The Last Survivor
She had become a pro at public speaking, starting with a Shoah event at her local synagogue, which eventually evolved into to her first recorded session with the Steven Spielberg Shoah people. She had never really bothered to count how many times she’d spoken about her experiences. She said nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that other survivors didn’t talk about.
But now as the sole survivor, she wondered whether it was time to finally let go of the past. Why had G-d chosen her, Branka, to be the Last Survivor? She knew exactly.
She fingered the periwinkle cloisonné Ten Commandments necklace her granddaughter Zoe had given her. Branka pretended not to like G-d. She told everyone that her concentration camp experiences taught her that G-d didn’t exist. Still, every night she silently recited the Sh’ma. She prayed for the dead. She asked G-d to watch over her family. Because that nut in Russia sounded a lot like that other nut Hitler.
She patted her sleeve where she’d placed a few tissues she’d grabbed from her hotel room. The documentary people put her up at the Marriott in New Town. She wore a turquoise silk blouse and a long purple skirt with a slit to her hoo-hah. She was old, she could wear what she liked and do what she liked.
Naturally, she had added one more important accessory: the silver-filigree butterfly pin, fastened to the throat of her blouse. There had been no butterflies at Terezín. Everyone knew that now, but she wore it just the same.
Taking the taxi over to Žižkov, she’d spoken in Czech to the driver, who treated her with the respect Czechs knew to give to old people. It felt good to speak the language again, especially the sounds like “ř” that foreigners had so much trouble pronouncing. Her ease with it made her a true Czech, and she wanted everyone should know this.
She leaned against the wall and noticed her shoulders were up to her ears. She had to relax. She hadn’t been to this apartment since she left Czechoslovakia. What ghosts would she find or ignore inside, she didn’t know.
The door from the street opened and she strode to the top of the stairs. The film people with all their noisy equipment trudged up the stairs, the tripod banging against each step.
It was show time, once again. Maybe she should have worn her white, black, and gray crepe blouse that said “Hollywood.”
“Ahoy,” she said.
“Don’t you look fetching today,” Roman, the director, said.
“Don’t you know it,” Branka said, slapping her thigh. She liked him ever since their first phone conversation back in America. “I ask only one thing.”
“For you, doll face, anything.”
“Shoot from above. I don’t like this turkey neck of mine. I’m short, so this shouldn’t be a problem.”
The crew stifled a laugh.
“You got it,” Roman said. He pointed to Tony, the cameraman. “You got it?”
“I got it.”
The current resident of the apartment had cleared out for the day and the crew piled in from the hallway. How many times had Branka climbed the stairs after a full day of working at the dentist’s office? So tired, her legs felt disconnected from the rest of her, they trembled in spasmodic movements she couldn’t control.
Everyone now stood in the apartment foyer. In an instant, Branka was brought back to the first time she saw the apartment. A white and gray fox terrier raced from the living room and practically jumped into her arms. She encased the terrier into the folds of her shawl. She nearly gagged on the smell of vepřoknedlozelo, a combination of pork, dumplings, and cabbage that someone was cooking.
“I will take you on a tour,” Branka told the documentary crew. “We’ll start here, in the kitchen.”
A crew member clipped the lavaliere to her lapel. She’d grown accustomed to microphones. Handheld, lavalieres, it didn’t matter. Truth be told, though, it was far easier to talk with a lavaliere. Then she could use hand gestures, a necessity when she talked of her past.
Roman gestured to Tony to run the camera. Branka took a deep breath and opened one of the cabinet doors above the sink. “When I first moved in, you see, there was a can of plums. I wanted to eat those plums so badly. To me they were a delicacy. But the superintendent’s dog had taken over the apartment and he looked so hungry, I opened the tin and gave it to him.”
“Did you ever have a dog yourself? I mean in Prague?” Roman asked.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s when I knew the Jews were in trouble. When we had to give up our dogs.” Branka pointed now to a wall that separated the kitchen from the living room. “There—there is where I slept,” Branka said.
“Should we be rolling film?” Tony asked. Roman gestured yes.
“So, you had a cot in the kitchen?” Roman asked.
“You had a cot in the living room?”
Roman shrugged. What did these people know? What could they possibly know?
“I had a bedroom, sure. David slept on the sofa. But I couldn’t sleep in my bed. The only place I could sleep was standing up, against the wall. I wasn’t a sleepwalker. I was a sleep-stander.”
