By: Chris Calcara
We recognize moments when we know that something awful is about to happen, and nevertheless hope a miracle will intervene. There follows a paralyzing pause and then, the inescapable wallop.
We met the day my El Camino collided with her long white boat of a Cadillac, the pavement under my balding tires dangerously slick from the previous day’s snowfall and overnight freeze. She was the first to emerge from our cars, coat flapping in the wind, exposing herself to frost, no scarf protecting her head, no mittens sheathing her hands. It was the brilliant burst of color, a bilious shade between green and orange from a filthy apron clinging to her midsection that cured my temporary snow blindness.
After shuttling Jacob to school, I was running late on my first day of a wallpapering job. We had detoured from our generally joyless journey for sledding on life-affirming Suicide Hill. Is it not our natures, when we feel remorseful, to hide behind amusements when it’s atonement that we seek? New to single parenthood, I had yet to find peace with the custody of our son divided, Solomon-style, between bickering penitents.
Her big dirty barge idled in front of me as we approached a crossroads with a yield sign. I wasn’t attentive to the weather or road conditions, but about the work I was to do, wondering if the home where I would be a guest for the next several days was a happy one. Would it contain a constant husband and wife and well-adjusted children? Would its family be kind and patient, for I was more meticulous than fast? Would the house be comfortable or would they close the vents in that room to save money because only the peculiar paperhanger would be using it?
Pumping the brake pedal, I cursed the El Camino to stop in its icy tracks as if it were a headstrong horse that could understand me. It bolted.
Having lost a well-paying corporate position, unable to find another, I was traveling an unfamiliar road of my own until the economy improved. It was in one of its depressing downturns, a “temporary recession” they called it. My ex and I had a problematic marriage, money a permanent thorn, my “underemployed” status and “lack of ambition” the final straws. It was then my dim view that the discontented mother of my child was dead to me.
With stringy white hair gathered by a hundred bobby pins in a woozy nest, a flabby overweight body supported by thick Lincoln logs for legs, giant sagging breasts, a pot belly and no detectable waist, it was this other woman who would beguile me.
An accountant, I preferred for a change to work with my hands, losing myself in the labor, not calculating lifeless digits, countless injustices, catastrophes, divorces or recessions, focusing instead on the finite path of paint from a soft bristled brush. On serpentine lengths of screen-printed paper that had to be hung plumb and butt properly. On those who would occupy the reborn rooms and how my efforts would cheer them, resurrect them.
She seemed coarse, her sallow face puffy and pockmarked, from a childhood bout of German measles perhaps, or smallpox. The sparkle in her tired blue eyes both terrorized and toyed.
Sliding from my car to examine the damage, my sight riveted on the booted Cossack stomping toward me. Her expression showed no fright or panic or feminine confusion, anger written clearly on the foreboding twist of her mouth. I anticipated her swearing at me or worse, punching me, like a man in her position might.
She looked me up and down, appraising her enemy, entered the tight space between our cars, which bounced off each other upon impact, and yelled in Slavic undertones, “Look what you did.”
I searched frantically for the right words, then blurted the wrong ones. “I know. I’m sorry.” Was I admitting culpability, adding yet more guilt to my mounting rap sheet? Should we call the cops? Our lawyers? Please, no more lawyers.
Tenderly, she caressed her broken bumper as if it were attached to her own body and jiggled it loosely to show me the destruction I caused. There was a yard-long gash across the Cadillac’s trunk, and the Camino’s yellow gold paint, like the streak down my back, ran the telltale length of it.
“This will cost money to have feexed,” she scolded. “You have eensurance?”
I did not. With a budget as tight as my belt, I had to cut expenses somewhere. I would not deprive Jacob in order to purchase things I could get away without having for myself. “Yes, I have insurance,” I lied, “but I will pay you out of my pocket.”
She seemed to comprehend my hidden meaning although the knotted thread did not please her. She sized me up again and threw the fear of God into me this time.
“Who are you? Where do you live? Do you have document to drive?”
I withdrew my wallet, removed the laminated license. From the apron’s pouch, she took a pen and pad of lined paper, a waitress’s order tablet, and copied my name and address.
“Is this current?” she asked in perfect English, sounding every bit the stern immigration agent and not the wet-behind-the ears immigrant unschooled in American vehicular jurisprudence.
