A Taste of Elena's Story29.11.2014 09:50
Paul Richard Sully
Copyright © 2014 Paul Richard Sully
All rights reserved.
In the Ghetto
“This tragedy fills me with astonishment as well as with indignation, and it illustrates as nothing else can the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme,” Winston Churchill
Tel Aviv, Israel 2004
The woman pushed the buzzer again. She listened out carefully for the intercom, whilst behind her the traffic noisily bustled. She waited and at last, a crackle was heard. “Hello, who’s there?” The voice was hard, suspicious and frayed at the edges. “It’s Amichai, your carer.” She waited for a response but there was still silence. “Did the agency tell you I was coming? Your carer!” She repeated it, louder this time, wondering if her new client was deaf.
The faint voice again issued through the static. “I’m on the third floor”. The lock buzzed and pushing against the door, Amichai entered an atrium. Furnished simply, a table stood alone with an alabaster bust, its brass plaque engraved with the name Heracles. On the wall was a large plain mirror, its frame dusty. The foyer was unexpectedly light and airy, the traffic now distant as the door clicked shut. Such space was now only available to the wealthy. Even if next to Ibn Gabriol, there would be views across Yarkon or at least of the park’s palm trees. This coastal town had long since been rolled into the urban sprawl of Tel Aviv and the Yafo district was now sought after real estate. Yet once, this land had been cheap, then, just sprawling orange groves.
Amichai’s rounded hips complained as she turned the last steps. At an open door leaning on a stick was her client, a woman probably about eighty, her hair dyed red her skin wrinkled and well lived in. She smiled, though it was contrived, for at the same time her eyes scanned the younger woman with suspicion. Satisfied, she beckoned Amichai through into her apartment
A seventies build, the apartment was well proportioned, though the fussy furniture spoiled its potential. A plump sofa was covered in worn beige velvet, while the dining table varnish was bleached from sun exposure. It all gave a cluttered impression not helped by piles of books scattered about the floor, subjects ranging from Cookery to Art to Politics. Strong daylight sliced through the blind slats reflecting off colored glass vases, perched on every shelf and spare surface.
“Well, this is my place,” said the old woman. Supporting herself with the stick, she introduced Amichai to different rooms. At first opportunity, the carer opened a balcony door to let in fresh air and stepped gingerly out over dead plants. She drew in a breath, for its view of the Bat Yam coastline was still magnificent, despite being jostled by high-rise blocks. Below, the estuary landscape gave a peaceful impression, despite being sullied by the traffic noise of a nearby bridge.
“I can’t bear the draft,” The old woman protested, motioning Amichai to return into the room. “Can’t bear a draft,” she insisted clinging to the door handle. The carer had been warned to expect bizarre behaviour and quickly stepped back in to avoid offence. Leaving the fresh air behind, the airlessness of the apartment was now noticeable. Slumping back into her armchair, the old woman began speaking, though Amichai was not sure whether her attention was required. It was difficult to follow that accent with its strong European tone. She also felt unsettled by bleached eyes that followed and scrutinized every move.
“I’ll start with the kitchen and bathrooms. If I keep the door closed, you won’t feel the draft.”
“We haven’t been properly introduced yet,” retorted the dame, her veined hands straining against her stick.
“I’m Amichai, did the agency explain?”
“Yes, yes I know all that. My name is Tzipora Orenstein, it’s a mouthful to pronounce, so you may call me Elena.” She hesitated then carried on into a rambling discourse as if a well-rehearsed lecture requiring no comment. “We were here in 1947. The British were in charge then. Nothing but barren land, but we didn’t care. Our dream was to create a land free from the horror we had been through.”
“Well, I’ll get started.” Amichai moved towards the kitchen. Tzipora struggled to lift herself out of the chair and following, she continued to mutter almost as if in a trance. Every time, the carer opened a window, she would firmly close it behind her. There was no malice in the action, it was all done inattentively.
“My husband fought in the independence war. He never got any medals. None of us did those days. We had a cause and with our past, we had no fear of death. None of the youngsters today understand this. Who wants to listen to a grumpy old woman? Thank God for Ariel! Without him, we might as well forget the past. Now you! you wouldn’t understand this. It’s all just money to you. Not for us! We worked the land as if it were our own bodies. The orange groves may now be converted into yuppie flats, but we farmed these fields when they were full of Arab snipers. And we were happy to do so. Freedom was as good for us, as the juice in those oranges.”
She rambled on unconcerned whether Amichai listened or not. Yet, every time something was moved, the woman slowly retrieved the object and abstractedly replaced it in its previous position. All the while, she talked as if holding this conversation with herself. Warned that Tzipora was capable of sudden outbursts of temper, Amichai gently nodded or said yes and generally tried to avoid comment on this one sided dialogue. Already, three of her predecessors had refused to work for the woman, complaining of insults and, even on one occasion, of a battering. Looking at the frail creature, Amichai smiled to herself to recall that story.
Reaching up to dust a shelf, she was about to pick up a glass piece, when Tzipora became agitated. “Please don’t touch him!” Despite discomfort, she reached past Amichai and picked up the vase. “They’re from Bohemia and would cost a fortune to replace,” she said. This routine continued every time she reached one of the glass pieces. Each one was referred to as if it were a person. This was a her and this was a him. Each time, she would hobble forward and hold it, while Amichai wiped the surface. She tolerated it; she had other eccentric clients and knew that people alone were prone to be odd. Assuming the pieces to represent people, she avoided touching them. In the meantime, this strange conversation carried on in the background. If she did comment, Tzipora ignored her, as if she hadn’t spoken.
“I’m the youngest daughter of Havel Prikaznova. I wasn’t called Tzipora then. My original name is Elena. We lived in Humenné, Eastern Slovakia. Even if we were closer to the Polish and Ukrainian borders, we ignored these links, for we were proud to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The great Andrassy Palace dominated our town, enough to impress the most respectable Viennese noble. My father was a doctor and owned the steam baths. His clients came from Vienna, Kosice and Prague, all suffering from TB and similar diseases associated with smog. He didn’t believe in pills, prescribing instead a walk through nearby pine forests, followed by sauna and steam bath. Many called him a quack, although nowadays his advice would be valued. Quack or not, his client list was always full and his reputation as an honest man was without question.
At home, we were fluent in German, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak. It was a close family, us relaxed in each other’s company. Mother and Father were gentle people. Father always instilled in us the need to respect the community. He was not an ambitious man. Instead, he appreciated simple things. My sister Rozinjska, four years my senior, was a little apart from the family, particularly after she married Martin. Yet, we two were close, her helping me with homework and private things. I recall long summer days celebrating Sabbath. We were not a religious family; however, we always took it easy on this day. Long family hikes were taken, searching for wild mushrooms. Huge Steinpilze1 and Parasols1 and bursting Pfifferlings1 grew everywhere on those late summer days. He was always Herr Doktor, when we met other walkers. Our life then, was entirely normal and, in the local community, Father was revered and respected.
I recognized that I was different when turning fifteen. Although hard to perceive, I noticed faces turn and rooms quieten, as I walked in. It was a gift from above, particularly for one previously described as ‘snotty’ and ‘little miss thinks she’s rich’. I could not believe that it was actually me taking their attention. My sister became protective and boys considerate. Doors would open and jokes would be laughed at, while invitations flooded in from sisters of interested boys.
We knew of our background as Jews, yet in those days, it was nothing unusual. Havel was a peaceful man with a passion for looking after others. Many times, mother complained after he had been up all night, caring for some client’s breathing problems. ‘You’re working yourself into an early grave,’ she would say. Even when it was obvious that the Germans wanted us dead, he was the one who optimistically looked forward to a better time. He couldn’t accept humans, as being capable of evil.
Hitler forced Benes19 to give up Sudetenland in 1938. It was Czechoslovakia’s equivalent to the Maginot line and when Hitler bullied his way in, we knew he would soon take more. My father scrutinized the dailies, pointing out signals that foretold an invasion. Like Benes, we were powerless to stop them. It’s hard to believe it, how we sat around watching this happen, but then they were different times. The Nazis invaded in March 1939 and the speed, with which they took control, stunned us. Being in the east of the country, we were shared out to their Hungarian ally, though our treatment was the same.
They summoned us on April 19th to the town hall, where they told us our fate. The Slovak Parliament had passed anti-Semitic laws, meaning that, from now on, Jews were required to register occupation, location and family details. Quotas were introduced, defining how many Jews were entitled to hold professional status. They gave us cards and told us to write down our details. Our lives became difficult and the business was the first to suffer. Schooling was disrupted, such that Father eventually hired a Jewish tutor to come to the house.”
Elena reached out and gripped Amichai’s arm. She looked across with intense eyes. “But you know it wasn’t the Germans who did this to us. No, it was those people who had been so respectful to us. It was our neighbours, teachers, servants and shopkeepers. It was the Slovaks that took apart our life. They just used the Germans as an excuse.” She looked down, nodding in disgust.
“In June 1940, new laws were passed, forcing us to sell our property to Arizators2. He was a local man and member of the city council. When I returned years later, he still held the property. They forced us to rent an apartment in the poor district, but this proved to be luxury, compared with what awaited us later. In what I recall of the Holocaust, one thing remains with me the most. We never expected it to get worse. If only we could put up with the present hardship, we would later recover, yet they slowly immersed us from one horror into another. In 1941, most families were sent to the countryside away from their friends. They were told that they should train to be farmers to be able to live in a Jewish autonomous region to be set up in Lüblin, Poland. The Slovak government even allotted a special fund of 500 Reich marks per Jew to pay for seeds. I tell you this, for that’s how my brother and I ended up heading north east. We were simply too naïve to understand, how committed they were to our destruction. Then, we believed every lie and hoped every hope.
We ended up in the Kosice ghetto. Like all Jews, we wore the yellow Star of David. Anybody found not wearing it, would be beaten and likely as not might disappear. My father was the most naïve of them all, for even after they forced him to sell his practice and deported us to Kosice, he just nodded his head sadly and sought a way to help. Volunteering as ghetto doctor and, despite his failing health, he worked like a soldier. “They can’t do anything worse to us than this” he would sigh.
That first week in the ghetto was harsh by any standard. It was situated in a brick factory, surrounded by barbed wire. Escape was impossible and every entry and exit from the ghetto required you to walk through a gate, above which was written “WOHNGEBIET DER JUDEN BETRETEN VERBOTEN” (Jews living quarter. Entry forbidden). ‘Bring only, what you can carry!’ they told us, so we didn’t need much space. Father collected together anything valuable and as we arrived, his watch was sold to get us a warm spot. Only two big stoves heated our floor and with the damp factory air, we were left permanently cold.
