WHAT REMAINS

by

Sandra Hurtes

 

This story is dedicated to my grandparents Miriam and Leibich, and my uncles David, Wolf, Herschel and Mendel.

 

 

My name is Avram, and I am now seventy years old. When I was twelve I had more names than anyone I knew. My parents and my sisters Malka and Suri called me Avramala. The neighbors who came to purchase eggs from our chicken farm called me Avi. My teacher with whom I studied Torah called me Avraham, and my brother David, who was obsessed with America, called me Abe.

We lived in Czechoslovakia in a house that was situated just off a main road, and if you followed its path you would wind up high in the hills overlooking our entire village. That was not such a big deal to see the whole village which was small and meager. But still to us children, it was the world. Many people walked this way -- whole families pushing their possessions in wheelbarrows with their babies in slings across their chests, elderly people leaning on canes, and vagrants carrying in tiny pouches all that they owned.

Sometimes the people who passed would linger and watch me and my brother and sisters feed the hens and chickens, or they would stop to buy a loaf of black bread or a glass of lemonade from our parents’ store. But usually they looked at us and then pointed their chins upward, as if to say, ‘Why are you not going there too?’

Word of the armies that were steadily approaching had reached our door. My father believed that the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews would come to a quick finish, that the Russian army would stop them. But nevertheless he called David and me into the bathroom one evening where he stood with scissors looking into a mirror, snipping off his thick beard. Then he sat David on one knee and me on the other as he cut our payes that hung over our ears like corkscrews and instructed us to wear our yarmulkes only indoors. Afterwards we watched as he removed the mezuzah that was tacked to our front door. But that was where he stopped. Leaving our home was out of the question. “Where will they run to when they get to the top of the hill? Down the other side?” he asked, shaking his head as the people migrated by us.

“If we went anywhere,” David echoed, “It would not be up there.” It was David’s greatest desire to go to America. Every night when he and I were finished with our chores, we would look through the box of photographs that my parents kept on a shelf in their bedroom. We’d rummage through it until we found pictures of our cousins standing on a ship at New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty rising up from behind them.

“We’ll go to America one day Abe,” David said to me. “You’ll be just like Abraham Lincoln,” he laughed. “Maybe you’ll be the President of the United States.”

My brother David filled my head with big dreams, and maybe it was the way God intended or maybe it was my luck to carry in my mind the hope for something big because I believe to this day those dreams were the thing that saved me.

When Hitler came with his army and tanks that roared through our roads day and night, with chains that cranked around the giant wheels, spitting up mud into our faces, I longed for my father to pull me into his chest and say, “It’ll be all right, Avramala.” But instead he looked into my mother’s eyes that darted around like tiny pebbles, eyes that had once been green like emeralds that had somehow overnight turned black as coal.

Day after day the people flocked past our house, babies strapped to them, satchels hoisted across their backs.

“We should go too,” Malka and Suri cried at night, “please Papa.”

My father was a humble man. He thanked God each day for what we had, never even once shaking his fist at him, or spitting into the dirt in anger or fear. He was a proud man, too, and he loved his home that his father, my Zadie, built and the only way he would leave it was if they took him bodily away.

He continued to arise early each morning before the sun, just as I’d seen him do every day since I was born, davening from his tiny prayer book, his voice so low it created a hum through the house that filled me with peace. I was so used to that sound that no matter what time I awoke, I couldn’t rise from the bed without first hearing it.

One day I remained in my bed watching the sun rise and then move across the sky as the hours ticked by, first 6:00 a.m., then 7:00, then 8:00, and still there was no hum coming from my father’s prayers. I stayed in my bed waiting until finally a commotion in the kitchen grew so loud that I went to see what was the trouble. Sitting hunched at the table was my father, sobbing into his palms.

“They took Mama during the night,” Suri cried, looking at my father, words of rage rising up in her throat, then freezing in her mouth so that all she could do was let out a tiny whimper.

