“I was born in mitteleuropa. You would say ‘central Europe.’ I had a happy life. I still have a happy life.” The man’s smile is wide, unmistakeable through the oxygen mask.
“When the War came I was a boy. My father and his partner had a business, so although there was war we had enough. But then the Nazis came and claimed my country. The great German Volk needed more livingsroom.” A smile, no bitterness, the smile of a man who sees the joke that is nationalism, the extended joke that is human history.
“The Nazis made lists, they liked lists. They made one list of Jewish businesses. My father’s business partner was Jewish, so the Nazis found it necessary to confiscate the business. My father found work as a clerk. It was not much but we got by for a while until one day they took my father away. I was at school when they came for Father. My older sister had to stop her studies. Later she disappeared, then Mother. There was just me. I stayed at home until a friend of Father said to me, ‘They will come for you tonight.’ I ran and I stayed with a friend in the country.
“This was, I think, 1942. I was bigger, still a boy, but big enough to work, big enough to become a slave for the Nazis. The Gestapo found me and were taking me on the trolley bus to their HQ for questioning. The trolley slowed for a corner and I jumped and ran. I was fast and small and I got away.
I took a train to a town where we used to ski in the mountains. I knew that place, we had friends there.
“But the Nazis found me. They put me into slave camp.
Work I don’t mind so much. It is hunger that is bad. Hungry slavery, that is very hard. They give us only one hundred fifty grams of bread a day. You know how much is one hundred fifty?”
The man shows me how much is one hundred fifty with his hands. His thumb and forefinger describe the thickness of a slice for a slave of the Nazis, something under a centimetre. His right forefinger sketches the outline of the slice on the palm of his right hand.
The small hand and the fine fingers are pink and soft. The skin has forgotten and forgiven the slave years. As he speaks the man leans forward, his neck muscles and his upper thorax working hard between phrases as he sucks in gulps of oxygen. His ribs rise and fall with his phrases. When you listen no tide of incoming or outgoing air is heard. The lungs have been burned away.
“People said slaves at Auschwitz received two hundred fifty grams. Two hundred fifty! I wished I would be taken to Auschwitz.”
The smile has not ceased. Does he need the widened mouth to get a full insuck of air? – I wonder.
“They did transfer some of us, on a train. I did not know to where we would travel, I decided I would escape again. I went to the toilet and opened the small window. The train travelled passed through snow close to forests. As we climbed a hill I jumped. The snow was soft. I ran to the forest and joined the fighters. For more than one year we fought the Jerries.” Behind the mask the smile widens in happy recollection of fighting ‘the Jerries.’
“I knew that country from our skiing holidays. I went to a farmer I used to know and his wife left food for me in the forest. I fought against the Jerries. They never came looking for us in the forest. They were too frightened, they did not know those forests as we did.
“After the War I returned to my hometown. And my father and my mother were there. And my sister. Later I came to Australia and we” – he nods towards his wife – “ we found each other and married. That was in Brisbane. We have been together ever since.”
The man and the wife live in the last house in a street that ends at the foot of a mountain. Forests of dark green stretch up the nearby slopes. When I phone to arrange my visit it is the wife who answers. Her voice, clear and steady, speaks in distinctly Australian accents. I follow her directions and find a derelict-looking building in ancient rendered cement. I approach a tall grey structure with glassless window frames. Inside a clutter of ancient debris. And silence. Clearly the wrong place.
Walking back towards my car, I am startled by a steady, clear voice: “Come around the side. Be careful as you climb the stairs.”
The stairs are steep and uneven, the building high. Surely a barrier for any aged couple, certainly an impossible mountain for a man with no lung tissue. The voice guides me up a second flight and there, on a concrete deck, at an alarming elevation above the buffalo grass below, stands a tall woman in a long navy dress, her face deeply wrinkled, her smile of good, original teeth and outstretched hand bidding me welcome. The dress and the face arrest me; the dress rises from ankle height, a deep blue teepee speckled with small stars of wattle; the face a roadmap of antiquity charged with vitality, lit withal by that smile. A woman attractive enough to haul any man up those terrible stairs.
We sit and I listen to reminiscences of a life. The man pauses and works his breathing as his lung remnants fight for oxygen. The smile never fades, never loses its expressive energy. When memory slows the woman prompts him: “Tell Howard about…” “Did you mention the time…?”
We look across sunlit mountain forest as the man breathes and speaks. He says, “My life has been a happy life. It is a wonderful life, this is a wonderful world.”