Our Holocaust

The Holocaust extended its reach beyond the neighborhood. Traces of Shoah lurked in the most surprising places, like the little shops where Dad went to order wallpaper or buy light bulbs. He often took me with him to Attorney Perl's hardware store on Yonah HaNavi Street. Apart from buying plaster or little boxes of screws, it was a place where you could talk, ask questions and watch Attorney Perl at work. People used to stand with their elbows on the counter and gaze at the wall behind Attorney Perl, which was a patchwork of small metal drawers, each containing its own peculiar occupants: nails, screws, nuts, bolts, hooks, latches, washers, rubber bands. Attorney Perl would be up on the ladder in his blue smock, scaling the length and height of the wall like Spiderman, filling the customers' orders. Words cannot adequately convey the splendor of his motion. The slowness. The precision. His serene voice enquiring from above, "I've only got half-inch ones. Will they do?" Clinging to the wall as he moved up and down, right and left, Attorney Perl would descend for a brief moment to hand over the goods and take the customer's money. Then up the ladder again to retrieve something from another metal drawer. Measure out the contents. Wrap the correct amount in a small paper bag. Climb down. Deliver the goods.

Attorney Perl was born in 1900. Before the war he was a practicing attorney. In his town of Stanislaw, near Lvov, he was known even among the goyim as an expert in business, commerce, and property law. His voice echoed beautifully through the courtroom, as if the dimensions of the space had been designed precisely for his vocal chords. Had he not been Jewish, he might have been appointed a judge in Lvov. At the beginning of the war he lived in the Bochnia ghetto, in the same house as Dad's family, 7 Leonarda Street. Then he was sent to Auschwitz, and later to work in Dora-Mittelbau. This camp, with its tender, womanly name, is hardly mentioned in Holocaust stories because very few of its inhabitants survived. Attorney Perl would have been lost too, if he hadn't found his way to one of the Dora-Mittelbau satellite camps, where he operated Obersturmführer Jürgen Licht's puppet theater. After the war, he came to Israel. His days in the camps had not only left the attorney barely more than skin and bones, but had also rendered him skeptical of the validity of the law. So he opened a little hardware store. But even after all those years, even to people who knew nothing of his aborted career as a lawyer in the courtrooms of Lvov, when he called out from up top, "Coated or uncoated, the nuts?" he still exuded a stifling sense of eminence. People answered cautiously. Put their hands to their chins. Pondered.

Sometimes he would take Dad and me into the little chamber behind the wall of drawers. He would tell his assistant, "Yakov, mind the store for a while" (his assistants were always called Yakov), and take us to the back room. There, to my surprise, was a mirror image of the store. On the reverse side of the wall was another wall of drawers, containing the store inventory. The space below the counter looked just like its front-end counterpart. But the width of the chamber was different, and I soon noticed other dissimilarities, including a black-and-white photograph of a woman, a tea kettle, two fountain pens, and a book in Latin.

Sometimes Attorney Perl would point to the picture of the woman and ask Dad if he remembered her, forgetting that he had asked the same question many times. Dad would answer politely, "No, I don't remember her," and Attorney Perl, astonished, would wonder how this was possible. After all, they had lived together in the same house in the Bochnia ghetto until she was taken away. During those brief moments, Attorney Perl found the world to be a strange place. His fingers caressed the kettle as he contemplated how it could have happened. In Stanislaw, before they were married, half the town had courted her. Everyone knew her. And here, now-no one. Not even the people from the ghetto. Gradually, he would regain his composure. We would wait patiently as he went about making us tea in his calm manner. He talked with Dad, and a little with me. I liked to listen to the majesty in his voice, especially when he argued. He could quote from books in all sorts of languages and knew every minute detail of Polish history, as if it had been tailor-made for him. The only match for him was a wizard like Grandpa Yosef. Occasionally, one of Dad's responses to his questions would leave Attorney Perl hesitant, momentarily disarmed, but he would soon perk up and produce a witty retort, replete with dates and quotations. Still, there was respect in his eyes when he looked at Dad (Nu, and this is the boy who was so mischievous in the ghetto!).

