I jammed my hands to my ears, “Abba, stop. I don’t want to know!”
Can you believe it? God forgive me but I couldn’t stand those tales of his past and that serial number scorched onto his forearm, branding him as a Jewish pig. It was a smear of shame, of weakness. Why didn’t he fight, how could he just accept it? The degradation, inhumane conditions, torture, day after day, punished, why? Standing feeble as one by one, those he loved, his brothers, sisters, parents, were slaughtered, and he, all the time wondering when his turn would come. He punished himself because he survived and they didn’t, as if the fault was his. Often, he would break down in tears, anything could start him off, something he read in the papers, or a date; 18th September – his brother, Moishe’s, birthday, 23rd January – his sister’s birthday. He said she would be, oh I don’t remember how old, and anyway what does it matter now?
In the Great Allenby Synagogue he scanned faces in the congregation, seeking out, always searching, for long lost family members who may, by some slim chance, have escaped war-torn Poland, coming over on one of the illegal transports to Palestine, as he’d done. He would put down his siddur for a moment, remove his glasses, wipe a tear from his eyes with his cotton handkerchief and then letting out a sigh, he would recompose himself and continue davening.
Abba loved to pray, and always he was thanking God. He thanked God for everything, for the sun, for the rain – when he lost his glasses and found them again; he would say ‘oy Gott zedanken’ (thank God). Give him a cup of tea, he thanked you and he thanked God. He said it was his faith that kept him going all those years. Oh, but how he wept. Some nights I would lay awake in my bed and listen to him, blubbering and snivelling like a child when nightmares pierced his sleep. Imma always knew how to soothe him, what to do, what to say. She would hold him to her and stroke his head. It irritated me you know, made me feel awkward, that my father, a grown man, should cry. I really believed then that it was a sign of weakness. You know, men don’t cry and all that.
I was a man ever since I was a child. Never one to show my feelings, well you didn’t in those days. In the sixties and seventies, we were hard, we fought. We, the Sabras with fire in our bellies. Born of the seed of a tormented generation, we were determined by those words – Never Again! We were invincible, believing that we tough guys would not have taken that shit. We talked about it in the army, sat round in the camp mess room in the evening, splitting sunflower seeds with our teeth and chewing over the what ifs and if onlys after harsh days defending ourselves and the future of our young State. Outnumbered though we were on all sides, and by God we were, we ran those bastards into the ground. We discussed how, had we been alive, we would have outrun those Nazis too, there would have been no concentration camps, no Holocaust. We, tough commandos of the IDF, would puff out our chests and say “How could they not fight? What possessed them to lose their dignity?” You know what? We were ashamed of our parents – our own parents! Well, we were young, but I tell you – I truly believed that, so did my friends. Yes, we thought we knew it all. What did we know?
Once when my sister and I grappled each other to the floor, screaming that we want to kill each other – we were kids for goodness sake – Abba went berserk, flinging us both to different corners of the room and screaming at the top of his voice. ‘Avraymi, Rocheli, stop it, stop it this minute! Did Ha Shem spare me that I have to witness my own kinder killing each other?’ We’d never seen him like that before. We just sat there dumbstruck, our gentle father lost his cool – the fear in his eyes, like he thought we really would? But you know, we were a product of the times, Israel was so young then, to survive was to fight, and fight we did – arm to arm, face to face. In active combat through two wars I saw legs blown off, dragged the bodies of childhood friends through the sand when I could hardly stand up myself. I looked death in the face, stuck two fingers up at it and carried on. I didn’t flinch once. You never saw me shed a tear, not one tiny drop – not then.
Oh but Abba was such a nudnik! At the ceremony when I was promoted to Captain, he stood up on his chair and shouted to the crowd ‘dat’s mine zohn, mine yeled. Avraymi, look everybody – vot a hero he is!’ That was embarrassing. Imma was tugging at his suit jacket for him to shut up. And boy could he fuss! He prayed for Israel’s victory and he prayed for my safe return from the war. Ha Shem answered his prayers when I walked back into the house. He shouted ‘oy Gott zedanken,’ and flung his arms round me, unlacing my boots, shlepping my sweaty socks off, almost kissing my feet in reverence. He pushed me down into the chair and told Imma to bring on the chopped liver and chicken soup for his brave warrior. He would say ‘Nu Avraymili – so vot did you do? I vant to know everything. Did you give those mamzers hell? Of course you did! Now eat, then shloff. You need your strength.’ He held my face in his hands and looked into my eyes. ‘You are such a guttenashomer, so brave, he said, kissing me on top of my head – he was always kissing me.
