Happy Breathing

Earlier this year I wrote of the man who, when a youthful slave in a Nazi slave camp, wished he’d been sent to Auschwitz. He’d been envious at that time of the greater food rations allowed to slaves at Auschwitz. When I met him, seventy years after liberation, the man was shackled to an oxygen cylinder.
We bumped into each other again today. “Where’s the oxygen tank, Jan?” The skull that is Jan’s face split into a grin: “I am supposed to use oxygen sixteen hours a day. Outside of home I am free. I enjoy my free hours. My wife and I will drive sometimes to the city. We walk around, we are away from home longer sometimes than eight hours, sometimes ten.” Big skull-splitting smile. Big lung-filling gulps of ordinary ambient air.
“I see you are watching my breathing, Doctor. I like breathing. It is easier, of course, with oxygen.” Jan leaned forward, confidingly, sharing one of life’s large jokes: “You know, Doctor, oxygen can be addictive…
“I used to smoke, but never heavily, and I stopped many years before now. Yet my lungs are quite wrecked. Our greatest teacher is our body. Of course we ignore it , we abuse it. Of course life is not even. It has its up and its down. But you accept… I have not any complaints.”
“We have our little span of life, we humans. Surprising that we humans rule the planet. Insects of course have been here first, well before the human. The insects are our seniors. They should rule the planet. They would do a better job.” When Jan uses words like ‘job’, he soften the hard letter ’j’ so the word comes out as ‘chob.’ ‘The insects doing a better chob’ – delivered with the Jan smile and punctuated by the heaving of the shattered chest – becomes a fanciful idea of unexpected weight.
‘’First we had ‘The War to End All Wars’. Soon after we finished that one we started to prepare for the next, which was worse. Now of course, we see them preparing for the Third.”
“You think so, Jan?”
“It is inevitable. They are grooming for it. It will happen because Man’s stupidity does not end.”
“How did you come to settle in Australia, Jan?”
“In 1944 I made myself useful to the Americans. I spoke, of course, Czech, and naturally Hungarian, also ‘Cherman’. The Americans in ‘Chermany’ needed intelligence about the Jerries they held. My languages were helpful. And so I improved my English. And the Americans paid me.”
“I returned to my own country, to my city, and the Communists were there. They decided I was interesting to them. Some kind person told the Commies my family used to have shops. So we were Capitalists. I was nineteen and the Commies decided I was an Enemy of the People. This had a familiar look, an uncomfortable look. I had been an enemy before. Also some helpful Jerry told the Commies I was slippery, an escaper. A friend said, ‘They will come for you tomorrow morning at four.’ So I left. I took a train.”
“To Vienna?”
“No, they closed that border. I went East, to Bratislava. From there, west again, to Prague.”
Another grin of bones. Throughout Jan’s discourse, in which his breezy phrases alternated with king tides of respiration, Jan stopped frequently to smile, either at his own serpentine cleverness or at the great joke of existence. “So I made my way from Prague to the border, which of course, our Commie friends patrolled. So I waited until dark and I watched and found a place in the wire furthest from the sentry posts. And I went under the wire.
And I left Comrade Stalin behind me forever. I came to Australia and visited Sydney.”
Jan’s wife, who knows these stories, who has heard them now for longer than the six decades of their marriage, listens actively, nodding, beaming, a happy audience. At this point she reminded Jan: “That’s where we met.”
“Yes, I met this girl but I did not settle then in Sydney. The government was sending men to the Snowy River but I went north and became a cane cutter.”
Jan is short and slight. In his old age he is bent like a banana. Work on the canefields is tough for the most robust and the humid heat is brutal. It is hard to picture Jan at this work.
“On the coast I saw a traditional Pacific Islander sailing boat, hollow, with an outrigger. My own country has no coast. I decided I would learn to sail. With an Aboriginal friend I found a tall straight tree and chopped it down and hollowed it with an axe. I made a boat and I sailed it to Sydney. I stopped here and there to work when I needed money. I stopped further south and there was this same girl and I took her to South Mole Island…”
Jan embarked for Sydney on December 26, 1951. He arrived in Sydney on December 26, 1953. Jan enjoys recalling precise dates. There were newsreel cameramen filming his arrival. “I was quite famous.”
Jan spoke of his work laying railway tracks, of his initiative in reinforcing curved sections to prevent derailments. The smiles flashed, signalling pride in serious work perfomed well. He married ‘the girl’ and they settled in sugar cane country where they raised red pawpaws and four children Jan spoke of his generations, of his ‘tribe of fifty.’
“You have fifty descendants, Jan?”
“Yes, they number fifty; children and grandchildren, and grandgrandchildren. Some from my children, some from step-grandchildren: it is not different, all the same, all my tribe. When we come together, all are the same. All are one.”
As I sat and listened to Jan, our heads bowed close to allow his soft words to breach my hard ears, I tasted his ideas of peace that ends to soon, of insects that should rule; I reflected how a life that started in Old Europe – “I am a relic the old Austro-Hungarian Empire” – flowered in this new country, how a sole person now has a tribe of half an hundred. I thought of my grandchildren and his ‘grandgrandchildren’, all of whom who must grow in this world. I thought of Jan’s eighty-eight years of living and breathing and smiling. Somehow this spirited man radiated a joy that quite defeated glooms past and pushed away gloom to come.

