copyright by Ruth Sidransky
NOTE: This story was written based on the notes of a sea cruise that happened over 30 years ago. The story is true. The names are not true.
For Ruth Sidransky’s novels, click here: REPARATIONS
He was a small man, in height. He sat down at the dinner table and we, as cruise companions, exchanged nods and names.
“I am Fred,” his accented English almost whispered.
‘Where are you from?”
“Montreal.” Montreal. There were Eastern European tones to his voice. I heard no indication of French as a native language.
“Ah, this is Debbie. This is my daughter.”
She slid in beside him on the rose print banquette, and gave me a full red lipstick smile. Large, strong young teeth, a ballerina’s stance.
I waited for him to ask the introductory questions. He did not. He remained composed and still, his white linen napkin on his lap, a glass of water gently to his lips.
I pressed on, “Where are you from?” I paused. “Originally?”
“I’m Russian, my maiden name is Sidransky. A Russian Jew.”
“I am Kline.”
“Not in this case.” He spoke softly. Perhaps ashamed. I could not be certain.
The discomfort passed around the table. Without pause, stumbling over our words, we spoke of other cruises, other voyages, of other cities, of the Danube River bisecting Vienna, of the St. Lawrence Waterway framing Quebec to the south, until Debbie, hesitated, and brought us back to honest words.
She said, “My mother died a year and a half ago.”
“My mother died last month,” I said.
The chill at the table thawed. There was a warming, a sense of kinship, once removed. And there was comfortable silence as we ate our three course dinner: consommé, sautéed Dover Sole, and fruit for dessert.
We’d all ordered the same dinner. Fred rose from the table, refusing coffee, moved with a laborer’s swing, arms and legs, muscular, powerful for a man who was five foot six inches tall.
Debbie lingered over her milk coffee and said, “Kline is a Polish Catholic name. He adopted it when he arrived in Montreal with my mother.” She wiped her mouth with the linen napkin and that signaled the end of her explanation.
We did not usually gather for breakfast at the table, but this morning, Fred was already seated, sipping his black coffee. My husband was still in the cabin, and Fred and I were alone at this round table for eight people. We nodded a ‘good morning’ hello as I slid into my seat.
He was wearing a red short-sleeved shirt, and as he reached his left arm across for a warm roll the numbers, indelible, blue, sharp held my breath. 161304. He’d been in the camps.
And not a Jew? A Catholic priest perhaps, one of the righteous ones? He caught my eye and clearly said, wordlessly, with his eyes fastened on mine, we will not talk of this. And we did not. There were seven days left to the voyage; I would learn the truth of the blue numbers.
In the evening after a day of touring in Mexico, after our rest and shower, my husband and I leisurely walked into the dining room. Father and daughter were chatting happily, and when they saw us approach the table they waved, hurrying us on to our dinner.
Over wine and a sense of the fullness of an ample mea, Debbie talked of her Auntie Rona. “She wanted me to marry a Jewish boy, with lots of money.”
“Auntie Rona?” I asked.
“Yes, on my mother’s side. She was married to my Uncle Miltie, my mother’s brother. He tiptoes around his apartment so no one can hear him. He’s been sound sensitive ever since 1938 when he went into hiding with a Catholic Polish family. He doesn’t work; he hasn’t worked in many years. He is still hiding but now he hides in Montreal.”
“So you are Jewish, your mother was Jewish.”
Fred looked sharply at his daughter. Debbie leaned over his dinner plate and said, “Dad, you like dark meat, let me have the white meat.”
“There’s very little left.”
“That’s fine, I’ll have it.”
The chicken portions, the roasted breast and thigh, were moved across the table; the dark to Fred, the white to Debbie.
My husband and Fred were deep in conversation. And as they talked, I held the burgundy wine to my lips and asked Debbie, “Which camp?”
“Auschwitz. There were many camps. He was moved from one to another.”
