By Reva Blau
My father did not tell anyone completely about his psychic scars. He did, however, let my mom, sister, and I ogle, occasionally, on his physical ones. Taking off his expensive, leather shoes, he would, very rarely, let us peek the roped mass of roiling purple and magenta skin at the knuckle of his big toe, where, crushing grapes at a POW camp shortly after WWII broke out, he had plunged the pitchfork. The toe bent off crookedly to the left and the nail was gone. The joke in the family was not to drink 1939 Bordeaux. He also would hand me the shrapnel shards that would, once in a blue moon, poke out from his thighs, a result of a bomb that he had tripped while he interrogated Nazis as a German-speaking US Army officer.
Three years before returning to Europe as a soldier, my father, the son of Viennese Jews, fled Nazi Vienna, then Nazi Czechoslovakia, then France on the brink of World War II. He was imprisoned three times and got out three times. He was tortured in a Nazi border patrol. The Nazi’s made him do exercises until he passed out. For meals, he only had lard.
A son of secularized Jews, He didn’t mind really that lard was not kosher; although I am sure that was the border patrol officers intention. He minded that the meat was barely edible and, subsequently could not even look at bacon without going quiet looking off into an invisible space.
From the border patrol, he escaped and made it to Prague, where he lived until the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia as well. Making his way to France to await the processing of his visa, he was rounded up by the French Army for having a German passport, even though it was branded with a red “J.” He was sent to Bordeaux to a labor camp on a vineyard. He stuck his foot with a pitchfork to get out of a French labor camp and onto a French navy steamship that would take him to New York, the white lines of blood poisoning creeping up his leg.
He liked to tell these stories. The stories were a series of lucky breaks: the last train from Vienna to Prague before the Austrian border was closed; the last train to France before the war broke out; the last civilian ship from Europe. He presented himself as the luckiest man alive.
My dad lost both his parents in the Holocaust. He saw them for the last time, taking an illegal detour back into Austria on a night train, on his way to Le Havre from Prague. He didn’t talk about his parents often. He never mentioned his mother at all. I remember maybe once or twice and always in an almost whisper.
Throughout both my sister’s and my life, he searched for what happened to his parents once their letters to him, a newly arrived immigrant in America, stopped coming in 1941. I have many of his inquiries with inquiries to Austria, Germany, and Poland as he tried, over the course of decades, to find out what happened to them. They are written in an oily tone in long, German sentences with long nouns. I have the letters back with conflicting information from each of the embassies and the American Red Cross.
This story about how his trauma affected his being my dad starts in the winter of 1976. Mrs. Kritz, my first grade teacher, told me she liked my poems about rain. The poems were stapled together between two pieces of blue construction paper. I spoke English then with a vaguely Dutch accent because we had spent the previous year in Holland. Back in New York, I went to school a few weeks and then got strep throat. I was at home, burning with fever. My parents were at the university teaching. That morning, my mother had called my new babysitter, an Israeli modern dancer, whose bones poked up, fragile like bird wings, through her translucent skin. She had skipped her rigorous training to come in on a weekday last minute because she needed the income. But she had run out of ideas for games we could play and I had spent the afternoon trying to read in English on the sofa under a blanket. At some point, I got up to wander the large apartment, which still felt foreign after the year away.
I crept into my father’s study with its walls of books, a solid inverted sculpture of brown spines. I sat at his walnut desk diagonal to the typewriter. I fingered the leather encased stapler and the clear dome that held in its perfect bubble one refillable green ink pen and one refillable pencil, both silver. Green ink had stained the small hole in the plastic where the pen stuck out. I found a lined notebook and removed the pen. I started to write my new book, the ink silkily spilling over onto the off-white paper. I planned to show Ms. Kritz my writing.
I heard the measured footsteps of leather sole heavily treading the throw rugs as my father came down the orange hallway. I should have known. It was four o’clock and it was the time for pacing, poring over books with his giant magnifying glass, endless green-inked outlining, peck pecking on the typewriter. The dog had this routine down so well that, lounging in the hallway, she would pull herself even before the elevator doors opened in the outside hallway with its black and white hexagonal tiles. I hadn’t heard the key in the lock. And, suddenly, he was filling the doorway. When he saw me, it took him a moment for him to register a small child was at his desk, that this child was his own, and had broken the biggest rule in the house: Do Not Enter Your Father’s Study. That I had entered the study and used his pen—the only pen he used, ever—and that his green ink was spilling out over the pages, was unthinkable.
It was as if the knob controlling his adrenaline system was on the opposite way as most people’s nervous system. Small things tripped torrents of anxiety, whereas the things that make most people fearful did not seem to phase him at all. When people called the house, for example, he’d thunder into the phone, “ALLO! Who’s there!” like it was on the CB radio in the mud-soaked trenches artillery raining down. Yet, he was immune from fears of his mortality. He drove, for example, fearlessly, without concern for any of our welfare. He would recline in the seat, drive with one hand, gesturing with the other. He would often hold court in the car, lecturing about books or politics, and look over at us, in conversation, for many beats too long.
