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"A QUESTION OF LIFE"


She had the bagels. She had her laptop. She had her questions.

As she strode purposefully along Ahuza Street in the Israeli town of Raanana, she looked forward to her conversation with bubba, even though the topic would be so serious. The only thing that troubled her was the dry cough, the remnant of the cold she had picked up on the flight to Tel Aviv three days earlier.

Sarah Weitzmann was an English schoolgirl of 17 who was proud of her Jewish heritage and becoming more so as she progressed through adolescence. She was a young woman infused with a thirst for knowledge and identity. Strikingly attractive in a slightly unconventional way, she was increasingly aware of her looks. Her longish face, fine nose and sharp hazel eyes were crowned by a tall forehead and decked by lengthy, frizzy hair, today pulled back into a pony tail. She was now taller than her mother and her womanly curves were accentuated by a bright summer sleeveless dress appropriate to the growing heat of a mid morning in August, the hem decked with tiny sequins which glittered in the sunlight.

Sarah lived with her parents and her younger brother in Finchley in north London. They were not particularly religious, attending the local liberal synagogue less than weekly, but the family observed their own version of shabbat each Friday evening when Sarah and her mother lit two candles - representing the two commandments: zakhor (remember) and shamor (observe) - covered their eyes and sang the hymn “Hayom Yom Shishi” (“Today Is Friday”). She had always loved this little ceremony, finding it familiar and comforting.

Sarah was always amused by the meaning of her name: 'princess'. In some ways, she felt like a princess: very wanted, very loved, a little privileged perhaps. It gave her a degree of self-esteem and self-confidence that sometimes led her to go that bit too far. Like the holiday in Cornwall when she went tree-climbing with some local boys and determined to out-do them in reaching a record height. When she fell, she broke her left arm and the cheeky comments on her plaster represented a lesson that she should have learned.

For her last set of school examinations, she had worked so hard and become so anxious that her favourite teacher had to take her to one side and advise her to ease up a little. This summer she had acquired – well, that was how she saw it – her first serious boyfriend and the week before her holiday in Israel had once again gone further than she had intended.

The two of them were studying history and had been given a summer project to keep them engaged with the subject over the weeks away from school. They had to find and describe a family connection with the Second World War. Her gentile boyfriend planned to tell the story of his paternal grandfather who had been with the British 11th Armoured Division when they had liberated the extermination camp at Bergen-Belsen.

For her part, Sarah had decided to focus on her grandmother's very personal experience of the Holocaust. When she had last visited Israel two years ago, her parents had taken her to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Historical Museum in Jerusalem – a chilling and moving encounter with the detail of the Shoah - and, in preparation for her project, before this trip she had revisited the Holocaust floor of the Imperial War Museum in London.

She found the whole historical event just too huge and too terrible for her teenage mind to comprehend. She needed to give the matter an individual form. Bubba would help her. Of course, she was aware that her grandmother never spoke about her experience but she also knew that she was a treasured granddaughter for whom bubba would do anything, including flying over to London for her Bat Mitzvah five years ago, the only time she had left the country in the last twenty years. But her mother had worries about the project and urged her not to push bubba too far in recollecting her wartime suffering.

It was not a long walk from the home of Sarah's uncle to the bagel shop and then on to her grandmother's place, so she was soon turning into the pathway to bubba's apartment, the computer and notebook in a cloth shoulder bag which proclaimed "Save The Earth" and the freshly-baked bagels in a paper carrier warm and delicious-smelling. She coughed several times, trying to clear the irritant in advance of her forthcoming discourse. Before she had even rung the bell, the door flung open and bubba was there to greet her joyously.

Shulamit – it meant peacefulness – was her name but all her friends called her Shula. She had always been a short woman but, now in her early eighties, she was more diminutive than ever and it seemed to Sarah as if her grandmother had shrunk each time she saw her again. Yet the spirit in her hard grey eyes never diminished and the heavy eyebrows served to accentuate a look that could chill strangers. In truth her sight was now very weak but her hearing remained acute and her mind sharp. She still wore her hair very long – she said it was a reaction to having it cut so short in the war – and piled it up in an elaborate bun.

In spite of her age, she was still fiercely independent and insisted on living alone, although she was becoming increasingly less mobile. The apartment was kept neat and frequently bathed by the sound of classical music, especially opera (but never Wagner). It seemed to Sarah that her grandmother's world was slowly contracting, physiologically, geographically, perhaps even emotionally.