Fred leaned over, asked for the butter, turned his head and resumed the business chat with my husband. I overheard words about Fred’s music shop in Montreal, comments about net profits, retail sales and words about castanets. I could not listen to their conversation and ask Debbie about her father’s past at the same time. I paused before I dared ask another question, make a comment.
Then I said, “He was so young.”
“He was fourteen when the war started, my mother was nine.” Her answer was short, almost curt.
I calculated quickly, Fred was born in 1925, his wife in 1930.
Before I could ask another question, Fred asked, “Would like some more wine?”
“A little, thank you.”
Debbie, as her father had done, locked her eyes on mine and cautioned me to say no more, to ask no more. We resumed vacation chat about this and that port, about this and that purchase. I was not interested, but continued the charade.
Another night at sea passed. The morning was glorious, the sea aquamarine calm and I stretched out at the poolside with a book I deemed ‘airplane lit’ when without warning, Fred slid into the lounge beside me in a bright blue bathing suit.
“Hello,” he said.
I turned to greet him and I was struck by the golden ‘chai’ he wore around his neck, the Hebrew letter that is the symbol of life. I was tempted to touch it, tempted to lay the letter in my hand.
Instead I asked, “Where’s Debbie? but wanted to ask, ‘Are you Jewish?’
Best not to ask, not to remark on the golden chain and the golden ‘chai’. The telling would come, most probably in fragments, a memory unearthed, a memory spoken.
There was a sudden gathering of people on deck, a crowd in damp bathing suits murmuring about an ill passenger, waiting for lifeboat number eight to be released from the promenade deck and into the water with a man and a woman on board. There was an ambulance on shore waiting to drive them to the local hospital in Porta Plata. The intimate moment that might have been ignited between Fred and me was gone. The sea was behind me and I turned my face from the sun, avoiding further contact with Fred.
I counted the days before our journey’s end. Tomorrow would be the fifth day. I wanted to know, wanted to record yet another sacred story.
Friday evening at the table, Debbie beautifully dressed in an emerald green blouse and black satin pants, waved her arms about, striking something in the air. In the two minutes it took to reach the table, Debbie had a serene smile on her face.
“Come,” she said, “let us light the Sabbath candles. I light two candles every Friday night for my mother Libby. This afternoon in the cabin I asked my father if he remembered to pack two candles for her. He said, ‘I will never forget candles for Momma, not on Shabbos.”
Debbie asked me to light a candle, a gracious offer. She lit one first, and I the second white candle. We covered our eyes, moved our hands over golden flames and recited the ancient prayer of blessing welcoming the Sabbath bride. And then our private prayer in silence.
We kissed and said to one another, “Good Shabbos”.
Over red wine, a Merlot, Debbie, without prompting said, “My mother’s name was Libby. She never told me, never told us she had cancer: breast, liver, her kidney too. It was hard to find out when it was too late.”
Fred put up his hand and said, “Debbie, enough.”
“Papa, it’s not enough, I need to talk about Momma. I need to remember her. Do you remember her? She didn’t want us to live with her disease. She wanted us to have a wonderful life. At the end she said she had no pain. I don’t believe, I don’t know if that was true. I know I miss my mother.”
“It’s all right Debbie. You can speak.”
Careful not to rupture Debbie’s spill of words, I nodded, letting her and Fred, her father, know that I was listening, listening closely.
“My mother was born on May 5, 1929 and she was liberated on her birthday. Oh, yes. She was free and sick, but she never said so. A friend told me. You should have met my mother. She was lovely. If you asked her where she was from, she would say in her Polish accent that she was Canadian. Often, she said, Canada was the best country in the world. If you asked her about the war years, her time in the camps, she would not talk about it. She had complete acceptance of that time. It was over, and there would be no conversation, no memory talk. It was not allowed, not in my presence, ever.”
Fred said, “Enough, maidela.”
Maidela. My grandmother called me by that name, roughly translated it means ‘little girl’, but it is a diminutive of great affection, usually uttered from parent to child.
