I ’ve curled my body into a ball to shield it from the kicks of a band of Irish boys. The air, dense with humidity, dark with clouds, is suddenly filled with screams of terror — a terror substantial enough to be weighed and measured. It isn’t the shouts of “Dirty kike,” the boys’ grunts, nor my own animal whimpers that frighten me most. It’s those screams, Rose’s screams. Bright as the light that splinters in glittering shards behind my eyelids as I escape into unconsciousness.
The woman’s name is Lena. She makes an appointment with me — I’m a therapist — to discuss “personal matters.” Her accent on the phone is as familiar as an old armchair and revives melancholy memories of New York City’s Second Avenue, Ratner’s Deli, Coney Island. I feel as if I know this woman: probably in her seventies, Eastern European, and, because the only Eastern Europeans I knew were the survivors who flooded the city after the war, probably a Holocaust survivor.
I’m both wrong and right.
Lena is, in fact, in her seventies. Her handshake is firm and energetic in defiance of her age. Her taut features bespeak a woman who doesn’t display her feelings. Her forced briskness suggests an uncertainty about being here. Despite her stockiness, there is something indefinably fragile about her. She asks me to move the comfortable wing chair into the May sunlight that filters through my window. There is the hint of a vanquished queen about her erect posture as she sits.
This is the first step of what becomes a weekly ritual: Lena will ask me to move the chair beside the window, even on overcast New England days, as though her very desire for sunlight will command its presence. She’ll be immaculately dressed in clothing she tailors herself: blue or gray suit, fussy blouse, matching jewelry. Her hair will be curled into a blue-white cloud around her face. She will bring me a home-baked sweet, and we will share a cup of tea, a few words about our families. She’ll always be reluctant to move beyond the small talk, as though she has come for a casual visit, rather than to reveal secrets. Each session is another step up a long stairway, with weeks passing before she ventures onto the next:
I learn that she has a son who graduated from college with a degree in psychology.
That she’s a poet with one slim volume from a small press.
That she had her son at sixteen, the result of a rape by an American soldier.
That she married another American soldier after the war, and his mother hated her.
Then one day she tells me her father was in the SS. He was in charge of deportation of Jews, very powerful in her small Austrian hometown. She calls him “the Demon.”
I think of Lena as a sepia photograph, very old and curled in on itself, the kind that must be unfurled slowly or it will rip. I am in no hurry to view the photo. I’m afraid of what it might show.
One October morning, as Lena sits in the darting shadows of a heavy rain whose winds whip leaves of scarlet and gold from the trees, she takes another step: “The Demon, when he found my poetry notebook, ripped the pages out and burned them in front of me.”
Her eyes, magnified by thick lenses, are mild as she tells me this. Her hands rest on her lap. I examine her for signs of somatic distress: trembling fingers, drawn mouth, quivering shoulders. Nothing. She sits erect in her chair and says, “He was SS and ignorant.”
My stomach clenches, and I am momentarily a terrified little Jewish girl. Hoping that my face betrays nothing, I encourage her to say more. She shakes her head no.
Later, driving home, I ask myself if I can continue to work with Lena. But the decision is out of my hands. This is what you do for a living, I tell myself. She comes to you every week. Look how long it took for her to reach out.
A member of the battered-women’s group I run tells the group about the time her ex-husband threw bricks through the picture window in her living room. She stares at her hands, which clutch one another, the fingers red and chapped. She trembles so violently that her chair creaks. The woman beside her takes her hand. There is absolute silence in the room. The smell of coffee from the cups everyone holds is bitter and strong. She finally nods gratefully and continues: “We were screaming, the kids and I. Glass was flying everywhere, and I tried to wrap myself around them so they wouldn’t get cut. We could have gone into the bedroom, but I was paralyzed, and anyway, there really wasn’t any place to hide. He’d cut the phone line. I thought, This time he’s finally going to kill me, and I didn’t want the kids to see that. But a neighbor called the police, and he took off when he heard the sirens.” She shakes her head. “Everything was covered with glass.”