Dodging stares of passersby, I surveyed the devastation to my car. Its silvery fender was dented but had not come loose from its moorings as hers had. There were deep scratches to the hood and one of the headlights was busted.
“What is phone number?”
Anxiety mounting, I provided the information and then asked meekly for hers. She handed me a business card advertising a local bakery and delicatessen.
Pointing to the card, “Go there and you will find me.” She kicked a tire, declaring her automobile scrap. “I will take car to repair shop. You will pay.”
“I will. I promise. Thank you,” I said, sincerely grateful that we were going to handle this between the two of us rather than involving policepersons, barristers or fictitious insurance companies.
“And if you do not come, I will come to you, young man.” This was no empty threat.
“I will come…I don’t know your name.”
She skulked back to her car, wagging a finger in my direction like a rabid dog lifting its leg.
I completed the neighborhood job, paid a few bills and was close to broke. In my lonely apartment one afternoon contemplating my dreary state of affairs and conjuring up both straight and crooked ways to attract prosperity, the phone rang.
“Mr. Tom,” she called me in that distinctive tone, not knowing how or not caring to pronounce my last name, or possibly out of some kind of polite European consideration. “This is lady whose car you wreck. I have repair estimate.”
I said nothing.
“Are you there, Mr. Tom?”
“Yes, I’m here,” I said, unsure what my next move would be when she recited the figure I could not pay.
“Three hundred sixty nine dollars.”
Mea maxima culpa.
“When will you come, Mr. Tom?”
“I’ll come tomorrow.”
“You will bring money with you?”
“I’ll come tomorrow.”
She hung up without saying goodbye. Another European custom?
On other occasions I had been to the deli where she worked. A wonderful Judaic business founded in the early 1900s by a man named Isadore, it was now unorthodox and famous for its fresh meats, cheeses and baked goods. Favorites of mine were their reubens and the lox and bagels. Nothing was inexpensive, but when we splurged, their delicacies delighted us. Jacob loved the many varieties of cookies, like the Rugelach twists with their syrupy honey and crunchy almonds.
The bakery was near a busy intersection but buried upright beside a graveyard, in view of its sales office and display of sample tombstones erected on the more accessible adjacent parcel that confronted the main drag. From the side street less-traveled, one entered the deli’s parking lot and front door, placed so as to accommodate the ever-growing business of death. I waited in the car a moment, sweating, formulating in my mind what I would say. Surely she could appreciate my situation. I wasn’t trying to stiff her. I came, after all.
From previous visits, I recollected the portly old man behind the counter. He was talking to a gentleman customer in what I presumed to be Yiddish. By their hushed voices and veiled laughter, it had to be a ribald joke they were sharing. Unless they were talking about me, the perspiring Gentile. The old man acknowledged me with a nod but gave a minute before asking to help.
Then, through a swinging door, she dominated the space.
“Hello, Mr. Tom,” she said as if greeting a long-time patron. But she wasn’t smiling.
“Hello, ma’am,” I said, shuffling my weight from one cold foot to the other.
She looked conspiratorially to the old man who responded with a knowing glance. Shedding the stippled apron, she came around the display cases and invited me to sit at an out-of-the-way table by the window. You could see the Camino from there.
“You have not repaired your own car,” she observed.
“Ma’am, it’s like this,” I began. “I don’t have the entire amount.” A dark funnel tormented the bucolic terrain of her face. But I went on, “Can I pay you in installments?”
Raising a whirlwind of a fuss with her hands, “What’s this—eenstallments? I have to pay for car with American dollars. This is America, Mr. Tom.”
It was then I saw the five faint numbers on her left forearm. She made no effort to hide them by unfurling the rolled-up sleeve of her uniform. Stunned for several seconds, a spate of peace possessed me and I began to uncoil, my own twister of nerves dispelled.
“I’m listening, Mr. Tom.”
“I’m going to pay you, ma’am…”
She stopped me mid-sentence. “My name is Bronya.”
“You’ll get what I owe you, Bronya. It’s just going to take some time. You see, my wife and I have recently divorced, I’ve lost my job, working for myself, having a hard time making ends meet.”
