Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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Marilyn Bentov, whose writing has appeared in THE SUN, sent us this drawing by Paulus Berensohn. It started as a Hanukkah menorah, or candelabra, and ended as guns smoking in the Holocaust, she writes. Thanks to Marilyn, and to Paulus Berensohn for permission to use it.
[The illustration mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.]
The library was five long blocks away. In that East coast city, hated with multiplying resolve over years of my life, street blocks were tons of poured flat concrete, expressionless gray and black tar from lamppost to lamppost. Some blocks were more dangerous for people to walk than others, but no street was free of ethnic dangers. It was a city without human or natural landscape, other than locked apartment hells surrounded by larger hells.
Every object appeared foggy gray or dark brown with blood of cockroaches. Having discarded the ability to behave or respond reasonably about anything, people usually spoke in loud gunlike voices without punctuation as if to overcome their own grossness. In that terrible city people always shivered. They shivered in summer and winter. They shivered because life had become nauseating. Fear was glued to daily climate.
Except at the library. That library was my sane house, safehouse, a cool tomb of potential freedom and soaring reaches for my twelve-year-old imagination. Getting to that marvelous place, however, meant I had to survive one innocent-seeming street near a wornout park where the grass choked lifelessly anemic under trampled newspaper, candy wrappers, empty cans and bottles, all such American rubbish. Anything could happen during that excursion, so I always raced the last avenue where the library waited.
Books tied with a leather belt, swinging like a Viking’s weapon, I would run past that decaying park and past an already decayed Victorian house of rotting wood. Monstrous dry strings bunched together in its front yard reminded me they once had been living bushes. The house was decrepit, time ravaged, stercoraceous, humpbacked. It stood next to the library, waiting to be torn down for expansion. Waiting, meanwhile, like a symbol of disease.
That small house assaulted my nerves. But I wasn’t afraid of the house. Humans, my peers, those I watched out for with a specially developed psi factor. They might attack, several at a time, strip some boy of books, pen, pennies, sweater, those quick robbing locusts, and vanish either into the park or up buildings, over rooftops and away. These young guerrillas attended a small parochial school nearby. To them we were outsiders, alien, perhaps religious heretics. These Catholic boys were positive their intolerance was superior to everyone else’s intolerance.
One day when leaving the library a jagged explosion of white paint caught my eyes. There, crudely drawn on that festering sore of a house, were two swastikas. Three boys from the school, laughing nervously after their act of political-racial halloween, were appraising their art. My European parents had already branded me with the meaning of swastikas and those lessons leaped into muscles of my arms and legs. Swinging my weapon of books, I lashed out at the trio. The impact of surprise and my fury became an advantage. Having been taught to box — “In America,” my father warned repeatedly, “every day is violent.” — my left jab bloodied the nose of one boy, his bleeding adding weight to my attack, and I punched another in his mouth, hearing the chilling click of a tooth snap. They retreated, pail of wash spilling like dirty milk over the broken sidewalk. My lungs ached and my right fist was bruised. Adrenaline gushed inside me. I grabbed for breath, dropping my heavy books on the ground of a thousand grassless winters.
A hissing sound entered my ears. A human hissing. Weak air from weaker lungs. I hadn’t known anyone still lived in that rotten house. Now the front door opened and a slice of waxen face was visible. “Hey, little boy! Little boy!” A cracked voice coaxed me.
“Come here a minute. Don’t be afraid. A brave little boy like you.” His voice waved like a flapping old flag.
Picking up my books I stepped gingerly over spilled paint, uncertain, observing the old man’s rasorial fingers. I entered the house, barely sliding through a narrowly open door.
The room was dark except for a leakage of misty light through chinks in walls and muddy windows. Secret miseries clogged the air and its fetid pungency overcame me. I exhaled, “Whew —”
“Don’t worry, boychik,” the scraggy man said. “It stinks in here and it stinks out there.” His voice was a roller coaster of inflection. “So what did you expect? Maybe an ice cream parlor?”
I stared, enthralled, partly exhilarated from my fight and rapid victory. His mouth was a bloodless old wound on a face past defining. Dressed in shiny black, except for a collarless yellowed shirt, deep lines trenched his cheeks and his wet eyes were decorated with red dots. Uncombed hair was mostly gray. While speaking, his ragged colyx beard vibrated pale streaks of lightning. I thought of Socrates, Moses, John Brown.
“So what are you gaping at me like that?” the man asked. “You think I’m meshuggeh? Do I look meshuggeh? God forbid, maybe I am. But you, little boychik, you’re also mad. You’re mad because you attacked all alone those three goyim Nazis! I spit on them!” And he spit on the floor.
Then I sensed that inside his parched head something blazed, a furnace of tension and perhaps — I hoped — vision. His protuberant eyes, like spiral nebula, grew and shrank as he spoke, and quickly he would appear drained of words. His sentences came in quavering leaps and bursts. Any minute now, my nerves told me, something, anything at all, might happen.
