“Photographs and Memories
Christmas cards that you sent to me.
All that I have are these
To remember you. “
I am in my cousin Lia’s apartment in the Jardin district of Sao Paolo Brazil.
It is an upscale neighborhood not far from the Avenue Paulista marked by steep hills and trees planted in the European style of urban planning at the beginning of the last century. The buildings are far more European than American. They tend to be more compact, curved, and simple than buildings where I live in New York. No legions of doormen and concierge to greet you. Here it is a single fellow, albeit in uniform, that simply opens a gate and after calling upstairs to announce your arrival leads you to a single tiny elevator that holds four quite uncomfortably.
When the door opens to her floor the light in the hallway flashes on. This strikes as me as sensible and odd at the same time. Odd because it is not how we do things back home and sensible in the way it makes no sense for the light inside a refrigerator to shine unless the door is open.
The door to Lia’s apartment and she is there all energy and shock of frizzy red gold hair that looks remarkably like my sisters. There is a white mezuzah on her door frame so I touch it on my way into her home. Like her mezuzah Lia’s home is all white. The walls are white. The furniture is by and large white. The only exception to this tone on tone design scheme are the floors which are wood and the table in her living room which is a circle of brown and black wood.
Lia insists of giving me the grand tour of her apartment. It is very spacious at least compared to New York standards. It has a huge living room with enough space for both a seating area and a dining room table. The kitchen is an eat in with modern appliances and granite counter tops. There is a large master bedroom and a somewhat smaller second bedroom that doubles as an office. And in each room the walls are covered with works of art, design pieces, and photographs that might have seemed cluttered in another home but somehow seem just right for Lia.
Before today I have only spent time with Lia once at a lunch in my parent’s home 30 years previous I recall not really wanting to be there but being present because my father insisted. At the time I did not understand my old man’s sense of family. Perhaps I was too young to understand, although I was in my twenties, but it is something, overtime, I have grown to appreciate more and more. Now it serves as a true north in my life’s navigation. I do recall that Lia was full of energy. That we had a long conversation about Rock and Roll and that she loved Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.
I had not met my cousin Roberto before. Our first meeting was that morning at the reception desk of my hotel. He actually took me by surprise. I had gone to the front desk to inquire about a message he left me late the night before. He had left his phone number and I had no idea how to dial locally so I had gone downstairs for telephone instructions when this slender curly haired man approached me and said “Paul?” and when I nodded in agreement he said “I am Roberto!” And so my day of Strauss began.
Roberto and I went into the breakfast room where he and I sat and had coffee and noshed on scrambled eggs, roasted lingucia sausage and hot dogs with a roasted tomato and onion sauce…I love breakfasts in other countries. How people start their day tells you so much of who they are as people. I must admit I was very nervous. Both of my parents were only children. I had never had cousins and didn’t know quite how to behave with them. Roberto was a complete stranger If I hadn’t seen his picture on Facebook I would not have been able to identify him in a lineup. And even then his Facebook posts are all in Portuguese and mostly seem about him driving around in a Winnebago so I had no idea what to expect.
Struggling where to begin the conversation I venture “Roberto, I don’t read Portuguese but when I see your Facebook postings, they seem mainly about Winnebago’s. Do you own one? He laughs and tells me that when he was 12 he wrote the Winnebago company and they wrote him back and ever since then he has been obsessed with them and that it has become a big joke between him and his friends. That his posts are often about mythical adventures that he has been having in this “dream” RV.
I can tell that I am going to like him. That we are at least relatives in that we share a similar sense of humor and life outlook. Just as I am reaching this conclusion Lia breezes into the room like the force of nature that she is. She hugged me and kissed me and then looked at Roberto and says “He looks just like Ernesto.” It is only then that I noticed that she has shopping bags in each hand and as we sit down she says “I have presents for everyone.” And indeed she does…..a design book for my mother and for my sister, a bolt of native cloth also for my mother to brighten the house. , frames for my brother and myself made of Brazilian wood, a desk card holder for me, little boxes-also of Brazilian wood for sister again.
My first thought was oh my god how completely generous and then of course my second thought was “My God how am I going to get these home.”
