In September 1972 the U.S. Justice Department instituted deportation proceedings against Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan—who was by then married to an American citizen and living in New York—in connection with war crimes perpetrated when she was Vice Kommandant of Maidanek and Ravensbrueck concentration camps. The hearings ended abruptly in March 1973, when the West German government asked for and obtained the extradition of Mrs. Ryan.
On the last day of the Braunsteiner deportation hearings several witnesses waited outside the courtroom for the proceedings to begin. One, a merry-eyed blonde woman, hovering near the door of the courtroom, was waiting, she said, in the hope that she would encounter Hermine Ryan entering the courtroom. In this she had been disappointed: Mrs. Ryan, her husband, and her attorney had either come very early or somehow got by the door without being seen, and now they sat by themselves, waving off everyone who came near. The blonde witness, whose name was Stella, explained that she waited for Mrs. Ryan because she wanted the chance to walk up close to her and say something to her that she would hear. What it was she would say when the moment came, she did not know in advance; and she was not concerned about it.
“Something would come to me,” she said with assurance, when asked what it was she would want to say. Clearly torn between her desire to stay and talk with the other witnesses and her desire to keep an eye on Mrs. Ryan and the inside of the courtroom, she divided her attention between them. Now she turned to the group in the hall and exchanged whispers with someone, now she turned to canvass the small entryway to the courtroom, now she returned to murmur a word to a witness: now, while she murmured, she flicked a watchful eye toward the door.
In general outline her experiences during the years 1939-45 were like that of the other witnesses, some of whom were already seated inside the courtroom: those who had also known Hermine Braunsteiner thirty years earlier, who now stared across the room at her, who sometimes stood up and turned their faces toward her so that she might see them if she looked.
“She looks very little changed,” a witness said.
“The same legs.”
The prospective witnesses who appeared in the hearing room that day were known to one another, being as they were part of the large community of survivors who lived in the Kew Gardens-Forest Hills area of Queens. The detached or semi-detached private houses in those pleasant neighborhoods were a far cry from the apartments in Coney Island or the Bronx where most of them had begun their lives in America. They had worked their way slowly over the past twenty-five years, moving as their economic state allowed to better apartments, safer neighborhoods, until they were able to afford a house in Kew Gardens.
Stella, the blonde woman who waited for a chance to say something to Mrs. Ryan, lived with her husband and their two children in one of those pleasant, quiet neighborhoods in Kew Gardens. She was, to all appearances, the most girlish of the witnesses who appeared at the Immigration Services hearings that day, though she was roughly the same age—in her mid-forties. Even as she stalked the halls in the anxious atmosphere outside the hearing room, keeping a watchful eye on Braunsteiner and her party, it could be seen that she was one of those people who would never bring the proper face to dark occasions. Her feelings about Hermine Braunsteiner were colder and harder than those of anyone present; yet as she pursued her quarry with her eyes and waited, her natural disposition asserted itself and she looked—there was no other word for it—sunny. When once or twice she smiled at someone she knew, the smile was that of a hostess for a guest of honor, a face-wreathing flash of light that made anyone who saw it feel how preposterous was the idea of her connection with the matters that were to go on in the hearing room that day.
All the same, she belonged there, and no one was more aware of it than she. The moment Braunsteiner’s picture appeared in the New York Times, Stella said, she had run to the phone to call a friend, a woman she had known in Maidanek.
“Remember our Aufseherin, Hermine?” she had asked the friend.
“Who could forget her?”
“And do you have the Times today? Go look at it.”
The friend returned to the phone. “You are damned right. It’s her—you are damned right.”
It was all, apparently, that the friend was able to say for some time.
“Not only that; she’s living right here,” her caller pointed out.
That night she had not fallen asleep at all, but had lain wide awake figuring out what she should do, and thinking about Maidanek. She did not have to face a traumatic rush of memory, as some other survivors might have when something made a buried aspect of the past suddenly rear up at them in the midst of their postwar lives. She was used to thinking about Maidanek and the other places she had been, used to talking with her friends who had been there with her. Each had obtained certain kinds of information about life and people from her experience. One had learned, and she was deeply interested in the fact, that if you asked a person to kill you, he would never do it; that asking for death robbed people of the will to kill you—people who otherwise could have killed you with no trouble at all. Another had learned, and it was an observation every one of them heartily agreed with, that if you had to ask an enemy for mercy, it was better that the enemy should be a man than a woman, because there was no chance at all with a woman; the women they had known as captors had invariably been crueler than the men.
For years they had pieced together the details of the past: what one forgot, another remembered. The number of friends who had survived with her was small, but they were close; and when they talked about the time in the camps, it was not entirely horror that drew them back, but also the memory of their youth, a part of which was recalled to them vividly in the shared memories of the camps.
One of the other witnesses against Mrs. Braunsteiner, a friend of Stella’s, recalled some time later that it was ridiculous to believe that none of them had ever made a joke or laughed in the death camp. They had made jokes about their appearance, about their shorn heads, which made them look like plucked chickens, or they told one another, laughing, “Tomorrow you’ll be soap.” They did these things—as they sang songs—to keep their nerve up, and they were able to do them, she observed, only because they were young.