A grimy staircase led to the second floor. We were not the first occupants; the warmer lower floors had already been occupied. Our space was shared with three families, scandalous at the time, but again, comfort compared with what was to come. On the factory floor, compartments divided the space using string and sheets. We enjoyed good terms, with our neighbours and quickly agreed on a fair partition of the space. Every morning, bedclothes would be hung over the string to air; privacy was practically non-existent. The third family, a young couple with a baby, were given the most private space. Havel hung a painting on the string, reminding us of our old home and that first night, we huddled together to keep warm, telling each other stories of our old life. Mother’s eyes were wet that evening, though she did her best not to let us see her pain.
In the ghetto, I began work. With a group of women, I would scrub floors of the railway station. The brick factory was on the outskirts, so we had to march across town every day. I cannot count how many times we were spat upon, stones thrown at us and generally abused. It all happened and by persons who we could have once considered friends. They expected us to work like slaves for nothing, while our Slovak and Hungarian masters made sure we didn’t slacken. Hot and cold days were the worst, for they took pleasure in making us work outside open to the elements. We all smelled then and I couldn’t remember the joy of a bath. The only positive side of this was that while you got used to your own smell, it did enough to keep the guards away.
Father worked in the town metal works. Once getting back, he would always be reading. Books were gold dust in the ghetto, passed on from hand to hand. He claimed to be happy living without material possessions.
My sister Rozinjska was already married when we moved to the ghetto. In her time, she had been a fine looking woman. Martin was a chemist, a clever man and, like father compassionate with it. He wasn’t much to look at, although he had beautiful red hair. Some people don’t like this colour, yet I love it. When we sat together, we could have been brother and sister. My sister was blond from father’s side. Martin was part Christian and in those days, he didn’t wear the Star. It meant that my sister and her daughter were permitted to live outside the ghetto. In the first weeks, they regularly visited us, smuggling in odd treats such as jam and conserves. Mother would fuss over these presents, delighting in the preparation of sweetbread. Later on, the guards cracked down, stopping people like Rozinjska from importing such specialities.
With time, Rozinjska suffered moments of depression, which would show itself in mad torrents of abuse against her husband who she wrongly blamed for our treatment.
“Look what your people are doing to mine!” she would scream, as Martin shifted from side to side. Father hushed Rozinjska, but his emaciated features only set her off more. “My own father is nothing more than skin and bones.” She would approach her husband, as if she wanted to punch him. He tried to hold her, though this made her angrier setting off the tears. She would push him away. My sister was comforted by mother, as she sobbed. I resented these outbursts, given that she did not have to put up with overflowing toilets and wooden bread.
Once, I told mother this and she held me, tenderly excusing my sister. “Elena you don’t understand these things. When you are older and have your own husband, perhaps you will see how the body plays cruel tricks.” Later I learned that my sister had recently miscarried.
A difficulty of the ghetto was passing through gate control. There, one officer took particular pleasure in his duties. Smuggling food into the ghetto was forbidden and this man would randomly search men and women, returning from work. Laszlo Czatary was commander of the ghetto, a man who frequently carried a whip. His face was thin and sculpted, but it was the cruel eyes that told you, something was wrong with this man. Like a lot of Hlinka officers, he had that intense look of somebody who knew what it was like to kill. His mouth was compact and often turned down at the sides, as if in a sulk. We knew he was a senior officer and that he didn’t need to come down to gate control. We also knew that when he did come, treatment was likely to be harsh, especially for us women. The controls were normally done by Wiese and Errelis. They were cruel men at the best of times, but with Czatary, they became especially zealous.
One day, I arrived at the control point, just as the rumours started to flow down the column “Chaty’s here”. We shivered. It was like Russian roulette and, as we approached, the floor was strewn with food and medicine. It was all so tantalisingly near, you just wanted to pick it up. The entrance we used was in Castle Street, where the road narrowed, leading into the aptly named Butchers Lane. The Jupo3 with their special caps and armbands scolded those, throwing away food. They themselves were petrified that guards would see the food and then punish them. The queue slowed and we heard shouting coming from the checkpoint. It was Wiese and he sounded angry.
The checkpoint was previously a retail store and there were still price tags on the window. The queue stopped and one of the people in front started to cry, short whimpering sounds like those of a rabbit. Otherwise, the crowd was silent, with some of the braver souls tiptoeing to see what was going on. Then whispers started in the crowd ‘Its Kimche. He’s been caught with a loaf.’ Combined with a chill wind and drizzle, I was thinking that we would catch our deaths out there. Then we heard the scream. I didn’t catch the words, but I heard later that he had called out ‘He wants to kill me.’ The crowd again went quiet and all we could hear was the huffing of a steam train, on the other side of town. Like our hearts, the train panted away and over the roofs we could see the column of steam rising. Then, we heard the shot and my friend Cziby jumped. I held her hand to calm her.
Then, the crowd began to move again and soon, it was our turn. Errelis stopped us, my heart jumping to my throat. ‘Do you have any food?’ he barked. I nodded my head in the negative, my voice croaking as I said ‘no’. ‘Search them!’ said Wiese his deep set eyes sparkling with a malicious smile. Czatary walked forward in my direction, whilst Errelis searched Cziby. The senior man stood opposite me so close that I could smell his breath. He had been eating Schmalzbrot4. He then placed his hands on my shoulders, slowly lowering them onto my breasts. I just couldn’t do anything but stand there. He left his hands on them and his fingers touched my nipples. I felt them swell against my will. His cold face broke out into a smile and I was reminded of the eggs that we painted as youngsters. His hands then went lower.
“Do you like that?” he whispered. I nodded afraid to contradict him. My friend was also being ‘slow searched’. I caught a rapid side glimpse. She had been done before and her eyes told me not to react. Czatary stepped away from me and, with a flick of his whip; he said ‘nothing to declare.’ Errelis also declared Cziby clean. Wiese still held the pistol and jerked us to move on. I looked down. From under the office door, a pool of blood was spreading, presumably from poor Kimche’s body.is Hi
Of course, it wasn’t all bad during the ghetto years and we as a family settled into a routine where we found we could live without the piano and fine paintings of our old house. We sang for entertainment and Father had me take lessons. Where he found the money was a mystery, yet little was he to know how he preserved his family through this expense. Chassidic5 tales replaced radio as our recreation, with our various communities congregating on Friday evening. The sheet partitions would be re-arranged, so we could imagine being in the synagogue. Somebody took the lead, having studied to perfection his allocated story. These diversions were essential moments of joy in a grim existence.
The most memorable of these tales was a story, heard one wet November evening. The man recounting the story was orthodox sporting a full beard and curly locks. He appeared as a serious character, yet this contradicted a cheeky accent and a sparkle in his eyes. Later, I witnessed this spark extinguished, for he joined me in Oswiecim6. As a prop to the story, a small mirror was from one of the sheet wall partitions, testament to better days. All of us took turns looking into it, our shadowy profiles still visible in the weak and smoky light of home-made candles. Everybody was seated and after the elders quietened us down, he began his tale.
“There was once a fine house, owned by a prosperous merchant, and within this property hung a beautiful mirror. Fitted above a marble fireplace, it rose to the ceiling in its wide gold frame of intricately carved angels. Everyone admired it, although they noticed its imperfection. One could see that part of the mirror was damaged. “It’s a shame that your mirror is scratched," his visitors would comment. Now, imagine their surprise, when the owner told them that he had deliberately scraped the silver backing. “How could you do such a terrible thing?” He would put up his hand, letting them know, they would hear the whole story.
Many years ago, in a small Polish town, there was a man called Abraham. He was a poor man and earned barely enough to take care of his family. His shop had few customers, because he had few things to choose from. People preferred to go to the big stores, where they could be entertained looking at a rich choice of glittering products. ‘How could he compete?’ He reflected sadly. And yet, Abraham was happy with his life. His was a simple one, where family and community had first place. He was loved by everybody, because he always helped his neighbour. If a house needed a new lick of paint, he was the first person to offer help. His house was simple and threadbare. His curtains were little more than rags, his carpet worn through and his cups and plates chipped, all because his money had been given to help those poorer than himself. Yet, it was spotlessly clean and his welcome always warm. Everybody knew and respected him as a kind and honest man.
One day, whilst waiting at his shop entrance, he noticed a tired and dusty stranger.
“My friend, you look in need of rest. Come inside! I have a goulash that my wife has been stewing these past two days. Imagine those soft chunks of beef melting in your mouth? Can you smell that rich sauce of paprika and kummel, so spicy that it will keep you warm through the night? This one will speak to you both ways,” he winked at the stranger. “I can offer a piece of rye bread, so soft; it will just cushion itself on your tongue, like a soft feather bed. Once I spread butter on it, the whole thing will melt away.”
“You can imagine,” said Elena in an aside to Amichai, “food stories were very popular in the ghetto. We sat about, our tongues out, imagining that wonderful meal.”
“Come inside and rest!” said Abraham, “you will be my guest! I have a beer whose hops you can practically taste, whose froth is so soft you can practically wash your face in it.”
The men licked their lips and some mimicked raising a Stein to their lips. “Abraham’s welcome was so warm that the outsider could not refuse his invitation. Little did his host know that the wanderer was in fact an important Rabbi who happened to be on his way to a wedding. In Poland, this man was well known and was called upon to travel far and wide, on account of his wisdom and blessings. A man of Abraham’s stature would not normally expect the honour of a visit from such a famous man. However the Rabbi noticed the kindness and generosity of his host. He reflected that, though his rich friends gave more to the poor, it was so much more to give, when you were poor yourself. When he finished eating, the Rabbi blessed Abraham, wishing him riches to continue his work for the poor.
The neighbours noticed the visit and word soon got about that the Rabbi was indeed the famous man that blessed rich people. They began to whisper that Abraham was an important person, with a great destiny ahead. After the visit, people began to shop at his store. They no longer walked to the other side of town. In fact, Abraham enlarged his shop and the bigger it became; the more people came, because his variety started to rival the other shops. Success breeds success and it was not long, before he opened a second shop. Soon he was the richest man in town. The Rabbi’s wishes had indeed come true.
Poor people believe it is wonderful to be rich, yet little do they know of the challenges of wealth. Now that Abraham had a big store, he worried about robbers stealing. He worried about the future of his business and as it became bigger, he had less time for his private life. He began to neglect his wife and family and of course, he had little time to study the Torah. He continued giving money to the poor; however, he was now so busy, he no longer had time to listen to their stories. Instead, they were met with impatience and he soon employed a secretary to receive and hear the problems of his poor neighbours.
