You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.
by Mark Rand
JOE FOUND HIMSELF alone in bed that hot June afternoon in his Brooklyn home in 2013, his lover far away on one of her adventures. He had been writing about his dead grandmother, Fayge Elke, a woman he had never met. She was gassed in the war, along with her children, their spouses and along with her grandchildren. Joe was born six years after Fayge Elke had choked to death on Zyklon B in a gas chamber, along with more than a thousand other entrapped Jews, one of hundreds of Jew-filled gas chamber-loads. Barely a statistic.
Joe had never met her. He had been through nearly a lifetime of his own barely thinking about her. Joe was a busy man, after all. Juggling the life in Brooklyn, New York City, USA, the wife, the kids, the divorce, the second wife, the kids, the job, the playtime — years ago his father-in-law explained that it was the playtime that was most demanding on The Juggle. Joe was an energetic type of insecure. Always doing, scampering, working, running, talking, loving, hating. Always busily distracting him from the ruminations of impending disaster. Joe had no doubt of impending disaster. He knew that his activity was a diversion from sitting and waiting for the disaster. I know it will hit, I know it will be devastating, there is nothing I can do about it, was his line of thinking. Joe was certain that wise people around him, inhabiting the planet with him, so many of them enjoying their work and playtime and distractions, Joe knew that they knew too about the inevitable calamity. But that did not stop them from having their fun, their families and their transient pleasures. That did not stop them from competing with each other to be top man, knowing full well that we are each of us as likely as the next to be the victims of the next great calamity. And so Joe decided a long time ago, about thirty years earlier, before he turned 33, that he would have some fun too, for as long as he could.
And so he did. Thoughts of Fayge Elke were on the periphery all along. Yes, Joe’s father, Deszdo, the only person in Joe’s life who even mentioned Fayge Elke — he mourned her death every day, every minute of every day, it seemed, as Joe remembered his father’s oft-murmurings “my mother, my mother, Mama,” at times these would be murmurings uttered out of nowhere, in the evening at home while the family was watching television, or in the shoe store Deszdo owned in Brooklyn after the war, while hunting for a box of shoes for this customer or that one, in between the talk with the customer — say, for instance, the customer was seated, shoes off, foot size measured, and now it was time for Deszdo to meander around the stacks of shoeboxes looking for the correct item, in this meander he would, almost as a prayer, say “mama, mama.”
Joe heard this and of course was affected by this at times incessant murmur. He heard it pretty much from the time he was born — he could have sworn actually that he even heard it through the walls of his own mother’s uterus before he was born; actually he recalled having very significant hesitations about emerging from that birth canal into this world filled with murmurings of “mama, mama.”
But thoughts about this person, Fayge Elke, in Joe’s mind, such thoughts were shallow, passing and undeveloped, unarticulated. Joe knew only — he had heard this so many times from casual strangers who could not have possibly known — that in her time alive, not a short life, after all. She was not exterminated — by the way, did you know that Zyklon-B was a pesticide? It worked on Jews too — not exterminated until she was 64 years old. In her time alive, she was known as sincere, honest and hardworking. Her lot in life was not entirely sweet. Her husband, Joe’s grandfather Yaakov Tzvi, was dead by the time he reached the age of 44, leaving Fayge Elke in charge of the family, seven children, ranging in age from Velvel, about 24 years old, married by then, to Deszdo, the youngest, not yet 7 years old.
But the intervening years, about twenty years between the time Yaakov Tzvi died to the day of her death by Zyklon B, during that intervening period, she did not do too badly, running a business, maintaining her home, looking after her Deszdo and the others, presiding over marriages and grandchildren, managing even passing disasters, like her son Yussel’s divorce, days after he was married, once it was revealed that his wife was hiding that she had epilepsy, in those days considered a mekakh ta-os.
JOE HAD, BY THE TIME HE WAS 62, taken a strong interest in, an obsession with his grandmother who he never met. He went to visit her hometown. He went into the apartment in which she had lived. He explored the city of Munkacz, met its people, attended the synagogue on Sabbath, and strolled along the Latarice River, undoubtedly the centerpiece of the town’s Jewish life.
And then came the hard part — familiarizing himself with the train station from which the deportations to Auschwitz departed, traveling the rails to Chop, to Kosice in Slovakia, to Zirina in Poland and on to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the train ramp and then to the selecting point, at which Fayge Elke said her last good bye to Deszdo.
He spent hard and long hours imagining Fayge Elke’s last minutes, on the path from the selection point about five hundred yards to the crematoria, a few steps down into the undressing room, and a few more steps to the right and into the gas chamber where the doors were sealed shut and where she was annihilated.
