The Man in the Glass Booth

 

Photo: Steve Schulman

The Man in the Glass Booth

By Phyllis Schieber

 

All summer everyone talked about how Israeli agents had captured Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aries. SS Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann was Chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo and responsible for implementing the Final Solution, which aimed for the total extermination of European Jewry. A jury of Israelis was trying him for war crimes. He was kept in a bulletproof glass booth. All summer I listened to the grownups talk about him.
 
“They keep him in a cage,” Fred said, “because an animal should be kept in a cage.”
 
Fred had survived Auschwitz, but his grandparents, parents, and five younger siblings didn’t. He had one older brother, Mordecai, who lived in Israel.
 
The men gathered around the radio and smoked cigarettes. At night, they drank whiskey and smoked more cigarettes. I liked the way it smelled, especially the combination of the whiskey and cigarettes—it smelled dangerous. “Sheyne meydel,” the men all called me. Pretty girl. For the longest time I thought Sheyne Meydel was my name. The men were all gentle people. Even when they teased me, it was never mean, never unkind. At night, the women set up tables and brought out pots of coffee, plates of homemade cakes and cookies, and bowls of cherries, grapes and peaches. I wondered how often these people saw such a bountiful spread and remembered all the weeks and months of hunger. At home, Uncle Carl would look in the refrigerator and declare it “a vanderland.” He never ceased to be amazed at the wonderland in his fridge. They shooed us away from the tables until everything was ready, but we snuck cookies and lingered on the fringes of the gathering for more than sweets.      
 
I played tag with the other children. We made the group of men our base. No one said so, but we knew it was because we wanted to hear what they were saying about Eichmann's trial. There was little of the usual joking as they pressed close to the radio for news. Though it was the first time in history a trial was televised, we had poor reception in the mountains, so radio sufficed.
 
The men were in a somber mood as they discussed the trial.
 
“They should skin and salt the bastard,” Simon said. “Hanging is too good for him.”
 
“Jews don’t kill people,” Fred said. “Life in prison with the mark of Cain on him is a better punishment.”
 
“Cut his balls off,” Simon said. “With a blunt knife.”
 
I have never heard these men speak this way. I felt chilled, and shivered.
 
“Go put on a sweater,” my mother said. She was arranging the hot cups for coffee. Immediately, the other women looked up to check on their own children and see if such a precaution was necessary.
 
“I'm fine,” I said. “I don't need a sweater.”
 
I ran off with my friend, Judy. Our birthdays were exactly a week apart. We were friends just in the country because she lived in Brooklyn. That was fine with me because I didn’t really like her that much; she could be very spiteful. She pulled me behind a bush and put her finger to her lips.
 
“What is it?” I whispered.
 
“My sister got her friend today,” Judy said.
 
I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but I tried to look impressed. When my mother’s “friend” came, she had to lie down in the dark with a cold washcloth on her forehead. Judy's sister, Paula, is twelve. She was nice to me. She shared her button candy with us and played Barbie or Jacks with us, even if it wasn’t raining and there was nothing better to do.
 
“My mother slapped her,” Judy said. “To bring the blood back to her face. And she can’t go swimming until it’s over.”
 
“When will that be?” I asked.
 
“In a week.”
 
I didn’t know what else to say.
 
“My mother says Paula’s a woman now.”
 
Judy sounded really smug, but Paula didn’t look anything like a woman to me. Her chest was still flat and she had pimples on her face.
 
“What does that mean?” I asked.
 
Judy shook her head and rolled her eyes as if I were really stupid. “She can have a baby if she wants to.” 
 
“Oh,” I said. “Why would she want to have a baby now?”
 
“I just said she could, not that she will.”
 
“Oh.”  It was all very confusing.
 
“Do you want to play Barbie?” Judy asked.
 
“Not now.”
 
“Jacks?  We can play on the porch of the main house. There’s enough light.”
 
“I don't think so.”
 
“What’s the matter with you?” Judy asked. “Let’s get a frozen Milky Way from the store.”
 