After taking the three bags of presents upstairs, and gathering myself for the day, I met Roberto and Lia in the lobby of the hotel to commence my tour of Sao Paolo. The tour was a compliment to Lia’s personality. It was exuberant, frenetic, eclectic and full of a passion for a city that she considers an extension of her own family.
At first we drove through the city with her giving me a running description of the neighborhood…when they were built, what type of people who live there, how beautiful some of the homes were. We go to an art museum to see some piece of modern art that highlight that arts in Brazil. We stop at folk art store in the heart of Sao Paolo’s “soho” and drive down a street where local artist had painted the walls with their works of art that is apparently world famous We visit a furniture store that had a tree growing through its that has a selection of modern pieces that typify the design ideals of Brazil. We drive through the University where she and Roberto studied and where Roberto’s daughter is a student.
When hunger called, she takes us to a churrascaria where my plate is constantly billed by a parade of waiters offering up roasted meats of every kind. By the time we leave I feel like I never have to eat again and my first Caipirinha.
At one point I called my father on the phone because I knew how much my spending time with our cousins meant to him. I imagine I understand this more than any of his children. Not only because so many of our trips together have been exploring his past but because during his illnesses over the past few years, we have spent a tremendous amount of time with each other often talking about his “lost” family.
Not having a big family was a part of my childhood. I never missed it because I never had it. My father grew up with a large family whom he loved in a way that an only child could love a family. It is only as an adult that I have begun to understand the hollowness losing them caused and how much it meant to him to have a family of his own. So I wasn’t surprised to hear the emotion in his voice as he spoke to Roberto and Lia. They are the last shadows of the memories left of that family that once included 13 brothers and sisters. Hearing this conversation. Hearing the emotion in his voice makes very glad that I have sunglasses on as I don’t know these cousins well enough yet to weep in front of them. They don’t realize I what I know. That my father is dying and this may be the last he will ever have the opportunity to speak to them.
Our last stop of the afternoon was an Art Museum in what they told me was Sao Paolo’s central park. It is styled in a very European fashion: manicured, planned, clean without the frenetic chaos, naturalness and trash I associate with parks back home. The museum itself was not much of a museum, it was really more of an art gallery with works of Brazilian artist none of whom I was familiar with. But Lia walked me through them with the type of love and pride that a parent reserves for their children.
Back in the car, Lia asks if I am tired and would like to rest before our dinner. I am exhausted. I had not slept much on the airplane and the excitement of being in a new place accompanied by the anxiousness of being on a new adventure had kept me from sleeping well the previous night. I welcomed the opportunity for a nap before meeting the rest of the family. Back at the hotel, I flop on my bed and asleep before the second bounce.
We are at the table in Lia’s living room. Roberto is sitting next to me and says “Look I have brought something to show to you.” I can see that he has an old brown file folder that you would expect to see when excavating a steamer trunk in someone’s attic. It has completely lost its shape, its edges rounded and bent from use.
He opens the file and pulls out a photograph sepiad with age of two beautiful young women. Their hair, short and pulled back in the style of the day. They are leaning together, their faces almost connecting at their elegant cheekbones. Both have a wisp of a smile; you can tell that something else is lurking just below the surface perhaps sadness or an uncertain future or both. Just by looking that these two love each other very much. The date at the bottom of the photograph reads, in a lovely hand, 1922.
Roberto says “The woman on the right is my grandmother, Sidi and it is your Grandmother on the right” The realization of who this and when it was taken gives me a freezeframe moment where the world stop around me and I wrapped in a cocoon of my own thoughts.
There is no doubt that it is my grandmother even though my memories of her come only after time and the harshness of the world had worn at her. It is same kind eyes. It is the same face. I flash to memories of her hugs which were always warm, soft and generous and full of a love that would forgive anything. Of birthday cards full of quarters, and of the matzoh ball soup and Wiener Schnitzel with cucumber salad she would make for us whenever visited. Of her smell earthy and real. I think of how she always called me “mein Paulschin” and how when something bad we happen she would say “Guttesvillen”. I think of the “Stern”Magazines my father used to buy for her and how she liked to sip a little “Cherry Herring” to help her sleep.
I remembered a time when I thought I would have children how I was wanted to call my little girl Jeni hoping she would grow up as sweet and kind as her.