One day the group from Maidanek gathered in a kitchen in Queens. The purpose of the meeting was to settle a dispute over the ingredients of a mysterious soup the Germans had given them on occasion. Because it had a slightly sweetish taste—the reason they remembered it all these years—they had devoured it, and had looked on the days when that soup was distributed almost as holidays.
Each of the women had her own ideas of what might have gone into it. The one thing all of them remembered was that there had been a few grains of rice floating around on the top; they supposed, too, there must have been some sugar in it. But by the end of the afternoon, after following all their notions, after stirring, throwing different things in, and trying new mixtures, they had collectively failed to achieve the taste of the concentration-camp soup. During their captivity, food, only food, had obsessed them. Starved, living on a diet of ersatz coffee and bread twice a day, or water and potato peelings with worms floating around (which they ate with the rest because of the protein), they talked and dreamed food. They planned elaborate menus; they listened to fantastic recipes full of rich ingredients, and even invented their own, though some of them had never cooked anything in their lives. Now, years later, the long hold of that obsession took another turn, and in the midst of plenty they tried to recreate the one food that, in those days, had been the object of their greatest desire: the soup with the sweetish taste.
It had to be something chemical, they concluded after they had given up, because they had never tasted anything remotely like that sweetish taste after they left the camp. Stella, who had been one of the organizers of the experiment, was of that opinion herself.
It took some knowing her to see that there was sometimes calculation in the great blue eyes she turned to the world. All the same, she showed less of it than was usual in women of conspicuous good looks, looks into which there had gone a certain amount of work and planning. She had a strong bent toward the flirtatious, and just as strong a bent toward straightforwardness, tendencies that did not, in her, rule one another out. It was the first that accounted for the inviting smile that hovered about her eyes and mouth, the frequent faint flutterings of lashes, and the many confidingly uttered “I don’t have to tell you why’s” that punctuated her conversation. The second accounted for the conversation itself, in which there was usually no artifice, except as circumstances required it, and then it was an artifice of such a frank sort that it did not seem to differ very much from straightforwardness.
On the street where she lived in Kew Gardens there were nine houses together, and no fewer than eight of them were owned by Polish Jews who had survived the war and the camps. Around the corner stood six more houses similarly inhabited by families of survivors. Cohesive Jewish neighborhoods are, of course, no rarity in New York, but in the Bronx, Brooklyn, or formerly, the Lower East Side of New York, such cohesiveness was based simply on the propensity of Jews of every variety to make their homes where other Jews lived. In Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews lived in tight neighborhoods to protect a religious way of life. But in Kew Gardens, parts of Forest Hills, Bay-side, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, small Jewish communities had been formed entirely on the basis of the fact that its members had once shared a common fate.
The builder of the houses on her street was a Polish Jew himself, who had come to America after the war. In addition to the houses in Kew Gardens, he had built in Bayside twenty more blocks of houses which were also largely inhabited by Polish Jewish survivors. In part, this had come about because these survivors had reasoned, when they were ready to buy houses, that they were best off dealing with one like themselves, particularly if there was trouble about repairs or some other problem regarding the house. There still lingered in them, years after 1949 and 1950, when they had arrived, something of the sense they had had then: that the connection between American Jews and themselves was only slightly less remote than the connection between themselves and American Gentiles. But beyond the practical reasons, there was another, perhaps more important, factor dictating their choice: that in buying a house from such a builder, they stood an excellent chance of living next door to, or across the street from, people who had shared their experience, people who could not quite be strangers to them though they had never laid eyes on them before—neighbors the crucial facts of whose lives they knew before they were even introduced to them.
Though Stella lived in such an enclave, she was of two minds about it. On the one hand, there were certain comforts to be derived from the arrangements. On the other, they spoke Polish too much, a fact she disapproved of, though she did it herself; and they all stuck to one another too much. Her heavy accent made her unhappy, but that was not the main reason she disapproved of the way her circle of friends clung to one another and to their old language. The main reason had to do with her feelings about her own Americanness.
She was devoted to America, a feeling that had grown deep and prideful over the years. The devotion was one that all her friends shared without exception, and there was irony in the fact that in this, too, they felt they had only each other for understanding. As far as they could see, Americans did not have such feelings, or if they did, they did not display them. American democracy was a lie, the survivors had furthermore heard from other Americans during the upheavals of the 60’s; American society was a destroyer. As for the government, its designs and operations were in no significant way different from those of a fascist state.
Like most survivors, Stella and her circle of friends were astounded by these views. That they should hear America called a fascist state! America, of all countries! Yet they had heard it quite often in the 60’s; they continued to hear it in the 70’s, and invariably, when they listened to this description of America, they became enraged.
America had its problems, they conceded with pursed lips, and not the least of those problems was its citizens, who were spoiled and indifferent.