She looked me squarely in the eyes but it was in hers that I saw her heart and its ache, so it was not without empathy that she said, “Everybody has troubles, Mr. Tom. When will you pay to feex my car?”
“I can give you a hundred dollars next Friday and then more each week until it’s paid off.”
She peered out the window, sun reposing on the unvisited granite slabs in the cemetery’s showroom lot, thawing the frozen fabricated names and enigmatic epitaphs etched into them, then at the Camino with its gleaming battered chrome, finally to my face. She squinted against the offending reflections, raised an arm from her lap and extended it in my wincing direction. I thought again that she might slap me or slam her fist against the table, demanding her pound of flesh, but she took a paper napkin from its holder and wiped a smudge from the glass.
“Dirty windows I don’t like,” she said convincingly.
The satisfying smell of dough rising and baking in the ovens overcame me. I wanted to buy some cookies for Jacob, but thought she would judge me a spendthrift with money that rightfully belonged to her, so I didn’t chase the temptation.
“What do you do—for work?” she asked.
“I paint and paper. In houses. I paint rooms and hang wallpaper. I’ve done several here in the neighborhood.” I wanted her to understand I wasn’t a lazy good-for-nothing and that people she might know trusted me and likewise so should she.
“Hmmm,” she groaned, folding her arms across her chest, plump cheeks flushing, backing her chair stridently across the linoleum, away from the table and me. “Hitler was a paperhanger,” she informed me with no audible contempt in her voice.
“That’s a myth,” I corrected her.
“What is this myth?”
“That he was a paperhanger. He was an artist for a time, but not a paperhanger, or architect, as was rumored.”
“So you say…And do you believe that Holocaust is myth, a rumor?”
“Of course not. I’m just defending my current occupation. I make a decent, honorable living.”
“Work is work,” she bellowed, then calmed. “Work is good…You have children.”
I told her about Jacob. She seemed touched at various points in my descriptions of the boy but every intimation of smile quickly wilted, any widening of the eyes retracted. She wanted me to take her seriously, not treat her as if she were my sweet Bubbe. But nor was I a swindler, her ganef.
“And how is it you know Hitler?”
“I’m very interested in the Holocaust,” I explained.
With my vision seared to the blurry numerals carved into her skin, I invoked her name as warmly as I could. “Bronya,” I asked, “were you in a concentration camp?”
“Auschwitz and Belzec,” she said quietly. “Death camps.”
Exactly one week later, on a Thursday evening, she called again.
“Mr. Tom, you have money for me?”
On my lunch hour the next day, I returned to the deli. She was waiting on a customer. A young woman, balancing a fussy baby girl on her hip, wanted rye bread. Bronya put the crusty brown loaf into a paper sack and along with it, a handful of sweets. The lady shook her head, as if to say no, I did not order those.
“For the little one,” Bronya said. “And the others. No charge.” She had a sixth sense about her when it came to families, like an orthodox rabbi who knows kosher from treif.
I sat at our table near the window. She called the old man from the back to relieve her, stashed her dirty apron below the counter and joined me.
“Hello, Mr. Tom.”
I took from a pocket of my paint-dappled overalls a hundred dollar bill and handed it to her.
She thanked me, but without emotion of any kind.
“Something to eat?” she asked.
“I would not refuse,” I answered.
Her laughter was loud and guttural. “You talk like a Jew.” Bronya waved to the old man, who was slicing meat on an ancient piece of equipment that whirred like a band saw. “Schmuel, bring some knish, some baba. What to wash it down, Mr. Tom?”
We talked about the extraordinary food (delicious), their business (brisk), the weather (bitter), my work (slow).
Following a long silence, Bronya sighed, “I am sorry for your family.”
“Bad things happen to good people,” I shrugged. “You know that better than anyone.”
She dismissed the attribution with a shift of her shoulders. “You are curious about Holocaust.”
Bronya was born in a town in southeast Poland called Lodz, where her father owned a successful bakery well known in those parts. She learned her way around a kitchen very early in life and was an excellent cook and baker by the time she was 13.
She told of her family—mother Ruth, father Ely and brother Efrem—being dragged from their home in 1941 with scant more than the clothes on their backs and interned to a ghetto in Lublin. From there the family, still intact, was deported by train car to Auschwitz where they were tattooed, and then separated.
