Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Endless Song

 

 

 

Only because the little teacher’s college where I got my degree lo, these many years ago, required one to minor in something did I add a history minor to my English major.  I had no interest in history.  The big lecture classes were boring and the tests requiring all that memorization of names and dates irksome.  But late in life I’ve come around to it, now read almost as much history as literature and tell my students that if they don’t know literature they’re uncultured but if they don’t know history they’re dangerously ignorant.  I say it as if I mean it, and I suppose I do, even if I’m not altogether sure what know means in reference to history.

 

One morning I was sitting in McDonald's, America’s answer to the Vienna coffee houses, having a cup and reading Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, when slowly intruding into my peripheral vision came an elderly couple.

 

The man, tall but stooped and thin, leaned heavily on the short, stocky woman as they took a bead on the empty booth across from me.  Jack Spratt and his wife, I thought sourly.  Nothing could upset my peaceful reading hour more surely than some old couple sitting within arms’ length, yackety yacking and slurping and hacking their way through an interminable Big Breakfast.  Alas, they did indeed stop at the adjacent booth.  The woman said something to the man and left him propped up against the table where he huffed and puffed struggling with the zipper of his jacket.

 

I tried to focus on my reading, cupped my hands beside my eyes like a horse wearing blinders.  I heard rather than saw the man take three shuffling steps toward me.  Sweet Jesus.  The only thing worse than being assaulted by others’ chatter was having some stranger try to enlist me in conversation.  It happens all too often.  Some well-meaning citizens of our anti-intellectual century seem to feel the need to save me from an activity that looks awfully unpleasant:  reading.  Others are so astounded by the sight they can’t help commenting on it, as in, “Brother, look at the size of that book.  You shore must like to read.”

 

I assumed I was in for more of the same when the old gentleman hove to alongside and cleared his throat prefatory to, presumably, utterance.

 

I dropped my “blinders” and looked up at him with what I hoped was at once a courteous but uninviting smile.  When you’re in for it, accept your fate graciously, but do nothing to make it worse is my philosophy.

 

Now that I saw him clearly, I realized the old boy wasn’t as tall as I’d thought.  He’d seemed so only in contrast to the woman and because the extremely thin always seem taller than they are.  His wispy hair might have been blond once.  Now it was a chalky gray that made his complexion seem even paler.  His skin was unnaturally smooth for one so old, except for a delta of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and deep wrinkles descending from the edges of his nostrils and the corners of his mouth.  Not laugh lines.  He looked like he’d spent his life with his jaws clenched in contempt, disapproval, denial.

 

Even so, now he was almost smiling.  He raised his right hand—to shake mine, I thought—but instead extended an index finger like a sapless stick and laid it trembling on my book.

 

“I was there,” he said.

 

I was taken aback.  I looked from the book to him and back again.

 

“I was there!” he repeated, at the same time smiling as if the recollection were pleasant indeed.

 

I peered at The Holocaust.  “You mean . . .?”  I gestured toward the book.

 

“Yes sir.  I was at Auschwitz.”

 

“Good God!  You mean you are a concentration camp survivor?”

 

He steadied himself with his left hand on the table while removing his right hand from the book and shaking his index finger.  “No no.  I was a liberator.  A soldier.  With the American army.  We liberated the camp, January 1945.”

 

“Get out of town,” I said—an expression favored by my students but never before passing my lips.  Afraid I’d sounded rude, I quickly added, “That must have been awful, awful.  I’ve seen photos, of course, but obviously they can’t do it justice.  Those mounds of corpses, just skin and bones . . .”

 

“Yes,” he said, but at the same time shrugging dismissively, “but we, the first ones into the camp, were more concerned with the living, as you might imagine.”

 

“I haven’t gotten to that part yet,” I said, nodding toward the book.  “Were there many survivors?”

 

He made a face as if he’d taken a drink of bitter coffee.  “Only the Sonderkommando, the Jews who would sell their souls to survive.  But I’m speaking of the German survivors, the German guards.  Didn’t we lead them a merry chase!”

 

He glanced left and right, then sat down across the table from me, leaned forward and lowered his voice as he asked, “Were you a soldier?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, I was in the army.  During Vietnam.  I didn’t go, though—to Nam.  I got lucky and got sent to Germany.  I spent most of two years sitting in a tower guarding pine trees.”

 

“Germany!”  He seemed amazed, delighted.  “Do you know a little city named Pirmasens?”

 

“I’ve heard of it, I think, but I was never there.”

 

“Lovely, lovely city, lovely.”  He sat back in the booth and gazed at the ceiling as if something were written there.  “So lovely.  The red tile roofs, the cobblestone streets.  Then the American bombers came.  Our bombers.  Afterwards, eighty buildings stood.  What I wouldn’t give to see Pirmasens again, though.”

 

“Well, it’s not too late.  Go.”

 

“I’m very much afraid it is too late.  Besides, it wouldn’t be the same.”

