1. Prague: The Distraction Is the Thing Itself
I’m more interested in the lives of the Kafka sisters than in the life of Franz.
Franz and his youngest sister, Ottla, were very close. For a while, they lived together in a tiny house near Prague Castle. Ottla married a non-Jewish man against the wishes of everyone in her family except Franz. Her husband’s name was Joseph David and they had two children, Vera and Helene. When the Nazis arrived, Ottla divorced Joseph to protect him. I can’t find the names of their daughters on any lists. I don’t know if they lived with the father or died with the mother.
My boyfriend, Colin, is not Jewish. If we got married and today was 1944, I would divorce him to protect him. If we had children and we could hide that I was their mother, I would divorce him so that he could protect the children. And then, in the camp, would I be bitter that he left me, or would I be comforted that he was somewhere, alive?
I’m almost always more interested in girls. But are these girls a waste of my time?
Hedda, almost 7
These are the Goebbels girls, part of the Führerbunker list. As the Soviet Army approached, Hitler and his closest companions, including the Goebbels family, ate chocolate and drank milk in a bunker. Hitler and Eva married.
(Their brother, Helmut Goebbels, was only nine when he died. According to testimony, when he heard gunfire in the other room, he said, “Bull’s-eye!”)
My mom, speaking about an old friend of hers who’s now divorced: “She married a non-Jew even though her father warned her not to.”
What she means: If I marry Colin, my Jewishness might not matter to him now, but one day, when things go bad between us, he’ll bring it up. A mark against me that’s easy to ignore while we’re young and in love, hints my mother, who is still married to her Jewish husband, though it’s been a difficult, often dissatisfying marriage.
I am alone in Prague for three months and I promised myself I’d finish my novel.
I can’t get enough of my apartment—the luxury of having my own place. It’s a turn of the century building and I’m on the third floor: high ceilings, doors inlaid with glass panels, the glass panels etched with flowers. I open my tall bedroom windows with a twist of brass, but I leave the white curtains drawn to flutter over the radiator and obfuscate my body. Maybe an elderly couple lived here before World War II. Their children grown, they read books to each other and argued about whose turn it was to make dinner, and with each season, pushed their armchairs a little closer to the radio.
I think about what kind of father Colin would be, picture having children with him. He would make a good father and I’m confident that I’d be a good mother. Back in New York, I played with my godchildren all through their baby years, drove them to daycare when their parents couldn’t, washed their little bodies in the tub, distracted them when they cried, loved them as if they were mine and in some ways I felt that they were.
The eldest daughter, Helga, had bruises around her jaw. This suggests the morphine hadn’t worked and she tried to fight her mother’s cyanide pill.
Before I left New York, I’d crawl on the rug with my niece, read her books while she chewed on them. When she tired, I’d pick her up, let her head drop to my shoulder, and feel her body curl against my chest. I’d walk up and down the apartment that way, her hand gripping a strand of my hair. Finally, she’d fall asleep, and I’d lie down to watch her body move with each one of my breaths.
Magda Goebbels’s case is not unique; many other German mothers did the same thing, thousands even. During the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945, members of the Nazi Youth distributed cyanide pills to the audience. They couldn’t all be psychopaths. Somehow, they were convinced they had no choice. Perhaps it was easy for the parents to imagine what the Russian Army would do when it arrived.
I imagine giving cyanide pills to my six children. I convince the dentist to mix morphine into their evening milk and I tell my husband to stay in his room. Once I’m sure they’re asleep, I carefully take the packet of cyanide pills from my purse. I start with Heide, my baby. I shake her shoulder to make sure she’s unconscious and I smooth her hair, tuck it behind her ear. I take a pill, and push it between the lips that had wetly kissed me good night. I close her jaw around the pill, making sure I hear the glass capsule shatter. It makes a crunching sound. I frantically look for symptoms, feeling a rush of familiar instincts, the same ones I felt when she was feverish for three days straight. The poison is quick. Heide’s blood mixing with the compound kills her instantly. My youngest is dead. I have no choice, I remind myself, and in any case, it’s too late to stop now. I lay her beautiful head back down on the indent in her pillow and move onto the next. By the time I get to Helga, my oldest, I have no doubts left. Even when she surprises me by waking and fights me. “I know your plan,” she says defiantly. “I overheard you!”
“I told you to drink all of your milk,” I say. “As usual you disobeyed me.” I grab her jaw with one hand and with the other, I thrust the pill in her mouth.
2. Prague: The Main Question
I wrote everything above this on Yom Kippur. That morning, I had bacon with my eggs.
A twisting staircase takes me to floor zero, each cement step narrowing on the left around the elevator shaft. I glance through windows overlooking a courtyard strung with clothing and vines. To exit the building I have to turn a lock that’s always catching, push through heavy, black metal doors—the same ones that the husband and wife left through to visit their daughter studying at university, to go to the fish market, to board a train that never returned.
“It is not a shady wall, it is life, dear, sweet life pressed into wall form.” Franz Kafka on his deathbed, 1924.
I walk alone through Smichov, my neighborhood. I find a cement building with a Hebrew inscription. It stands in the middle of a sleek new shopping center. The doors are locked.