He Wished to be an Inmate at Auschwitz

“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.”

Tearful in New York City – II

One or two days after posting Tearful in NYC, I visited Ground Zero. The skies lowered and wept as I meandered lost through the plaza. A day of such dimness, of visual images blurring, of persons indistinct, of sounds muffled, of voices softened as if retreating from the pressing silence.

I arrived at Ground Zero unburdened by foreknowledge or expectation, carrying only the vague apprehension of linguistic hyperbole: ‘Ground Zero’ is – or used to be – the expression for the epicentre of an atomic explosion. The original ground zero was a location in the Nevada Desert in the Manhattan Project during WWII. What were the Americans of the new millennium claiming – in this place, in this moment – for New York City?

The plaza was gray. Not the gray of the rainy weather, a gray in any weather, charcoal coloured, the colour of the burned, the colour of char. A rectangular shape rose before me in the gloom, formed by four bulky walls a little above waist height. Stencilled into the steel upper surface of the walls were the names.

I read Japanese names in their staccato syllables, I read the flowing polysyllables of the subcontinent, I read Mayflower names, names from Arabia, Hispanic names, Jewish names, names of all the tribes of modern America. Where a person had more than one forename, all additional names were duly inscribed. Those multipartite names claimed their solemn space.

I walked the walls and read the names, pausing here, stopping there, where the stenciled lettering was unclear, my gloved fingers wiping away the obscuring water. I felt the call of the names, their need to be seen, to stand distinct.

I didn’t want more than my first glimpse of the space enclosed by the walls, the space that fell, tumbling with the eye to a depth beyond sight. Water cascaded with a muted rushing from the interior of these walls, falling, falling to the unseen depths. The walls wept mutely, immutably, for the names.

More meandering brought me to the entry to the Museum. Young women in skyblue tops stood smiling in the rain. ’Welcome sir. Thank you for coming here.’

An hour later my wife arrived, together with my sister and her husband. Both the latter have resided in New York City since 1978. My brother-in-law has become an American patriot. On the day America found itself under attack, he found himself aroused, engaged, American. ‘I saw the footage, the destruction. I ordered my team at the hospital to be ready for casualties. I expected casualties in the thousands. But they never arrived. The injured were few, the dead too many.

‘I walked down to towards the World Trade Center. The air was thick, you could feel it. Ash, grey, soft, floated and fell onto every surface.’

Listening, my mind in Hiroshima.

‘You could smell the air. A smell of burning.’

