A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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I didn’t stockpile toilet paper when New York City headed into lockdown last spring, but I did start saving bits of news articles and social-media posts. Within the first few weeks I’d opened a blank document in the cloud and begun pasting in anything that struck me.
Inundated with alarming headlines, I guess I was looking to blaze a detour away from history-making news toward someplace where trivial events and small catastrophes still went on as usual:
A container ship ran aground Friday morning in the Mississippi River near Belle Chasse, according to a report.
It’s national fragrance day!
It felt like a hopeful stab at recording some minor details the virus didn’t infect — which seemed possible at the time. I remember telling my parents early on that a lot of people weren’t prepared for the coming disruption. But I was thinking, May, maybe June, as a worst-case timeline, too dire to venture out loud.
About a month before everything shut down, a patternmaker I followed on Instagram died suddenly. I liked his clothes’ generous proportions and odd palettes, and his passion for Björk. His family had posted a notice on his account saying where a memorial would be held, then deleted it a few days later, as though wanting to keep everything the way he’d left it.
I listened to Björk’s “Stonemilker” on a packed subway — one of the last evening commutes I can recall — with a confounding sadness that would swell and persist in ways I couldn’t then imagine.
“Moments of clarity are so rare,” the song went. “I better document this.”
By April, well into quarantine, I remembered something else I should document, now that I had the time. I dug up a six-year-old e-mail from a cousin with a smartphone video attached. She’d recorded our late grandfather talking at Thanksgiving about his Holocaust experiences. I opened a fresh document and spent the next week and a half transcribing the forty-seven minutes of footage.
It was tough going. In the video he is an energetic storyteller relating episodes of great violence in a can-you-believe-it tone better suited to recounting a kooky incident out running errands. There is also the Yiddish tide of his syntax, which deposits nouns in unexpected places, like a rocking chair found sitting on the roof of a toolshed after a flood.
He felt that luck was the main thing, survival a matter of pure chance against devastating odds. His face assumes an expression of mild astonishment whenever he returns to this theme, stringing it between stories that share the texture of a particularly brutal fairy tale.
One day at a labor site in eastern Poland, where SS guards spent hours beating the conscripts they’d pressed into digging ditches for utilities, my grandfather was spared by the sudden arrival of a mounted officer whose horse was draped in a richly ornamented blanket.
He jumps down from the horse. He hands me the horse.
“What shall I do with the horse?” I asked.
He said, “Don’t do nothing. Wherever the horse wants to go, you just walk the horse.”
So he wandered the woods with the animal for hours. He was still clutching its reins after dusk when the officer came to retrieve it.
He gave me this horse, wherever he went I don’t know. But I walked around the whole day and held the horse — and no SS men touched me.
Illness saved him later. Typhus broke out in a work camp where he was incarcerated with his brother. This was still early in the war, before all the Reich’s roads became highways to death camps. In need of forced labor for construction projects, the Nazis for a while even let some of the men and boys they’d rounded up return home to neighboring villages on weekends. When my grandfather’s brother got infected, he was sent to a sick barrack. Checking on him there one day, he found him weak and without much appetite, so my grandfather finished his brother’s soup and caught typhus himself. He and his sibling (who would be killed before the war ended) wound up on two of the only transports to a Jewish hospital in Tarnów, where both were still recuperating when their camp was liquidated.
Everything had to do with luck. The horse saved me this day, the typhus sickness saved me.
Transcribing the narrative as New York’s hospitals overflowed, I wasn’t too encouraged by that message. It seemed a flimsy sort of wisdom, luck being something you can resign yourself to or hope for, not make happen. Still, as I wrote my fourth condolence note to a coworker, I felt queasily aware of my own good fortune holding up, unearned, through a much lesser crisis that I was better equipped to handle than most.
In the last few years of his life my grandfather defied our family’s attempts to get him to evacuate his Florida condo during a series of major hurricanes. After scraping through with hardly a power outage, he’d said we all worried too much. I knew if I could give him a call now, he’d shrug off the inconveniences of social distancing before updating me on the weather in Hallandale.
Instead I played his voice in my head, imagining him replacing most of the vowels in hand sanitizer. I imagined the patternmaker sewing piles of face masks to give away.
The feeling that hit me on the subway before lockdown — pained stupor over a sudden, arbitrary calamity — had begun to spare ever fewer details. So I switched back to my earlier document, expanding its scope.
Recently, Mr. Fala has been playing hymns of comfort from the top of the chapel, such as “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
Taking an extra 4,000 steps a day, even if it’s around your living room, may lower your risk of dying prematurely.
The military arrives in Bergamo to take the coffins. There’s no more space for them in the hospitals.
Brazil’s COVID-19 curve looks like a kite string.
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May, maybe June, I’d thought at first, but by late spring my neighborhood had emptied out. Garbage trucks rattled through the streets like vacuum cleaners inhaling gravel on a canyon floor. The monastic chants of mourning doves outside sounded amplified, as if they were nesting in my radiators.
For a few days after George Floyd had the life pressed out of him, silence still hemmed in each block. Even a protest on 14th Street couldn’t be heard on 9th. Then the choppers came. They hovered all night and most of the daytime, their noise drilling into the surrounding brick. Even so, for a final week or two — after police vehicles were burned and demonstrators were maced and the dumpling shop was boarded up and a mural with a fist and a list of names was painted over the boards — at seven in the evening came a light rain of clapping hands and banging metal. The sirens ceased last.
A friend who’d recovered from COVID-19 compared the pressure in his chest to having a vest of chicken wire cranked tighter over his ribs for days. Another said she’d been sent to the ER twice and was now alone in her parents’ house in Massachusetts, where she posted a photo on Instagram of the sun dropping into Buzzards Bay.
I finished transcribing the video the weekend after Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, in late April. Reading over my grandfather’s account, I decided he wasn’t as passive as he had described himself. He was ultimately sent to Flossenbürg, a large Bavarian concentration camp that doubled as an assembly plant for Nazi aircraft, and he was freed when the Allies closed in, after he was led out on a death march with other inmates — another lucky break, in its way. But I also noticed he made choices that saved his life, like climbing on the transport to the hospital without waiting for his name to be called, or standing for hours with his face to an open window while others collapsed from the fumes of toxic delousing chemicals clinging to their clothes.
Another thing struck me: he recalled small details vividly. The steam curling from a locomotive. Its polished coaches. That a certain transfer occurred on a Tuesday. The embroidery on the blanket of the horse (SS lightning bolts on one flank, STRENGTH on the other). Eating sugar beets in a barn.
He didn’t say what typhus felt like. How the illness came on or progressed, its symptoms or duration, the experience of recovering. What mattered was just the wild irony of its saving him.
If it’s luck to mean that you should live, it turns so that somehow you survive.
Out of the past year’s compound crises, what should survivors remember? I hope we don’t forget how the suffering was distributed — senselessly, unjustly — or what sustained us: luck, decision, or both. I want to hang on to some particulars, too: the marches, mask truthers, Zoom everything — and the drizzly weather downtown on Election Day morning, a last song heard in a crowded space.
There was the slow return of missing mail and those who went out to deliver it. The mourning doves and the grateful clamor that drove them off. The blunt, dumb fact of making it through, and everyone who didn’t.