TALES FROM AN OLD NEWSPAPER
My daughter began a friendship with an elderly couple on the third floor. She loved to visit their apartment where she would always find a bowl filled with hard candies and she could play with the cats in the apartment. She called the couple Ruth and Abraham.
Ruth was originally from Holland, and Abraham from Berlin. They had met and married in Palestine as refugees who had lost all other family. Abraham was about ten years older than his wife, and his body spoke of his ordeals. His knees were gnarled and painful. He spent his days on the sofa where, he read a creased and folded newspaper through thick, black glasses that magnified his eyes and the coarse hairs of his eyebrows. A small gray cat named “Shmuel” was either curled up on the sofa next to him or draped across his thin frame.
Writing a homework assignment for English class, my daughter described his labored movement moving from the sofa to the dining room table: “His body unfolded like an old newspaper; and like an old newspaper had so many stories to tell on its worn and wrinkled surface.” The story he most often related to my child was the death of his younger sibling, a sister, aged three, at the hands of the Nazis.
Abraham’s family had been desperately poor. He and his younger siblings were sent to be cared for by the Jewish orphanage in Berlin. It was one of the first stops for the Nazis in their Final Solution as they took over the capital city. Abraham’s cracked voice choked with rage as he shouted: “The Nazis killed my baby sister.” His trembling fingers were clenched into fists. For a split second, in his impotent rage, I could see the young man he had been. Now, an old man, his hands could no longer manage to hold a fist. But the passion in his voice reverberated through the years and through the ears of my child. She felt his heartache, relating his stories to her brother upon her return from a third floor visit.
Ruth was just the opposite of her husband and his house-bound ways. She was most often encountered on the streets, pushing a black metal shopping cart in front of her. She was easy to spot, her slow progress along the street was punctuated by the whirl of pigeon wings, the soft cooing of dozen of contented birds that swooped down to feed on the birdseed or bread crumbs that she scattered as she made her daily promenade around the building. The cart was filled with plastic bags, and the plastic bags were filled with food for the birds, a combination of bird seed and stale bread and crackers.
Ruth was a familiar sight, and a sight many people in Hudson Heights did not enjoy. Stopping to chat with Ruth wasn’t always very pleasant. She could often not be bothered to wear her false teeth, leaving gaps through which spittle flew when she spoke. Her blouses were often covered in cat hair. Worst of all was her jacket, spattered with pigeons poop in an irregular pattern that seems concentrated on the sleeves where she let the pigeons alight to feed from her hands.
Passersby would should insults at Ruth as they walked or jogged past her. They saw her act of feeding pigeons as both illegal and disgusting. They gestured to the mess on the sidewalks. They demanded she stop and threatened to call the cops—a gesture Ruth knew was ridiculous. The cops from the 34th Precinct pretty much ignored Hudson Heights except for the incessant ticketing of cars. My children referred to these pigeons as “flying rats.” I recall my son once marveling at a pair of pigeons perched on a tree branch: “Look Mommy, the pigeons think they’re birds.”
Ruth would sometimes shout back at her antagonists. “They are just as worthy as birds in the park,” she would retort. For Ruth, those people were making a distinction between tiny brown sparrows, which were okay to feed, and the larger pigeons with their iridescent markings which the law said should not be fed. And for Ruth, it was the same distinction that had been made between Jews and Gentiles in Nazi Europe. “Why is this bird worthy to be fed and not the other,” she demanded rhetorically. That is what Hitler said about the Jews. I will feed whatever birds I wish to feed.”
I knew that no matter how many people shouted at Ruth, she could always be found feeding the pigeons of Hudson Heights where patriots had battled Hessians and Tories—and lost. While her husband clenched his fists in impotent rage, she was fighting Hitler with her plastic bags of birdseed and bread crumbs.
Those sidewalks, so devoid of footmarks and graffiti, sidewalks that glittered with mica in the light of evening streetlamps, were a battle ground for Ruth. And each day she fed the pigeons, she was winning that fight.
YOUR NAME IS ON THE LIST OF THE DEAD
The Helner family lived on our floor, and I often bumped into Mr. Helner during my daily chores. Mrs. Helner had been born in the same town as her mother. She explained to me, “When my mother was born, it was in Hungary. When I was born, it was Romania.” Honestly, it might have been the other way around. It was tough for me to understand the shifting borders that had defined her life before Hudson Heights.