Was it my father’s fault that Hitler’s henchmen came to our home and did their dirty work? My sister Suri, she believed so, yes. But can you fault someone who cannot believe in the evil that he himself has never felt and so cannot grasp? My father was a good man. But when you equaled up all his parts -- his humility, pride, and goodness, together they made him a perfect candidate for the disaster that had found its way into our home. You see, I had observed my father all my life. Because I knew that his assets would be his downfall, and I did nothing to intercede, it was myself, not he, who I could not forgive.

My father continued to daven each morning, but I no longer heard his voice floating past me. I heard only David’s resounding in my head, telling me over and over, “Abe, you couldn’t have stopped them.”

But I vowed from then on that I would sleep with my eyes open. If I should lose my concentration, I would dig my nails into my palms to the point of such pain that there would be no way in hell that I could fall asleep. But I was wrong. The pain of the scratches I dug into my skin was nothing compared to the manic rage I felt when two weeks later they came back and took my father. After that I slept like I was dead.

“It’s not your fault, Abe,” David shouted into my ear while I lay in bed each morning as if in a coma. “There was no way you could have saved Papa. There was no noise during the night, no tanks or roars, only two men who stood at the door and asked, ‘Are you Josef Meyer?’ When he shook his head yes, they pointed a gun between his shoulders, and he went quietly away so as not to draw their attention to the fact that in the back slept his four children all together in one bed.”

I swore after that that I would find my way to Hitler and kill him with my bare hands, even if it meant standing still before the tanks, daring them to mow me down. I felt a fire in my mouth, a rage that sat on my tongue and burned my gums until I could no longer bear it. I yearned for release and stood by the window watching for the clouds of dust that the tanks kicked up, praying that I would see one in the distance.

“Go away from the window,” David shouted at me each time, afraid that I would be seen peeking through the curtains. Maybe it was presumptuous of me to appear so fearless, but I knew that I would make it to the world that David knew so much about and that I would one day be just as he said, like Abraham Lincoln.

Many of our neighbors were already gone, arrested and shot to death, or taken by transport to the labor camps. Those who remained came to our house with fear in their hearts, crying out, “Avi, children, are you all right?”

“Go away,” David whispered into the air, afraid that their concerns would make our presence known.

We knew that sooner or later we would have to count on our wits and our fists, and perhaps the will that God placed in our souls before we were even put on this earth. I wondered if it were possible that he sent us into that house knowing beforehand what our fates would be, and if he knew already who would make it and who would not. In the pit of my stomach I battled with God because while I wanted to hold on to the notion that we had what it would take, I cursed at God for what was already taken. When I heard in the distance the thunderous machinery working it’s way down to us, and saw in my mind’s eye the rifles poised and ready to shoot, I knew that it was only the beginning of what was still to be lost.

#

Two SS guards entered our home early one morning in the Spring of 1944. The snow which surrounded us all winter like a fortress had melted, and the path leading to our door was in full view. The front door flew open as if a gust of wind had blown it forward, although the air when I awoke that day was so tranquil that barely a leaf moved on the trees’ branches. One guard stood by the door, the white straps of his uniform crisscrossed on his chest like bandages, as the other, dressed similarly, stepped inside, his rifle pointing toward the sky.

Malka had been working quietly on a tapestry, and she jumped out of her chair. I thought for a moment my sister would faint, but she found her balance and looked straight ahead, her eyes frozen still like bullets.

“Is this the home of Josef Meyer?” the soldier’s voice bellowed through the house.

“What is your business?” I asked defiantly.

He looked past me, scanning the tapestries that covered the walls, the photographs of my parents that rested on a bureau, and then settling on a crystal vase that my aunt had brought us as a gift many years ago from Hungary. He picked it up and twirled it in his palm, and he seemed to be like a child, mesmerized by the twinkling colors that reflected in the glass. Had not the other guard been standing at the door, I would have knocked him to the ground, the crystal in his hands and gauged out his eyes with the edges of shattered glass. But instead I stood there composed, with a racket going on inside my brain.

