Photo by Justo Ruiz
When Jeffrey and I argue, my mother always weeps. “Shame on you,” she says. “I wish my brother, Shmuel, was still here for me to argue with. Shame on you!” My brother and I hang our heads. We wait for her to leave the room, but she is not yet finished. “Is this what I survived Hitler for?” she mumbles. I want to shout after her, “Yes! Yes! This is exactly what you survived Hitler for!” But I am silent. My brother shoves me one last time, but even this is halfhearted. He knows what I know even if we never talk about it. Our pain can never compare to what our parents suffered. It is selfish of us to even imagine a similarity. It is our responsibility to restore what was destroyed. It is our duty to heal the wrongs our parents endured. We were born to justify their survival.
“Shmuel was a great scholar,” my mother always tells us. “My father had such hopes for him. He would have become a great rabbi if not for Hitler. I remember the look in my father’s eyes when he told my mother how Shmuel had discussed a passage from the Talmud with the elders in the synagogue. “`Such wisdom,’ my father said. `Such understanding.'” She shakes her head and tears fall helplessly onto her cheeks. “He died a few days after our parents were taken by typhus. When Shmuel was dying, my sisters and I wept. `Vainen nicht,’ he said. `Yetst ich haben kein elteren; ich ken shtarben. Vainen nicht.” He was seventeen years old. He told us not to cry. He tried to comfort us by reminding us that he had no parents anymore; he could die without causing them pain. It was a small comfort. You are named for him, Sonyala. All of you are named for those who died in the Holocaust. You are all living monuments to what Hitler could not achieve.”
We are the ghosts of the Holocaust. We share the secret password to a world from which I cannot escape. Those of us who have been born with this exclusive membership recognize each other when we first meet. It might be a Yiddish word thrown into a conversation, or an eyebrow raised in response to a casual comment about “the Jews” or about “World War II.” We are the children who were born old. Our Washington Heights neighborhood is thick with survivors. All of us know just how much to tell our parents and exactly what must be kept from them. The details that might worry them or bring them unnecessary pain are cloaked in half-truths. We protect them, hover around them when we sense danger and struggle to defend them from further heartache. After a time, we, the children, know we are really the parents, but we pretend it is not so. It would hurt them too much.
The Vietnam Conflict rages. We still do not call it a war although in early December of 1966 the United States bombs targets around Hanoi with such intensity that I can hear the wonder in the newscaster’s report. As the year draws to a close, almost four thousand American troops are in South Vietnam. I attend protest rallies and wear a black armband to school to show my opposition to the conflict that is really a war. I march with others both like and unlike myself, shouting, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” My throat is raw from screaming, but I am driven by the energy of the crowd and my own uncertain needs. Many cities throughout the world have organized demonstrations to criticize U.S. policy in Vietnam. The International Days of Protest have begun, and I am not like my passive ancestors, waiting for Got to intervene.
“Don’t sign anything,” my father says. “Keep your name off all documents.”
“Why?” I say. I’m angry that he doesn’t understand my involvement. “Don’t you care about all the innocent people being killed in Vietnam?”
“I care about you,” he says. “I care about your mother and your brother. I have no part in Vietnam. I want you to be sensible, Sonyala. What you do now can affect the rest of your life.”
“I hope so,” I say.
The belt on my skirt is twisted in the back, and my father adjusts it. I can feel his strong hands pull a little tighter than necessary, but I do not move.
“Listen to me, Sonya,” he says. “You don’t know everything. You think you do, but you don’t. The world is very unstable, and there is much evil. Don’t be fooled by your cause or by the people you think you can trust. Trust no one but your family.”
I want to tell him that he’s wrong. My cause will change the world. I will not be discouraged by his pessimistic views of the world. I can maneuver my own way. I can make a difference.
Every evening after dinner, I watch the news. The names of the American soldiers who have been killed that day or who are missing in action lazily roll across the television screen. My heart lurches with each unfamiliar name. I don’t know anyone who went to Vietnam. All the boys in our neighborhood go to college after high school. The college graduates become teachers or continue on in law or medical school, exempting them from military service. These neighborhood boys are untouched by Vietnam except to breathe a sigh of relief that their names will never be among the dead or missing in Southeast Asia.
“Is it a war yet?” my brother asks.
Jeffrey and I never really talk about Vietnam, or about anything else for that matter. I suspect that he barely knows I exist.
“Are you talking to me?” I say.
“Yes, Sonya,” he says. “I’m talking to you.”
He seems tired and distracted. I know he has been arguing with our parents again, and I am immediately sorry for him. Jeffrey wants to move to Israel. Our parents want him to stay in America. “Do you know how we suffered to bring you to this country?” my father shouts. Their bitter exchanges hang in the air.
“Are you all right?” I say.
He looks at me as if he is about to confide in me, but then seems to think better of it.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m fine.”
I watch him walk away. It is a curious thing to love a stranger. I turn my attention back to the names of the other strangers who inhabit my world and try not to think about why I care so much about any of them.