A nod passes around the circle from woman to woman. I suddenly feel exhausted, my chest tight. Every woman here has had windows broken, has lived under a reign of terror, a rain of splintered glass.
A snowstorm closes the Brooklyn schools. My mother, before leaving for work, cautions my brother and me, five and eleven, to stay on the block. She leaves us alone every morning, but there is something about this spent-blizzard day that frightens her. We assure her we will keep close to home even as we scheme to go to the playground that afternoon and push the snow-covered swings so that ice crystals fly in all directions, like doves glistening in the crisp air. Her eyes tell us she knows we’re liars. After she leaves, we fly downstairs, jubilant at the white dunes that rapidly gray with the exhaust of passing cars. I help my brother build a snowman and warily eye the neighborhood boys. They’ve beaten us both up in the past, but today they seem content to leave us alone. Perhaps the cold has rendered them generous. They scoff with almost affectionate amusement at the lopsided snowman we build, the cigarette butts we use as eyes. Perhaps the lack of heat in everyone’s apartment has made us temporary allies. Perhaps they are impressed that we continue to survive them.
Rose’s guttural cries shatter the calm. The world seems to recede into the background, leaving Rose in sharp relief as she stumbles past us, gesturing toward the overcast sky in an appeal for mercy. I catch a sour, wasted smell. The neighborhood boys, frightened of Rose’s madness, duck into doorways. My brother drags me to the mouth of the alley. Everyone watches silently as Rose halts, nostrils quivering, like a pursued animal testing the wind. Her stringy hair whips around as she searches for something nobody else can see. Then, with a piercing wail, she bends and rips off the boots given her, like all her clothes, by members of the nearby synagogue. She raises them above her head and throws them over the plowed snow that separates street from gutter. They land far apart, yet facing each other, as if for consolation. She begins to circle faster and faster. Her feet are red and raw from the cold. She rips off her shabby coat and throws it too into the gutter. A passing car drives over it.
I study Rose, her crazy eyes and stick-thin legs, the number on her arm. My brother’s arms circle my waist from behind, and his head rests against my back. I know his eyes are closed. We are in an airless land; everything but Rose’s cries has been sucked into a vacuum. Those screams have texture; they are the color of cold and fear.
The door of the shoe-repair shop flies open, and the cobbler, a small man, his arm numbered as well, limps rapidly over to Rose, takes her arm, throws his coat around her shoulders. She quiets instantly and deflates. This woman who a moment ago dominated everything is now tiny and frail. The cobbler wraps her in his arms and rocks her, whispers words we can’t hear, then leads her to his shop, a wide-windowed storefront that swallows her. The neighborhood boys emerge like foxes from their dens, and their uneasy laughter seeps into the silence she’s left behind. They will not beat us up today.
Lena’s desserts are always American. I taste them and assure her, “The best I’ve ever eaten.” She waves her hand as if to protest, but her eyes fill with relief. She can’t relax without this reassurance, as if I’d turn her away if it weren’t for my enjoyment of the sweets.
I cut a slice of the banana bread she’s brought and pour tea for us. Her chair is in front of the window, a blinding blanket of late-January snow behind it. I move my chair to avoid the glare, bite into the banana bread, lower the slice to the napkin on my lap, and say, “Thank you, Lena. It’s the best I’ve ever had. Please, take a slice.”
Her eyes brighten, and, as always, she refuses. “No. For your family. How is your family?”
“Well, and yours?”
I wait. The furtive way she examines the photograph of trees on my wall makes me think that today she’s ready to take the next step.
First we climb the old ones: finding wood or coal in the rubble after the war to make a fire, stealing food, the rape. “I was raped by an American,” she says, utterly without bitterness. “I made it through the whole war: Russians, Poles, British. It was after the war . . . an American. It’s right that an American marries me, takes care of the child.”