I sat between them, coveting the appreciative looks. The kaleidoscope of memories came by like a large fish, swallowing up the flakes: Attorney Perl argues with Dad. Dad wins. Attorney Perl slurps his tea and says nothing. Colorful flakes. Soon they would be gone and I would no longer remember them. But the scenes still echo, chipped and crushed, inside the kaleidoscope.

Sometimes the arguments led to the topic of Attorney Perl's great plan-his despoiled, lost plan. He wondered out loud, Now did they understand how far-reaching his predictions had been? At the end of the war, when Jews were thinking only of themselves, of food and of family members who may or may not have survived, Attorney Perl was busy scurrying back and forth among offices and embassies. His feverish momentum thwarted any notion of throwing him out onto the street. He was surrounded by desperate people trying to slip into offices and present their documents with trembling hands, petitioning bureaucrats on their own behalf or for a family member. Negotiations were attempted in reception rooms between a certain Yakov Zweig, tailor, and the government of the United States of America. People retreated in despair, sighed and went to try their luck elsewhere. They took no notice of retired Attorney Perl-his skin covered with eczema and his body little more than a skeleton-as he proclaimed his sacred mission at every embassy and bureau: Clemency must be granted to all the Nazi leaders. Under no circumstances should they be hanged.

This was the essence of Attorney Perl's position and the impetus for his bureaucratic endeavors. Fifty years from now, he explained, we will regret not having kept them alive, not having bothered to collect their versions. Not the rushed testimonies obtained from shattered officers during two weeks of interrogation. Not the court rendering, but rather a version for the history books. So that we might comprehend what exactly they were thinking, which orders were spoken, who said what. We must not be satisfied with the statements they give in court before they are hanged, their mouths contorted in contempt or terror. We must leave them to patiently document every tiny detail. Because if we hang the wretches, we shall never know both sides of the truth. We will keep digging our heels into our own versions. Historians born after the war will try to understand the other side based on the inconsequential utterances of junior officers. We will all stand in front of the mirror that reflects us, our side, and we will deny the other side, the dark one. Regrets will be of no use. It is the heart's duty-humanity's duty, to keep these criminals alive, and it will be far more useful for us than any revenge could ever be. Many years after it had failed, after the Nuremberg hangings had disastrously killed all those who could testify, Attorney Perl never tired of his plan. What exactly were they thinking? What orders were they given?

Dad was practical. "Nu, but where would we have kept them? In the end they would have escaped, and then where would we be?"

But Attorney Perl had thought of everything. "Where? In the camps, of course. The barracks and fences were still standing. We could have housed the criminals there. Under guard. Why not? Every day we would have made them walk five miles to the testimony stand. In the freezing cold, yes. And we would have made them wear our clothes and eat our food, and walk in those *Šñfine' shoes, and they would have received medical treatment right there in their precious revier. And we would have whipped them. Yes! Whipped! Even unto death! Death to anyone who is careless with his testimony!"

He falls silent. His back hunches over, he shuts his eyes. A small vein throbs in his forehead.

We drink another cup of tea in silence. Birds of memory flutter overhead. Finally, my moment comes: Attorney Perl lets me choose whatever I want from the drawers of bolts, rubber bands and screws.

I don't know where Effi was during those hours when I settled down on the little chair at Attorney Perl's. Did her father also have a wise old friend who knew the names of all the Nazi criminals, the dates of their court cases, their sentences, and the extent to which those sentences were enforced? Did she sit in a little back room where the dense air was sweetened with tea, hearing about appeals, sentence mitigations, re-trials? Did she also hear a list of names-a long, long list naming criminals who had evaded trial and were living somewhere comfortably, hiding behind borrowed identities, ordinary members of communities-forgiven? Attorney Perl was mine, all mine, and when he was invited to family affairs, I didn't tell Effi quite how distinguished he was. It didn't matter. Her side also had anonymous guests who would show up unknown, ever-changing, recurring, replaceable, eternal. We maintained a certain distance from one another, fearing our similarities might one day make us virtually interchangeable. Attorney Perl, with his sublime hatred and his neat lists of Nazis carved out like steps, was mine alone.