Shula had been born in 1929 in a tiny village outside the city then called Lwów in the south-eastern part of what was then Poland. Thanks to comrade Stalin, the city is now known as Lviv and is located in the Ukraine. When the Nazis occupied this part of Poland in 1941, Shula's family was forced to move into what was known as the Lemberg Ghetto as the Germans reverted to an older name for the city. The following spring, the remaining members of her family were all part of a mass transfer to Belzec concentration camp and she never saw any of them again.

Somehow she herself was not selected for Belzec and worked in a number of local labour camps, surviving until the Soviet Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. This much Sarah knew, but she wanted to understand more about her grandmother's experience and how she had managed to stay alive when so many others had perished.

Shula's brief encounter with the Soviets was enough to persuade her that Eastern Europe was no longer for her and, by a circuitous route, she made her way to Britain and settled in London where she met her husband Max, a fellow Jew who had managed to escape from Czechoslovakia to Britain on one of the kindertransport in 1939.

In almost 40 years of marriage, Shula and Max had three children – all boys (which was part of the reason she adored Sarah). Only one – Sarah's father - remained in Britain; the other two had moved to Israel – one in Raanana, the other in Haifa – which was why, once Max had died, she had moved here, further encouraged by the number of English speakers in the town.

Once the hugging and the kissing were over, Sarah was pulled into the ground floor apartment and ushered into the small, sparsely-furnished sitting room where a sideboard was littered with framed photographs of family members including herself. On the wall, an electric clock quietly announced the time with a tick...tick...tick. Whenever she first entered bubba's place, there seemed to be a musty sort of smell that told of age and routine, but this morning this was soon overlaid by the warm bagels and the hot coffee. That was the arrangement: Sarah brought the bagels which were sliced, toasted and coated in butter – two onion, two cinnamon – and Shula brewed a special blend of Italian coffee – full-bodied with a rich aroma.

Excitedly Shula asked her granddaughter about her father, her mother, her brother, the dogs, the uncle with whom she was staying, her annoying cough ... Sarah was beginning to suspect delaying tactics. This visit had been confirmed two days ago at the celebration of shabbat at her uncle's place, which grandmother unfailingly attended, and bubba was well aware of the school project, how much it meant to her, and how she was expected to help.

“Enough, bubba” she exclaimed. “We have to talk about my project.”
She flipped open her laptop, switched it on, and went to the document that she had already created with headings and questions. And then she commenced the inquisition.

Sarah started by asking Shula about her father the shoemaker, her mother a seamstress, her younger sister, her tiny brother. All dead. Ashes at Belzec. She tapped out notes on the computer.
Then she inquired about life in the village: “Very, very hard.” About conditions in the ghetto: “Much, much harder.” About the situation in the various labour camps: “Hell on earth.” She noted it all down.

She asked why Shula had not been selected for Belzec like so many others including every other member of the family. “Who knows? Perhaps my age made me suitable for labour.”
She queried why some lived and so many died. Were some physically stronger or better equipped psychologically, she wondered. “It was just chance. There's no explanation.”
“But you survived” pronounced the girl. “It must have been God's will.”
“Really?” responded her grandmother. “I'm not sure I even believe in God any more. There's a story that some of the prisoners in Auschwitz put God on trial. If he saved me, why didn't he save the others?”
“Then perhaps it was bashert” Sarah offered, using the Yiddish word for fate or destiny.
“I don't know if I believe in bashert either” the old woman opined. “We have choices. We make choices. Those who brutalized us had choices. And – to a very limited extent – we had choices too.”

There were other things that the teenager found hard to understand. She was bewildered by the role of the Jewish police force in the ghetto and by the position of the Kapos in the concentration camps. She asked her grandmother: “Wasn't this cooperation with the Nazis?”
Shula sighed heavily: “My sweet child, how can you understand? People did what they felt they had to do. There was much cruelty even from fellow Jews. But there were many, many acts of kindness and humanity even at the risk of death. For the Jews, the Holocaust is not just about passivity and compliance. It's also about courage and compassion. We should remember it all.”

All this talking had done nothing for Sarah's throat and the periodic cough now became a stream of stuttered exhalations which stopped the conversation.
She was harshly admonished: “For goodness sake, child. Stop that coughing.”
She was surprised and even a little upset at this unusual and unexpected reaction. Both to relieve the cough and to pacify her grandmother, she went to the kitchen to obtain a glass of cold water.

Back in the sitting room with the laptop returned to her knees, Sarah sensed that she was reaching the end of her grandmother's patience for this painful process of interview. She wanted to end the conversation on a positive note. “So, tell me, bubba. How did it feel to be liberated? What was it like when the Soviet army entered the camp?”
“Oh, I don't know” answered her grandmother wearily.
“What do you mean? You don't know. You must know. Tell me.”
“I can't remember” snapped Shula with an uncharacteristic brusqueness that genuinely shocked her granddaughter. “I can't remember” she repeated through gritted teeth.

