YOU SAVED ME, TOO: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish
Preface: I talk to strangers. Everyone who hears the story of my relationship with a quirky man who proved that the Final Solution wasn't final at all asks the same question: How did you meet him? I talk to strangers, I tell them. And so did he. Aron Lieb approached me in the lobby of a community center. When he started speaking in an accent thick with the Old Country, as if we were in the middle of a conversation, of course I spoke back. Our conversation lasted for more than fourteen years. Aron was fiery and warm, irrational and perceptive, terrified and heroic. He was also my soul mate. My faux father, my son, my crush, and my cause. He frequently told me that I'd saved his life, but he saved mine, too, by giving me value as no one ever had before. When someone dies, a long conversation ends. You'd been blabbing and blabbing to each other for years and then . . . nothing? How can you not be able to tell him how it ended, what that nurse said at exactly the right time, whether the evidence he promised to send proving heaven exists ever arrived? I don't know if I'll ever be able to stop speaking to Aron in my mind, but if I could have one more talk with him, this is what I would say.
You picked me up-let's not forget that. I wasn't looking for love on that bright and boring August day. I was just trying to hang on to my mind, which at that point was like a wet bar of soap. I'd get it and lose it and get it and lose it. I'd been swimming laps just before we met. It was one of my less successful strategies for clearing up a nasty case of postpartum depression. Every other day I dropped my baby, Max, in the babysitting room at the pool and went to slap at the water, as if I could beat the misery out of my muscles and leave it behind like dirt from under my fingernails. I was packing Max into his carseat after my swim when you noticed us. "Vhat's his name?" you asked. I turned, summed you up as harmless, and answered. "Hey, Maxeleh," you said, your voice pitching higher. "What are you doing, Maxeleh?" You seemed to really like kids, which is why I asked if you had any grandchildren. I figured you were seeking out strange babies because yours lived far away and you missed them. No grandchildren, you told me. No children, either. And your wife had died four years earlier. "She killed herself," you said. Comedic beat. Wait for it. "With chocolate." Okay, not exactly, you explained. She had diabetes and wouldn't eat right. Your eyes twinkled when you saw me grasp the chocolate joke. "Where are you from?" I asked. "Poland." "How long have you lived here?" "Since 1949," you said, smiling down at Max. "After the war." "You fought in the war?" I asked, stupidly. "I was in the camps. All the camps." All the camps. Maybe that wasn't completely true, but close enough. You'd lived in the Big House, the Yankee Stadium of camps, the White House of camps, the Taj Mahal of camps: Auschwitz. It was there that you became a number, as did everyone else who passed under the work-will-set-you-free banner and avoided the introductory gassing. I didn't realize until recently that Auschwitz inmates were the only ones tattooed. I'd thought they'd inked all of you. Now whenever I see someone with a Nazi-designed string of digits on their arm, I wonder if they knew you-if they crossed your path, shared your bunk, tried to steal your shoes. Auschwitz was more of a stopover than a destination for you. Same with Dachau. You settled in longer at Birkenau, Auschwitz's sister property, but they were always moving you someplace. You resided in so many slave-labor camps that you can't remember all their names, and I will never be able to track your moves with journalistic accuracy. It will turn out to be easier to track your little sisters and the rest of your family because they traveled to death in a pack. But I knew none of this at our first meeting. Before you could dole out more hints, Vera arrived from the locker room. She'd been chlorinating herself in the pool, too. She had her stern Soviet face on, a face that said Who the hell is this chick, and why is she talking to my man?