When I was about nine, Attorney Perl gave my brother Ronnie the Tarbut encyclopedia set for his bar mitzvah. In my world this was an incredible gift, more precious than anything I could conceive of. A great deal of the affection which they did not know how to express in the usual ways was embodied in this gift. The Holocaust was concealed within the pages of the Tarbut encyclopedia, overshadowed by other entries. "The Massacres of 1648-49" and "The Pogrom Horrors" were more impressive, more direct. But even more powerful than the pogroms was the colorful, illustrated world waiting to be deciphered. The entries were arranged according to an unfathomable order, each entry following a set outline. First, an introductory narrative composed by the author, recreating the private meditations of Alexander the Great, behind-the-scenes secrets from the French Revolution, an encounter with a gorilla. After the introduction, printed in a different typeface and composed in formal language, came the encyclopedic data, a refreshing assortment of information, explications and sub-plots. Each page was embellished with an illustration, whatever the entry. That was where we learned how dinosaurs fought and what the Vilna Gaon looked like, how the Battles of Hannibal were won and how Thomas Edison gazed at the first electric bulb as it shone on his desk. The Tarbut encyclopedia paved roads, expanded the world, colored it and outlined its rules. It also clipped the wings of the Holocaust's voracity and defined its boundaries, demanding equal measures of attention for both tarbut-culture-and Shoah.

Grandpa Yosef wrinkled his nose when he saw Attorney Perl giving Ronnie the entire encyclopedia set, because he was the tree of knowledge in our family and encyclopedias were supposed to be his domain. When Grandpa Yosef himself bought me a very fancy book, Sayings of Wisdom, he suffered yet another setback, because that was exactly what Sammy the greengrocer had given me. When it turned out that Uncle Menashe had bought me yet another Sayings of Wisdom, an inquiry was conducted and all the Sayings of Wisdom givers issued a joint statement: It was on sale at Goldberg's on Shapira Street. An appendix to the statement clarified that the book was still expensive even after the discount.

We forgave them quite easily:

Grandpa Yosef, because of the money, of which he had none. Whenever he had a penny, he would find someone who didn't and give it to them.

Uncle Menashe, because he lived far away and there was an unwritten, dimly comprehended rule that defined a correlation between mileage and gift-size. Various distances and degrees of familial relationship were plugged into this formula, resulting in the appropriate expenditure for a gift.

Sammy, because when his son, Tzachi, had his bar-mitzvah, Dad had given him a very fancy Interpretations of the Torah and Prophets that was on sale at Goldberg's on Shapira Street.

Besides, Dad could never be angry at Sammy, because of all the people with whom he bought lottery tickets (they faced God in pairs, hoping He would hand out a measure of good fortune in proportion to their joint rights), Sammy was the only one who didn't cheat Dad when they won, or rely on his indulgence in financial matters. Hillel, the barber from Herzl Street, cheated him. And a guy from the army reserves cheated him. But Sammy would always run to find Dad and announce the winnings.

Sammy had a little fruit and vegetable store at the edge of Grandpa Yosef's neighborhood. He wore a gold chain around his neck and had a thundering voice, and his potbelly always stuck out of the bottom of a shirt that proclaimed, in English, "Harvard University." With his moustache and bald head, Sammy looked like a hardened thug, but he had small, green eyes that took on the color of tea in the sun. Inside the store, his eyes had a strained tone of green, sometimes Ganges-green, reminding everyone that Sammy was half-Indian. He kept two different kinds of tabs for his customers in the neighborhood: one for those who had to pay, and another for those who didn't have to pay because they had suffered enough in the Holocaust. Sammy spoke of the Holocaust like normal greengrocers talked about soccer. The Holocaust, for him, was a physical entity, a body with character traits. A transparent globe which you could hold in your hands and gaze into to see figures and snowflakes and all sorts of colorful things. "The Shoah*Š" he used to say, and coming from his lips the word sounded different. Finally, here was the perspective of a man with both feet on the outside, with true compassion and unexaggerated kindness. "They suffered over there, the poor souls," he explained, and nothing was hiding behind his words. "Suffered" did not conceal two-days-under-a-mountain-of-bodies-with-his-mother-and-father-dead-on-top-of-him-until-he-got-out-and-ran-to-the-forest. "Poor souls" was not their-children-died-in-the-ghetto-and-after-the-war-they-tried-to-have-children-and-could-not-something-in-her-body-or-her-mind-the-doctors-gave-up.