“Come here,” Stella summoned her daughter once. “Tell me what you did in school for Memorial Day celebration.” A picnic, the daughter replied; the teachers had taken them to a park for games and sandwiches.
“A picnic,” her mother sniffed, with the satisfied air of one whose worst suspicions had been borne out.
That was not the only thing. She herself had seen the local Memorial Day parade. “Who was marching in this parade? Three people: one man with crutches, one old woman who could hardly stand up was dragging herself along, and one person from the Salvation Army.”
It was a disgrace, really, when you thought about it, because one thing about Poland, rain or shine, everybody had come out to show respect for the patriotic holidays. And what was Poland to deserve such treatment? Smart Poland had been, though, and right to make its people care in that way. And what there was to care about in Poland you could imagine; but it was the right attitude.
“Only to knock America,” Henrika, another prospective witness at Hermine Braunsteiner’s deportation hearings, said bitterly another time. “To spit on America. To call her such things: fascistic, repressive—whatever they say. The blood boils up in my face when I hear these words.” And her hand flew to her face to contain the blood there now when she thought of the words. What did those who spit on America know about these things? About fascism or repression?
Stella, whose blood did not show quite so much when it boiled, always concluded grandly when this subject of America-haters came up, “It’s a pity,” a phrase of many uses, one that she had a talent for employing in the particular way which conveys that the speaker intends no charity whatever toward the object of pity. It was her way to look on the bright side. She was not one to brood long over anything either. What was the use of it? So much had happened to brood over; to begin the job would leave no room for living and enjoying the life she had.
If she found she was feeling sad too long about something, she would soon find a way to make herself stop. At such times she would reflect on her life, and how she had come through everything. What was it all for? Was she alive so that she could make herself miserable over some little thing or other?
People liked her and she accepted it as natural that they should. There had been, of course, in her circle of friends, those who took offense at things she had said or done, but they were few, and she liked to think she paid no attention to them. Injured feelings, imagined insults—it was precisely these unimportant things people were forever thinking about. She seldom quarreled with anyone, though she listened at some length to the quarrels of others, and was interested in the details. Once, one of her friends had made it clear that she was angry at her. Jealousy was probably at the root of the anger, Stella reasoned. The friend, who had been given charge of a certain guest list, had failed to submit Stella’s name, with the result that she did not get to attend an event that she was supposed to, and that she wanted to attend. There were other signs of hostility as well. Of the friend’s behavior, Stella remarked only, “It’s a pity,” in her usual way. If one person took a dislike to her, it could not be helped. If one person was of a jealous disposition, there was nothing to be done. There were other friends. It was, again, one of those things certainly not important enough to dwell on.
The facts of her life were these, if she wanted to dwell on them. She had been born in Warsaw, of fairly well-to-do parents, the owners of several shoe stores and a tannery. When she was sixteen, the Germans sent her, along with her two older sisters and their father, to the Maidanek camp in Lublin; her mother several months earlier had been deported to Treblinka. One day in Maidanek, she was caught trying to throw a piece of bread to her father in the men’s camp, with the result that she was brought before Hermine Braunsteiner. Braunsteiner had ordered twenty-five lashes, and watched while the guard administered them with a bullwhip. As a result of the whipping, she was unable to work, and her name had been automatically put on the list of those destined for the gas chamber.
After the whipping, she had been carried back to the barracks, bleeding and semiconscious, unable to stand for two days much less to report for work. But her older sister Rutka, who was among those just then being sent out of Maidanek to work at Skarzysko, a labor camp, contrived to change places with her. The two hundred women selected for work at Skarzysko first passed a body check to determine that they were fit and healthy, and then they received clean uniforms, with different markings from those worn by the Maidanek inmates. In some way—Stella never learned how—after passing the body check, Rutka had exchanged numbers and clothes with her. With the help of other women in the barracks, she pushed Stella, still stupefied, into the center of the crowd so that she would not be noticed, and sent her off with the group leaving for Skarzysko.
There, Jewish inmate doctors were able to salve her wounds, and it was not many days before she was up and around, able to work, though she was still in great pain. About ten days after she arrived, she learned the outcome of her sister’s plan to save her. Rutka, being strong and healthy, believed that she could safely take her younger sister’s name and number; that when the day came that her sister’s name was called, as it was clear it would be, and she was summoned to go with those selected for the gas chamber, Rutka would be able to show herself as she was—fit and healthy and capable of work—to convince the SS that her death selection was an error. Rutka knew the risk and took it, friends later reported to Stella. The week after Stella had left Maidanek and her name was called as expected, Rutka took her place in line among those selected for death. But neither her healthy appearance nor her arguments of fitness persuaded the SS that her selection was a mistake. She was marched off with the others to the gas chamber and death.
Stella remained in the labor camp for a year. Skarzysko, in 1944, was a hotbed of rumor. With the Russians coming nearer every day, word circulated that either the Germans planned to take all the inmates to Germany to work or they planned to kill them.
