As she approached the front counter to greet him, Leo caught a wiff of Lily's perfume, an aroma so strong it preceded her arrival. The perfume elicited a feeling of deja vu for Leo. Within moments, he knew why. This was the same perfume his beloved Deena had worn several years earlier. Leo closed his eyes and recalled their first embrace in her flat seven years earlier. Much had transpired since then. It could easily have been a hundred years ago.
“So, you are here to try on and pick up your new brown leather jacket, I presume,” Lily said in a Hungarian accent indigenous to the Carpathian Mountains region. She slipped behind the counter. Leo opened his eyes and returned to the present moment.
“Yes,” Leo replied, appearing stunned.
“Am I correct?” she asked, revealing a hint of insecurity in her voice.
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “Please excuse my appearing distracted. Like many others, I'm sure, I haven't slept very well during the last week and a half."
“How have you managed these past few days?” he asked.
“As we always do in such situations,” she replied. “Eventually, the danger subsides somewhat, at least until the next time. One learns to adjust to circumstances over time. You visited your father during this time, am I correct?”
Leo nodded, “Yes,it was difficult for him and his wife. He isn't getting any younger and I imagine he never thought he would live through another war during his lifetime. For that matter, neither did I.”
Lily reached beneath the front counter to remove a rectangular-shaped white box. She opened it to reveal Leo's special order brown leather jacket. It was cut in a double-breasted pattern, complete with a pair of epaulets on the shoulders and a faux fur collar, a popular style at the time. She removed the jacket from the box and held it up for Leo to examine.
“This is the style you wanted, am I correct?” she asked, holding the jacket aloft for Leo to give a closer look. She held the jacket in both hands, then moved toward him as she motioned to him to try it on.
“So you and your father were together in the camp?” she asked as Leo slipped his right arm into the sleeve.
“Yes, we were. My brothers were there as well, but my father and I were placed in the same group and work detail. I was only fourteen at the time, and it's safe to say without his help and intervention, I wouldn't be here standing before you today.”
“It must have been even more difficult for you at such a young age,” she commented, simultaneously guiding his left arm into the other sleeve. She then reached over to smooth the upper sleeves and shoulders for him, just as she'd done to the jacket on the mannequin window display earlier.
She motioned towards the three way mirror. Leo followed her.
“I always thought young boys of fourteen were automatically sent to the ovens. You were very lucky. How did you manage that?” she asked, in a tone suggesting curiosity rather than suspicion.
“When the train arrived at the front gate, we were greeted by the sound of barking dogs and incessant German shouting. The sounds were so harsh and shrill, it was difficult to discern which noises came from the dogs and which ones emanated from the Germans. When the carriage door flew open, the train was boarded by capos. They had to remove us rapidly to satisfy the demands of the German officers. We had no idea what fate awaited us, though we knew whatever lay in store for us would not be good. As the capo in our area guided passengers toward the open door, we noticed he seemed to whisper commands into the ears of several passengers. When our turn came, he asked my father, 'How old are you?' 'Forty eight,' my father replied. 'You're thirty-eight,' the capo retorted. Next, he grabbed my shoulder. 'And you?' he whispered. 'Fourteen,' I replied. 'You're eighteen,' he answered, pushing us both toward the open door. When I looked back, he was already whispering into the ears of the next group. This capo knew those under eighteen and over forty would immediately be sent to the gas chambers. I've often wondered how may lives that man must have saved, and whether he had managed to survive. Had the Germans caught on to what he was up to, they would have shot him in an instant.”
Though she had smoothed the sleeves of the new jacket as much as one could, Lily's hand remained on his shoulder. Staring at their reflection in the three way mirror, Leo was nearly certain he'd caught the reflection of the formation of a tear in Lily's right eye. The two of them stared at their triple reflections in the mirror. Neither one could move.