Sammy employed three assistants, and they were told to be nice to the customers. When he said "customers," it was clear that he did not mean the ones in sunglasses who stopped their cars outside for a minute to run in and get something for Shabbat, but rather the ones like Gershon Klima, for example, who would sometimes stand among the crates of produce without any idea of what he wanted. They had to let him stand there like a waxwork, with his own rhythm of confusion, no urgency, until a healthy thought about plumbing drew him out of the confusion and instantly cured him, and as if on the wings of Superman's cloak he would take hold of his six-inch pipe and emerge as a regular customer, grumbling, "How much are the tomatoes today?"

Sammy worshipped Grandpa Yosef, and personally delivered his groceries for free. In the middle of the workday he would sit down with Grandpa Yosef and discuss the affairs of the day, the political situation. They explored various possibilities, like a truce between Sammy and Littman from the corner store. (Sammy's fight with Littman, who owned the corner store next-door to the vegetable store, had been going on for thirty years, ever since the business with the pickles. Sammy had attempted to market pickles made by his sister-in-law, thereby diverging from his legitimate domain of fresh vegetables.)

Littman was also a saint. Prices, with Littman, were a flexible matter. Bills were totaled in pencil on a little roll of paper, quick computations in Yiddish, impossible to follow. The neighborhood residents came, looked at a product, and whatever was reflected in their pupils-their past in the camps, the sum of their compensation payments, their pensions-formed an image that was turned into a price. They ran tabs that sometimes lasted a lifetime. Debts were dropped, erased. At Littman's, they could come and chat, and he would always ask how they were doing; this was as important as the shopping. His corner store was a valley of sorts, where shepherds came to rest with their herds in a place virtually untouched by the winds. Even Crazy Hirsch found refuge at Littman's, where he would idle with his elbow leaning on a barrel of pickles. Sometimes Linow Community and Sarkow Community came too. Littman encouraged them, reminding them that he had seen the greengrocer in the Turkish market buying spoiled pickles and then putting them in hot water to make them look fresh.

In the conflict between Littman and Sammy, the neighborhood's heart leaned towards Littman, who, after all, had a number on his arm from Auschwitz, and had also been in Buchenwald. But I preferred Sammy because he looked normal, like Dad, and a couple of times he took me to play soccer on the beach with his team, "Maccabi Sammy Vegetables and Son." Sometimes, when the store was empty, Sammy would ask me to toss him a mandarin orange, and he would cheerfully head-butt it back to its place. Sometimes he missed. Then we would look sheepishly at the mandarin as it rolled across the floor.

"You shouldn't throw away food," I said.

"You shouldn't say *Šñyuck' about food," Sammy retorted.

"People died for a bit of cabbage," I escalated.

"Bread is sacred," Sammy giggled.

We shouted out all the battle-cries, only after making absolutely sure we were alone.

A little of Sammy's hegemony was disrupted in favor of Littman during one of our trips to Tel-Aviv with Grandpa Yosef, when we were delivered into the caring hands of Hezi for our day at the amusement park. We found Hezi in a garrulous mood. Until that day, we had believed that Hezi was created only once a year to welcome us in Tel-Aviv and take us to the amusement park, then disappear into thin air until the next year. But there he was, not only talking and taking on the form of flesh and blood, but very quickly also revealing a solid connection to our life: he announced that he was the son of Littman from the corner store, didn't we know? He told us offhandedly about Buchenwald and the mad hunger. The people who ate corpses. Ate clothes. Ate wood from the hut walls. Their teeth crumbled as they gnawed on the wood but they could not stop. Only those who gained the protection of criminals or Russian POWs, the kings of the camps, could survive.

Hezi was an utterly unexpected fountain of information, and an incautious one. He was apparently reprimanded by Grandpa Yosef because the next year he was completely silent, as if the Hezi who had snuck into the previous year's amusement park day had been an impostor. We failed to see how he could be Littman's son, and how he could suddenly have talked. The year after that, Hezi was abolished altogether.

Hezi was abolished, but not the impressions of Buchenwald. We had finally found a magic key to the Shoah: hunger was something we too could experience. Hunger. That, we could do ourselves.