“No,” I began to apologize for staring, “but you —”
“Listen,” he hissed, while his hand patted my head, “I see you from the window upstairs, with your bunch of books, two maybe three, times a week, running to the library. Such a reader! Maybe you’re a Yeshiva bocher?”
“What? Oh me!” I fidgeted. “I’m just —”
“So don’t be so nervous,” he coughed and sat down on a creaky chair. “You weren’t so nervous when you charged like a lion out there.” He gargled a lugubrious chuckle. “But you still think I’m meshuggeh. So let it be.” He waved his hands. “All right. So, for what you did, I thank you.” He started to rock slowly back and forth. “Anyway madness is in the air, the stinking air. Europe — you know where Europe is? So good. Europe has gone mad already. Germans were always mad. So help me, the American Jews are also mad because they don’t believe what’s happening!” His body was a pendulum, a black ax swinging in darkness.
I wondered. “What?”
“What? What?” he said sarcastically. “Listen, brave boychik,” and he took a deep breath of fusty air. “They’re going to kill all the Jews!” The sound escaping was a long scratch on a blackboard.
Killing meant something out of Hollywood or my history books. I knew, however, that Nazis were being discussed in current events. The word had captured headlines. I tried to formulate something intelligent. “Historically —”
“Historically! What a word he uses!” He threw the word against the dirty wall. “Boychik,” his face, a damp sail of flesh, closed nearer to mine, “when anyone tells you that you’re living in historic times — watch out! That means murder.” He stopped. “History is an excuse to commit every crime.”
I had nothing to say.
“Everywhere on earth,” he proceeded to rock dithyrambically, “they’re going to kill Jews. Not just in Germany. Not just in Poland. Not just in Austria. Not just in Hungary. Not just in Russia.” He swayed, a gloomy prophet. “But everywhere there’s a Jew, there’s going to be a grave.”
I shook my head.
“Go on! Go on! What do you know? A boychik, and he thinks he knows!” His hand on my head was gentler than his biting voice. “So what do you think I’m doing here? Hah? You think maybe I’m playing? I’m hiding, little boychik. I’m hiding from them, the Nazis. You see how they begin? You see the dirty swastikas? Hah? Believe me this is only the beginning. Only you should wait and it’ll get worse.”
“But this,” I managed to concoct something, “is America.”
Truncated laughter bubbled inside his frame. “You’re too young. You don’t understand.” He tried to gather his breath and febrile thoughts, then wobbled his head. “America? America is a baby, like you. What does America know? To accept madness is even worse than madness. America accepts madness as long as it’s good for business. If killing Jews is good for business, so then America doesn’t care. If killing Jews is bad for business, so then America cares.”
My brain ached.
“Never mind. So take this.” He pushed against my chest an object shaped like a cup, silvery in that dingy atmosphere.
“Take it! So take it! This isn’t a gift,” he explained. “This is a thank you present from me to you, because of what you did . . . out there . . . to those young Nazis. Take. Take. Zei n’t kain goylem!”
I held the reward in my hands, rather pleased, as though I had won a game. Wasn’t the world a game?
He expelled staleness from his lungs. “Sooo, now go home. Take care of yourself. Be careful.”
Naturally my father questioned my story about the silver cup and my mother told me not to fight. The knowledge that certain boys my age were painting swastikas disturbed them. Both parents sensed an electric political charge and almost everyone we knew felt a threat of some unnameable kind, Jews or not. I was allowed to keep my prize, as though in possessing it I had somehow staved off the threat for a while.
Now this new element of danger captivated me. I read everything I could about Nazis, Fascists, Hitler, Goering, Mussolini. I was intrigued knowing that walking up a certain street had become doubly dangerous because political daggers were now drawn. History was becoming more real each day. We all knew life was no longer a Vienna waltz or a day in the British Museum. I dreamed of rescuing that frightened old man, of saving whole populations of driven refugees. That deteriorated house, that gray-blackened structure of wooden bones, skeletal, tired and sick, became something needing protection. That crumbling house with its rusty iron fence, like a disillusioned spider’s web, became important. Even its blotch of drained soil, discolored and long sterile, was a symbol of warfare. This spelled out a larger drama of the world I was just beginning to realize I was living in.
From then on houses on that particular block, that no-boy’s-land leading to the library, my library, weren’t ordinary ugly brownstone buildings any longer, but brownshirt barricades, fortifications behind which assembled the worst enemies of civilization. To me civilization meant free books, sports and composers whose music I heard over the radio. Now I was waiting for zero hour.
Emerging from the library several days later, my skin tingling alert, I saw the new plan of attack. This time four boys, two carrying a pail of whitewash and two armed with baseball bats, were getting ready. Their reedy adolescent voices cried: “Hey, you old sheenie!” “Come out, come out, you lousy kike!” The house remained mute. No adults were around, or more likely no one wanted to notice. I had to act fast. First of all my aim had to be that offensive white paint.