Abraham and his wife moved to a large house in the prestigious part of town. Extravagant furniture filled the many rooms. Gone were the ragged curtains of his past. Instead, he looked out of long fine windows draped in rich red velvet. The floors were covered with rugs imported from exotic locations. A kitchen as big as his old house, its walls lined with copper pans, delivered food, served on translucent porcelain from Bohemia. The living room was furnished in cherry wood, polished to a shine, the chairs upholstered in softest velvet. On the wall, hung pictures from the Viennese academy and in pride of place, the angel mirror. On seeing it, everyone expressed delight, claiming that they never looked so well, as in the reflection of this mirror. It was truly a masterpiece.
Servants trained in Vienna’s best families, kept the house so clean that even he and his wife sometimes felt like strangers. He became conscious of the grubbiness of poor people who he had previously welcomed. He no longer wanted visitors, turning away beggars from his door. No longer did he listen to their stories and now they were no longer invited to a meal. Instead, servants were tasked with receiving the needy at the rear door. They would still receive money, but it was no longer from Abraham’s hands and the poor were expected to leave as soon as they had taken alms. People began to say, "Abraham has changed. Riches have gone to his head and he’s not the same person. It’s such a pity! He was always so kind and good, but look at him now! He’s not one of us anymore."
Time passed with Abraham continuing to get richer. Tales of his fortune reached the Rabbi who now needed money, as bail for a friend in prison on false charges. At the time, he was infirm, so he sent his secretary with a letter asking for help. The secretary knocked on Abraham’s front door to be met by a servant who told him to go to the rear door. The secretary was surprised, since he remembered his master’s praise of Abraham’s welcome. On reaching the rear door, he was met by another servant who made him wait in a cold room at the back of the house. He wasn’t offered food or drink and it was several hours, before he was received by a haughty secretary. This person huffed and hawed over the request, telling him how busy his master was. Eventually, the letter was delivered to Abraham who read it quickly and told the secretary to give what was asked. The emissary was sent away without food or wine.
The messenger returned with the money and told the Rabbi of his treatment. The old man shook his head sadly. He decided that he would visit Abraham and see for himself how true these stories were. Despite his bad hip, he made the journey. Arriving at the house very tired, he knocked on the door announcing himself. Abraham came to the door, delighted to welcome him again. The Rabbi was invited to dine and while waiting the younger man enthusiastically showed the visitor his grand house. The Rabbi was pleased to see that his secretary’s comments proved not to be true.
However, though impressive, he soon realized that the house lacked the warmth and friendliness when compared with the small cottage. He walked on exotic rugs, felt the richness of the drapes, wondered at the beauty of the paintings and enjoyed the fine food and wines imported from France. Who could fail to be impressed by lobster bisque and truffles, melting on your tongue? Not just the black ones we saw at market. Nothing was good enough for Abraham. On top of steaming pasta were shavings of exquisite white truffle. He drank Grand Cru Burgundy, clear as distilled blood, from twinkling lead crystal. For dessert, the two men marvelled over chocolate soufflé rounded off with the finest Arabica coffee done espresso fashion. Everything was a pure sensation to the tastes, yet somehow, something was missing.
The Rabbi stood up and walked to the window, where the lace undulated with the breeze. “Quite a change! Quite a change!” Despite his insensitive nature, Abraham could sense the Rabbi said this with a heavy heart.
He looked over with surprise. “A change indeed Rabbi. I have a lot to be thankful for. Your blessing has brought me good fortune.” Standing up with a pleased smile, he steered his visitor towards the mirror “Of all the things I own, I love this mirror the most. It cost me ten times more than the most expensive mirror, but it was worth every Zlotych7.”
The Rabbi walked to the mirror and turning to Abraham he said “Tell me Abraham! what do you see in the mirror?”
The younger man was at first puzzled, looking into the mirror, “I see myself! That is what I see in the mirror. I see my own reflection.”
But the Rabbi persisted. “Look closer! and tell me, if you see anything else.”
Abraham strained. “I see my beautiful furniture, exotic rugs, the sun shining through the windows and the remains of our marvellous meal.”
The Rabbi then walked over to the window and signalled him to follow. He pointed in the direction of the town over the splendid gardens.
“Tell me now what you see!” said the Rabbi
The house was not far from the road and Abraham pointed out the people he knew and as he did so, the Rabbi asked him about each individual. There, was Judith the widow with three children, forced to sell country flowers in the market. She hoped people would put food into her trade basket. He indicated Bentze the carrier, now too old to carry water. And there was Yankel, the tailor who prayed daily, despite being too poor to feed his own children. As he did this, he became curious why the Rabbi should be so interested in these ordinary people.
"Why do you ask these questions?" enquired Abraham.
The Rabbi looked into Abraham’s eyes and took the man’s hand in his.
“When you look in the mirror, you see yourself and your possessions. In fact, you only see what is reflected, because the silver backing the mirror, does not allow light to filter through from behind. When you looked through the window, you saw much more. Can you see that although both the mirror and the window are made of glass, your perspective on life through each is different? When the glass is covered with silver, you only see yourself, whereas glass without silver allows you to see so much more. If you scratched the silver off the mirror, do you think you would see more of yourself?”
At last Abraham understood the message, his eyes filling with tears.
The Rabbi returned home, happy in the knowledge that he had guided his charge to this realization. Abraham himself invited the whole town that evening. The party was the most extravagant and the gardens rang with laughter, as guests helped themselves to delicate pastries. Honey cake, Cinnamon Babka and Strudel with vanilla sauce, its filling so moist and its pastry so flaky, the town had never seen anything of its sort before. The master ordered his fresh strawberries to be given out and last year’s apples were crushed to produce juice for the crowd.
At the end of the evening, Abraham stood up confessing how sorry he was for letting riches change him. He told them, he had changed his ways and that his door was now open for anyone needing help. At the end of the evening, when the last of the guests had bidden goodbye, he took up a knife from the dining table and approached the mirror. He then proceeded to scrape the silver away from the back of the mirror, only stopping, when one corner was as clear as glass.
As the story came to an end, the women clasped their hands together. For a moment, our suffering and drudgery was put aside. Our hunger was surfeited with goulash, strudel and truffle. We sat about in that sheet lined square and gained warmth from being together. Families reunited for a moment. At the end of the story, Rabbi stood up to recite prayers. Those stories, its images remain so vivid that, despite our suffering, in fact as a result of our suffering, I can safely say, there has never been a story since, to move me as that ghetto tale did.
Mother grew weak. She gave her rations to us. Despite this, she still kept our space spotless. The ghetto continued to fill up and space was soon short. In time, we received a visit from Dr. Brawer, Head of the Judenrat8.
“A new family is arriving tomorrow,” he announced, while his arm-banded assistant leered.
“Dr. Brawer, we’ve used our space to its fullest. There’s no more room. There must be space elsewhere,” pleaded father, who knew Brawer through his friend Schulkes.
“It’s difficult Mr Prikaznova. Block 5 is already two families to a space and in Block 2 we have some areas with three. As one of our valued hospital workers, I’ve avoided asking you.” He paused for a moment and his colleague looked over at him. “Unfortunately, the pressure is too much.” He was stressed, having to balance increasingly aggressive demands from the Hlinkas with a loyalty to his people.
The conversation lasted minutes, even though it seemed hours, as we came to terms with the need to share our space. Dr. Brawer had many visits to make, so he excused himself, not before telling us the name of our new neighbour. We found out to our dismay, that not only did we have to share, but it was to be with a Viennese family, the Freilichmanns. When they turned up, they wore well-tailored, if frayed clothes. They carried warm blankets which we immediately coveted. You could see disappointment with the accommodation. They had arrived from the countryside where conditions had been less restricted. Mother worked to rearrange the strings, making room for the newcomers.
Previously corn merchants, they were used to having money. The wife regularly burst into tears, at one point exclaiming “Look what we’ve come to that we should share with such company.” My mother, despite her ill health, squared up. “Who do you think you are?” she yelled. “We’re all in the same boat now and no amount of old boat glory will save you from what they have in store for us.”
It was the first time, I heard from her about a plan, other than living in the ghetto. Later that night, I edged up to her. Our blankets were threadbare and as we lay on the floor, we huddled to keep warm. I always lay next to Mother, while my brother and father slept the other direction. All night long, we could smell their feet. I made sure everybody was asleep, though I could hear from her laboured breathing that she was still awake.
“Mother what will come of us?” I asked. She murmured that I should sleep, but I pressed her digging my finger in her ribs.
“Please mother, I won’t tell the others. Tell me! The people at the station are saying awful things.”
Her breathing stopped for a second as she turned her head toward me. Her voice was hoarse; I could see and hear in it, her suffering. “What did you hear my darling?” She put her hand against my face, caressing my cheek.
“They tell me that they will send us to factories in the east run by the Nazis. We’re to become slaves and the Germans will shoot us when we’re tired.”
She stroked my cheek, in a way I could never forget my whole life. “Don’t be so silly Elena! How can they do anything worse than what they do to us now? I’ll talk to Havel and get you a hospital position. They’re just rumours, spread by the Hlinka9, to keep us down. Trust in God and all will come good!” She held my head in her hands and kissed me. Gently she murmured. “You are my special, I love you very much.”
One week later she died. It was cancer, though we believed she died of a broken heart. Father told us, she was ill long before we came to the ghetto. She didn’t want to worry us. In that week, she declined rapidly, at the end not even able to raise herself. I woke in the early hours to see Father bending over her. He uttered his pleas in a calm way, as if she should get up and make coffee, however she didn’t answer. She had slipped into unconsciousness just after five in the morning (I counted the bells). Her breathing became a sort of rattle, her mouth seeking air, even though her eyes stayed shut. It lasted some twenty minutes before she coughed and her body then relaxed in death. The silence was broken by the half hour bell, which set father off. Great tears dropped from his chin and while we all held onto each other my eyes were hot and wet. I touched her face, except it was like touching wax. It was the first time, I encountered death in our family and I was shocked by the transformation of a living body into the immobility of a corpse.
There was no time to mourn in the ghetto. Despite our begging, the Jupo3 insisted we report to work, as normal. “It will only cause trouble for the rest. The Hlinkas don’t have any sympathy for family mourning.” Even Father had to go to the hospital, whilst Frau Freilichmann prepared the body and sought a shroud. She was directed to Frau Berger in Block 5, who had earlier worked for Chevra Kadisha10. She gave us a Tachrichim10 at a reasonable price. Father had vowed to treat his wife better than the anonymous bodies seen passing daily in the cart. As a doctor, he was allowed the privilege of a shroud, for most of dead were buried in their clothes in mass graves on the outskirts of Kosice. The privilege did not extend to a day off work and we trooped off in the morning. My way to the station passed a small incline and the houses on this road had stones against the wall. As I passed by, I pretended to tie my shoelaces, nicking a flat pebble into my pocket. It stayed there all day and, countless times, I rolled it in my hand rubbing off dirt. I was sure mother would appreciate this stone and it comforted me that she would have this on her journey. That night, we said prayers over her shrouded body and I remember it, as when the Freilichmanns became our friends.