The building was a synagogue, founded in the mid-1800s. In 1931 the building was renovated and enlarged, suggesting that the Jewish community in my neighborhood was flourishing. During the Nazi occupation, the Germans housed confiscated Jewish property there. By the end of the war, there was no need for a synagogue. During Communist rule it served as a warehouse for a nearby factory. Now it’s the home of the Prague Jewish Museum’s archive. There is no Smichov Jewish community.
The Hebrew inscription: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.” The inscription in Czech: “Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near.”
I go shopping.
Sharing all this information seems important, but why? Is it possible to find a piece of land inhabited by humans that hasn’t been a stage for harm? Yet, we enjoy our lives on these barrows.
I return home for lunch and sit for a while in my sunny kitchen. Maybe a teacher lived here, a woman grading late into the evening with a red pen, frustrated by her students’ grammatical errors and her own inability to teach them better.
3. Prague: Outside Research
The next day, I go to the university office. Instead of opening the file that contains my novel, I plug Prague 5 (Smichov) into the Holocaust Database of Victims. There are 2,057 results. I fight the temptation to click first on the women who have photographs next to their names. I fight the temptation to click on the ones with fashionable hats and lovely collars, the pretty ones. Even onto this list, my prejudice seeps.
The first two names are husband and wife: Laura Freinbergerova and Dr. Simon Freinberger. He has a large forehead and bushy eyebrows above a pair of round glasses. From their street, 619 names make it on the list.
I compare pre-WWII city maps to Google Maps. I find the original spelling of my street name and plug my address into the victim database: No results. I’m disappointed. It would have made for interesting narrative.
4. Prague: A Picture of a Play Inside a Play
Helmut heard Hitler kill himself and said, “Bull’s-eye!”
I am interested in some boys, as long as they are Jewish, because these boys can’t grow up to be Nazis. Then I wonder if they can.
The Holocaust Memorial in Prague was once a synagogue, built in the 1500s. Daylight is visible through the windows—leaves turning red, an overcast sky, people getting off a tram. Inside here is the inside of a tomb. A dead place with names on the walls. No ghosts, just emptiness pronounced. Upstairs, there is a little room with children’s drawings.
The boy I’m interested in most is eleven and very talented. His name is Stepan Pollak. Stepan sees a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged by prisoners in a concentration camp called Terezin. He draws a scene from Pyramus and Thisbe, the play that is being performed poorly and hilariously inside Shakespeare’s play. It is a picture of a play inside a play. This picture now hangs in the little room, where I examine it closely.
Only a few days earlier, I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Moscow with my mother. The translation was excellent. The performance was very funny, full of movement, colors rustling through air. I was sick during the performance, though, and blew my nose every time the audience laughed, tried to time my coughs. I ran out of napkins and had to begin using the soggy ones. I still loved it, but it’s torturous to be that sick in the middle of an audience.
My father’s grandfather, a Moscow Jew and an electrical engineer, spent seven years in one of Stalin’s forced labor camps. My grandmother never said a word about her father’s experience, and I never asked before she died. I only know the years—she was seven when he left and fourteen when he returned. Followed by decades of fearful silence.
He was sentenced on September 12, 1938. He was in Category 2 on a list signed by Stalin; Category 1 was the death penalty. On Stalin’s September 12 list, there are 137 names in Category 1. There are six names, including my great-grandfather’s, in Category 2. He was very lucky.
Saint John Chrysostom wrote in a homily titled “Against the Jews”: “Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching . . . Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter.”
In college, my professor once called on a girl in my Introduction to Comparative Literature class and the girl said, “Everyone in Hollywood is Jewish.” The professor said, “That’s an anti-Semitic thing to say and untrue.” I gripped my seat.
I return to the office to plug Stepan Pollak’s name into the Holocaust database. Stepan is on transport list Bd. He is number 292, from Prague to Terezin on September 4, 1942. Transport list Bd has 1,000 names on it. 54 of them survived. 5.4 percent. According to the transport list, his address in Prague is Filipa de Monte 19. I look up this street, but can’t find it anywhere.
Some Jews love to talk about which actors and actresses are Jewish. They’re proud, as if this reflects positively on them. Oh, that one has a Jewish mother. That one has a Jewish father. Both of her parents are Jewish!
Finally, I find Filipa de Monte Street. It only existed for the six years of the war. Before and after, Czechs called it Maiselova Street, after Marek Mardochai Maisel (1528–1601, a Jew), who financially supported Emperor Rudolph II of the House of Hapsburgs, the emperor who moved his capital to Prague.
Emperor Rudolph II was quite tolerant of minorities, including Jews, within his kingdom. He sent his illegitimate son, Julius, to live in a castle in Český Krumlov, a picturesque town a three-day carriage-ride from Prague (two hours by bus). Once there, Julius abused, murdered, and disfigured the body of the local barber’s daughter. Rudolph II wanted to punish his son, but Julius died from a ruptured ulcer. Historians have deduced that Julius was probably schizophrenic.
Coincidentally, I am planning a trip to Český Krumlov with my good friend, Kate. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Stepan Pollak is on another transport list: Ds, number 1283 on December 18, 1943, from Terezin to Auschwitz. Transport list Ds has 2,503 names on it. 488 of them survived. 19.5 percent. A large number!
