Who’s the girl in the red dress?” I asked Hannah as we walked the dimly lit corridor of the pathology building. The year was 1947, my first year in medical school in Lodz, Poland. Covered with small abscesses, I was not in good physical shape. My doctor, however, stated that the multiple purulent craters were merely a “minor disease” and he treated them offhandedly with a hideously pungent, tar-like ointment, an ancient remedy which didn’t help at all — though it did provide space around me in crowded places. There was little interest in his eye while he examined my ulcerous gums.
“Uh-oh! Scurvy!” he announced in an almost cheerful tone. “Eat fruit, child!”
Fruit! In the winter? In 1947?
The good doctor was irritated by my litany of non-lifethreatening illnesses, and moved impatiently in the chair. X-rays showed a stomach ulcer.
“Drink milk, child. Next patient, please!”
Regardless, I was in better shape than Hannah, who had lost a good deal of hair, and whose shining scalp showed through thin remaining strands. How lucky I was to have survived the war! I should not have bothered the doctor with my furunculosis, shaky teeth, and pains in the belly.
I was too thin, and Hannah was too bloated. We carried the memories of the ghettoes, hiding places and death camps; we smiled only half-smiles… or else we were deadly, boringly, serious. Our faces inescapably expressed the hard-won motto of our lives: “Don’t be too happy. Every moment expect disaster.” We were odd-looking specimens dressed in a hodgepodge of illfitting dresses handed down by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.
But the student in red… the student in red was different. The golden tan of her unblemished skin matched the smiling, sky-blue eyes; the thick, straight-blond hair formed a golden casque around her head. Unlike the rest of us, her exquisite face was untouched by powder, lipstick or make-up. She smiled and listened attentively to a pathology assistant, and he, in turn, couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“Who is she? What’s her name? Is she an actress playing a medical student?” I asked the well-informed Hannah.
“No,” she laughed, and then whispered, “That’s Ola Kohn. She’s the youngest student in the school, and so far she has the best grades. The hospital of internal diseases was named after her grandfather, Dr. Jacob Kohn. Her father was a well-known criminal lawyer; her beauty is from her mother.” All these facts she delivered in a single breath.
“She’s Jewish?” I said, shocked.
“Uchh!” I felt jealous. “She has the perfect genes to play a Polish-Catholic child! Where was she during the war?”
“On the Aryan side.”
In the decrepit corridor of the medical building, Ola was pure sunshine. To Hannah and me, she seemed instantly to embody hope. She was the mythical phoenix risen from the ashes of war in the freshness of youth to live through a new cycle of being. I felt, in comparison, tormentingly inferior; I was still half ashes, half-wounded, a disabled bird unable to fly.
In the weeks ahead, my interest in ola burned steadily, and I finally worked up the nerve to approach her in the Polonia Cinema where we held some of our classes.
“Ola, I’m Sally,” I introduced myself. “I missed inorganic chemistry yesterday and was wondering if I could borrow your notes.”
“Sure,” she said, full of cheer. She had a smile that beamed and then disappeared slowly, lingering in her eyes. “But my notes are very short,” she warned. “Aren’t you sick and tired of these lectures in movie houses?,” she continued comfortably. “Yesterday we had physiology class in Symphony Hall and our professor with his long hair looked just like Toscanini, but mistakenly talking about thyroid disease. Well, at least the Hall is warm and bright. These movie houses are so damp and dark…and dirty and cold. Do you think the Polish government will ever build us real lecture halls?”
“First they must rebuild Warsaw,” I said measuredly. “And then Gdansk. And then Wroclaw. And then Stetin. Our grandchildren will still attend chemistry classes at the Polonia!”
“You’re an optimist,” she said, tilting her head and beaming.
“Let’s study together,” I said impulsively. “I’m a speed-writer. I take excellent notes and I have a lot of textbooks.” Textbooks were in short supply in post-War Poland. “I think we would be an excellent team.” Something in me needed to attach to Ola; her presence buoyed my faltering hold on life. Beside her, maybe I, too, could survive beautifully.
“Fine, fine. Fantastic.” She clasped her hands in delight, and I was struck by the sweetness and innocence of her 17 years. I was only three years her senior, but entrapped in grief and terror and oldness. I could never smile the way that Ola did.
Soon we were inseparable. I took reams of notes, while Ola wrote only a few sentences; her ability to memorize lectures — almost in their entirety — took my breath away.
“Ola,” I said one day with unmasked envy, “Was the gift of ‘oral memory’ passed on to you in your paternal chromosomes?”
“Oh no,” she said. “It’s an acquired skill that I mastered long ago. I learned to listen intensively.” She smiled beatifically.