The next day, the three men lugged the body down the stairs and we waited for the corpse wagon to pass. It was an old horse wagon with canvass cover. It would arrive in the ghetto before roll call, the driver long since having lost the art of respect. Her body was shunted into its interior, lined up alongside three unshrouded bodies (at least Havel could be proud of that). Father was crying and asked the cart driver, if he could go with her.
“Don’t be stupid!” said the man roughly. He sported a beard, his armband denoting him as one of the Jüdischer Ordnungspolizei3. “The Germans won’t let you ride in the cart, unless you want to be buried with her. Accompanying a corpse increases disease, that’s what they say. Besides, they would never let you out of the ghetto, other than for work. You know the rules, so just say your goodbyes. Be quick! I don’t have much time.”
Despite his crude nature, he stepped back, whilst we pulled back the canvass sheet. Lighting up a cigarette, he stepped away from the cart. I left my stone on her shroud and we then said goodbye to mother.
Frau Freilichmann became mother from that day and father helped her husband get a job as porter in the ward which, for the older man, was a blessing. Life again settled into a routine. Food was always short. Father was well connected with the Judenrat, so we got some preferential treatment. Despite this, our rations had to stretch further and further, leaving us terribly thin. Nevertheless, we stuck together as a determined family unit. Father’s influence in the community meant that he was invited to chair a lower committee of the Judenrat. Everybody said that he was the most honest of a bad lot. I’m not sure, that classes it as a compliment, except you have to understand that the Judenrat was often more hated than the Gestapo. It served several purposes. Its main responsibilities lay in sharing out food, escorting and allocating labour groups to the factories and keeping order in the ghetto. Worst of all, it decided on the transports.
I always met Father on Thursday night to give him company on the way home. One evening, as I went to collect him, a young man greeted me. I didn’t know him, but saw the armband, so I respectfully smiled. He was an ugly sort, tall with dark thin hair and iron rimmed glasses. His face was rutted with, what I thought was severe acne, although later I found out the cause to be smallpox. I think he would have been about twenty. “I’m David Rabin.” He put a hand out and I reluctantly shook it. There was a strangeness about him that made me shiver, in that his eyes rolled and, despite a soft and soothing voice, there was something hard and grasping in his nature.
“You are Havel’s daughter? I think Elena is your name,” he said.
I answered politely, looking away and hoping that Father would come soon. I always knew I was beautiful. The girl with auburn hair and violet eyes was always noticed. My hair came from Mother whereas my eyes from Father. Even as a skinny tyke, I stood out as a looker in the ghetto and Father would proudly walk beside me along Lagerstrasse11. I never considered my effect on other men, but I soon found out that I had attracted attention from several young men including David. He pestered me with information, telling me that he was a cantor and that his father worked with mine. Before I knew it, he had asked me for a date. Until then, I had never been on a date. Given the crowded conditions, dating was not an attractive prospect. Still, the thought of dating David turned my stomach. He just didn’t attract me. I was relieved to use Father’s arrival as an excuse to deflect the question. I gave him a short smile, putting my hand through Father’s arm, as we walked off.
“Who was that boy giving you attention?” he asked.
“Oh some schmuck called Rabin,” I answered, making a spitting sound.
Father scolded me for being vulgar. “He must be Rabin’s son. He used to be a hospital porter. Now, we’re all doctors. Everybody does everything, though I’ll admit Rabin does a good job, despite his lack of training. He told me his son was in the Jupo. I wouldn’t be so proud, if Marc joined up.”
After a while, we realized that David and his father were following us and despite speeding up, Rabin shouted a greeting. Father felt obliged to stop, even though I could see, he did not like him. He was as ever polite and respectful.
“My dear Havel!” Rabin raised a hand to his forehead in a gesture better known in rural parts. “Well done in the meeting! You were truly impressive. I see, the young ones have become acquainted.” He expansively indicated us two. “You can’t keep them apart now. David tells me, they’ve already organized a date.” He cuffed his son playfully on the cheek.
My father was slow to react and, before he could protest, Rabin had walked off, shouting back at us. “That’s fixed then. David will call on Thursday at seven. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” We stood rooted to the ground and I looked into Father’s face.
“I won’t do it Father” I said. Hot hatred ran through me. “I will speak to Rabin” was Father’s timid reply and, for a moment, my normally solid respect for him slipped.
There was no getting out of the date, without creating a fuss. Despite a frantic family conference, David single-handedly overturned every doubt. He arrived in his uniform, the yellow band on his removed cap matching exactly his armband. Rozinjska advised that we should turn away this upstart as soon as he arrived, yet David could charm even his enemies. He simply stepped up, greeting the men of the family with that lopsided smile and unusual walk. Before we knew it, the whole room felt sorry for him.
“Are you ready my dear?” he said, the room silent, all eyes looking toward me. I’ve never been able to harm a fly and his hangdog expression was such that I just nodded.
“I’ll get my coat.” So much for resistance, I think the Prikaznova family was never known for its ability to make a stand. At least, we could never have been accused of being proud, not that it helped me that evening.
The evening passed by without event, except that David confirmed another meeting next week. This, he said in parting at the stairwell, in the hearing of others. It was a matter of days, before the whole block and my working group knew about the romance. I went on one further date. By then the man completely repulsed me and when he tried to kiss me, I turned away. He looked rueful, nodding to himself as he replaced that hated cap. “So, are we to meet next week as usual?”
“David, it’s all too quick. I’m too young to be settling down.”
“What! You’re already eighteen. At this age, many women are already married. Certainly, you’re not too young by my reckoning. Elena you are very special to me. Perhaps…” he said with his voice modifying. “Perhaps, you consider yourself above me.”
“No it’s not that.” I whispered, sensing that ears were pointed in our direction.
“Well let me tell you dear Elena! Your father may be a doctor, but here it doesn’t mean anything. The one with the cap has the power and those fancy intellectuals now have to stand up and listen to us.” I looked on in disbelief, as he strutted away. My initial wave of anger and disgust subsided and was replaced with fear that I could have marked my family. We had deliberately steered clear of the Judenrat, fearing that, with the overcrowding, upsetting a Jupo could result in election to the feared transports.
From this day, events turned to the worse for our family. We were impacted by the fact that, in March 1942, the Slovak government agreed to deport Jews to Poland. They began moving Jews from the ghetto to new transit camps in Sered, Novaky and Vyhne. As a doctor, Father would normally have been exempt from these transports. However, shortly after my fallout with David, we received another visit from Dr. Brawer. This man, later also transported to Oswiecim, told us that Father’s name had come up in the lottery and that he was to be one of the persons to be sent to Sered next week.
“You needn’t worry about it. It is our own people. They would never dare hurt our own.”
“Dr. Brawer, you know my circumstances. With my wife gone, who will look after Elena?”
“Havel, she is of age. Maybe it is time for her to make her own life.”
Normally, I was a quiet person, but this comment incensed me. “Don’t worry about me father! I’m coming with you.” I pouted.
Father turned to me with dread. “You can’t do that Elena. Your brother and sister need you.”
“They don’t. My sister will get fat on this. I’m staying with you Father and wild dogs will not keep me in this place.” As I said it, I scowled across at Dr. Brawer who simply shrugged his shoulders.
“As you see fit Elena! Your name was not down, though if you insist, I’m always short of volunteers.”
Marc arrived home at this point, looking about us in confusion. “Elena!” pleaded my father. “Don’t put your name forward! Your place is here. I can manage alone.” He turned toward Dr. Brawer. “Look! She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She doesn’t mean it. Keep her name off the list! Dr. Brawer, I beg you not to put her on the list.”
I was stubborn and my fury at Dr. Brawer knew no bounds. “I am of age and can decide where I go. My mind is made up. I will not leave you.”
Marc then added, “Put mine down too!” Father put his hands up to his head. “Marc! Elena! You must stop this! You don’t know what you’re doing.” He grabbed Dr. Brawer’s arm in his confusion. Dr. Brawer put on his hat, shaking off Father’s hand. “The transport leaves in two days. Don’t come too heavily laden, as the thieves will get anything. I wish you Havel, Marc and Elena, Godspeed and Good Luck.”
I turned away from him, folding my arms sulkily. When I turned back, Father was crumpled on the floor, his head in his hands. “What’s wrong father?” I asked.
“Elena, you don’t know what you have done. I hear terrible things about these camps. I’m old. My life is past, but you! You are my future. Elena, Marc, You must go and speak with Brawer. Tell him you’ve changed your mind! Please don’t break my heart! Go now and tell him!”
I consoled him, saying that I would speak with him tomorrow and I do believe; I would have done so, except that, within an hour, Rabin came.
“Elena, I hear you signed up for Sered. You cannot be serious. Do you have the faintest idea what can happen there?”
“No!” I said. “But obviously you do and frankly, I am past wanting to hear about it. I cannot stay here, for my place is with Father and Marc. Besides, there is nobody here of interest to me. Goodbye Rabin!”
Rabin visibly flinched on my last sentence. It clearly hit a nerve and my one pleasure was, in seeing him sulkily put his cap back on.
“Godspeed Elena!” he said, though I looked on without emotion and didn’t respond.
Island of Nothing
“Let me pass! And let everything be left behind, that raged round me, till now, so full of doom. For since, light in heart, I left this place behind” Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Tel Aviv 2005
Amichai began to see her charge deteriorate. Though, the woman’s energy was there as before. She still strutted about, muttering her stories of the past. She still insisted on closing windows and on occasion coveted her glass pieces. Yet after some months, Elena seemed to relax, wandering about the flat, without following her. She still talked to herself, albeit now the words were slurred and sad, now devoid of energy. From her experience, this was typical of the waning life force she had seen in other patients. She organized a doctor to visit, yet he told Amichai not to worry herself over Elena’s health. Amichai was not convinced.
She had grown fond of Elena. Her difficult ways and obstinacy made up part of her character. She even reminded her of an equally stubborn mother. It was with sadness that she saw this bright candle flicker. One day whilst cleaning the flat, she noticed the absence of one of the glass objects.
“Where’s the black glass?” she asked.