My burst of speed kicked the pail upward, a wide arc of white vomit over the four boys. But one bat managed to nick a corner of my ducking head just before I vaulted to the porch and through the quickly opened door. Once inside a garbage darkness surrounded me.
“Ow, my head!” I gasped.
The old man’s voice rustled like paper. “See, didn’t I tell you? It’s madness! Madness!” He pressed a cool metallic object against my forehead. “Here. It’s only a little bump. Don’t worry.”
“Why? Why?” I mumbled.
“The biggest question in the world, he asks: Why?”
“I didn’t know there were so many bad people around.”
He nodded. “Yes. Yes. But good or bad, they’re people.”
I didn’t understand, but noticed through partially blocked windows that a series of ghost white footprints dwindled down the empty street.
He was quietly pressing my swollen forehead, as though ordinary communication wasn’t required or perhaps no longer possible, maybe no longer desirable. We were two phantoms in a dark room. His hands were trembling slightly.
“I’m no longer a human being,” he tried to explain in an exhausted voice, “because I’m persecuted and live in fear. No Jew is a human being any longer. But those boys outside, because they don’t live in fear of persecution, they’re still human beings.” Emptied, he stopped. “You want to learn something?”
Shadows that have never known sunlight stretched over us. Sticky darkness clung to the walls, floor and ceiling. A cloying odor almost numbed me so I tried to breathe with small intakes. Something rancid had glued itself to that house. I shivered.
“So listen. Maybe this way you’ll learn and remember.”
“The American Jews don’t want to believe what I’m telling them. They don’t want to believe that all the Jews in Europe and maybe the whole world are going to be killed. If not today, then next month, or next year, or in five years.” Silence. “Which madness is worse?” Silence. “When nobody listens, when nobody cares, when nobody believes. That’s worse madness.” Silence.
I imagined prehistoric shadows were strangling the remains of whatever threads of light dribbled over our bodies. Darkness was butchering even the smallest fleece of light. Only half-understanding, I nodded.
He sat, moaned and rocked, damp pallid skin in dim clothes, a violent chiaroscuro of flickering intensity before my awed eyes. “I was there. Over there. I saw the beginnings. But who believes me? Maybe a little boy? Maybe.” Silence. “Everywhere Jews are dying. Everywhere.” He rocked. “In almost every city and town and village in Europe, another Jew is being murdered.” Silence. “Do you know what death is?”
“My grandmother died.”
Silently he swayed, a black locomotive straining on tracks of chilling reality. “Let this burn into your mind forever, boychik. Every Jew is born already waiting to be murdered. For sooner or later Christian politicians turn against the Jew.” Silence and my desperate hunger to comprehend this mystery. A blade of terror ran through me and I was sweating.
“Why,” I whispered, “don’t you run away?”
His head shook back and forth, eyes like pyropes. “Boychik, maybe you can run like a fox. But I can’t run. I can’t even crawl. I’m cornered. Millions of Jews are cornered.” Rock. “There is no place to run.” Rock. “And no one wants to know.” Rock. “This is my last refuge.” Rock. “From here I can’t go.” Rock. “This is my next-to-last territory and it’s shrinking.” Rock. “I’m retreating each day into a smaller and smaller space.” Rock. “Each day I take up less space.” Rock. “I feel myself shrivel.” Rock. “Soon I’ll vanish entirely. Then I’ll be safe.” Rock. “You’re born and you die.” Rock. “And nobody knows you’re alive and nobody cares when you die.” Rock. He motioned with both hands. “Jews have no friends on the Left or on the Right.” His voice was almost inaudible. “May God forgive me. Life is a big lie from beginning to end.”
Smallish tigers ran up my spine. Silence now blanketed us with oppressive weight. History, generations of history, pushed down on us. Life had suddenly become a collection of tragedies. A feather of thought tickled alive in my childish mind, telling me that all persecuted are related by the blood of their wounds.
“Here,” the old man said in a low voice. “I want you should have this.”
Whatever it was appeared luminous and cool to my touch. It was the metal he had held to my sore forehead. Embarrassed, I pushed it away.
“Take it in good health,” he instructed. “I don’t need it. Someday you may need it. Who knows? So take it and goodbye. You don’t want your mama to worry.”
With a small gold serving dish glistening in my hands I ran home to radio news and neighbors talking about military invasions in Europe, street battles everywhere, a release of political epiphenomena, barbaric and strong, which exuded cinders over that space of my boyhood. None of us is prepared for growing up.
Days later when I again ran heroic streets to the library, the old house was already demolished, that area a large square of gloomy earth, like a mass grave. Of course I never found that old man again and life was no longer the same for anyone.
Leslie Woolf Hedley