You introduced me to your girlfriend, but when did we introduce ourselves to each other? I've rewound that morning countless times, but an exchange of names never plays. Maybe, as Max would later observe, it wasn't necessary. Maybe we already knew each other and you recognized us. Could you have been keeping an eye out for us before we were even born? We walked out together and you two stopped to talk to another white-haired couple. I headed to my car and stalled in the driver's seat until you came close enough to hear me. I loved your contrast: so cheery for a Holocaust survivor. Nothing like the tragic heroes I'd read about or seen in movies. They never seemed to laugh, as if that ability had been starved out of them. You laughed more than I did. I wanted to know more. I beckoned you over. "Do you want to meet for coffee someday?" I asked. "You buying?" you said, with the twinkly eyes again. So I guess maybe I picked you up. We decided on the following Friday. All week I worried that you'd stand me up. Why would this stranger want to hang with me? I knew I'd feel like an idiot if you didn't show, and inexplicably sad, too. You weren't at the row of lobby chairs where the old men roosted while their wives exercised. I thought you'd blown me off; then I thought maybe I'd forgotten what you looked like and you were one of those dudes. But one was too fat and another had a mustache and none of them seemed to recognize me, so I kept walking. And there you were, a few yards down, all alone in your cap and glasses, waiting. You waved and jumped out of your seat. You showed. That day and every week after. And while we blew on our hot coffee, you began to tell me everything.
I started writing imaginary letters to your mother a few years ago. She was the first one in charge of you and I'm the last. She brought you into the world and I'm guidling you out. We are both mothers. If our fates had been reversed, I'd want to know what happened to my son. Dear Zelda, He sits in his apartment, all alone, with a dingy washcloth on top of his head. It's a shining summer day, but his shades and windows are closed as if it's a dark January afternoon. He wears flannel pajama pants and a stained sleeveless undershirt. I can't tell when he last showered. You taught him how to cloak his pain this way when he was a little boy with big headaches. A damp piece of fabric, you told him, would make the hurt go away. You would soak it in a bowl of water and drape it over his soft hair. He still remembers. He's still listening to you. But he needs so much more right now. He says he's going to kill himself. Swallow pills. Use a gun, even though I don't think he owns one. Something just to make the pain stop. Sometimes he has high blood pressure. He knows this because he wraps a Velcro cuff around his arm several times a day-or hour, depending on how panicky he's feeling-and takes a reading. If it's too high for too long, or if the chest pain is unbearable, he calls 911. He's sure he's dying. The emergency medical technicians stop playing cards or making chili or whatever they do in fire stations when nothing's going on, which is the usual state of affairs in our dull town. They pull on their jackets and drive down Main Street to his apartment complex. It's only a five-minute ride, but it annoys them. They think he's a pest. Frequent flyer, they call him, because he phones so often. Sometimes they scold him for wasting their time. Sometimes he shoots back: "Do you think I want to feel like this?" When they deliver him to the hospital, his blood pressure floats back down to normal. Because then he's not alone. He can't bear to be alone. The best woman he knew moved out of the building and into a nursing home in the spring. That could be what started this. Perhaps we're all given a finite share of the ability to withstand discomfort, to tolerate fear and pain and endings. And because he used so much of his allotment during the war and because he's lived for so long, maybe he's tapped out. He can't push through one more challenge. If he calls me before he calls for an ambulance, I can sometimes talk him down. I tell him to drink some tea. I tell him to watch TV, because I know he's sitting in silence, soap operas and wrestling no longer worth the effort. I tell him to go to the lobby and sit with his neighbors, but he refuses. As we talk, he keeps testing his blood pressure. When it steadies, we get off the phone. But if I'm not home when the panic rises-or if he's tired of my redundant advice-he dials 911 again. I figured getting him into a nursing home would be easy. I thought that when he needed help, the Jewish community would flock to him, lift him up, and take him to the most comfortable, nurturing place that exists in our world. This mecca for ailing elderly Jews was funded in large part by the big spenders in the Jewish community, at least according to the plaques all over its lobby. I figured that those rich folks and the giant organizations they also fund-organizations that throw around slogans like No Place for Hate and Facing History and the ubiquitous Never Again-would have a contingency fund and special sanctuary for a man who symbolized all that they claim to fight for. I figured that although I'd been able to handle his issues for quite a while by myself, they would step in to help both of us when the time came. The time came. There was no special place. There was no special money. There were very few special people. Never again, my ass. Love, Sue