They had now been talking for around an hour and the older woman explained that she needed the bathroom. As she shuffled out of the room, she muttered: “Questions. Questions. So many questions.” There was silence except for the tick...tick of the clock.

When she returned, it seemed to Sarah that she was somehow different, less solid, more fragile. The sun was now high in the sky and light streamed into the room. Perhaps that was why her grandmother looked so pale; it was certainly why the photographs no longer revealed their faces. She took the laptop from her knees and placed it on the table between them.

“There's one piece of bagel left” she noted quietly. “You have it, bubba.”
“No, dear - you have it” her grandmother suggested firmly.
“Bubba, there's nothing of you. You must have it.” insisted the girl.
“I said 'no' ” shouted the older woman and her granddaughter was shaken by the vehemence of the reaction.

As if obeying an instruction, Sarah took the last bit of bagel, chewed and swallowed. The food triggered another coughing fit, the most pronounced yet, and she found that her eyes were watering and her face became smeared. But then, through her own distress, she became aware of her grandmother with arms crossed, the forlorn figure rocking backwards and forwards. She saw the tears before she became aware of the wailing. She had never seen her grandmother like this and it frightened her. Overcoming her own indisposition, she quickly moved round the table, collapsed by bubba on the couch, and held her tight with both arms as she laid her head on hers.

After an interval, Shula told her story - at first so hesitantly Sarah thought that she would come to a halt, but then more fluently, as if she'd been rehearsing the account for years in her mind. It was as if an emotional dam, meticulously constructed, maintained and even reinforced for over sixty years, had suddenly burst and it was clear to the girl that her grandmother was simultaneously terrified and liberated.

Shula couldn't remember the moment of liberation in the labour camp because she was no longer in the last of her camps. The Germans were aware of the rapidity of the Soviet advance and marshalled those prisoners who still had the strength to leave the site.
“So you were on a death march?” exclaimed Sarah in astonishment.
“If that's what you want to call it” her grandmother conceded. “The real death marches were further west from the concentration camps.”

The rest of the story slowly revealed itself like turning the pages of a gothic novel – except that this was her grandmother's life and very nearly her death. The march was worse than any previous experience suffered by bubba. She had never been so tired and so weak in all her life. She put one foot in front of the other as if in a dream, no a nightmare, a nightmare seemingly without end. She was chilled to the bone with cold and crazed with hunger.

The woman in front of her, a couple of years older, had tuberculosis and was coughing constantly. She was expected to die at any time. She should have been left to expire at the camp. She merely slowed down the marchers and annoyed the guards.

The group filed through a small Polish village and found themselves the object of morbid curiosity as many of the villagers lined the narrow, rough track – street would be too fine a word - between the main groups of cottages. The Poles did not know where they had come from or where they were going to, but they knew who they were. It was clear from their faces that most despised them but a few looked shocked and saddened by these remnants of human beings.

There was a commotion at the front of the march as some of the Poles spat at the Jews and moved to push them around. As the guards' attention was diverted, something miraculous occurred. A little Polish girl who was gnawing on a lump of stale bread, too young to know better, pushed forward to the coughing prisoner and thrust the bread into her nearside hand. It was so quick that no guard saw it but Shula most certainly did.

She waited until they were through the village and the bizarre rhythm of the marchers was restored. Then she pretended to stumble and, in doing so, pushed the woman in front of her, simultaneously grabbing the bread from her weak fingers. The woman lay on the ground as if it was a welcome bed, looking in bewilderment at her empty hand, quietly coughing. A guard rushed up and ordered her to stand and resume walking. She made no effort to move, so he kicked her hard in the ribs with a boot. She moaned and coughed but remained prostrate. The soldier pulled out a pistol and casually put a bullet in her head.

Bubba's narrative halted here. It was as if the rest did not matter. The tears had stopped. Her face was dry. She was emotionally drained. The clock ticked but it was not just seconds that passed but decades.
After an interval, she quietly asserted: “I made a choice, I chose to live. But I have lived a lie.”
Her granddaughter was silent for a moment, her young mind attempting to comprehend the magnitude and the meaning of this revelation. Even the wall clock seemed to have taken time off.
Then she spoke: “You had no choice. You had to live. You had to live for me to live. Living can never be a lie.”


ROGER DARLINGTON

Published on 3 September 2010

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