Long ago and far away, I became friends with a woman in a self-help group in Malibu. She was a lovely, but extremely lonely and confused woman in early middle age. Her mother, a German Jewish woman from a small town near Frankfurt, had survived two years as a slave laborer at a Siemens airplane parts plant in Berlin. Then the mother had been transferred to slave labor at the labor (as opposed to the death camp) part of Auschwitz. There, as a teenage girl, she did heavy labor building barracks for the SS and cleaning them. She was part of a transport of 112 girls from Berlin to Auschwitz.
By the end of the war, when she was forced on a death march back to Germany, barefoot in the snow, eight had survived.
The woman’s father, also a German Jew, had been fortunate enough to have been sent out of the country to work as a clerk at a tin mine in Bolivia where an uncle was an accountant. When he returned to Germany after the war, his entire family was dead, murdered by the Nazis.
The woman in my self-help group in Malibu had grown up in Queens, New York, and had become an art teacher at Jewish day schools in Los Angeles.
Shortly after I met her, she became pregnant as the result of a romance with an unavailable man. As so many modern women do, this woman worried about how she could support the baby and whether she should have the baby at all.
“You must have the baby,” I said. “You absolutely must. Hitler did not get away with exterminating your line of blood. You must not do it for him by abortion. I will make sure you do not go hungry.”
So, the woman had the baby, beautiful girl. I (I really must say my wife and I) have been supporting the baby ever since and the mother, in middle class circumstances and with private schools.
The child has grown up to be a hard working, lovely, dutiful child. She has a wide circle of friends, is beloved by her family, and earned excellent marks in a private Jewish day school.
Recently she applied to colleges and got into several fine ones. She chose one in New York where she will learn a great deal about theological studies and also get courses from a super fine college of liberal arts.
Tomorrow is her graduation day. Her grandmother, the Auschwitz survivor, is here in town for the event. I took the grandmother, whom I will call “C” the Mom, and the daughter to lunch today at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
It was a perfect, magnificent day. The palm fronds and the blue sky and the white tablecloths were art.
“What happened at Auschwitz if you didn’t feel well when you woke up?” I asked.
C laughed. “You made sure you felt well. If you didn’t feel well, you went to building 85 and then right up the chimney. You always felt well if you wanted to survive.”
“What if you made a mistake in your work?”
“Up the chimney,” she said.
She went on. “There were two beautiful Jewish girls from Berlin at Auschwitz. Just beautiful. An SS officer tried to hide them. But the guards made us count over and over again and then they searched and found the girls and killed them. They were beautiful.”
“How did you know the war was over?” I asked.
“They marched us and marched us and then when we got to Ravensbruck, the guards were all gone and we knew the war was over. The Russians were going to rape us, but when they saw our tattoos, they didn’t. A Russian officer who was an orthodox Jew from Siberia took care of us. He made sure we had food. Then the British got me back to my village and I had to go over on a ferry to get there. The ferry operator asked who I was and I told him my name. He said, ‘Oh, so there are still Jews alive.’
“I said, ‘Yes, I am very much alive.'”
The sun was right overhead and C rolled up her sleeves. Her concentration camp tattoo was on her left arm. “I will always remember it,” she said. “Always. I use it for the locker combination at my health club. That’s the difference between America and Germany. I used it as my password for the gated community home we had in Florida before my husband died.”
I looked at her. “God bless America,” I said.
“There are no words,” she said and then she started to cry.
But I thought that with all of our problems today, the recession, the unemployment, the partisanship, the vulgarization of the media, the racial tensions — this is still America, and I judge it, as Tony Blair did, by a simple measure. How many want to get in and how many want to get out.
As we walked to our cars, C said to me, “Thank you for my granddaughter. I know I would not have her and she would not have this fine education without you.” Then she cried again.
“Without my wife and me,” I said. “It was and is our pleasure.”
America, the beautiful.
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