The camp had no crematorium or gas chamber, but a small forest nearby was used as an execution place. As the Russian guns came nearer, the Germans began to bury some of the bodies that were exposed in the forest. The guards were becoming nervous, and the more nervous they became the more the rumors flew among the inmates. One night, the camp commandant assembled them and told them that the next day they were to be evacuated to Germany. Each person would get two days’ food, the length of time it would take them to get to Germany. In Germany they would be housed and fed in comfortable quarters, he promised, and given jobs that were not very hard. Few of the inmates believed him. Despite the curfew, they ran about from one barracks to another, discussing what the Germans really intended, whether they would dare to kill them all with the Russians coming so near, or whether they would do so just because of that fact.
Late that night, she learned that the inhabitants of the White House, as the white-painted barracks of the kapos (prisoner-guards) was called, had escaped. If the kapos had run, she reasoned, it was because of what was going to happen the next day; they usually had excellent information. Her friends among the inmates were of the same opinion; but as night came on they began to shout to one another, “Quiet, quiet!” If they didn’t have a few hours’ sleep, they said, they would not be able to move in the morning.
She could not sleep for trying to figure out how the White House inhabitants had got out, and why. Then, in the midst of her figuring, she quietly got up and made her way to the outhouse at the end of the camp. There, behind the outhouse, she saw how the barbed wire had been stretched, and that this was how the others had escaped. The barbed wire of this camp was not electrified; there were two fences, six feet apart, between which the guard patrolled the camp perimeters.
A moment later—without knowing in advance what she meant to do—she walked from the outhouse and plunged through the stretched barbed wire to the other side.
Hearing the voices of the guards as they made their rounds, she ran straight into the forest. There, almost at once, she stumbled over the bodies of the kapos who had made their “escape” from the White House. Years later, after the war had ended, she learned that the White House inhabitants, including the chief kapo, had paid a German to get them out of the camp, and that the German had taken the money and shot them all as soon as they entered the forest. One of them, Ulrich, was still alive when she fell over him, a young man her own age who lay gasping on the ground. At the same time, she could hear the voices of the Germans, now there with her in the forest. Unable to tell the direction of the voices and thus to decide which way she could safely run, she dropped down on the ground next to Ulrich and pretended to be dead. When the Germans came, they kicked the bodies. Lying under her arm, Ulrich made no sound. A German guard pronounced them dead and walked off.
She lay there a long time, until she heard shouts and screaming from the camp and the noise of the trucks, which told her that the evacuation of inmates had begun. Ulrich was dead; she had felt his body shudder underneath her as he died. One hand and the side of her face were covered with Ulrich’s blood. She wiped the blood with the underside of her skirt. Then she smeared spittle on her face and pressed it to the ground to wash with the moisture of the morning dew. In vain she searched the floor of the forest for leaves to clean the blood off, but she was in a forest where there were only pine needles.
Having wiped her cheek as clean as she could, she walked in the forest until she could see that she was close to a highway of some sort. On the highway she met two small girls, who showed her the way to a nearby railway station. In the railway station lavatory she found a small cracked mirror, which nevertheless showed her clearly enough that her face was still smeared with blood and that her earlier washing had only lightened it and spread it all over her face. After cleaning her face and combing her hair with her fingers, she entered a train, which had just pulled into the station, and made straight for the lavatory. From time to time, people who wanted to use the toilet banged on the door and then went away grumbling when it did not open; she had locked herself in, so that the conductor could not ask her for a ticket. But after a while—she had no memory, later, of how long—when she heard the train slowing down for its next stop, she knew she could no longer stand to be locked up there, whatever else might happen. No one challenged her when she opened the door. A man looked briefly at her as he paused in wrestling with a suitcase to let her by. Then she was out of the train. It was dark, although the station was well lit and she was able to read clearly a sign that said, Czestochowa.
As others found who had escaped, she was to discover that impulse and improvisation alone would carry one far, so long as the danger was great. Any deception was feasible and any loneliness bearable when necessity demanded; it was when the external dangers seemed to lessen that the inner ones began to make their claim. In Czestochowa, she was, without knowing it, still at the beginning of the tangled set of circumstances that began with her escape and would not end for many months—circumstances that became more complicated and dangerous at each stage, right up to the end. But already, in Czestochowa, she had begun to feel less afraid.
At the station she saw a nun. “I have a problem, Sister,” she whispered to the nun.
“Tell Jesus your problem; he will help you,” the nun told her.
“Jesus cannot help me in this,” she replied. Then she pointed to a trainload of Polish civilians that had arrived in the station. It was just at the end of the abortive Polish insurrection of 1944, when the Germans were arresting Poles and transporting them to concentration camps. She told the nun she had escaped from the train and was afraid of going to the German concentration camp.
The nun took her by the hand and brought her to a cloister, where she was fed and clothed and shown a place to sleep. Then in the morning, she was brought before the Mother Superior and questioned about the insurrection in Warsaw and what she had seen there.
