When I went to New York City to college in 1965, I met my first Jews — my first real ones, as I thought of them. The Minneapolis variety were rare and determinedly undifferent from the rest of us. In New York, I took trips home on the subway with Jewish classmates and saw apartments over family grocery stores in Brooklyn, met skullcapped grandfathers who muttered prayers and frugally cut their cigarettes in half, heard whole neighborhoods full of Yiddish (which I found I could learn to understand and speak, since I had studied German), got myself made fun of by waiters in delis.
I eventually married into one of those families, not having any idea what I was doing. My new parents-in-law, Stanley and Greta, had numbers tattooed on their forearms. They had spent more than six years in Auschwitz, surviving only because they had been captured at about age 13, and could devote their strongest years to camp labor. The old, the young, the sick, were slaughtered out of hand. The teenagers and young adults lived, slaved, and saw it all.
Not that they ever talked about it. They didn’t. Once I learned to hear, their lives told the story.
Greta quivered with nerves. Though she kept her kitchen spotless, every jar had a cross-threaded or jammed lid; boxes were torn open in killing haste. Open the neat cupboard doors and the products of bland American companies like Kellogg’s and Pillsbury screamed violence. Stanley drank, favoring for his morning pick-me-up an eight-ounce tumbler filled to the trembling brim with Southern Comfort and plum brandy.
They were divorced, though Stanley was around a lot. Years before, coming off the boat with no relatives left — a small constellation of “aunts,” “uncles,” and “cousins” were fellow survivors, not blood relations — Stanley and Greta had gone to work at the only trade Stanley understood at all, baking. Greta, who came from a wealthy family in Poland, took charge of the businesses while peasant Stanley did the donkey work. They opened one bakery in Brooklyn, and then another, then another. They moved to ever-nicer and ever-bigger apartments. They had three daughters and spoiled them.
Then one day Stanley went to each bakery, one by one, took out all the cash, about $50,000, and bet it on a horse.
“It was Willie Shoemaker at Aqueduct,” he told me years later. “It was a sure t’ing.”
Willie Shoemaker came in second. It all crashed — the bakeries, the grand apartment, the spoiled heedless girls. Greta and Stanley would never recover from that destruction, because they had never recovered from the earlier, greater destruction wrought upon them.
The destroying didn’t stop there. I married the oldest of the three girls. My wife proved to be a thief (“kleptomaniac” understated the problem; she stole), a torturer and killer of small animals (she tormented and killed our kitten, then gigglingly bragged to me about it), a compulsive adulterer, betrayer, and provocateur of interpersonal conflict, even violence.
All this, and more, that I encountered with my in-laws, was so far beyond my naïve Midwestern ken that I simply could not believe I was seeing it. I had imagined, you see, that the Holocaust was a kind of mass industrial evil perpetrated by stiff-backed comic opera villains. I had to realize that it was something else.
I had once imagined the tattooed numbers on prison camp inmates’ forearms as being stamped by a sort of monstrous typewriter, all of them alike. No. Stanley’s number sprawled in lazy big figures, carelessly spaced. Greta’s was tighter and more upright, but still marked with an individual hand.
They were handwriting. They were signatures, the indelible autographs of individual evil.
It does not surprise that so many survivors could not forget, that the internalized destruction I saw in my in-laws’ family was common among survivor families in the New York area. The miracle is that so many could put it behind them, and live.
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