“No. I want to stay here.” I pointed to the gathering. They were still listening to the trial. It was afternoon in Israel.
 
Judy shrugged and said, “Suit yourself. I’m getting a frozen Milky Way.”
 
I watched Judy skip away with the secret of Paula's womanhood beyond my reach, relieved to see her go.                    
 
 
“Now the whole world will know what really happened,” Dad said.
 
A television had been set up in the office. The reception was spotty, but clear enough that we could see Eichmann in his glass booth. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He looked so ordinary in his suit and tie. I watched him take notes from time to time, especially when the survivors gave their testimony. He didn’t look the least bit remorseful, or even interested. Bored. That best described him.
 
Dad had been edgy. He thought the televised testimonies of survivors could backfire. He was convinced no one would believe such horrors actually took place.
 
“Barbarian,” Dad said. “Look at that bastard. ‘I was just following orders.’ Wertloses Stuck Scheisse. He shouldn’t even be allowed to speak.”
 
Worthless piece of shit. My brother Jeffrey and I looked at each other. Dad’s face was red and he was pacing in front of the television. We were sitting with a handful of other people from the bungalow colony. No one seemed offended.
 
Mom turned to look at us. I knew just by looking at her what she feared: the trial was a mistake. One man could not be held accountable for the murder of six million Jews. And the length of the trial would make the goyim weary of our constant talk of the Holocaust. The trial would provoke another wave of antisemitism.
 
I was afraid too, because she was, and she saw that in my eyes.
 
“Di kinder zenen du. Zay shtil,” she said to Dad.  She thrust out her chin toward me to let him know I was listening closely.
 
I was always listening closely.
 
But Dad didn’t get quiet. He stopped pacing in front of me and kneeled down to look me square in the face.
 
“Don’t feel sorry for him, Sonya,” He said.  “He looks like a human being, but he’s not. There isn’t a shred of remorse in him for the men and women he tortured. He is unrepentant. He planned the deaths of millions of people with the ruthless determination of a bureaucrat. It was just a job for him. Do you understand?”
 
I nodded, trying not to cry. I knew that while it was only Eichmann who was on trial, he was not alone, and that scared me. He was a symbol, a warning to the world of what could happen, of what was possible when we obey without question and lose our individual consciences.
 
“Don’t be afraid,” Dad said. He leaned toward me and scooped me up in his arms. I held on tightly, burrowing my face in his neck, wetting his skin with my hot tears.
 
“It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay. Be brave.”
 
I nodded into his neck.
 
“Show me that pretty face,” he said.
 
I lifted my tear stained face, using the back of my hand to wipe away my tears.
 
“Put her down, Manny. She’s too big for you to hold her like that,” Mom said. “She’s fine, she’s a smart girl. She understands, right, mameleh?”
 
I looked into my father’s pale green eyes and saw the pain that never goes away. He had lived through the first phases of the Nazis as they learned their trade: how to keep the Jewish vermin away from the Aryan race. He had been banned from the cafés, and forced to stay off public transportation and out of the theaters and shops he had frequented. He had witnessed the burning of books by the great Jewish writers and been forced to not listen to the music of Jewish composers. He had been one of countless German Jews frantically looking for a country to escape to, and failing until it was almost too late.
 
“She’ll always be my little girl,” Dad said.
 
“She’s an alt meydel,” Mom shook her head at him. “Stop treating her like a baby.”
 
He tilted his head at me mock quizzically. He kissed me on each cheek, then on my forehead, and lastly, on the tip of my nose.
 
“Better now?” he asked.
 
“Better.”
 