I think of a meadow in Farafeld near the local train station which was really nothing more than a shack. It is a warm spring morning and the field in which we are walking is in bloom, full of yellow flower. It is laced with small creeks that glitter in the sunlight. We were here because as a boy my father had been sent here to escaped the heat of the Viennese Streets and spend time with his grandmother. He tells me that when he heard a train blow its whistle he could always tell whether or not his mother was on the train. How at the time he thought he was psychic. I share with him my own story. How the winter of my senior year I had loss the ring the garnet rings of Grandpas he had given me. That I was so scared to tell him that I used to hide my hand when we were together. How one I had a dream in which Jeni had told me where I could find the ring. When I awoke that morning I had checked the place my grandmother had revealed and found the ring. I had been basking in the glow of finding the ring for only a few moments when the phone rang. It was my brother bearing bad news. Jeni had passed away. In that field in Farafeld I told my father it was not him or I that was psychic, it was Jeni.
I realized that from the date on this photograph it must have been taken shortly before Sidi had immigrated to Brazil. I have no doubt that this photograph was taken so that the two sisters would have a keep sake of each other as they were to live a third of a world apart. I have no doubt that both sensed that after Sidi left they would never see each other again. The world was a far bigger place in 1922. No technology or jets to make it smaller. I wondered what at that moment how they envisioned their future? Could she envision the blessings and madness to come.
In 1922 she was years away from meeting my Grandfater. My father, not even a gleam in her eye.
Could she foresee that he world would be turned upside down a by a former army corporal turned convict turned supreme leader. That before it was over almost her entire family and most of the world she knew would be destroyed and lost forever and she living in the Americas although separated by a third of the world from her Sidi.
I am sure that she could not foresee all that. I am sure that at the time all she could focus on was the nearness of her sister now and how that would soon be taken away from her.
Roberto was saying something and I broke free from my thoughts and I said “I am sorry. I missed that. What did you say?”
“Your grandmother and my grandmother, they write to each other all of the time. I have some of the letters and the photos they sent to each other. Here,” he said pointing at the folder I will show you.”
I reply “I guess I knew that they wrote each other but until I saw this photograph, I never realized how much they must have missed each other ….but it helps me understand somethings my father and I talked about.
Roberto looks at me inquiringly and I respond “My father once told me that he offered to send my Grandmother to Brazil many times and she would always refuse. When he would ask her why she didn’t want to go she would say “It was too hard to say good bye the first time, I couldn’t say good bye to her again.” Looking at this photograph I totally understand that feeling.
The next picture he pulled out was of a man with a long face, a mustache that did not quite reach the end of his lips, and who had lost much of his hair. There is a faint smile on his face the laugh lines around his face revelingvthat this was a man who liked to laugh. It was easy imaging him telling a joke. Roberto said “Do you know who this is?” when I replied that I did not he said “This is our grandmother’s brother, Ede.”
I flashed to a graveyard in Sopron, Hungary. At my request, my father and I have been on a journey to trace his roots. We had come to Sopron because it was the town in which his mother had been born and he had visited frequently as a child. That morning, despite the fact that my father had been sick with a stomach ailment, he had insisted we find the Jewish cemetery in town. It was challenge. We had gone over hill and dale, down one street and the next looking for this place. With no GPS and no Hungarian language skills we had gotten lost countless times and were on the verge of giving up when we stumbled onto the graveyard.
The cemetery was a mess. There were overturned gravestones and overgrown plots but somehow it had managed to preserve its dignity and beauty. I have a vivid memory of my father walking down one of the tree lined paths. It is sunny and with the trees casting shade on many of the graves. From his posture you can tell he is a man on a mission. He is followed by a black and white dog whom seems eager to provide assistance should he need it.
The dog it turns out belongs to the graveyard caretakers, three young Hungarian rockers….punks…who lived for free in an apartment in the cemetery in exchange for looking after the place. When we told them what we were looking for them they fanned out through the place looking for the grave we had been looking for. Eventually, one of them finds it.
Although the edges white stone of the monument are tinged with the grey of time and pollution, the grave is one of the best kept in the graveyard. The monument simply states his name “Hess Ede” and his dates 1896 – 1968. My father and I stare at the grave for a while and I can tell that he is recounting moments his childhood that I will never be able to access. I recall saying a prayer for Ede and thinking while I never knew him I wish that I had. After a while we place a rock on his headstone and make our way quietly out of the cemetery.