They both enjoyed the meal, and agreed to take a walk and enjoy their desserts elsewhere afterwards. The dessert offerings in this restaurant were limited to non-dairy items due to dietary prohibitions, and both of them were in the mood for an ice cream, especially on such a warm, dry evening.
The couple set out toward Dizengoff Circle, often referred to in travel brochures as Tel Aviv's Times Square. Leo assumed the reference was to the spot being a focal point for the gathering of throngs of pedestrians. As far as Leo was concerned, the similarity ended there. Times Square in 1973, to Leo, was a locale to be avoided at all costs. Crime rates were at an all-time high, streets were filthy, and muggings were commonplace. One could stroll the boulevards of Tel Aviv throughout the night with relative ease. Regimes of half a dozen surrounding countries desired nothing less than to drive all of its inhabitants into the sea, but until their ambitions should be realized, street life in Tel Aviv remained serene.
The couple strode along Hayarkon Park, looking toward the Mediterranean. A string of luxury hotels lit up the coastline with their large, colorful signs: Hilton, Sheraton, Ramada, Dan.
They slowed their pace as they approached a park bench. Lily indicated she'd like to sit, and Leo was more than happy to oblige. They sat in silence for a minute or two. She turned to Leo.
“You said you would tell me more about the times you thought you wouldn't survive. I'd still like to hear about that.”
“Well,” he began, “when we were awakened each morning to the sounds of shouting capos beating their rubber truncheons upon the wooden frames of the barracks, or, more often than not upon our shoulders and backs . . . all of us wondered if we'd live through the day to return to those barracks that evening alive. This was de rigueur on a daily basis.
Lily pressed her shoulder against his as she sat, waiting for more.
“On one particular day, however,” he continued, "I was a thousand percent certain my time was up. The Russians were advancing closer to our location every day. We were not allowed access to news from the outside, but the expressions on the Germans' faces coupled with bits and pieces of eaves dropped comments made their deteriorating status evident. They decided to remove a group of us from the camp to a work detail site in Warsaw, at least that part of it which was still standing. My older brother was assigned to my section. This pleased me, as I could now look after him somewhat. How my brother had survived until this point still amazed me. One couldn't imagine an individual more ill-suited to the situation we faced than my brother. When I think back to our lives at home before the war, I cannot remember a moment in which my brother did not have an open book before him. He was a kind, gentle, spiritual being, now thrust into a Hell on earth which I'm certain he would have been incapable of imagining, even in his worst nightmare. And yet, after having seen my mother and sister being led off to be executed on the day we had arrived, something inside of him shut down. He did what he had to each day to survive, as though his brain had been switched to an auto pilot setting.
"Now we had been placed on a work detail so close to the Russians' position, the exploding shells sounded like they could not have been more than a block or two away. As the explosions got closer, our German commanders suddenly retreated, leaving us to fend for ourselves. I suppose they figured the Russians' shells would kill us, and there was no fear of us escaping. Escape to where? I grabbed my brother's arm and pulled him with me towards an empty building. Several other prisoners followed. Once inside, we scampered though mountains of debris in a futile attempt to find an area of relative safety. The explosions outside grew louder, sounding more ominous. I told my brother to stand as close to the corner of the room as he could, then told him I'd run out and find us a safer location to hide. He remained silent, then just nodded. I dashed out the front door, figuring if I could just cross the street and make it to the opposite corner, perhaps I'd find a safer hiding place. As I approached the sidewalk on the opposite side, I heard a deafening sound as I felt my body being lifted off the ground and being hurled at least twenty-five meters. I hit the ground rolling.
"When I opened my eyes, I was elated to see I had survived that explosion unscathed. The moment of relief was extinguished as I turned around to look behind me. The building where I had been situated just moments before with my brother and the others had been reduced to smoldering ruins. Nothing of the building or its inhabitants remained. I stood dumbfounded. The irony of the situation did not escape me. I had risked my life to find a safe place for my brother. In doing so, he had perished, and I remained alive. I wanted to turn the clock back only one minute, but I knew, of course, there would be no do-over. I felt a hand grab my arm as it pulled me into an open doorway. I spun around to find a man in tattered clothes holding a rifle on his right shoulder. I struggled to understand what he was trying to say as the sounds of exploding ordinance grew closer. He motioned for me to follow him, and as the gun was still slung over his shoulder, chances were promising that I was dealing with a friend rather than foe.