But I wasn’t better. I wanted to know more about the man who had sat so quietly in the glass booth, taking notes as the evidence against him was presented. Occasionally he leaned back in his chair, expressionless. His eyes were cold, reptilian, and he had an intermittent tic under his left eye. I studied every detail of his sharp features and his slight build. Even his balding, dark hair intrigued me. I could not comprehend how such an ordinary man could have orchestrated the death of so many innocent people. I was surprised when he blew his nose or ran his tongue around his teeth. I had seen and done these identical acts countless times, yet Eichmann’s human traits fascinated. I could not tear myself away from the television. I stared the same way everyone did when they’d first entered the courtroom. Dad said that the Israeli government had made the right choice in enclosing him in a glass booth. Surely one of the survivors would have tried to kill him. No one would have been sorry.
 
I continued to watch Eichmann, wondering what he was writing, what he could possibly say in his own defense.
                                                           
 
That night, a group of us gathered around a bonfire to roast potatoes and toast marshmallows. Jeffrey was off somewhere with his buddies. Dad wasn’t the only man with us on a weeknight. Several of the men were on vacation, including Simon and Fred. There were others I knew by name, but their stories were less memorable. I knew the vague details of each, but there was always something new to discover. That night would be typical of many others in the country, yet very singular.
 
The nights in the mountain could be very chilly. Most of the children were arranged on the lounge chairs with blankets tugged snugly around them, close enough to the fire to feel its warmth, but far enough away that the sparks weren’t a threat. The parents positioned their chairs around us as if we were pioneers and they were circling the wagons for the night. I waited as my father roasted a potato to perfection and passed me the stick.
 
“Careful,” Mom said. “It’s very hot.”
 
Dad winked at me in that confidential way he had, as if letting me know we shared an important secret. I smiled and bit gingerly into the potato’s charred skin, releasing the heat and waiting for the potato’s flesh to cool. It was always a delicious pleasure.
 
“A potato like this would have been a feast,” Simon said.
 
“For at least three people, if not more,” Akiva added.
 
Akiva and his wife Frieda and their two daughters, Mindy and Pamela, were new to the colony. I didn’t know much about them, as their daughters were closer to Jeffrey’s age. Akiva and Frieda were both survivors of Treblinka. They had met in the Warsaw Ghetto and been on the same transport to Treblinka. After the war, they found each other and wed.
 
Everyone laughed at Akiva’s joke.
 
“Only three people?” Fred asked.
 
There was more laughter. My potato was cool enough for me to eat comfortably, savoring the starchy robustness of the smoky flesh. I chewed contentedly, listening, waiting.
 
Levi was a child survivor from Belgium. His parents had managed to place him with a Christian family before they were deported to Auschwitz. A very quiet man, Levi chose his words carefully.
 
“Cooked? Never,” he said. “A raw potato was a feast! You took a bite and passed it to the next person.” Heads nodded in agreement. “I remember how once a week in Auschwitz, we got a teaspoon of marmalade,” Levi said. He held out his hand, palm facing up. “Right on your hand. Like this.” He showed us. “And you licked it off or spread it on your bread ration.”
 
Many in the group remembered the same treat and talked among themselves. I was getting sleepy. The fire was mesmerizing. The embers glowed and I followed the sparks as they popped and floated briefly towards the starry sky before settling nearby. Invariably a fire set off conversations about the crematoriums.
 
“They burned hundreds of bodies a day,” Simon said. “The ovens were going non-stop.” He pointed to the floating ashes. “I used to see the ashes and wonder: Is that my mother? My father?”
 
I closed my eyes. I had heard it all before, but each time it felt like the first. Just as I was drifting off, I heard a voice I didn’t recognize, a woman’s voice. Zelde Becker. She was married to Zalman. Zelde and Zalman. They were more observant than everyone else in the bungalow colony, observing the Sabbath to the letter. They had four boys. The oldest boy, Mayer, was a good swimmer. He and I had underwater races, and he mostly won.
 
“Who even knows what happened to everybody?” Zelde said. “People converted to protect themselves or loved ones, and others returned to Belgium, to Berlin, to Hamburg, anyplace where they could blend in and forget the horrors.”
 
“What do you mean?”
 
My mother’s voice pulled me back from the sleep that had beckoned. She sounded troubled. I forced my eyes open.
 
“What do I mean?” Zelde asked. “You should know what I mean. You’re married to a yekke.”
 