She was able to draw on her memory of an earlier uprising she had witnessed, the April 1943 revolt against the Germans by the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. She told the Mother Superior about the burning buildings and the people jumping from them, how the Germans had flushed the Polish fighters from their bunkers and shot them down. The Mother Superior told Stella that her convent had sheltered other Polish girls like herself, that she would be able to stay and work for her keep without fear. She was given a rosary and sent to prayers with the sisters and the other girls who had found shelter there. Remembering bits of the Hail Mary, which she had sometimes heard the family’s Gentile maid recite, Stella moved her lips silently and said morning prayers without anyone noticing that she barely knew the words. Afterward she found a prayer book and memorized the Hail Mary. In the next few days, she fell into the convent routine, which consisted of hard work in the kitchen run by the nuns, and frequent prayer, which was no problem once she knew the words.
She had begun to feel safe, and the effects of that feeling showed themselves at once in the overwhelming urge she then had to confess to the Mother Superior and the others that she was a Jew and not one of them. The need to tell this particular truth was to arise each time she found herself in sheltering hands. The strength of the need was great, coming as it did from the urgent wish to end her isolation, from a craving to be comforted by those who had comfort to give: the ultimate comfort they could give her being that, though they knew the worst—that she was a Jew—they would still keep her in safety. It was a test of herself, and of the friendships she formed with the people who sheltered her, albeit while she was disguised as a Gentile. It was in part, too, a search, and she was not alone of her kind in making it, an effort to uncover some final proof in refutation of what the Nazis had said and experience had shown must certainly be true, which was that everyone, not only the Germans, wanted the Jews dead.
Later, she learned to fight the need to share her secret; but in the convent in Czestochowa she gave in to it. She was moved to do so by an especially beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary that hung in the chapel. Staring at it, she was able to talk herself into believing that the soft smile of Mary was really intended for her, that it was meant as a sign of reassurance, and willingly she took the promise of the Virgin’s smile to heart. She decided to tell the priest she was a Jew during confession. As soon as she made the decision, she felt enormous relief, as though the weight of a stone had been lifted from her. The confession she had to make was not a little thing, she first whispered to the priest.
“Jesus can hear anything, my child,” the priest told her.
She did not know if Jesus could hear this, she said.
“Whatever it is, it is between you and me and God,” the priest assured her.
“I am a Jew, Father,” she then confessed quickly. She explained how she had run away from the camp, and gone to the nun at the station. When she finished, the priest told her in a kind way not to worry, that he would speak to the Mother Superior and tell her about it. In the meantime, she did not need to continue praying with the others.
Later, the Mother Superior summoned her, and looking quite stern and unlike the Virgin Mary in the painting, she told her that she might stay only until she found another place, but that she should bear in mind that they were short of food in the convent and that by staying there she was putting others in great danger.
The next day she left the convent. After a while she made her way to another city, Cracow, and another shelter. This time she found employment with a German doctor and his wife. So kindly a couple were they that the doctor, who was attached to a German military hospital, came to her boarding house to take care of her when she fell ill, and his wife worried over her as any mother would. Again she felt the impulse to tell these people—who were as humane and loving as any she had ever met—that she was a Jew, but she could not do it, quite. After the war, she tried to trace the couple in Germany and failed. Thirty years after her escape, she still wondered what might have happened had she told them and was almost certain now that they would have accepted the truth, she had a such a clear memory of their kindness. But at the time she said nothing because the doctor and his wife were, after all, Germans. Then, too, she bore in mind that once, feeling secure while walking about the city of Cracow with the excellent pass the doctor had provided her, she had almost been arrested for throwing food to some emaciated prisoners marching by her under German guard. The guards turned her over to the police, who held her for several hours until the doctor came to identify her. When the doctor had extricated her from this trouble, he asked her why she had done it.
“I felt sorry for the people, Doctor,” she told him, adding untruthfully that she did not know who the people were. Patiently, he explained that she must not go near them again, because the prisoners were Jews. Still, despite this, she knew him well enough to believe that she might have told him she was a Jew, and that he could probably never have brought himself to betray her—not her.
After this episode, there began a final series of mishaps that took her from Poland deeper and deeper into Germany. The turn of events began when, as seemed ever to be so then, the Russians were advancing; with the hospital and its wounded having to be evacuated, the doctor got her, along with himself and his wife, on a German troop train, which took them to Dresden just at the time the British were bombing that city into an inferno. When the train arrived at the station, she slipped away from the doctor, for protective as he was he would, she knew, only take her farther into Germany. Alone in Dresden, she pretended to have been driven mad by the bombing and sat in a park under some trees while everyone else was in shelters and the British planes raked the city methodically, block by block. She saw that the planes were flying low, that they knew where their bombs were going, and that they were not aiming at parks and trees. In any event, if she had to die, it would at least not be underground with Germans, but under trees in the open air.
Afterward she wandered through Dresden’s ruins, passing herself off as a German, feeding herself at the emergency kitchens. In a matter of two days, however, she found that she could no longer wander alone. For that reason she attached herself to a line of Polish prisoners who had been marched past her near the outskirts of the city. So long as she did not go as a Jew, she did not greatly fear captivity.
Finally, outside Leipzig, she ended up in the hands of American troops. She and two hundred or so Polish prisoners had been locked into an underground bunker when the Americans broke in. One of them picked her up and carried her out, shouting at the top of his lungs. “Schnell! Schnell! Out!” the soldiers yelled, pushing and dragging everyone, and a moment later, after they were outside, there was a terrific blast which threw her and the soldier carrying her to the ground. After locking the prisoners in the bunker, the Germans had set time bombs to blow them up; virtually at the last minute the Americans had learned of it, and had rushed the bunker to get them out.
The American who had picked her up and carried her rushed away after setting her on her feet. A little while later, he found her again, and gave her a loaf of bread. Ravenous, she stuffed her mouth with the bread and as she did so, there was a click nearby. She turned, and saw an American taking a picture of her just at the moment she was pushing the bread into her mouth. What did. she care? Nothing at all. How like a monkey in a zoo she looked to them, and she knew it, and it did not matter to her at all. The American looked like a god. What more could you want of the Almighty himself if he had come? He carried her in his arms, he gave her bread; he brought the war to an end.
Afterward she jumped on the tanks with some of the other girls and rode with the Americans to Leipzig. And there in Leipzig she saw the sight that was to bring her joy for hours. The Germans had hung white flags everywhere, on all the doors and windows of the city. The next morning, as she walked about the streets, she was to burst into tears looking at those same flags, because now the catastrophe was all over, for certain, but only she was left alive of her whole family; just then, however, riding into Leipzig, she thought of no such thing. The Americans had directed them to go into any of the houses and help themselves to food and clothing. There was no need to worry, they would be nearby, the GI’s assured them in broken German; later on, someone would come and check, to see if they were all right.
The first house they entered was empty of people. Whoever had lived there had left everything—all the clothes in the closets, food in the pantry. It was a proper house, the first that some of them had been inside for years, with overstuffed chairs, tables, pictures, and beds. She and the other girls ran to the pantry, opened everything they found, and ate. Beans, sugar, cheese, butter—they mixed it all together on their plates and ate, and when they finished, the formerly neat kitchen looked as though banquets had been held there for several nights, with no one bothering to clean up after any of them. Afterward they ripped off the uniforms they wore, with the big “P” on the back, and rummaged in the closets to find skirts and dresses. Indifferent to the fact that none of the clothes they found fit them, they put them on. Then someone came up with currant wine, which was stored in the cellar, and Stella herself found some stuff made of fermented blueberries. For the first time in her life, she drank and was drunk, so that she ended the first day of freedom retching and throwing her insides up.
In the next days, they talked about taking revenge, and they heard talk of it. On whom could you take revenge? On the streets of Leipzig there were only old people to be seen. For a short time the Americans had quartered her in the house of an elderly woman. Once, she had let the woman see the lash marks on her back after the woman began, shyly, to ask questions about her: how she came to be there in Leipzig and what had happened to bring a young girl so far from home. After seeing her back, the old woman had run weeping from the house, and returned with several of the neighbors, elderly women also. The neighbors had to see the lash marks, too.
“See—is this what our brothers have done?” the old woman asked them.
And this was what there was to take revenge on in Leipzig—crying old people, who were like her own grandparents.
Stella and her husband met just after the war ended; he was an officer in the Polish army. He had found her standing on a street one bitter cold day, trying to sell some linens and sheets for her German landlady. He was a Jew, he told her, after inviting her for coffee—a fact that she was certain of anyway before he told her—and was, like her, the only one left of his family. Not three days later, he proposed, which was hasty even for the way marriages were made in those days of chaos and of so many familyless people just after the war; and three weeks later, after he received official permission from his superiors in the army, they were married.
The ceremony was performed by a rabbi who arrived for the occasion half dead, because the groom, who had found him in Breslau a great many miles away, had no alternative but to pack him onto the back of his motorcycle and ride with him at top speed for almost a day in order to get him to the wedding. For her wedding night the bride had nothing at all appropriate to wear, a condition her German landlady undertook to correct by sitting up the night before, sewing her a pair of pajamas out of a set of green silk striped curtains she happened to have in her parlor. As a final festive touch, the landlady had trimmed the low-cut pajama bosom with the green flowered border that until then had adorned the curtain tops. The wedding party itself—to which several hundred Polish army comrades of the groom came bearing gifts, among them a goat and a cow that proved later to have been stolen from a farmer—lasted for three days.
Her looks were important to him, now as then.
“A woman should be glamorous,” he pronounced once when his wife was not present. “I like to see her wearing jewels and furs, all these things, to highlight.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the object of his approval said languidly, later. “It’s very important to him. It’s important to all of them.”
She had no objection to this taste for glamor, she gave one to understand, but it was not something that she herself considered important; that he and other male creatures felt as they did was a fact of life; she did not blame them for it.