"We spent the next half-hour winding our way through narrow alleyways and streets. Once the sounds of the exploding shells grew more distant, we stopped in front of a manhole cover. He tapped the butt of his rifle against it in what sounded like a unique pattern. A voice could be heard from underneath. The man responded, and this time I recognized the language he spoke. Moments later, the manhole cover was raised. Two men with rifles emerged, then beckoned for the four of us to climb back inside. For better or worse, I was now in the hands of the Polish underground resistance."
"Despite the use of kerosene lanterns, it took a few minutes to adjust to the dim lighting. We were led through a labyrinth of narrow passages, our senses assaulted by the ever-present odor of raw sewage. Eventually, we reached an intersection populated by more underground partisans as well as a group of other prisoners, one of which I recognized from my work detail group. He was a teenager about my age whom I had chatted with briefly during the previous month when we were assigned to various tasks at the camp. Casual conversation was forbidden while working, often punished by a blow to the back of the head by one of the ever-present capos. During a brief lunch break, conversation was permitted, but most prisoners were too hungry and tired to engage in casual talk, eager to fill their empty stomachs with a bite of rock-hard stale bread and a few spoonfuls of mud-colored water which passed for soup. On a lucky day, one might find a sliver of a turnip in the bowl. One day, I was seated next to the young man. With both of us having quickly devoured our meager rations, we engaged in conversation. I discovered the language we had in common was Yiddish. His name was Nico. As he came from Greece and I from Hungary, the Yiddish language was our only means of communication.
"Now, amid st the chaos transpiring in the sewers, I walked over to where Nico was standing and made eye contact. The man who appeared to be in charge of the partisans was shouting into a telephone apparatus with a large crank on the side. Now, fortunately for me, there was a sizable amount of cross-border commerce transpiring between Poland and Hungary throughout my upbringing. Though I could hardly claim to be proficient enough in Polish to call it a primary language, I had no problem understanding it when I listened to it being spoken in conversation. The partisan commander was now shouting into the telephone receiver, conversing with another partisan commander who was probably situated a few blocks away.
“'I know the Russians are advancing,' he said. 'The Germans turned tail and retreated so fast, they didn't even take their Jew prisoners with them. I've got more than fifteen of the sheenies here right now. No, listen, I have a better idea. I'll send them up to your position, you can use them as cannon fodder to draw the Germans out from their positions, at least they will be of some use to us.'
"The commander turned to his underling.
“'You take the Jews up to to the B group, tell them we will now give them the chance they've beenlonging for to take revenge on the enemy. We'll give them rifles, but no more than two bullets each. You know we're low on ammunition, and of course, they don't need to know.'
"I turned to Nico, and whispered to him. 'They plan on using us as cannon fodder, sending us on a suicide mission. Listen to me, follow my lead, and maybe by some miracle, we'll make it out of this alive. When we meet up with the B group, they will give us our marching orders. But we will shake our heads in bewilderment pretending not to understand a word spoken to us. You will speak Greek, I will invent a nonexistent dialect peppered with elements of Hungarian and modern Hebrew. It's the only chance we've got.' The teen nodded as the Poles led a group of us toward group B.
"As expected, the moment we arrived, the group B commander shouted orders to us as they handed us defective-looking rifles and pointed toward the daylight at the end of the tunnel. 'Now get out there and fight!' he shouted. 'This is the moment you've been waiting for, your chance to get back at those bastards who murdered your families. Go! Get out! What are you waiting for?' On cue, Nico the young teen and I stared at the commandant in silent disbelief. 'Go! The commander shouted once more. Are you deaf?'