She hesitates, looks at me, and speaks for the first time of her father’s hands.
She hated them. They had a life of their own. They were strange, reckless animals bred from no parents imaginable. They were predatory, swift, always seeking to wound.
She closes her eyes and hums softly. “Maybe I remember them rocking me, holding my hand when we walked.” Her eyes fly open. “When does corruption begin? It was always there, even before Hitler, waiting to blossom. I believe this.” She tells me that her mother tried to deflect those hands, to make herself their sacrificial victim. “But sometimes she passed out from too much schnapps.” She nods slowly. “Yes, I was his favorite victim because I was so weak.”
I lean forward in my chair and ask, “Weak, Lena?”
“That is what he told me,” she says. “ ‘You are weak, useless.’ ”
“No.” I shake my head. “How do you explain your survival during the war, the way you took care of your mother after your father’s death, your courage in coming to a strange land, dealing with your difficult mother-in-law, raising your son and sending him to college, selling your poems? Are those the actions of a weak, worthless person? They sound like the result of strength and determination to me, Lena. I admire you greatly.”
She sways like the trees outside the window in the winter wind. I think I see a film of tears in her eyes.
She says, “I make good banana bread, no? The best.”
I take another small bite and say, “The best.”
“Maybe not so weak,” she says and shrugs.
I ’ve met the fireman before, at other community dinners at the firehouse. He’s a young man and appears to be in fine physical condition, though a bit thin. He’s had a couple of beers, and maybe that’s why he decides to tell me his story.
We stand outside and watch a streaky orange sunset ripple over the sky. The temperature is dropping quickly. I shiver and think about going in, but he begins to speak: “There was this arsonist terrorizing the neighborhood. Nobody knew who he was. Everyone was freaked out: the police, the fire department, but especially tenants in low-income housing. That was his target. Anyway, my first fire was one he set, as it turned out, and I got lost in the building. I couldn’t see through the heavy smoke. It was like a solid wall.” His voice cracks, and he shakes his head to regain his composure. He’s embarrassed.
“How did you get out?” I ask.
He takes a sip from the nearly empty bottle in his hand and says, “A guy I trained with kept calling me, and I kept answering until he found me. I couldn’t stop coughing. I kept thinking of the headline: ‘Fireman Dies At First Fire.’ Funny, huh?”
I picture smoke, blindness, choking. Not funny, I think.
“I was lost in this forest of smoke. I thought, This is it. Unbelievable. My first fire.” He swallows hard. “At one point, the heat blew out every window. The damned explosion sounded like wineglasses shattered by an opera singer.”
“Did it really?” I ask.
“No.” He takes his time answering. He doesn’t want his voice to break again. “It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before.” Then he adds, “It terrified me.”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m terrified hearing about it.”
We stare at the first stars, the sun now completely gone. “Why would somebody deliberately do that to people, to kids?” he asks. “We caught him. But even when he explained, I couldn’t understand. You know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I say.
“Rose saved your life,” my mother says as we walk to the store. “It was her screams that made me come downstairs, and I saw what they were doing to you.” Her mouth is tight, her eyes hot with revenge. The incident comes back to me, slipping over the world like a soft glove: the cold gray sky glimpsed between the shoulders of the boys; the gritty sidewalk against my cheek; the taste of blood in my mouth; the garbage stink of a passing truck. Then I’m here again with my mother, walking to the indoor market on Havemeyer Street to buy vegetables. My mother pulls a small metal cart behind her, its wheels clacking against the broken asphalt, sometimes wedging themselves in ruts so that we have to stop and lift them out. My brother skips ahead, bouncing a ball under her watchful eye. It’s spring, and there will be fresh beets at the market for her to make borscht with sour cream. I want to think about borscht, but my mother is talking about Rose.