At some point between our second and third years of medical school, my furunculosis unabated, Ola ordered me to stop applying the antediluvian ointment. In an extremely generous gesture, she bought me a new drug on the black market; it was called penicillin. It was expensive, and I knew that, in order to pay for it, she had worked many extra nights in the emergency room. Injecting it over and over into my glutei was excruciating — each time like driving a red-hot nail into muscle. I often wished I had been left alone with the painless furuncles, but when they finally vanished, leaving silvery, star-like scars, I said to Ola, “I can never pay you back, but all the stars on my body belong to you.”
“What a good omen for my practice!” she laughed. “Getting paid in stars instead of money!”
At the back of my neck I had one particularly awful scar, and Ola removed a necklace she was wearing and put it on me. “Look,” she said, “this conceals your scar perfectly.”
Day by day, month after month, I was showered with Ola’s smiles and largesse, and I could feel my accumulated bitterness and anguish melting. Slowly I was being transformed into a phoenix, too — just a mini-phoenix, but capable, nonetheless, of a bit of rising.
Ola graduated from medical school summa cum laude; I, without any laude whatsoever. We both chose the Queen of medical science — internal medicine — as our specialty. In 1957, both Ola and I decided to leave Poland, disgusted finally with its politics. Our paths diverged, hers leading her to Israel, and mine to America.
“You’ll write letters to me?” I asked moronically. Ola was not a “written word” person — she never took notes; she remembered. I was losing my best friend, as was she.
But even in parting, she smiled.
I wrote letters. “Ola, the word ‘the’ is an unpronounceable nightmare! My lips, tongue and vocal cords refuse to make this bloody sound. Kindly Americans insist that I have a ‘charming accent,’ but I see them tilting an ear trying to make sense of the cacophony that issues from my mouth.” In another I wrote, “Don’t condemn me, Ola! I have abandoned the Queen of medicine for anesthesia.”
Shortly, Ola could afford long-distance calls, and my phone rang every couple of weeks.
“Sally?… ally?… ally?… ally?” the early connections from Israel were terrible, full of echoes and static. “Don’t cry over your accent. I had to start from scratch with a brand-new alphabet! As for the kingdom of internal medicine, it is divided into many provinces. I now specialize in the ‘pump.’” She had become a cardiologist. “I love you from the bottom of my ‘pump!’”
Over the years, the phone connections improved and Ola’s voice aged, becoming gravelly and raspy. In times of peace, I felt guilty — I wrote many letters to Ola, but only in my head. When there were wars in Israel, my husband’s eyebrows rose at our skyrocketing phone bills.
And then, in the mid-‘70s, I got a wonderful call. “Ignaz and I are coming to New York for a year,” Ola said. “He has taken a sabbatical.”
“Great. Great,” I said. I had waited so long for a visit!
I mapped out a tour of New York, wanting Ola to see my adopted city in all its glory. In a state of elation, I met her at the airport, even though she and her husband were being met by an embassy escort. Her face did not seem affected by time; its beautiful features were unchanged. But she wore dark glasses, and they felt like a heavy curtain between us.
“I have an allergy to dust, Sally, and the glasses protect my eyes,” Ola said upon arriving. “I slept so poorly on the plane. Do you happen to have a sleeping pill on you?”
“No. Since when did you start smoking?”
“Everyone smokes in Israel,” Ola said. “We’re all living in a war zone. Do you have any Valium?”
“I’ll call you soon,” she promised, whisked off by Ignaz’s entourage. Through the next week I phoned her morning, noon and night, but she didn’t answer — nor return my phone calls. In the morning she was asleep, reported Ignaz, in the afternoon napping, at night she was too tired to talk. Finally I reached her.
“Cholera!” I said, using the curse that was our slang in Poland. “You owe me an explanation, Ola. Did I do something wrong?”
We arranged to meet at an obscure luncheonette on the Upper East Side. I disliked the place as soon as I pushed open the filthy door, but I ordered a cup of coffee, focused only on Ola.
“What’s wrong?” I said, without pausing for small talk. “You must tell me, Ola!”
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s not you, Sally, it’s…,” she said haltingly, starting and stopping. “I’m not… I’m fine. I’m an insomniac, Sally. We are coping, Ignaz and I. I can’t stop…I think incessantly… all I can think about is the past. Why did you and I never speak about the war?”
“How could we have?” I cried. “You were so whole, a glorious phoenix. You transitioned so smoothly after the war, while I was broken and ravaged. It was not….”
“’Smoothly!’” she said sharply. “None of us survived the war ‘smoothly.’ I was on the Aryan side, in a little village near Warsaw. Our lives on the Aryan side hinged on the color of our hair, the shape of our noses, the intonation of our voices, on a thousand, thousand little factors…of which the most important was luck.”
She was spilling, telling a story that, despite our lifelong intimacy, she had never shared.