Later in the car I ask him how have gotten to be nearly a half century old and know nothing about Ede. It is not said accusationally. It is expression of disbelief in my ignorance. He tells me that he remembers a jolly man. Someone who loved to dance and enjoy himself. That when he would visit Sopron with his mother that Ede’s sons and he would take place in secret “Zionist exercises” in the woods near the town. He can’t quite recall how his Uncle survived the war but he knew that his first wife, Helen…the best pastry chef my father has ever known was transported and murdered at Auschwitz. That after the war he remarried and drove a bus and that his sons had immigrated to Israel.
I say to Roberto “This is the first photograph I have ever seen of Ede. I have been to his grave but I have never seen him.” As if to cure me of my fifty five years of ignorance he proceeds to pull more pictures of Ede out of his magic file folder.
One shows Ede and his son in a formal portrait both solemn with their face at angle looking as if they should have a flag waving behind them and their hearts crossing the check. I ask Roberto the name of Ede’s son and he tells me he can’t remember.
There is a picture of Ede in front of one of buses he drove and ask Roberto if this is where he gained his love of Winnebago and he laughs and pats me on the shoulder and says “Perhaps.”
Another picture shows Ede in a restaurant in front of all things a Christmas Tree having a bowl of soup. I point the tree out to Roberto and all he does is raise an eyebrow signaling to me he does not understand it either.
He then shows me a photograph that is very worn and faded. At the bottom of the photograph it says Bruckner on one side and Sopron on the other side with a small coat of arms. The man in the photograph is quite natty. He has short hair and a van dyke beard. He is wearing a dark cravat, with a wing collar and a suit that buttons high with short narrow lapels. It is clearly from the latter part of the 19th century. When I look at Roberto enquiringly he says “This is our Grandmother’s father. “
I have had a fascination with this man for a long time. As I have heard the stories, he was man who had 13 children with 3 wives. But he died when my grandmother was very young, and his wife like the old lady and the shoe who had so many children she did not know what to do, had to parcel out some of the children including Jeni. That is how my grandmother came to live with her mother’s sister Josefine or Pepi in Farafeld. My father adored Pepi and would always refer to her as his Grandmother.
I have never understood how a man could go through so many wives….wouldn’t the trauma of losing one or two be enough to put you off marriage for at least a while and to have so many children that you cannot afford them…..I know that my prejudices are based in the second half of the twentieth century and that my Great Grandfather lived in the second half of the nineteenth . I know at the time romantic love was often reserved for the rich and in most cases was neither practical nor advisable. I also know birth control was not something most people practiced and that often having many children was the only way that ensures that at least a few would survive but I cannot imagine having so many you can afford them.
At the end of the day though, Great Grandfather showed a better understanding of the world than me. Of his thirteen children only 3 managed to survive the war. If he had less children there would be no me.
Roberto then shows me a collection of photographs that had they been named by AA Milne would have been titled “When We Are Were Very Young.” It is a collection of photographs that shows the very early beginnings of my parent’s life together.
One shows my mother in her wedding dress looking elegant and beautiful. She is only 22. My father is looking at her with an adoration that all newly minted husbands should look at their wives. I know from the stories that they have told that this day was very hot…family myth has it that it was so hot that my father sweated through his new blue suit…but in this picture they look cool and calm and collected.
Another shows my grandparents on that same day. Marcus is wearing a new suit and shoes and stares into the camera as if he is the cat who just ate the canary. What a journey he had so far from Polish stetytl to Siberian Prisoner of War camp to his son’s wedding on Park Avenue in the capital of the world. My grandmother looks more pensive, as if she is worrying about something or thinking about some far away time and place. Perhaps she was thinking of her own wedding day, pregnant with my father, a new dress and gloves courtesy of my Grandfather. Was she reflecting on their journey as well?
There are many pictures of my brother David and I as infants and toddlers. One shows my brother wearing his lunch, fingers, face and clothes covered with whatever he was eating. He looks quite pleased with himself. Another shows him stealing my teddy bear and me seemingly happy with the theft. I am particularly delighted with an image that shows me age 2 ish in animated conversation with my Teddy Bear whom listensas if he understands every word.