 

“Well, nothing is ever the same, is it?  I mean, no man steps into the same river twice and all that.”

 

“Exactly.  Nothing is ever the same.  You understand.”  He leaned forward once more and again lowered his voice.  “You were a soldier.  You understand.  A soldier has to do certain things.  The Germans.  We chased them into the woods beyond Birkenau.  We killed them all.  All.  I don’t know how many I killed.  I killed three or four at least with the bayonet.  Five or six knelt down in a row with their hands up, pleading, and I shot them in their faces.  Why not?  They were insects.  Vermin.  They didn’t deserve to live.”

 

“Joe!"

 

It was the woman, his wife, no doubt.  She didn’t look at me but shook her head disapprovingly but also, I couldn’t help feel, amused, like an indulgent mother with her darling bad boy.  “Stop that now,” she said as she took Joe by the arm and began to help him to his feet.

 

For a moment he seemed to forget I was there in his effort to stand, but then he turned back to me and said, “I shot them right in their faces!”

 

“Joe!”

 

She led him to the table across the aisle where two trays of food were waiting.  Before sitting down, though, he turned back to me one final time and said, “I apologize for nothing.”

 

The woman smiled.

 

***

Because of my teaching schedule this semester, I can stop off for a morning coffee at McDonald’s only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It was a Thursday when I had my curious encounter with Joe, and as the weekend came and went I found myself thinking about him more and more.  I even started weighing the possibility of offering a seminar in Holocaust literature featuring Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, Borowski’s ghastly, wonderful This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, any of several novels by Appelfeld, Elie Wiesel, of course, oh, so many possibilities.  I couldn’t expect my texting, twittering students to read all of Gilbert’s The Holocaust, but I’d give them pertinent extracts.  The highlight of the course would be a visit from Joe, a man who was actually there, had seen it with his own eyes.  Not that I’d expect or even want him to tell them everything—not the bit about butchering the pleading Germans, although it would be interesting, to say the least, to follow the moral implications of that . . . My God, the joy on his face as he described hunting them down and “shooting them in their faces”!

 

To my disappointment, Joe wasn’t in McDonald’s on Tuesday, nor on the following Thursday.  I continued to read The Holocaust a little at a time when I had a few minutes free from preparing lectures, grading, committee work, and other abominations.  It’s a very long book and I still wasn’t much past halfway.  Most of the discussion was still of the horrors at Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, and the murder pits.  Auschwitz-Birkenau loomed ominously in the distance.  I admit I felt some perverse excitement the closer I got to Auschwitz, although I could hardly imagine how the depredations there could surpass what I’d already been introduced to.  It was Joe, seeing it through his eyes, it had added a certain frisson—is that the word?   

 

At the same time, something was bothering me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, as if there were a puzzle in front of me with a piece missing, and I had the piece myself but . .  . let’s see, this pocket?  this pocket? what had I done with the damn thing?

 

Predictably, it came to me when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.  I was going over my notes before teaching Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” when suddenly I laughed aloud and slapped my forehead.  The piece of the puzzle:  Auschwitz-Birkenau was in Poland.  Just to be absolutely certain, I checked The Holocaust.  Of course.  Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Russians, January 27, 1945.  The American army hadn’t come within two hundred miles of the place.

 

Well, the old boy had the date right, anyway.  Give him credit for doing his research.

 

That’s when it really hit me.  I’d found the piece, all right, but I’d forgotten to look at the completed puzzle.  Joe had been in Auschwitz-Birkenau, not as a liberating soldier, but as an inmate.

 

How could I have been so dense?  That accent of his—I’d decided he was “ethnic,” from “back East” someplace.  I’d even wondered if his precise, clipped enunciation didn’t hint at a victim of a minor stroke having to concentrate on each word.  I’d forgotten what I always tell my students:  go for the most obvious explanation.  The obvious explanation was that English was Joe’s second (or third or fourth) language.

 

I’m almost embarrassed to say that what interested me most in all this was Joe’s lying, the psychology of it.  To me he’d become a sort of case study, an Ancient Mariner in reverse, compelled to go through life lying about his past, recreating a past that was more palatable to him than the shame of being a drudge for the Nazis, a Sonderkommando.  I could see myself discussing him in one of my lit classes, not as a man who might be seen as the representative survivor of the twentieth-century’s hideous marriage of bigotry and technology but as a “protagonist” of a psychodrama no more or less interesting than Ahab’s or Lear’s.  I probably couldn’t invite him to my seminar, though.  A man not just a liar but perhaps unbalanced—might be some legal liability issues there.

 

Having dismissed Joe from my hypothetical seminar, I stopped looking for him in McDonald’s.  But it was there maybe a month later that I found myself standing in line behind his wife.  I wasn’t sure if I should say anything to her.  When I followed her over to the counter with the coffee machine and napkin dispenser, though, I thought, well, why not?

 

“So, where’s my friend Joe this morning?” I said.

