Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.
In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that possibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the picture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her family. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.
There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.
Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.
In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but elegant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her looking around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.
Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.
Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?
It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treating myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.
I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remember at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambivalent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I transferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?
What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.
I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no question that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange
and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,
he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.
He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.
He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Saturday night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.
This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were presumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cocktail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.
The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by curtains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.
We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.
When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.
I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then
that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a
sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,
wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.
The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.
“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.
And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmentioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apartment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hallways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.
Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happening and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.
“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”
The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events themselves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.
My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting vegetables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.
“Coffee?” she asked.
She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.
Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.
“Mom, what happened?”
She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”
“During the war, what happened?”
For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.
The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”
She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.
How much time is left?
Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?
I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.
Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.
In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.
One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fabric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon