Sarah: I have no idea what I’m writing here, it just came to me from the prompt. I hope its not too sad. Thanks, Laura
From the camp we were trucked into another camp two day’s to the West. Through holes in the canvas we saw farms, sere in the August heat, once in a while a small village, no cities.
The refugee camp was different than the camp we’d been in,there was water and there was food. It was set up in a big empty field and we lived in camping tents that had USA printed on them. There were around 600 of us there. I was placed in a tent with five other men around my age. We had all been in different camps. We were starving. We ate whatever was served, mostly GI rations, stale and canned. We couldn’t get enough.
Most of the people from the camps spoke Yiddish but none of the aid workers did, a couple spoke German or French or English or Russian. I had studied English before the war, my Grandparents thought it was stupid, where would I ever use it? But I used it plenty in the refugee camp, we all picked it up from the people around us: ‘ Hey, baby. Lookin good. That guy’s a jerk. What’s your beef? She’s a doll.’ We were sponges. Everyone wanted to go to America, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Hedi Lamarr. We wanted to smoke Lucky Strikes, eat hot dogs, drink coca cola, wear blue jeans. Most of us wouldn’t be headed that way but we didn’t know that yet.
Of all my new friends I think was the only one who wanted to go home, to T., the city I’d grown up in and where I hoped to find my family. I knew my sister Leah had died, I had practically watch her fade like a bellflower in the sun, she was never hardy even at home and in the camp she went fast, from dysentery they said. Dysentery and despair. But I had brothers too, and cousins. I had parents and one Grandparent, Dov, who none of us had heard about in the days, weeks, months and years since we had left home. My whole childhood now seemed populated by giants, folkloric heroes, even my Aunt Ida and my cousin Hirsh, a loud, chubby boy so in love with sweets and baseball that the thought of him being dead was impossible for me to imagine. My most irritating cousins, my bellicose and argumentative Uncle Gel who all us kids avoided, my cousin Sarai who never stopped carping and criticizing, what would I give now, I thought, for fifteen minutes with either of them? To drink a cup of tea at one of their tables in their cramped apartments, to listen to them lecturing me about what the world was supposed to mean and how I should conduct myself in order to fit into it. All of that was gone now probably, the apartment, the tea cup, even that world.
The Red Cross workers really tried to find my family for me. There were good records they said, all we had to do was wait for all the refugee workers to connect the dots, to find someone who looked like me. That isn’t how it works, of course, they looked for names and regional connections, they looked everywhere and two years later they had found precisely no one. In the months I was in the refugee camps I did what everyone else did, I greeted each newcomer with questions: Where are you from? Who do you know? Do you here of a this name or that name? Were you ever close to Lvov? To people from T.? We looked for dialects and names that sounded even vaguely familiar. Who did they know in the camps? Any shred of similarity, of shared association was chewed on and swallowed. Could they know someone who knew someone?
By the time I left the refugee camp I was 17 years old. I had an eighth grade education in a Prussian dialect and no reasonable job skills anywhere outside of a concentration camp but none of that bothered me.
What bothered me was that I was alone.
Everyone knows what matters most in life. Family. Every family tells their children that and every child resists it at some point but it is, nevertheless, true. I didn’t have the luxury of resisting it, I wanted it, I craved it. I wanted to belong to someone who wanted to belong to me.
I went back to my town and interviewed everyone who could speak to me. One, a neighbor woman, Pepi, pretended not to know me. She lived underneath our flat for as long as I could remember. I struggled to convince her that she knew me, knew my parents, knew Leah, knew my brother Sol, but she was crabby and shooed me away. A younger woman who I had never met came in from the alleyway and calmed Pepi down. She told me that Pepi had no memory and did not even recognize her own niece or anyone else.
Our apartment building was still standing but with the exception of Pepi, there were all new people living there. A few knew that we had lived there, they were sympathetic, but there was nothing left of my family there, not even a trinket, a forgotten book or comb. We had been swept from the face of this earth.
I went to the little church at the end of our road. The old priest was dead, I had only known him by sight anyways. The new priest was sympathetic, he too had spent time in the camps. I told him all the people I was looking for but instead of going through it one by one he looked me in the eyes, his tired blue eyes had big purple bags underneath them. I saw then how weary he was, how weary we both were, him in his tired, dusty, sweat stained cassock, too long for him now, me in my wrinkled dress shirt, a hand off from one charity or another. He offered me a cup of tea in his apartment next door, the rectory was only just then being rebuilt from ash.
We sat and passed the time, chatted about the weather and a little about the camps, the concentration camps and the refugee camps and all the train rides and truck rides. We did not mention all that we had lost. In that the hot afternoon, the slightest wave of a breeze ruffled the kitchen curtains, doubtlessly a gift from some kind parishioner, some woman who had found the time and the cloth to make them. Then we were just two men together, from the neighborhood, two men who had seen much together and by ourselves but for those very few moments, at least we were not alone.