My father met my mother in Dachau. He was already married and had a daughter of twelve. My mother was engaged to a young lawyer at the time. However, both Mama and Papa had been separated from their families by the Gestapo and neither had stopped feeling lonely. So they became friends. This was as much as I knew of that part of their lives while I was growing up. My parents never talked about the war to me. And I never knew what to ask.
When the camp was evacuated they went together to stay with some people in Amsterdam while they waited word of their families and regained their health. There they shared their mutual sorrow as, bit by bit, they learned of the fate of their relatives. Papa’s wife and child had been gassed by the Nazis as well as his parents and two younger brothers. Mama’s entire family also had perished along with her fiancé, whom they had shot. Finally, when the last tragic report shattered all hope, they decided to leave Europe and come to America.
Whenever I picture my parents now, I always see Papa laughing and Mama with a frown. She had a perpetual expression of quiet weariness which was emphasized by the premature aging of her hair and skin. Even when she smiled, it was almost with a sadness, so constant was the presence of the pain within her eyes. Yet she smiled a lot, for Papa liked to see her happy. He looked much younger than she in comparison, and his physical youthfulness was accentuated by an overwhelming vitality and love for life which was manifested outwardly in his inexhaustible sense of humor. I often wondered what it was that made me think he was so sad.
I was considered a very quiet child, although I was never really aware of this quality myself. My mind was always so busy I was oblivious to how little I actually communicated to others. Mama always seemed to understand me anyways. Actually, it wasn’t until I went away to school that the quietness was brought to my attention at all. And this was through the reactions of others. It seemed to make them nervous.
I was much closer to Mama than Papa. Perhaps it was because we were so similar in temperament, both serious and thoughtful most of the time. However, difference in temperament was not the only thing which separated me from my father. There was something else that always kept us apart which I couldn’t really understand. I guess I would describe it as an expression. Papa rarely looked at me directly, and when he did, his expression was so penetrating that I’d have to look away. This only increased the distance between us. It was as if he was searching for something inside me which I knew wasn’t there, and I was ashamed.
When I was nine my brother Yossi was born and his addition brought about a dramatic change to the household. My mother went into labor nearly four weeks early, and was so surprised that she thought at first it must be a false alarm. But Yossi was adamant and sure enough, two hours later he made his appearance, strictly in character from the start. For even as a baby he possessed a remarkable unchallengeable sense of self-assurance which often caused him to be demanding and volatile. And as he grew older he developed a kind of outspokenness which I both hated and envied. Unlike my brother, I never yelled at my parents although I sometimes felt the desire. Somehow I knew that they had been hurt already, though the actual cause was still vague and obscure to me, and, as a result, I always felt a need to keep them from further pain. They seemed more fragile than other parents.
Papa often brought me presents for no reason. One day he gave me a book. It was the Diary of Anne Frank, the journal of a young German Jewish woman whose family went into hiding in Amsterdam during the Nazis’ occupation. The diary served as the girl’s closest confidante up until the time her family was discovered by the Gestapo twenty-five months later and sent to concentration camps. There she perished. This was my first ‘personal’ encounter with the Holocaust, and while it had a tremendous effect on me, I really didn’t associate it with my parents’ experience at the time.
That summer we went to Amsterdam to visit the people with whom my parents had stayed after the war. I was very excited when Papa told me that we could visit the Secret Annexe in which the Frank family had hidden. But when we got there I became very nervous, being in a country where I couldn’t speak the language. The people all looked different and strange and the first night I was so homesick that, once in bed, I started to cry, silencing my sobs with the pillow. Papa wandered into the room to say good night, and asked me gently, “liana, what’s the matter?” “Oh Papa, it’s so scary here. I want to go home.” He looked at me suddenly with that tense, searching look. Then he said, “Don’t be silly liana. There’s nothing to be frightened of here. Your mother and I are right next door.”
But the sharpness of his voice startled me and once he left the room I began to sob again uncontrollably. I wasn’t even sure why.
The next day, as they promised, we went to see the Secret Annexe. It was located on the upper floor of an old factory, restored by the government for tourists. The entrance of the Annexe was at the top of a narrow stairwell hidden behind a moveable bookcase. Inside, the original furnishings had been preserved and as we passed through the three small rooms I matched each up mentally with the persons whom Anne had described in her diary. Eight people had hidden in the .tiny apartment for more than two years. Their ghosts were still there.
As we turned to leave, the wail of a police siren filled the air and made me shudder.
Downstairs, the factory had been converted into a museum. It was there that I first saw real pictures of the concentration camps. The photographs had been taken during the Russian liberation. In the first picture, human skeletons stood gazing blankly at their emancipators. In another, rotting bodies were entangled around each other in huge piles. Suddenly I felt sick. I looked over at my parents and Papa’s arm was around Mama. As they stared at the pictures their expressions too were blank.