There are so many of us as children that Roberto is speeding through them one after another but I stop him when he comes to a photo that I have not only never seen but I am having a hard time placing. It shows my father and grandfather each holding my brothers arm while he sits on Jeni’s shoulder. David is trying to break free of their grip and looks unhappy. My grandmother is smiling and looks as if she is about to giggle. My mother is certainly behind the lens of the camera.
Looking at the picture I realize that this picture has to have been shot in the backyard in Denver probably during the summer of 1956.
I am sitting in a hospital room in Berkley Heights NJ. My father is here reccovering from surgery on his neck and various other maladies they have come as a consequence of his hospitalization. For some reason we are talking about my parents move to Denver where I was to be born. He tells me that he had gone on to Denver by himself while David and my mother went to New York to visit with her parents. He recalls that he would work all day long and then spend his evenings looking for a house for his new family to live in. He recounts how it was a very lonely time had been for him…missing his infant son and wife and when he found the house in Cherry Creek he couldn’t wait to call my mother and tell her to get on the next plane to Denver. He tells me that he will never forget the first sight of them getting off the plane and how it filled with him a joy that he didn’t know he possessed. As he tells me this his voices gets deep with emotion and he wells up.
Curious I ask him what month this all takes place in. He tells me that he is sure that my mother and brother came just after the July 4th holiday. Counting back on my fingers realize that this joyous reunion resulted in my conception.
The picture I am looking at now has very likely been taken within a few days of my creation.
Roberto hands me a photograph of my brother and I, ages 7 and 8, standing with my Grandmother on her porch on Delay Street in Danbury. The picture is dated, in my mother’s near perfect penmanship, November ’64 and it is cold out and we are all wearing coats. David and I both have comics in our hands that we no doubt got 2 for quarter at the Kresges part of the bonus of visiting our grandparents. But there is a look of grief on Jeni’s face and I realize that it must have been taken shortly after my grandfathers death.
I have so many memories of that house, both good and bad, and at the sight of the photograph they seep into my brain like water into a dry sponge, plumping my memory with thoughts long since forgotten.
I see my grandmother in the kitchen of this house. There is an old white stove with a large blue can of Crisco sitting on its control panel. There is a pot of Matzo Ball soup on the stove waiting to be served and she is frying Wiener Schitzel that she will serve to us with a cucumber salad that is sour and sweet and delicious. She serves it to us on plain plates and glasses she has won at the Danbury State Fair. Above the table there is ceiling lamp that has a chain pull to turn it on and off. The end of the chain pull is a red weight that resembles a stop light. I loved the kitchen and the hugs my grandmother gave me while she cooked.
I have an image of my grandfather in the parking lot behind their house. He has a stick in his hand that has a nail at the end. He is patrolling the parking lot for litter and when he sees it he spears in it and places it a messenger like bag that he has slung over his shoulder. I can remember being so embarrassed at the time that my grandfather was so poor that he had to collect trash. It would be years before I understood the life Marcus had lived and how really impressive it was that he managed to make it as far as he had.
When we would come to town it went without saying that my Uncle Max, my grandfather’s brother, would come to visit. Like my grandfather he was compact man with a wet gravelly voice from years of smoking way too much. Unlike my grandfather he had come to the United States as a young man, just before the outbreak of the first world war, and after a time had started a successful liquor store. He was in large part responsible for my father and parents to have made it to this country before they were swept from the face of the earth. But I remember most was his pleasure on seeing us. We were his only living blood relatives and as small children he would delight us by showing us how his diamond pink ring would make light dance across the room.
On almost every visit, my grandmother would insist on taking us to the Buster Brown shoe store on Main Street. There, are feet would be measured, and a new pair of brown lace up shoes would be fitted…a thumb placed in front of your toes to make sure you had room to grow, and where we would be asked to walk up and down the aisle of store to make sure they were comfortable. I remember loving the picture of Buster Brown and his dog Tyge that were in the heel of each shoe.
By the time I met my grandfather, life had taken a great toll on him. He had fought in the war of wars and been captured and sent to Siberia for 7 long years. He had lost a wife, a woman he cared for at least enough to name my father after her. He worked long hours in abattoir taking unused animal parts and turning them into brushes. He was arrested on Kyrstallnacht and thrown into a cell so small that the men had to stand up to sleep… an incident in his life so terrible he never wished to talk of it. When he came to America he had to work hard making hats in a factory. A job that I am sure gave him no great satisfaction from life. He never learned to speak English well and must have felt like a stranger in a strange land. I don’t recall him ever speaking to me directly…he always used my grandmother and father as interpreters.