“The line of German prisoners seemed endless,” my father said. “Thousands and thousands of them were taken by the Russians. I watched as the gloating Russians herded the Germans. They were boys, all of them boys, Germans and Russians alike. I saw the frightened eyes of the German prisoners, but I wasn’t moved. They were strangers to me, and I felt nothing for their pain or their terror. It’s an odd thing to feel nothing. It was my job to interrogate these German prisoners, especially those with a higher rank. They knew I was a Jew. That gave me some pleasure. But it’s not the officers I remember. It’s the boys. Those lines of frightened boys. I remember them, Sonya, and they are still strangers to me.”
“Please come with us, Sonya,” my mother says. “Rivka will be so glad to see you. Sam isn’t well, you know. Give us one afternoon.”
I am braiding my hair in one single plait, but strands keep escaping. Earrings dangle from my pierced earlobes. I can see my mother’s refection in the mirror. She’s leaning against the door, watching me. There is always worry in her eyes, but today she looks particularly troubled.
“I have plans,” I say.
Lately, I feel the need to be hard with her. I don’t want to see the people of my childhood. I am weary of their stories and the conspicuous blue numbers that identify my ancestry.
“Some other time,” I say. My mother steps behind me and takes the brush from my hand.
“Do you remember when I used to make your ponytail in the morning?” she says. “You never once complained if it was too tight. Remember, Sonyala?”
I nod. I want her to leave me alone.
“I remember once I had to leave the house early,” she says. “To pick up work from the factory, I think. I told your father to do your hair. `Not too tight,’ I told him. But when I picked you up from school that day, it was still so tight that your eyes were slanted. Like this.” She holds my hair and the brush in one hand, so she can pull up the skin around her eye with a forefinger. “Like the little China girl where I take your father’s shirts.” She laughs now and shakes her head. “Poor thing. I felt so sorry for you. Like a little China girl. And you never complained.”
“Chinese,” I say. “Like the little Chinese girl. Not `China girl,’ Mom. Chinese.”
“Excuse me,” she says. “I wasn’t born in this country, Miss America.”
I’m enraged. I do not know why, but I’m so angry that I want to cry.
“I didn’t complain,” I say, “because I didn’t know I was allowed to.”
For a moment, we stare at each other in the mirror.
“And who should I complain to, Sonya?” she says. “Can you answer that question for me? Who should I complain to? Where is my mother?”
It is the litany of my childhood. “And who should I complain to, Sonya?” There is no answer for this question. I want to shout at her that it is not my fault she is motherless, but I cannot bring myself to say the words.
“Tell Rivka I’ll be there on Sunday,” I say.
She claps her hands together, delighted. Her previous words are already forgotten. Like a child, she is easily diverted by the promise of a modest pleasure, and I am grateful to be relieved of even supposing that I could hurt her.
“A bake sale?” my mother says. She wipes her hands on her apron and frowns. “I’m not sure. On such short notice?”
I was supposed to tell her on Monday, but I forgot. Today is already Thursday, and I promised my teacher that I would bring in a cake for Friday.
“I forgot to tell you,” I say. My mother takes my chin between her fingers.
“So unlike you, Sonyala,” she says. “Don’t worry. I’ll make something for your bake sale.”
I wrap my arms around her waist in gratitude. I don’t ever remember loving her as much as I do at this moment. I want her to prepare a marble cake. It’s my favorite, but she is leaning towards butter cookies. Both are delicious. We discuss which would make a better item for the sale and finally agree that the marble cake is more impressive. She checks the cupboard for ingredients and opens the refrigerator to see if we have enough butter and eggs. We need cocoa and another stick of butter.
“Make sure it’s unsalted,” she says. “And get the imported cocoa. Not the American kind. It has no taste.”
I take the money she gives me and repeat the items.
“One stick of unsalted butter and a tin of cocoa. Not the American kind,” I say.
“Be careful crossing,” she says. “I’ll get everything ready.”
Just as I am about to leave, she calls after me.
“Sonya! Stop in at the bakery and ask Mrs. Hellman to give you a cake box. Sometimes she charges a dime. Sometimes she gives for nothing. Go. Hurry back.”
This time Mrs. Hellman “gives for nothing.” It seems as if everything is working perfectly this afternoon. My mother and I sing to the radio as we work. “Oh, I could kiss you on a Monday, a Tuesday, a Wednesday, a Thursday, a Friday, a Saturday. But never, never on a Sunday, a Sunday…a Sunday…” When she forgets the words, she sings, “la, la, la, la…” I try to show her how to do the Twist, and we laugh hysterically. The chocolate batter is ready to be swirled through the white cake batter. I stand, fork poised in mid-air as my mother slowly pours.
“Now!” she says. “Slowly.”
I run the fork around the Bundt pan and watch as the white batter is merged with fine rivers of chocolate.
“Perfect,” my mother says.
I open the oven door, and she glides the pan in.
“Don’t slam the door,” my mother whispers.
We smile at each other, and she gives me the bowls and spoons to lick. The kitchen smells wonderful. My mother hums as she cleans up. I’m so happy.
In the morning, I carefully carry the cake to school in the white bakery box. It is placed alongside countless other baked goods on long tables set up in the school gym. I watch as a label is attached to the side of the box: MARBLE CAKE-$1.50. I feel proud and excited.
