with Szikszo—people who may have been born there but had left Szikszo, or had visited Szikszo, or had relatives in Szikszo, or else had stopped briefly in Szikszo after the war on their way back to other towns and cities in Hungary. I could hear my mother’s voice: You are wasting your time. These are not real Szikszovers, true Szikszovers. What business do they have here, in Szikszo? Their association to her Szikszo was an insult, a blot on everything it signified to her. These people were no more Szikszoers than I was.
Slimmer still was any chance of finding a direct connection to my father in the archives of the Shoah Foundation. Before his family moved to Sosnowiec, my father had been born in a tiny village, a dorffaleh so small and of such little consequence that in the entry for it on Wikipedia there is no hint of the Jewish community that existed there prior to the war (unlike practically every other Polish city, town, or village with a Wikipedia page).
So, it was not long before I’d exhausted any real or direct connection to either of my parents in the Shoah Foundation archives. Yet I continued going to Butler Library at Columbia each day and listening to the accounts, no matter how incidental, if only to delude myself into believing there was a purpose to what I was doing. Because the purpose, I would tell myself, was not necessarily to find a link to my parents, but to sift the ashes for embers—or more accurately, to listen for the background hiss, the radiation afterglow of what was, is, will always be the big bang.
So, I began listening to the testimonies of people from Sosnowiec, the city of my father, and from Lodz, where Cesha, my mother’s friend from Boras, had been born. But as I listened, I was struck by how the stories blended into one another and how the scraps of stories my parents had shared—stories that seemed unique to them and them alone—were actually commonplace, or at least more common than I’d realized. I found myself recalling something a teacher of mine, Jakov Lind, once said, which is that there are a total of just 36 stories in the entire world. Some academic—a German, claimed Lind—had proved it, collecting and categorizing every story ever told, although Lind personally considered the number inflated. He doubted there were more than six. (Lind told this to me in the bar of the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived. And sensing doubt on my part—since with Lind, whose war experience left him incapable of taking the world seriously, one could never be certain whether he was being sincere or just amusing himself—he named the Germanic academic and his scholarly tome, a work that, it turns out, does exist and is cited, now and then, in this place and in that, as well as in the New York Review of Books and the Sunday Book Review.)
But it was not just the stories that blended into one other. The people themselves, I found, were often indistinguishable, their faces melding together, their names unnameable. But one of them, whose real name is somewhere in my notes, I gave a nickname.
This person had been a baker in Sosnowiec before the war, and then a baker during the war until the ghetto was liquidated and he was sent to Auschwitz, and then a baker once more—in Detroit, after coming to America. He was a small man, really more homunculus than man, and seated in his living room for the Shoah Foundation interview he seemed to disappear into the sofa, as if absorbed into the fabric. There was a compressed quality to his person, as if he had first been pounded into a subatomic particle and then reduced further to an even more elemental state. And so seated before the camera was not a person but a particle, a lepton or meon or boson—although in fairness to the Germans, I—not they—am at fault for having rendered him this way.
Yet even in this reduced state, there remained a charmed, impish quality to him, which may be why the nickname—The Pillsbury Doughboy—popped into my head, and I wondered how the interviewer had resisted the temptation to pinch him.
To a degree, the fatigue I felt listening to the interviews may have been more a function of the manner in which they were conducted than their content. The interviewers seemed to follow a scripted set of questions, beginning with questions about the subject’s life before the war, particularly their religious observance, Jewish holidays, foods, customs, and practices. The questions were designed to evoke life prior to the war. But to bring that world back, even for a moment, called for particularity, richness of detail—the names and faces, the unexpected and unique, not the mundane that so often constitutes memory.
And those being interviewed seemed put off by this line of questioning. Most were impatient to get to Auschwitz where it was always night, where confusion always reigned, where Mengele pointed right or left. Often the interviewer had to redirect them back to that time before the war. And often they seemed puzzled: They wanted to tell the dramatic story of their survival, they wanted to talk about the gas chambers, the ovens, the chimneys—to cut to the chase, as it were—and here they were being asked to put up with questions about Jewish holidays, foods, religious practice.
Such was the case with the Doughboy, who had a dramatic story to tell but had first to suffer questions about life before the war (as absurd and irrelevant as they may have seemed to him). Finally, however, his turn came.