Whenever you emerged from your depressions, I felt like the parent of a wayward child who has gotten back on his feet. I could finally let out my breath. One day after you'd reentered your life, I sat on the stained carpet in your apartment looking at your record collection. Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, an album of JFK speeches, and lots of Sinatra. He was your favorite, though you never told me which song of his you liked the best. Maybe that's because I didn't ask you questions like that. I asked you questions like this: Me: How long do you think you'll live? You: 'Til I die. Me: Why do you think you're still here? You: To keep an eye on you. Me: Do you believe in heaven? You: Who the hell knows? Me: I think there's heaven. You: See, you afraid to die. Who says there's heaven, the rabbis? And one winter afternoon when it was already dark at 4:30, you handed me a brown paper bag in that apartment. The bag, soft with wear, was full of photographs and documents. You and Mendel after the war. You and your wife's family, celebrating a holiday. You patting your father-in-law's cheeks after you'd shaved him. Your naturalization papers. The mug shot that proved you were alive again. "Don't you want these?" I asked. "Nah," you said, flapping the idea away. "What do I need with them?" The better question would have been: What do I need with them? But I didn't ask that, of course. I was grateful and a little scared. I'd never been given custody of someone's memories before. ****** After the Americans saved you, they sent you to a displaced persons (DP) camp close to Munich. You and refugees from all countries, and of all religions, ate and rested, but you weren't crazy about the setup. You'd heard about a DP camp where almost everyone was Jewish, so you requested a transfer. That got you four years of fun and frolic in Feldafing. Here's what was so good about it: You were twenty-six years old and got to act it. There was sex and dancing and money earned furtively. You rode the train wherever you wanted. You made payback and love. Here's what was bad about it, in your mind: nothing. Yet Feldafing was far from a palace. The one-time Nazi training school was overcrowded. There wasn't enough food or clothing, so former prisoners were still wearing their striped camp uniforms, or they had switched to brown pajamas left behind by the thirteen-year-old schoolboys. Though the guards now spoke English, you were still expected to obey. It's not surprising that you weren't treated well. The attitude from the top was atrocious. Big shot General George Patton, responding to a famous report on the despicable conditions, wrote in his diary: "[He] and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applied particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals." Even Jewish organizations did less than they could have done to help, at least, at the beginning. When an American military rabbi- who made the first stink about DP camp conditions-asked the World Jewish Congress for help reuniting people with their families, the Congress gave him bureaucratic excuses for withholding assistance. I believe this is called foreshadowing. Eventually, conditions in the DP camp improved. Truckloads of clothing arrived. Schools, theater troupes, and newspapers materialized. Jewish organizations made your well-being a priority, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself inspected Feldafing to make sure it was decently habitable. But you don't remember celebrity visits. You remember teaching another displaced man how to flirt. You remember the big cakes they made every Sunday. You remember having enough money to pay a tailor in the DP camp to make you a black pin-striped suit. You remember teaching people how to dance. The steps came right back to you. Or maybe they'd never left. Maybe you waltzed in your imagination to get through the hours of emptying dead people's pockets. You had always danced in Zychlin. "Everyone in my family could dance," you said. "Before the war we would walk a few miles to another town. Some fellow would be playing the fiddle. The couples would get up and dance." Your aunt and uncle were dance instructors, though you don't remember them teaching you. You just figured out how to tango, foxtrot, waltz-all the steps. "People are born knowing all kinds of things," you said. I'm a horrible dancer, but I asked you to show me your skills one day. There in your tiny apartment, you jumped up from your chair and held out your tattooed arm. I stood in front of you. You took my hand, put an arm around my waist, and began to count: One, two, three, four, onetwothreefour. Your steps were fluid. You held your head high, looked down at me and giggled, becoming for a moment a boy again on a dance floor in Poland. So many bad things had happened since those days, yet your body never forgot how to twirl, how to glide through an imaginary box, and how to sweep a girl off her feet.