Reunion: A Holocaust Memoir
Suddenly I froze. Before me stood Ana, our Jewish Kapo, an image that I had tried with all my might to erase from my memory.
"You'll recognize me by the jagged scar running the length of my chin," Chana Rosenthal said in the phone call that preceded our meeting. "It's my constant memento from Dr. Mengele, may his name be blotted out for eternity. It happened the day I arrived at Auschwitz, when he ruthlessly shoved me forward and I fell. My chin split open when I hit the ground. I'll never forget how he just stood there laughing."
There were other sights and scenes from "those days" that would remain indelibly etched in Chana Rosenthal's memory. The shabby barracks, the hard, cracked, wooden berths, which were shared by her barracks mates, and of course Ana. Ana the Jewish Kapo.
Chana's memories from "then" are her constant companions, day in and day out. She fights her own private war, trying to overcome them instead of letting them overcome her. She has her own method of warfare, which she employs to her general satisfaction. It entails replacing every evil and painful memory with a new and beautiful one -- new memories of the life she has built to permanently memorialize her survival of the most devastating period in Jewish history. Every birth, first of her own children, and subsequently of her children's children, is her own private revenge, her way of doing battle.
"It gives me the strength to keep on going," she told me when we met. She waved a notebook before me, in which were duly recorded every single child and grandchild's birthdays. "We try to get on with life to the best of our ability, and push those hellish memories to the farthest recesses of our minds. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the images of the past just seem to have a mind of their own. Like that time at Sara's engagement party. With no prior warning, that long repressed image rose up, sending shockwaves up and down my spine, turning my blood cold in my veins."
Chana was almost shouting now. "It was by far the most painful and detestable of all of my memories from 'then.'"
She sank deep into her thoughts as if a veil of silence had descended upon her. Ten long minutes passed between us without a word being exchanged. She finished her soup, and only after wiping the corners of her mouth with her cloth napkin did she lift her eyes and meet my gaze. I discerned dampness in the corners of her eyes.
"I make it my business to attend every celebration of my entire extended family -- every engagement, wedding, bar mitzvah, bris, etc. I do my utmost to make sure I'm present. I do the same for all my close circle of friends from 'there.' We are a group of survivors, all from the same barracks, Number 267, from Auschwitz. We all make a point of keeping in touch, in general, but we also make a monumental effort to participate in every celebration that one of 'the group' makes. This is our attempt at avenging ourselves on our barbaric captors. We stand together, unified in the message that we declare loud and clear: 'We are still here today, and we will live on!'
"Whoever is hosting the affair always makes sure to mark our designated table with a sign in green ink. So when my dear friend Sara was making an engagement party for her eldest daughter in France, I felt very strongly that I wanted to be there. Despite the expense such a trip would entail, I insisted on attending, not willing to leave 'my place at the table' empty.
"When I arrived at the hall, I wove my way through the throngs of people, in search of the designated table. I threaded my way between the many tables, nodding in response to the greetings sent in my direction. When I finally found our table, I sat down and proceeded to look around the hall, keeping an eye out for newcomers, and anticipating the others of our group. I remember well the cacophony of voices, the cries of good wishes, and the fluent French swirling all around, a sea of unfamiliarity.
"As is my custom at every gathering, I scrutinized my fellow tablemates. There were constantly new/old faces that suddenly resurfaced, and I delighted in the discoveries each time. Although it's hard to identify faces from so many years in the past, since decades had passed already since the liberation, I still have the habit of carefully studying the faces at every affair. So every new arrival to the hall merited a thorough inspection by me, as I searched for a hint of familiarity on each otherwise unfamiliar face.
"Suddenly I froze, riveted to my place. Before me stood Ana! An image that I had tried with all my might to erase from my memory. I looked at her again, and felt my heartbeat accelerate dangerously. It wasn't easy to identify her positively after all those years, but the more I looked at her, the surer I was that indeed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was her!
All at once I was hurled back into that world of 'then' and I felt like I was choking.
"She felt my gaze on her, and when our eyes met, a flash of recognition sparked in hers. She gave me a look whose message was clear. It was a desperate plea not to reveal her identity to those present.
"All at once I was hurled back into that world of 'then,' a world which had rules and norms all of its own. No longer did I see the glowing bride. I didn't hear the sounds of song and rejoicing that filled the hall. All I heard were the sounds of the past. I felt like I was choking."