That night just Mama came in to kiss me good night. She held me for a long time and she stayed with me until I fell asleep. Then I had a nightmare . . .
I’m playing at the bottom of the staircase below the Secret Annexe. Suddenly I hear the siren wail. I fly up the stairs to the bookcase. It’s shut!
“Papa! Papa! Let me in!” I cry and start to punch at the bookcase. The siren’s getting louder. “Hurry Papa!” But Papa’s inside playing with Yossi. He can’t hear me. He can’t even hear the sirens. “Mama!” I cry, “Let me in!” The sirens are screaming. “Mama where are you? Mama help me!” “liana, liana, wake up. I’m here. You’re just having a bad dream.” Mama was beside me. “Oh Mama!” I gasp and threw my arms around her sobbing. “What was it liana? What scared you so?” If only she knew how much I wanted to tell her. But I couldn’t betray Papa.
Yossi was growing up quickly, and as he did, Papa started spending more and more time with him. Yossi had a magnificent sense of humor which Papa loved and took full advantage of. When he was less than three years old, the two of them worked up a ridiculous ventriloquist routine where Yossi would perch himself on Papa’s knee and, starting out in the role of the dummy, turned out to be the puppeteer. Whenever we had guests over they’d go through their routine, always stopping after the third encore for fear of overdoing a good thing. And every time they did it I would force myself to laugh until tears came to my eyes so that Papa would not notice the ones inside me. I know I was the only person who never made him laugh.
Our house was not large, but we had an extra bedroom which Papa used for a library and a study. When he was at work I would often go in there to read where it was always quiet. I was careful, however, to stay away from his desk, because he would get very angry if I ever tampered with his things.
One day I went into the study as usual and I happened to notice that the bottom drawer of his desk was partly open. This struck me as unusual since it was the one drawer with a small on the front of it, and I’d always assumed it was locked. Ignoring the observation, I climbed onto my favorite armchair and opened my novel.
Gradually, however, I became aware that I was not concentrating on the book at all but rather staring back at the desk. I got up silently and closed the study door. Then I tiptoed cautiously over to the desk and peered inside the open drawer. There were some photographs and news clippings in it. Nervously, I reached inside and took out the pile. Papa would be very angry but I was overwhelmed with curiosity. On the top were a number of articles about the war. Then I came upon some pictures very much like the ones I had seen in Amsterdam of the concentration camps. Emaciated figures stared hollowly out at me with death-like expressions.
Finally, at the bottom of the pile were some photographs of people I didn’t know, yellow and faded with age. The one that caught my attention was of a younger girl. As I stared at this picture I was overcome by the strangest surge of emotions. The girl looked startlingly familiar. She was exceptionally pretty, much prettier than I was, I thought, but about the same age. Her hair was braided neatly and pinned back tightly in a bun, very ladylike, but other than that she was dressed rather like a tomboy. I could tell that she was just about to burst out laughing. Then I knew. This was my father’s daughter.
The front door slammed. I shoved the articles back into the drawer and all the photographs but the one of the girl which I hid under my shirt. Then I jumped into the big armchair and opened my book again. I was trembling.
That night when everyone was asleep I turned on the light to look at the photograph more closely. I tried to picture the girl in the pile of bodies but couldn’t. She looked too alive. Then I tried to picture her with Papa. I could see her laughing and playing with him just as naturally as Yossi did. That is when I understood why Papa could never laugh and play with me, and a pain stabbed me inside so hard that I nearly cried aloud. Suddenly I had to destroy the picture, and before I realized what I was doing I had torn it into shreds. Then I collapsed onto the bed and cried until I was numb.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the implications of what I had done. I had stayed in bed all morning, too utterly depressed to make the momentous effort to get up and dress. Then suddenly I remembered the picture. Papa would be hearbroken, I thought as I jumped out of bed and gathered up the tiny fragments scattered all over my floor. Frantically I tried to piece them back together but the outlines had been so faded to begin with I couldn’t make them out. Finally, I took out a little black jewelry box and put them all inside it. I knew I could never bring myself to tell Papa what I’d done so I would just have to wait until he found out for himself. I felt hot and weak all over. With a rush of despair I got up and dressed and, having gained my composure to some extent, dashed out of the house.
But nothing unusual happened that day, nor the day after that. In fact, after two weeks I had almost convinced myself that I’d been wrong about the true identity of the girl in the picture after all. Then late one night Papa came up to my room. “liana, have you been going through my desk?” He wasn’t angry. He was upset. “No Papa,” I heard myself saying, “I wouldn’t do that.” I tried to stop myself but it was too late. “Is something missing?” I knew I couldn’t bear to hear the answer. But all he said was, “Yes, I mean no. Don’t worry about it. I’ve just misplaced something.”