I need to know more about Terezin, but I am afraid to go there. It’s only a fifty-minute train ride from Prague. Instead, I search for diaries and I find Gonda Redlich’s, translated from Hebrew into English by the late historian Saul S. Friedman. Gonda is a twenty-six-year-old who headed the children’s department at Terezin for three years and wrote regularly until his deportation to Auschwitz. I read at the office until it closes at eleven. I walk straight home, past roaming groups of drunken tourists, and continue to read in bed.
The diary is filled with torment over making sure the children have enough space, heat, food, medicine. He appoints counselors for the children’s barracks, sets up schools, and worries about a lack of good role models. He hopes to move to Israel after the war. He’s learning Hebrew and Arabic in his spare time. According to the translator, Gonda writes his entries in Hebrew as practice; his language is formal and stilted. On November 24, 1943, he writes: They have forced us to agree in writing to infanticide. There is fear everywhere. Its reign is terrifying—difficult to bear. Fear and depression turn men into evil animals. What am I saying? Even evil animals do not kill their children. What are they doing to us? At the time he is writing this entry, his wife is six months pregnant.
Gonda was one of the men responsible for organizing transports to “the East.” He knows the trains are going to Poland and like everyone he senses that it’s best to avoid these transfers. At first, he’s able to keep the children off the lists; eventually, the Germans make this impossible, and unknowingly Gonda signs up thousands of teenagers, toddlers, babies to ride cattle cars to the gas chambers.
In this way, the Germans murdered 99 percent of the children who entered Terezin.
September 19, 1943: It is forbidden to talk with or have contact with [the Bialystok children] who live outside in the huts. So, people sometimes go near the children’s camp just to hear their voices. A mother listens for the voice of her daughter. The distance isn’t great and they see each other, a mother sees her loved one.
Gonda explains that some of these children had witnessed the murder of their parents. When guards herded these children into the delousing room upon arrival at Terezin, they panicked and yelled, “Gas! Gas!” These children knew what their future held and maybe it was for this reason that the Nazis kept them in separate huts and prohibited communication with the rest of the ghetto. Then they gave the children new clothes to make them feel happiness, to calm them down. To make them think they were going to Sweden, Denmark, or Switzerland, then on to Israel.
Still in bed the next morning, I read through research conducted by a historian at the University of Łódź and discover that Franz’s little sister, Ottla, had volunteered to look after a large group of children who had arrived at Terezin alone. It hits me: could she have volunteered to look after the Bialystok children? I compare the transport lists and the dates. They are the same. I am elated by my discovery, I get an adrenaline rush. I stand up to start the coffee.
On October 5, 1943, the same day the Bialystok children and their guardians arrived in Auschwitz, all of them including Ottla were gassed.
There were 1,260 children and 53 guardians. 0 of them survived. 0 percent.
Two months later, Stepan Pollak followed the same route. He did not survive. Did Ottla, 51, and Stepan, 11, ever meet? What did people do in that camp when they weren’t putting on Shakespeare or drawing pictures or accidentally volunteering to go to their deaths a little more quickly?
I drink my coffee while I fry two eggs. I put a little pile of arugula on a plate and stir a dressing in a separate glass. I revel in these slow breakfasts. An exhibit of a picture of a play inside a play. That’s what Stepan Pollak’s life is. Not so different from all our lives maybe.
“The play’s the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
5. Moscow: What Makes a Nazi?
Before settling in Prague, I took my first trip to Russia. My mother came with me after I told her that I was going with or without her; it was her first trip back in twenty-five years. She kept saying she didn’t recognize anything. “Everything looks different,” she repeated over and over. “It’s so clean now.”
For the first few days, she didn’t want me talking to anyone. When we needed directions, she insisted on asking for them herself. As she’d been doing all her life, she was trying to protect me from an entire country.
We walked inside the Kremlin’s walls, our arms linked. We wore colorful scarves and leather jackets and ignored the security officers. “Putin could be nearby,” I teased.
We circled around churches and peered inside at ancient icons, pressing ourselves against tiny corridors to make way for large groups of Chinese tourists. We posed in front of Peter the Great’s giant cannon, which my mother joyfully remembered from her childhood. We walked down a sidewalk, and then stepped into the large empty street to overtake a slow-moving tourist group. A whistle stopped us in our tracks and an officer waved us over. “Why were you in the street?” said the officer. “Kuda v spishiti? ” Where are you rushing?
Before my mother could respond, I answered: “We wanted to get ahead of that big group.” I allowed a nervous smile, playing the nice Russian girl. I knew how Russians felt about the countless Chinese visitors touring their sacred sites, how they felt about anyone who looked different. We’re annoyed by the same thing, said my smile. I’m one of you.
“I want a lot of things,” said the officer. “Doesn’t mean I can have them. Stay on the sidewalks.”
As we walked away, I felt the pounding inside my body, its external movements. My body’s readiness to betray me, and others, to protect itself.
A few minutes later, I froze, thinking I’d accidentally started crossing the street in the wrong place. Later, when I heard a whistle, I looked around anxiously. My mother laughed at me, pleased that I finally felt her fear.
When we arrived in Prague, relief slackened our bodies and we slept for hours, even though it was the middle of the day. She flew home three days later, leaving me her winter boots.