My husband and I were quiet, waiting for Fred to continue, if he would. Over consommé, Fred murmured some unintelligible words, and then a torrent.
“I am angry,” he said. “I am angry that people were humiliated, abused and tortured, singled out, and suffered, and murdered.”
He placed his large hand on the table with a thud. “Do you think you are exempt from another Holocaust against the Jew?”
Subdued, I said, “Not in my life time.”
“Really,” he sneered. Angry. “Did you ever read the book, ONE IS TOO MANY?”
Fred stopped his anger, and then calmly said, “The prime minister, McKenzie King, didn’t want any Jews in Canada.”
Debbie, the daughter, and Fred, the father, exchanged silences. And the subject of the war and its aftermath was closed, at least for the fifth dinner at sea.
But that evening we strolled, Fred and I along the promenade deck, As though he was addressing the calm sea, he began to speak. Words and phrases, not quite intelligible, as though memory had a cough, and he coughed up bits and pieces that occurred to him at random, plucking language from memory’s store.
And then a line of cohesive memory: “I wasn’t only at Auschwitz. Before that I was in the Warsaw Ghetto. Almost at the end of the war there were hundreds, maybe thousands marching from one camp to another. The camp guards, angry, for no reason, would shoot the marchers when they felt like. No reason at all. I went to up to an SS guard offered to carry his bags. I thought if I carried the SS bags no one would shoot me. He shoved me away. I walked with the other marchers, and then as we marched, by chance I found a bicycle on the side of the road. I escaped again.”
I dared not interrupt, dared not stop the flow of memory. Fred shoved his hands into his pants pockets and stopped speaking. I attempted to speak.
Fred put up his hand, and said, “My daughter, my Debbie knows most of the stories. No more now. It is hard for me in English, better I speak in Polish. Yiddish I learned in the camps.”
Bits and pieces.
Fragments of a survivor’s tale.
Debbie walked up behind us and said, “Hello Poppa. Did you tell about Warsaw? He wasn’t there for the Passover uprising. In the beginning the Germans called for the men to come to the center of a main street. My father escaped after they put all the men in a circle and made them put all their valuables in the middle of the circle. They grabbed a known gay man, made him crouch in front of everyone, and a soldier put a bullet in his neck. My father was a witness.”
I couldn’t see Fred’s face, but his breath was quicker, his stride strong.
“After the war, my father returned to his home town, Kalish in Poland. There was German officer that some of the townspeople crucified in the middle of the yard where the workers were shot when the Nazis had power. His shoulders were separated from his body. He begged the Poles to shoot him. He pleaded with the workers who were once forbidden to look at him, the German officer. They finally shot him. My father was a witness.”
Fred said, “Yes, I escaped. I am here. And I am going to bed. I had too much sun and too much 151 proof rum to drink. ”
We met again on deck in the morning, the sun pouring down on the open spaces pool side. Fred and Debbie would be in their favorite shady corner. Fred invited me to sit with them with a wave of his hand and began speaking immediately.
“I escaped the march with another boy, Samich. He worked in the gas ovens for a few months; then they gas you. Altogether we rode 600 miles. But first we found a farmhouse. The Russians were already there with five tanks and many soldiers, they were Mongols. The farmer was afraid they would rape his daughter, so he told them she was his wife. They couldn’t wait to get to Germany. There they could do what they liked.”
Fred raised his index finger to his throat and with a swift sign; he slit it.
They asked the farmer who we were, and he said, “They are my sons. ”
“In the night the Russians gave us guns to stand and watch for Germans. And they came, in the distance, about twenty soldiers with bread in their pockets. The Russians ran back to their tanks and they took the guns from us. I grabbed Samich. I know every farm has a cellar and told him to come and I closed the door over our heads.”
At that moment a waiter politely asked if we wanted a drink.
“Yes, we’ll have some wine, a light white Beaujolais, but we will save it for lunch with cold white asparagus in the dining room.”
