Munich was always cold, especially in 1946. We lived in a “lager” – an American Displaced Person’s Camp. A four-story building with large rooms that housed multiple individuals and families – 60 or 70 people to a room; each group divided by hanging dark khaki green Army blankets. Our lack of privacy, with Army folding cots for beds, is where I spent my formative years. The Jews’ Holocaust was over. America had won WWII. Mine was just beginning.
On top of the mountain near the building, the train ran by every night. Even with my eyes closed covered by the dark olive blanket; I could always hear the whistle. Every time I heard the sound, I was afraid – afraid that it would come and take my Papa away. I’d hear them whispering in Yiddish at night when they thought I was sleeping. My American Army cot was only inches away.
By current standards, Papa was small in stature, standing only 5’2” tall. Telly Savalas’ twin brother and only half his height. Though he had all the strength and charm of Kojak. The highest safest place I’ve ever known were his shoulders when I was three and Simchat Torah was taking place autumn of 1948. Outside we walked to a makeshift synagogue down rolling green hills. He held my little legs tight just above my shoes and socks. I felt so warm, loved, and very tall. In my right hand was a white Israeli flag with blue stripes, a blue Star of David, and a little red apple on top of the wooden pole. My left hand clung to his ear and held on to his baldhead for dear life. All together we were over seven feet tall my papa, the flag, and me.
By then the Allies had won the War and Jewish children could walk the icy blood drenched soil of Germany without being carted off in trucks like strays picked up by dog catchers.
By the time I was four, I had my own rabbinical tutor, an old white-haired bearded Orthodox rabbi who taught me Hebrew. The Women’s Liberation Movement wouldn’t come into existence for another twenty years, though it mattered not to my Papa that I was only a girl. He cared only that I love the process of learning, of reading the ancient text. He wanted to make sure that I learned the alphabet of my dead grandparents (who disappeared with a heartbeat when a German bomb exploded their building in the Warsaw Ghetto). He made sure he gave me the gift of going to school; something he dreamed of but never had the chance.
Papa was an expert in the “black market” and came down the hill of our camp in a pale tan Mercedes Benz sedan with sunroof and matching leather seats. We never did find out how he “bought it.” He pulled up along side the building with the sunroof open and me in the back seat, while my other threw wrapped candy from the window above. I can close my eyes and still hear the laughter.
With all the horrors he experienced, I remember him smiling and joyous, always full of stories and singing. Always singing to me: “Avf daem pripichok brent a firerl. In de shteeb is heiz. Un de Rebbe layrent kliene kinderleck daem aleph baze…” – “On the hearth there burns a little fire. In the house it’s warm. And the Rabbi teaches little children their ABCs…”
He told wondrous stories of Sholem Aleichem, the Kabbalah, ghosts and goblins, never about the horrors he had seen in the war. Those he kept inside. And they tormented him always. Some of the happiest memories I have are a devastated, freezing landscape, horrible brushes with illness and death, and a Papa singing away the pain. He saved my life over and over again.
Memories of being put on a train, then on trucks, having socks put in my mouth so the soldiers wouldn’t hear a baby’s cries as we crossed the border crossings, knowing my baby brother would never make it home from the Munich hospital, hearing muffled cries all night, and sleeping next to men and women having sex in the next cot so they could prove they existed. All of that he washed away with his lullabies, all of that and the black numbers etched on the arms of his friends.
Of all the things I’ve been able to achieve since landing in New Orleans in 1951, the one thing I can’t seem to do is return to him the gifts he gave me. He’s closing in on eighty and lives in a tiny two-room apartment with newspapers in stacks three feet high from the floor and a loaded gun under his mattress. He hoards his food, his “stuff” and won’t go to doctors (whom he thinks are still trying to kill him). He hangs up the phone every time one of us calls. And he refuses to open the door when any of his four children come to see him.
So we all stopped calling and coming by to see the Papa who seems to have abandoned his children. Because we wanted to spare him, but mostly ourselves the pain of rejection. We send the traditional cards and often a present. The silence is devastating and the moat keeps getting wider. He makes up stories about who did what to whom and when. We hear about them from acquaintances who run into him at the grocery store. He keeps the hurts close, wrapping the stories around him like a warm blanket to keep him safe from the children who love him.
As if feelings were bullets, he needs to wear a bulletproof vest to keep him safe from the children who remind him of the ones he buried half a world away in Uzbekistan and Germany. Safe from the little girl who wanted desperately to sing away the pain. Who now writes away his pain instead.
For those people who question whether the Holocaust ever happened, I am proof that there is not one, but two Holocausts that always take place. The one that slaughters human beings like cattle and with less compassion; and a second Holocaust each person who survives carries with them every day of their lives. Victims of wars they do not create. Nevertheless, they wake up every day reliving those horrors, then shutting the door on love and kindness, because to risk caring is too great a pain.
Now and then, though I rarely hear a train whistle at night these days, whenever I do the three-year-old inside me still says a little prayer, “ Please dear God, don’t let them come and take my Papa away.”
All rights reserved. ©2009 by Sara Fryd
*I wrote this in 1994 after hearing an evening newscast about the Holocaust deniers. It was published in a local newspaper in Albuquerque, NM in 1995. My Papa died alone a few days before his 88th birthday in 2005. I read this at his funeral. Little did I know in 1994, that I was writing his eulogy.