It was in her early thirties, just after the birth of her second child, in America, that tragedy almost struck her down. Because she had never looked more beautiful than she did then, and because once the war ended she never gave any thought to other dangers that might come her way, she could not accept what the doctors told her—that she had cancer, advanced to the third stage, when no cures might be expected from surgery. Possibly she might try radiation therapy, which would give her perhaps a year of life more; though she asked him to, the doctor could not consider operating on her. “I don’t like mortal cases on my operating table,” he explained.
That night, and for several days thereafter, she told herself that the luck which had spared her thus far had finally run out. It was luck, and more than luck: it was Rutka, who had died in her place, and her own driving impulse to run anywhere, to do and say anything to stay alive. But mostly being spared was a matter of luck; she said it often. Smarter people than herself had tried to figure out ways to stay alive; they had devoted themselves day and night to the task of planning how they could survive this way and that—brilliant people they had been, some of them—and they had been killed anyway.
Still, the fact was confirmed by more than one physician. From one of them she had obtained a list of surgeons who did the sort of operation she wanted to have, and had gone methodically down the list, submitting to tests and receiving from five of them the same advice as the first doctor had given. Radiation therapy was the only alternative; they would not undertake a hopeless operation. A week or so before she was to enter a hospital to begin treatment she came to the last doctor on the list. When he asked why she persisted in her efforts to have an operation, she said that to have a cancer cut out was better than radiation, which gave no hope at all, only a few more months. The doctor agreed to perform the operation, and of course she lived.
After the operation, and a two-month stay in the hospital, she went home with certain goals in mind. She would be satisfied to live, she bargained, just until the younger child started kindergarten, just until the older one had his bar mitzvah, events that were due in a year’s time. After that, let come what may. When the year passed, she bargained for another short time, and then another, resolving always that when she had lived to achieve them, when she had seen the younger one do this or that, or when the older one finished school, she would ask no more. Let what would happen, happen. In that way, as a series of bargains, the years slid by; it was luck, it was destiny—whatever it was, she did not want to think. The crisis only confirmed her way of looking at things; her disposition was even sunnier than before. When some unhappiness came to her, she shook it off as a dog shakes off water, partly because she did not believe in it: what right had she to unhappiness? Since the days in the concentration camp she had absorbed the idea that depression was the beginning of death; that was the reason they had sung songs in the camps—school songs, Polish songs, anything that came into their mouths.
It must have been surprising to her family and friends, therefore, when, happy and contented as she was, a great restlessness took hold of her in the summer of 1974. Nothing would do but that she must pack up suddenly and go to Poland. Her husband was not at all willing that she should have her way, though in the end, as usual, she did what she wanted to do.
In Warsaw there were friends who were happy to receive her. A few days after her arrival in Warsaw, she took up the real reason for her visit, and announced to the friends with whom she was staying that she planned to visit Maidanek. They, as she had expected, were horrified. But they soon saw that nothing would dissuade her: and so, sighing, since she could not be permitted to go alone, they assigned themselves the task of driving her there. They themselves had never been there. It was an unhappy, unnecessary visit, a grim end to the reunion and the festivities they had all been enjoying, so far as they were concerned.
It takes three hours to drive from Warsaw to Lublin by car, and then five minutes more to get from Lublin to Maidanek. Along the road from Lublin to the camp, signs announced that the State Museum of Maidanek was ahead. In that area of Lublin, the weather is always cold because of a chilly cross-wind. Even in summer a cold wind blows, making the climatic conditions unfavorable for farming of any sort. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine what activities the climate of the place does favor, except perhaps the ones for which the Germans chose it.
She saw, of course, as they approached the camp, that it was not as she remembered it.
First, an enormous monument, as tall and wide as any block in Kew Gardens, Queens, where she now lived, looked out at them. Next to it was the office of the Maidanek Museum’s director, and there—with what intention she herself did not know—she went first. Leaving her friends outside, she presented herself to a woman who said she was the secretary to the director. She wanted to see the director, she informed the secretary.
“The director is a busy man,” the secretary observed, and then inquired what her business was.
“I have business,” she told the secretary. “I am a former prisoner, a Jew. From America.”
The secretary ran to the director, and he at once opened the door and ushered her into his office. He was a slim, well-dressed Pole who seemed to be in his mid-thirties, and he greeted her with a shy but hospitable smile. He himself would show her around the camp, he told her, and he did. Later, he explained to her approvingly that he wished to do this because he had never before met any Jew among the visitors to Maidanek—not one, at any rate, who announced the fact. There must have been many, he was certain, but Jews in Poland, he told her with some delicacy, were more assimilated than elsewhere.
“Therefore they are not very forward about these matters,” he explained.
“Really,” she said to the director, marveling as though she had just heard of the behavior of some strange new form of life whose habits had till that moment remained unknown to her. Really. Well, in her own country, America, she assured him, the case was different; but to each his own, of course.
“In America if you are Jewish, you don’t have to be afraid to say it,” she told him nicely, without malice. She saw how kind and interested the young director was, that he had a humane face. He had, he told her, been a child during the war, and he believed very much in the work of the State Museum.