6. Český Krumlov: Finally, a Friend
Kate flies in from Paris and we take a bus to Český Krumlov, which is more beautiful than I expected. In the evening, our Airbnb host, a twenty-five-year-old boy named Hynek, leads us over a dark muddy path. “Do you trust me?” he asks. A full moon makes us giddy.
A tall stone fortress grows out of a cliff as if it’s a natural phenomenon. I wonder if this is the castle in which a king’s son raped and murdered a barber’s daughter.
We walk through the fortress and down into the center of town. Hynek comes to dinner with us and recommends local dishes. He loves to talk about himself and how successful he is, but we don’t mind much. We sit outside, just above the river, with blankets on our laps. A heat lamp provides the only light. We share platters of fish and meat and drink hot mead.
When he finds out I’m Jewish, he jokes that I must have a lot of money. I don’t know how to react and neither does Kate, and he notices this, so he says, “I like to make politically incorrect jokes.” Later he says that he jokes with his mother that he’s like a Jew because he’s so “savvy.”
7. Vienna: When Art Is Almost Enough
We take a shuttle bus to Vienna. During the bathroom break, we buy apple strudel at McDonald’s. On our first full day, Kate and I spend hours in the Belvedere, not leaving until the museum closes, then we rush through the gardens at dusk. The next morning, we return to see the contemporary art. For the first time, I find myself appreciating, lingering before modern art displays.
My mother reminds me several times to visit the Vienna State Opera House. While I’m at the Belvedere, I receive another text from her: “You check Vienna Opera House calendar. It’s one of the best opera in Europe and building magnificent from inside and outside. There is another copy but the smaller version in Odessa.”
Always I am suspicious of my mother’s advice. My first thought is: Stop trying to live vicariously through me.
I feel guilty for thinking this. (At the time it doesn’t occur to me to ask my mother how she knows about the opera house in Odessa.)
Kate gamely adds the opera house to the list of things we need to see. In the evening, we wait in line for standing-room-only tickets to that night’s show, the premiere of the ballet Le Corsaire. First come, first serve. After receiving our tickets, the usher tells us to save our spots in the standing section by tying our scarves on the red velvet railing. “That’s all?” we ask each other, disbelieving. The show doesn’t start for an hour, so we go look for food, our necks bare.
For three euros each, we watch from behind an audience dressed in gowns and tuxedos. We’re wearing sweaters and jeans, our all-day walking clothes. I had worried my feet would grow tired, but they don’t; the movements of the dancers on stage cause me to forget I have a body.
During intermission, we move among the rest of the audience, eat cakes and drink champagne in a space that looks like a ballroom. We toast my mother even though she’s not there.
That night, I begin to wonder how the German annexation of Austria occurred. I read about the rise of the Austrian Nazi party, which the Austrian government subsequently banned, and the Austrian Chancellor’s various attempts to resist his country’s absorption into the Third Reich. I read that on March 12, 1938, the Austrian government finally ordered its military to stand down to the approaching German Army. I do not know if the chancellor considered the effect this would have on his Jewish population.
The point is this: On March 12, 1938, spontaneous crowds of cheering onlookers greeted the arrival of Hitler in Austria. His tour throughout the country took on an unexpectedly festive atmosphere. On March 13, in preparation for Hitler’s arrival in Vienna, Jews were forced to wash pro-independence slogans off the streets, to scrub the pavement on their hands and knees.
I walked those streets.
There is a photo: a man in glasses and pinstripe pants holds a sponge to the ground, two men in dark coats crouch around a bucket, another with a long beard and cap squats near a second bucket. Men and women in uniform and civilian clothing stand around them, smiling and watching. It takes me a moment to notice the face of a boy on the left, peering at the Jews from behind two Nazis, and the girl all the way on the right of the frame, holding something indistinguishable in her hands.
In 1989, after leaving the Soviet Union, my parents and older brother—a baby at the time—were put up for ten days in a Vienna hostel before they were transferred to an Italian refugee camp. I call my parents to ask if they remember the address of their hostel, but they don’t. “It was right next to a palace,” says my mother in Russian. “But that doesn’t help,” she adds. “In Vienna, zamki razbrosani po vsemu gorodu.” Palaces are strewn about the entire city.
While staying at the hostel, my brother became very sick, explains my mother, so she didn’t have a chance to do any sightseeing. She only remembers seeing the opera house from the outside. She hopes to go back.
My body disappears again, looking at the photograph, the bodies bent.
8. Innsbruck: Which Way?
When my train reaches Innsbruck, Austria, announcements come over the loudspeaker in German first, of course. As I gather my things to exit the train car, the only word I understand is “schnell,” which makes me gasp for breath.
It’s followed by the announcement in English. I hear “The exodus on the left side,” and I imagine a sea splitting to let me escape. It takes me a few seconds to realize he said “The exit is on the left side.”
I try to remember which side led to the smokestack and which to the work camp—which line I would have tried to get chosen for.
I was always fascinated by the children of famous Nazis and long ago read everything I could find about Eichmann’s four sons. The oldest, while staying with his father who lived in hiding in Argentina after the war, told his Argentinian girlfriend, Sylvia, that he regretted the Nazis hadn’t completed the extermination of the Jews. Sylvia was also living a secret: she was a Jewish German refugee. Upon realizing her boyfriend’s identity, she began passing information to the West German government and Mossad. Sylvia’s missions helped lead to Eichmann’s capture, trial, and hanging.