Until the fifth grade I had attended the Yeshiva a few miles from our home that was located near a Parochial school. During our recess the children from both schools filled the area that separated us, sometimes wrestling each other to the ground, other times throwing a ball back and forth. I searched my mind for the name of the brothers I often played with who bore a name like my own, but with one syllable and somewhat harsh sounding.

“You are Meyer?” the guard asked, stepping so close to me I could smell his last meal on his breath. Suri and Malka sat holding hands while David twisted his yarmulke into a small ball.

The guard pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket with two columns of names. “Sura and Malka Meyer?” he asked, touching Suri’s hair, smiling into Malka’s face. “You will come with me.”

As my dear sisters were herded from our home, I finally remembered the name which had escaped me.

“March,” I screamed out. “Sara and Martha March are my sisters. You have the wrong house.”

“Tell me, Mr. March,” he said, doubling over with laughter, “Did you know you are a comedienne? Are you saying the German government made a mistake, and that your family is not guilty of crimes?”

My throat was so tight I couldn’t swallow, and my saliva collected in my mouth. If it weren’t for David’s eyes pleading with me to contain myself I would have spit it into his face. “You intrude into our home with rifles tucked beneath your arms, take my sisters, and it is my family you accuse of crimes?”

“Heinrich,” he said, to the guard at the door, “What punishment would be good enough for our Mr. March?”

The guard had been standing there the entire time frozen like a statue, his face so expressionless he appeared to be wearing a mask. But finally he walked towards me, and when he came close I looked into his eyes and saw a creature instead of a human. To sink so low, to have as his mission in life the hunting of humans, I knew there was nothing that he could have done to me that could ravage me more than he already was.

“Our Mr. March,” he said, walking in a circle around me, “Will receive a reward for bravery.” I wished my brother David who was shaking so visibly could understand as I did, that without their weapons they were nothing. “We will be back in ten minutes. You decide what to do with that time,” he said walking in a circle around me. Then he grabbed my sisters, shouting “Mach Schnell, hurry up.”

Malka, Suri” I called out, “Don’t be scared,” as they screamed for our mama and papa, the door slamming on their words.

I knew the SS meant business, and that as soon as they were out the door they were counting, one minute, two minutes, three, and so on.

“What will happen to Suri and Malka?” David asked, his lips still trembling.

I looked at my brother, and could feel his quivering so deep in my skin that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I remembered back to a time that seemed like years ago, when we sat together, our family still in tact, and he dreamt out loud about how one day he would go to America.

“Take your photographs, David, whatever else you treasure. We must go.”

He’d been sitting on the box of photos, and picked up the picture of our cousins in front of the Statue of Liberty. I watched as he tore it in half. “Abe,” he said, handing me the top portion, “If we lose each other, this is how you’ll recognize me at New York Harbor. I’ll have the missing piece.”

My eyes filled with tears, wondering how we could be parted for so long that I wouldn’t be able to recognize my own brother without a symbol. I looked around the room and grabbed the small vase that the SS had left behind, wrapped it in a napkin and placed it in a pouch with some coins and jewelry. Then I tied it around my waist inside my pants.

We ran from our house. As I heard the horns, eee ah eee ah eee ah, shattering through the air and winding their way toward us, I turned back just once for an instant. As I looked up I could have sworn that I saw my parents’ shadows in the window watching after us. “David,” I said, “Mama and Papa are in the window, look.”

“Abe, you’re delirious,” he shouted at me, not even looking back.

I wondered what he would have said if I told him that just before I turned, they lifted their arms and waved, our mother blowing kisses stronger than the wind.

#

Darkness settled over the hills like a tent when David and I finally stopped in the woods. The earth was moist from the light drizzle that had started up in the late afternoon and tiny insects swarmed around us, as if our pockets were filled with sweets.

I don’t know how far we ran. It felt as though we had traveled across Czechoslovakia into Hungary, over into Austria, and then to Greece. But we were not so lucky. German planes flew overhead; their engines whirring like bee-bee guns, bababababababa, shooting out pockets of terror. People from the villages ran between the trees, hiding among the blades of grass, searching for potatoes from the field.

