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Only the First Four Hurt: Part III August 8, 2010

“A week after we got there they started transporting people out of the ghetto.  They  picked a certain number of families each time to transport to Auschwitz.  We didn’t know where we were going at the time – we just knew we were going to a labor camp“… Only the First Four Hurt: Part II.

The following is Part III in an ongoing series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust. Prior entries include Only the First Four Hurt and Only the First Four Hurt: Part II. . . slf

“We were among the first transports.  About a hundred of us were forced into a train car with two sliding doors.  Space was so tight we could only stand and there was no toilet for us.  The Germans put a bucket in the train to be used by everyone.  So if you had to go, it was in front of everyone in this bucket.

“We traveled like that for two or three days – I’m not really sure how long.  It was April so it wasn’t really hot but on a sunny day on the train it could be.  We passed through towns where we’d stop to wait for other trains to pass.  I remember people watching us – town people – and everybody on the train was screaming for water.  We were so thirsty.  There was no food or water.

“We got to the final destination which was Auschwitz but at the time I didn’t know what it was or where I was.  Germans were there with whips and dogs and they were yelling and screaming for us to ‘Rush! Rush! Rush!’ to get off the train and go stand in line.

“I was with my two youngest brothers and my mother and father – there were only three of us kids at home at the time.  My four older siblings had moved to Budapest to stay with family and get an education.  I remember my father was holding my youngest brother Deszo’s hand and my mother was holding my other brother Gyorge’s arm.  He was about three or four years old.

“When the Germans formed lines, they separated me from them.  Now I know it’s because I looked older.  My relatives in Budapest were rich and they owned clothing stores and  they had sent us clothing to hide.  The anti-Jewish laws were affecting all Hungarian Jews, even in Budapest.  So they sent men’s suits to our house for us to hide in case their stores were taken away from them.  At 15, I had dressed in a man’s suit before leaving home; never in my life had I ever worn a suit like that.

“Because I was dressed in that suit I looked older and I was sent to the line for people going to the work camp.  My family was separated into the other line and sent to the crematorium. But at the time, I didn’t know where my family was going.

“They took us into Auschwitz into a camp where we got undressed and went to take a shower.  We had to undress completely and get our heads shaved and then we were issued our pajamas.  They were like striped overalls.

“The kapos in the camp weren’t German – only Polish – and I didn’t speak anything other than Hungarian.  So I asked them when I would see my parents and they pointed to the sky. We were so scared at the time that I don’t remember understanding what that meant.  I couldn’t think about it.  I was scared and shaking. It all happened very fast.

“On the first day I was taken to a barracks and there were hundreds of people inside.  But there were no children around.  And if there were, they were kept alive for medical experiments.  They didn’t leave any kids alive that they didn’t want to use for something.

“Each barrack had a Schreiber and a kapo.  A schreiber (literal translation from German: “scribe”..slf) keeps records and the kapo carries out Nazi orders.  These people weren’t Jewish.  They were Polish or from some other country the Nazis took over.  Usually they were criminals who had been given authority.  Some of them were homosexual and although I didn’t know it at the time, a few kids were spared for each barracks for the kapo and schreiber to….

Irving trailed off at this point and looked down at his hands, resting folded on the dining room table.  He resumed a moment later.

“When we got out of the wagons at the barracks and were being rounded up with whips and dogs and they yelled ‘run!’ and go here or there, 99% of the kids were gone.  Teenagers, like me, were beyond kid status.

“I remember the first night.  We fell asleep on bunk style slots that ran three to four levels high.  We were so tired from standing on the train for days that as soon as we got our clothes and went in, we went to sleep.

“The next day they gave each of us a container to be filled with soup once a day.  I didn’t want to look at the soup let alone eat it.  It wasn’t soup.  It was grass mixed with water.  I refused to eat mine that day and some of the people who had already been there for a bit were more than happy to take it from me.  They said:  ‘By tomorrow you’ll be hungry enough to eat it.’  Sure enough, after 2-3 days of not eating, I ate.

I was curious:  Did he see anyone from home?  Did he recognize anyone?

“That first day I met a guy from the neighboring town where we went to synagogue.  He was an older person, my parent’s age, in his 40’s or so.  He was the only person I knew from our area because most of the others that I remember were Polish.  But I spent a very brief time at Auschwitz – maybe three or four days.

“We basically stayed in the barracks all day long.  Once a day we went to stand in line for soup and we also got counted every day and the schreiber took note.  But I wasn’t there longer than a week.  After that they transported us to Mauthausen by truck.  It took a few hours to get there and when we arrived, we were put in the same style barracks.

“There they separated different people off into different work areas.  It was more of the same: We stood in line a few times a day to be counted.  They kept counting us to make sure nobody escaped.  I would say I was there a couple weeks and it was standing in line, getting beaten up and sometimes, randomly, they would shoot every third or fourth person in line.  Standing there you never knew if it would be you.  Or if they didn’t like the way you called out your number, they would shoot you.