Mrs. Helner still had a very strong accent—Hungarian or Romanian—I guess. She tried to speak very precisely so that she would be understood. She was a proud woman, once telling me about her experiences, “I picked myself up and I made a life of dignity for myself and my family.”
From Mrs. Helner, I learned the history of the previous residents of my apartment. Before we moved into our apartment, the family of a United States Army colonel lived there. The Colonel, as everybody had called him, had served in Europe in World War II. He had been present at the liberation of the camps.
Mrs. Helner had married her husband, a doctor, after her arrival in New York. Dr. Helner had often come to the apartment during the Colonel’s final decline, to attend to his medical needs. “It was my way of thanking him,” he explained to me. “I was so pleased that I could pay back in any way the man who had saved so many lives in such a terrible place.” This story made me feel much better about my new building and its residents.
Mrs. Helner had been filmed by Steven Spielberg for his Shoah Remembrance Project. She had also written a memoir about her experiences, which she lent to me one day after a chat in the laundry room. Her goal in writing was an accurate recitation of dates and places—just the facts ma’am. There was little mention of her feelings and emotions, as if she had used up her quota of humanness just surviving.
Reading her memoir had been surprisingly boring. It was nothing like the small tales she often told me in the laundry room that I found so fascinating and moving. One day, as we folded sheets, she told me that throughout the entire war, she had kept a piece of the afikomen hidden in the roof of her mouth. It was something her father had given to her before he was taken away by the Nazis.
The afikomen is a piece broken off one of the three Passover matzohs. Part of the children’s role in the Passover seder or service is to search the house for the hidden afikomen. The seder cannot be completed without it, and the finder receives a small gift or reward. She kept that piece of dry matzoh hidden, on the roof of her mouth, while she was starving to death, until her liberation by American troops. “Then,” she said, “when I was liberated I threw it out because I didn’t need it any more to keep alive. I knew I had survived. Now, I wish I had kept it. I have nothing left from my father, not even a picture of him.”
One day, I ran into Mrs. Helner at the garbage compactor. She approached me with a strange smile and offered, “I just had a strange call from my grandson in Yerushaliyim.” .
“My grandson called me from Yad va Shem,” she explained, referring to the monument commemorating the Shoah called the ‘Hand of G-d.’ “He said, ‘Grandma, I have a question for you, but I’m not sure how to ask it.’” She gave a wry smile as she savored her words. “Just ask me, I told him.”
“Grandma, I’m at Yad va Shem, and your name is on the list of the dead. How could that have happened?”
She didn’t lose a beat. “I told him, I know exactly how it happened. Let me tell you so you can understand.”
I knew from our conversations in the laundry room that at the beginning of the war, Mrs. Helner had been transported to the first of three concentration camps along with her two cousins who lived in the same village—the place she and her mother had both been born. The three girls had been thirteen, fourteen and fifteen at the beginning of the war. She was in between her two cousins in age. She took up her tale a few days before Liberation.
“The Nazis knew the end of the war was coming. They had lost. They wanted to get rid of us. They marched us day and night. Then, they forced us into the river. None of us knew how to swim. I have no idea how I made it to the other side, but I did.”
“Later, my older cousin told me, ‘You were strong for us. You told us that G-d would open the waters for us just as he did for Moses when the Jews were fleeing Pharaoh.’ I have no memory of that at all. I just know we made it. All three of us.”
“We arrived at the camp, but my younger cousin was dying. When they called for appel, the prisoner head count each morning, she could not stand by herself. Although I knew it was forbidden, I held her up. Not to do so would mean that she would be sent to the infirmary; and from the infirmary, straight to the ovens.”
“Sometimes appel took a long time. Those Germans counted and recounted us until their accounting books, accounting books of dead and living human beings, could be reconciled. Sometimes we would stand for hours. And that day, it took a long time for the Germans to be happy with their count.”
“At some point, an S.S. man saw me holding up my little cousin. Then, oh I got a beating,” she shook two fingers on her right hand fiercely as she said this. I could barely imagine a grown man beating a teenaged girl, and her gesture was terrible. She continued: ‘When he decided he had beaten me enough, he pointed to my cousin lying on the ground. He said to me, ‘Take her to the infirmary and you stay there too.’” She shrugged: “I knew I was dead.”
“I dragged my little cousin to the infirmary. I don’t know how I had the strength to do it. I placed her in the first bed. I said goodbye. Then, I walked to the end of the infirmary and jumped out the window.” She shrugged her shoulders as if in answer to my unspoken question. “I was dead already. I had nothing to lose.”
