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Spelunking and the Weight of Words

Book excerpt:

My hands smell of old leather and brass fittings and the decay of one hundred years. Gidon and I have just sat and looked through family photographs that he has kept in an old photo album that he found after his mother’s death. I can smell the age of the album, of the photos. The writing on the back is in German and in Czech. I wonder if any DNA has passed to my hands. It must have. Doris, Fritz, Ernst, Rosa. I go to the bathroom and scrub my hands but I can’t get rid of that slightly metallic scent. Pictures of aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, grandparents, great-grandparents, some in daguerreotypes from before the turn of the century that must have cost a fortune to get photographed. The hats and cribs and toys are surely props at the photographer’s shop. Gidon’s great-grandfather, perhaps three years old, is posed holding a Czech sword of some kind. Gidon, in 1946, laughing in the snow, with his American cousin’s US army cap, his cousin looking for all the world like Elvis Presley, standing nearby. Gidon has only been liberated from a concentration camp for about a year when this photo is taken. He’s put a little weight back on. His was the last concentration camp to be liberated by the Red Army. The first, some months earlier, was Madjeneck. The Red Army was said to be surprised at how many living corpses they found at Terezin, as opposed to the other camps. Gidon remembers the soldiers throwing cigarettes and candy to the pale, curious faces as the barbed wire fence came down.

A book is in my backpack: The Book of Dirt, by Bram Presser, an Australian writer whose grandfather was in Terezin also. In the book, on the jostling bus on a hot June day in Tel Aviv, I read the details of Terezin, of Czechoslovakia before and after 1938. About the encroaching storm, the darkness. I know how the story ends. Presser, with the advantage of time, the power of research and the pure passion and anger of demanding these details, lends a vocabulary to Gidon’s childish recollections. Specific words. Like “refugee” and “fled” and “Gestapo”. Words that Gidon couldn’t conjure, in any language, at the time. Presser writes about “parallel but competing plains in the multiverse that was the Holocaust.” The little grey corner of the Holocaust that I have been privy to is that of a child who grew to be a man who learned the facts of the Holocaust, the numbers, much later, and for whom the most important fact-on-the-ground was that Papa never came home again.

I have read many things about Terezin before, websites upon websites, and I have heard Gidon’s stories, but Presser’s book takes blurry childhood memories into black and white. Gidon’s family didn’t “move” from Carlsbad to Prague. They fled. SS. Fled. Occupation. Gestapo. Resistance. DP’s - Displaced Person camps. Gidon was a “displaced person” after his liberation. A displaced person.

In the past, I had imagined, through my reading and media exposure, that a Jewish family anywhere in Europe went from normal life to some discomfort and then straight to a cattle car and concentration camp and therein … horrors. Soap. Lampshades. Crematoria. I had elided, somehow, the suffocating dread that must have crept up, slowly, before that. The small humiliations. The student protests. The arrests. The yellow stars. The posters pasted on the city walls ordering the Jews to do this and that; no longer allowed in this park or that cafe or this bus - do I look Jewish? How will they know? The appearance of German soldiers in their grey uniforms, marching down streets and over bridges. The wondering where the neighbor went or if the neighbor talked. The pulling down of the blinds at night. The radio announcements. Going out to shop with clipped ration cards. Trying to bring home a living when your living has been “confiscated” by the Reich. Your bank account too. Your property. Your dignity. The knock on the door. The lining up to register your existence as a Jew in your own country, your city, your life. The noose tightening, slowly and then at an accelerating pace. What will become of you? Your child? Your spouse? Your family? What comes next? Will this be stopped? The order to report to the train station. The dread. The disbelief. What do you pack? Bring your valuables, they said. And something warm.

Sometimes it seems that I can’t come up for air, so palpably does the wail of the train whistle seem. This is no Spielberg movie. This happened. To Doris. To Ernst and his father and his mother and his mother-in-law and his father-in-law and to every relative he knew. To Gidon and cousins of cousin's cousins and to six million and to so many others. An unstoppable machine belching ash and bone from smokestacks. What did it feel like to know that was approaching? But then - they didn’t know. But I do, so many years later. I know what’s coming. I know who won’t return. And who will - changed forever in incalculable ways that will ripple for generations.

Gidon, my Loving Life Buddy - is shaken by looking at the photographs also. He excuses himself to make dinner. I wash my hands again. This book comes at a cost to me and to Gidon. A high one. Is it cruel to ask him to revisit these memories? And yet it is nothing compared to the price others have paid. I don't know where to put this feeling for either of us. I don't suppose I ever will.

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