The waiter turned to the next passenger and Fred eager to finish his story said, “When Samich and I came out of the cellar, all the German soldiers were dead. They made a ring around the farm. A defeated army, they didn’t have the heart to fight. I tell you this, I remember this day.”
“I also remember the moment the Germans caught me early in the war. A neighbor, a nobody, denounced me and they came, the police and took me away. I told the man I would never forget him. I went back to Poland after the war, I went to the police, to the NKVD, the Russian police and by myself I found him.”
Debbie lifted her hand into the shape of a gun, pointed at her father and said, “You shot him? Or was he shot?”
Fred shook his head, looked over at me, nodded, closed and opened his eyes and I saw the death of the informer, the brutality of the slaying to be kept from his daughter.
Debbie anxious to change the subject said, “Let’s have lunch. In the dining room, where it is quiet, and we can be served. I don’t want to deal with the crowds at the buffet on the upper deck. It is too much food to look at en masse.”
There were no others at the table. We were early for lunch. And indeed, the waiter served us asparagus vinaigrette, thick, white, slimy, wet from a can. The lobster was yet to come. Not a kosher food. Fred picked at the asparagus, moving the stalks from one side of the plate to the other. He wanted to say something, something to finish his story of escape with Samich, but it was Debbie who seemed to be the keeper of her father’s memory.
With knife and fork he cut the head off the asparagus spear, delicately placed the morsel in his mouth and Debbie said, “They were starving at the end of the war, everywhere, in the camps especially, but on Yom Kippur, my father fasted, many of the prisoners did, just to show the Germans that they were still Jews.”
Fred called for the wine steward, turned to his Debbie, her blond hair still damp from her morning swim and asked, “What wine would you like, red or white?”
“Order a half carafe, I will only have a sip, Poppa.
“Shall I speak to the steward in Hungarian?”
I asked, “How many languages do you speak?”
He chuckled. “Debbie told you I learned Yiddish in the camps, yes?”
“After the war, first I went to Mexico. It was late at night, and I forgot my key to the apartment where I was staying. So I clapped my hands for the gatekeeper. You know about them. They keep the keys for people like me. The man came with his keys. I spoke to him in Spanish. He shook his head. I spoke to him in English. No. And then he asked me in Yiddish, ‘Do you speak Yiddish?’ Yiddish? We both laughed. Of course, a universal language for us.”
I leaned into his left ear to comment and he motioned me away, “Not that ear, when they separated us at the camps, they hit me with a bull whip. I don’t hear so well in that ear. But I can hear Yiddish very well in my right ear. ”
And another fragment fell into place, out of chronological order, but out of memory’s order. These were the last days of the luxury cruise and I wanted answers, I wanted the story of Fred’s life to make chronological sense.
That afternoon I wandered back onto the pool deck and found Debbie eager to talk to me. I’d had enough, yet I could not, nor would I resist her desire to find closure to her father’s wartime past. She was sandwiched in between the vacationing bodies, women in bikinis hiding their pubic nudity, their firm breasts. She didn’t wait for me to pull up a chair, to sit down and listen to her questions.
She plunged in. “What did my father mean when he gave you that wink at the table? What did he mean by the NVKD?”
“You mean the NKVD? The Communist Secret Police under Stalin.”
“What did he mean when he looked at you like that?”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Did he kill the informer himself?”
“Your father didn’t say, did he?”
“All my life, my father speaks in pieces. A piece here, a piece there.”
“Do you think my father killed his neighbor?”
“Either he did or the NKVD did it for him. They were well known for their killings. Maybe they shot him on the spot, no trial, and a quick execution.”
As though she was still questioning me about her father’s role in the execution of his neighbor, Debbie said, “What is that sun block you are using? May I try it?”
I handed her the PABA free cream and watched her smooth it over her lithe legs, her lovely arms and pick up her romance novel, ignoring me, ignoring the importance of her interrogation. She was done. How much did she know? How much did she guess?
