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Only The First Four Hurt: Part V October 3, 2010

This is the fifth part in a series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust.  Previous entries include Only the First Four Hurt , Only the First Four Hurt: Part II, Only the First Four Hurt: Part III and Only the First Four Hurt: Part IV..slf

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We had bunks and I don’t remember who was next to me or who was my neighbor. We were all in our private worlds.  Trying to survive.  That’s what we thought about all day long.

I remember one guy who was with me in Auschwitz from the town I came from.  I didn’t even know he was there in the camp.   But he must’ve known that I was there because one day — we each got a small piece of bread every day to eat.  It wasn’t really bread.  It was made of sawdust.  Every person got half a loaf of those sawdust breads every day –  A few months into being in the camp this man from my town came to me with half a loaf and said:  ‘Take this. I can’t eat anymore.  Maybe it’ll help you.’  Maybe he knew something I didn’t.  I never saw him again.

There are a lot of things you try to push away.

Irving’s face crumbled.  He bowed his head and with shoulders heaving with sobs, he divulged:

All these years I tried to black all this out.  For me it was natural.  That’s why I’m breaking down now. For me it was always natural.

He continued sobbing quietly.  And then he wiped his face with one of the white, paper napkins on the table and pressed on:

Things continued like that until February 1945.  The Russians were coming close to the camp.  Of course we didn’t know that.  But the Germans decided to clear out the camp and sent us marching.  I don’t know how many days we marched in the snow and rain without food.  But if anyone fell, they were shot dead on the spot.

Irving was referring to the death marches.  As Russian troops advanced from the East and U.S./British troops approached from the West, a panicked German army attempted to clear out concentration camps and “erase evidence” of the atrocities committed within by marching camp prisoners to remote locations. Lacking food, water or insulation from the freezing cold, scores of already weakened and ill prisoners died en route.

After walking many days without food or water we got to a camp.  It wasn’t a camp but that’s what they called it.  It was a forest called Gunzkrhin.  And I remember that when we walked into this forest area, dead bodies were piled one on top of each other as high as a building.

I fainted.  And from that point I don’t remember any more until…I have no idea how long I was unconscious but it must have been a very long time.  The next thing I remember is that one day  the army – the SS army – came in and they were passing out food.  Gift packages to everybody with drinks and food and bread and chocolate and I don’t remember what else.

Nobody could believe they were doing that.  We thought they just wanted to bribe us before killing us.  The Red Cross came in the same day to see how they were treating the prisoners.  Then it was clear why they were feeding us.

I don’t remember if I ate anything but I lost consciousness again.  I do remember that whoever stayed alive….

Irving trailed off here…crying quietly.

Most people died.  There were only a few hundred of us left that were even able to move anymore.

The next thing I remember is that the Germans disappeared.  People were laughing and screaming, saying that the Americans had come.  I was in and out of consciousness.  But I remember them yelling and screaming that the Americans had liberated us.

The Americans were passing out food and feeding people.  But whoever ate dropped dead.  I wasn’t strong enough to eat or get up onto my feet. I guess I was just lying on the ground. I was lucky.

When liberating concentration camp survivors, unknowing soldiers offered food to the starving victims.  The sudden onslaught of solid nourishment was such an overwhelming shock to survivors’ systems that many died of “food overdose”.

I remember the American soldiers had taken SS as P.O.W.’s  and they were helping to feed us.  After people died from the food, they sent SS people with porridge and very light food to eat.  I was there for two days.

Then I was taken to a sanitorium in Lindz, Austria at an American army camp. I was unconscious and I woke up in the sanitorium a month or maybe a few weeks later.  I don’t have an exact recollection of time but at the beginning May or something similar, they took me to a recovery place.  That’s when I got my mental faculties and consciousness back… he indicated, tapping his head.

We were there until they got ready to send people who had stayed alive off to different places.

Some of the long time of blackout from the time I was in the field to the time I was taken to the  sanitorium I was unconscious.  Sometimes today I try to remember things like the day before the Red Cross visited us when the Germans gave us those nice things. I also try not to remember other things.

But there must have been a time lapse from the time the SS left the forest to when the Americans came in.  I’ll tell you why: I was weak but I left the camp with one of the boys and found a dead horse in the town where normal Germans lived. We decided to cook the head for ourselves.  I remember this and the horse very clearly but then I don’t remember all of it.  Maybe it was a delirious nightmare.