The youngest son, Ricardo Eichmann, is a professor of archaeology in Berlin.
Does he find peace by studying the ancient world or reassurance that he’s nothing special?
Asked in a 1995 interview why he didn’t change his name, Professor Eichmann responded: “Change my name? What would have been the point? You cannot escape from yourself, from the past.”
On his faculty page, there is a photo of a man with thick black hair and a dimple in his chin. I stare at his phone number and e-mail address. I have the wild urge to call him, to hear his voice. I want him to teach me how to live with myself.
9. Mittenwald: Pork
When I cross the border into Germany, I don’t realize it. By now, I have grown accustomed to hearing all the words.
I am sitting on a bench with my religious Israeli cousin in a small town called Mittenwald in the Alps, eating raspberry cream cake and claiming the cake is the best I’ve ever had. We face a row of houses with intricately carved wooden roofs—I can smell freshly sawed timber—and behind these houses, looms a giant mountain, jagged and snow-streaked. I sit there admiring this view, thinking I could live here.
My cousin is learning German and he’s getting quite good. When I ask why he’s bothering, he can’t explain.
(Colin, whose favorite philosopher is Levinas, has checked out a volume of the Talmud from his university library. When he shows me the book over video, I laugh. I tell him he won’t get anywhere on his own, he needs a teacher. What I don’t say: Why do you have the motivation to begin learning this text, while I, a Jew who loved learning it so much, who once found so much joy and meaning and excitement in her studies at seminary, have learned nothing for years?)
In Bavaria, there’s pork everywhere, in every possible form. That’s all people eat here. My religious cousin tries to keep his disgust in check. While I eat unidentified salami for breakfast and pork chops for lunch, he doesn’t say anything. I remember feeling that disgust myself, before I first ate pork, and while I chew, I feel that disgust rising in me again.
After dinner, I box my leftovers—pork meatloaf—and bring them back to our hotel room, put them in our mini fridge. The next day is Shabbat, so we go buy vegetables and ricotta cheese and bread, so that he’ll have something to eat. We put this food in the fridge too.
On Shabbat, we ride a cable to the top of a snow-covered mountain. My cousin can’t spend any money, but I won’t miss a chance to go up a mountain. I convince him to let me pay for the cable ride. “Let me be your Shabbos goy,” I joke. At the top, we pick up the snow, test its stickiness, and slide in our sneakers down the path while German tourists in hiking boots look at us bewildered.
A metal platform juts out of the mountainside into thin air. The metal is perforated, so we can see below us. The walls of the platform are made of glass. To my surprise, the platform scares me. I inch forward in the wind, holding onto the icy railing with an ungloved hand. Around me Germans pose and take photos. I am too scared to take out my phone. Cliff and rock tumble below me into white clouds.
On a ridge overlooking the snowy peaks, we eat the food we brought. We break a giant cucumber between us and bite into our halves. Dip brown bread into the ricotta wishing we had salt. Germans smile and greet us as they pass. From the outside, we look like a couple, having a romantic picnic.
Every time we open the fridge, the smell of the pork meatloaf fills the small room. When we check out of the hotel, I leave it sitting there.
In Moscow, when my mother’s friend offered us pork, I had to pretend that I couldn’t eat it because my mother was there. At restaurants and grocery stores, I pretended to be just as upset as she was by the lack of any other meat.
Decades of fearful silence.
I tell my cousin I’m thinking about giving up pork again, but I don’t know how I can, I say. I love bacon too much. I tried it for the first time only a year ago.
The same friend of my mother’s gave me a Star of David pendant in a little green box. “Don’t wear that here,” my mother said afterwards. “And I don’t want you wearing that in Prague either.”
10. Munich: I’m Never Coming Back
In Munich now. I don’t want to look at anything and I don’t want to take any photos. But my body, which is used to New York, feels instantly at home in this large city. I move quickly through the subway stations, knowing where to look for signs. I step around slow tourists as if I know exactly where I’m going.
There is a subway stop called Dachau.
In the Alps, it was easy to pretend I was not in any country, that borders didn’t exist. It was easy to pretend people didn’t enjoy killing other people.
The Jewish Museum in Munich contains little of interest. The city runs the museum, and the government paid over fifty million euros for its construction in the early 2000s. The cashier gives me and my cousin pins to wear. A small permanent exhibit opens with the happy impressions of Jews who have moved to Munich over the years. A timeline shows Jewish events here over a millennium, the good and the bad:
A few hundred Jews live here in the early 1000s . . . laws restrict Jews from all work except money lending, the Bavarian king appoints the first court Jew, another Bavarian king strips all court Jews of their positions, Jews are massacred for causing the Plague, more Jews move to Munich. . . 6,000,000 Jews are murdered . . . 11 Israeli athletes are murdered at the Olympics. . . a Jewish old age home is set on fire and 7 elderly Jews die. . .
What I learn from the Jewish Museum of Munich: We are just another point on this timeline. In the “good” category, that’s all.
I love you and I miss you and I love you, I text to my non-Jewish boyfriend. It becomes our refrain.
