By Leanore Ickstadt
It was like a law of nature: every May academics, their teaching finished for the semester, begin to travel. It seemed to Ellen they were like lemmings, swarming out to pick up extra money instead of mosses and lichen and to fund vacation time with guest lectures. For her husband these people were orphans adrift in Europe, needing a nice home-cooked meal. Over the years she had developed a grudging patience, carefully avoiding involvement with people who would vanish when the summer session at home resumed. Meeting these strangers she would will her mind into polite curiosity. She imagined herself a pond of calm water, the conversation like fishing lines thrown in and pulled out again empty. Only rarely was her attention caught by some bit of strangeness: an illness, a famous ancestor, a particular fact, a peccadillo.
This night their guests are Richard, the professor, and Debra, a writer, unpublished as yet but hopeful. They are in their late forties. He is short but trim. She is very thin, wearing a long velvet skirt, interesting earrings, nice smile, pretty in a commonplace way. Ellen notices that Debra has a hand tremor. She can’t help wondering if it is early onset of a neurological illness or just nervousness. Debra is careful about it, supports the glass with both hands until it is safe on the table. Richard, very engaging, intensely charming, leaning forward to listen, gives the impression of wanting to make a good impression. He has a black belt in Taekwando, which he’s practiced since he was a teenager. This is strange. Ellen finds herself wondering if it was an antidote to his height or perhaps a struggle with gender identity?
They met in Paris where Debra lived for ten years while she tried to find her voice as a writer. During the long description of this event–parties at friends’, incidental meetings in the Metro–Ellen hears the background music from An American in Paris.
During dinner there are the usual compliments. Even though she barely touches her food, Debra is especially enthusiastic. She hates to cook, probably because her mother never cooked. It was always the grandmother who rolled the strudel, stuffed the cabbage. Ellen’s attention is caught.
“Was she Jewish?” she asks very quietly. This is not an easy question anywhere, but especially here in Germany.
“But Wyant is not a Jewish name, or a Hungarian one.”
“My mother changed her name when she came to Boston. But she left the numbers on her arm.”
Ellen is shocked. First of all, the leaving of the numbers. Also, this woman is too young to be the child of a survivor.
“She was a survivor?”
Debra nods. Against her will, Ellen remembers the old joke–Funny, you don’t look Jewish–
and Debra really doesn’t. Ellen tries but can’t lose the image of the numbers. Over dessert she asks Debra about her book. She’s rewriting it, again. No one wants to publish it yet, but she’s sure there are readers out there just dying to read it. It’s about her mother, who’s now called Barbara Wyant.
Ellen reckons wildly as Debra talks. The mother must have been a child when she was deported by the Nazis, otherwise the timing doesn’t make sense. How did she survive the camps? How did she find her own mother after the war? Why did she change her name to one sounding less Jewish? Well, this might be understandable. But then why did she leave the numbers on her arm? Was she planning to shock people, but only those she wanted to shock, rolling up her sleeve at crucial moments? Did she want to avoid pity the way she avoided the cliché of a Hungarian mama by not cooking at all, leaving strudel and dumplings to her own mother? Why immigrate to Boston? Did she have friends or relatives there? Why did all this information come from the grandmother, not the mother? Like Groucho, Ellen asks herself, “Why a Wyant?” and answers: Waspy Wyant. White Wyant. Any Wyant at all except Jewish or foreign. The conversation has moved on but Ellen is lost between Hungary and Boston.
Debra is a little girl, eight or nine years old. She is thin, a picky eater. Her mother is not concerned, but her grandmother worries that Debra will not be strong, not strong enough to take what life has to deal out. After all, it could happen here.
Better safe than sorry. That’s why she can accept her daughter’s decision to change her name from the foreign-sounding Szatmar to Wyant. Little Debra has few friends at school. She is not good at sports but loves to read and dream. Her grandmother does not approve. Debra should eat more, should learn to cook and clean in preparation for her future as a housewife. Whenever she sees Debra curled up in the worn red armchair doing nothing or reading–which is practically the same in Grandma’s eyes–she calls her to help, to set the table, chop the apples for the strudel, shell the walnuts. Grandma rolls out the strudel dough herself, too hard for a spindly little girl. Instead of watching, Debra drifts off again, her eyes on some make-believe story, a prince, a white horse. Pieces of the stories she has read float unconnected through her mind. She loves them and does not need to make up her own. She’s sensitive, enthusiastic, but her mother is not. She is one tough cookie.