For several days we found shelter in the dense forest, while the planes flew above us, not firing but instilling instead a fear that was to be their trademark, the knowledge that we had no idea when our time would be up.

David kept himself calm by looking at the picture which he had torn, memorizing the faces of our cousins. “Do you think we’ll get to America, Abe?” he asked me as we cupped our hands and drank water from the stream.

“Will we get to America?” I laughed. “I’m already thinking about what name I will use when we get there. Do you still think they will call me Abraham? Like Mr. Lincoln?”

David looked up at me and smiled, but then almost seconds later, the Germans began firing. We ran like lunatics, all of us, even young children.

“I lost the pictures, Abe,” David cried out, and I told him to just keep on going.

Young women with babies were being shot down. Elderly people were stumbling and falling. It was horrible. But the worst was what I saw in myself, for it was the beginning of my dehumanization. Instead of running to those who needed help I ran for my own life.

But David turned in the direction of the stream. The SS moved like lightening toward him, and he stood there frozen for a moment, not comprehending what was about to occur.

“David,” I screamed, and the SS fired in my direction, and when David looked at me, there was nothing I could do but go the other way.

I was terrified for my poor brother whose entire hope rested in his pictures, which he no longer carried with him. With a heavy heart I ran. Eventually I came to a hut that was occupied by a Christian family. They took me in and watched over me like I was their own child, feeding me soup and potatoes, hiding me like a jewel.

Late one night they brought me to a factory where I lived for two months with the Jews and Gypsies who had passed this way. We counted our blessings, and I began to believe that I would make it to America, and I prayed that David and my sisters would be waiting for me there. But my relief was short-lived because soon we heard the horns coming our way, eee ah eee ah eea ah, and oh, how I cursed at God, spitting on the ground like a cow. Where was he, the God my father taught me to revere? The guns were going pow, pow, pow into the sky, and the SS found us huddling in corners like vermin, and nowhere could I see God.

Two lines were formed, quick quick quick, the sickly on line A, those who had a little meat on their bones, on line B. I was chosen for the B line. What would happen to the A was not hard to grasp. I took my place, I am ashamed to say, relieved for my own life, as they shoved us on the bus.

We were transported to a train which took us to Auschwitz. There we were stripped of all that we carried, and I fast rolled my picture up like a ball and placed it in my ear before the SS shaved me then threw me into the showers. All around me I saw people as thin and vacant as sheets of rain.

“The Russians will find us, the Russians will find us,” one boy named Nathan said over and over like a prayer. I whispered it to myself whenever I lost faith, when I watched people throw themselves on the barbed wire to escape through death. Slowly I began to recognize a few people from my village, and listened as they shared pieces of news about a relative or friend they might have seen while in transport. Someone had seen Suri. She’d been taken from Auschwitz to work in an ammunitions factory. That was a good sign. It meant she was strong enough for labor, more valuable to the Germans alive than dead.

Each day I worked in the laundry sorting the striped uniforms from the giant machines.

I was a robot.

I woke up. I worked.

I woke up. I worked.

Months went by like this, with nothing to eat but bread and a soup that was ninety percent water. But I was lucky because they never called me to the selections, never pushed me against the wall with the tips of their rifles. The buses continued to take prisoners out and bring in new ones. The guards marched and shouted orders. It was a routine I grew used to and was so sensitive to that any change, even a silence would hit my ears like glass crashing against a wall.

That’s how it sounded on one particular morning. There was a quiet that was deafening. A quiet so profound that it could be heard a world away. We looked at each other not knowing what to make of it, peering through the window, and searching our bunks for where it was coming. When we looked outside there were no SS. No marching. No orders shouted. Slowly the sound of laughter entered our barracks, and we saw in the distance the Russian soldiers slicing the barbed wire fence so that we could run free. As they danced toward us, I believed I was hallucinating.

“They’ve come to free us,” Nathan shouted, running outside. “You Nazi bastards, we’ll get you,” he screamed as the few that were left fled.