Listening, my mind in Auschwitz.

We descended a long way into the museum. Here, in darkness dimly lit, tortured steel relics, visual images, sound recordings of speaking voices told the story. One wall showed faces of watchers looking upwards: hands flew to cover shocked mouths, frantic hands flew to clutch at anguished heads. These were civilian faces, firefighter faces, police faces – human faces facing the immolation above of humans. A nearby wall panel recorded verbatim reports of horrified watchers as people emerged from above, pausing in agonising premeditation, before leaping from the fire engulfing the upper storeys.

One said, ‘ I saw a man leap, tumbling end over end. I looked away. He took so long…’

Another reacted differently: ‘A woman appeared at the window. She waited for a time, preparing. Then she leapt. I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to watch. I felt she had the right to claim me as a witness.’

Around a corner I stumbled upon a tall colour photograph of a building of immense height standing out against a blue sky. The camera captured one, two, three bodies, each separated by a good distance from the others, all three falling from that great height. The bodies were black against that brilliant sky.

At every turn, my eyes, my eyes smarted and teared.

We spent hours in the subdued spaces underground: Ground Zero is apt, no quotation marks, no hyperbole.

abc7.com

abc7.com

Resting on a Hillside Near Jerusalem

A serious reader advised me today that he had decided to subscribe to this blog. Flattered, honoured, I dedicate this post to Jesse.

Our car flies down the highway, down the great hills from Jerusalem. Jerusalem, she is builded upon hills.
Beautiful city, too greatly beloved. O, beauteous vista, joy of all the earth.
The hills swoop down, around, down. Forests of green rise above us on our left, falling away beneath us on our right. These treetops are lower than we! Our car is an aeroplane.

Abruptly, we land. This is Beth Shemesh, House of the Sun, a town that might have tumbled off the edge of Jerusalem, falling halfway down, coming to rest on a hillside. For me, for my family, this is a town without shops, without noise or busyness, without time. We come here to visit the cemetery at Beth Shemesh.

This cemetery does not speak of sadness. Not a place of wrenching grief. A place of quiet, a place to feel the peace, to think and remember. In this place the dead lie beneath their uniform headstones, of cream – Jerusalem stone. No pretentious texts, no display: modest memorials only in the democracy of the dead.

Graves cluster on small levelled paved areas, discrete suburbs, each one looking over forest into the green and the blue. There are many of these minute suburbs, each out of sight of all the others. When you stand on one of these secreted spots, you cannot see or hear the world. The cemetery is called Beth Olamim, the house of eternity. A good place to spend eternity, especially if you like the countryside.

The narrow roadway within the cemetery climbs and twists. Spiralling up, up, our car stops above the small semi-circle of stone where Helen and Henry lie.

Helena emerged from Auschwitz, a great spirit within a pixie body, a witness to the worst, a stranger to hatred. Like an ancient mariner fired to teach us all, she lived to teach, to champion the forgotten and to fight racism.
Helena – to the end – formidable for the good.

Henry, previously a tall athlete and distinguished international jurist, weighed just six stone after Auschwitz. He never noised his role in the camps where his fellows elected him as their judge. He heard cases where the currency in dispute might be a crust of bread, quite literally death or life to the parties.

Engraved on the tables of stone in Hebrew text are brief epitomes of these people whom we knew and revered.
Helena Mann – “a branch plucked from the fire”, she revived the oppressed.
Henry Mann – “Justice, only Justice, shall you seek, that you may live.”

Their only son, a man now in his sixties, prays quietly at their gravesides. His wife lays a pebble of each of the graves. No haste, no noise as they honour two of the great, townspeople of eternity. Not lost, not forgotten.
Their son completes his unhurried praying.
He has not finished here. He spends patient minutes wiping away the dust that the wind has deposited on the graves. Every unwelcome speck removed, the son polishes with his sleeve the stones that guard his beloved ones.