No, wait, Ellen thinks. That’s my mother.
Back at the dinner table the talk is of the city. “We just love Berlin.” More on where they went, what they did, museums, concerts. Ellen’s mind drifts off again to Debra’s mother and to this business of being Jewish.
Ellen feels that she is culturally Jewish, although she has not joined the local Jewish community. Even living among non-Jews for so long, she feels she knows Jews, can almost always recognize them, though there are so few left in Germany. There is always a skepticism, an ironic distance. Even her friend Susanne, born Southern Baptist but a convert to Judaism, had picked up these traits. But Debra? All that girlish enthusiasm? At the risk of seeming racist, antisemitic even, Ellen feels that Debra is not really Jewish, not culturally Jewish, not raised to view people, situations, if not with suspicion, at least with skepticism.
Maybe her mother had vowed to assimilate. She must have been a child, perhaps six years old in 1944 when the deportations in Hungary began in earnest. With a shock Ellen realizes she might be the same age as Debra’s mother.
Ellen imagines a small girl caught in the chaos of the end of WWII. First sent to Bergen Belsen, then liberated by the British forces, and sent west through the International Red Cross, which found, and reunited her with, her own mother. The girl is undernourished, traumatized, the mother too. They resolve to get as far away from Europe as possible and, should they reach a safe haven, to forget as much as possible.
The girl grows up in Boston where they have distant relatives, marries, has a daughter, Debra, then eventually divorces. When Debra is born, the grandmother, who cannot forget, tries to instill some of her own suspicion into her grandchild “for her own protection”. But the mother insists, changes her name to be more American, lives far away from other Jews, does not belong to a community, a temple as they call them in Boston, insists that it can never happen here. The grandmother, who cannot forget Budapest, Eichmann, the Arrow Cross Hungarians, so happy to execute Eichmann’s orders, resists. When Debra returns from school, when the mother is out, Grandma tells Debra the stories.
Suddenly Ellen hears the music from Fiddler on the Roof in her mind. “Give it up,” she tells herself, and tries to re-enter the conversation at the dining room table. By this time her husband has launched into one of his detailed descriptions of what Berlin was like when the Wall existed. Richard and Debra are fascinated. As he describes Marlene’s grave in the cemetery around the corner from their house, Ellen shifts in her chair, trying to drown out Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt (her favorite Dietrich song) crashing around in her head. She resorts to tricks–stifled yawns, not-so-subtle looks at her watch–and finally they too discover how late it is.
When the door finally closes, Ellen wonders why they seemed so strange. On the surface very nice, charming even and somehow, underneath, like Debra’s tremor, something wrong.
After they leave, Ellen shares the cleaning up and the usual review of the evening with her husband. As she suspected, he saw nothing negative, noticed nothing wrong. Not wanting to engage in conflict after midnight, she’s careful with her comments. It’s not really that important, she probably won’t see these people again. Why get involved?
She’s really tired and crawls under the duvet with a grunt of satisfaction. But when the lights are finally out, she begins twisting and turning. She tries relaxing her spine, envisions spinal fluid slowing down, concentrates on lowering muscle tone.
After what seems like hours she decides to get up. She tries reading but her thoughts keep going back to Debra’s mother, the grandmother, the numbers. Her thoughts drift around Debra’s story and she lets them, hoping to get to the end sooner that way.
Suddenly it hits her: Debra is not Jewish, neither is her mother, and who knows if there even is a grandmother. Of course. She’s married to a literature professor, exposed to post-modern, post-post-modern, magical realism, all the words they use to analyze what and how authors write. She wasn’t telling her mother’s story, she was describing the plot of her book; but to keep anyone from using it, or maybe because Richard had helped her, or maybe because she’s delusional, she made it her own story. And it’s a good story, too. Ellen can imagine it. In fact, she’s sure she can imagine it better than Debra. After all, she’s Jewish. The next morning she starts.