It was only by a stroke of good luck (mazel tov) that she and her brother were spared. For not long after they arrived at Auschwitz, beautiful willowy Bronya came to the attention of a high-ranking red-haired Nazi officer who had been chosen to supervise the construction of another death camp near the remote village of Belzec, on the Lublin-Lvov line, the railroad so crucial a link between the various camps. Belzec is one of the lesser known, probably because so few prisoners averted death to tell their stories. It was part of what was called the Aktion Reinhard, the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, and committed exclusively to the extinction of Polish Jews.
I did not ask Bronya to explain the relationship she had with the German officer or how her brother came so fortunately to be taken with her. I let her tell the tale she wanted me to hear and I could discern neither love nor hate when she described their powerful saviour who remained unnamed. “I spoke his language,” she justified. “That is why I am alive today.”
When the Germans began construction on the camp in 1941, she said, skilled Polish workers, paid handsomely, built the barracks and gas chambers. They were replaced by Jews who finished what was left to be done at the complex.
Bronya’s brother was older than she, but each was young and healthy and they found themselves immediately put to work at Belzec. I was reminded of my own job and read the clock over Schmuel’s head. It was after one.
“I’ve got to get back to work,” I apologized.
Under her breath, in German, “Arbeit macht frei.” Work makes you free. These words in iron letters form the arch above the entrance gate to the Auschwitz compound, where over a million people, including Bronya’s parents, perished. The Jews were made to believe their purpose in being herded from one grotesque location to another was the need for their labor. And of course, this hope, this last lingering crumb of dignity, to be able to work, was all they had left to them.
The paradox was not lost on this survivor, who remained to gape often beyond her shop window at silent sepulchral stones with which she had no relation except that they occupied the same noisy corner of earth. Again, she wiped the glass respectfully, this time with a rumpled handkerchief held hostage in her sleeve.
At the door, I turned to her and Schmuel. “Shabbat Shalom.”
“Shabbat Shalom,” they bid in unison.
Bronya did not have to call me the following week. I showed up late in the day, at a time I guessed they would not be busy, hoping she would sit with me again and tell me more about life and death in the concentration camps.
There were no customers. Schmuel worked industriously at a 12-foot-long wooden block table that had endured so much use over the years that at one end was a smooth shiny depression where workers kneaded thousands of pounds of dough into Kaiser rolls.
I looked to the door of the back room, expecting her to appear and awaken the sleepy shop with her presence, then turned my attention to Schmuel. “Bronya is not here,” he said. “She went for pumpernickel flour. She will be back. You wait.”
This time, with Bronya gone, I picked out treats for Jacob. Schmuel didn’t want to charge me but I insisted on paying. With a wide grin, and a what-the-heck hand gesture, he threw in three poppy seed bagels. Apparently Schmuel did not have Bronya’s extra sense. (Or did he? I would later share these gifts with Jacob’s mother who would thank me with an earnest hug.)
I sat at our table and pondered the graves outside. I tried to imagine Arlington National Cemetery’s 300,000 white markers multiplied by 20. These would have been only the Jews, most of them Poles, victims of at least six death camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka, all located in Poland, Bronya’s homeland.
It wasn’t long before she trudged in lugging what must have been a 50-pound sack of flour. Schmuel did not budge from his tasks. I stood, offered to help, but she ignored me and carried the bag into the storeroom. I laid the second hundred dollar bill on the table underneath a clear glass ashtray, stained gray like the day.
Focusing on the table, she smiled broadly. “Oh my, Schmuel, we have big tippers today!” She snatched up the cash and squirreled it away in her bulging apron. Almost affectionately, “Hello, Mr. Tom.”
Since it was not my day to fetch Jacob, we were able to chat uninterrupted. Plainly, Bronya enjoyed working, whether for the sheer love of it, to forget, to remember, I can’t speculate, but on this visit she wanted to talk about her “job” at Belzec.
Bronya was assigned by “Der Meister,” as the red-haired Nazi officer was called, to a kitchen that served only him, other members of the SS garrison and important German dignitaries. She remembered having best quality supplies to prepare meals for these men and she snuck food to Efrem by way of a sympathetic Polish guard, besotted she claimed by her delicate Aryan-like features. Many inmates of the camp died of a disease similar to leprosy—Noma—which I’d never heard of. Caused by malnutrition, Noma leads to destruction of tissue in the face, especially the mouth and cheeks. I pictured Bronya’s skin youthful, pink and lovely, her hair the color and texture of cornsilk.