Off to the side, my Aunt Babe had been listening.  She signaled and shook her head ‘no’.  “Hallucination” she said, looking at Irving.  “There’s no way you would have had the strength to go into town and get a horse and cook it.”

But I do remember waking up and discovering that the SS were working for the Americans. 

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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.

 

Going to Bed Hungry September 1, 2009

This afternoon while my son & I were riding our bikes home from a celebratory ice cream shop outing to mark his 1st day of second grade, we came across a prodigious public statement/art installation in Central Tel Aviv that begged contemplation.

The entirety of Rabin Square, Tel Aviv’s largest inner city public space, had been set up with long banquet tables covered with simple white table cloths and set with glass white plates and silver cutlery.  White plastic chairs were placed at each setting.

There were, literally, thousands of place settings.

Ooh…Mass banquet! I thought but somehow knew that was wrong.

It took a minute of reckoning, eyeballing the overhead signage displayed behind the tables and ultimately chatting with the young people guarding the “installation” to understand what it was all about.

Israel is headed into The Jewish New Year holiday season in a few weeks which means family gatherings, dinners, office toasts, gift giving and general cheer.

Right around this time each holiday season LaTet (“Give) Humanitarian Organization goes into full swing food drive mode taking up food and monetary collections for those in Israel who won’t be feeling the cheer, at least not monetarily, at holiday time.

I’m accustomed to seeing the Latet people at the entrance to my supermarket handing out flyers asking for donations of baby formula, canned goods, rice and other food essentials.

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But the display on the square was a phenomenal means of sending a message.  The banner beyond the tables read:  “There are 200,000 people in Israel who won’t get enough to eat this holiday season. . .”  And the empty tables, the people manning the display disclosed, represent a mere 10th of what that number might look like were everyone to sit down together for a meal.

If you want to give, you can go by the display and make a donation, pick up an extra item or two at the supermarket and drop them into the receptacles on the way out or navigate to the Latet website for instructions on donating via SMS or pay per click.

And if you’re able to make it to the square, definitely go by and check it out.  It’s astonishing.

 

Heroin (NOT) Chic August 18, 2009

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I was breakfasting with a group of people at a semi-dive-diner place in the Upper Haight when my brother motioned toward the booth opposite us.

“It’s going to take them a while to get through the meal,” he commented with a grin.

I looked over at the couple he had indicated: A male and female in their mid-twenties, both tattooed and pierced – typical Haight fare.  They sat opposite each other with hands resting on the table cluttered with uneaten plates of assorted breakfast fare.  Their eyes were closed.

“Oh, they’re saying Grace,” I mused internally.  Because where I live these days aka Holy Land Central or Israel, that type of thing is plausible.  Heck, I’ve seen groups of German tourists on a busy Tel Aviv street corner holding hands with heads bowed praying for…Well I have no idea, actually.  A break in traffic?  Good beach weather?  Ideal photographic lighting conditions?  I dunno.

Then I peered more closely at the couple, their heads lolling.  Oh  Wow! the realization dawned.  They’ve dosed on heroin.

It’s been years since I’ve lived in close proximity to the urban drug culture and all it entails: addicts sprawled in doorways, eyes at half mast as the heroin high hits, crack fiends pacing nervously, their movements disjointed and stiff, wayward alcoholics with red faces and crusty clothing rambling incoherently from front stoops.

My stomach dropped and I felt nauseous.  This is insane.  We’re sitting in a restaurant and they’re dosing. My San Francisco dwelling companions snickered and rolled their eyes in a sort of  Oh God, the neighbors misbehaving AGAIN sort of way. I forced myself not to stare.

Later, my brother confided:  That was gross, man.  Totally sick.

Well…yeah.


 

Easter Greetings April 12, 2009

It’s Easter Sunday and I’ve been trolling the someecards site for clever greetings to mark the occasion.  I chose a few of my favorites & I’m linking here & here

To those celebrating:  Enjoy your holiday.

I was planning to head up to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa then go on into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to light a candle for those of you who couldn’t make it to Holy Land Central in person today.  But I changed my mind.

eastereggs

Going to the beach and a movie instead.

Happy Easter Anyway!!

Your friend, Stef