Debra makes herself as comfortable as possible on the hard stairs. She tries to read one of her schoolbooks but feels very hungry and tired and now she needs a bathroom. Too far to go back to school. Maybe the new people upstairs will let her in. But she doesn’t know them yet. Can she ask to use a strange bathroom? What would her mother say? No, better wait. She tries hard, but soon feels she must do something very soon. She leaves her schoolbooks in front of the door and walks up the one flight that separates the Wyants from their new neighbors. Hoping that someone is home, she knocks on the door, first softly, then harder. She hears footsteps, not like the hard click her mother’s pumps make, but a kind of shuffling, scuffing sound. The door opens slowly, but only about three inches, as far as the chain allows. An eye surrounded by wrinkled skin and whisps of grey hair appears in the crack.
“Hello, I’m Debra from downstairs. No one’s at home. I forgot my key. May I please use your bathroom?” she says in a rush.
The eye looks her up and down. The door closes enough to release the chain and then opens wide. The old lady holding on to the doorknob is not much taller than eight-year-old Debra. Her back is rounded and her head seems to be jutting out in front her body, like a bird looking for prey. She peers over round glasses at Debra.
The old lady nods slowly.
“I know where it is. It’s the same as downstairs at our house,” Debra says as she moves down the narrow hall.
When she comes out, the old lady is nowhere to be seen. Debra moves down the hall to an open door. She wants to say thank you. She looks into a small kitchen. The old lady is there, doing something on the table.
“Thank you very much.”
“You are not hungry? Maybe thirsty?”
Debra, a polite child, says, “No thank you. My sister will be home soon. At least I hope so.”
The old lady nods slowly and pulls out one of the two wooden chairs that are pushed under the table. “Sit,” she says and shuffles to an old refrigerator. Taking out milk, and taking a glass from the drainboard by the sink, she pours a glass and holds it out to Debra. Debra sits carefully and takes the glass. She is very hungry by now. What could be the harm? She looks around between sips. There are some cabinets, a bowl of fruit, a tin bread box, an old alarm clock.
The old lady peers at her again, then asks if Debra would like maybe a cookie. She says it just like that. When Debra nods, she opens a cabinet and takes out a jar, opens it and puts it on the table near Debra.
“Take,” she says.
As Debra reaches into the jar, the old lady tilts her head and looks at Debra. “How old you are?”
“Eight and a half.”
The old lady nods, as if she knew that eight was what Debra had to be. “You like?”
Debra nods, her mouth full.
“You know what it is? Is rugelach. You know what is rugelach?”
Debra shakes her head.
The cookie is delicious, whatever it’s called. But these strange words make Debra nervous. She finishes the milk and the cookie. Elinor must be home by now.
“Thank you very much. I have to go now,” she mumbles as she leaves. As she runs down the stairs she hears the chain on the door slide into place again.
That night over their TV dinners, her mother asks what happened that day in school. Debra tells of her “emergency” and her visit upstairs. Her mother listens briefly but is more interested in what Elinor says about the rehearsal for the school play. While Elinor goes on and on, Debra remembers the old lady upstairs, how she looked, how she moved around the kitchen, so at home, as if that was her living room, not just a kitchen.
A few weeks later Debra’s mother sends her upstairs to pick up a package the mailman has left there. The old lady answers the door, examines Debra through the crack.
“I came for our package.”
The door closes and opens wide. “Ah, Miss Downstairs. Tell me again your name?’
The old lady nods slowly and says “I am…” she hesitates “Call me Nagyi”. It sounds like Nania to Debra. “Grandma Nania”.
Debra takes the package and is about to go downstairs when Nania says, “I make strudel later. You want, you can help.”
Debra nods, says thank you, and goes downstairs with the package.
It’s boring downstairs, Mommy working, Elinor rehearsing again. Debra decides to visit upstairs. This time the door opens wide. Debra enters. Nania is wearing an apron. She leads Debra to the kitchen and gives an apron to Debra. The strings are so long Debra can tie them around her waist twice. The table is covered with a cloth. On top of the cloth is something that looks like the clay Debra played with in preschool.