Then Abba got sick, I was just out of the army, we worked together in his iron yard. He yelled orders at me and I did the donkeywork. I watched him as he lay there on the hospital bed, attached to monitors. His chest shuddered and sank as his amplified heartbeat laboured under the strain of the massive coronary attack. The doctor just moments before had been on the receiving end of my frustration – I’d screamed at him, called him all the names under the sun, and made him swear that my father would recover, but he stood impassive and told me quite coolly that he had done all he could for Abba, and there wasn’t much time left for him. Imma sat by his bed and I sat on the other side holding Abba’s bony hand in mine. He struggled his fingers free, removed the oxygen mask. ‘Avraymi, mine yeled,’ he said through rasping breaths, Imma said to him that he must not tax himself, ‘ach tax, shmax! No Bluma, he has to know.’ He turned his gaze on me. ‘Avraymi, this time you vill listen.’ Calm down Abba I said but no, he was unstoppable, determined to out the demons that haunted him still.
‘You think I vos weak? Ach! Now I am weak, I got to admit it, but then? Then I vos strong, I survived. Vot I saw, even ze devil himself vud hide from. Your savta, mine mutter, she called to me over the court yard. Naked, she vas, mine own beautiful mutter without her fine furs and ruffles and the pearls your grandfather gave her, without the pretty curls I loved to wind my fingers through when I was little. She stood in the freezing cold, a bitter chill you will never ever know, mine zohn, and she said ‘Shulem, be brave, look after your brother,’ – so composed, such dignity – you vud have thought she vos going shopping – and then she vas gone. A line of naked women – mutters, sisters, aunties, shivering, clutching each other round bony waists, they just disappeared – into the ashes. Oh I knew vot they had planned for her. I’d seen the black smoke, the stench. Shower? Pah! It vasn’t new to me. I’d shovelled bodies into the pit many times. I stood and stared, but they whipped me, so I picked up the spade and carried on digging. Can you ever know vot vent through mine mind? Mine little brudder, Moishe, ran towards her, they shot him on the spot. Oy Gott zedanken, she didn’t see that. She’d already gone inside.’
‘How many times you stopped me, you said to me ‘Abba I don’t vont to know?’ Avraymi – You have to know. I vos once a man, a strong man, mine yeled, brave just like you and I also thought I could change the world but the world changed me.’
Twenty minutes, maybe more, he spoke. I squirmed in the chair.
‘Over mine dead body, you vill understand how it vas, that even Hashem couldn’t help.’ He placed his hand on my cheek to wipe away tears that fell unashamedly from my eyes. ‘Now I can go, now I see my son cry. Now Avraymili – you are a man.’
I stared at the monitor, the peeks and troughs of the green line flattened to one single ominous streak, signalling his last breath. Flat lining they call it. Abba was dead, and it was wrong I tell you – so wrong that he should have died then. I needed five more minutes, that’s all. I kissed both his eyelids. “Shalom Abba.” I said, and hugged my mother, and we wept.
You see this? Yes, I kept it all these years – hardly big enough to fit a child let alone a grown man. My wife says I should donate it to Yad Vashem but what’s the point – they have so many. Feel how course it is. Feel it. Could you wear that? See the number stitched there – it’s the same one they branded onto his forearm. Shoes? What shoes? He shlepped in his bare feet, in snow and ice, on this transport, on that transport, not looking up, not looking down, not daring to wonder where to next. Naked, whipped, spat at, scorned upon and starved. Five in a row they marched, walking miles, miles I tell you. You see that piece of string there? Abba used that to tie his bowl round his waist, he said it was most important piece of kit – you see – no bowl, no soup, and if you didn’t keep the bowl with you at all times then someone would surely steal it. And I, God forgive me, used to think he was weak?
When I was a kid, growing up in Bilu Street in Tel Aviv, our dining room table groaned under the weight of food. Imma cooked and cooked, it being her sole intention that we should never go hungry. He got real mad if I refused to eat, ‘you hear that, Immalli, your little boy don’t vant to eat, ven I vas his age I vud kill for half a piece of fershtunken old bread, and your boy turns his nose up at this feast?’ I can hear him say it now, such sarcasm! Then he would turn to me and say ‘you vont that we should let you starve? Is it not enough that I did – now eat!’ and I ate.
On Shabbos, he shlepped me to shul – me and my sister, all dressed up in stiff pants, when all I wanted to do was play ball with my friends. He clipped me round the head if he caught me not wearing my kippah, and despaired of me when I pronounced that I didn’t believe in God. ‘Oy Gevalt’ he would say. Imma told him to take no notice. She said I was just testing him – to see how far I could go. She got that right – I was.
It was only later, much later, when my wife, Tricia, questioned me on my Abba’s stories. She wanted to know everything, ‘Tell me more,’ she said, always, she wanted to know more and more.
But I hadn’t given Abba the five minutes, that five minutes more that he wanted to out the demons that visited him until his dying day. Five lousy minutes. I regret that. I really do.
© Tricia Schwitzer