German has started to make me nauseous. On the subway platform in Munich I close my eyes. I listen to two men speaking next to me and imagine I’m in a concentration camp.
After a week together, my cousin and I say goodbye. It was the first time we’d seen each other in four years, but we both agree it didn’t feel that way. We hug hard. We hug again. I run to catch the city bus to take me to the central bus station. My bus to Prague leaves in an hour.
On the city bus, the driver says I can’t buy a ticket from him. I have to use the machine on board. I pull out my five-euro bill and wave it around, but the machine only takes change, which I don’t have. I ask a girl for help and she shrugs and agrees I should risk riding without a ticket. I only have five stops to go. She gives me directions to get to the station and I stand in the middle of the bus, waiting. With only one stop left, the man standing next to me announces a surprise ticket inspection, and immediately turns to me. Since I have no ticket to present, which he already knows, he pulls out his notebook. Feeling the sympathy of the other passengers, I begin arguing with him.
“Why didn’t you ask someone to give you change for the bill?” he asks.
“Good idea,” I reply. “Why didn’t you suggest that?”
I am livid. I yell at him in English, unsure how much he understands. “I’m a good person, I always pay when I’m supposed to. And you are mean. Do you know what ‘mean’ means? Cruel. You ride this bus, purposely targeting tourists who have trains to catch and who don’t know what they’re doing. We come here to your stupid city, put money into it, and you fine us.”
He won’t let me go until I get off the bus and go to an ATM and give him sixty euros for the fine. If I refuse, he says we can go to the police station instead. I yell at him all the way to the ATM, but what I want more than anything is to get out of Germany. My hands shaking with rage, I pay him.
All I can think is: fuck you, you nazi, Jews should be riding for free in your stupid city with its stupid Jewish museum that pretends the Jews just disappeared. I am never coming back to Germany.
My anger frightens me much more than it frightens him.
I text the story to my family. My mom’s response: “Sorry it happens to you but it’s only sixty euro.”
Followed by: “But actually I remember in Israel in a tram the same thing happened to the girl from Germany. We were standing close to her and your brother was trying to defend her. It means Germany paid you back for that girl ;)”
Followed by: “Maybe she was thinking same train of thoughts, stupid greedy Jews, will never come back to Israel.”
11. Paris: Between Visits to Museums
After leaving the Musée D’Orsay, Kate and I pass a street corner where a man, a woman, and two children are crowding beneath blankets. The man holds out a paper cup towards me, but I quickly look away. My eyes fall instead on the bed of grass nearby. A girl in a pink winter coat, around five, is squatting in the grass. I can see the stream of pee between her knees. People keep moving between the family and their peeing daughter. I can’t give money to every child on the street in Paris, I tell myself, forgetting in that moment that this doesn’t mean I can’t give to one.
“Murzya, how is Paris? Pix? Opera? Ballet? Skip Louvre, go to D’Orsay, upper floors are impressionists. Try to use your student ID.” My mother visited the D’Orsay once, almost twenty years ago.
12. Budapest: The Difference Between Love and Death
Finally, Colin arrives. We rent a car to drive to Budapest, where we’ll be staying for four days. On an unlit road in Slovakia we almost hit two deer—a doe and her fawn. I scream while he turns the wheel just right to emerge between them. I imagine the four of us lying together, injured or dead, on some dark strip of road, waiting to be discovered.
“Whoever looks at the matter seriously will find that, as for death, which is difficult, no explanation, no solution has yet been discovered for love, which is difficult too: there are no directions, no path.” Earlier in the week, I read Rilke’s letters. His language is digestible and reminds me of Jewish musar texts, books written for guidance and self-improvement.
We stop for dinner and I mention this quote. Colin talks about Levinas and phenomenology. My understanding is that phenomenology has something to do with the experience of our individual selves confronting the external world, the encounter between our consciousness and something or someone else. This encounter forces us to reckon with our aloneness.
There are several people in my life that I know better than my boyfriend and yet I feel closest to him.
We arrive in Hungary and find the Airbnb. It’s more beautiful even than I had hoped. In bed, I tell him that being in love makes me realize how alone I really am, and he agrees, saying, “That’s why love and death aren’t so different.” As we are falling asleep, I tell him that we’ve taken a very cup-half-empty attitude. “It’s very comforting too,” I say, “that we get to be in love, share so much, while retaining our separate selves.”
I open my eyes before my alarm goes off and wake Colin into sex. After months, it feels like I am warm for the first time. A few hours later, standing unexpectedly before a mass grave, I imagine one mass of limbs strewn and layered beneath the ground and I almost say it out loud: Why couldn’t you just be Jewish?
Why do I need to know that his corpse would be lying beside my corpse?
This mass grave sits in the center of Budapest, behind the largest synagogue in Europe. In 1931, it was the synagogue’s new garden—the congregation had planted trees, built a stone arcade to make the space open and inviting, and outlined the plans for a reflecting pool. At the end of the war, 2,000 Jewish corpses were discovered in the little garden.
When I cry there, he offers me a napkin and slowly snakes an arm around my body.
After the war, the people in charge tried to identify the bodies in the garden with the help of some leftover Jews. Only a few corpses got their names back. They buried them all in twenty-four mass graves in the place where the reflecting pool was supposed to go. They did not separate the identified from the unidentified, the young from the old, the women from the men. Everyone was together.