 

She turned and gave me an appraising look.  I’m not sure what conclusion she reached, but she said, “Joe is out in the car.  He didn’t feel up to coming in this morning.”

 

Now I noticed her accent, the same as Joe’s.  “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

 

She shrugged.  “What are you going to do?”

 

I hesitated a moment, then charged ahead:  “I enjoyed talking to Joe the other day.  He was sharing with me some of his experiences in the war.  Terrible stuff, terrible.”

 

She shrugged again.  “Old men like to talk.”

 

I took the plunge:  “I probably shouldn’t say anything, but, well, Joe wasn’t really in the American army, was he? . . . It’s absolutely none of my business, but my guess is he was an inmate in the concentration camp.  Auschwitz.  Am I right?”

 

She gave me a long look, then said, “That was a long time ago.”

 

“Of course.  Again, I know it’s absolutely none of my business, but I’m just trying to understand, and I think I do.  Joe says he was in the American army and killed all those guards because . . . it was a sort of a way of taking revenge because he couldn’t really . . .  I understand, I understand.”

 

She stood there a long time looking at me.  It was all I could do to keep from lowering my eyes.  I was probably a foot taller than she, yet she somehow managed to give the impression of looking down her nose at me.

 

“You understand nothing,” she said.

 

“No, of course I can’t—”

 

“You understand nothing.”

 

“Please, I don’t claim to have a first-hand understanding.  I’m just trying to come to grips with the history of this thing as best I can.  This book”—I tapped the cover of The Holocaust, which at this point I’d almost finished—“has been very helpful.  It’s been a real eye-opener.  It’s—“

 

Nothing.  They have no words.  There are no words for it.  My Joe was a hero.  I tell you he was a hero.  As for that . . . ,” she gestured dismissively at the book.

 

“Of course, no book can compare to being there.  It can do no more than approximate, I understand that.  But it’s the closest a person like me . . .”

 

I stopped in mid-sentence because she obviously wasn’t listening.  She was gazing off into the distance—the distance of years, I suppose.  Then, with the most curious, almost dreamy smile, she said, “The Germans have a word.  Endlösung.  I always thought it was the loveliest word.” 

 

Endlösung?  Does it mean ‘endless song’?  My German’s lousy, I’m afraid.  I had two semesters as an undergrad, but if I were in Germany today the best I could do would be, ‘Ein Bier, bitte.  Zwei Bier, bitte.”

 

But once again I was no longer there for her.  She was lost somewhere with her memories, her word.

 

I mumbled a goodbye and left with my book and my coffee.  I’d drink it on the way to work.

 

I was crossing the parking lot to my car when I saw Joe sitting in an old Volkswagen.  It was a warm day.  The window was down.  He was wearing a short-sleeve polo shirt, the sun beaming through the windshield on him.  He could have been a New York Jew retired to the beaches of Florida.

 

I walked over to him.

 

“Hello, Joe.  Nice to see you again.”

 

He looked up at me and smiled, although I don’t think he recognized me.  “Good morning to you, sir.”I noted the weather.  We agreed it was very nice.  I looked at his arms, thin and incredibly pale against the dark green shirt.  The arms were what I’d come over to the car to see.  I had a clear view of his left arm, but from where he was sitting in the passenger seat the car door blocked my view of his right arm.  There was no tattoo on his left wrist.  I wanted to see the number.  An A for Auschwitz followed by five or six digits.  I’d memorize the number so that when I discussed Joe with my class I could tell them, “His number was . . .” whatever.  It’d be a nice touch, I thought.

 

I glanced behind me.  The woman would be coming any second.   Didn’t want her to catch me in the act.  I told Joe I had to be going and said goodbye.  He said goodbye and gave me a little wave with his left hand, but I reached in and took his right hand and raised it, and as I shook it I canted it slightly so that I could see the inside of his wrist.  There was no tattoo there.  I dropped his hand and nodded and walked toward my car.

 

What the hell.  Joe certainly hadn’t been an American soldier.  Was he even a Jew?  Maybe it was all a lie.  Maybe Joe hadn’t been in Auschwitz-Birkenau at all.  But why on earth lie about something about that?

 

Suddenly another possibility, at once obvious and almost unthinkable, brought me to a halt on the parking lot.  Chasing down those “Germans.”  Bayoneting them.  Shooting them in their faces through their upraised, pleading hands. . . . I had to force my legs to carry me on to my car.

 

I sat there a moment, then started the car and backed slowly out as if I were drunk and had to carefully consider each of my movements.

 

By now the woman was standing beside the Volkswagen.  Joe was fiddling with something—probably the bag with his breakfast.  The woman stood at the window lovingly stroking his gray-blond hair.  I watched, mesmerized, the car idling, the gentle breeze blowing the exhaust fumes in on me as the woman said something to him, seemingly the same word over and over.  Crooning to him, like a mother with her child.  Crooning her word, her lovely word:  Endlösung, Endlösung.

 

 

 

 

Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV,  and three  collections:  This Time, This Place, and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press, and Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press.