Elena hesitated a moment, “it fell down,” she said in an offhand manner, as if it was nothing.
“Oh what a shame!” said Amichai. “It was my favourite. You don’t often see black glass.”
Elena said nothing. Amichai thought little more of it and quickly finished the cleaning. It was quicker these days, because she was now able to touch the glass objects. She could sweep through the flat, before they sat down to share tea together. Elena would grasp her cup tight, as if it was cold outside. Her sleeves slipped back, exposing veined hands and the tattoo. She told Amichai that they had had to renew her first tattoo later during her stay at the camp. Replacement tattooing was done on the arm and it was clear and precise whereas her chest tattoo was now just a smudge. That was the time when Elena talked and her carer encouraged her. It was not entirely altruistic, for she loved stories and Elena was good at telling them.
In September 1944, I fell ill with a strong dose of summer flu. The Kanada infirmary was in barrack 2. Being in the infirmary previously had meant a death sentence, though since Liebehenschel, selection of existing inmates had stopped and it was now relatively safe to call sick. Franz’s old cook Czilka worked in the infirmary and I arranged with her to contact him. Hospital rations were terrible and I felt myself sinking, so through her, I asked him to bring fruit. I was in a room with four bunk beds, sleeping eight patients. I slept on the top bunk, facing the wall. Franz came to me during work hours and as he entered, the other patients fell silent. Others visited, yet when they saw Franz, they quickly left, taking with them their smuggled goods. He brought with him a sack containing two apples and some blackcurrant cordial. I drank the juice greedily and ate an apple, keeping the other one for later.
My bed colleague moved away to make room for Franz. He hauled himself up on the bunk and we lay down side by side as we had previously done on the Shelf.
“You are good to me,” I said touching his arm, knowing it a risky thing to do.
“You deserve it. I want to see you better.”
Then, we chatted about things and he brought me up to date with Kanada gossip. As we spoke, a nurse entered the room nodding with suspicion at Franz. After she left, we thought nothing of it, although the next visitor struggled to open the door. The door handle shook, so Franz got down from the bunk and tried the door himself. It was locked from the outside, so he banged on it, demanding it be opened. The matron turned up and started shouting from the other side. Matron and Franz had recently argued over patient roll calls. She claimed that Kanada’s roll lists were too long and that he was being soft on inmates. She wanted to re-introduce selection, so the two clearly didn’t like each other. ‘This doesn’t look good,’ I thought to myself.
At last, the lock turned and in bustled Head Matron, accompanied by Kanada matron and the original nurse. Franz was sitting on my bunk, whilst the other patients cowered.
“Aha!” exclaimed Head Matron. She made it sound, as if she had caught us in the act. “This will not do!” She bellowed. “I’m going to file a report of fraternization,” she said, marching away. The nurse looked sheepishly at him, not sure whether to leave or stay. Franz put on his most stern face and shouted “Boo!” She ran off after the matron, whilst we burst into laughter. He then told me to get well soon, indicating his thumb in the direction of matron and left the room.
He hid his concern well. This would not normally have been a major incident, but he was already in trouble with the SD. Matron did report him and he received a chilling comment from his boss. He simply said, “You disappoint me Franz. You’ve already received your warning with Bestok.” Though he hid it well from me, he became stressed at work, for his case was now in front of the camp authorities. They were under huge pressure due to the Hungarian transports and it seemed, his guardian angel again put in an appearance. The matron called up a woman from the lower bunk as witness, because the others refused to testify. I might add that we Old Hands Mafia, made sure nobody testified in matron’s favour. The only person who did give evidence was a pregnant Hungarian Jew, who had just arrived from Budapest.
When she turned up at the hearing, she had no idea what they wanted and told the investigating committee that Unterscharführer Wolff had actually been in Budapest. They even called up his service records to check, before he was cleared of this accusation. The Head Matron became angry deciding to pass the case to Hauptsturmführer Dr. Mengele. All of this we learned from Czilka, whose friend wrote the minutes. Later, Dr. Mengele turned up in Kanada, telling Franz that he wanted to discuss this affair. They sat down together and Franz confessed to him that every part of the accusation was true. He was a man that did not lie easily to authority. He also mentioned that the female prisoners wanted to know when work could be resumed. Mengele then said to Franz.
“Unterscharführer, the case is now closed. You are released to carry on the work of your department.” Before his very eyes, he ripped up Matron’s report.
About the same time as this event, Rozinjska arrived in the camp. We had seen the Hungarian transports, for the camp was overrun with their effects. All about us were piles of clothes, suitcases and shoes, although to date, there hadn’t been any Slovakian transports. We weren’t to know that Mihael’s report and the turning of the war had led to the Slovakian uprising at the end of August. It was crushed quickly, but Hitler then insisted all remaining Jews be cleared from Slovakia. Tiso had earlier resisted this, yet he was now little more than a Nazi puppet. I found out about Rozinjska through another Slovakian friend, whose brother was also on the transport. It was evening and I ran up to Therka with the news.
“I have to go to her,” I said.
“Elena, you can’t do that. It’ll be curfew soon and you risk being sent with the selected.”
“I have to. Tell Franz to come quickly!”
I immediately ran toward the Ramp. I was hysterical with fear and had no idea what I was doing. As I arrived at the Ramp area, the Aufräumungskommando were already tidying up. The train was disappearing through the camp gate and the light beginning to fade. I was too late and I felt cold depression descend upon me. I had lost my sister. I absentmindedly asked one of the crew about the transport.
“It was from Slovakia, They took them to Kanada Barrack 11 to process.”
“Barrack 11? You mean they sent them to the Crematorium?”
“Not as far as I know, I believe they are going to Crematorium IV and will be selected in Barrack 11.”
Once I heard this news, I ran back to Kanada and gasping for breath, I saw the crowd. I ran up, demanding what would happen to them. The man in charge simply told me that they would gas the women and children. At that moment, Franz limped up to me. He shouted at me and slapped me hard across the face. He had Boxer and Katz roughly hustle me to my hut next door. He then risked all to rescue her. It was for me a defining moment.
I had struggled with my attraction to Franz. I loved him in my own way and we remained close friends, but anything more had always been out of the question. We cuddled and I enjoyed this warmth like any other woman. We had even kissed once, yet there was a reserve held back from him. He was an attractive and charming man and under normal circumstances, I could have fallen for him. However, his status as SS guard always left me with a repulsion for what he stood for. I often spoke with him about how he came to be an SS officer. He always told me that he had never wanted to be part of the camp and that he was equally revolted by its purpose. However, he also openly declared himself a committed Nazi, willing to do all for his ‘Vaterland.’ He could never connect his political belief with Auschwitz. He spoke of an oath of loyalty and I knew at this point that I could not press him further. For this, I avoided any other contact with Franz than friendship.
On that day, he broke through my defences and at last I saw him as a human. He showed tremendous courage in rescuing my sister. Despite his record, he risked all to save her. After the emotions were put away, we guessed that he had been set up by the Gestapo. It was not normal for selection to take place in Kanada. Normally this was carried out on the Ramp itself. Even if the Hungarian transports possibly had overextended the camp, it was still an unusual circumstance. Many of us feared for him, because now, they had concrete evidence to close his case. He had disregarded his own safety for the benefit of my sister and there were other examples how he had helped others. In comparison to the rest of the camp, Kanada was an exception and the inmates knew Franz as an exceptional guard.
In terms of my feelings for him, I felt that I could now release that reserve. After saving her, I saw him walk into the Sauna hall where Rosa stood naked, asking for her children. He had with him an old overcoat and gently put it over her shoulders in a gesture of compassion. He was no longer a guard, rather a man, like all others and one capable of exceptional courage and compassion. I began to see both the body and the heart whereas before I had only seen a shell of a man. I let myself fall for him and on the day after he saved Rozinjska, I went to thank him. Pepig let me through, warning that he was in a bad state. Nothing prepared me for the haggard look that received me. Overnight, he had lost his youth and I saw before me a broken man. I held him.
“Elena, it was awful,” he croaked. I wiped away the tears from his eyes. “I had to pull away that poor child and the look she gave me, will stay with me to my dying day.”
I realized that I had hardly thought of my niece. Death was all about us in the camp, so you got used to it. In that moment, I understood how cynical we had become. He reminded me of everything I had lost and we wept together. We tenderly kissed away the tears. In that moment, I fell in love with Franz. Now I think about it, it seems absurd and I paid for this love with abuse from my fellows. I was now a collaborating whore, with people spitting at me and swearing under their breath. I no longer cared, if others saw us together. I was allowed to visit him in his room, except we never took things to that final step. We cuddled, kissed and petted, although the camp held us back from that last step. He was no longer just flesh, for now I saw him as a soul, and one that I began to love. I was ready to give him my love, except that he withdrew. In the few words that we shared, he told me that abandoning Rozinjska’s two children had placed a dark depression over him.
In the camp, the rescue had become a legend and the inmates decided to mark it somehow. We decided to hold a theatre show. It was supposed to be something very special. It was not to be a joyous occasion, but rather it was to be solemn. We could hear the Soviets getting closer and rumours flew about the camp that it would soon be closed down. Therefore, it was to be a festival of hope for freedom and for a return to our homes. It took place on Sunday in the area between barracks 3 and 4. For days before, Franz had been invited from all sides to come. On the day of the festival, they carried into the arena a black chair made by Boxer himself. Just a little time before the show, he lay in his room fully dressed on his bed. He regularly went through moments of depression and today he was low with a melancholy. In such a mood, he was unapproachable and just lay on his bed, looking up at the ceiling. I tried to speak to him.
“Franz, we want you to join us”
He lay back looking up blankly. “Elena, I cannot.”
Pepig came in at that moment. “Franz, you have to come. Everybody is waiting,” I shushed him, indicating that he should leave.
“Elena, I cannot. I have an oath to my fatherland. I want to help you, but if I do, I will break this oath. What can I do?”
When he spoke of this oath, it made me sick with anger. How could there be such a miscomprehension of that evil oath. And yet this was a man whose actions went against his mouth. Normally, it was the other way around.
“Franz, you must do what you think is right,” I said laying my hand on his forehead. “Do you have a fever?”
“I have a fever.” He laid his hand on my thigh. It was an intimate contact and I recoiled slightly. He felt this and removing his hand, he turned over to the wall. I left him and sent others to try, but everyone returned empty handed.
“Without him, the whole show makes no sense,” one of them said, as we looked at his black chair, standing in the middle. The whole team of Kanada was there nearly one thousand people and they looked to me.
“Start the show!” I said and as the autumn sky darkened, we sang and acted out famous plays and songs. I was asked to sing “Mein Herz hat Heimweh”, for this story was also legend within the camp. At the end, I again went up to Franz.
