Authors: Susan Kushner Resnick
Y THE SAME AUTHOR
Sleepless Days: One Woman’s Journey Through Postpartum Depression Goodbye Wifes and Daughters
Several names in this book have been changed to protect the innocent
The rest of it is as true as it gets
is an attitude … spirited, independent, outspoken, serious, playful and irreverent, sometimes controversial, always passionate.
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Kushner Resnick
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission should be addressed to Globe Pequot Press, Attn: Rights and Permissions Department, P.O. Box 480, Guilford, CT 06437.
skirt! is a registered trademark of Morris Publishing Group, LLC, and is used with express permission.
Text designer: Sheryl P. Kober
Project editor: Ellen Urban
Layout artist: Justin Marciano
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Resnick, Susan Kushner.
You saved me, too : what a Holocaust survivor taught me about living, dying, fighting, loving, and swearing in Yiddish / Susan Kushner Resnick.
Summary: “An extraordinary and literary ‘love story’ between a young mother and a much older Holocaust survivor that celebrates the unique and powerful bonds of friendship. It explores a complex relationship with someone from a different generation and socioeconomic background, and someone who happened to be one of the last surviving Holocaust witnesses of our time”—Publisher’s summary.
1. Holocaust survivors—United States—Anecdotes. 2. Jews, Polish—United States—Anecdotes. 3. Jews—Poland—Zychlin (Konin)—Anecdotes. 4. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)—Poland—Influence. 5. Zychlin (Konin, Poland)—Anecdotes. I. Title. II. Title: What a Holocaust survivor taught me about living, dying, fighting, loving, and swearing in Yiddish.
Who do you think this is dedicated to?
It’s the leftover humans.
The survivors … I witness the ones who are left behind,
crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization,
despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They
have beaten lungs
The Book Thief
Late FragmentAnd did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth
A New Path to the Waterfall
You squinted your eyes so only a disk of color, slate-blue like an infant’s, showed. Your focus at that moment may have been as limited as a newborn’s, too, or you may have seen everything: her, me, the people you’d loved in that apartment by the sugar factory. Then, after you’d recognized that this was your last living moment, you dove. And we marveled: at the grace, the speed, the soundless break of the water—all in such contrast to every practice session that came before. For you had rehearsed this move, stepped right to the edge of the board, so many times, in your mind and in truth. You thought it would be loud, painful, clumsy. You were wrong. It was beautiful. Because of all that practice? Or because you finally, finally caught a break? Absolutely unknowable. Well done, my friend. Well done.
I talk to strangers.
Everyone who hears the story of my odd and beautiful relationship with a quirky man who proved that the Final Solution wasn’t final at all asks the same question: How did you meet him?
I talk to strangers, I tell them. And so did he.
Aron Lieb approached me in the lobby of a community center. When he started speaking in an accent thick with the Old Country, as if we were in the middle of a conversation, of course I spoke back. Our conversation lasted for more than fourteen years.
Aron was fiery and warm, irrational and perceptive, terrified and heroic. He was also my soul mate. My faux father, my son, my crush, and my cause. Before I became his health-care proxy and was declared his power of attorney, he would whisper into hospital-room telephones that I should pretend to be his niece when I visited so the nurses would reveal family-only details about his ailments. He frequently told me that I’d saved his life, but he saved mine, too, by giving me value as no one ever had before.
For much of our relationship, I focused on making sure he got the peaceful and painless life and death he deserved. I strongly believed that he should never feel discomfort again after what he’d endured both during and after the Holocaust, and I did what I could to ensure that. My quest led me to some David and Goliath–like fights with the established Jewish community. It forced me to suppress my temper and learn to be diplomatic with his caregivers, and it taught me to be patient with his fears and demands. Most surprisingly, my years as the manager of Aron’s life showed me that being a good Jew has nothing to do with temple attendance or Hebrew fluency.
When someone dies, a long conversation ends. You’d been blabbing and blabbing to each other for years and then …
How can you not be able to tell him how it ended, what that nurse said at exactly the right time, whether the evidence he promised to send proving heaven exists ever arrived? I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop speaking to Aron in my mind, but if I could have one more talk with him, this is what I would say.
These fucking people can’t fucking drive.
They have no idea that my task on this Sunday morning is more urgent than all of theirs. The only mission of equal importance would involve escorting life in, but I know that’s not happening because nobody ferrying a passenger with a baby crowning between her legs would be stopping at yellow lights. I’m certain I’m the only driver on Route 1 who’s been dreading and preparing for this ride for almost fifteen years.