Joe was spending months of his life contemplating what she must have gone through. It was on his mind regardless of whatever else he was doing, at his job as a psychologist interviewing parents and children, on Jamaica Bay in a sailboat, out for dinner and drinks with his beloved, Isadora, with family. It did not matter. These thoughts were always with him. And at times he found himself murmuring, “baba, baba, grandma.”
Joe reaped forbidden benefits for himself from this tortured obsession. Who could accept that he was becoming emotionally involved, enmeshed even, with a dead ancestor? But Joe came to feel that he was getting to know his grandmother as a person. He was getting to feel closer with her. He felt gratified that he had salvaged her remains from the statistical charts and had turned her into a breathing, warm person in his mind. And hence in his world. He came to feel a yearning to have sat with Fayge Elke, to have held her, and to have had her hold him, perhaps at his birth or in his youth — she would have been 70 years old when Joe was born in 1950. He imagined she would have scolded him for playing loose with those religious restrictions, perhaps for hanging out with the Zionistic kids, especially the pretty Zionistic kibbutz-type girls in those youth camps in Munkacz — back in the day when the term “camp” meant fun and games and songs, before the SS corrupted the meaning of that word for eternity. Joe imagined that his grandmother would have expected him to drop by to see her each Saturday directly after synagogue services. He imagined seeing his father embracing his grandmother, in that full embrace with warmth that his father exuded and shared with Joe from time to time, one of those hugs that anyone would die for.
And it was in the midst of his writings and ruminations that Joe was doing that afternoon, with no one in the house but he and the two cats, Lola and Lou, that suddenly Joe felt disheartened, depressed, overcome with sadness.
JOE WENT TO HIS BED TO LIE DOWN. He heard an anguished barking dog next door. He later learned the dog had fallen between two walls in his neighbor’s yard and no one was home to free him.
As Joe lay in the bed, reclining on his right side, his left hand hanging limply over the front of his leg, as he lay in a semi-fetal position, he felt Lola, an otherwise passive cat, happy so long as she had her meals and her freedom to go in and out of her hiding places, so long as she could stay safe from Lou, the hyperactive testy culprit who ruled the terrain, he felt Lola squeezing under his hand. She was moving her head right under Joe’s hand, back and forth, repeatedly. Lola was simulating caresses for herself from Joe’s hand.
Joe was not in the mood. He put some muscle into the hanging hand, to resist Lola’s thievery of caresses. But Lola would not go away. She applied her muscle too, and now with aggressiveness and assertion, pushed her way under Joe’s rigid hand to get her caresses.
By this time Joe burst out in tears, at first not knowing why. Alone in the house he wailed. Thoughts of his poor dead grandmother flooded his mind. Joe’s yearning for the touch of Fayge Elke now overtook him. Joe felt fortunate to have the loneliness of the house to himself, which afforded him the freedom to cry.
After about twenty minutes, Joe became concerned that he might never extricate himself from this mourning. He thought that he had never mourned anyone’s death, not even that of his father, with pure sincerity as he was now mourning his grandmother, who he had never met and for whom no one had ever sat shiva or eulogized.
Joe feared he would be swallowed up into a depression from which he would never free himself. He did not want to become a prisoner of depression, as his father had been. He was terrorized for a minute with that thought.
All the while, Lola was pushing her way under Joe’s hand, and fulfilling her need for affection.
AFTER ABOUT AN HOUR OF CRYING, Joe recalled the ceremony at the end of the shiva for his father, when after seven days of mourning, on the morning of the seventh day, it was a Friday, actually, friends and neighbors stormed the house, rousing everyone to get up from the shiva and get out of the house. He recalled how he erupted in tears at that moment. The message was that the Jew must put a sharp end to the mourning process. There are too many Jewish tragedies, too many Jewish deaths, and if one were permitted to mourn until the process reached its own natural conclusion, Jews around the world would be doing nothing but mourning night and day forever, with nothing to show for their pathetic lives. The ceremony of literally chasing mourners out of their home and back into the world was both symbolic and pragmatic. There was no choice.
Joe, in his tears for Fayge Elke, alone in his house that day, not including Lola and her squeezing out her affectional needs, Joe felt that the mourning for Fayge Elke was too heavy a weight and that he could not pull himself out from under it alone. But he was resolute and he knew that his life awaited him.
Joe tore himself away from the thoughts of Fayge Elke and focused on stroking his cat.
Mark Rand is a writer and forensic psychologist living in Brooklyn. His writing goes to the depths of his subjects. He spends many hours exploring moments in their lives, treating such moments as potent, even though they are fragile and ephemeral, in his words, “like water lilies, whose appearance at any given instant depends on the swells and the flow of the water beneath.”