Memories from the Holocaust: Where Were You in the Camps?
"Only one bathroom?" The woman behind me looked ahead, at the half-dozen other passengers waiting for the tiny toilet to be available. I smiled and nodded, raising my eyebrows in a what can you do? kind of way.
"I should not have had that second coffee,” she said, and we both laughed politely. She looked like any of my great aunts, like my grandmother - soft skin, kind face, a friendly, round body that countless grandbabies had no doubt climbed onto, seeking refuge from scolding parents and advancing siblings. She was shorter than me, and maybe age had done that, but if it had, she was retailiating by maintaining a gravity-defying hairstyle. It looked familiar, kind of like my own mother’s. A Jewish woman’s hair may gray; it may thin, it may even start to fall out. But as long as there are combs and hairspray available, it will be big.
“At least we brought a little snack,’ my line-mate continued, leaning in a bit. “Bagels. We don’t like to eat too many bagels – too fattening.” She pronounced it "fettning," and I guessed she was Polish. It was a familiar accent; the accent of my people, although there were less and less of my people and their accents around with every passing year.
“We were going to wait until we got to Miami to eat, but oy, abruch! With the security, this plane is so late, and who knows when we’ll get to the restaurant?”
“Yes,” I agreed, “The security check was a bit ridiculous.”
We had been searched. And then metal-detected. And then re-searched. And then they shuffled through every single business card in my wallet, looking for implements of terror, or maybe a good aestitician. They spoke about ten words to me, but they searched.
The woman continued, “In Israel even, the security is not like this. They are smart. They know what to ask, and they know where to look – in your eyes. They don’t care about what is in your pocket-book; they care about what is in here.” She drew circles in the air around my eyes with her finger.
I told her that I knew about Israeli flight security; I had spent almost a year in Israel on a kibbutz.
Somehow, in the five minutes that we were in line to use the bathroom on a crowded flight, I learned that this woman currently lived near where I had during high-school; that she was on her way to Miami for the winter because her husband couldn’t take the snow; and that she would miss her grandchildren, but maybe they would come for a little visit?
I also learned that she was a Holocaust survivor. That she was Lithuanian. That she had been six years old when she was sent to the camps. That her father and brothers never came out. I was astonished, not because of her footnote-version of her horrifying past – unfortunately, I have heard so many of those stories, told to me by my own relatives – but because I was on my way to Miami with my best friend to share my birthday with her grandmother, who was turning 94 on the same day. And who was a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor. And if you know how small Lithuania is, and how big the Holocaust was, than you’ll know why I was astonished to meet this woman on a plane to Miami two days before my birthday.
We met in Vilna, the ghetto, of course - where else was there to meet someone? We were not allowed to leave, so in ways of romance, you took what you could get. Good thing what I got was so nice!
We wanted to be married, because we heard that they would not separate you if you were married. It was not true of course, like most things we heard. But, we wanted to be married and we were not allowed. If they found out you had been married, they would take you away and kill you. Don't look so surprised! If they found out that you were pregnant, that was even worse, because they would not kill you. They would make you get rid of it. And if it was too late to get rid of it, they made you have the baby, and then they took it ... it was better to get rid of it.
But we went to the rabbi, and he said come back at 5 in the morning. So we met the next day, at the rabbi’s, and he married us. That was it. We came alone, and we left alone. I went back to my father’s house, and he went back to his. Love, like so many other things, was not allowed for the Jews.
“I just saw the lady from the plane!” We were standing in Aventura Mall, near the entrance to The Cheesecake Factory, and I had managed to weave my way through the throngs of the over-shopped and underfed to be handed my pager and told that it should buzz sometime in the next 45 minutes.
“Really?” asked Jen from where she sat on the bench, holding her grandmother, Sarah’s, hand. I told her it had definitely been her. I had seen her and touched her arm and asked if she remembered me from the flight, which she had. But before I had a chance to further expound on our great coincidence, I was summoned by a snooty, efficient hostess, and my newest friend had been swallowed by the wave of people constantly moving towards free refills of gastronomical mediocrity.
Thirty-five minutes later, we were seated, watered and in unanimous agreement that Sarah and the woman from the flight must meet, were meant to meet. I ducked out of our booth and made my way through the narrow aisle, looking for the woman. I found her easily, not quite at the end of the row that we were now seated in. I apologized for interrupting her and her husband’s meal, but her eyes lit up at the sight of me, and she waved me over graciously. I explained how I would really love to introduce her to my friend’s grandmother – not to rush, please enjoy your meal – but since you’ll be passing us on your way out anyway, I’ll wave you over. I asked their names so that I could properly introduce them to Sarah, and said goodbye to Marsha and Fredis for the time being.
