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Kisses and Ashes

Why would anyone wish herself back at Auschwitz?

I have made arrangements so that no one will read this until after my death—and after my dear husband’s death as well.

Fortunately my mind is clear, although my health is not the best but people live with sickness for years, don’t they? So why shouldn’t I? Must intelligent people curl up and withdraw from life just because they have to swallow pills and avoid stress?

You should have seen my family before we left. They were so concerned for me, so kind and solicitous on my behalf. What did they know? They nearly went without me.

“You can’t leave me behind!” I remember arguing.

“But Mother, it might be too much for you, too strenuous for your heart.”

“Too strenuous? Pif! I survived the camps as an inmate. Why shouldn’t I survive them as a tourist?”

“We will be walking a great deal: you will tire. And it might upset you—the things we see, that is.”

“I will pace myself All things in moderation. Didn’t Maimonides say that?”

“Plutarch,” said my husband. My husband graduated from Harvard. He went there when it was difficult for Jews to get in.

We finally agreed that I could go if my husband came along. He was stronger than me; he could watch over me while the others absorbed Jewish history He rearranged his business schedule.

They were right, of course. I should have stayed home. Whenever we sat down to make plans I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of going back to that horrible place. But I concealed my feelings. I had to go. I could not miss this opportunity.

Why is it that we survivors have become the darlings of the Jewish faith? Why are other Jews so interested in our reminiscences? Better they left us alone.

I know what it is. It is the inability of Jews to come to terms with the Holocaust. Every week I read another learned essay on the subject in the Jewish press. We would all feel better if we could find some purpose in the Holocaust. Researchers are taking statements from everyone who lived through that time. What can they possibly learn? Do they think that if they write down enough oral histories, some conclusion will emerge from the sheer quantity of documentation?

Besides, I know the answer to their question. I am no historian, but look at the Greeks. Look at the Romans and the Spanish. A Jew could always save her life by renouncing her faith—except in Nazi Germany. Your Jewishness is not a garment; it is not something you can put on and take off. Your Jewishness is your integument; it is part of you. You cannot opt out of it. Really, you have no choice. You must study and practice your Jewishness. If you are going to be slaughtered, you will meet your fate with dignity if you can identify yourself. And if you are not facing death you are facing life. It’s all the same.

This is the lesson of the Holocaust. The Nazis understood it. I cannot say the same for most of my Jewish friends.

I am sorry if I sound depressing. I told you my mind was clear.

So there we were, the whole family, back in that place, tourists all, putting ourselves into the picture. You should have seen them, soaking up the atmosphere like sponges, seeking to connect every feature of the place—every brick, every length of railroad track, every stretch of barbed wire—with some nuance of feeling.

How they wanted to do the right thing! They meant so well. What did they really understand? I don’t know.

The most delicate part was getting away from them—from my family. But I knew the place. I knew it better than our guide did. I hung back and slipped away. Who says an old woman cannot be clever?

I was looking for the concealed spot behind the crematorium where I used to go and hide for a few minutes at a time. It was a dangerous act for which I might have been shot—but I was a young woman and sometimes it was necessary to avoid the guards.

The crematorium had not changed, only instead of avoiding guards I now hid from tourists.

I remembered how miserable we were as inmates. We were cold and starved and no one knew who would live for another day. People were brought in; people were sent away; they were degraded; they were shot and gassed. Things happened with no pretense of rationality. I could not help recalling a particular day when I was walking, going someplace, and I crossed paths with a certain young man and our eyes met. Nothing more. I didn’t know his name or anything about him; I still don’t. It was a ludicrous tableau, both of us ragged and scrawny. But his eyes were deep and they seemed to convey a message: “I know you; I know about you, your hopes and fears. Something exists between us.” I say this now, with the benefit of hindsight. I do not think, at that moment, that I possessed the acuity to recognize anything.

Then one day my mother was shot; another day my brother disappeared. For a long time I was inconsolable and I didn’t care about anything.

One day as I stood in my hiding place I heard footsteps on the gravel. I felt instant terror.

It was the young man with the deep eyes. He came right up to me. I am afraid I drew back, but surely I was justified, as he had startled me so. In any case, I could not draw back very far, because I was already leaning against the wall of the crematorium.

“I know you,” he said in a voice like a whisper. “I have been watching you. Your name is Sophie, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“Please excuse me,” he continued. “I could not arrange for an introduction. What can any of us accomplish here? But I had to speak to you. You are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. Please forgive me, I had to tell you that. Who knows what will happen next? I felt that I must create the occasion . . .”