But it was hard to stop eating just like that. Mom's radar eyes would have picked up on it immediately, and things were no different in Effi's household. We waited for our chance, knowing that we had to taste Buchenwald. The opportunity did not come quickly, but it came. We were sent to the kibbutz.

The original plan was to spend summer with Grandpa Yosef as usual, but a severe deterioration in Feiga's health necessitated a change of plans. We oscillated between the threat of a session at camp (after already having announced that we were through with camp-thirteen years old, enough is enough), lounging around at my place, lounging around at Effi's place, or going to the kibbutz. We wanted to stay with Grandpa Yosef, even prayed for Feiga's health, but this time her decline was so severe that all the pale bones at the foundation of her illnesses were exposed, revealing a ruined network of body-soul connections. The die was cast: kibbutz.

The kibbutz was where Grandpa Hainek's eldest sons lived. Ze'ev had already been killed. It was the year in which Dov was to be killed, in November, but that summer he still welcomed us warmly. His task was to host us for a month, and he did just that, with the help of Eitan, Grandpa Hainek's third son, who was well-suited to the mission. He had just finished his army service and he liked to talk once in a while, which, by family standards, made him garrulous.

Most of the time we were left to our own devices, and we made the most of it: this was what we had been waiting for. Buchenwald. The rules of the game were simple: no eating. Then we replaced the absolute rule with less severe derivatives: eating was allowed, but only scraps from the kibbutz trash-cans, fruit peel, waste, bones. We were willing to be disgusted, to get ill. We toughened our spirits. It was not a game played for immediate victory, but in the service of the senses, to acquire skill, depth, and the possibility of touching the truth. Then we added another rule: we could eat whatever we stole.

It was not an easy time between Effi and me. She was fourteen, I was at bar mitzvah age ("Comfort, comfort my people," began the haftorah I was learning to recite), and all sorts of things were erupting in my body. Strange discoveries emerged constantly, everything seemed peculiar, in constant flux. Effi had begun to hide things from me and was often busy. She had recruited a staff of girlfriends. When I wanted to go to the library, she would say she was busy, and eventually she confessed: "I'm kind of sick of the Shoah." I felt betrayed. With great anger, I would go alone to read in the library, more diligent than ever, now representing the righteous, the neglected, the abandoned. I traded horrible thoughts and self-pity for studious reading. What I found out, I kept to myself, a little treasure for the treasureless.

On the kibbutz, the rift was somewhat healed. We knew it was Buchenwald time. Effi put her new interests (which, to my horror, had begun to take on the corporeal form of Yaron from the ninth grade) on hold. We played Buchenwald. We fasted and did not drink. We licked water from leaking taps, slipped behind the dining hall, stole old hunks of cheese and ate with trembling hands. We even sucked on straw, like Littman had done when he had escaped. We shared a sour, blackened banana peel in a tender moment of mutual destiny. Then, one day, there was an event of a different kind.

At the burning hour of midday we went to the distant fields near the entrance to the cowshed and the dairy. The heat was relentless. Our breath was lethargic from the Buchenwald hunger and the oppressive heat, colorful circles of sunlight hovered in front of our eyes. No one dared go outside in the heat wave. Only a few stunned pigeons wandered on the lawns and in the shade of the oleander shrubs, and the cows mooed plaintively in the distance. We walked slowly. I felt as if my legs were acting of their own accord. A strange sensation. Hunger had weakened my thoughts. For four days it had been nothing but sour banana peels, straw, cheese from a discarded container, and some apple rinds Effi had got hold of-the most nutritious thing I had consumed.

Effi dragged me into the oleander shade. She did not speak. She was breathing heavily and I saw a strange look in her eyes, beneath fluttering eyelids. Without warning, she lay down on her back on the slightly putrid bed of leaves, and slowly took off her blouse, crushing the leaves as she squirmed. Her nipples were presented to me with the hem of her blouse still draped over her forearms. Curiously, I surveyed the revelation, the fair mounds which bore her nipples on their peaks, and my heart did not demand a thing. Effi ordered me to come closer, laid down the law. She let me touch her with my tongue, but only on her belly-button, her earlobes, and the tip of her nose. She warned me against deviating from this crucifix of flesh. I knelt, examining my options, looking for interest in them. Effi breathed heavily. Nerve endings bustled just beneath the surface of her skin, invisible channels of sweetness perceptible only in her rosy blush. I kissed her earlobes undesiringly, cautiously touched the edge of her nose, then licked her navel. I sat up straight.