He was very intimidating to a small boy. And his presence scared me and as much as I lived for my Grandmother’s hugs I shied away from him. The thought of this embarrasses me as an adult but it is completely logical to the six-year-old that I was and the memory of him lurks in the picture Roberto is showing me.
By now I am a little punch drunk with the pictures my cousin is showing me. Each new photograph seems to be a jab at the body of my emotions. If I were in the ring, I would be clutching my opponent hoping the bell would sound at any second. But I am not in the ring and I have no way of asking Roberto to stop the onslaught of photographs.
Had this been a prize fight the next photograph would have been the knockout blow.
The image Roberto has laid in front of me is of an officer in the United States Army. He looks vaguely Slavic with high cheekbones and half moon face and is far more boy than man. His hair is cropped short and brushed back making his ears appear slightly too large for his head. His peak cap is at a jaunty angle and bears the single bar of a freshly minted lieutenant. His smile is relaxed and confident, the horror of the war he is about to enter ahead of him not behind. You can tell from his posture that he is proud and confident of his abilities.
It is a picture of my father that I have never seen and the sight of it and the understanding of what it is and when it was taken overwhelm me and without any warning I gasp a little and let out a sob. Roberto puts his hand gently and kindly on my shoulders to comfort me. Lia brings me Kleenex so that I can wipe away the snot that is now dripping from my nose.
I am embarrassed by this emotional outburst in front of these cousins that I barely know and I want to explain to them why it is that I have reacted to this picture in the way that I have. But I can’t not only because I am finding it hard to get words past the massive lump that has developed in my throat but because it goes far beyond a single sentence or even a paragraph.
Nearly two years ago my father fell in his bedroom injuring his neck and causing weakness and paralysis. A subsequent operation stabilized his neck but his rehabilitation has proven far more challenging that his original condition. His catheterization has caused numerous infections and massive consumptions of antibiotics which have caused more infections than I can count. I have seen him make numerous strides in his physical rehab only to slide backward when infection has overtaken him. I have seen his temperature spike and listen to him hallucinate when he had an allergic reaction to the medication he was taken. I have seen him lose hope and let frustration get the better of him and I have seen him find the strength and the will to carry on.
Despite all this. Despite his decline in health, despite being confined in a wheel chair for nearly two years, despite his occasional irascibility, his courage has always been front and center and a clear example how to deal with the shit hand life sometimes hands you.
I see this photograph of my father. He is so young. So willing to take on the world’s fight and I clearly see the warrior that lies within him now and begs to be set free. I see the man I have always known and the man that I have tried to discover on the journey’s we have taken together.
It is a mild spring day and my father and I are sitting in a café in Vienna at 48 Offakringstrasse. It is the building my father spent the first 14 years of his life. He is looking debonair wearing his signature Ray Ban Aviator glasses and tan safari jacket. We have come to Vienna at my request because I am fascinated by his “back-story”.
Born into the working poor of Vienna he suffered through the rise of the Nazi party. On Krystalnacht, weeks before he was to become a bar mitzvah they burned his temple and arrested his father. After being denied access to his school and running the streets for the better of a year and a failed attempt to immigrate to Israel he and his family escaped to the United States. He learned English by watching Ronald Coleman films and reading the dictionary. He excelled in school and eventually made it to Syracuse University where in the spring of 1944 he was drafted. By December he was in the Italian theatre, a shave tail lieutenant with the 88th infantry division 913 Artillery.
It took almost a year from the time the war ended until he made it back to Vienna even though he was headquartered only a few hundred miles away in the Italian Tyrol. SNAFU’s and different theatre of wars had conspired against the journey but I had always wondered what that trip must have been like for him? What must have been like to flee a place fearing for your life only to return a short 6 years later as an officer in the conquering army? To leave as a child and come back as a man…to search for all of those he had loved and to find that they had been swallowed up in Hitlers horrors.