“My number is 71943, by the way.  It was on a band I wore.  Most people who got there before me had tattoos.  I mean, people started coming in the 1930’s in Poland but by 1944 they didn’t have the time to burn the numbers on people’s arms anymore.  I don’t remember where we got the band but I remember my number.”

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Missing in Action November 9, 2009

It’s another Ruth-themed blog entry day.  Ruth, for the uninitiated, is the in-her-eighties-woman at the Tel Aviv dog park I frequent who I’ve been fascinated with lately.

Ruth has spunk, attitude and sass to spare and I’d wager she’s the type who stocks vodka in the freezer for guests.  And if the guests don’t drink vodka?  She’d probably press a bill into her visitor’s palm and send him or her off to the corner store for an alternate libation of choice and some ice.

For the past few weeks, Ruth hasn’t shown up at the park at the usual hour.  And because her health is sketchy and she has already had one near-death experience, my ruminations have meandered to concern regarding her whereabouts or possible demise.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

As I climbed the stone stairs of the dog run entrance yesterday, Jacob, another octogenarian park regular, posed:  Have you seen Ruth lately?” I shrugged and motioned for him to join as I crossed the grass path to the stone bench beneath the orange tree.  I sat beside David, a middle aged regular whose dog is named Meeklee and whose American partner is also named David.

Have you seen Ruth lately? I asked him.

No & I’ve been worried.  I know that when she was hospitalized for a month, she put Jessie in the Dog Farm.  Maybe something happened to her and she put her there again.  Maybe they know something, David offered.

I had the Dog Farm number handy – Ruth had given it to me as a kenneling recommendation – so I dialed the number from my mobile phone and awkwardly explained to the proprietor that a group of dog park people was concerned over Ruth’s disappearance.

Did she bring Jessie there?  Do you know anything about where she might be?

The Farm owner understood the gist and said that Jessie wasn’t at the Farm.  But she offered up Ruth’s last name.

One call to information later, I was ringing up Ruth’s apartment.

Hello? a small voice answered.  I didn’t recognize the accent and guessed it might be the Russian caretaker she had mentioned several times.

It’s Stephanie from the dog park.  I’m looking for Ruth.  Is she there?

Yes, mamaleh (English: sweetie).  What is it you need?

Ruth?  Is that you?  We haven’t seen you in a while.  So a few of us are sitting here and we were worried so we decided to —-

Tell her the view’s not the same without her! Jacob interjected, the relief in his voice audible.  I think Jacob has a thing for Ruth, between you and me.   

Oh,  I’m fine.  I’m fine.  Thank you for calling, Ruth soothed and I could tell she was touched.  I don’t come in the evening anymore because Jessie gets into the garbage and eats trash and it drives me crazy.

I laughed aloud and David commented  Well if she’s laughing, everything must be okay.

Ruth, give me your cellphone number, will you?  Just so I have it.  And take mine, I urged.  We exchanged and then she said:

Thank you mamaleh.  Thank you for calling.  I come on Saturday mornings so I’ll see you then.  But listen, I have to go.  I’m watching my German mystery series on t.v. and I have to see how it ends.

That’s the Ruth I know.

 

GI Jane October 21, 2009

I have posted here a few times about Ruth from the dog park.

She’s someone I love running into because at 80-something, Ruth makes up in pep for what she has lost in mobility.  Bright red lipstick, carrot-colored choppy hair, manicured nails and a cane for support, she’s got that naughty glint in her eye that says: “I know how to work it and I will if need be.”

Last week when we met at the dog run, Ruth shared that she had fallen in the crosswalk earlier in the day while out with  her dog Jessie.

Oh my God! I reacted.

Yeah, came her casual replyI was like Jesus on the cross. Spread out all over the place.

Are you okay?  Did you hurt yourself?

Me? she countered wide eyed, gesturing toward herself.  No no.  I know how to fall.  I took a parachuting course years ago.

All of a sudden I felt a pang. 

Ruth parachuting!  Wow.

And I sort of had to squint in my mind’s eye to past-blast beyond the moment and conjure a younger Ruth bodysurfing on the wind.

Of course Ruth has a past.  But I had never contemplated it.  And being confronted with it in such a lively manner sparked within me a combination of awe and sadness.

It made sense that Ruth had lived a daredevil life: skydiving, avoiding marrying her boyfriend of fifty years, and playing the con artist.

But in facing the image of a younger Ruth, I was facing myself.

THIS is why I like her, I epiphanied.

I Scuba dive and windsurf.  I was thrown from a horse into a Mercedes years ago on a wild, midnight ride at Giza’s pyramids.  I’ve done my fair share of conning and as for amorous relationships with men. . .I’ll save that for another posting.

Ruth, I realized, reminds me of me.

With luck, I’ll be like her when I get where she is.