"Ana was our Kapo. She was the butt of our hatred. We couldn't assimilate the fact that a Jew just like us, stemming from the very same hallowed roots as ours, could treat her fellow sisters with such abject cruelty. That pain cut deep, and was the source of the intense hatred that we felt towards her.
"We, all of us from Barracks 267, were terrified of her. We shook at the very sight of her, we trembled at the sound of her voice, but mainly we feared her beatings. When she would enter the barracks, locking the door behind her, tap-tapping her way across the floor with her shining black leather boots, with the gold buckles glinting in the dim light of the barracks, we quaked in fear.
"We girls used to encourage each other, banding together through the freezing nights and impossible conditions. We strengthened each other with words of comfort, hope and faith. Then she would come along, this Ana, and trample our threadbare hopes, the faith to which we clung in order to give us the strength to continue in that living hell. She ridiculed us mercilessly, looking for excuses to make our lives a bit more difficult. All of this was done just to find favor in the eyes of the Nazi overseer. She wanted to prove that she was on their side.
Why are you treating us like this? You're our sister, a prisoner just like us!
"I remember how I used to want to scream sometimes, 'Why are you treating us like this? You're our sister, a prisoner just like us! Your imprisonment is really even more severe than ours, as you are locked into your own world, with no one to share your bitter experience with, not a single friend with whom to share your troubles, and with whom to commiserate. You have no one. Why are you doing this to us and to yourself?' Yet despite the fact that my eyes telegraphed this message to her, time and time again, and she understood the message, she paid it no heed. She chose to ignore the silent reproof."
The question fell from my lips: "Did you just suffer in silence? You never did anything to put a stop to her?"
Chana stared at me. It seemed as if she were looking right through me, as if I didn't exist. Seconds ticked by, and finally she seemed to be returning to the present.
"Suffer in silence? Absolutely not. I remember one particular evening, after Ana left, after her usual harsh inspection of the cleanliness of the barracks.
"'I can't take this any longer,' Miriam burst out, her veins popping out of her thin neck.
"'How is it possible for someone to sink so low? Where is her Jewish heart?' fumed Elka.
"I was the youngest of the group, so I kept quiet, trying not to get involved," Chana said, closing her eyes in concentration, remembering.
"After considering all the possible options, a plan of action was decided upon. In the morning, when Ana would enter the barracks, everyone would attack her, wrapping her in a blanket, and then proceed to beat her. The girls slept fitfully that night, tense and nervous. They were up at the crack of dawn, ready to act.
"I hid under my bed, squeezing myself between the bed board and the floor. I listened carefully to the proceedings from my hiding place. I could hear the whispered murmuring of my barracks mates on the one hand, and Ana approaching, on the other. I wanted to run away, to escape the scene that was to come. Obviously, that was not an option.
"'You... you…' someone found me hiding. 'Don't tell on us!' She pierced me with a dangerous look.
"As Ana entered the barracks, I trembled at the thought of the ramifications of this act. A choked cry escaped her. It is difficult for me to describe well what happened next, since I squeezed my eyes shut tight. The girls wrapped Ana in a blanket, so she wouldn't be able to identify the attackers and instigators to the authorities. Only at the sound of heavy footsteps approaching the barracks did they finally let up and stop, leaving her moaning and sobbing on the floor. They hurried to their work posts.
"I don't know why, but some merciful streak was aroused in me at the pathetic sight of her lying there so helpless on the floor. I went over to her. She was lying there, eyes open wide from shock, cringing from the pain of the beatings. I brought her a little water, and then I had to run to my work shift.
"A few hours later, we were called down. We stood there shaking, our bones rattling in our emaciated bodies. All feelings of hatred were gone; the moments of fear were long forgotten. The only thing that was left was this tremendous feeling of satisfaction. The pain was over; all that remained was this bittersweet sense of victory.
"Not one of us revealed anything. They interrogated us and beat us mercilessly, to no avail. In the end we were sent back to work without lunch. We felt sorry for ourselves, and our guilty consciences played havoc with us. Going without food was akin to death.