The group grew strangely quiet for a moment. I wished I could see my mother’s face, but her back was to me.
 
“I had a yekke husbandbefore the war,” Zelde said. “It was a shidduch. We were Orthodox and it was important to my parents that I marry someone like-minded. I was only seventeen. My parents arranged the marriage and I had no choice but to marry him. Yosef Bender. He wasn’t much older than me, and he did what was expected of him, too.”
 
“What happened to him?” Rivkah asked.
 
Zelde shrugged and said, “You tell me. He ran off. Many Jewish men in Hamburg did. It wasn’t safe for them. The Nazis were taking the men first, in the beginning. And we heard stories already before they began deporting all of us. They were taking the men to Dachau, supposedly to work. We knew what that meant.”
 
“When were you deported?” Fred asked.
 
“We stayed until 1941,” Zelde said. “Our Christian neighbors watched us from the train platform as we were loaded onto the trains. They were stony-faced and silent, probably relieved. Yosef never came back. I waited for him.”
 
My mother turned around to look at me, but I closed my eyes before she could catch me hanging onto Zelde’s every word.
 
“So you went back to Hamburg after the war?” Frieda asked. “I can’t believe it.”
 
“Believe it,” Zelde said. “I wasn’t alone— ”
 
“It’s getting very cold. Giselle, I’m going to take Sonya inside,” Dad said.
 
I’d begun to wonder why he was so uncharacteristically quiet during this discussion. He always had something to say, even if it was something silly.
 
“Yes, yes,” Mom said. “That’s a good idea. She’s sleeping.”
 
Zelde never finished her sentence. I didn’t know what happened when she returned to Hamburg, or where she met Zalman, who wasn’t a yekke. I’d had no idea that Zelde was a yekke, a German Jew. She never spoke German to Dad. I’d heard her speak Yiddish and English. That was it.
 
I let Dad pick me up, making myself dead weight so he wouldn’t suspect I had been listening to Zelde’s story. Inside the bungalow, Dad laid me down on the bed and took off my jacket and my shoes, leaving the rest for Mom to complete. He smelled like the fire. I moaned just a little for effect. Dad covered me and turned off the light. I heard him set the kettle on the stove for tea. I had felt his disquiet through my skin when he held me.
 
 
It rained all day. Judy and I played Jacks on the porch of the main building. I was really good at Jacks, so most of the girls wouldn’t play with me. I could do Pigs In a Blanket and Jack Be Nimble practically with my eyes closed. While Judy took her turn, I waited uncomplainingly.
 
“Is Adolf Eichmann married?” I asked.
 
Judy looked up and frowned. “Who cares?”
 
“I do.”
 
She was on Threesies for the millionth time. One of the jacks moved but I pretended not to see. Judy pretended, too.
 
“Why do you care?” Judy asked.  She finished Threesies and went on to Foursies.
 
“I just do.”
 
“He hated the Jews. He deserves to die.”
 
Now I didn’t pretend not to see when she again moved one of the jacks.
 
“You're out,” I said.
 
Judy shrugged and handed me the small red ball. “Paula had to stay in bed all day yesterday,” she said.
 
“How come?”
 
“Cramps. And she was bleeding a lot. My mother made liver for supper because of Paula. I hate liver.”
 
“I hate liver too,” I said. I went back to Onesies and started all over.
 
“Why’d you ask about him?” Judy said. “Don’t you want him to die?”
 
I didn’t know if I wanted Eichmann to die. I just wanted to know what he was writing, and if he was married or had children. Did he have parents he loved?
 
I finished Onesies and called Twosies. I looked up. Judy was watching me. “Do you promise not to be mad if I tell you something?” she asked.
 
“Promise,” I said.
 
“Paula thinks you're weird.”  
 
What Paula thought mattered a lot to Judy.
 
“How come?” I asked.
 
“Because you ask strange questions and you say peculiar things,” Judy said. “You should stop.”
 