Grandma Nania rolls out the clay. “You know what I am doing?” she asks. Debra shakes her head. “I make strudel dough. You know strudel? What it is?” Debra shakes her head. Nania rolls out the dough, her arms covered in flour. Debra has never seen anyone bake or cook before. Her own mother has no time. But even before, before her mother went to work, even then, her mother never did anything like this. Debra watches, fascinated. Nania sprinkles more flour on the dough and brushes her hands on her apron. Debra, watching every move, notices that Nania has dirt on her arms, black smudges on the outside of her left arm, between the elbow and the wrist. Nania sees her staring and stops moving. Now Debra sees the numbers, blue-black on Nania’s arm.
Nania considers Debra. Debra, although she knows she shouldn’t, stares at the numbers. The clock ticks. Nothing else moves. Finally Nania shakes her head gently and slowly moves to a cabinet. Debra looks down at her hands. “Some day I tell you,” Nania says as she places the fruit bowl in Debra’s lap, “but now we make strudel.”
Over the next few years, Debra often goes directly up to Grandma Nania’s after school. She watches her make strudel, dumplings, pot roast and what Grandma calls “latkiss”, but what Debra calls pancakes. Debra is used to the numbers on Grandma Nania’s arm. She has almost forgotten that Grandma promised to tell her about them some day. The few times there is no cooking or baking to help with, Debra is allowed to sit in the small kitchen to read or do her homework while Nania cleans or irons. But even if nothing is cooking, the apartment is warm, as if the oven were always on, some food being cooked. Debra’s house never smells like that. Her mother works all day. Dinner is often canned ravioli or Spaghetti-o’s, or TV dinners while her mother’s favorite shows are on.
One day when Debra arrives from school she finds Nania dressed to go out, no apron, no worn grey felt slippers. Grandma Nania pulls her inside and asks for help. Nania must go downtown. She is afraid of getting lost. Can Debra go with her? Debra asks where. Grandma seems flustered and answers that she must go near the park, not far from the big park, Nania will show her exactly where, once they are near the park, and she will pay for their carfare. She clutches an old purse under her arm, the leather cracked, the strap mended.
They walk slowly to the streetcar stop. Nania holds Debra’s arm tightly. She looks over her shoulder often, her head always moving forward, then side, like a bird looking for food, or danger. In the streetcar she continues peering in all directions, embarrassing for twelve-year-old Debra. At the stop nearest the park, Nania pushes Debra toward the door. Once safely on the street, she peers around as if trying to orient herself. Debra asks which direction. Nania points with her head straight ahead. At the next corner she veers right with no warning, making Debra stumble. In the middle of the block she stops as if listening, then pushes Debra to the curb. They must cross the street. The other side is better. Debra’s “Why?” is answered only with “You’ll see.” They continue zigzagging through the streets around the park. Finally Grandma pulls Debra to a stop. “There, we go there.” She gestures with her head towards an old grey stone building, once a private home, now its many rooms rented to small offices and charitable organizations. In the lobby, Grandma goes very close to the list of tenants, jutting out her chin and screwing her eyes almost closed. Debra looks at Grandma Nania, then at the list, then back, trying to see where they will go. When Grandma breathes out an “aha”, Debra tries to see where her eyes have gone, what name they have found, but she is too slow. Nania is already pulling her to an old metal elevator.
They get off on the third floor and are immediately in an office. There is an empty wooden bench next to the elevator. A wooden counter divides the entrance and the bench from the desks arranged around the room.
A woman comes to the counter from a nearby desk. “Can I help you?”
Nania pushes Debra onto the bench. “Sit,” she orders, then advances alone to the counter. Debra cannot hear what is said, but the woman listens, nods, and leads Nania to one of the desks. Before she follows, Nania glances at Debra and puts her finger to her lips, then opens her hand toward Debra. Don’t worry, don’t follow, the gesture says.
