In the eighties and nineties, I worked in a lab. I pretend it was noble but to be honest, lab work involves mind numbing repetition:
Put one 5 ul. drop of solution A in tube, after five minutes put in two 10 ul. drops of solution B, heat to 40ºC for 3 minutes and chill on ice for an hour, spin for five minutes, aspirate supernate, add ethanol and repeat spin and suck three times… in your spare time, grow a few gallons of stinky e.coli; add 20 grams of powder D and heat to 100ºC pour into petri dishes and cool aseptically, then label and store. Make up fresh solutions. Cater to all the neurotic needs of your boss and the accompanying paperwork. Blah blah blah… day after day.
It is the perfect job for an artist or writer. Only one active brain cell is required for lab work, the rest of your brain can do anything else write songs, plan paintings, compose poems, or outline novels. The other aspect of this work that makes it great for writers is working with people from all over the world. It’s like working at the UN. I made some wonderful friends and had great adventures. One of my favorite adventures led to a radical change in my life that last for five years and people who still remain in my heart. Let me bring you back to a time in my life that has special relevance this week.
Snowballs, the Nazis and Waking to that Smell
“American men are so vain.” Mai said, walking into our office and dropping her book bag on her desk.
“Why do you think American men are vain? I mean, they are but why do you think it?” I asked laughing.
“On T, I see American men with bald spots, but some men wear tiny little round bald spot hats. This is vain, yes?”
A stunned silence ended with everyone looking to me, curious to see how I would handle this one.
“Oh, no, no, it’s a whatsit-thingy for Jewish men.”
“Yeah… it’s in the bible.” I said to the Buddhist scientist, who clearly had no idea.
“So why not Christians wear bald spot cover?”
Feeling silly, I grabbed the large ten pound Boston phonebook and opened it to ‘Jewish Information’ and paused, surprised there actually was such a listing. I immediately dialed the number.
“Yes?” A gruff man answered.
I explained the situation.
“Where are you girls located?”
“At Tufts in Chinatown.”
“I am around the corner, come over for tea, why don’t you.”
It didn’t take us long to weigh mind numbing experiments against an adventure. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We followed the instructions and found a door at the bottom of a long set of stairs. We climbed and found ourselves in the lobby of the New England Rabbinical Court. We were expected. A disapproving woman in a headscarf escorted us into an office, where a man in a black fedora and white beard was rising to greet us. I later learned the Rabbi was the head Rabbi of the court.
“Come in, Come in!” The Rabbi gestured to a pair of comfy chairs. There was tea and cookies.
We introduced ourselves and Mai was very excited.
“I can not wait to tell my children I met you!” she blurted out!
“Really?” he asked bemused.
“They love American Santa Claus!”
While wiping at the tea I spit on myself, I urgently whispered to Mai, that this was a rabbi not Santa Claus.
The Rabbi took it well, he didn’t laugh out loud but said something about not doing the Christmas thing. He began with a lovely explanation for why he wore either a kippah or a black fedora. He then asked us what we believed in, what was our faith? Mai told him she was Shinto. I mumbled something about being born a Catholic but looking for something else.
I was still a fresh out of the grave widow and he seemed to sympathize. He invited me to come to his synagogue and only asked that I use another name rather than Christine, which would be hard on some survivors, especially since I had a German name.
“Just say you were not raised religious and you are a widow, they won’t pry.” He assured me.
Since Judiasm was one of the faiths I admired and had studied, I was familiar with some aspects. I chose Chaya for my name. I enjoyed saying that guttural rolling Ch sound in Hebrew. I also like the idea of dressing up and wearing hats.
I needed this experience, I was suffering from PTSD, the sound of a siren was enough to set off a panic attack. I woke with horrifying memories reliving one of several horrible traumas connected to my husband’s cancer and several failed suicide attempts. The Synagogue took me so far outside of my world, that I was removed from triggers and reminders.
I made many very good friends. I started keeping kosher, keeping the Sabbath, and even learning Hebrew. The community was a combination of elderly agnostic Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jews. There was so much love in that community I underwent great healing. Also, it was a mitzvah (required good deed) to feed a widow and young couples in their thirties eagerly invited me over for Shabbos Friday evenings and lunch after services on Saturday mornings.
Saturday mornings I sat with the older women, widows and older wives. One woman reminded me of my paternal grandmother, whom I missed. Her name was Cecilia (not really, but I want to respect her privacy, even though she is now blessed in memory) She limped badly and used a cane. She wore lovely clothes and was always made up with lipstick and her beautiful blonde hair piled high on her head with a dramatic hat. Cecilia immediately noticed that I was clueless and began sitting with me, telling me what to do or when to respond, showing me the place in the prayer book or reading from the Torah. She chastised me when she casught me ‘peeking’ during the Cohen’s blessing.
Each week, I looked forward to her arrival, she walked in like royalty. Her husband would run ahead to look for her prayer books. They’d donated several to the synagogue in the memory of her mother and family. She showed the inscription to me one day and a worn, cracked photo of a woman who looked very much like Cecilia. She was so proud of this photo.
One day, she touched a scarf I was wearing to see if it was silk. I looked down at her hand and saw the numbers crudely tattooed on her forearm. I froze, only in photos had I ever seen these tattoos. “What is that?” nearly escaped my lips but I swallowed the words. I’m not sure she noticed but most likely she did –we never said a word. For some reason, I latched onto her, I was comforted in the knowledge that she somehow understand my pain but she never asked.