I didn’t say she should stop cheating at Jacks. I didn’t say that Paula didn’t look anything like a woman, or that her mother’s cookies were tasteless. And I didn’t point out how her father looked down Hannah Gold's blouse when they played Knock Rummy. There was so much to be confused about: what I should say and what I shouldn’t. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a woman, or how it was possible to be a human being and do what Eichmann had done.
 
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll stop.”
 
“Good,” Judy said. “And you moved.”
 
I hadn’t. I knew I hadn’t.
 
 
Rivka and my mother were talking. I could hear them outside my bedroom window because it faced the porch. It was a clear night. If I angled my head just right I could see all the stars. The men had all left. It was a colony of women and children: a certain calm descended over the colony every Sunday night after the men left. The women joked about it. I could smell Pond’s hand cream as the scent of rose petals caught the breeze and wafted through the screen. I didn’t have to see my mother to know that she had removed her thin gold wedding band and placed it in her lap while she rubbed the cream into her hands in a wringing motion.
 
“Jeffrey doesn’t understand why they didn’t fight back,” she said. “He says they should’ve fought back. He says they were cowards for marching into the gas chambers.”
 
“Cowards?” Rivka asked.
 
“Nu. Mit’n d’rinen, Jeffrey thinks he’s John Wayne.”
 
Rivka laughed. Mit’n d’rinen. My mother always said that—all of a sudden. “My brothers weren’t cowards,” Rivka said.
 
“Were we wrong?” my mother said.
 
Her voice drifted to me, mingled with the scent of cold cream and lilacs. I loved to wake up and find a bunch of lilacs set in an old pickle jar, and the red oilcloth wiped to a high shine. I was glad when she did anything ordinary.
 
“Wrong?” Rivka said. “Who’s to say what’s wrong and right after what we’ve lived through? We know when something is really wrong. The Nazis taught us to cherish sholem, peace, always sholem. I hate it when the children fight. It makes me nervous. I hope Jeffrey never has to fight with anyone other than Sonya.”
 
“Sonya said once that she hated Jeffrey,” Mom said. “She called him Hitler.”
 
“Oy,” Rivka said. “What did you do?”
 
“I slapped her.”
 
She had. The room had been quiet afterwards. It was the first, and only, time she ever hit me. Even Jeffrey was stunned. Our mother didn’t hit.
           
“She’s a good girl. I wouldn’t worry,” Rivka said.
 
“Me, worry?” said Mom.
 
Rivka laughed but Mom seemed to realize suddenly that I could be eavesdropping.
 
“Sonya’leh?”
 
I held my breath.
 
“Sonya’leh? Gey shlofn. It’s late. ”
 
They lowered their voices, but I heard them anyway. I promised myself that the next time I saw Judy, would tell her she was wrong. I hadn’t moved. I would fight back. I heard my mother ask Rivka how much almond extract she’d put in her noodle pudding. I heard ice clink in their glasses when they raised them to their unpainted lips. I heard Rivka tell my mother that Paula got her pekel. My mother murmured my name, and they both clucked their tongues. They talked about Judgment at Nuremberg. It was playing in the theaters. My mother didn’t want to go but she loved Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster.
 
“Both in the same movie. How can I resist?” she asked.
 
Rivka was reading The Carpetbaggers. She giggled. “So-o sexy,” she said.

I was drifting off to sleep. I heard “...a beautiful dress. I want to get...” and “...the lipstick was orange. She shouldn’t wear orange—no one wears orange anymore—and those Capri pants, doesn’t she know they went out of style?” Before long, I couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore, but I didn’t care. I was thankful they were talking about the things that I imagined regular mothers talked about.

         

Copyright © Phyllis Schieber 2019

Phyllis Schieber is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Her parents, Holocaust survivors, settled in the South Bronx and later moved the family to Washington Heights, NY. She is the author of four novels: The Manicurist, The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits, and Strictly Personal. She is currently working on a collection of stories about growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors that will include “The Man in the Glass Booth.”



 

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