He was lying in the same position as before.
“Franz, it’s me Elena.” I laid my hand on his back. The shirt was damp with perspiration. He didn’t respond. I saw his chest breathing. “It’s such a shame that you can’t come. We want to thank you.”
“For what?” His voice was devoid of life. I had seen him once before in such a depression.
“Franz, we’ve made you a special song. They’re waiting to sing it to end the show. They want you to be there. I beg you to come.”
“I cannot,” he answered.
I took my hand away from him. I confess, I was annoyed at his petulance. We had made such an effort for him, though I stepped away, knowing I could do no more. When I re-joined the crew, we got up and sang the song as loud as we could. Later, he told me that he heard us singing and was deeply moved by the words “The only star twinkling in the Canadian sky!”
Pepig found him next morning, still dressed in his uniform, lying in the same position I had left him. The man was drenched in sweat. As soon as his work shift was due, he got back to his feet, but he was a broken man and stuttered through his tasks. The Kommando tactfully respected his silent behaviour. Many pressed him, asking why he had not been there. “It was the most beautiful experience, since we’ve been in the camp. We postponed the song several times. You should have heard it!” and so they went on.
In early October, the rebellion took place. When the Greek was found hiding in Kanada, we saw a part of Franz that led us to doubt our friend. Rumours flew about the camp that he himself had shot the captive. I checked this with Janek and he told me that he had given him up to Boger. That evening, I met him and asked him for his version, which turned out to be consistent with that of Janek.
“What could I do Elena? In giving him up to Boger, I knew this man was condemned to death. Every one of the rebels has since been shot. I’m not naïve enough to believe that he received good treatment. I could have and probably should have shot him myself. Yet, I could not hide him. Imagine the consequences of doing this to the whole Kanada Kommando! Had we hidden him, I would have put at risk a thousand men and women.”
November and December were eventful days, for we knew of the Soviets’ approach and after the Rebellion, the camp began to close down. We decided, we would celebrate Hannukah and in the whole time leading up to this date the working places busied themselves preparing for this festival. The day was spent in noisy celebration and on that day, we enjoyed a special feast made up of hoarded finds and rations. I sat next to Franz and as the day progressed, we drank some wine sent him by his mother. She knew about me and sent me a short note of greeting. The wine let my inhibitions fall away and whilst we sat there, I laid my hand on his thigh. He turned to me, smiled and I felt his hand reach out and lay it on top of mine. Slowly his hand edged toward me, then I felt him touch my leg lightly and then firmly. He reached between my thighs, yet I didn’t want this to happen in front of others. I held him back, but I still held onto his hand.
As the evening progressed, Franz and I stepped away to his room. A huge Tannenbaum89 stood against the wall and before it lay various presents. We went through them together. On every present was attached a visiting card. Here was a teddy bear from Bübl, I counted seven or eight black shirts and there on Boxer’s chair was a black pullover and pyjamas from me. I swear that Franz was unaware of his nickname and he considered the black clothes were due to the theatre show, when his black seat had remained empty. It happened to be his favourite colour, though I knew that this nickname had been with him, long before this preference became known. Franz was moved by their gratitude, but it was also clear to him that he could never keep them. An unexpected visit from the Sonderkommission would have inevitably put him in front of a war court.
“I will keep your poem and the roll-neck you gave me. The rest has to go.” He turned to me. We held hands facing each other.
Without knowing why, I stepped forward. Slowly, I took his face in my hands. I felt the contours of his nose and cheeks. His eyes closed, but I opened them, their blue piercing through me. Outside, night was falling and wisps of snow blew past the darkening window. I held his face and made him look at me.
I kissed him lightly on the lips, shushing him. I barely heard his voice. Everything around me was turning to mist. I could feel the coarse surface of his face as it got nearer, with the warmth of his breath next to mine. His hands moved from my waist. Please touch me! I wanted to say. Very slowly he moved them the length of my side and then I felt him lightly touch my breast. He moved them round to my back, but I held him bringing them back on my breast. I urgently wanted him to touch me.
My breath slowed, as I leant forward and placed my lips on his. His mouth opened and our tongues met. I wanted him to devour me. I could feel him erect against me. I pulled off my tunic, while he slipped off his clothing. Now he was naked against me, my heart raced and sang. I rubbed myself gently against him. My breasts burned with desire and I pushed his head down and moaned, while he caressed my nipple. And then he was inside me and my whole insides were upside down. I moaned in pain at the first thrust and yet, I wanted more and grabbed his body sinking my nails into his back. He pushed back and forwards and then groaned. I could not be sure whether it had been seconds or a lifetime. I felt his body relax against me, as he again sighed my name. I pushed my hand through his hair and traced my finger down his back. I could feel his sweat doused body sticky against mine and I pushed myself close trying to fill every contour. In the dim light, I looked up at the wooden buttresses above and somewhere in the air lingered the scent of Tannenbaum
“Elena, I love you,” said Franz. “I love every part of you,” he said breaking free from our embrace.
He reached down kissing my breast. While I felt my nipple react, his hand reached lower and then he touched me between the legs. As he rubbed slowly, pleasure rippled along my spine, my breathing growing urgent. I pushed him to stroke harder. My body hovered and shook and then suddenly waves were running up and down my back. His fingers moved with the same rhythm that his tongue did about my breast. I grabbed the sheets. I wanted to pull him apart, but at the same time I wanted him to go faster with this incredulous pleasure. All of a sudden, my whole lower half started shaking and shuddering. I moaned hard and shook my head from side to side and then a cascade of tingling pleasure began from within reaching all the way down. A waterfall of pleasure was exploding inside me and then suddenly, he was again inside me searching. The pain combined with the itch of pleasure left me in an abandon. He took longer this time and as he came, he called out. Afterwards, we both lay back exhausted, falling into a deep sleep.
When I awoke, I felt an empty bed. I turned over, seeing him lift the stove door. He was burning the cards and letters, though I relaxed when I saw my pullover and poem still on his chair. I watched him move about naked with the light from the stove dancing across his body. He approached the bed, while I pretended to sleep.
“Elena! It’s time to go,” he whispered into my ear. “It’s past midnight. You must go or we’ll be in trouble.” I reached over and drew him to me kissing him long and hard. It was such a new pleasure to feel a man’s body against my nakedness. I felt that I had shed a skin of innocence. Inside me he had opened up a desire that I could no longer control and in the early morning light, I drank more of that nectar. I couldn’t believe that in such a short period of hours, I had changed so far from girl to woman.
Later I walked to my hut through a light snow, quietly pushing open the door of my barrack. I was aware of my body as I never had been before. I reached my bunk and in the darkness I could still see Rozinjska looking up at me. She didn’t say anything other than to squeeze my hand. I quickly slipped in. She whispered.
“Elena! Go and wash yourself. You don’t want to get pregnant.”
I turned over and hugged her. Stepping away to the latrines, I cleaned myself as best as I could. Then I was back in the bunk with my sister’s arm around me and I slept a beautiful sleep.
Franz and I slept together several more times, although nothing was ever as intimate as that Christmas Day embrace. Two and a half weeks later, our march was announced. We would depart the following morning before dawn. The men had marched off the day before. We got up and put on our best shoes and thick clothes swiped from Kanada. We were in Barrack 12 and Franz came in shortly before we were to depart. He had with him two pairs of fur lined boots. He helped me with some of the packing and slipped Salami into my rucksack and gave the same to Rozinjska. “Just in case you get split up,” he said.
Rozinjska came over to Franz. I never knew her true feelings towards him, yet as they took their leave, she looked long and hard at him “I don’t want anything else in my life, but to see you again.”
We were then alone in the room. I took the small rucksack and put it over my shoulders
“Franz, please tighten the straps for me!” As he did so, I enjoyed his touch. I knew in my heart that there was something final about this touch. When I turned to him, I looked into those eyes, knowing we would never be together like this again. He looked long into my eyes. It was as if he wanted to imprint my face into his memory. Here I stood before him, a proud racially pure Jew, with an SS guard, representing a virulent anti-Semitic ideology.
“Look after yourself Elena! You will make it through. We’ll meet after the war. This is the address of my mother in Drasenhofen. I love you very much,” he passed me a piece of paper with his address and a love note.
Somebody called that the Kommando was ready to leave. Now, I had tears in my eyes. “Franz, don’t forget me!” He hugged me tightly and we kissed long and intimately. I took one last look at him and then I broke away. As I went through the door, I glanced back. I saw him with tears in his eyes, holding onto the bunk, as if it was the last anchor in his world.
The marching group formed itself into a line on Ringstrasse. Franz came out with his cap and that hated skull motive. He stepped over to a frozen mound of sand and stood upon it. From there, he looked over the rows of women. I could see him, but dared not wave. Therka went up and gave Franz her hand. “Alles Gute Herr Unterscharführer,” she said.
“Get back into rank!” growled Irma Grese92, with impatience and then suddenly the Kommando was marching away. Like a shoal of fish we swam away from that camp, I took one last look toward Franz and there he was alone on that island, watching us march away. I waved once more, but we were now too far away and the guards were already shouting at us.
“I will put my spirit within you and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.” Ezekiel
Tel Aviv 2005
They had sat down that day, yet before Elena said anything, she began to weep. Amichai was moved, for she had never conceived that this fierce woman could be sensitive. In all her emotion filled stories, she had spoken in monotone, as if reading from a history book
“My dear, what is it that’s upset you?”
She looked at Amichai, tears streaming down her leathery cheek.
“He called me a collaborator. I was the whore who slept with an SS officer.”
“Who did?” asked her carer, though Elena was inconsolable and couldn’t bring herself to say a name. Her mouth tried to form a word, though before it came out, she broke down again. Amichai touched her arm.
“Look love, I have my next appointment soon, but I’ll call and cancel.” Elena barely moved and blew her nose loudly.
Amichai was worried about her state of health and she called the doctor to come again. When she returned, Elena was more composed. As if in response to her call, an ambulance sounded insistently through the open balcony window.
“We’ve been on this ship for several days now. We all sit out on the open deck, our backs to the metal walls. Everybody has their own place day after day. Our seats are downwind from the funnels. Occasionally, I pick up the metallic trace that touches the air about us. Feeling nauseous, it recalls to me the stench of that camp. We got used to it, it was always in the air, but now fumes of any sort can turn my stomach. Despite this, I feel good with the sun warming my skin. The sea air has raised our spirits and our initial seasickness has passed. Sitting here, I can feel life seeping back into my veins. For so long, I had no hope. Now even the scare stories circulating the ship, cannot dent my optimism.