So, vas in de kampf. / When you say ‘in the camp’, you mean Auschwitz. / No—vasn’t Auschvitz. Vas just a kampf. / What type of a camp was it? / Vas a labor kampf. / What was the name of the camp? / Hed no name. / No name? Are you sure? Maybe you’ve forgotten the name? / Yeh—maybe hed a name, maybe vas a name, maybe vee find a name, maybe later. / In any case so you were in some labor camp. / Yeh. / And what happened to you? / So vee vas in dis kampf. / When you say “we,” you’re talking about yourself and some others— / Yeh. Me ’n a cupla udder boys, Auschvitz boys. An’ comes a guy. / What type of guy? A German? / Yeh—’course a German guy. / An S.S. man? / S.S.? Yeh—no—maybe. A guy. You know: a ‘soykhr.’ How you say it? / A ‘soykhr’ is a merchant, a businessman. / No—vasn’t a businessman. Vas a soykhr. / OK, then not a businessman. But a soykhr. / Yeh. Not a businessman. Not an S.S. man. A Sale.S.man. / A salesman? / Yeh—saylessmahn. / This salesman: What was he there for? Was he selling to the camp? / No: Vasn’t selling nothin’. / Was he dropping something off at the camp? / No: Vasn’t droppin’ off. / So this salesman wasn’t selling anything and wasn’t dropping anything off. So what was he doing? / Vas selling. / But what was he selling? / Vas selling us. / “Us”? / Yeh: vas coming to de lager, de kampf, and vas pickin’ up de skhoyre, vas makin’ de quota. And den vas bringing us to some other place—a fectory, a verkplace—an’ vas puttin’ us to verk. / And this was the person you called the soykhr, the salesman picking up goods. / Yeh: vee call him de saylessmahn. Vhen vee see him, vee say: saylessmahn’s here.
At the conclusion of each Shoah interview the subjects were joined by their family to share pictures and artifacts of life before the war or afterward. The Doughboy was joined on the couch by the enormous woman who was his wife. In his hands were two photographs. The interviewer asked him to hold them up so the cameraman could get a good shot. One showed a young man in white shorts, white polo shirt, white sneakers, white socks. The second was of the same man again, this time with a group of six more men dressed in identical outfits, standing behind a plaque. The interviewer asked for the story behind the photographs.
So dis first is of me. / And this photograph of you, this is taken before the war, yes? / No—not before: Efteh. / I see: after. / Yeh. / And where is this taken? / Germany. / Inside Germany? / Yeh: DP kampf. / In the displaced persons camp in Germany where you were interred? / Yeh. / When was this photograph taken? / Soon: maybe a couple months efteh—no: couldn’t be. Vas a year. / And what are you doing in the picture? / Soccer. / Soccer? / Yeh. See? This is de team. Vas champions. / You were in a soccer league after the war and won the championship? / Yeh: vee von. / And these fellows, your teammates, were these people whom you knew from before the war? / No. / Then where did you know them from? / Vas a cupla Auschvitz boys. Vas good players. Vas champions.
I packed my bag and left the library, angry—at myself, at the Doughboy, the absurdity of his story—if indeed it could even be considered a story: It was a touch, not a story, a cheap cinematic touch that in a Hollywood movie would have pitted the Auschwitz boys against their one-time guards.
Growing up I fantasized about a normal life for my mother and father, of belonging to a community, one with soccer teams and leagues, where fathers coached their kids in the finer points of sport. But none of the fathers I knew played sports. For that matter, I can’t recall my father ever playing anything, not even cards.
But I could not get the Doughboy’s voice and face out of my head. I kept seeing the two photographs, the one of him in his white shorts, white socks reaching mid-calf, white polo top and sneakers. Unrecognizable. The other with the boys from Auschwitz, dressed identically, standing beside the plaque commemorating their victory. And I kept hearing him: Ehr iz du … der saylessmahn.
I walked blindly out of the library, paying no attention to where I was or what I was doing—pushing the Doughboy and his story away from me with such force and violence that I slipped on a patch of black ice and landed on my back.
I lay there for a moment before getting to my feet. But rather than go straight home, I took the long route back, walking alongside the park, the night, the glow of the streetlamps. Out the corner of my eye, I could see the Doughboy following after me, muttering to the others, the Auschwitz boys: Ehr kimmt, der Sale.S.man. Der soykhr kimmt.
Again I thought of his picture. The white soccer outfit, white socks, white sneakers, white shorts, white polo shirt. Hardly the smashed subatomic particle that I had turned him into. Barely one year after the war, signs of the crushing cataclysm were nowhere to be seen, the afterglow already a lightyear away. The past was gone, leaving behind no traces. Or if it did exist, it was a patch of black ice waiting to upend me. And I said to myself: Say nothing, saylessmahn. Say nothing.