“The Nazis used her for pleasure; like an animal they used her.” She spits on the ground. “They were not animals. They were less than animals. They killed her children, her husband, mother, father, sisters, brother, cousins. Her they kept because she was beautiful.” Her eyes are dark with a sad, angry helplessness. “Her beauty,” my mother says, “they stole it from her like they stole everything, everything.”
Lena’s blueberry muffins are fragrant cakes of rich butter and fruit.
“Delicious, Lena,” I tell her. “The best I’ve ever eaten.”
She nods with pleasure. “Your sons will like them.”
“My sons will love them.”
Lena is backlit by the swath of sunlight coming through my window. Her features are indistinct, a blur of pale skin haloed by white. The sun offers no warmth this frigid March morning. I have turned up the heat to defeat the chill in the office.
“Outside so cold today.” She shivers and sips her tea.
“Yes, it certainly is.” I move aside the plate of muffins with an appreciative smile.
“Your family is well?” she asks.
“Very well, and yours?”
Lena turns her face to the sun a moment, nods with pleasure at its light, then looks back at me. “I once had a nightmare as a child . . . terrifying.” Her taut features grow loose, mouth slack, eyes uncertain. She pulls herself up in the chair, willing away vulnerability.
“Tell me about it.”
“It was after I was sent home from the Bund Deutcher Madel.”
I nod, but inside I shiver. The Bund Deutcher Madel was the Hitler Youth camp for girls.
“I failed there. I was weak. I couldn’t do all the exercises. I hated the songs. I knew what this was: to teach me to be a childbearing machine; to use me like an animal to make Aryan children for Hitler. I would sneak off to the woods and write. They allowed me, finally, to go home only because the Demon was important. Otherwise . . .” She shrugs.
“You had the nightmare at the camp?”
“No. I came home in disgrace. The Demon got me at the train station and wouldn’t speak to me, but I saw his face, the hate. Then, when we got home, I had a nightmare that I locked myself in the bathroom. An animal was pounding on the door. Its screams made the house shake; everything moved like in an earthquake. It wanted to kill me — how, I don’t know. I couldn’t let it in.”
Some emotion has appeared in her eyes again, above the bland, pleasant face she shows at each session.
“I cringed against the wall, screaming at it to go away. Then it stopped banging on the door. It was silent, and I thought it was gone.”
“I heard the animal outside, and I turned. Its face was at the window. It had red, glowing eyes. They were on fire. Then it drew back a fist and broke the window. Its hand dripped with blood. The light shone on its teeth, its fangs. I fainted. I don’t know what happened next.”
I ask gently, “Did the animal have a name?”
“My father,” she whispers. “My father.” She quietly begins to cry.
For the first time, she has called him her father.
At my friend’s party I relax on the faded couch after I’ve gently removed a cat, which mews plaintively and slinks off to find a lap to sit on. My husband catches my eye and waves to me from the kitchen. I wave back and settle into an easy conversation with a man I’ve just met, a fellow New Yorker, politically minded like me, and about my age. We discuss the politics of the sixties: civil rights, Vietnam, women’s rights, and, as the evening wears on, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy. This leads us back farther, to the McCarthy hearings, that great American witch hunt. The man’s eyes narrow, and his mouth tightens. “My father was blacklisted,” he tells me. “They wanted him to name names. They wanted everyone to name names, even people who didn’t know any. My father was followed everywhere. They never left him alone.”
He flushes a deep red, and I see both anger and sorrow in his expression. He is drowning in feelings, and though my heart goes out to him, I retreat a bit. It would be too easy for me to drown in feelings of persecution, isolation, and fear. “I’m sorry,” I tell him.