The sun was setting and Bronya told Schmuel to go home, to celebrate their Sabbath.
“You’re the boss,” he said to her, putting on his coat, then over his brocaded kippah, a winter hat.
I flashed her an admiring look, an uplifting of the eyebrows that suggested her importance.
“Don’t get ideas, Mr. Tom. I am not a rich woman.”
“You’re a hard-working woman, Bronya.”
“My father and mother were very pious Jews,” she said, glancing at the headstones. “’I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living,’ papa would say in Polish from our bible.” She lifted her arms and waved her big calloused hands around in the air. “This is the land of the living, Mr. Tom, the marketplace.”
She told of a Jewish doctor of chemistry who was ordered to paint the kitchen where Bronya worked on a day she prepared the noon meal for the SS officers and trainers, Oberscharfuhrer (troop guide)Reinhold Feix one of them. “A doctor!” she repeated, humiliated for the chemist. “He could have saved lives—even Nazi lives—and they made him to paint the kitchen.”
Every few minutes, she related, this doctor was commanded to climb down from the ladder so Feix could beat him across the face with his riding crop. “Blood was everywhere, even in my cook pot. I did not wipe it clean and I laughed when those beasts were served, knowing they had my people’s blood inside them.”
I chortled along with her.
Her smile faded. “It did not change them.”
And then there was young Volksdeutsch (ethnic German) Heni Schmidt, “the worst monster of them all” is how Bronya described him. “On duty every day from four in the morning and always drunk,” Schmidt’s legacy was the ghastly trail of pain and suffering left in his goose-stepping wake.
There was a narrow passageway in the camp called “die Schleuse,” (the sluice or the tube). Two meters wide and 100 meters in length, with its high walls of barbed wire fencing, this gruesome passage connected the undressing barracks in Camp I to the gas chambers in Camp II. Over the pathway and on the roof of the building hiding the gas chambers (made to look like showers) were camouflage nets to obstruct observation from the air.
Since Schmidt and Feix shared a taste for good music, they had it played by the camp orchestra for every cruel event, including the march of naked men, women and children through the Schleuse. “When they sang our Polish melody ‘Goralu czy ci nie zal’ (‘Highlander, have you no Regrets?’) we thought things were not as bad as they seemed.” In truth, they could not have been worse. “Lambs to their slaughter,” Bronya said solemnly.
It was at Belzec, “Hitler’s dumping ground” and “laboratory,” that the methods of genocide were conceived and developed. Experiments were regularly carried out to find efficiencies for everything from transporting Jews, orienting them to the camps, to their murder and burial. In one extermination phase at Belzec, straps were fastened to bodies removed from the gas chambers so they could be dragged to trolleys for conveying to the mass graves that took 70 “Blacks” (Ukrainian guards) six weeks to dig.
“Do you want to know, Mr. Tom, why I cannot abide grease on my windows?”
Bronya recalled that during another experimental period, after prisoners were gassed and their corpses dispatched from the chambers by the Death Brigade, to which Bronya’s brother Efrem was assigned, they were piled onto metal grates, splashed with oil, then set on fire. For months afterwards, the camp and surrounding area lay beneath an overcast shroud of oily black smoke.
“It coated my kitchen’s window but I could not remove it.” She was thankful the human residue obscured other horrors from sight but moreover, thought the act of removal a desecration.
“And it did not stop with the burnings,” she said mournfully. To destroy all evidence of these crimes, a man named Szpilke operated a bone-crushing contraption brought from the Janowska Labor Camp in Lvov. And then what was left of the remains was finally buried.
I touched Bronya’s arm. She placed a hand on mine. The woman appeared to be exhausted, more from the morbid telling than her arduous workday. We said goodnight to each other and I left. On the way home, I became sick to my stomach, pulled the car over and vomited in the gutter.
Mid-week, Bronya conveyed this message to my answering machine: “Mr. Tom, I want bedroom in my home painted. You will come and tell me how much.”