It is boring in this office. Debra has forgotten to take a book, but Nania is soon finished. Only ten minutes later she stands up, tucks her purse under her arm, ducks her head briefly at the woman behind the desk and shuffles slowly toward Debra.
“Come. We go home.” Debra stands and Grandma again takes her arm, but this time more as a support than to control. When they reach the street, Debra stops and looks at Grandma. Will they go home the same way, or can Debra choose the direct path? Debra gently steers Grandma, who no longer peers about her, on a direct path to the streetcar and home. It seems it took all Grandma’s strength to get to that office and to talk to the woman behind the desk.
When they finally arrive at the house, Grandma thanks Debra and says, “Come tomorrow upstairs. I make something special. But now I am too tired.” Although she is very curious, Debra nods and goes into her own apartment to do her homework.
When Grandma Nania opens the door the next day, she is not wearing an apron. She leads Debra to the kitchen and once again pulls out a chair and says, “Sit”. But this time, instead of getting milk or cookies, she pulls out the other chair and sits down herself. They are facing each other across a corner of the table, not settled squarely for a meal. Grandma Nania takes Debra’s hand. “So, Debra...”
“No, Debbie now, not Debra,” Debra says.
“Ah ja. Like Annushka. I forget.”
“My daughter. You know. Barbara. She also stopped being Annushka and was all of a sudden Barbara, Barbara Satmer, not anymore Annushka Szatmar.”
“Why you are all of a sudden Debbie, not Debra?”
“It’s what all my friends call me. We like it. It’s nicer than Debra.”
“That’s what Annush… Barbara, says. Everyone likes it better.”
“But Annushka is nice.”
“Ja, nice but Hungarian, from Hungary, where we come from. Not a name from here. I tell you about it, about Hungary and Barbara and why we go downtown yesterday. You want to hear?”
Grandma takes a deep breath and begins to tell Debra about WW II, the invasion of Hungary, the persecution of the Jews. She tells about hiding in the countryside, then her deportation, the arrival in a concentration camp, the numbers tattooed on her arm by the so systematic Germans, the separation from Annushka/Barbara. Debra is not allowed to ask questions. The picture of a small girl torn from her mother, brutal guards, barbed wire fences flash across her brain. She does not know these stories. Her history class has not gotten this far.
Then Nania tells about the Red Cross and her reunion with Annushka, the exodus to America, to Boston, where relatives helped them. She talks of Annushka/Barbara, how well she speaks English, how good she is at her job, how American she feels. She tells Debra how proud all the family was, even the distant relatives, to be at Annushka’s college graduation. And she tells her how, when Annushka was just a little older than Debra is now, she also wanted to change her name to Barbara because it sounded more like everyone else, was easier to remember.
“You see, Debbie, An… Barbara feels here at home. But for me, Hungary is home, where I grew up. I do not need a new name. For Barbara, the numbers always remind her of bad things. She was so little, only five, and so when she was working, she had the money, she had the numbers taken off. But me, I remember my home, all my family, all that is no more, only in my head… and on my arm. I was little girl, young woman, bride, mother, before Germans came, before the camp. And after I was lucky, got new life. But other life is big part of me. I must remember, all of it. I keep the numbers.”
“Yesterday is Burokratie, is money, is passport, is job. I must tell them only Barbara works, not me, you understand?”
“No, not really.”
“Is not important. Only I don’t like to go, not alone and Barbara she could not, and they said I must come, and so I go but I do not like it. People should not know, other people, where I go, what I do. Is too easy to find me.”
“But, Grandma Nania, this is America. You’re safe here.”
Grandma Nania looks at Debra, then looks around the kitchen with a sad smile. She shakes her head. “You never know.”
Well, this is everybody’s ideal Grandma. A vision in a warm, golden glow with a slight sepia tint, surrounded by the fragrance of baking. Nania, as lonely as Debra, the old and the young left at home when the others are at their work. Ellen hears again “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof.
And where is the mother, Barbara/Annushka, our lady of the two names?
Would Debra, the non-Jew, have felt what Ellen did: that peculiar mix of revulsion and precision, the desire to get it right, which pushed Ellen to research “concentration camp tattooing on children” on the internet? Would she have been as circumspect describing Nania’s story–just traces of WW II, the horror pictures just mentioned, not dwelt on?