“I don’t understand,” I said, “but if you go on talking they will find us and shoot us!”

He became silent but his eyes filled with such a look that I felt a vague apprehension entirely separate from my concern for my safety.

Then he grasped my arms, drew me toward him and kissed me. He covered my mouth with a passionate kiss, as though we were acting in a play. Can you imagine it? In spite of my surprise I remember thinking, “So that’s it— even here; a man’s foolish impulses, tactless and ill-timed.”

My apprehension melted away. A kiss. A trifle. A nothing.

He let me go, turned and slipped away, but not before he had whispered, “I hope we can meet again. Maybe we will live through this.”

I never saw him after that. I few days later the Allies liberated us. The Germans acted like bad boys who had been caught stealing cookies. Their behavior was disgusting.

One American soldier was very kind to me. He shared his rations with me. We talked and it turned out he was Jewish. Somehow we stayed in touch and eventually we married and he took me to America. We had children and prosperity; we had a Jewish household, a good marriage. As much as possible I forgot the past.

I had not thought of returning to Germany, to Poland; what Jew in her right mind would want to go there, and to tour the concentration camps, no less?

But when my children began to speak of it, I knew immediately that I must accompany them. Not only that, I insinuated myself into the planning.

So there I stood, years later, behind the crematorium, eyes closed, warmed by the sun. At first I would not admit to myself why I was there. “What a coincidence,” I told myself.

But I knew I had only a few minutes. Soon the next tour would pass by and the guide—a pleasant fellow with long, blond hair—would spot me and call out, “Excuse me please, I must ask you to rejoin your group.” I could not waste time playing games with myself.

I thought about what had once happened in this spot and I felt suddenly ashamed; a decent young man had risked his life for me and I had not reciprocated. I had given him no sign, no word of kindness, nothing in return. What would it have cost me? A word? A smile? A kiss? A nothing.

One thought led to another. In my mind’s eye I saw myself, living my life in America, my secure, happy life, while a most important matter remained unresolved in Germany. I did not, as I said, know what had become of the young man. But it was not unrealistic to suppose that he survived our ordeal; it was not impossible that he remembered me. And if he remembered me, perhaps he still retained his interest in me. Surely he understood that my reticence that day was due not to personal dislike but only to the exigencies of our situation and the unexpected manner of his approach and what, in light of that understanding, might he do? Might he not, from time to time, return to this place, the place of our first meeting?

Might he not return today? Wasn’t that possible—or at least not impossible? Wouldn’t it be a charming coincidence? Might we not exchange a few words before my family began to wonder where I was?

Of course it was possible. Once you have lived through the Holocaust anything is possible.

“Where is he?” I asked myself. “We should have become acquainted. We should have fallen in love; we were meant to be lovers.”

In my imagination I saw us meeting, smiling, embracing; I was saying, “My beautiful boy, my sweet, sweet lover, we shall finally set everything right,” when I was startled by the sound of footsteps on gravel. It was only my husband, my dear husband, who had for 20 minutes been trying to find me.

“How did you get here?” he asked. “We were so anxious. You know how concerned we were about you, coming here.”

“I’m all right, ” I answered. “I only wanted to be by myself.”

Such a fuss they made over me! It was all unnecessary.

On the airplane we talked and rested. Someone distributed food on trays. I ate most of my meal and then I came to the dessert, which was a dish of yellow custard. For some reason the custard held my attention. I realized that I had been staring at it for many minutes. “In the camp,” I thought, “we never saw food like this.”

But that was not it. The custard was only a key, I don’t know why. What I was really doing was trying to strike a bargain with God. “God,” I was saying, “Creator of the Universe, can’t we be united again, my beautiful sweet boy and I? Can’t You arrange it somehow? It would be so easy for You. Perhaps, God, You could send me back there—perhaps You could return me to that time—and he would be waiting for me and I would see him once more and properly return his affections.”

The thought was out. Who can control a thought, however unspeakable? I cried out in the airplane, “God, Lord of the World, I revoke my wish! No one could desire that—not for anything in the world!”

It was too late; I no longer knew what I wanted. I began to cry. I cried and cried and cried, floods of tears. My hand fell into the custard; people stared; I felt so terribly, terribly ashamed.

My husband, my dear considerate husband, leaned over me and said anxiously, “Sophie, Sophie, you must calm down. Remember your heart.”

My husband, the poor man—he was so kind and understanding. I snapped at him, “What do you know about hearts?” And the tears would not stop.

Fredric Fastow is a lawyer and architect, and plays Jewish music on classical guitar.