As Mrs. Helner neared the end of her story, a strange smile came over her. Her eyes seemed to look back half a century. “I snuck back into the barracks, and three days later, we were liberated by the Americans. My little cousin was dead. But I knew that my older cousin and I had survived. We would live.”
She remembered: “Those Nazis were very efficient. My name had already been added to the list of the dead. They liked to have their lists just so. That is how I ended up at Yad va Shem although I have lived in New York for over fifty years.”
She smiled: “My grandson said, Grandma, the man at Yad va Shem says to send him some document to prove you are alive, living in New York. The man says he will be happy to take your name off the list of the dead.’”
WRAPPED IN BROWN PAPER
The number of Holocaust survivors in Hudson Heights prompted the local synagogue to let loose a bunch of kid with video cameras. The idea was an oral history project, interviewing the survivors who were still part of the daily fabric of Hudson Heights. Time was running out for them to tell their stories. We viewed the videos at the Shavuot ice-cream party/religious school graduation of my daughter’s friend.
Shavuot and Sunday School graduations often go hand-in-hand as Shavuot is usually in May or June. On Shavuot, the Ten Commandments are recited in the synagogue to mark the giving of the Decalogue through Moses on Mount Sinai. I heard two stories about the choice of ice-cream party and the tradition of dairy meals on Shavuot. One said the ice-cream party was a reference to the Torah being spiritually as sweet as honey and nourishing as milk. The other that when the Jews returned to their tents after receiving the Ten Commandments, there was no time to prepare meat, so a quick dairy meal was prepared. In this way, ice-cream parties had become a happy way to celebrate religious school graduations with large containers of ice-cream and a buffet of toppings set out for the graduates, their friends and families.
The Sunday School graduation was very nice. The Book of Ruth was read to compare Ruth’s embracing of Judaism with the acceptance of the Ten Commandments by the Jews. I was pleased that my daughter could see how strong a woman could be, and how making a commitment was something one took seriously in spite of inconveniences and hardships.
In the Social Hall, the graduates and their friends and families ate ice-cream while their videos were shown. The videos were terrible—out-of-focus and shaky. But the stories were amazing. While we heard stories about the camps that we expected, other stories were smaller, more intimate. One, perhaps the smallest, was the one that haunted us the most.
The narrator was an elderly Jewish lady I knew by sight as we passed each other along Fort Washington Avenue, trekking back and forth with groceries. A small and vibrant woman, she was composed but thoughtful as she chose her story, obviously one of dozens she could choose to tell. It was the story that for her, was still ongoing.
The story began in the living room of a Jewish apartment in pre-war Germany. “We had all applied for papers,” explained the narrator. “Some of us asked for papers to go to Palestine. Others had relatives in other countries. My husband had a cousin in New York, so we applied to come here.”
Our good neighbors, they also had family in New York. We felt better that we wouldn’t be alone in a strange city in a strange land. Our families had grown up together and would be neighbors again when we settled in New York.”
“Our papers came first, and we began to pack up everything in our apartment. We knew we would never return to Germany. We thought we would never see our city again. But we were glad that we were taking ‘the best’ of the city with us, our neighbors, to our new home in New York.”
“When it came time for us to leave, our neighbors were still waiting for their papers. ‘We’ll join you soon, just as soon as our papers come, we’ll join you in New York,’ they said. And the mother gave to me a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. ‘Please take this for us to New York. Some linens, so that when we arrive, we’ll have something to start our new lives.’”
“I took the package,” she explained. “But they never came. They didn’t get their papers in time.”
The video seemed to end as a long silence ensued. Then, the voice became tighter, higher, more constricted as the story continued.
“I still have that package. It’s on the top shelf of my linen closet at home. Those linens are still waiting. I’ve moved three times, and each time, I took that package with me. Now, I don’t know what to do with those linens. Who will take care of them when I’m gone? Should I give them to my daughter for safekeeping? Should I open the package? Who will take care of those linens when I’m gone?”
In the Social Hall, the sound of scraping chairs and shuffling feet completely quieted. Who could answer? Like the Story of Ruth, we had heard a Shavuot tale about families moving away from their native land, settling in a new place, planning for a new life. Ruth had become the ancestress of a king. This woman had linens wrapped in brown paper and tied with string to be passed along to the next generation. And a story that would endure.