 

Conning the Cops October 4, 2009

I’ve posted here several times about “Dog Park Ruth“, the orange-haired, highly spirited octegenarian I have befriended at the popular dog run near my home.  This is the same Ruth who had a near death experience and chooses, for the sake of her relationship, to maintain a dwelling separate from her boyfriend of 50 years. 

Ruth always has at least one story of interest to share and several morsels of wisdom to impart when when we meet.  This weekend was no exception.

You know there were municipal officers here today handing out fines for off-leash dogs,”  Ruth advised as she spread her newspaper on the stone bench, placed her cane on the retaining wall behind her and sat beside me beneath the lime tree.  “The tickets are 450 shekels ($120 U.S.)”

Damn! I replied.  Did they get you?

“Me?”  Ruth responded, an impish grin appearing on her carefully made-up face. 

“First of all, they didn’t want to fine me.  They wanted to haul Jessie off to the pound because she was off-leash and they didn’t know where I was.   If that had happened, they would’ve fined me and THEN charged me a per-day holding fee.”

Wow!  Bastards!  I responded. 

“Nah, nah,” Ruth retorted with a dismissive wave of the hand.  “I told them they can’t fine me; I’m a pensioner.  It’s illegal to demand more than my social security pays me each month.”   Ruth was beaming as she continued. 

“Then I purposely looked sad and asked the officers: ‘What?  You’re going to take away my best friend?  The only companion I have in my life?  What will I be left with?'”

I chortled, clapping my hand to my mouth. 

You’re shameless!  I admonished with delight, hastily reminding her of the boyfriend of five decades and family members she routinely mentions in conversation.

Ruth smiled broadly, her red lipstick accenting gleaming white teeth.  I eat those types for breakfast.”

I have a lot to learn from this woman.  

 

Clinical Death September 7, 2009

There’s this older woman who goes to the  same Tel Aviv park I take my dog Butch to for exercise every day. She & I tend to show up about the same time in the evenings and we usually sit next to each other.   

I don’t know her name but she has kicky, short orange hair she covers with a baseball cap and she uses a cane to get around.  Her manicured nails are always painted the same shade of frosty white, she pencils in her eyebrows, wears blue eyeshadow and her lipstick is a Sienna tinged with bright red.

On particularly hot days she brings bottled water and a communal drinking bowl for the dogs.  And before sitting down on the hard stone bench under the lime tree, she always spreads the day’s newspaper beneath her.

I met her a few months ago and we chatted back then about dog things.  That’s what we humans tend to do when  getting acquainted as the canines frolic.  At the time, she told me about a great “vacation spot” for dogs (read: kennel with a run) she had placed her furry companion in while she spent a month in the hospital.

I didn’t ask her about the hospitalization.  It seemed intrusive for a first encounter.

We’ve seen each other at the park for a few months now but we’ve never really gotten past the “which vet do you go to?” and “where do you buy your dog supplies?” type of banter. But last week I pulled her dog out of a fight and that changed the dynamic.

I didn’t have a choice, really.  No one else went into the fray and she’s physically incapable.  I mean, she is hovering around the mid-80’s mark and she’s frail and her 75-pound mutt is obtuse.  The other person was frantically trying to pull his dog away as hers attacked but he was losing the battle.

So I grabbed hers by the collar and with a sharp, stern tone commanded “NO!” while staring him squarely in the eyes.  I was attempting to present as The Alpha.  Thankfully, it worked.

After that wee bit of pulse-raising drama, I returned to my place on the bench beside the woman and remained quiet.  I really, but really don’t like making “a thing”  out of something like that and it started and finished quickly and without incident so in my mind, it was over.

The woman fretted a bit, though, about her dog being out of control and then she shifted her tone: “I have something to tell you.”

Oh?  I cocked my head and raised an eyebrow.

“I saw my own funeral,”  she started.  I was silent.  I mean, how DOES one counter a statement like that?

When I was in the hospital,” she pressed on, “I died.  I was clinically dead. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted but they told me later they had pronounced me dead.

I stared intently and swallowed.  She continued:

While it was happening, I rose above the bed and I was transported to the kibbutz where I have my plot.  I saw my family standing there around the grave.  I was watching the whole thing,” she relayed.  “And you know what?”  I was hanging on to her every word   “It felt wonderful.  I was at peace.  It was like letting go and relaxing.  Everything was okay.

I was astonished.  “Did they tell you how long you were dead?  Do you remember coming back?” I prodded.

No, no.  They didn’t want to talk about it,” she dismissed with a wave of the hand.  “And I don’t remember how I came back.  But I’ll tell you one thing:  That business about a light?”  she scrunched her face in disgust.   “Nonsense.   Light Shmight.  Don’t believe it.  I was floating.  That’s it.”

I had to go just then.  But I could have listened for a very long time.  I’ll let you know if she has more to tell.