Our liberation happened much quicker than expected. We made it to Gleiwitz where we climbed onto a train of open cattle carts. The death marches had been gruelling and I dread the recollection of the bodies passed on the way. The only water available to us was the snow falling from above and lying about us on the carriage floor. Inside the carts, Rozinjska and I huddled together with others from Kanada as the train rattled its weary way to Germany. Everywhere about us, people died after which they were thrown over the side. We were exhausted, though compared with other inmates, we had fared well.
The journey took at least a day before we arrived in Ravensbrück. It resembled Auschwitz in most respects. The food was even worse, though at least there was no mention of gas chambers. The camps were overcrowded, so the guards marched us through the countryside. Infrastructure was collapsing all about us, with the guards constantly running away. During one march, they had us rest in a barn and when we awoke, they were gone. That’s how we got our freedom. We didn’t even know, if we were free and had no idea what to do, because we feared punishment. We wandered aimlessly about the countryside. In one of our forays, we found out that the Germans had surrendered and that at last, the war was over. We begged for food and clothing from the villagers, although these people were cold and defeated and now had their own worries about food. They had no time for us, so we eventually returned to the camp, there we found the British handing out relief.
We stayed in Ravensbrück for two months, regaining strength. We got news of Marc. He had also survived the death marches, ending up in Buchenwald. We received this information, looking at survivor lists posted in the camps. When we were strong enough, we made the journey south and my sister was at last re-united with her husband. We stayed at this camp through to 1946. Unfortunately, Marc had suffered intensive frostbite and starvation during the death march and he never recovered. That winter he was taken from us by a bout of pneumonia that his emaciated body was just too weak to fight against. He died one week before our first Hanukkah in liberty. It was spent in the camp and we gave out dreidels and lit candles. I still see those sad faces and the stricken look of Rosa looking upon the flickering candles and remembering her lost loved ones. Never since then, have I attended such a moving festival.
I thought that I would enjoy the luxury of freedom, though in truth, we experienced a terrible anti-climax. We were no longer obliged to work, for instead, we were given the chance to study, to repair our interrupted education. Otherwise, there were long stretches of boredom, disease, epidemics and a constant and chronic shortage of food. Sometimes, it didn’t feel as if we had left the camp, for our experience after was similar. Of course, we could now walk from the camp and if I chose to stay home, nobody disturbed me. Returning home remained my great ambition. Somehow, I believed everything could be the same as before. We met others from Czechoslovakia and they told us that the government was calling on Czechs and Slovaks to return. I was encouraged, even though Rozinjska was dead set against any return to Humenné.
“There’s nothing, just memories of death. You think the locals will welcome us? They all collaborated. Do you seriously think, they’ll want us back?”
“Rosa, we have to find a way forward. Otherwise, they will have their victory.” However, there was little conviction in my voice.
She was proven right, for returning home did not prove an easy option. We could never re-construct our previous life. Our property was still occupied by the man who had bought it for a pittance. The town clerk made it clear that we had no chance of recovering such assets. In fact, it was clear that the people of Humenné had no intention to take back us Jews. The reception was so hostile that we even heard of one of our co-survivors being shot when he tried to reclaim his land. In fact, many of them called us Germans, demanding that we be accorded the same expulsion as the Sudetens. We decided that two females with no money to engage lawyers had little chance of success. Besides, the country was inhabited with ghostly memories of our lost family. Some members of our family had survived the war, but times were hard and food was short. They wanted to welcome us but they also knew that our hearts had already left. Unfortunately, these relatives also turned against us when they found out about my relationship with Franz. It seemed that he sent letters which a relative had opened. When they heard of my affair with Franz, they saw me as a collaborator. We were emphatically told to leave.
Following our failed trip to Humenné, we moved to a Displaced Persons camp and worked to survive our second winter in freedom. The camp was some 150 kilometres west of Humenné in the town of Poprad. The village itself was called Rosenberg and the similar name reminded me constantly of my first love Mihael. Rozinjska was continually depressed and could not bring herself to work. She would wake up in the middle of the night, calling out Andrea’s name and then start crying. The other room-mates were not tolerant and on occasion, screams for her to shut up would wake the rest of the barrack hut.
Spring came and as the meadows exploded in colour, I was at last able to see life return. I tried to get Rozinjska to come out of her shell and join me, walking along the river. She refused, preferring to stay muttering to herself. I feared, she would soon lose her mind like my brother had done earlier. Outside, the air was fresh and the sky pure blue. Green shoots had turned into leaves and the fruit trees of the neighbouring village were in bloom. I got a friend to lend me her bicycle. She worked in camp administration and this had been a perk of the job. I was early to wake, yet there were no others who had the energy to join me.
“God help me Elena! I swear, you’re eating a different diet to me” commented Bella, when I suggested she ride pillion. “Leave me alone!”
I walked out and even the barracks, with their sun bleached wood, looked good. In the next barrack, they had a cat called Kip and I bent down to stroke his glossy black fur. He rubbed his arched back against me, with his tail pointed upwards. Walking over to barrack 5, I knocked lightly on the door. Still, everybody had an excuse why they couldn’t come. I was ready to call it off, but this time I decided to go on alone.
In the distance to the right and left, rose great snow-capped mountains climbing steeply from the valley floor. I followed a fast running river. Away in the distance, was the Bryn main road. Fresh air blew through my thin blouse as I cycled, yet the cold only refreshed me, for on my arms and face, I felt the warmth of a spring sun. I let down my hair, removing the scarf that was camp fashion. The road across, was busy with military transport lorries and the occasional staff car, all Russian. I thought nothing of this, for I was enjoying my moment of freedom. I rode with my hands off the handlebars and raised them in the air. Knowing nobody was about, I yelled at the top of my voice “I’m free!”.
Laughing I flicked the bike from side to side and in that moment, all my suffering was behind me. I was so lost in my own world that I did not hear the motorbike, until he was right next to me. He was wrapped in a great coat with a canvass helmet and goggles. He passed on the narrow path and pulled up twenty metres ahead, in that moment I saw that we were now a distance from the road. Adrenalin rushed, though I tried to look calm so that I could cycle past him, as if nothing was wrong. He had put the motorbike on its stand and had extracted himself from his gloves and helmet, by the time I cycled up to him. It was now too late to turn aroundI saw his face and noted it as lined with experience. As I attempted to pass, he grabbed the bicycle bringing it to a standstill. I practically flew over the top falling clumsily against the handlebars.
“Hello girl!” he said in broken Slovak. “Where are you going today?”
I stood up, keeping up a pretence I proceeded to brush myself down. I tried to look calm whereas inside I was in turmoil. I knew how these things started and I could tell that this was not the first time, he had stopped a woman. When liberated, such men sought us out and no matter how deep the ditch or corner in which we hid, they invariably found us. On those occasions, Roszinkja had protected me by making herself old and ugly. Even so, each occasion was a false joy, because you knew, they would move to your neighbour.
“You’re very beautiful,” he said, stroking my hair and letting his hand rest upon my shoulder. Still, I hesitated and then he let his hand move lower, until it was on my breast. I looked around in desperation, yet I could see nobody on the path. I knew the road was too far and shouting would only make matters worse. In that moment, my life changed and I reacted. I decided then that I would fight no matter the consequence.
I turned and spat in his face. At the same time, I brushed away his arm, the movement so quick that he looked back at me in shock. I don’t know why, I wrenched my sleeve up thrusting my arm into his face. He retreated back, shaking with shock and looking at the tattoo. Perhaps he was Jewish or had suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Germans. He simply walked back to his motorbike and kicked it into action. Without so much as a look toward me, he set off back in the direction of Poprad. The last I saw of him, was his motorbike putting across a nearby bridge. In a second, he had merged into the traffic and I was left alone in the sunshine. Walking down to the river, I kicked off my sandals and waded into the river. The cold water flowed about my ankles, leaving my stomach tingling. Then I bent down and drenched my hair in the freezing water. I said aloud
“I am free. Nobody will stop me now!”
As I emerged from the freezing water, I thought of Franz and our last week together. He had been much in my reflections. It seems absurd, but just lately I had physically missed him. I still had the paper with his address burning in my pocket. I knew that it could never work, although I had never been able to throw it away.
“I will be free and nobody will stop me. You’ll never again take my life,” I screamed, ripping the paper into as many pieces as I could. I threw them into the river. The specks of white caught the current and as they disappeared, I felt my hands shaking, tears flowing down my cheeks.
Out of bad things can come good, but more often than not bad turns to rotten. I determined that our life in Slovakia was over. Oswiecim had changed our ability to tolerate Europe and our return to Humenné had shown that we could not return to our old home. It was at this point that I resolved that we should move to Israel. I had attended classes held by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee known to us simply as ‘Joint’. In one of those classes I had heard about the Kibbutz movement and the intention to start a new country in Palestine. It was to be a country just for Jews and run by Jews. I remembered how the Nazis had hoodwinked us with their notion of Lüblin, except this time there was serious money behind it and a political will from Britain and America to help in the creation of this state. I made up my mind that I would attach myself to a Jewish man and have Jewish children. I would keep our blood alive and preserve our heritage. The words of Father would come true. Even if he would never see his grandchildren, they could rest easy in the knowledge that we would keep our faith and his heritage alive.
By coincidence, it was shortly after the attempted rape that I received a letter from Mihael.
I’m so glad to hear that you survived Auschwitz and the Death Marches. I heard through Therka that you both went through Ravensbrück together. I hope you’ve now recovered and that you are finding your feet in this new world. Her brother and I managed to escape. I got to experience a lot of difficult situations. It’s a complicated story and hope that one day we will get the opportunity to sit and talk it through.
A lot of bad things were said in the camp and I always regretted our parting on such bad terms. Do you think we could ever see it in ourselves to forgive? No woman has captured my heart the way you did and perhaps we should try again. I have a ticket to come to Poprad on July 5th. I’ll be climbing the Belianske with friends. I confess that I persuaded them, knowing you were nearby. I shall come to the camp and it would be good, if we could see each other again. Obviously, if you cannot see it in yourself, then I will understand.
Love Mihael Rosenthal
I wrote back to the Prague address, saying that I wanted to see him at least for friendship’s sake. My heart raced when I thought of him and I hoped that we could find a way to love again. When he arrived, I knew in an instant that this was the man that I loved above all. I ran up to him, as soon as he stepped down from the rickety old bus and hugged him hard.