"That was the end of Ana the Kapo. We never saw her again, although we heard through the camp grapevine that they had moved her to a different section. And suddenly, out of nowhere, she was here! Standing right in front of me, at Sara's daughter's engagement party! It was like a slap in the face, to have her appear at one of those occasions that all of us survivors privately marked as our grand revenge against the Nazi beasts. She was part of 'them!' How dare she join the celebration?
"I was in turmoil. Memories stormed my mind, clouding my vision until I couldn't differentiate between what was reality or just a figment of my imagination. I felt the room spinning around me. Before I knew what was happening, she was next to me, standing there beside me. No longer a self-confident young girl, definite signs of age were noticeable on her. Her eyes were sunken; numerous wrinkles covered her face, which didn't look as if they stemmed only from age.
"'Hello, Chana,' she said to me.
I could see her beating us mercilessly. It took me some time before I could bring myself to look at her.
"I was silent. The pictures from the past were right before my eyes. I clearly saw her yelling and beating us mercilessly. I could see her degrading us and trampling our tender dreams and hopes for release. Everything rose up in front of my eyes, at that moment. It took me some time before I could bring myself to look at her.
"She seemed to understand what I was thinking and what I was going through, and she lowered her eyes in shame. A bright crimson stained her hollowed cheeks. And then suddenly she reached out and took my hand in hers, squeezing it tightly. A heart-wrenching sob tore out of her throat.
"I pulled her out into the deserted hallway, to avoid unwanted attention. She just kept on sobbing pitifully. 'You probably hate me! You resent me... I saw right away that you recognized me as soon as I walked in,' she said, in between each shuddering sob.
"'No, I didn't know it was you,' I wanted to tell her, but I didn't. I just held her. At that moment Ana appeared to me to be the most pitiful creature in the world. I felt sorry for her.
"We went out into the cold night. As we walked, she broke the silence with a request to me. 'I have a favor to ask of you,' she said, turning to me, her eyes still glinting from the copious tears she had shed. 'I had a series of medical tests done last week, and it was decided that I need to undergo surgery. They found a growth in my brain. The procedure is scheduled for one week from today. It must be Divine intervention that caused me to meet up with you tonight, because I'm terrified to go by myself. Come with me, please.'
"I wanted to ask her why she was all alone in the world. I held my tongue though, and kept silent. I didn't utter a sound, even as she continued to write her address on a slip of paper, and thrust it into my hand. When I pulled myself together a bit, I managed to mumble something to the effect that I would try to come to her the night before the operation. Then she was gone.
"The days that followed were difficult ones. I couldn't concentrate on anything. I informed my family that I would be delayed in France for a few days longer than I had originally planned. I was glad that I was away, far from my home. At least, my children wouldn't see me in such a state. I couldn't have spoken to them about what I was going through, the doubts and indecision over what to do."
"You doubted what to do?" I couldn't resist interjecting.
"Yes and no. On the one hand I saw the gold buckle, her black boots, the harsh punishments she used to mete out to us young girls. It all came back to me. At the same time, my feelings of mercy had been aroused, and my thinking mind dictated that she had also been a prisoner like us."
Chana paused in her narrative, rummaging around in her purse a moment. She drew out a photo. It was of her next to Ana, who was dressed in a white hospital gown.
"The day before Ana was scheduled to be hospitalized for the surgery, I found myself traveling in the direction of the address she had given me. I didn't see the bustling street, teeming with humanity. Everything appeared hazy to me, as if in a half reality. I went up the steps of her house, and noted the name on the door. She opened the door, appearing a bit dazed.
"The lighting in the house was weak, but I was able to discern a family portrait hanging opposite the entrance, on the wall. At her side, in the portrait, stood a man who appeared to be her husband, and two children were seated beside them, a boy and a girl.
"Ana waited beside me, watching as I tried to reconcile her present situation with the contrasting one in the picture.
"'They're not here anymore. I'm all alone,' she said.