No one laughed.
“I was afraid to sleep. I did the same thing in the dentist’s office where I worked. Until he, or a therapist, I don’t remember, told me I had to talk. I had to talk about the horror.”
“What happened when you slept?” Roman asked.
The voices in her head spoke quietly at first; their hushed whispers of the camps hobbled out of cracked lips and fevered tongues. This time, though, she didn’t shush them away. Instead, she beckoned them the way her mother called her to dinner before the war, the way her mother’s soul cried out to her that day in front of the latrine at Auschwitz. Branka, then fifteen, ignored her mother when she was motioned to the left. Later, she learned that that woman outside the latrine hadn’t been her mother at all. Her mother—and father—had been immediately gassed.
The air still reeked to her.
In all the interviews she’d given, this she never spoke of.
“What happened when you slept, Branka?” Roman said again.
“Ghosts of the past would visit me.” She knew no one would probe further. They never did. For effect, sometimes she recited their transport numbers, even David’s. She still knew them. Or she’d say as she did now, “You know, I spent three years at Terezín. It was a spa compared to Auschwitz.”
“You are the last survivor of the Holocaust,” Roman declared. “How does that make you feel?”
She shrugged and then fiddled with her butterfly pin.
“How I feel?” Like there is no such thing as a Holocaust survivor She slid into her standard responses. “It is a burden. As if everyone else’s stories are all bound to me, filling my memory so I can’t even distinguish my personal recollections. What does it matter whose exact story I am telling? It happened to someone, somewhere.”
Roman nodded. Tony adjusted the lens. A close-up was coming. Branka licked her lips and adjusted the position of her chin to catch the light.
“Do you think anyone will ever forget?” Roman asked.
“Only if we allow it. Will history forget? Is that what you’re asking?”
“Yes, I guess I am.”
Branka looked around for a chair. She couldn’t stand so long anymore since the last hip surgery. One of the crew brought her a wooden, straight-back chair from the kitchen. The upholstered seat had a little puppy design. Branka smiled and sat.
“Will history ever forget?” she repeated. “Who can say? I gave my testimony to Steven Spielberg’s people—I was much younger then—that was in the mid-’90s—and to many others, of course. In print, on film. I and so many others. When we started to talk, we couldn’t stop.”
She folded her hands in her lap. “It’s lonely now. Today’s generation, they don’t want to hear about the Holocaust—old people, old news.”
“But we should never forget,” Roman said.
“Who can say whether the film you’re using,” Branka pointed at the camera, “will be used years from now?”
Roman smiled. “It’s a digital camera. There is no film.”
“You see? I made my point.”
“Going back to the last survivor, what legacy do you want to leave behind?”
Branka bit her lips now. “This hatred of one another can happen at any place, any time. No one is protected. ” This one may be difficult to answer, so bear with me.” Roman paused a few moments. “When you are laid to rest, what do you want to be remembered for?”
Laid to rest. What a comical expression. As if she’d ever been able to rest. Even when she’d been able to actually fall asleep, she’d still wake up nearly hour upon hour. And what did she want to be remembered for? She’d been no hero. She’d been no partisan in the forest, no gun-toting resistance fighter. But she had been a Scout, the youngest scout in all of Prague. That must have meant something, some foretelling of her survival skills.
“You know, there’s a big hubbub about me now,” Branka said. “But I’m lonely and tired. Anyone who wants to talk to me had better do it fast. Each day I wake up, I’m completely surprised.” The crew didn’t budge. The camera still focused on her, waiting for the answer it needed. The room was silent except for the drip of the kitchen faucet. She shook her head so hard her earrings dangled against her neck.
She looked directly into the camera. “I want to be remembered as a good wife, a good mother—and a survivor. Even if all survival means is a tin of plums in an empty apartment. Someone who braved up to tell the story, again and again and again, until someone finally listened. I am still alive. That is the biggest thing. I have survived it all.”
The voices crowded her thoughts again. She paused. She heard her name, Maminka’s call to come join her. Soon enough, Branka thought, she would join her mother. But she still had things to do.
There’d be more filming during the next few days. An event for the Jewish Federation of the Czech Republic. The presentation of the key to Prague. A trip to Terezín. She vowed to attend these events in true Czech style. Everyone knew how Czechs felt about their dogs. She would bring along her new fox terrier.