At lunchtime, we’re allowed to go to the bake sale. Many items have been sold, but my mother’s marble cake is still there. I’m worried, but there is still lots of time.
At three o’clock, I check the gym. All the tables but one, have been folded and set aside. I see my mother’s cake, still in it’s white box, standing obtrusively among a few odd plates of broken cookies and muffins. Leftover bits of samples from the day. I feel as if I have been left, abandoned on the table among the chatter of indifferent strangers.
I walk home slowly. My mother hears my footsteps as I come up the stairs and opens the front door.
“So?” she says. “Who bought our delicious cake, and how much did it cost?”
“I’m not sure who bought it,” I say. “But it cost two dollars, and it was gone by the time I went in to check at lunchtime.”
She is so obviously thrilled that I do not even consider sharing my own disappointment. The lies come easily. I will do anything to save her.
“Sonyala,” Rivka says. “Sonyala, I’m so glad to see you.”
I relax in her embrace. She touches my long earrings and shakes her head a bit. Then she winds a few strands of loose hair around my ears and kisses my cheeks.
“Such big earrings don’t give you a headache?” she says.
“No,” I say.
“Good. Then come with me to the kitchen. See what I prepared for you.”
Rivka leads me by the hand towards the kitchen. Others call out to me as we pass, but Rivka tells them, “Not now. Just a minute.” They all laugh. They know better than to argue with her when her mind is set. I can see my brother and Larry already talking. My parents are agreeing with everyone that it’s so nice the children came.
“How’s Sam?” I say.
Sam is sitting on the porch with a blanket on his lap even though it is especially warm for April. Rivka sighs so deeply that I regret the question. She squeezes my hand.
“Not so good, Sonya. Not so good.”
“You’re a good girl, Sonyala. You were always a good girl. A daughter is a blessing.”
I laugh. “I’m not so sure my mother would agree these days,” I say.
“Oh,” Rivka says. “I think she would. She’s just trying to find her way with you. She was never your age, you know.”
I look away. I don’t want hear any more. Not today. Rivka takes my hand and presses it against the blue tattoo that she never hides beneath long sleeves as some of the other women do. I know Rivka’s number, G-2183, as well as I know my own phone number.
“It’s a burden,” she says. “I know it’s not an easy thing to grow up knowing everything you know. I tell my Larry and my Michael the same. But what should we do, Sonyala? Who should we tell? Is there an easy way to tell our children about what we went through?” She shakes her head. “No. There is no easy way. And there is no easy way to listen. But you must listen. You must tell your children, so they can tell their children. If not, no one will remember.”
I’m crying now. My skin own feels like dry ice against Rivka’s tatoo, and I try to pull away. Her grip is fierce.
“Do you know why I’m such a good cook?” she says.
I shake my head.
“I planned menus every day,” she says.
“Menus?” I say.
“Yes. In the laguer I worked twelve hours a day with nothing to eat but a heavily salted broth that occasionally had a few potato peels floating about. On a good day, there was a piece of dark bread and some weak coffee. The menus never varied, so I created my own. The other women joined me in this game. We argued over ingredients. How much egg white to brush over a challah before baking, how small to cut the carrots and onions for a really good goulash, the virtue of adding a little brandy to the sponge cake batter.” She strokes my hand where she still holds it over her tattoo. “You know why we did it, Sonya? To stay alive. It gave us a little humanity to remember that once we had slept between clean sheets and eaten off real plates with utensils. Once we had not hoarded crusts of bread for a dying friend. Once, long ago, we had been normal people. Do you understand?”
Do I understand? There is a place in me that wants to shout at Rivka, “Understand? How could I not understand?” Instead, I nod and reassure her that, of course I understand. I look around Rivka’s kitchen. The counters are covered with platters of food. All my favorites have been prepared. She loves me.
“I made the lima bean salad just for you,” Rivka says.
Now I look at her and smile. Her black hair is knotted at the back of her head, and her skin is smooth and soft, her brow unwrinkled. No one would ever guess her losses. I’ve always thought her beautiful, but she laughs when I tell her this. The hand that presses my flesh against hers has brightly painted nails.
“Too red?” she says.
“How can anything be too red?” I say.
Rivka laughs, and I’m happy. When she laughs, she looks like a girl. The place where our skin meets no longer feels odd. Rivka releases her hold, but I don’t take away my hand. Cautiously, I run my thumb around the tattoo, surprised not to confront sharp edges. I always thought the tattoo would be raised, the skin beneath it still raw.
“Only the memories hurt,” Rivka says.
The numbers are blurred through my tears.
“And the fear of being forgotten,” she adds.
I trace the letter and numbers of her tattoo with my forefinger. G-2183. It is the first time I ever touch Rivka in this spot. The first time she ever reveals herself to me. Now I am forced to remember.
Phyllis Schieber lives in Westchester County where she spends her days creating new stories and teaching writing. She is the author of three novels, The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits, and Strictly Personal. Her new novel, The Manicurist, will be released by Bell Bridge Books in July, 2011. G-2183 is part of a larger work that is still in progress.