She turned the pages of her book in rapid succession, skimming, reading a sentence, looking up at the sky and then seemingly out of the ether she said, “Did my father tell you that when he returned to the town of Kalish where he was born, there was no one left, no one who remembered him, just the dead man, so he joined the Polish army.”
“The Polish army?”
“It was a safety measure for him, a place to sleep and eat, and he was sure no harm would come to him. I know he is ashamed of this. I learned of this very recently. My mother told me before she died, she told me his exact words. He said, ‘ After the war, I had nowhere else to go. So I went back to Poland. They took me in the army. They would do nothing to me.’ There were so many secrets, and I believe there still are many untold secrets. Not secrets, not really. Things that were best left in the past and surely are best forgotten. My mother knew all the stories, of her family and my father’s family. He was alone. No one was left, not a friend, not a mother, a father, a brother or a sister. No one. Not one person until he met my mother.”
Debbie was in verbal free fall. And I had no pen or pencil, and could rely only on my memory. To no avail. Fred touched Debbie’s bare toes, much as one would strike the white keys on a piano. “Poppa, where did you come from?”
“From Poland, of course. I heard you talking about your mother. Did you tell the time Momma had cancer?”
Fred said, “Libby, my wife came down with cancer when Debbie was 2 years old, and all I could think were the words, ‘What am I going to do with three small children? Ach, she had her breasts removed; then the cancer went to her liver and her kidneys. She lived for many years and she was very sick, fighting for her life. Always fighting.” His words came quickly; they rushed out of his soul.
“Come Debbie, come and take a walk with me.”
And they walked off together, father and daughter, arm in arm. And I dug into my straw bag and found a notebook and a pen, and began to write every word I could remember from the first day we met until this day of the Caribbean cruise. As the afternoon faded into early evening I was still on deck, writing, scratching away with my pen, my handwriting almost unintelligible even to me. I looked up at Debbie, dressed for the evening.
Startled, I looked up when I heard Debbie say, “What are you doing?”
“You and your Dad.”
She stared at my notebook.
Reluctantly, “Would you like to read what I wrote?”
The ship’s white rails bobbed ten degrees against the horizon. Christmas music rang out over the loudspeakers. I smelled the season’s sun block, the tanning oils, saw a fat man lolling on a plastic lounge chair, leaning over to pick at his cold French fried potatoes coated in ketchup. I turned away.
Debbie sat down at the edge of my chair and attempted to read. My handwriting foiled her. I read aloud and she stopped me, “I have something to tell you. He didn’t do it when my mother was alive.”
“My mother hated the numbers the Nazis tattooed on her arm. She had them surgically removed by a plastic surgeon, and then a skin graft. My father came to Canada in 1948 after the he worked in the lumber camps. He met my mother and they married in the same year. And her family became his family. She was lucky, out of seven children, five survived. I told you; he had no one living, not a cousin, not even a distant cousin. He went to school to study English. He had the numbers on his arm from Auschwitz and some of the students made fun of him. My mother begged him. So he went to a tattoo place and they rubbed the numbers out. They couldn’t get all the numbers out. They couldn’t get all the blue dye out. When I grew up, all I ever saw was a blue stain on his arm.”
“But the numbers are there. I remember them. 161304.” I did not say what I had wondered, his numbers were brilliant on a blue stain.
“He went back to the same tattoo parlor and had the numbers put back on his arm after my mother died. He said, “I am these numbers. They are for everyone to see. I will not forget.”
The sun lay in an orange ball on the horizon. I had no more questions.
At dinner, Fred once again, wore a short-sleeved shirt, his numbers bright blue. I looked away. Fred reached over and held my hand in the way of old friends, and placed my hand over his left forearm, over the numbers and said, “It is 1989. The Berlin Wall is down. What do you think? A united Germany? Who was it that said, ‘I like Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them?’
We laughed our unspoken fear of the New Germany. And ate our dinner.
The tenth day of the cruise. It was over. We jostled with the crowds walking off the gangplank in Miami. We promised to keep in touch.
Fred promised to send me castanets from his Montreal music emporium.