I was a ghost child, never certain who were the dead and who were the living. There were times my parents looked through me like I wasn’t there, as if they were looking for the missing. Would I be more visible if I were a Holocaust memory, too?
On Friday, flour clouds floated in afternoon sunlight streaming in the kitchen window, as my mother baked cookies and challahs for the Sabbath, recreating her own mother’s tastes and smells. My grandmother and her four youngest children lost to the gas chamber accompanied me everywhere. Not even a picture of them survived. I owed them to keep them alive in my thoughts, to remember how they died, as my payment for living a pain-free life. It was the least I could do in the hopes that this not turn out to be a dream and in waking life I may be trapped in their living nightmare.
I helped my mother prepare for the Sabbath. Mom dusted the rolling boards with flour for pastry dough, flour up to her elbows, on my nose and hair. Fridays’ hectic pace made Shabbos seem all the more peaceful in contrast. I rolled the little cinnamon buns and flaky apple strudels, pressed the little vanilla cookies. My mother kneaded and braided the challah and mixed up a batch of lemony sponge cakes. All done by sunset, when my father arrived home. I could see from the kitchen window the deer emerging like ghosts from the periphery of the forest around the field across the river.
Saturday was Shabbos. Everything mechanical stopped. Everything was like it had been on Shabbos for centuries before technology, in that faraway Jewish world of Hungary and Poland.
“In the concentration camp, we would have loved to eat what you leave on your plate,” my father repeated during our Shabbos lunch. I was a skinny seven-year-old and never had an appetite. My stomach especially clamped shut when I ate with my father. The wasted food left on my plate infuriated him.
“It’s my fault. I give them too much,” interceded my mother. And, indeed, as she, too, had starved for a year in concentration camps, she feared her children would starve. As a result, she went overboard, piling my plate with more food than I could possibly eat. I usually managed maybe a third, which would then trigger my father. We went through this ritual at the Shabbos lunch table every week, where I inevitably sat with a knot in my stomach as my parents’ full attentions were focused on the food on my plate.
Summer evening at twilight, Shabbos drew to a close. Grown-ups languished on blankets under the silver maple that dominated the front yard, towering over the farmhouse, like the wings of a giant bird. Familiar words, “Die Lager,” the prison camp, wafted over in muffled Yiddish. I flew to the other end of the yard, propelled to the far edge of the large vegetable garden, so as to escape hearing about There, that place called Europe, that they still referred to as Home.
Fireflies twinkled like sparks in the deepening dusk, dancing to the rhythm of thousands of crickets and the honking of hundreds of geese settling down for the night, like an army of small ghosts roaming the field just across the river from the house. Damp grass tickled my bare feet. I brushed against the tall zinnias and pungent marigolds of my father’s garden, that I helped him water at the end of each day. My siblings, cousins and I released the flowers’ fragrances, as we captured fleeting phosphorescents that greenly illuminated the inside of our cupped hands. I transferred each bug to a glass jar with air holes, smelling its distinct traces on my fingers, like a freshly-mowed grass. We weaved around the yard as if intoxicated, giggling and crying out “I got one, I got one.”
When three stars were visible, we gathered around Zeidika, my grandfather, under the hovering tree for the weekly ritual of Havdalah. He lit a braided candle. It was my turn to hold it high. He chanted the blessing that praised distinctions: between the Sabbath and the rest of the week, the day of rest and the days of creation, between Jews and other people, between day and night, light and darkness. We filled our lungs with the aroma of cloves from a silver box, in order to have a sweet week. We each in turn, from oldest to youngest, sipped sweet wine from Zeidika’s silver cup. Then, Zeidika poured some of the wine into a saucer, and I plunged the flame into it, extinguishing it with a hiss. Everyone dipped fingers in the waxy wine and put drops in pockets for prosperity and onto foreheads for wisdom as we wished each other “Gut voch, gut voch, a mazeldikah voch, a parnasadikeh voch, a hatzlachadikeh voch.” Yiddish for a good week, a lucky week, a prosperous week, a successful week like so many millions of Jews have wished each other week after week over the generations.
Then it was bedtime. Drifting off to sleep, I suddenly remembered the luminous glass jar filled with fireflies. I ran barefoot over the moist grass to the soft glow in the far corner of the yard, under the full canopy of the night sky now pierced with six million stars. I opened the jar and waved it high, watching the tiny lights rise up towards the stars like sparks. I tried to count them, fleeting sparks transforming into stars, but there were too many and they were too far away and I was so weary I could no longer distinguish the sparks from the stars they were becoming. I returned to my fort and was blanketed in starry slumber.
It is my parents’ memories I remember, recounted to me as a child, memories from before I was born, vivid even now as my parents lie in their graves in Israel.
Names of lost relatives are inscribed on their graves, relatives cremated by Nazis, never having graves of their own. I am a marker of those lost graves as well. I share the names of my grandmothers, Gittel and Hinda. And when I die, I will leave my words on sheaves of paper that may burn.
I saw Dr. Sheinstein, four times a week. She gave me a discount because she was in psychoanalytic training. She had a comfortable couch with a cloth at the head, which I assumed she washed regularly. She sat in an armchair just behind my head, where I couldn’t see her, where I assumed she took notes. She rarely said a word. Before me were no pictures, just a deep blue wall, like the ocean, like sleep. Staring at that blueness day in and out triggered a trance of memories, a train of cattle cars carrying my mother, her family and thousands of others to Auschwitz.
Sometimes I would tell Dr. Sheinstein of the time my mother felt so cold and sick in Auschwitz she reached for the electric fence and her younger sister cried out, “Don’t go. Please. Don’t leave me here alone.” They were fifteen and sixteen. My mother chose to stay. This is the most vivid memory of my life. She told me this over and over since I was small, on Friday nights, the Shabbos candles lit, her face in the glow, looking distant and blank.
Never give up my parents said. But I am not strong . I have been plagued by depression, since I was sixteen, the age my mother lost her mother in the gas chamber. I know I am a weakling who would have been gassed immediately, too.
I get panic attacks in small spaces. Crowded elevators and subways, especially if people are packed in them like cattle. I try to take deep, stale breaths and calm myself by humming songs. It is especially bad when the lights go out.
I am in a train to Auschwitz again.
I say again because I was there. I am certain. I do not believe in reincarnation, but I know that retroactively I was there in spirit. The memories belong as much to me as to my mother. That is the legacy she left me.
And those are the stories I tell, visit after visit, mostly my mother’s tales of before, during and after the war. My father spoke rarely, so I only hold a few of his memories. He did not express himself as my mother did. He wrote poetry that he lost when he was in hiding after escaping Auschwitz, when he lost his Polish language as well. He could only speak in Yiddish and broken English after that.
My mother never wrote. She gave her words to me.
When I feel suicidal, I think, “This isn’t Auschwitz. My husband and children need me. I must not go.”
Gloria Garfunkel has a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University. She was a psychotherapist for 30 years and is now a full-time writer. She has published over fifty stories and working on two story collections, mostly flash fiction.
–Art by Jan Rockar
–Art by Plamen Stoev
–Art by Joel Hohner