In a rough, hoarse voice he says, “One afternoon, my father came to my school. I saw him staring at me through the window of my classroom. I was surprised, and I waved. He smiled and waved back. Then he left.” His hands clench into fists, his voice drops, perhaps to avoid being overheard, or to disguise the fury in it. “When I came home, he was dead. An overdose of sleeping pills. Those bastards killed him.” His eyes are filled with hate. “He couldn’t work. He couldn’t get a job, just because he’d signed a lousy petition for workers’ rights. He was followed. He never felt safe. They wouldn’t let him support my mother, my two sisters, and me. He was desperate. He figured if he was dead, they’d leave my mom alone and she could get a job and eventually remarry. . . . And she did, but he gambled his life, because what if it hadn’t worked? Why couldn’t he have waited it out?” He picks up his wineglass, takes a drink, and laughs bitterly. “It’s an illusion that the world is safe.”
On an early-spring day I put on my roller skates and gingerly descend the steps, skate key, house key, and mailbox key jangling on the string around my neck. The sun briefly defies the ubiquitous factory smoke and shines golden. Bits of mica embedded in the pavement glitter before the clouds reappear. The air is thick, but the breeze from the polluted East River smells like the ocean. I skate slowly up the block, noting a tight cluster of fresh-faced Irish boys horsing around at the corner. Bathed in acrid clouds of cigarette smoke, they turn at the sound of my skates and fall silent. Their faces harden. Their silence is dangerous. I spit three times, a protection against the evil eye, and lower my head.
Hearing them approach, I skate faster, legs aching with the effort. Their shadows reach me first, and then I’m knocked off my feet. My cheek scrapes the asphalt and bleeds. I scream when I see the red dripping to the sidewalk. My worn jeans rip along my calf. Swatches of ominous clouds are framed between their shoulders. I curl into as tiny a ball as possible.
Rose’s screams fall all around us, drops of perfectly realized terror, the most frightening sound I’ve ever heard. They are the last thing I remember.
I awake on a hospital bed wanting to vomit. My body and head hurt. The memory rises to consciousness, and my heart lurches wildly.
A blurred phantom in white says, “It’s OK.”
His reassuring smile swims in my vision as he pats me on the shoulder.
“She has a concussion,” the doctor explains to my mother, who is peering anxiously over his shoulder. “She should rest. She’ll be fine in a week. It’s a miracle, with this kind of beating, that nothing is broken. Bad bruises, cuts, scrapes, and the stitches on her knee — that’s it.”
Ashen and trembling, my mother nods. The doctor lifts me off the table and supports me as I walk unsteadily across the floor. The walls revolve in unsettling patterns. My mother, less than five feet tall and small-boned, can’t carry me. The doctor clucks in weary sympathy, then returns to a crowded waiting room.
Outside, the bright sunlight makes me even dizzier, and I lean on my mother. Exhaust fumes add to my nausea, and my head throbs at the rumble of passing trucks and the clacking roar of the elevated train. We stand on the corner, and my mother counts out change and waves for a cab, an unheard-of luxury.
An old Checker cab with rusty fenders, probably a gypsy cab, pulls up in front of us, and my mother opens the door and slides me in. The cabdriver, a ruddy man with a mustache, looks curiously at me in the rearview mirror.
“I’ll call the police on those bastards,” my mother says thinly as she settles into the seat.
It’s an idle threat. The police don’t care about slum kids. The cab weaves in and out of traffic. With my head on her lap, my mother tells me that the screams I heard belonged to Rose. In a trembling voice, she says, “Rose couldn’t save her own children, but she saved the life of one Jewish child today.”
“He was SS,” Lena cries. “My father.” She says it again in German, so like the Yiddish of my childhood, lapsing into English and back to German, and then English once more. “That made him suddenly important. A man who was of no importance before Hitler. My father, so proud of his hate.” She breathes in rapid gasps. “When I was sent home from youth camp, he broke open the window of the bathroom and kicked me, kicked me, kicked me until my mother cried for him to stop.
“At night in my bed, I could hear him talk to her.” She repeats stories heard in the dark, accounts of atrocities. She tells me about other things she saw and heard: the martial music, the propaganda, the drills, the gold stars sewn on sleeves, the words of hate scribbled on walls, blood leaking down streets, people rounded up, daily broadcasts, bombers, the fatherland.