It was evening when I arrived on Bronya’s street. A drizzling mist filled the air and a few inches of sullied snow blanketed everything but the roadway and sidewalks that had been salted and shovelled and mucked by the mizzle. To my unseasonal frame of mind, the entire scene evoked a tatty old Christmas crèche stored in the attic too long.
Bronya’s house was a large two-story Colonial, white with red trim, not garish but a bit imposing between its subtler neighbors. The porch light glistened on a mezuzah hanging at an angle on the right side of the doorpost. Reverently, I took off my glove and touched it.
We greeted each other cordially, but without hugs or handshakes. Furnace cranked up, the temperature inside was stifling. The house was clean and smelled of dinner and something fresh-baked. Colourful crocheted afghans and bedsheets cloaked the upholstered furniture, to protect it from soil or harm, and grease. Lamps were ablaze, books and bric-a-brac everywhere. From another space, television voices could be heard.
She led me to an oppressive little room at the rear of the house that may once have been a servant’s quarters. Crammed into it was a twin bed from which someone had recently risen; on the mattress was the furrowed void of a body. The walls were papered and did not look to be in bad shape, dated to be sure, gouged here and there, a lifted seam or two, but not overly much.
“Does paper have to come off to paint?” Bronya asked.
“That depends,” I said.
“There you go,” she laughed, “again talking like a Jew.”
We discussed the job. I made notes. I told her I’d call with a price in a few days. She seemed pleased. I felt she trusted me.
We went to the dining room where the table was set for three, one at the head and two flanking. There was no chair at the prow, but a dessert plate, cup and saucer, cloth napkin, fork, spoon and knife rested at each place. I positioned an envelope with her name on it at the edge of the table. In it were the 169 dollars I owed her.
“Sit,” she directed, and then disappeared.
From the fragrant kitchen to the table she brought Babka Marmukowa, a traditional Polish rum cake. It did not come from the bakery, she informed me. Bronya poured steaming coffee into the three cups. I hoped a devoted, jolly husband (like Schmuel) would be joining us.
I heard the TV go quiet. Soon, a white-haired man in a wheelchair rolled up to the table and situated himself at its head. It was not Schmuel. He seemed uncomfortable with company but received me with an extended hand, trembling slightly.
“Mr. Tom, I want for you to meet my brother Efrem.”
I was wordless a long moment. Bronya had not mentioned Efrem after telling me what he did at Belzec. I supposed, because of his job there, that he was killed by the Germans to keep their secrets, like the Egyptians when they laid the last block of a pharaoh’s tomb.
We nattered a while around meaningless, generic topics. I complimented Bronya’s luscious cake.
Efrem patted his bloated belly. “Bronya can do anything.”
“I believe that,” I agreed.
“Her name means armor, strength, protection. Does that surprise you?”
“Not in the least.”
Bronya was taciturn but visibly enjoyed the adulation.
“Jewish women are remarkable,” he said, beaming at her. “Jewish men tell the jokes. That keeps Bronya in the kitchen cooking contentedly for me, listening to my silly stories.” Then Efrem proceeded to tell us a joke attributed to Calvin Trillin. “’The remarkable thing about my mother,’ Trillin said, ‘is that for 30 years she served us nothing but leftovers.‘” Efrem hesitated dramatically, drew a breath. “’The original meal has never been found.’”
I nearly fell out of my chair. Bronya had doubtless heard the story before, probably a few times too many, but smirked anyway. She gave her brother a gentle jab to the shoulder, took my final payment and cleared the dishes into the kitchen, leaving Efrem and me to ourselves.
“Bronya tells me you are a mensch. And she does not say that about many Goys.”
“And she tells me you are a student of the Holocaust.”
“It interests me.”
“We who lived tell our stories.” His voice was there but his thoughts were somewhere else. “You have a son, Mr. Tom. I will tell you a story about children, daughters and sons like yours.”
It was so still in that room in that house I could hear snowflakes blowing off the roof and past the window behind Efrem’s chair.
“A transport of children, most of them around only three years of age, many younger, arrived at Belzec. Confused, terrified faces; echoing cries for stolen mothers and fathers.” He finished his coffee and stared into the murky bowl of the empty cup. “They ordered us to dig a hole. The children were thrown into it and we buried them alive.”