Today, neatly arranged stones encircle the mounds of grass, on top of these mounds grow weeping white mulberry trees.
The banks of the Danube, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, form another mass grave. Along the river, they tied four Jews in a line and shot one bullet at them to conserve supplies (the war was almost over). It was okay that they weren’t all dead because the entire line was then pushed into the water.
Why do I want to know these details? Why do I need to know that he’d be tied to me, my back pressed to his chest like it is each night when we fall asleep? Why do I need to know that when the bullet killed one of us, the corpse would drown the living one with its weight?
It would be much nicer to imagine both of us safe instead.
At the synagogue and garden, Colin wears a kippa made of stapled cardboard. I tell him about the people whose names I recognize on plaques: the righteous gentile Raoul Wallenberg, the young poet Chana Senesh. I translate the Torah passages I can that are etched into the walls. He listens closely.
Let this be enough.
Four days before I return to New York, I decide to visit Terezin. Before the war, it was a small town built on the site of an eighteenth-century military fortress. During the war, the Nazis evicted its inhabitants and turned the whole area into a ghetto. After the war, the inhabitants returned. I paid for a tour in advance so that it would be more difficult to back out.
The tour requires waking up at 8:30am, about four hours earlier than I’ve grown accustomed to. I find the green box containing the Star of David that my mother’s friend gave me and put it on. After leaving my apartment, I stop at the café around the corner. I get a cappuccino and drink a cup of lemon water while wondering if I’ll miss the train. As soon as I walk out, I notice a little engraved bronze square among the cobblestones. They’re called Stumbling Stones. I’ve been seeing these tiny plaques all over Europe and closer to the town center in Prague, but I never noticed this one. Over the last three months, I’ve walked on this street more often, many times more often, than any other street on the continent. How have I missed it? I kneel down to look at the name of the Jew who once lived here and the dates of his birth and deportation:
V MALEM TROSTINCI
Translated as: Here lived Karel Jelinek, b. 1895, deported 1942 to Terezin, murdered in Maly Trostenets.
I hurry on to catch my tour. On my way over the Vltava River, crossing the bridge I take daily, I am forced to stop again. In my path lies the body of a swan.
Its white wings are tight against its large white body, its white neck writes a gentle S on the pavement. The orange beak trembles slightly, either from the wind or because the animal is still alive. It is the brightest thing in the cold gray morning.
Two Czech women stand a few feet beyond the swan, discussing the animal. They assure me they have already phoned someone. This happens sometimes. The electric wires. I don’t have time to wait.
“. . . if someone goes out into the morning as it is breaking, or looks out into the evening full of occurrence, and if he feels what is happening there, every hint of station slips from him as if from a dead man, although he is standing in the midst of life itself.” Rilke.
Outside the train station, I meet my guide, a Czech musician around my age who calls his job “a good gig” and smokes an e-cigarette. He repeatedly refers to the people who live in Terezin today as “weirdos.”
The other three people in the group are a couple from Manchester and an older Swiss man. Together, the five of us board the train to Terezin, taking the same railroad Karel Jelinek rode in 1942, getting off at the same stop an hour later in a small village called Bohušovice. Terezin is a mile and a half down the road. Karel Jelinek walked from here. We took a bus.
“The menorah represents the burning bush,” explains our guide in front of the memorial outside the crematorium.
No, the menorah represents the one that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the evenings, the priests of the ancient Temple lit the menorah with olive oil and the flames burned all through the night, until dawn. The menorah symbolizes God’s eternal presence or the Jews’ obligation to be a “light unto the nations.”
When the Prophet Zechariah sees a menorah in one of his visions, God explains: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” The same words that Czech Jews etched into their synagogue in 1931, the hollow shell of a synagogue that stands near my apartment.
In the beginning, the Nazis at Terezin allowed proper individual burials with religious rites, but soon those became mass burials and soon after that, the town’s water became contaminated, at which point the Nazis forced the Jews to build a crematorium. First the Germans allowed the ashes to be saved in individual wooden urns, then cardboard urns. By the end of the war, there were 25,000 little paper boxes neatly arranged on shelves.
To hide this evidence, the Nazis formed a line out of the remaining prisoners. This line led to the river, where the last prisoner poured the ashes into the moving waters.
I imagine Stepan drawing on his desk whenever the teacher turns around to face the blackboard (did they have blackboards?). He creates a perfect imitation of the girl sitting kitty-corner from him. Her funny crooked nose captivates him. Later, he watches her perform in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, astonished by her talent, and gifts her a real drawing. Thank you, she says, and he wonders what it would be like to put his arm around her soft neck.
“Jews started putting rocks on graves because they didn’t have flowers during the war,” says our guide, standing before symbolic tombstones cluttered with pebbles. “Since then, it’s become a tradition.”
In front of the mass grave, I have the urge to laugh. This custom has been around for much longer, maybe a millennium. Perhaps Jews were trying to mark the graves of their family members in the middle of a desert. Or they were trying to help their priests avoid becoming ritually impure by inadvertently stepping over a grave. Others say it’s an attempt to keep the souls of our loved ones with us just a little longer, pinned to earth.