I thought of the Doughboy, who had been shipped to Auschwitz from Sosnowiec just days ahead of my father yet was as unlike and as distinct from him as five was from seven. Both of them prime numbers, just as each of the ones who remained, der uber-geblibener, were primes, sharing a common factor of one and nothing else.
And I remembered one summer in the small bungalow colony in Woodridge, New York, where we went each year. There were years when only a few families besides mine summered there. But one year a number of families connected to my mother from Boras joined us. The men would arrive Friday nights for the weekend, often sleeping through the next day, until dark. And on Sunday, I remember a group of them playing cards. Dressed in thin white Fruit of the Loom undershirts, plaid shorts, black anklet socks, and leather European sandals, the sight of which made me cringe back then and still does to this day. They’d set up a table, requisition chairs, and sit in the sun, caps covering their heads. Pennies stacked in neat piles.
I was standing nearby when my mother’s friend Cesha came rushing to them. Her husband Michael had cut himself and was bleeding, and the blood would not stop. She went over to one card player named Davidovitch, demanding he take them to the doctor in town. This was at a time when practically no one owned a car and almost everyone went to the mountains by way of hackers. Davidovitch made a living as a cabbie during the week and picked up extra money as a hack. “I will pay you, if it’s money. But if something terrible should happen—” She caught herself.
Meanwhile Michael had come outside, his hand wrapped tightly in a handkerchief red with blood. He unwrapped the tourniquet gingerly and told her the bleeding was stopped, but she brushed his words aside. “Well?” she asked, looking at Davidovitch, shaking. “Are you driving us?”
The wife of Davidovitch appeared suddenly from out of nowhere. “Change into clothes,” she said to Cesha, who was in a housecoat and slippers. “He will drive you.”
Michael stood there, insisting the bleeding had stopped. But Cesha shook her head no, she was not going to let him die, not while there remained a breath in her body, and charged past him toward their small white bungalow.
All the while Davidovitch hadn’t looked up or taken his eye off his cards. Finally he yawned, folded his hand, and followed his wife to the bungalow. “You could least have finish deh hendt,” shouted Schteiner, one of the card players, and looked at the cards in Davidovitch’s hand to see what he’d been holding.
Michael tightened the tourniquet. His son, Jack, stood there white, as if the blood was draining out of him, not his father. “The bleeding stopped,” Michael said out loud. But no one was listening.
Schteiner got up from the table and walked over and glanced at the blood-soaked handkerchief. “A zah reyder,” said Schteiner. “What—she never seen a cut before? Voos bist du—a baby?” And he left.
Michael said nothing. He glared at Schteiner, who went off, whistling. Years later Michael would die in surgery, on an operating table in Houston far from home, but on this day he was a good man with a bad heart—whether or not a consequence of Auschwitz was a question that would be debated a long after he was gone.
My father had been sitting under a tree reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich while all this was happening, and he came over, book in hand. From the placement of the envelope that served as a bookmark I could see the Reich was still on the rise. “Er veist ihr zent oyf der Coumadin, nein?” said my father, setting the book down.
Michael nodded. “Er veisst ganz gutt,” he said—Schteiner knew full well about the blood thinner Michael was taking. He knew. And then Michael muttered a Russian curse under his breath: “Yopp t’vahyu mot.”
My father laughed and repeated the curse, which he’d learned in Auschwitz along with a thousand other curses: Fuck your mother, Schteiner, he said in an accent that was not his own and with a harsh laugh that belonged to another man. And he told Michael to pay no attention to Schteiner—he was a fool, a pathetic, twisted, immature fool still angry over what had happened the day before. “Ehr is a naar,” said my father. “A tzurideker, naarischer, tzedreyter naar. Und ehr is noch beyz fun nechten.”
I could hear my father’s voice again and again—“Ehr is noch beyz fun nechten”—that Schteiner was still angry over yesterday. What had he meant by that?
Then I remembered.
The day before Michael cut himself, I had been playing volleyball with the other kids and the ball sailed over my head, rolling all the way down to the table where the men were sitting, playing rummy. Dressed identically: white ribbed Fruit of the Loom undershirts, plaid shorts reaching past their knees, caps covering their heads, brown leather sandals, black socks, the faint blue veins lining their legs proof of their mortality.