The two of us closed our eyes and bowed our heads. I made the sign of the cross and recited an unspoken prayer for the souls of those innocents, for Bronya and Efrem, for Jacob. When I looked to him, I saw a tear rolling down Efrem’s face.
“I was made to watch the ground rise with their struggles to break free until they suffocated and the earth moved no more.”
Efrem challenged me to think of all the ways a person can die—slowly, quickly, mentally, physically, from the outside in, from the inside out, self-inflicted, other-inflicted, disease, starvation, isolation, loneliness, witnessing death on a daily basis, horrifically in one’s waking moments, peacefully in one’s sleep—there are as many stories to tell as there are ways to die, he told me.
I’m speculating that Bronya and Efrem spent the better part of their lives together, refusing to be apart after the Holocaust, never marrying or having children of their own, but always working, if only working to stay alive and tell jokes. And stories from a time in history not to be forgotten or repeated.
“We visited Poland many years later,” Efrem told me. “Foundations of the buildings were all that remained of the camp, and whatever belonged to the Polish railway.”
In the spring of 1943, Belzec was decommissioned. The fences and buildings and chambers of death were dismantled for use elsewhere and the grounds were landscaped with fir trees and wild lupine flowers. A farm was assembled and superintended by a Ukrainian custodian to keep away local citizenry scavenging the graves for gold and other valuables from the decomposing bodies.
Six hundred thousand bodies. Approximately 50 Jews escaped alive, Bronya and Efrem among them.
Fittingly, Bronya would have the last word. “We don’t hate, my brother and me.” In a blaze of virtuous irony, she summed up her philosophy for living, “Hate is like yeast in dough. The more you put, the more it grows.”
For motives known only to herself, I did not get Bronya’s painting job. I understand her well enough now to know that she either had no intention of having Efrem’s bedroom painted in the first place, or simply found someone else to do it at lower cost. A frugal working woman’s prerogative.
I never saw her again, but I did snag another job in the neighborhood and the widow of the house was also a Jew. Rude and exacting and embarrassingly defensive of her money, of which she seemed to have more than enough. I was not made to feel at ease addressing her by her first name nor welcome to eat my lunch in her breakfast room. We almost fought over my use of one of her bathrooms, which by law in that state, must be made available to contractors working in your home. I concluded the only camp in which this lady had ever spent time—leisure time—was the Catskills.
Jacob is married now and has a child of his own. His mother has taken a second husband but kept our old house and they live not far from our son. We stay in touch. If victims of the Holocaust could exonerate Hitler, I could forgive Jacob’s mother. I have moved many times since I ventured away from this Jewish enclave, from Bronya and Efrem. When the idea came to me to tell their story, I searched for the deli bakery via the internet on the off chance that there would be some brief mention of it in a local newspaper’s ethnic food review or that, miraculously, it would have a website of its own as everybody and their lunatic uncle have these days.
The business had been sold, I learned, some years earlier. My Jewess was not mentioned by name. The final owner of Bronya’s livelihood had decided to close when pumpernickel flour became hard to get from wholesalers. He tried mixing rye and oatmeal flours and tinting the mixture with caramel food coloring but sadly confessed, “Tasted too much like rye.”
Furthermore, around the same time the flour became unobtainable, he said he could never in a million years find an employee to replace the man who’d held only one job from his teens into his 70s and who had suffered a debilitating stroke. “I could not run the place without him,” the owner gushed. This had to be poor Schmuel.
And, if all that were not enough shlimazl (bad luck), the local health department and its “clipboard-carrying inspectors” descended on the place like the Torah’s eighth plague of locusts, “consistently cited the deli in recent months” and ultimately “suspended operation.”
The bagel cooker, a metal vat kind of contrivance used to boil the dough balls, was featured in a photograph, overturned for inspection, its bottom rusted out, in ruins. And neither did the ubiquitous roach go without dishonorable mention.
For the venerable reporter of this electronic parable, the single most fascinating element in the entire establishment was the 12-foot worktable and its well-worn hollow. At some stage of the table’s long life, a growing fracture like a shattering quake developed in this channel, splitting holy ground. Of the same tinge as the Stars of David that Bronya and Efrem wore during the Holocaust, an absurd yellow line had been painted down the splintered cavity by the health inspectors to prevent any dough from being worked there. As if that could stop a Jew.
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