I can’t explain why I don’t correct him. No, that’s not true, I do know why: I don’t correct him because I don’t care that he doesn’t know the truth and I don’t care that he’s spreading false information. It doesn’t make a difference.
Gonda had an affair in the ghetto. It must have been awkward—taking a walk with his wife and seeing Kamila Rosenbaum. I imagine being Kamila, a counselor in the girls’ barracks, and a dancer and choreographer from Vienna. I have thin blond hair that starts to look stringy when it isn’t washed—a problem in the ghetto. For the first time, I’m jealous of the frizzy, brown-haired girls. I try to think of ways to style it that will hide how dirty it is. While I comb my hair into sections and rearrange the pins, I play a little game with myself, a thought experiment: if Gonda’s pregnant wife was on a transfer, would I trade places with her? No. If it were Gonda? No. If it were his new baby? Maybe. Does my future matter less since I don’t have a family? I laugh at myself for even asking the question. The answer was yes even before the war. No one cared about single women. To married people, we were “girls” no matter our age, the community’s perpetual children.
(These imaginings, I learn later, are impossible. Kamila had been married too. I start over:
I like the way Gonda and I argue over Zionism, the way he looks at me when I dance, his obvious admiration when I take charge over groups. My husband already knows the truth. On May 4, 1942, I tell Gonda that I love him. Nothing comes from the announcement. I continue to live with my husband and care for my son and put on shows and sneak away to see Gonda. We don’t know how to say no to each other, though he claims to love his new wife. Slowly, I begin to love him less for this. Our choices are reduced to a series of calculations anyway. For instance, I agree to dance in a performance for the Nazis, hoping they will release my mother from prison. They don’t.)
We follow our guide inside the crematorium. I see the walk-in freezers, autopsy tables, the ovens. Actual ovens. For some reason, I never quite understood this. Under guard, the Jewish prisoners slid each body into the oven on one side, and opened little doors on the other side to sift through the ashes for gold or silver, and to scoop out the remains.
I draw these ovens in my notebook because I need to do something with my hands.
At the end of the tour, the guide and the other participants have a quick beer. I refuse to leave anything, even seventeen crowns, behind in this town.
When I return to Prague, I take off the Star of David pendant in my bathroom. I sit down in my shower stall and hold the shower head over my body for a long time, trying to wash away the camp and the image of a dead or dying swan.
In seventh grade, my best friend told me she thought I was capable of premeditated murder. I pretended to be offended, but secretly I took it as a compliment.
That year I went through a Holocaust phase. I was obsessed. Devil’s Arithmetic, I Have Lived One Thousand Years, If I Should Die Before I Wake, The Upstairs Room. I read every book I could get my hands on, one after another.
Young adult Holocaust fiction is its own genre. My brother loved sci-fi fantasy, I loved Holocaust. It was like sci-fi but better—the characters were Jewish like me.
My prepubescent Holocaust phase did nothing to prepare me for the phase I am experiencing now. If anything, it gave me a false sense of comfort; the fictional young adult version of the Holocaust removed the events from reality, smeared the facts on another flatter world.
In his diary, Gonda writes of his frustration trying to instill any discipline in the boys’ barracks: “The youth masturbate, and the counselors find it difficult to control them.”
This sentence comforts me. Sneaky devils.
14. Chapel Hill: Little Cuts
There is supposed to be resolution at the end, yes? Or at least a sense of closure. But I am going to marry Colin and I am going to worry a little about this decision for the rest of my life.
“Falling off the ladder of Jewish destiny,” my seminary teacher warned me.
I return to the US. Colin and I move to Chapel Hill and rent a house surrounded by trees. I find an anole lizard in our closet and he catches it. We stroke its bumpy neck, then release it on a tree trunk. Later, he worries that it will die in the cold.
“What about a bris if you have sons?” my mother asks.
Colin starts his PhD in English and I teach English to sixth graders. In Colin’s classes, the graduate students worry that they’re not saying something revelatory and so very little is said. During my classes, kids cheer when we get to read two chapters of our novel instead of one. On the playground, they run up to me to make predictions about what will happen next. My love for my students grows quickly.
An anti-Semite kills eleven Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. I read about it for three days and text about it with Jewish family and friends. “When one Jew bleeds, we all bleed,” someone writes. I cry, but I question whether this event pains me more than other shootings. Since it doesn’t, I worry that I’m falling off the ladder.
I don’t tell my mom that Colin does not want to cut our children without their consent. Rationally, I can’t argue against this.
I am cutting myself, though. A little cut for a town with no traditional synagogue. A little cut for no chuppah. One day, a little cut for no bris.
“Whenever you are sad that I am not with someone Jewish,” I tell my mother, “try to remember that I am very happy every day.”
My mother then offers me her grandmother’s wedding ring.
I imagine wearing my great-grandmother’s ring and raising children who are Jewish with a man who is not. On Shabbat, I will light candles and we will say a mostly empty prayer over a cup full of grape juice. I imagine a Holocaust. Hiding the ring and the children.
In his very last entry before hiding the diary, Gonda addresses his infant son: “What is going to happen? Tomorrow, we travel my son. We will travel on a transport like thousands before us.”
I don’t believe in soulmates, but I believe there are couples for whom love is easier and others for whom it is harder. With Colin, love is easy and that is the blessing of my life, a balm and not an anesthetic.