My mind leaves my body and hovers above us. I look down at her wringing hands and tear-ravaged face, and at my own motionless self, bearing witness for a child of the Third Reich as she bears witness.
She speaks of her neighbors. “They were Jewish. My father hated them. They gave me sweets when he wasn’t home. I would go to their house, and they would tell me stories. They were old. They had grandchildren who lived far away, and they missed them. I pretended that I was their grandchild.” Her voice is hoarse, raw. “I pretended that we were all going to move somewhere far away, and I would never have to see my father. He cursed them. He cursed all Jews.”
She tries to catch her breath, takes tissue after tissue from my box. I give her a glass of water, and we do some deep-breathing exercises. I tell her to go slowly. I assure her that the past is over, although I know it is a lie. The past is alive. It is with us every moment, our lives slim transparencies between past and present.
“The soldiers came next door and broke in the windows and doors. They dragged the old couple out while they screamed that they had done nothing wrong. They dragged them on the ground. All the doors to every house were closed. I saw nobody at a window but me. My mother pulled me away from the window.” She takes off her glasses, and I put them carefully on my little table, beside the mandelbrot, the German nut-bread she has brought today. “Breathe, Lena,” I tell her, and I too cannot breathe.
“I went back to the window. It was my job to watch. I knew that.”
Rose arrives in my mind, silent for once, and I allow her to sit and listen. I understand: this is not a session; this is an exorcism.
“They pulled her by the hair along the ground. She no longer moved. Her husband tried to grab her from them. They kicked him and kicked him. He was bleeding and finally still. They threw them in the trucks like they were bags of garbage. I hear her screaming all the time, all the time. She is screaming in my head. I did nothing. I stayed behind the window.”
I speak about the powerlessness of a ten-year-old child in a country that relentlessly, insanely murdered. I remind her that she could have done nothing. She chokes. I pat her on the back, tell her to breathe. Breathe, Lena. Breathe, Rose. Breathe, Michelle. Breathe.
She takes a deep breath, then another. Her sobs slow; her throat releases. She looks at me with swollen eyes. “I pray, sometimes. Do you pray?” she asks. “Do you go to church?”
“I don’t go to church,” I tell her. “I’m a Jew.”
Silence pours into the room like escaping water, and ghosts flow in on the silence and press against us. It is winter in May, midnight at ten in the morning. I am in the presence of both the light and the dark. We sit in the demanding silence, surrounded by ghosts. We look at each other across the decades. The violence beneath the prosperity of middle-class America; the violence of the ghettos; the violence that ignited Nazi savagery; violence, never far beneath the surface.
She stares at me, then offers a timid, hopeful smile and holds out her hand. I take it. A plundered emotion is returned to both the Jewish and the German child. Words are no longer necessary.
It’s a beautiful late-summer day. The sun has come out after a week of rain. Everything is so green and bright that it dazzles me even through my sunglasses. My husband’s garden has soaked up every drop of rain and is blazing with color, pink overrunning green overrunning red overrunning purple. The scent of his roses melts into the air. The fragrance is so poignant, what can you do but cry, or smile? The administration has issued another terror warning, one more in the endless cycle from yellow to orange and back again. Part of me wonders what the hell they know about terror. Damn it, this is my life — my life — and I am tired of terror. I will not have any more terror.
I saw my granddaughter today, and you should pardon me, you other grandparents, but she is the smartest, sweetest, most beautiful toddler who has ever been born. We went to the nature reserve and watched butterflies swoop over the last of the sweet pink milkweed blossoms drifting into silk. We saw deer, swift as fleeting sunlight as they ran between the trees. The marsh reflected the trees surrounding it and the sky above, the water’s mirror-like surface intermittently shattered by the beak of a blue heron. And on our way home, we startled a snake sunning itself on the path. It slithered from beneath our dark, threatening shadows into the calm woods nearby.
Some identifying details have been changed to preserve patient confidentiality.