Effi sighed with her eyes closed. "Again."

I was scared. "Again?"

Effi felt for my hand. She dragged it over her skin, letting me find the tracks on my own. "Use your tongue too," she ordered.

I chose the safest looking path, the four points that had already proven themselves. I flitted over her navel, her ears, her nose. I sniffed. Effi exuded a new scent of budding perspiration. I gained courage and touched a nipple. I put my lips to it and tried to drink. I placed my hand on her abdomen and attempted to draw out a single drop, the way we had once both sucked on the udders of Lassie, the barn dog. She had not put up much resistance as we removed her puppies and tasted her udders, only a look that said, "Kids, it's not pasteurized," and slight amazement, perhaps also resentment at the temporary suspension of her puppies. (We didn't drink much. It was a little bitter and unpleasantly warm. Unlike Romulus and Remus, we preferred grape juice.) I could not find a drop in Effi's nipples. And she too, fairly soon, grew bored. But a new idea glistened.

At my cousin Zevik's wedding, Grandpa Hainek's son Eitan had been kind enough to explain to me about the schlong. He pulled me aside at one of the tables and went into great detail regarding whom he had given his schlong to, whom he was planning to give his schlong to, and how one gives one's schlong. Later, in the restroom, he pulled down his pants and showed me this mysterious creature, the schlong, which had-been and was-being and would-be given according to a carefully implemented plan. I discovered with Columbus-like excitement that I too had a fragile schlong in my pants, and that its thus-far monotonous functions (sometimes, to my chagrin, at night in bed) were merely a spiritual weakening whose time was up. Now I looked at Effi and was guided by an unspoken sensation-her fluttering eyelids, her trembling lips, her expectant look. I put my worlds together and enquired, "Do you want to get my schlong?"

The days were days of Buchenwald, and I was dizzy from barely eating, and Effi's slap sent me reeling into deep darkness. I could not believe how much Jewish strength still remained in the hand of this girl who had been testing her limits by starving herself for a week. Years later, she told me I was the only one who had been in the throes of Buchenwald starvation. She was secretly gobbling down double meals, fattening herself up in the dining room and at Dov's. "I thought about it," she generously explained, "about whether both of us really needed to do it, to understand." And she had a complaint too. "Do you have any idea how many apples I had to eat, to make you those scraps?"

I woke up alone. Effi had left and gone to Dov's room, where she sat comfortably eating jam and loquats, preparing me some apple rinds as she munched her way through a bag of toffee candies. The sun stole in between the oleanders, striking my face. I opened my mouth wide, feeling singed. Voices came from afar, people walking. My eyes could not see, shadows were distorted, glimpses of color danced around. I vomited, still lying on my back, almost choking. I could not open my eyes. How would I get up? I lay helpless, wanting to drink just one drop. I tried to move again, in vain. Nausea. I wanted to pass out, not to suffer the dizziness, the thirst. At the last minute, before giving in, I made one more effort. I rolled onto my side and sat up on my knees. Things were dripping inside my head. Circles running in my eyes. I vomited again. I got up very slowly and opened my eyes. I walked, lightly touching the branches, anchoring myself in the spinning world. I followed the shrubs all the way to where the path began and made my way to Dov's room. Got to survive.

I ate three dinners that evening, and for the next two days I kept drinking from every tap I came across, just in case. But at that moment, when I touched the door to Dov's room, on the border between an Israeli kibbutz and Cell Block 55 in Buchenwald, I touched a speck of Shoah. Only a hint, just for a moment, but I will never again be as close. The Buchenwaldian moment was over as soon as I washed my face, but a glowing spot remained inside of me. And there remained Effi's look when I turned up at the door, my face and shirt stained with vomit and blood, my eyes vacant, unresponsive, as I walked to the sink with a strange quaver. A speck also remained deep inside her. I had been to Buchenwald, she had not. A solid stain of failure that no future victories could melt away. An Archimedean point that marked new directions in our relationship.