“Mihael my love! I can’t believe you’re here”
He returned my hug and we kissed. His mouth felt strong and healthy and my whole being fluttered, as we walked into the camp. At the reception, we picked up a ticket for his place in the Men’s Camp. He dropped off his suitcase and then arm in arm, we set off along the river. It was the same route as where I met the Russian and today the warmth was humid and heavy. Tonight, there would be storms above the mountains, I thought to myself. Everything seemed right, we spoke sweet nothings, nothing could go wrong. We discussed our various acquaintances and at one point, I asked about Janek.
“Yes, it was sad,” he said. “He was with the Polish Brigade in Prague shortly before liberation. I met him on the Charles Bridge. It was a terrible mistake. Some partisans heard us speaking German and assumed us to be collaborators. I managed to call them off, yet by then, he had disappeared. They told me he had been stabbed in the back. It was my friend Otakar who broke the news to me. He told me that they’d found the body of a Polish soldier in a church up on Petrin Hill. The major of his unit was supposed to identify him, but apparently was absent on leave. In Polish, that meant he was pissed. They asked me to go identify him. I did and indeed it was Janek. He had bled to death. His white cadaver was propped up in the church aisle. I saw many dead bodies, but in Janek there was a strange ecstasy.”
“My God Mihael, that’s terribly sad. He was a tough and uncompromising man. Yet though it’s a difficult thing to say about a Kapo, I believe his heart was in the right place.”
“Yes, he was a good man, even if misguided in some respects. He told me about Franz”
My heart fluttered. What had he told him about Franz? I asked myself. “Mihael, it was a difficult time! None of us are proud of what we did in the camp.”
He looked at me strangely and in that moment, my soul screamed out. This was the same look in our last split. When he spoke his voice had changed. No longer was he free and relaxed, instead his brow furrowed, his voice became tense. “He told me about him saving your sister. He told me about Heini and the Long Italian. He didn’t tell me anything else.” Mihael disengaged himself from me and looked away up toward the mountains, I saw a flash of lightning. I had to decide whether to tell him or not. On such moments, our lives revolve.
“Mihael, you must understand that what I tell you now, I must do so. Without honesty, we could never have a future. Franz and I did become lovers. It only happened in the last days of the camp, yet it did happen. Can you see it in your heart to forgive me this one sin?”
His face clouded. “You were lovers?”
“The flesh is weak. He was a good man at heart. I loved him then. Now, it’s over and I’ll never see him again.”
He continued to look away to the mountains. His hands balled in fists. He would not look back at me. When he spoke, it was no longer the soft Mihael. His voice was full of bile and hatred. “You were his lover. I cannot believe this. You slept with an SS officer. How can you expect to build a life on that?”
“Mihael, I beg you to forgive me. It was a moment of passion.”
“Passion?” He said the words with disgust. He then looked to me. This was not the same man that had got off the bus. He spoke quietly in a chilling tone. “Elena, this has been a terrible mistake. This man was a vicious killer. He was responsible for countless deaths. How in your conscience, can you live with that? You disgust me. You’re smeared with the filth of those murderers of the camp. I cannot bear to even be near you.”
“Mihael, I beg you. Forgive me! I beg you to forgive me.” I grabbed his arm, except he violently shook it away. I fell to my knees, ignoring the tear of material as my skirt split. I felt my whole being fall to the ground and as he walked away, I called to him through my sobs. “Mihael, come back!” He never turned around. Lying there on that path, I no longer cared what took me.
The storm descended and it was Roszinkja this time that carried my limp body back to the camp. I was soaked, catching pneumonia shortly after. I wanted to die, but God thought otherwise. When Mihael last left me, I had wanted to throw myself on the wires and Franz prevented me. This time there was nobody other than my sister to stop me falling. During that winter, I lost the will to live and only she fought to keep me alive. Several times during that terrible hungry winter of 1946, I almost passed away, but every time there was a reserve that would not let me die.
Again, it was somebody from my past that allowed me to recover myself. A new inmate had been sent to the camp. He was a broken man, shunned by everybody in the camp. He would walk about with his bowed back and his beak nose making him look like a great bird of prey. His emaciated features scared the children of the camp, so he sat alone away from most people. I asked my friend about him once.
“That’s Raven,” said my friend. “He was one of the cruellest Kapos in Buna. They say, he beat so many people with his stick that it’s a wonder that he didn’t hang. He’s all, but a collaborator. That’s why nobody speaks to him.”
I looked closer and there was something in that face I recognized. I looked closer and then I saw the features of David Rabin the man who had pursued me in the ghetto so many years earlier. He was not the man, I met before. He had aged horribly and was now entirely bald. His face was haggard and life had left those once greedy eyes. His name was appropriate, for he did indeed look like a terrifying raven. He just looked ahead with a vacant stare, a book neglected in his lap. There was a look of such sadness that I knew in that moment, I had to go over.
“David,” I said in a quiet voice not wanting to disturb him from his reverie. I noticed that he was muttering to himself, just as the ‘Muselmänner’ had done in Auschwitz. He looked up in surprise, but his reaction was of sadness.
“Elena? Is it you?” The voice broke, as he spoke my name and I saw his eyes mist.
I reached over to hold his hand. He muttered my name over and over again and with such sadness that I could hardly bear it. At one point, he broke off and his eyes changed to a fierce intensity.
“Is this a trick? Just a dream? Elena is dead. She died in Königsgraben. Everybody told me so. You’re just my imagination.”
“No, it’s me David. Somebody else died,” I said my throat aching. “Just rest my darling! I’m here to stay.”
Even then, I knew there was something in fate that had brought us together. The man, I had hated once was now drawing me toward love. When I looked at that tired face with all its lines, I saw my own suffering. All the fear and uncertainty of those years radiated from his eyes and here was the man, I could dedicate myself too.
So here I am three months on from that sunny day on a boat heading south. In two hours, we will dock in Cyprus before the last leg in our journey. David and I married last month and thanks to the assistance of the camp committee, we got priority passage to Palestine where a new state will be formed. David and I will move back to the land, from which we have been exiled for over two thousand years. I’m not afraid and as the sun warms my skin, the rumble of this ship is reassuring. The vibrations tell me that I am alive and the beauty of seeing the dolphins when we left Heraklion, reminds me of the pleasure of life. Occasionally, my peace is disturbed. I imagine myself back there in Auschwitz. I dream of piled clothes, smoke and rotting bodies and I am back in Oswiecim. David also has attacks, although his reaction is different. He wakes at night from dreams in which the inmates turn on him. We never talk about our time there, even though almost every day we help each other deal with feelings of fear and guilt. Roszinkja has also lifted herself from depression and is glad to be making a new start.
Amichai moved in her chair and Elena jumped. The images had been in front of her and so real, she had to pinch herself to remember that she was back in 2005.
“It’s a remarkable story, Mrs Prikaznova.”
A breeze blew up, billowing the linen curtain of the balcony door. A scent of orange blossom entered the room.
“May I ask you one question?”
Elena nodded, so Amichai asked her question. “Did you love Franz? It is easy to understand that you were forced to be his mistress, but did you ever love him?”
Elena’s eyes looked across silent and sad.
“I adored him. It’s hard to believe I could love him, for when he first gave me that note, I hated him with a fury, an intensity I have never since felt. We’re not masters of our emotions and just as I loved David, I also loved Franz and Mihael. I almost think; there existed three different Elenas.”
“Did he ever try to contact you?”
“Oh yes, many times, he constantly sent me letters. That was how the people in Humenné found out about my past. His mother also wrote, telling me that Franz was despondent and that he desperately wanted to see me again. I’ve no idea, how they found my address, but there were agencies after the war that helped you locate refugees.”
“Were you ever tempted to respond?”
“In Poprad, there was a time when I could have answered his requests. A month after finding David, Frau Wolff visited me. It was a sad day and I did my best to give her sympathy. When she said that she only wanted her son’s happiness, my resolve weakened, but by then I knew my decision to live with David was the right course. It could never have worked with Franz. The Nazi background would have been a cancer on us and any children. Later, I was contacted by Franz’s lawyer. I heard in 1972 that Lillienthal put him in jail. I recalled those acts of mercy and I opted to help him in his defence. No matter how much he deserved his fate, for I was not blind to his faults, I settled that the truth must come out and justice should be done. I chose to attend his trial, giving evidence in his favour. Even if David was shocked to hear the story, he let me go. He even came with me to court. I insisted upon it. I was by then a prominent person in our community, known for my feisty tongue with few people prepared to bullshit me. I remember when I came to the courthouse, the ambassador for Austria insisted on sitting alongside me. In the court room, there were others, I recognized. Mihael was also in the room, although he didn’t stay. We exchanged a glance, but by then I no longer held feelings for this man.
When Franz saw me, his eyes lit up. For a moment, I saw the man I had loved. It was hard, for this part of my life was over. I decided to give my evidence and then never to return to Europe again. Throughout the day, he tried desperately to catch my eyes, yet I refused to respond. Toward the end of the day, I saw that he at last understood that the past was gone. He became despondent and sulky, just as he had been after our first investigation. This time, there was nobody to pull him back. I felt nothing but pity for him. His lawyer spoke to a pretty blond lady. This must have been his wife, for I knew he was now married with two children. My last sight of him was seeing his head bent in despair.
Outside the window, a commotion was stirring and Elena again heard the sound of an ambulance. It was getting nearer “Seems like an accident!” Elena said, however Amichai had stepped away. Elena wondered how long she had been talking to herself.
She called out, raising her voice. “Amichai! Are you still here?”. Not getting a response, Elena hauled herself out of her chair. She looked for her stick. “Blast! She must have put it away.” Elena actually didn’t feel so bad, so she decided to go without. A breeze lifted the linen curtain from the balcony door and again she detected the aroma of orange blossom. Closing her eyes for a moment, she imagined running through the groves, as she had once done with David in their first days at the Kibbutz. Every day, they had strained in doing simple work, clearing irrigation ditches and picking oranges. It was healthy outdoor work and they both breathed easy. Elena had become drunk with the sweet intoxication of orange blossom and she recalled being truly happy.
Pushing through the curtain, she looked down from her balcony. An ambulance had pulled up at the block. The back doors were open and Elena noted the 101 on its door next to an orange Star of David. She grabbed the railing of her balcony and for a moment she felt energy surge through her, as if she were young again. Below, the commotion had increased. Looking down at her hands in the sun, Elena noticed that they looked remarkably young in this light. She raised her hand, whilst shielding the other from the sun. Below, the ambulance porters emerged from the block with a covered stretcher. Beside it she could see her friend Amichai. She wanted to call out, but remained silent.
As she turned to walk back to the apartment, she confronted her reflection in the balcony window. The woman before her was no longer old, but instead she saw the Elena of her youth, tanned from work in the groves, her auburn hair lightened.