I often overheard Grandmother talking to my parents. I could not understand everything, but I gathered that she envied the fact that we lived in Germany, a country with good schools and a comfortable living, not to be compared with the poverty of Polish Jewry.
"But what about antisemitism?" Father interrupted one of these conversations. There was that word again. I listened carefully to Grandmother's reply, hoping finally to understand.
"We have lived with that for years," she began. "We don't know any differently. You will get used to it, too, and find that it is bearable after all." Grandmother sounded sure and convincing, but I still had questions.
"Why is hatred toward Jews accepted in Poland? Why, in Germany, do we have to get used to it?" I asked, using Grandmother's words. But I was dismissed with "This is not a topic for children."
It was not a topic I could dismiss, however, for antisemitism kept encroaching on our lives.
Out of the Ashes
In February 1949, I was confronted with still another ghost from my past. One cold Saturday morning, Dan and I went to Altman's on Fifth Avenue so I could buy a pair of gloves. Dan decided to wait in the lobby. As I tried several pairs, my eyes were drawn to the large bony hands, long fingers, and brightly painted nails of the woman next to me. My gaze drifted upward to her face. It was Maja - Auschwitz - 1944! Maja the Kapo! My mind flooded with images: shaven, ragged women; the barracks compound; watchtowers and electrified barbed wire. Maja had shouted orders, screamed threats, and beaten our bony backs at will with her gnarled stick. She had shown neither pity nor mercy.
"Maja! Auschwitz!" I blurted out.
Her smile disappeared, her face turned ashen. "How did you know?" she stammered.
"I was there. You were part of the Jewish camp police, a Kapo. I never talked to you, but I'll never forget. It's you ... your voice ... your face ..."
"I remember you were well fed. And there were rumors about an SS man who came to visit you at night. He must have been the blond, tall one who returned during the day to beat us and laugh with sadistic pleasure at our suffering. We nicknamed him Siegfried."
I glanced once again at her hands. She wore a wedding band on her ring finger. "I see you are married," I said.
"Who is your husband?" I asked rudely.
She hesitated a long time before answering, "The German - he found me - after the war ..."
"The former SS?" I asked incredulously.
She nodded again.
I was speechless. I watched her expressionless, pale face, and for a fleeting moment, I almost felt sorry for her. I might have been able to understand her behavior back then, but to marry a German SS - after the war - incomprehensible!
Ominous Words from a Dead Soul
Rumkowski entered the office, closed the door behind him, and pulled a chair across the floor. He sat next to me, and I had no choice other than to lift my head. "How are you?" he grinned. "Are you happy to be here?" Over and over again I repeated to myself: Just answer politely and carefully, and don't upset the man. Above all, I had to appear steady. "I am pleased with the work and the evening meal. It means a great deal to me, and I thank you," I said. Somehow, I had succeeded in affecting outward calm.
Rumkowski placed his arm around my shoulder, bent toward me, and kissed me on the cheek. "Are you really greateful for what I have done for you?" I nodded. "Tell me, do you have family abroad?"
"I have two uncles, and several cousins who live in Palestine."
"Those uncles? Are you close to them?"
"Yes. We were in contact before the war."
"One day the war will end. Will you go to Palestine?"
"Yes. I hope so."
"When the war ends, your uncles will have to help me. I want you to promise that you will ask them to do so, and that you will never forget what I have done for you. You must always remember how much you owe me for feeding you."
My calm dissipated; I was in terror, and could only nod. "That is not enough," Rumkowski hissed. "I want to hear you promise, now!"
"I promised to ask my uncles in Palestine to help you after the war:"
I had replied cautiously, and Rumkowski seemed satisfied. He kissed me once more, this time on the lips, and I shuddered in disgust as he said: "I'll be back soon."