“I was the ‘lucky’ 11-year-old blonde girl with blue eyes and a snub nose,” she said. “I blended well among the Poles. My aunt and uncle weren’t so ‘lucky,’ since they had the kind of pale skin that turns brown with the first rays of the sun, and their hair and eyes were black. They were hidden by the Poles in the attic, a windowless cubby hole with a camouflaged entrance. Their one-year-old daughter was separated from her high-risk parents and adopted by a childless Polish family. My blonde and beautiful and fearless mother was the mastermind of this elaborate survival plan, and every Sunday she brought money to the Poles for our upkeep.
“I was supposed to be a war orphan, and I called her Mrs. Rolsky. Every night I visited my aunt and uncle in the attic, and they gave me lessons in math, history, Latin and physics. We didn’t have pencils or paper; I did my homework in my head while I worked in the fields, milked the cows or cleaned the house. For three years they continued their oral teaching and slowly they replaced my parents.
“Mrs. Rolsky slowly faded away as my mother. A few months before the liberation, the Gestapo came straight to the attic and shot my uncle and my aunt in the courtyard. I saw the execution from the window and crawled under the bed. The Polish woman told my mother when she came for her usual Sunday visit, ‘Take the girl with you. NOW! She is crying and tormented and she looks like a haunted Jewish child. I can’t help you anymore. The Gestapo took my husband.’
“My mother wiped the tears from my eyes and said imploringly, ‘Ola, you have some chance to survive. The end of the war is near. Smile, smile. You must look always livelier and merrier. Your eyes must give away nothing about yourself. I promise that we’ll cry together after the war, and we’ll take the baby home.’”
“After the war,” Ola continued, “my mother left the baby with the adoptive parents, for she believed that the little girl would be better off not knowing of her Jewish origins and her parents’ fate. I smiled, Sally. I smiled and smiled. I kept smiling till I couldn’t smile anymore.”
Two rivulets of tears coursed steadily down her cheeks, and I instinctively removed her dark glasses to pat dry her eyes. I saw that the whites of the eyes were crisscrossed by a fine net of tortuous red vessels; the irises had a glazed blue color; the pupils…. I recognized the familiar pinpointed pupils of the overdosed addicts in the emergency room into whose collapsed lungs I pumped liters of oxygen.
A glassy-eyed Ola looked back at me. A junkie! My phoenix was a junkie! I felt intensely betrayed. Ola was for me the future of us. I needed her to represent an intact state. I felt seething rage.
“I have to go home,” I said, and I ran from the restaurant.
Two days later I got a phone call at the hospital. “Sally,” Ola said, “I wanted to tell you…I have to tell you that….”
I stopped her mid-sentence. “I can’t talk,” I said, ice in my voice. “I’m on call.” All I could think was, ‘Junkie. Junkie. You’re a junkie, Ola. You’re a junkie, Ola.’”
“I’ll call you some other time,” she whispered, hanging up.
Three days later, an anonymous message was left on my phone. “Ola committed suicide. Ignaz wanted you to know. It was Valium and alcohol…at a hotel on the Upper East Side. There is no funeral. She donated her body to medical research.” I was on call in the emergency room, and I was in denial. I worked feverishly all night, but in the morning could recall none of the cases. I rushed to see Ignaz.
“I failed her,” I said. “I failed her, Ignaz,” I said over and over. I could hardly squeeze the words through my constricted throat. “I didn’t let her talk. I was being…I was so damn rigid. I was focused only on me, consumed by rage, by her betrayal, by how I needed her to carry on. I could have saved her, Ignaz, if I had let her talk. But I was only thinking, ‘junkie, junkie.’ I spat out the words to myself. I could have saved her. I could have saved her.”
I repeated myself for hours, reliving the click of the phone after Ola’s whisper, the silence hanging on the wire — as I hear it to this day.
“Sally, no one could save Ola,” Ignaz said, a deadly tiredness in his entire being. “She was hospitalized and treated, hospitalized and treated. Over and over. She was depressed, she warded it off with Demerol and Valium. With Nembutal. Death was for her a better solution, Sally, more desired than existence. She left a letter for you.”
The letter was simple and to the point. “It took me years to find my cousin,” Ola wrote, “my uncle and aunt’s daughter. But I was too much of a wreck to write her. Give her my ring, and ask her to forgive me. Here is her address.”
The ring was lost during the police investigation, but I wrote letter after letter. They each came back stamped “Addressee Unknown.”
Salomea Kape-Jay, born in Lodz, Poland in 1926, spent five years in its ghetto during the Nazi occupation, and was one of 800 Jews left by the Nazis to clean the ghetto after its liquidation. Emigrating to New York in 1966, Kape-Jay had a long career as an anesthesiologist. Her collected memoirs, translated into Polish, will be published in Lodz this year, on the 65th anniversary of the ghetto’s liquidation.