That afternoon we walked around his neighborhood. He has shown me where his temple was before it burnt down….where he played soccer with his friends before he was not allowed to anymore. Where his cousin Litzi lived and where he went to school before he could not. He has told me stories about an evil land lady who would be vile to the Jewish tenants of her building and especially vile to their children. I have learned of his gang that he would run the streets with and how in an effort to defend himself he had bought a pellet gun that his mother made him return. Of his desire to immigrate to Israel and become Zaki ben Mordecai and of how his mother and other women in their building would take on sewing piece work to earn money.
I can tell it has been an emotional day for him evoking echoes of a world whose music has long since faded and while I don’t want to open any old wounds I am obsessed with what his return to Vienna was like for him.
Taking a sip of my beer, I let my curiosity get the better of me and ask “Did you come back here to this building when you returned to Vienna.”
Trying to imagine the scene in my head I ask “Wasn’t it military regulations at the time that if you were a visiting officer you were required to wear your class A uniform?”
“So when you came back here was there anybody left?”
My father shakes his head and says “no.”
Thinking about it I ask “Was the awful wife of the superintendent here?”
He says “yes”
I say “So there you were, grown six inches, wearing the uniform of United States Army Officer, did she recognize you?”
He replies simply “yes.”
I ask him “How did she react to seeing you?”
He pauses before answering and then says quietly “She was scared.”
I wonder so I ask “How did it make you feel?”
He looks away not wanting to catch my eye and then says “Good” and then changes the subject.
Now I am seeing, for the first time, what this woman saw. Until this moment I have never seen a picture of Lt. Ernst Rothkopf before. He has only existed in my imagination. But instead of feeling fear I feel love. And, instead of seeing a conqueror, I see a hero, a member of the greatest generation, a person who like many of his time saved the world and created a new one so his children could live without the burdens that were placed in from of them. I see the hero that only a son can see. A hero that has shown courage every day for the last two years. It is only years later that I learn the timing of the story is different and that my father’s war time experience is shadowed in a secrecy so deep that even on his death bed he will not share it.
Roberto pats me on the shoulder and I hand the photograph back to him and he says “Lets go to dinner.” So we do
Much later I am back in my hotel room. The room is dark the only light the faint glow from my computer on a desk across the room. I am lying on the stiff mattress and rough sheets that my hotel features. The room is quiet and there are no sounds except my own thoughts.
I think of Roberto and Lia. Two people who I knew of but didn’t know before today. Family without context or emotion…now they are my brother and my sister…I think about how I can repay them for the kindness and love they have shown me today but quickly realize that it is a debt that cannot be quantified, it is priceless, yet it never needs to be repaid because we are family which is yet another gift they have given to me.
I think of my Grandmother and her sister Sidi. How they created a collage of their life apart through photographs and letters. How they saw their families grow sharing the moments that meant the most to them…of soldiers going off to war…of weddings and new families created from the ashes of the past…I think of their last photograph together and all it said of the love between these sisters.
I think of a bond so strong and a love so deep they chose never to see each other again. Each when offered an opportunity to visit each other declined for the same reason. That the first parting had been so wrenching they could not bear to go through it again.
I think of how the world has changed since my Grandmother and her sister said good bye to each other 80 years ago. For them to communicate with each other was not the simple task it is today where can just turn on a computer and within seconds be seeing each other where ever you happen to be in the world. For them communication took a commitment of time and of effort. Pictures needed to be taken, developed and printed. Letters need to be handwritten and thought through. Stamps needed to be bought and the post office visited. Then the long wait for a reply.
I am old enough to remember what waiting for a letter was like. The crushing disappointment when that days mail brought you nothing bills. The excitement and exhilaration one felt when the letter you had been hoping for finally arrived. I wonder what it is better, today’s instantaneous conversations or the more elegant, letters of day gone by. I can think of positives and negatives on both sides but in the end my thoughts turn to Jeni and Sidi.
I think of the love that they had for each other. How for most 60 years they waited by their mailbox’s for word from one each other. How they shared the triumphs of their families and the losses that they both must have felt when they found that their family had been swept away by the war. I think of the joy they must have felt when they recognized each other’s handwriting on an envelope and how many times each letter was read over and shared.
I think about two sisters who loved each other so much that they could never see each other again.
When sleep finally comes I dream of family.