But the pain in his eyes was so intense that I knew that he must know the truth. And I wished that he’d scream at me like I deserved. For his silence was like a lie and it hurt me even more.
After that things were worse between Papa and me. Even when he brought me presents I would just feel guilty, because they seemed only to remind me of how well he’d always treated me. Then Papa would look hurt and perplexed when I failed to greet his gestures with the same happy enthusiasm as in the past. Finally he began to hide the little gifts with notes for me to stumble upon accidentally, sort of like a game. But I knew why he had stopped giving them to me himself.
In school I had always been an excellent student. It wasn’t that I was exceptionally bright, but rather I was driven by an intense need to achieve and to prove myself above the others. This was partly to make up for my social limitations, as my shyness and reserve had prevented me from developing many friendships. But it was also because I knew that my scholastic achievements always made both my parents happy. Soon after I found the picture, however, my studies started to fall off. I lost my concentration, or perhaps my motivation, and began to spend excessive amounts of time sleeping or reading in an attempt to escape my despair. Mama noticed the change in me almost immediately and she came into my room one night. “liana, is there something bothering you lately? You seem so sad.”
I nearly started to cry right then, but stopped myself. I was afraid to speak though, for fear of losing my composure. So I lay there and waited to see what she would say.
Mama waited patiently for me to respond. Finally she said, “Please liana. Try to tell me what’s the matter. Maybe there’s something that I can do to help.”
Inside I started to scream. “Can’t you see there’s nothing you can do to help! There’s nothing anyone can do! Papa hates me. He wishes I was the one who was dead. Oh I wish I was too.” But my lips couldn’t move. Tears welled over my eyes and Mama held me tightly in her arms. Still she couldn’t touch the pain.
It was summer. My parents had decided that I should go to camp. There I was sure to meet some nice new friends and have a wonderful time. The change would be good for me, they said. It was guaranteed. I was petrified. I’d never been away from home before and in the week before the session started I was sure I would suffocate myself with fear. Papa decided it would be best to drive me to the camp so that he could make sure I was settled all right. It was a three-hundred-mile trip, so Mama decided that she would stay home with Yossi. The day after school ended she helped me pack my duffles. That night I had another nightmare . . .
There’s a line on Papa ‘s neck. He’s wearing a mask Underneath he’s really a kidnapper in disguise. The car’s zooming along the highway fast. Have to get out. Don’t know where he’s taking me. Door’s stuck. He’s staring at me! “Papa, look at the road! We’re going to crash! Papa! You’re looking the wrong way! Help me God!”
Papa laughs . . .
I was afraid to sleep again after that so I waited resignedly for morning to come.
Yossi kissed me goodbye first and then Mama hugged me and I wished she could hold me forever. But Papa took my hand gently and we got into the car.
It was a beautiful day, so warm and bright that the sun seemed to mock me in my despair. We sped along the highway in silence. Timidly I turned and looked at Papa’s neck.
“liana, do me a favor and get a quarter out of my wallet. We’re coming to a tollbooth.”
I opened up Papa’s wallet and flipped over his credit cards to reach the coin compartment when suddenly I noticed a picture. I gasped. It was the same picture! The one I’d torn up, only smaller! I was astounded.
“Papa, who’s this in the picture?” I stopped short. I hadn’t meant to ask. He stared at me for a moment.
Then he replied, “That was my other little girl.”
There was a pause. “She was very pretty,” I murmured, confused.
We stopped at the side of the highway for a picnic lunch. I was still holding the wallet so I took out the picture and looked at it again.
“What was her name Papa?” I asked timidly.
“Her name was liana too. We named you after her.
“Oh.” I said softly. “But we’re very different. I can see it from the picture. Won’t you tell me about her Papa?”
For a moment Papa looked upset. I was both ashamed and amazed at myself for demanding this breach of confidence. But then his face relaxed into a smile and he began to speak haltingly.
“She was always full of mischief, liana,” he said. “Much like your brother.”
And then he began to recount escapades that she’d been involved in until we found ourselves both rolling on the grass. After our laughter subsided there was a pause of incredulous silence.
“But she was also very much like you,” he continued softly, “though not as quiet and thoughtful.”
I was stunned. He’d said it like a compliment to me.
“She had a streak of vanity unlike anyone I ever met, before and since, liana. It made her stubborn and it made me cruel.”
I had never conceived of her having a fault. The girl had become like a goddess to me.
“But you would have loved her too,” he continued distracted. “I’ll never forgive myself for letting them take her away.”
The sun was brilliant overhead.
“I thought I could only fail you too.” He stopped short, tears in his eyes, and gazed at me for the longest time.
I didn’t have to look away.
Cathy Sleinhauer wrote this story three years ago, at age 18. Now an occupational therapist in Toronto, she says this piece is her only “serious writing.”