The Russians began distributing cans of food, but I headed right away for the commissary with the others. Like wolves we ripped through the cupboards. I found a large barrel of mustard, and I dipped my palm in and brought it to my lips, over and over drinking it like soup. What irony. I thought I was going to die later that day when I stretched out on the ground my stomach so distended I couldn’t move.

Three men lifted me up and carried me along until we came to a Red Cross Station. Others ran in and out of the Germans’ homes, which overnight had become vacated. Women ripped curtains from the windows and wrapped the fabric around their shaven heads like turbans.

Through the Red Cross I was reunited with Suri. She brought me the terrible news that Malka had been gassed, and David was shot while trying to escape the round up. We discovered together what we already knew in our hearts, that our parents had been murdered as soon as they were taken from our home. It was a bitter reunion. I held my crumpled picture in my palm and wept for my family and their suffering. Can you imagine? We had nothing, only each other, and yet every day we had to move on as if we had not known such anguish.

“It’s what Papa would want,” Suri said. “David too, no? He will be watching you when we arrive at New York Harbor.”

Our American cousins arranged for our passage by ship. The day we departed I stood on the ship’s deck watching my country grow smaller and smaller, questioning how it was that we had lived while so many others had not.

“A miracle,” the other passengers said when we sat in huddles sharing our stories. “It was luck. Not smarts or destiny.”

I did not want to hear that because I needed to believe it was something in my character, because how else would I survive again in my new world? I could not rely on the help of God for had he not abandoned us? The mountains of bodies that reached into the heavens, could he not see them? Or was it the Germans who abandoned God, and even the Almighty was not strong enough to save us?

I had been learning my bar mitzvah lessons while still at home, and Suri had begun to talk about my being Bar Mitzvahed in America. She purchased a talis for me which I placed beneath my few possessions. I wondered what my papa would have said if he knew that I no longer wore a yarmulke, and I looked with low regard at the men whose tzitzis hung beneath their jackets announcing to the world that they were Jews.

Avramala, look,” Suri called out to me as the Statue of Liberty rose up from the ocean, her torch lighting our way. People all around us began shrieking. We gathered our belongings and then walked down the plank. It seemed to take longer than the weeks it had taken for us to cross the ocean. Finally, we stood inside the Building of Immigration on a line that wrapped five times around the room.

We stood there patiently inching up, while I listened to those in front of me step into their new lives. Shmuel, the tailor, whom I played cards with on the ship became

Samuel. Chaim, a boy from our village, called himself Harry. Then it came Suri’s turn.

She smiled at me, shyly. Like a tiny curve of her lips. And she said, “My name is Sarah.” Then she glanced at me, her eyes wide and round, as if to say, please Avram, tell me it’s okay. .

But before I could nod at her, the officer asked, “Your name, sir?” His eyes rested on my tattered trousers.

So many things crossed my mind in that moment.

My Papa refusing to leave his home, so proud and humble even as he walked to his death. The way he held me to him when I was frightened and called me, “Avramala.”

The vision of my mother waving to me from the bedroom window.

David dreaming of walking the streets of New York City. Being with me, his big brother, Abe. Like Abraham Lincoln.

I could almost hear him bellowing, “Abe,” as I stood with my papers in my hand. He would be happy to know where I was at that moment, almost close enough to touch the Statue of Liberty. Maybe, God rest his soul, he was watching me from above.

Avram!” my sister shouted, “please.” Maybe she was afraid they would send us back.

A chill went through me as I looked at the officer, recalling the SS who once stood before me, ready to obliterate me from this earth.

“Please, your name?” the officer asked again.

My brother, David, he had filled my head with big dreams. They were dreams that I would carry into my new life. And I knew in that moment that I would forever hold in my palm too, the memories of all that had come before. Just as Chaim who was now Harry, would never forget. And neither would my new sister, Sarah. Or maybe God willing, she would.

I looked up at the officer who was now tapping his fingers on the desk, waiting for my response.

“Please kind sir,” I said, gently pulling on his arm. “For your records, my name is Abe.” I lifted my satchel, drew up my shoulders and walked across the passageway to meet my sister.

***

 

 

 

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