Do you ever find yourself thinking of an old childhood friend? Someone you haven’t seen in an age?
My friend Jerry lived across the alley from me in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood.
If you grew up in the suburbs, you probably don’t know much about alleys. I met some of my best friends there, playing lots of softball in the narrow confines of cement bordered by an endless row of garages on each side. I learned to climb roofs to retrieve softballs that landed there and (like my friends) occasionally beat a hasty retreat when a line-drive shattered a garage door window.
Jerry wasn’t much of a softball player. He had dark brown hair combed straight back, handsome features, and a smile of devastating charm. His eyes could be impish and alive as he stood there in the shadow of one of the garages on a summer evening taking a drag on his cigarette, especially when he talked about something slightly naughty for a 12-year-old, like sex.
Or they could be sad and mournful, as if he knew something that none of the rest of us knew about.
His parents were Holocaust survivors.
He lived with them on the first floor of a two-flat building. He had a sister, I seem to recall. His aunt and her husband owned the upstairs flat. Jerry’s mom, a sweet woman who had likely once been very pretty, was always kind to me; but worn out, faded in appearance, weary, looking older than my mom, although they were probably about the same age.
Jerry’s father was short, with a bristly, full head of salt-and-pepper, almost angry hair. He was never mean, but there was a grim severity about him, a desperate seriousness. I never once saw him smile.
Jerry told me that his dad disapproved of him. Jerry’s relatively poor school work was the reason. I could never understand why Jerry didn’t do better at his studies. He could be witty and clever — he was certainly bright enough. But, he didn’t have much interest or heart for it, seemed not to try very hard, even was held back by a half-year, winding up in my eighth grade class despite the fact that he should already have been in high school.
I remember one conversation. Something about money. Jerry told me that his parents were pretty careful with their money and didn’t want him to spend it unwisely. But, he said, there was one exception. “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.” Peculiar, I thought. Nice of them, I guessed. But, it stuck there in my mind, not fitting somehow, an inconsistency that I couldn’t fully understand.
My friendship with Jerry dropped away in high school. He continued to struggle in school and we both gravitated toward other people. I don’t think he graduated, but I heard that he eventually got his GED (high school equivalency degree).
When I was in college or graduate school I ran into him on the bus. We had one of those semi-awkward reunions, catching up on our lives, not having much more than that to say. Jerry was then a hair dresser. And, I suspect, a good one, since he always had an artistic flair.
I met Raya in college. She was tall and very pretty, with wavy, long brown hair. Her form was willowy, and she moved with the grace of a dancer, as if trying, in her fluid motion, not to disturb the air. Raya spoke with an accented English, having come to this country with her parents from Israel only a few years before.
It was hard not to find Raya attractive, but she was very quiet and conversations were always a struggle. I find that curious in looking back, because you’d think that I would have asked her tons of questions about her life in Israel and how it was different than Chicago.
Maybe I did.
Nonetheless, Raya and I went on two or three dates. I remember the first one, driving to her home to pick her up and meeting her father there. He reminded me of Jerry’s dad: a very strong and dark presence, grave, serious, not to be trifled with.
At the time, I probably wrote that off to the protective relationship between a father and a daughter. As I said at my youngest’s wedding, the job of being a father to a beautiful daughter is not an easy one. You spend a lot of time thinking unkind thoughts about little boys, wondering what plots they might be hatching to ensnare your female child!
In any case, Raya and I went to a movie that evening, the highly rated The Pawn Broker starring Rod Steiger. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it was the movie on everyone’s lips. I don’t think Raya knew much about it either.
It turned out to concern a man, played by Steiger, who lost his family in the Holocaust, later becoming a pawn broker in Spanish Harlem; and especially about his relationship with a young Hispanic man who works for him, and a social worker who attempts to draw him back into the world from the dark, shadowy place into which he retreated after his wartime experience.
It was not long into the film before I noticed that Raya was quietly weeping. I asked her if she was OK, but she tried to minimize her upset. And when the movie was over, she told me that her parents were concentration camp survivors.
Now, you’d think I would have been more careful about this, about what exactly the movie was about and who exactly was this pretty girl underneath her surface beauty and grace.
But, to my discredit, I hadn’t been.
Apparently, Raya didn’t hold this against me particularly, because we went out one or two other times. But, as I said, it was difficult to generate conversation and we parted in a not-unfriendly way. Perhaps there were things too deep for words, things that one simply couldn’t talk about on a “date” with someone you hardly knew.
It might be of interest to you to know that the word “Holocaust” was not immediately applied to the genocidal murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. In fact, if you watch the old 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, you will see in the scene just following Cary Grant’s narrow escape in a corn field, a prominent newspaper headline using the word “holocaust” to describe the explosion of an oil truck when it collided with a low flying airplane.
These days, that word is rarely applied to anything except the European Jewish experience of the 1930s and 1940s.
Today, April 12, 2010, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Back in the time that I was in high school, the 1960s, virtually no reference was made to these events. One simply did not talk about them in any great depth and it was not the subject of special study or attention in class. In fact, this failure to mention it was particularly true of the homes of most of the survivors. But, the children of these unfortunate people, mostly about my age, came to know enough about what happened to their parents to give them special consideration, and to try to protect them and compensate them for what they lost in the European tragedy.
It was a heavy burden for the generation just behind the survivors, one written about for the first time by Helen Epstein in the classic book, Children of the Holocaust. For everyone else among Jewish children of the time, the shadow of the event was there, even without a name. Simply the idea that but for the accident of time and place — had you been born just a few years earlier in Europe — you would have almost certainly been a human target in a deadly game, along with everyone else you loved.
Long after my relationships with Jerry and Raya ended, I was reading a book by a French Holocaust survivor in which he described his return to Paris. It was within a few months of his homecoming. The man was on the subway, close to two teenage girls who were talking together. He heard one say how hungry she was; “I’m starving,” she said.
The survivor knew the words, understood the meaning, and thought to himself, “I have no idea what she is talking about.” Put another way, this man knew “starvation” to mean the severe malnourishment that he experienced in a concentration camp, not the colloquial, everyday meaning that the girl was giving it, an expression he might have used himself in the time before the war.
When I read that passage, I flashed back to my conversation with Jerry, the one when he told me a bit about his parents’ exception to their usual cautiousness with money: “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.”
And then, I understood just a little bit, what they must have meant.
I wonder where they are now, Jerry and Raya.
I wonder who they are now.
It would be nice to know.
The image above is Russian Stamp No. 583 created by Russian Post, Beylin V., painter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.