He was also an excellent guide, though he was clearly a busy man who was constantly interrupted by phone calls. First, he showed her and her friends the mausoleum, and explained that when the Russians had entered Maidanek, the fires in the crematoria were still burning. The Russians had collected part of the human ashes as evidence, and left a quantity of them in the ovens, which the visitors could see clearly for themselves. He showed them the barracks, which were as she remembered them, except for the flowers that visitors had placed inside them, and he explained to them what the enormous monument was meant to represent. All the time he talked, she listened, but her mind was not entirely focused on what she heard. The director then pointed out a group of students who had come to tour the camp, accompanied by guides. The students, who were in their late teens and twenties, listened somberly, their faces taut, their minds clearly concentrated on everything they heard, while their guide described the function of the hooks and the other torture devices on display. One group of twenty students stood before the whipping block while their guide explained something to them in Russian.
Stella went up to the group leader and said, in Polish, “I would like to introduce myself. I am a former prisoner here. A Jew. And I am from the United States.” The guide translated her words into Russian, and solemnly, one by one, all the students lined up to pump her hand.
After Stella had rejoined her own group, the director was called away to answer a phone call, and the friend’s husband went off to take some photographs of the monument. As soon as they were alone, Stella pulled her friend back to the mausoleum, and to the furnace where the ashes were.
The furnace was a little over five feet deep, not big enough to contain bodies of more than average height, shrunken though those bodies might be at the time they were shoveled in. To right this difficulty, a saw had been kept handily by, chained to a table at the side of the oven, where it still could be seen.
“Hold my legs,” she suddenly directed her friend.
“What are you doing?” the friend asked in alarm.
“Just hold my legs, I want to get some ashes,” she answered. Without further ado she crossed the small space between the spectators’ railing and the oven door, and crawled without great difficulty inside the oven itself, while her friend held her legs, too horrified to do more than obey. The ashes were quite far back in the stove. Stella inched forward until her entire body, all but her ankles, was inside the oven. The ashes lay underneath and around her, small whitish heaps in the darkness.
In one fist she had the vinyl envelope that had held her pocket rain bonnet, and into it she scooped the ashes. When the envelope was full, she began backing out of the oven, but found that she could not. Inside, the mouth of the stove was not as wide as it had appeared from the outside, so that for all her pushing, she could only get her legs out; the rest of her body was trapped in the stove. Until now she had concentrated on what she was doing, entirely unaware of any feelings. Now she saw that she was trapped, and a great blind panic seized her; she closed her eyes, so that she should not see the walls of the stove around her, and began to kick her legs madly and shout for her friend to help.
Finally, she managed to wriggle out, still with the envelope in her fist. Naturally, she was covered with ashes.
The director was expecting her in his office, where he had invited her for coffee before she left. When she got there, he stared at her a little and told her she had some dirt on her suit.
Yes, yes, she told him; she had stumbled somewhere, and it had rained, but it was nothing; a good dry cleaning would fix it.
In the car going back to Warsaw, she began to cry, and her friend cried, too. For different reasons, she almost cried again, a few days later, when she got to the Warsaw airport and strapped herself into the seat of an American plane. Never, she importuned her friends later, should they fly on a Polish or any other but an American airline, if any of them wanted to go where she had been. What happiness when she entered the plane! How it embraced her! In fact, up until that moment she had not known how bad she had been feeling. The rudeness of the Polish customs guards at the airport put the finish on everything. One had even stuck his finger in a cold-cream jar—not hers, but that of the woman in front of her. On an impulse, she had decided that for them she knew no Polish, she who had been saved by her Polish, who had babbled Polish all her life, and throughout all the years in America. When the guard questioned her, she shook her head and told him in English that she did not understand. Let them prove she knew Polish: she had an American passport.
Once home, just as she expected, everyone she knew wanted some of the ashes. Other people might not understand why you would want something like those ashes from the oven at Maidanek, but to her and her friends it was natural enough: they had no graves to visit; the ashes were all they had for a memorial. Perhaps the survivors’ group she belonged to might even one day build a monument to their dead, as had been done in other American cities, and the ashes could be kept there. For now, she kept what she had, little gravelly bits of uneven size, in a white envelope.
When people asked her why she had done such a horrible thing, putting her body into the oven, she claimed that she did not know for certain; that, as usual, she did not know a moment before what she was going to do. But that was not altogether true. She wanted ashes, yes, but that was not the reason she did what she did.
When one friend suggested that perhaps she was telling the ovens to claim her one last time, and another said it was guilt, she listened with an attitude that said it was all possible. Instead of any of these things, the thought kept crossing her mind that she had wanted to put herself in Rutka’s place, to feel something of how it had been for her in the end, to take it upon herself. But that, too, was conjecture, not anything she knew for certain. She had done many things in her life without knowing why. You did not always have to understand why you did things, to get results.
When she came home from her trip, her usual good spirits were even better than before. Her husband had long since gotten over his anger at her peculiar need to pack up and go to Poland suddenly, and was now, plainly, just glad to see her back. The man did look quite happy, as one friend remarked to her just after her return.
“And how,” she acknowledged.
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