Schteiner picked up the ball but rather than hand it back, he bounced it off his knee, then off his head till the others put down their cards and tried taking it from him. “Lomir shpiln,” said Schteiner, challenging them to play. They chose teams for soccer, picking grownups first, then kids. My father, the last grownup picked, ended up on Schteiner’s side, while I went to the other side, with Michael and with Jack.
My father was made goalie, to limit the harm to the team, I assumed. Because instead of giving the ball to a teammate on the inbound, he’d throw it high up into the air, like a jump ball. Was it that my father had zero understanding of the game, or did he simply not know which side he was on? Schteiner, running up and down the full length of the field and holding his head in pain and looking to the heavens, cried out, “Voos tutt der mensch? Vi kenen mir shpiln dem veg?” What is this man doing? Is this any way to play the game?
Coming up from behind me one time, Schteiner viciously chopped at my ankles, stealing the ball out from under me. Schteiner helped me to my feet, and whispered: “Nex’ Foddeh’s Day, getch ya foddeh a soccer book, yeh?”
But the match (to the extent it might be called one) soon devolved into a contest between Schteiner and Michael. Sweat pouring down their faces, grunting and panting like beasts. Rising up into the air like two dogs fighting over a bone. And the game was boring, the ball rarely making it past midfield. Except for one time. Michael fed me the ball next to the goalpost, where I waited. I swung my right foot and kicked it with everything I had inside me, hooking it to the left and watching it rise toward the corner and then looking on as my father came from out of nowhere, his left arm extended as far out as it could go and hauled the ball in for a save. He turned to me and let the ball drop over his foot and kicked it up gently into the air and then off his knee, and then down to his foot and then up to his knee again. And then he grinned and with a great roar kicked the ball into the air, sending it so high that for a moment it seemed to be suspended in midair.
The sun was going down when the game was finally called in a tie. We left the field and walked back to the bungalow for supper. My mother was waiting for us on the porch and said, how was the game? She had heard it was nice. And my father nodded, yes. He touched my younger brother’s face and kissed the baby’s head and said that it had been beautiful, truly beautiful. “Kreindeleh,” he said. “Es iz geve’en a zoi schoen.”
“What is he talking about?” I said to her. And turning to him: “What do you mean ‘shane’? There was nothing nice, nothing shane. What about Schteiner?”
“What about him?” said my father.
“Weren’t you listening? Did you not hear a word he said?”
My mother looked at him, her lower lip trembling ever so slightly. Was what I’d said true? My father brushed it aside. “Schteiner? Schteiner’s a mishiginer hundt,” he said, dismissing what I’d said. “Don’t listen to him. Voos veiss ehr? Ehr veist gurnisht. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
I got up from the table and left in a huff. All the families in the colony were inside their bungalows, eating. No one was outside besides me. I walked around in circles, telling myself over and over again: Someday I will leave all of them behind and never come back again. But finally I cooled down and went back inside the bungalow. My mother was wiping food off my baby brother Benjuchna’s hands as he screamed in protest, my younger brother Chaskusz was chewing a slice of challah slowly and deliberately, staring at me with his long-lashed eyes. My father looked over at my mother as I came back in and then at my younger brothers and then at me. “Zei nisht beyz,” he said gruffly and pulled me toward him. “Es is geve’en a schoenkeit.”
“Sure,” I said and broke away. “A ‘shane-kite’. Have it your way.”
There comes a point in every story or recollection where the one doing the remembering is called on to take a step back and reflect, to picture Michael and Schteiner leaping high up into the air or to see my father extending himself past his limit to block the ball, the number on his forearm giving wing. But that would be a fiction, just like the one the Doughboy told when the interviewer asked if people ever ask about the numbers on his arm: Yeh. I say it’s deh telefun number. A joke I’ve heard many times over the years, yet a line I doubt has ever been uttered in mixed company.
But in some sense my father was right to insist I knew nothing and it was not worth paying attention to even a word that came from my mouth, that he was right to maintain it had been schoen. But the schoenkeit, the beauty of which he spoke was not simply the sight of Michael and Schteiner fighting like mad dogs over the ball. And the schoenkeit of which he spoke was not even his wonder at the blood that brightened my mother’s cheek each time he said her name. Nor was it the sight of the three sons he had made with her. It was instead a world filled with another kind of schoenkeit, a fearsome, furious world of beauty that he, not I, knew firsthand, a world that he pronounced schoen, the one in which the echo and afterglow are all that remains.
Robert Rosenberg, a writer, is at work on a book.