TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions of the Holocaust, genocide, antisemitism, depression, and mental illness. Take care of yourselves, lovelies!
I stared down the drain at my own brother and wondered, “What if I pushed him further?”
I stared at my own father and called him Hitler, but that was before I met Hitler with my own eyes. Some of us don’t see G-d when we die; we see Hitler. Lia, he said, you give life to a parasite that’s taking us over. It’s true that I used to sing, but not after I lost you, my darling and my dearest, whose lungs I had to breathe into and whose blood I used to clean up; do you remember? If you had been here, you would have been with me… One of the children on the train with me was called Netanel Löwy-- he had the same surname as our mother but he was the polar opposite of her. She was demure; she would probably do nothing if Hitler threatened her. If she knew what he would do to me, she would probably do nothing. I saw him and I thought of my mother; how I wanted to punch her in the face, just as my father had done.
That’s right. It’s Ottla, the queen of bad deeds; she never stepped down from her high horse, and that’s why she got what was coming to her.
It is necessary for you to understand the worst parts of me before I see you again. I often got the sense that you deified me, and I’m scared of having you realize too far in the future. We’ve only known each other a little while, compared to how long we’ll know each other. You need to know that I used to think you were hopeless, for one thing I was always so intent on being happy all the time and I was so intent on you being happy that I never learned to value the honesty with which you perceived life. You had the oddest fear; you said to me, one time, when we were waiting for the train, “What if a policeman came and carried us off; taking us on the train across the platform, that’s going the opposite direction, and we weren’t able to call our parents and tell them we love them?” Our friends, whom we had been with, thought you were joking; only I knew you were being completely serious, and in fact you worried about that. Later on, I said, “Don’t you worry, okay? See? We got home safe. And we always get home safe, and we always will get home safe.” I kissed you on the cheek. You were not around to see the day my suitcases were confiscated, and I was shipped off on a train to Germany by policemen.
Moments before I broke the boundary, I was standing in line with my sisters, and as far as I could see, there were more women. I have never seen so many Jewish women in one place; isn’t that an incredible thought? I thought there must be thousands of us, but then again, I was delirious. I wanted so badly to take a bite out of the woman standing behind me, and I wish to God I was joking. All I have been thinking about… well, if I must be honest with you, and I suppose I must, I could not even sleep because I had an image in my head of my mother-in-law’s strudel! It took over my psyche; that image of biting it, and swallowing and just tasting those raisins-- I miss raisins. I miss them so much. I go in to a zone in which everything is strudel sometimes; you know what it’s like to be hungry as well, so I do wonder if you experienced this. I look behind me, and while I know there’s a boundary between her white skin and what little is left of her brown Ashkenazic hair, I turn her skin into the pastry, and her hair in to the apples. If she has lice, well, they become the raisins.
Netanel was never unhappy; all he ever did was work, and he smiled while he worked. Some boys are like that, but they lose it when they become teenagers. He will never grow old enough to lose it. I think he’ll be that way around you, too, my sweetest boy; I think he might make you smile.
When I see you again, I’ll introduce you to Netanel. You never wanted a child,but I believe that meeting him would change your mind. I think you will enjoy spending time with him; that’s all I mean, although I do understand why you were scared to be a father.
I’ll be seeing you in a moment, I know, and neither of us will have lungs--I can almost hear them saying that he went with water and she went with fire. It’s a little myth I tell myself… I’m not sure why, but I like to think that people will still be talking about us.
Once you died, I never wanted to die of old age because I had no one whose life was depending on me.
I should tell you that I never loved my husband. I want to be there for you. I think it took so much out of me to love you that I became unable to love anyone else.
I’ll tell you a funny story. I think you’d like it. I told it to Netanel last night on the train; he was having a difficult time getting to sleep.
I went to see a friend when I was pregnant (Ida-- not one of my friends that you know) and she laughed when I told her I had never wanted children. If you think being married keeps a man trapped, try being a woman! It keeps us locked up. And if being married is prison (as a close friend of mine said once), then having children is an execution.
I said, “I wish I could have been a farmer, and worked my ass off, and never had to be at home.”
She laughed even harder. “You want to be a farmer?” I showed her my big muscles. “Yes,” I said, simply.
Ida is quite traditional and Catholic; she had already had two children by the time I was pregnant with my first. She knew about farmers, sure, but she saw it only abstractly; no one she knew had any kinds of jobs like that, and no women she knew had jobs. She laughed again. “I’ll bet you my blue dress that when you have kids, you won’t leave the house for three weeks at a time.”
I smiled and folded my arms. The week after I came home with my little girl, who I had spent the week lying down in bed next to, and who was as tiny as a little chipmunk, when it was well after 10:00 but she was still awake, I gently got out of bed and I made sure she was comfortable and breathing, on top of the sheet, and I snuck outside, and I walked to the corner.
There’s a neighbor of mine called Peter-- I certainly told you about him. And I saw him taking a walk too, so I crossed the street and went up to him.
“You look beautiful,” he said, even though I had not brushed my poor hair in a week since I had come home from the hospital, and my body weight was still uneven.
“Tilly,” he said, softly. Authenticity might only be something I have heard from a handful of people… from you, and from Peter, in that moment, when he said my name. That’s the kind of man I want. Someone who thinks I am beautiful even then… in the least beautiful time of my life. I might never get to do this again, I thought, and I took off his coat.
“Tilly?” he asked again. When my husband woke up the next morning, he said that name for me as well, but he used a different tone, that made me feel bored and alone. He never knew where I was that night; he still thinks I was with the baby.