The sky is the color of a dull nickel. The snow has melted from enchantment to gloom. I must get to you before it’s too late. I promised. I don’t make a lot of promises, but I never break them. You should see the lurid secrets locked in my brain, corrupting it like leaky batteries, because I promised people I’d never reveal the stupid things they’ve done. Affairs, addictions, attempts to exterminate themselves. But my promise to you is neither ugly nor secret, though I’m not sure I’ve ever told it to anyone else. Just you, over and over.
I won’t let you die alone.
You believe me, but you don’t. What if they can’t reach me?
“Do they have your number?” you ask.
“Yes. They have all of them. Don’t worry.”
I’m always telling you not to worry. Sorry about that.
“Write down your number again,” you say.
And I do, in block print on unevenly torn pieces of scrap paper that you stuff into your pockets. I obey almost all of your commands, no matter how redundant and ridiculous. It’s the least you deserve. How many other people have been rehearsing the lines of their deaths for most of their lives?
The light at this giant intersection turns green. The driver in front of me hesitates.
“Go!” I scream. “It’s Sunday morning. Nobody’s on the road!”
I am ready to fight, as I have been for the past four years of squiring you to the end. But the driver I’m yelling at can’t hear me, of course, just like so many others who wouldn’t hear me when I was figuratively pointing at you and screaming
You can’t hear me right now, either, but I want you to know about this morning.
When the phone flashed your number, I knew what I was going to hear. Crullers. Belts. A terrible ache in your heart. Some request or complaint that I’ve heard five hundred times before. Funny how I almost always answer those calls in a tone of panic.
I want to yelp into the caller’s ear. But this time I sighed with annoyance because I was certain it was nothing but a reminder that you’re still alive and that you want to see me. You know I come every Sunday, so why call? Don’t you trust me?
The man’s voice was alarmingly calm as he explained how it had played out.
“I’ll be right there,” I said when he finally paused. Who the hell speaks that slowly?
“Oh,” the man said, snapping to life. “You’re coming?”
I’m coming? Can you fucking believe that?
So many times over our years together I imagined this day.
You did, too.
Imagined it and worried about it, over and over and over. For longer than I did, of course, but I bet I could have matched you in intensity.
On every trip I took, this specific worry cut the line before all the others. And it’s a long line. I’m a bad traveler. I over-pack and try to control everything, which I know is antithetical to the purpose of travel. You’re supposed to let go—especially on vacations—not my greatest skill.
The alpha worry was that I’d break my promise. It usually began with worrying about airport logistics. I’d calculate all I’d have to go through before reaching my destination. Cab to airport to boarding pass to luggage check to security line to wait to board to wait to fly to land to wait to baggage claim to cab to hotel. Then I’d reverse it. That’s
how long it would take me to get to you if the news came during a vacation or business trip.
What if this morning’s call had arrived while I was reading the Sunday paper at a hotel restaurant in Red Lodge, Montana, instead of at my kitchen table in New England? You can’t even fly direct from Montana, so I would have needed to add land-wait-connect in Denver or Chicago to the chain of impediments. That’s a lot of hours. What if I didn’t make it? What if I broke the promise because I was lying by a pool in Puerto Rico? I can’t imagine forgiving myself for such self-indulgence.
Then I’d worry about money, as you always did, because booking an unplanned flight would be expensive. But I’d easily fold that one away as soon as I remembered that the Nazis would pay.
“I got this,” I picture Hitler saying as he reaches for his wallet in his back pocket.
I’d worry if I were doing something important with my children, who always come first, despite your jealousy of that positioning. What if I was watching a play The Girl—as you still call my daughter, Carrie—had been rehearsing for months? Would I leave in the middle? What if Max was home with a stomach bug, but you were dying? You’d have nurses but he’d only have me, so how could I choose?
I’d worry the most during the summers when I was just over the border in Rhode Island. I never told you about those months I spent at rental beach houses instead of at home. You would have panicked yourself into misery. Not to mention the extra work it would have put on the staff, dealing with your ramped-up desperation. I still visited you during those summers, but stretched the visits to two-week intervals, and when you asked what I’d been up to, I’d say I’d been to the beach with the kids, which was true. I felt guilty about that lie of omission, by the way, but everyone agreed it was better for you not to know. Still, even when I was only a ninety-minute drive away, I worried about blowing it.
So wouldn’t it be ironic if on this day, when I’m my usual half-hour from your side, I’m too late? Because of these fucking drivers.
up—let’s not forget that. I wasn’t looking for love on that bright and boring August day. I was just trying to hang on to my mind, which at that point was like a wet bar of soap. I’d get it and lose it and get it and lose it.