But Ellen finds she cannot go deeper. Like her German friends who know the stories from personal experience–fathers who were Nazis, uncles shot as traitors, one-quarter Jewish mothers who spent the war in hiding–Ellen acknowledges but does not dwell. It has become part of her life here, understanding their guilt. Over the years she has lost her innocence, and along with it, the clear identity as a co-victim she had brought with her from America.
Has she told the story better than Debra could? It seems to have become another story, maybe the story of Debra, and yet not Debra’s story. But Ellen still cannot understand why Debra wrote about this particular thing, the Holocaust, the property of the Jews. How did little Debra turn into a forty-something lady, daring to write about what she cannot possibly know? Ellen tries again.
Debra was five years old the last time she saw her father. She remembered him coming in to kiss her good night. His scratchy wool coat smelled of smoke and as he bent over her, one end of the scarf tossed over his shoulder fell across her face. “Bye, Kitten. Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.” And then he was gone.
Postcards came from different cities, sometimes letters, sometimes even with checks. For a while the mail delivery was the high point of their day, but gradually Debra’s mother stopped listening for the drop of mail on the hall floor, and snapped an ill-tempered answer if the girls asked about Daddy. When Debra started real school her mother started to work. She had found a job in an office. Elinor, already a teenager, should watch out for Debra, turn on the oven before Mother’s arrival. By six o’clock Mother was home, carrying bags of cans and prepared food.
Then there was dinner, usually in front of the TV. Saturdays was laundry and cleaning day. Sundays they all went for walk, Elinor babbling on about rehearsals, or sometimes to the movies so that Elinor could see real actors like her father. Elinor was sixteen and determined to become an actress. Mother wants both the girls to do something artistic when they grow up.
Through high school and college, reading remained Debra’s favorite past time. She majored in English and finally began teaching it herself. She spent much of her free time in the little coffee houses on Beacon Hill, listening to other people’s poetry. She loved the artistic atmosphere. Anyone could be anything in these dark, makeshift places. You could be sitting next to a famous author.
At the BYOB parties she went to in Cambridge, she noticed that people often seemed to lose interest in her when she said she was a teacher. Writers, painters, even choreographers, were “interesting”. They were not left alone, holding a wine glass, peering at the host’s bookshelves. Eventually she began to tell people that she was actually a writer, just teaching to pay the rent. When asked what she was “working on now,” she answered vaguely, indicating it was prose not poetry, definitely fiction, but she “wasn’t really sure where it was going yet”. This seemed to satisfy others, but Debra, after a while, felt that maybe she should actually try writing. It couldn’t be that hard. Everyone seemed to be doing it.
Between semesters at the small college outside Boston where she was an adjunct instructor, she started what she thought would be a short story. By page ten she was bored with it and decided to write a play, but dialogue was more difficult than she had thought. Even after teaching English for three years, writing was difficult for her to grasp. Sentences would slip, suddenly leading away from what she thought was the point. Sometimes, entranced with an image, she would embroider the text to death, covering it with so many tiny verbal stitches that the message became lost in a fog of language. Enrolling in an online creative writing course offered little help. She was advised to “find her voice”, to write about what she knew.
Debra decided that she did not know enough; she needed a wider field of experience. After five years, she had saved enough money to follow her sister Elinor to Paris. Elinor was working with a famous director at an avant garde theater just outside Paris. Debra was sure that she would, like so many others, become a real writer in Paris.
Unfortunately, rents had to be paid there too. Debra found some small jobs, tutoring, translating, teaching at the Centre Americain. She continued to write but never to her own satisfaction. In fact, she was not really interested in what she wrote, and was sure others would not be either. Her modesty was attractive. She made many friends.
At a party she met Richard, a young American in Paris for a year. Debra said she was a writer. Richard taught literary criticism and was in Paris to research his next book. A few weeks later they met by accident in the Metro, then again at a party. They progressed from their present concerns to the past, describing their childhoods to each other, the beginning of intimacy.
