Two lives touched by the same nightmare
An embittered survivor cannot speak of what he was forced to do to survive the horrors of Birkenau. A young girl in Texas is haunted by a memory of something she could not have lived. Their meeting will bring each of them face to face with themselves, and with the hope that lies on the other side of despair.
Alex was seventeen years-old when he was deported together with his family to Birkenau. His mother and younger sister were gassed on arrival. Alex lived on past the end of his world, his memory filled with the death of a people. Unable to speak of what he had done to survive, he was locked in the silent prison of his guilt.
Yael, born and raised in Texas, has no connection with Alex or with the world he has lost. And yet her seemingly idyllic life is haunted by a dark memory of something she could not have lived. Her search for the source of the memory will lead her on a quest spanning three continents, and eventually to a new life in Israel. But her true journey will lead into memory itself, as she helps Alex to keep his promises to the dead.
The museum and its associated facilities sprawled across a rugged hillside clad in pine trees. A handful of modest white buildings nestled among white limestone boulders that protruded from the earth like old bones. The image stayed with me as I walked the last few hundred meters from the bus stop to the back entrance of the library: old bones.
It had taken me months to work up my courage to come here. I had made inquiries with friends as to the proximity of the library to the museum, planning out my route. Was it possible to reach the archives without going through the museum? Did the library have its own separate entrance? I was relieved to find that I need not brave the exhibits to reach the archives. I’m not sure what I would have done had it been otherwise.
The scent of pines followed me through the door and stayed with me as I tried to explain my quest to the archivist behind the desk. Pine trees. I know this scent. Is it familiar to me from that place? Perhaps from before? Such questions had become the constant backdrop of my search for my vanished past.
I had been in Israel for more than four months now. From the moment I boarded the plane, the feeling had been growing in me that I had no idea who I really was.
My life was reflected back to me only in the shattered fragments of memory. Some things came back clearly; some not at all. And the things I remembered most clearly were those that I would have given almost anything to forget. Almost. But difficult or not, they were clues to who I was.
But did I really want to know who I was? Much of my early life was simply no longer accessible. Its passing had taken with it much of what I had been. But I did remember where I had lost it. More to the point, I knew when I had lost it. I knew the exact date, and that was what had brought me to the archives of Yad Vashem.
“All right, let’s have that date again. Is this a deportation date or an arrival date?” the archivist asked. “The more information you have, the easier it will be to track down.”
“Date of arrival: March 25th, 1943.” A wave of dizziness washed over me. I pushed it back with the ease of long practice. I had been fighting such reactions for years.
What seemed like an age to me as I grappled with time and memory was only a few moments in the objective now.
“Well, I think we’re going to have a problem with this one,” she said, pushing a microfiche reader back into place under the screen. “There are only a few hundred major transport dates on microfiche, and this is not one of them. Do you have anything else to go on?”
“I have a number.” I said.
The silence seemed to stretch out for many minutes.
“All right…. Family name?”
“No. Only the number.” I was suddenly embarrassed and ashamed. Only a number.
“I don’t think that’s going to be very helpful,” she said.
No, I had not found it to be very helpful.
In the end, I did the search the hard way. I sat down at a desk with four large volumes of transport records in front of me. On one page was the German original and on the next the translation into English. Oddly, the German pages were crisper and less blurred then the type-written English translations. So I ignored the English ones. Pages and pages of photocopied records: town, date of deportation, date of arrival…number of deportees.
This was not going to be easy.
I don’t know how many days I searched. I settled into a routine, arriving each morning to retrieve the remaining books from behind the archivist’s desk. I could go through only so many pages before my mind went numb and I stopped noticing anything at all. The lines of print blurred and became indistinguishable. I could no longer see them as individual transports. They were all the same—a steady stream of trains snaking across Europe toward a single destination. A tree with branching roots spread across the continent, ending in a barren stump.
March 25th 1943—a needle in a haystack; the records went by town, not by date, and not in any discernible order. There were literally thousands of them. The enormity of it was familiar to me. The numbness triggered by this enormity was familiar too.
There is a place of silence. It is refuge, hiding place, and sometimes a pit that I cannot escape. There are no words in that place, no sound of human laughter or tears, no expression of any kind, not even thought. There seems to be no time there, but perhaps it is only that no means exist there to mark the passage of time.
I had been staring off into space for so long that my muscles had cramped up. I stretched, and heard an audible “crack” as my back un-kinked. I surreptitiously looked around to see if I had attracted any attention.
Looking down, I saw my empty cup in front of me—something to do. I got up and poured hot water from the kettle in the librarians’ kitchen over the twice-used tea bag. Should be good for at least one more cup.
As I sat down again, my gaze fell on the open book of transport records. “City of origin: Saloniki, Greece; Date of Departure: March 17th, 1943; Date of Arrival: March 25th, 1943. Destination: Birkenau; 1,901 deportees of whom 695 were registered on arrival.”
City of Origin: Saloniki, Greece….
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