I’d been swimming laps just before we met. It was one of my less-successful strategies for clearing up a nasty case of postpartum depression. Every other day I’d drop Carrie at preschool and then drive from our bucolic town to the seedy city down the road, incongruous home to a posh Jewish Community Center. While Max delighted women in the babysitting room—an innate flirt, like you—I slapped the water, as if I could beat the misery out of my muscles and leave it behind like dirt from under my fingernails. I was balancing Max on one shoulder while an empty car seat dangled from my arm when you noticed us. My hair was still wet. You waited until I’d started to thread Max’s arms under his car-seat straps before approaching.
“Vhat’s his name?” you asked.
I turned, summed you up as harmless, and answered.
“Hey, Maxeleh,” you said, your voice pitching higher. “What are you doing, Maxeleh?”
You seemed to really like kids, which is why I asked if you had any grandchildren. I figured you were seeking out strange babies because yours lived far away and you missed them.
No grandchildren, you told me. No children, either. And your wife had died four years earlier.
“She killed herself,” you said.
Comedic beat. Wait for it.
Okay, not exactly, you explained. She had diabetes and wouldn’t eat right. Your eyes twinkled when you saw me grasp the chocolate joke.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
It was time for me to go, but I wanted to keep talking to you. I was lonely and weak, but at that moment in time, you weren’t.
“How long have you lived here?”
“Since 1949,” you said, smiling down at Max. “After the war.”
“You fought in the war?” I asked, stupidly.
“I was in the camps. All the camps.”
All the camps. Maybe that wasn’t completely true, but close enough. You’d lived in the Big House, the Yankee Stadium of camps, the White House of camps, the Taj Mahal of camps: Auschwitz. It was there that you became a number, as did everyone else who passed under the work-will-set-you-free banner and avoided the introductory gassing. I didn’t realize until recently that Auschwitz inmates were the only ones tattooed. I’d thought they’d inked all of you. Now whenever I see someone with a Nazi-designed string of digits on their arm, I wonder if they knew you—if they crossed your path, shared your bunk, tried to steal your shoes.
Auschwitz was more of a stopover than a destination for you. Same with Dachau. You settled in longer at Birkenau, Auschwitz’s sister property, but they were always moving you someplace. You resided in so many slave-labor camps that you can’t remember all their names, and I will never be able to trace your moves with journalistic accuracy.
It will turn out to be easier to track your little sisters and the rest of your family because they traveled to death in a pack. But I knew none of this at our first meeting. Before you could dole out more hints, Vera arrived from the locker room. She’d been chlorinating herself in the pool, too. She had her stern Soviet face on, a face that said
Who the hell is this chick, and why is she talking to my man?
A biker’s face.
You introduced me to your girlfriend, but when did we introduce ourselves to each other? I’ve rewound that morning countless times, but an exchange of names never plays. Maybe, as Max would later observe, it wasn’t necessary. Maybe we already knew each other and you recognized us. Could you have been keeping an eye out for us before we were even born?
We walked out together and you two stopped to talk to another white-haired couple. I headed to my car, buckled Max in, and stalled in
the driver’s seat until you came close enough to hear me. I loved your contrast: so cheery for a Holocaust survivor. Nothing like the tragic heroes I’d read about or seen in movies. They never seemed to laugh, as if that ability had been starved out of them. You laughed more than I did. I wanted to know more.
I beckoned you over.
“Do you want to meet for coffee someday?” I asked.
“You buying?” you said, with the twinkly eyes again.
So I guess maybe
We decided on the following Friday. All week I worried that you’d stand me up. Why would this stranger want to hang with me? I knew I’d feel like an idiot if you didn’t show, and inexplicably sad, too.
You weren’t at the row of lobby chairs where the old men roosted while their wives exercised. I thought you’d blown me off; then I thought maybe I’d forgotten what you looked like and you were one of those dudes. But one was too fat and another had a mustache and none of them seemed to recognize me, so I kept walking. And there you were, a few yards down, all alone in your cap and glasses, waiting. You waved and jumped out of your seat.
You showed. That day and every week after. And while we blew on our hot coffee, you began to tell me everything.
I wonder if you said your line to the doctor this morning.
“Pain in my chest.”
If someone had raked and bagged every word you ever said, these four would fill the most sacks.
There were variations, of course.
“The chest,” you’d mutter, drawing your fingers across your sternum.
Or the full sentence, in a clear voice, as if you were making this announcement for the very first time: “I got a pain in the chest.”
Dozens of medical professionals spent thousands of dollars investigating that pain. Their reaction is Pavlovian and, possibly, a law. The words
spoken in the same sentence in the presence of white coats cannot be ignored. They scanned and EKGed and enzyme-tested you over and over again, but they never found anything to fix.
I knew what was wrong.
Your mother. Your father. Your brother and his wife and their baby. Your sister and your other sister and your baby sister. The girl who brought you bread in the ghetto. Your grandmothers. The kids you sneaked glimpses of movies with. Everyone.