When I was seven or eight, there was a fire in the building directly opposite our apartment. It happened in the middle of the night. My mother awoke to the smell of smoke then ran through the U-shaped apartment to my room. She shook me awake and I gathered important things as I had read people do in books. It was only minutes later that the super came up and pounded on the door to tell us to evacuate. It took my father an agonizing twenty minutes to dress in his habitual attire of a three-piece suit complete with tie, belt and garter socks. My mother and I stood in the hallway waiting for him, my arms full of thirteen stuffed animals and Noodles, the guinea pig, who dug her claws into my forearm. When the firefighter to come bang on our door to wonder why we hadn’t gotten out yet, my father was looking into the bedroom mirror adjusting his tie.
A year or so later, we were in Athens, Greece at an outdoor table eating salad and whole grilled fish from the center of the table. I was nine, alone with my parents on a trip, and prone to bouts of dizzying boredom if I was not allowed to read my Trixie Belden books, which was another rule: Never Read at a Restaurant Table. We lingered at the table after eating, listening to the old men chattering in Greek around us. I asked my father if I could please borrow his pen to draw. He took it out of his suit pocket and gave it to me. I doodled absent-mindedly on the bill.
Back at the cramped hotel room, my father asked for his silver pen back. He sent me outside to return to the restaurant, but the loud, beefy owner could not find it. “I will run away, I will spend my life hopscotching the archipelago by ferry, perhaps earn my money busking,” I thought to myself imagining my open fiddle case opened out on the hot, white pavement. Instead, I returned to the hotel and my father’s face, a mask of molten rage.
I was not afraid, like most children, of the dark, bugs, ghosts or monsters. I explored the old train tracks under the West Side Highway and peered at the cardboard slum cities in the tunnels. I spoke fearlessly with strangers and felt the safest on an airplane high in the sky above an ocean. Instead I feared bank tellers and police officers, authority figures, the mysterious systems that sent the mail.
After learning that the Noble laureate in Physics, who happened to have emigrated from Maoist China, lived a few a few floors above us, I slept with one eye open. He sometimes left or returned to the building in a motorcade of limousines. This left me deeply suspicious of adults generally. I was concerned to learn that a physicist had been the first to successfully split the uranium atom under the green copper turrets of Pupin Hall at Columbia across the street.
I went to a high school with a dappled quad in which one could sit between classes and read. I adored high school. In European History, Mrs. Bernstein taught us about March 12th, 1938, when Hitler marching into the Heldenplatz to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese. I loved Ms. Bernstein. She spoke in a measured cadence and always in complete sentences. She allowed us to think deeply about history.
At some point, after reading an essay I had written, she had taken me aside in the hallway and asked me if I was a native English speaker.
“Why, yes!” I answered, surprised. “Why?”
“Well because your sentence structure feels German to me. You put the ideas at the end of the sentences. The syntax is just slightly different from English syntax.” She must have known my dad survived this time. It was her way of telling me that she was sensitive to the impact it had on me. We are still friends to this day.
In class, we peered at photos in our dense textbooks. One showed Hitler, a diminutive terror, surrounded by Imperial buildings of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, high above the swarms. Hitler’s lips and mustache were so thin they looked like they could chop you in half. I came home and asked my father if he was still in Vienna when the Nazis marched in and if he went to Hitler’s rally. Did you see him on the streets? I was curious—morbidly—if he had actually seen Hitler himself. He was furious with me.
“What do you think? Do you want me stampeded to death?” Uh, no, dad, I don’t want that.
It was shortly after the Nazi rise to power that my grandparents and their parents lost their bookbinding business and the building they owned where the Blaus and my grandmother’s family, the Selkas, lived. My dad’s father’s doctorate was revoked and he could no longer teach or publish. The University of Vienna, where my dad was going to pre-medical school, expelled its Jewish students. The family had to move to the poorer section of town. My dad was sent to live in Prague, at which point he was captured and hence the lard episode. But weeks later, he was able to get out from the border office, and later, to America. My aunt was sent away with other children on the kindertransport to England. Sometime later my grandparents were rounded up to the ghetto. In one of the first deportations that signaled the Final Solution after the Wannsee Conference, they were sent to their deaths in what turns out to have been the very first extermination camp.
When my father spoke of this time, it was in the present tense or maybe that was still a trace of his German syntax.
When it came time for the Holocaust Remembrance day, students filed in quietly to the auditorium to hear a survivor speak in somber tones about his experiences. I am sure many of my friends wept. I fled to the bathroom and stuffed paper towels in my mouth while my body wracked itself in panic.
The conversation about what happened to his parents took place mostly in my head, although from time to time I would interview him about my grandparents. I interviewed him about why they didn’t leave. He told me that they first refused. He told me that they might have left later but that he didn’t have money for their visas and he couldn’t find anyone who did or who was willing to guarantee them both. He said that he was only offered one affidavit, for one individual, not two, so how do you choose?
