Friday, April 15, 2005

Letters

Today I spent time with one of my favorite senior citizens. His name is Jack. He's 92, and he is so totally and completely in love with his wife Ina, who is 82.

And, well... they're Holocaust survivors. Really, really happy Holocaust survivors. I first met Jack two years ago at an interfaith memorial service, six weeks after he had a heart attack. He was suitably solemn and grave during the candlelit service, blowing the 500-year-old ceremonial ram's horn that's usually only used at Rosh Hashanah. But afterwards, at the cookies-and-punch reception in the social hall, he was so spry and happy, bopping around, telling me about his shofar (it's from Yemen) and Ina kept telling him to sit down, that she would bring him cookies.

When Jack met Ina, he was 30 and married to another woman. Ina was 20. They met at a party. She told me: "Oh, my friends were telling me 'You have to meet this couple. They're so nice. They're so lovely.' I met them and I said, 'They're lovely but they shouldn't be together.'" The next time she saw Jack, they were in Westerbrook concentration camp. His wife was there, too. He told me the first time we met that his wife survived, but she asked him for a divorce after the camps were liberated. "We were too young when we got married. It was a bad idea. She was happy for me, happy that I was so happy."

Jack worked in the kitchens at the camp, and Ina worked in the laundry. They began passing notes back and forth even though he was married. He would send her a letter with the bread and broth going to her barracks. She would send one back, sometimes with the same person, sometimes with clean towels being sent from the laundry to the kitchen. They both got sent to Bergen-Belsen. In one of their many letters, he gave her the address of non-Jewish friends in Amsterdam. As the American forces approached, she was sent away on a train, presumably bound for another camp. After six days on the train, she was liberated by American forces. In July, he returned to Amsterdam from Russia and called the friends he told her about. They were married less than a year later.

Today, as she walked around her living room turning on lights for me and pointing out paintings from the Netherlands that might make a nice background for a portrait, Ina said, "Yesterday. Sixty years ago. Yesterday was my freedom day. April 13th." She did a little dance. She's 82, and she absolutely did a little happy dance. (I'd dance, too, I'm just sayin.') "It's been 60 years," she said. "My God."

Jack showed me one of his letters from Ina. (She lost her letters from in the transport from Westerbrook, but she has most of the letters from Bergen-Belsen.) I asked, for caption information, when the letter was dated. They started debating which specific day it was written. Jack was reading it, and he said sadly, "Oh, this was right before your uncle died."

At first, Ina said conversationally, "I spoke his daughter yesterday." Then she bent down, looked at the words she penned 60 years ago over her husband's shoulder, and began an incredibly frank discussion with Jack about the day her uncle died. "So it must have been the 19th. No, he died on the 19th. It must have been written on the 18th." She looks at me, and she said, "My uncle was 43." Her eyes filled with tears, and I began apologizing. She smiled and told me not to worry: "We do this all the time."

It's true. They do talk to reporters and historians all the time. They wrote a book, complete with translations of their letters, titled "Steal a Pen for Me." Jack's words (describing how he pulled his sturdy shoes off his feet and gave them to his father because he mistakenly thought his father would have to work where he was going; a place called Auschwitz) are emblazoned on a Holocaust memorial in downtown Boston. His words are quoted on displays in the Holocaust Museum in D.C. Their book has been optioned by someone in Hollywood. "Steal a Pen for Me" might eventually be a movie.

I think part of what's so remarkable about them is the level of clarity and detail that they remember and feel comfortable sharing. As the years go by, fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors walk among us. Many of those survivors who are still alive today were small children at the time. What do we- those of us in our 20s and 30s- really know about the Holocaust, and how do we know it?

From the Diary of Anne Frank? From the movie Schindler's List? From the Holocaust Museum? From visiting the camps today, in their preserved state? And sure, maybe from newspaper articles that are published every year in April? I don't know. I've learned about it from doing all those things. It always seemed to me that the people in the camps knew very little of the war's progress, of their families, of anything but impending doom. But Jack, because he worked in the kitchens, says he had greater access to food, which he could trade for information, like which cellblock Ina was assigned to. They were aware of calendar dates, which they still remember, though perhaps the act of writing and re-reading their letters helped them keep track.

I don't know that I'm adequately describing the feeling of love and joy that they emanate. As I said at the start of this entry, they are really, really happy. I left their house feeling great, so let me attempt to wrap this up by conveying that.

In 2003, I stammered and winced, trying to ask (but not ask) if Jack has a tattooed number, and if so, would he please allow me to photograph it? After putting me out of my misery by telling me that there was absolutely nothing he hasn't already been asked, he grinned broadly at my question and said: "No, no. I was a lucky one. I was never selected. I was only sent to concentration camps. For me, it was not a death camp. I am what I call a happy survivor. I have children. I have six grandkids."

And now, two years later, he has great-grandkids. Twin girls, who will turn one next week. Bear in mind, I'm changing lenses and firing my flash as they tell me all these things. I told them that I would love to shoot their 60th wedding anniversary party, that they don't have to pay me (Ina asked if they could hire me), that I would just love to capture it for them. As I walked out the door, I told Jack to take care of his health, and he called after me, "Hey, I still play tennis!"

2 comments:

Cindy W said...

That is such an amazing story. They sounds like a couple that I'd love to spend an afternoon (or longer) with. What a great job you have that you get the chance to meet & interview all of these fascinating people.

shannon said...

That was an awesome story. Journalists have the best jobs ever.