They made an interesting pair. Richard was not tall, but very trim and energetic in his movements. When Debra learned that he had a black belt in Taekwando she was impressed, and even more so when he described that martial art and demonstrated a few movements as they walked through the Paris street late at night. Debra was about the same height as Richard but appeared taller. She was very thin, willowy in her shape and in her movements, which seemed to make little impact on the space around her. She loved classical ballet and was secretly thrilled when people said she looked like a dancer.
Richard was very encouraging about Debra’s writing and sympathized with her difficulties. When she confessed that, really, she didn’t know what to write about, Richard suggested “that story you told me about the Jewish people who lived upstairs.”
“Oh, but that’s not interesting. It’s just an old woman and a girl in an old two-family house in Boston.”
“But don’t you see? She must have come through the war and she was Jewish. Maybe she was a Holocaust survivor. You could write that!” Richard was getting more and more enthusiastic. Noticing Debra’s reluctance he backed down, quietly saying it was something to think about.
But the next day, during a walk in the park, he picked it up again. “You know, I’ve been thinking about it. I think the story about you and the old woman has real possibilities.”
“But I don’t know that much about the Holocaust.” Debra shivered. “Such a grisly, horrible thing.”
“You could research it. That’s what I’m doing here in Paris, research. There’s lots of information on the Holocaust now.” By now Richard was walking faster, gesturing with his hands. Debra had to skip every step or two to keep up. “There are still survivors. Maybe you could find some, interview them. You could combine your personal memoir with those of the Holocaust survivors. I’m sure publishers would be interested. Memoirs and Holocaust are hot subjects right now.”
Suddenly Debra’s right leg buckled beneath her. Richard catches her arm and keeps her upright. They limped slowly to a bench.
“Nothing, it’s nothing, just something that happens sometimes. It will be all right.”
Richard was very solicitous. He was afraid his enthusiasm had again gotten out of hand, that Debra’s stumble was some sort of unconscious stop sign. This enthusiasm is what made him a good teacher. But he did not want to be a teacher for Debra, and certainly didn’t want to confuse her. He felt he must slow down but not give up. It really was a good idea. If they should get married, she would have lots of time to write. Yes, this, all of it, was definitely a long-term project.
So, the Holocaust business is all Richard’s idea? Somehow, Ellen can’t get this to fit. Richard was so straight-up, not fascinated with the Holocaust and Jews the way so many of her German friends were. And Debra seemed quite steely somehow–the slim reed that bends but does not break. How many people would hold on to a story for ten years, rewriting it over and over, without getting discouraged, or even bored enough to give the whole thing up?
What if, after all, it was her mother’s story?
Her mother, yes, Jewish, yes, a refugee, yes, a Holocaust survivor, but also an overbearing, energetic woman, determined to make it in America, never to be as “strange” as she was when she arrived in Boston and was sent to school in her cousin’s hand-me-down clothes. Her name is Annushka; later, when she’s grown, she’s Barbara. She works in an office but really wants to act, or dance, or write. She cannot trust herself to quit her job, to risk poverty again. She marries an actor, a Jewish man who spends his life pretending to be someone else. He finally disappears in a touring company of Death of a Salesman, leaving Barbara and their two small daughters to fend for themselves.
Ellen is having a great time until she suddenly realizes that this is her own mother, the tough cookie, who, as usual, is threatening to take over this story. She decides to leave it, to let Debra write it if she can. Maybe, unlike Ellen, she is strong enough to write her mother’s story.
Copyright © Leanore Ickstadt 2013
Leanore Ickstadt, born and educated in the United States (B.A. Brandeis University), continued her dance studies with Mary Wigman in Berlin on a Fulbright Fellowship Grant. Her subsequent career was equally divided between performing and teaching. In 1981 she opened the Tanz Tangente, her studio in Berlin. Her book, Dancing Heads – A Hand-and-Foot Book for Dance Teachers, was published in 2007, followed by a history/memoir, Dancing, Out of Germany, in 2011. Currently she teaches dance to people with Parkinson's and, with her husband Heinz Ickstadt, divides her time between New York and Berlin. leanore-ickstadt-dance.com