In a photo book I found on the highest shelf of one bookcase in our book-lined apartment, I found and then spoke to my grandmother. In the sepia photo she peered out a zaftig woman with sad, almond eyes and tendrils escaping across her temples. She draped one hand on a baby bassinet, with my aunt as a bonneted, moon-faced baby staring out placidly. Another hand rested on the shoulder of my father, a little boy in short woolen trousers, high socks, with a bowl and scarf bowtie. Standing on tiptoe, I put the photo book away before he caught me with them.
My father and I walked downtown to see the movie Sophie’s Choice together after I read all of William Styron’s novels over a summer. At some point, he jumped up and left. It could have been when Sophie, on line in a crowd of deportees, must make the awful choice between her two children. But I think it was much earlier, perhaps when it becomes clear that Nathan is both obsessed with the Holocaust and mentally ill. People in the audience swiveled. More people turned in their seats to look as light from the lobby momentarily flooded the theater. When I came through the theater’s outside doors, I could see the back of his suit, as he race-walked up Broadway, his fists clenched.
The fall after graduating from high school, I lived in a brownstone with three Columbia friends on the first floor of a dilapidated brownstone in Brooklyn. I called him up to see if he wanted to meet and go to the exhibit of Anselm Kieffer at MoMA. Walking the air-conditioned white hallways of the museum, I was awed by the heavily worked massive grey and brown canvases. Their impasto surfaces were scarified with grids and lines in paint that climbed to cathedral ceilings describing warehouses, barracks, and imperial buildings—vast and claustrophobic both. Some paintings showed fields and earth strewn with hay or ashy powder and scarred with metal.
In a packed deli between Fifth and Sixth, he sat sullenly reading the menu. Then, suddenly, he looked up and spat, curtly,”I don’t care that this Kieffer is an artist.” Saliva sprayed my face in the cramped booth. “Why would you take me to see this exhibit?”
I recently found the ship manifest of the DeGrasse, the steampship on which he secured passage, on November 10, 1939, from Le Havre to New York in the digital archives at Ellis Island. Its heading reads “List of Alien Passengers.” The information is recorded in neat rows and columns. The list is one thousand names long and takes up several pages. My father’s name is in the very first row, number one, on the register. I can see him making sure to be first on line. He did the same on lines throughout his life. People often just let him cut the line, as if sensing he could not psychologically wait in line.
Reading across the columns, there are boxes where the immigration official marked each person’s reading and writing ability, profession, nationality, religion, marital status, amount of currency held and many other qualifying remarks, such as if the person is an anarchist, cripple, or a polygamist. For him, his nationality was marked German, the place of visa, Prague, his profession, electrician, his destination, the address of the unknown sponsor whose name and contact his high school history teacher had given him. My dad had told us that he had twenty dollars when he left Le Havre. I had somehow assumed that it was a small exaggeration. How could someone have so little money? I routinely spent his twenty-dollar bills going downtown to buy candy at the Citicorp with my friends. But it turns out that was exactly what he had in his pocket.
He was never an electrician, of course. I laughed at that one. He would have made a very bad electrician. There are three columns for which the answers are almost every one of the thousand on the list. Nationality is marked German, religion Hebrew, and, for the “amount of time the alien intends to remain in the country:” all the last answers for this column are marked “permanently.”
When I first saw the towers come down on the news on the morning of September 11, I was, like most people seized with a cold panic, and, immediately, I thought of the many people I knew who very well might have been on one of the planes or in one of the buildings that morning. Then, suddenly, I was awash with a dark, gruesome sense of doom when I realized the impact on my father’s psyche. I felt across the hundreds of miles and decades of time the sting of the humiliation he felt as a young man. For the first time, I saw my dad as terribly alone in his experience at the hands of the Nazis and facing genocide so intimately. An act of war in New York, his island of safety, all those years ago, was too difficult to even imagine him processing at his age. At first the phone lines were down, and I kept trying until I got through. When I had my father on the phone, he didn’t speak about the events in New York. I brought it up carefully and he went quiet and changed the subject.
It was after that, his heart and lungs weakened. The cardiologist said that his lungs had expanded and, actually, pushed up against the wall of the rib cage. Shortly after that, he went into the hospital. I booked the earliest flight I could. My sister, who was in Amsterdam, had taken the overnight flight. Each of us took a cab to hospital. And, within an hour, my sister, my mother, and I were all there. It was rare for us three to be together. But there we were, his existential people, gathered around him, or was it still him, in his ICU room, the screens bleeping, a machine sending rumbling and artificial inhales and exhales of oxygen through his body? And then we said goodbye to him and we were the ones left with this hole in our lives.
Reva Blau-Parlante juggles teaching middle-school, raising two kids, and writing non-fiction with the support of her partner in life Joe and perhaps too much espresso with lemon.