At the camp, the women went to one side and the men to the other. The mamas held their babies, but as long as you could walk, you walked. At first they let the children stay with their mothers.
I was a young woman already. My sister Ethel was with me, but only because they didn’t know we were sisters. I had my maiden name on my papers because I wasn’t allowed to tell them that I was married, and Ethel had her husband’s name. Anna too came later to us, but only because she also had a different name, her own husband's name. She found us and they let her stay in our block because they didn’t know we were sisters. If they knew, we would have been separated.
Our stepmother was also with us. But when we were brought to work the next the day, she was not with us. We thought when we got back, where is Mama? But they had taken her away while we worked. She was not an old lady, but she was too old for them.
The mamas with the babies too were together, but only for the first night. The next day, the mothers had to go to work. The babies also were not there when they got back.
"No, I was from Memel – you know where is Memel?"
Marsha lifted her finger and opened her mouth as if to say something, but paused. After a moment, she spoke. "No. I don't know." Sarah nodded.
"Ah, anyway, that was where I was from. You know Memel?" Sarah pointed an accusing finger at Fredis, Marsha's husband sitting on the other side of the table. Fredis had heavy-lidded eyes and more curly, white hair than you would expect on a man his age.
"Where is it?" Fredis asked, raising his voice over the din of the busy restaurant.
"Memel!" Sarah answered, louder.
"Ah, Memel – sure, sure I know Memel. I also know Klaipeda." His use of the town's German name made Sara purse her lips and furrow her brow in surprise. "You are German?" she asked him.
"No, no, thank God, I am not German. I am from Grobina."
"Ah, you are Latvian!" Sarah turned towards me. "He is from 90 kilometres from my home," she proudly stated.
"And your husband?" Fredis asked.
"Sure, sure, we met in the ghetto, in Lithuania."
"Where were you in the camps?" Marsha asked the question as casually as I might ask another mother where her child went to preschool.
"Kaunas," replied Sarah.
"Ah!" Fredis leaned forward, "Me too – 1944! And you?"
"1944 also, and my husband too."
Marsha, Fredis and Sarah sat back and a quiet fell over the group. Strangers mere moments earlier, I saw that underneath the table, Marsha and Sarah were clutching hands.
They gave us pills so we shouldn’t have our periods. We shouldn’t have our husbands, our sisters, our children, nothing. Not even our periods. I don’t know what was in those pills, but Anna, my sister Anna, she never had no children, nothing. I had my boys, thank God, but Anna, nothing. No periods … no food. One slice of bread each day, and if it was moldy, you shouldn’t complain. No warm clothes in the winter, but if you were cold, you shouldn’t complain. No shoes. When we arrived at the camp, there was a pile of shoes ten feet high. I thought, what is that, my God – it was children’s shoes. A pile ten feet high of children’s shoes. My sister never got her period back, but she shouldn’t complain – there was a pile ten feet high of shoes that never got their children back.
Fredis leaned in closer to me. “How old is she?” he asked.
“She’ll be 94 tomorrow; that’s why we’re visitng.”
“She is sharp as a tack, no?”
“120 per cent,” Jennifer answered, proudly.
Their conversation drifted from English to Yiddish to German, back to English, and it was hard to hide my emotion at being privy to this reunion of strangers.
After about 15 minutes, our food arrived and Marsha and Fredis got up, not wanting to impose on our meal. Goodbyes were made, but these were not the goodbyes of polite acquaintences, desiring to exit a strange situation in a dignified manner. These were the goodbyes of old friends, of sisters, of people linked by an experience that none of us will ever know, or ever want to know. These were the goodbyes of people who knew what it was like to find out, over and over again, that the last time you saw a person, it would be the last time.
Marsha hugged me and kissed me, and said close in my ear, thank you, and also, treasure her.
Then she looked at me at arm’s length and smiled. She looked at Sarah. “I’m going to go home and cry now,” she said quietly.
I glanced at the plate of food in front of me. Sarah was already nibbling on her child’s-portion grilled cheese sandwich and french fries. On the eve of my 35th birthday, I looked at the woman on the eve of her 94th.
Well, I thought, as I sat down, then I guess I can wait until I get home, too.