One freezing winter day, Cecilia sat next to me wrapped in a wonderful fur coat with matching fur hat and long leather gloves. The glass eyes of a mink, stared at me from her shoulder. I was transported back to my Grandmother’s fur stole, which had looked like two minks resting on her collar. I wore my helmet-like Russian fur hat, a gift from my friend Igor, which oddly amplified sounds like a speaker.
I arrived late and had seen the neighborhood kids crouching behind snow forts throwing snow balls behind the building near the side of the synagogue. I remember these same forts and battles from may childhood, so later, I wasn’t startled by the rapid loud sound of three or four snowballs hitting the back door of the synagogue. Cecilia screamed and grabbed my arm in terror. I smiled and assured her they were only snowballs, I had seen children playing when I came in, I told her.
“Anyway,” I said, “this is America.”
“You are so stupid, you Americans.” She said with such anger, it shocked me. “You must wake up. It can all happen again. Yes, even here in America.”
“No, no, it, it can’t. We will never allow it to happen again. We will not forget.” I said firmly and touched her arm, feeling the luxurious fur, never forgetting what was inked on the skin of that arm.
“I was a Marine, I will fight.” I said.
“Oh yes, like in Israel. Children play soldiers and you think you will stop them.”
“Sylvia…” I said gently, friends smiled at me, they seemed to support my words of comfort. I felt so righteous, until she blindsided me.
“Do you know what it is like to wake each morning smelling the flesh burning? The smell is in your nostrils, in your mouth in your lungs. It stays forever and never goes away.”
I began shaking and tears streamed from my eyes. I startled her and she took my face in her gloved hands.
“I do Cecilia, I do. I still wake each morning with that thick, sweet smell of blood in my nose, in my mouth, in my lungs…” I gasped. “My husband had brain cancer and he tried to cut his throat… he was on the floor when I came home, he was still alive… I had to clean all that blood…It is still there every morning I wake to the smell.”
She looked hard into my eyes and said, ‘Yes, so you know.”
“So, it won’t ever stop?” I asked desperately.
“My dear, the smell of your husband’s blood, I think will fade. He did not die then, he failed to kill himself. He gave himself to Hashem and the cancer killed him not man, not the devil. And now he is blessed in memory.” She said patting my hand.
“Okay…” I said still shaky and not so sure.
What follows is something I have only shared with a very few people. It was a bad trigger for me. I wasn’t planning to include it in this blog or anywhere. I think it is important and trust it will resonate on the right frequencies.
I decided to include this memory after opening my email this morning to find included photos of tipis burning on Standing Rock, my first thought was Kristallnacht. I listened to the silence of my President offer not one word of sympathy to the people of Canada for the tragedy at the Moslem Mosque in Quebec. I realized I needed to tell Cecilia’s complete story. I am sorry if the following words cause pain, but they are real not altReal but this was told to me. I now feel this testimony is important to fully understand the extent of evil that man is capable of embracing. As writers we write about monsters, killers and psychotic sadists, it’s all fantasy -but that this is real, haunts me:
Sylvia held my hand and began speaking in a quiet strong voice, “We did not feel any relief when we jumped down from those trains. We only felt fear. People tried to run and were killed, the sounds of gunfire sharp pops and the cries shocked us. The SS Officer walked up to my mother, he was tall and handsome, his uniform so sharp and clean. Before we could react, he reached out and grabbed my little sister’s leg. She was not even a year old. He took her leg in his hand and whipped her from my mother’s arms and he swung her around and smashed her little head against the back of the truck. She did not even get a chance to cry or make a little sound before she was gone. He tossed her body into the back of the truck where many other babies made a horrible hill. He then pushed my mother to one side and me to another. My last sight of my mother before they led her away and gassed her was a terrible numb frozen face, there was no good bye, only the pain of my little sister’s death. I wanted to die too.”
Listening to Cecilia, I felt my chest close and the panic rise –even now, writing this, I hear her voice, her rich accent of high German tinged with Yiddish. Her blue eyes looked over my shoulder to a place far away in time. I was also far away, transported to an apartment in Rockville Maryland where I knelt in three pints of old cold blood –the mess my husband left in the kitchen. I couldn’t find anyone to clean it; so, I had to do it myself. The smell was in my nose, my sinuses and my mouth… my arms felt so tired but I kept on and scrubbed with a bucket of red water and stained rags. I knew I would never forget any tiny detail, I knew like a retrovirus it was in my DNA, coded into genetic memory.
But now, I was clinging to an elderly women whose eyes were glazed with that same sharp focus. We held onto each other. I didn’t bother trying to tell her my memory was not as bad. We knew our memories were the absolute worst thing in each our lives and would never be eclipsed.
She held out her legs for me to see. She wore heavy thick stockings and I could see odd shapes and angles that should not be there.
“I did not go to the ovens because I had blond hair and blue eyes. I went to the hospital to be experimented on like a rag doll. They broke my bones and injected my eyes. Somehow, I did not die. I refused to forget my sister and my mother, I kept them alive. Here they are, in these Torah and Prayer books, their names.” She said opening the books to the lovely handwritten names of her family. The name of a tiny baby whose head was smashed in a cruel instant and the mother who experienced a wound no one can ever comprehend.
“It will happen again.” Cecilia hissed at me. “So much hatred men have in their hearts for other men. It will happen here and you will not see it coming, you will be like us. Comfortable in your home, shocked and frightened but never believing the hatred was so evil, so real.”
“Cecilia, no not here,” I said trying to comfort her, “not here, we hear you and we promise to never forget.”
“It won’t be enough.” She said.
I apologize for any pain this memory caused, but her words resonate louder each day this month. I feel lost and unsure. All I can do is share her words and pray we somehow avoid avert divert