"Nico addressed the commander in Greek, coupled with a few chosen words in Hebrew and Aramaic. The words sounded familiar to me, and I soon realized from whence they came. He was reciting a passage from the Passover Hagaddah, the one which reads, In every generation an enemy rises up to exterminate our people, but the holy one, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.
"The commander pushed Nico to the side as he grabbed my right arm.
“'And you, what's your problem, hah? Answer me!' He grabbed both of my shoulders and shook me with rage. His face was turning beet red, as I stared at him with a look of confusion. Finally, I addressed him in Aramaic, quoting the treatise of the introductory page of the Talmudic volume of Beitzah in which the debate begins as to whether a chicken egg hatched on the first day of Passover is permissible to eat.'
"The commander threw his hands up in disgust. He picked up the telephone and turned the crank repeatedly. When a voice finally answered on the other end, he shouted into the mouthpiece.
“'What kind of imbeciles did you send me? They don't understand a word I say, and they speak in a language I've never heard. You take them back, I have no use for them here. He slammed the receiver down, then motioned to one of his underlings to take us back from whence we had come.
"When we reached our original point of entry into the sewage system, I'd say barely five minutes had passed, but during that period of time, the situation had changed drastically. Explosions were increasing in volume. As the Germans had done less than an hour earlier, the partisans retreated, leaving us prisoners to be captured or killed, this time by the advancing Germans. I was fascinated. Russians, Poles, and Germans were at each others' throats, but the one trait they all shared in common was the notion that all Jews were always expendable.
"A loud explosion ripped open the street level ten meters from my head, chunks of brick missing me by mere centimeters. Through the smoke, a spotlight appeared, followed by an all-too-familiar refrain. 'Alle Juden Raus'–all Jews out–a shrill voice shouted on a megaphone, as a phalanx of German soldiers, machine guns in hand, descended upon us. We raised our hands toward the sky, as we were marched to a long brick wall. I heard the sound of a machine gun bolt being pulled, and I was 100% certain I would die in a matter of moments. I learned something amazing then. Throughout my internment, I awoke every morning, wondering if this would be the day I would not live to return to my wooden bunk. The thought consumed me throughout every waking moment of each day. I was petrified. Now, here I was standing in front of a brick wall, a machine gun pointed at my head, and I was no longer scared. It's as though the human brain, when faced with what appears to be a certain death, manufactures an anesthetic to relax its owner to soften the blow of the inevitable. Suddenly, the commandant muttered something to one of the soldiers. He shouted 'Halt!' then came over to me, pulled me out of the lineup, and stood me in front of the commandant. 'How old are you?' he asked me. At this point, I assumed I was done for, so there was no point in lying. 'Fourteen,' I said. 'Next month, I'll be fifteen,' I continued, why, I couldn't tell you.
“'Where were you interred?' he asked me. 'Auschwitz,' I replied. 'Do you have any family there?' He asked. 'As far as I know, my father is still there,' I answered. I must confess I was truly bewildered by his line of questioning.
“'Take him back to the camp,' the commandant instructed the soldier. 'Let the boy spend his last days with his father.” The soldier whisked me away and placed me on a covered truck with a dozen prisoners and two armed guards.
"Looking back on the events of that day, I'd wondered countless times why the commandant spared me. Perhaps he knew the end of the war was drawing near and dreaded the prospect of war crimes tribunals. Perhaps in the midst of all the carnage surrounding him, the commandant let slip a moment of compassion.
"As my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting in the truck, I searched frantically for the face of Nico, my ally in the exercise of linguistic deception. He was nowhere to be found. I never saw him again."
MEL R. FRIEDMAN spent his formative years growing up in Queens, New York. After graduating New York's Stuyvesant High School and CUNY's Queens College, he moved to Southern California, where he resides till this day. After joining the Wimpole Street Group several years ago, Mel began writing again after a long hiatus.