"My eyes were glued to the picture, as Ana's hoarse voice continued, sounding eerily detached. 'I also married a few years after the war. I too began to rebuild my shattered life. My conscience bothered me here and there over the years, but I consoled myself with the thought that had I not acted as I did, I would never have lived to memorialize my family. I was the sole survivor of my entire extended family.' Ana's voice caught, and she sat down heavily on a couch that had definitely seen better days. 'But then… every member of my new family died in the most tragic fashion. Each one was worse than the next. I can't explain why, but a sudden fear possessed me. I was obsessed with the thought that I was the cause of their deaths. That fear followed me wherever I went. I had no rest from it. The terrible feeling of guilt weighed on my shoulders. I finally sought the advice of the rabbi of my city. I unburdened myself to him, revealing everything. He and his wife enveloped me with warmth. They restored a bit of my will to live. At their suggestion, I began volunteering in an Old Age Home, to give a bit of warmth to those who are left with no one to care about them. In this way, I felt I was repenting for my sins and in some way erasing my guilt for the deaths of my family members.' Ana waved a hand in the direction of the picture on the wall as if in a gesture of fond farewell."
"How did you react?" I asked her.
"I listened to her. I hugged her, and I asked her where her suitcase was, to pack up her things for the hospital. I closed off my feelings for the moment. She gathered together everything she needed and put it all in a brown, worn, carry-all. In a separate bag she tenderly placed the picture of her family and various other objects. She held it out to me. 'My bag of memories; please put it next to my bed in the hospital for me.'
"We left the house silently."
"The evening before the operation, I slept by her side in the hospital. In the middle of the night she woke up. 'Chana, I'm so scared! I'm afraid of the operation. What if...?' I tried to distract her from her troublesome thoughts, but to no avail. She continued as if I hadn't interrupted her at all. 'If I die, maybe my death will serve as atonement -- if not totally, at least in part -- for my terrible actions against you and the others. Please forgive me!' Her eyes seemed to glow in the dark room. She broke down then and cried.
"If I die, maybe my death will serve as atonement for my terrible actions against you and the others. Please forgive me!?
"I loved her so much at that moment. I felt as close to her as a sister. 'My dear sister, dearest sister,' I murmured through my own stream of tears.
"As morning light streamed in through the windows we tried to pull ourselves together. The doctor who was supervising her case was much surprised to see such a sight. Two women way past their youth crying like two little girls, so emotionally overcome as he had not seen in any of his prior cases.
"'Are you her sister?' he asked me.
"'Yes,' I answered.
"'Don't let go of my hand…' Ana begged me. I didn't let go of her until they were giving her the general anesthesia. 'I have a bad feeling. I sense that something is going to go wrong, very wrong. Say you forgive me! Say it! Ask everyone to forgive me, to forgive Ana!' she blurted out right before she fell asleep.
"'Go, rest up," the nurse encouraged me. "Come back in a few hours. It's a long and involved procedure. It will take time.'
"I refused to hear of it. I had promised my sister that I would remain at her side. 'I will not desert my sister,' I told her, while following her bed up until the doors of the operating room."
"Were you aware of what you were saying?"
"Yes, of course. I knew exactly what I was saying. No, it didn't sound strange to me at all. Ana had become like a sister to me, in those few hours that we had spent together.
"The hours passed slowly. The sharp medicinal smell of the hospital made me a little tipsy. I felt as if I were in a time capsule of sorts. I must have fallen asleep, eventually: I was exhausted from the sleepless night before. I awoke to find that someone had covered me with a woolen blanket.
"'Ana, Ana!' I recalled where I was.
"I stopped a nurse who was passing through the hallway. I asked her to find out for me what had happened. There are many moments of my life that are indelibly etched on my mind, but that moment supersedes them all.
"A nurse and doctor approached me. 'Your sister… ' the nurse said, enunciating each syllable slowly, frighteningly slowly. 'Your sister did not wake up.'"
Chana burst into tears right there, in the middle of the restaurant, as if she were even now sitting in the hospital in France.
"Ana asked for forgiveness! She didn't stop begging to be forgiven. We forged a unique and close bond over such a short period of time. Here I am, years after this incident, and I still have a hard time bidding her a final farewell. Maybe now that I have shared the story with you, I'll be able to find some relief from this burden that I have been carrying around for so long. If only I could retrieve some measure of peace of mind, whatever that means for a survivor of Barracks Number 267."
Chana had finished her tale. She took two sips of water from her glass, wiped the tears from her eyes, retrieved her notebook, and glanced at her watch. "It's late," she said as she got up and left.
The next day, Chana phoned me. "I couldn't sit there any longer. Everything came back to me," she explained. "But, please, write it all down. Write it for the survivors of Barracks 267. They must know that Ana asked for their forgiveness."
The deed is done.
This article originally appeared in © Mishpacha Magazine 2004