Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, January 27, 2019

For Holocaust Remembrance Day

This is a verbatum from a hospital visit when I was in seminary.

C1: Well, what a surprise to see you up here!  My name is George Baum, I’m the chaplain who spoke with you the other day?
S1: Yes, of course.  We remember you.
C2: How is your husband doing now?  Did they the surgery work out okay?
S2: He is doing better.  He is strong.  He worked his whole life very hard, so he is strong.
C3: Is he having much pain?
S3: Not too much.  They took out the epidural and he seems pretty good so far.
C4: And how are you holding up?  [I see the bed]  You've been sleeping here, right?
S4: Yes.  I am doing fine. 
C5: It's nice to have the bed here.
S5: And nice to have this room!  My son, he is a surgeon, he got us this.
C6: Oh?  Where is your son a surgeon?
S6: He works here.  In the hospital.
C7: Oh, at Roosevelt?  I see.  Well that's fantastic.  And your husband is not having pain?
S7: So far, he is good.  But, I think women can -- how can I say it?  -- women can take more pain and tolerate more than men.  [Looking toward husband]  But, he is doing well.
C8: That's good.  And you say you’re okay.  It must be exhausting to be living in the hospital like this.
S8: Yes.  But, you know, men and women see things, are built differently.  I am comfortable wherever I am.  He, you know, he wants his ethnic food.  Cabbage, and herring. 
C9: Ah, probably none of that for a while, huh?
S9: No, and that will make him grumpy.  He wants what he is used to.
C10: And now it’s (I look at the tray) Jell-o instead right?
S10: Yes.  I can eat whatever.  Women . . . well, I just say, "fine, have it your way."  Most things, they are little, and I don't want to bother, since I can take more without getting upset than he can.
C11: But then do you feel like you don't get what you need?
S11: No, if I need something I make sure I get it.  (smiles)  I just mean that women can take more pain and suffering.  It is the way it has been since creation.
C12: Well, I saw my wife give birth to two children, and I know I couldn't tolerate that much pain!
S12: Yes.  That is what I mean.  Men are stronger, physically, but women are stronger in other ways.
C13: Do you have more than the one son?
S13: We also have a daughter, who lives in Staten Island.  That will be out next stop.  To see if he can tolerate living there before we go home.
C14: So you'll live with her for a while.
S14: Yes, and the doctor appointments will be easier to make it to from there.  He said he was tired all the time and felt sick.  I said he should go to a doctor to see.  But he waved me off and said no it is nothing.  Well, in October, we had a wedding in New York to go to and I said, "while we're there, maybe you could see a doctor."  So I set up the appointment.  [I was reminded how Garrison Keilor says Lutherans would only visit Hawaii if they could justify it as a business trip that they were going on anyway.]  Then they found that he was anemic and must be losing blood.  So they ordered more tests and they found he had a mass in his intestines that was bleeding all over the place.
C15: Oh my.
S15: So they decided to operate and then they did.  [She shrugs]  But I am an optimist; he is a pessimist.  I can take a lot and still see the bright side.  Not so much with him.  Do you know of Auschwitz? 
C16: [Feeling shocked]  Yes.  Of course.
S16: When I was 17, they took me there.  I have a number.  [She pulls up her sleeve and shows me.]  This is a tattoo.  [This is the first time I have seen one of these; it says A-52]  They just carve it right into your flesh like this.  [Pulls her sleeve back down]
[I say nothing]
S17: I lost my family.  Well, everyone but my father.  They didn't kill him right away.  But my mother and brothers and sister were all killed very early.
[I find this so deeply horrific that I start to cry, but continue looking directly at her, hoping she'll go on]
S18: Then they put me to work.  Are you familiar with [some company she names], the motorcycles?
[I pretend I am]
S19: Well that's where I worked.  I made motorcycles.  [She smiles, kind of ironically, I think]
C17: You never would have expected that, huh?
S20: No.  To be taken out of your life and treated like dirt, lower than dirt, unless you have been through that, you cannot possibly know.  But I worked right next to the crematorium, where they burned the bodies.  The smell of it, all day long.  The ovens.  And I was 17.
C18: [I am overwhelmed by this all.]  That is horrible!
S21: Yes.  But you do what you have to do.  I was able to just keep going because I didn't know anything else to do.
[I have nothing to say, and am still crying]
S22: But there was always resistance.  The people who worked in the dynamite factory, they would take gunpowder and sew it into the hems of their clothes.  And then when they were killed, well there were people who had to sort the clothes into piles from the bodies.  You know, shoes over here, and shirts over there.  And the ones sorting the clothes would cut open the hems and get the gunpowder.
C19: Uh huh.
S23: And they were saving it for the crematorium.  Do you know what that is?
C20: Yes.  Yes, I do.
S24: Well they were planning to blow that up as an act of you know, rebellion or whatever.
C21: With the gunpowder?
S25: Yes.  So one night.  I worked the night shift.  There was day and night so we worked all the time, and I worked at night.  Well one night they did it and blew the building up.  I heard the explosion because my factory was right next door.
C22: Oh my . . .
S26: Well then we were all very afraid.  And we didn’t go to work.  And the guards, they decided to show us a message and they took dozens of people, Jews, and lined them up to kill them.  And I heard the gunshots.  And, do you know the ???
C23: No, I’m sorry.
S27: Well, that’s the Jewish National Anthem.  And I could hear them singing it while they were being shot.
[I start crying again]
S28: And they kept singing as the others were being shot.  [Now she is crying too.]  And the singing, it went until the very end, getting quieter and quieter, until the last one was dead.
[I am so stunned I cannot speak.  We both have tears on our face, saying nothing.  She wipes her eyes and says,]
S29: So, it was just a small thing.  Some people say insignificant.
C24: No, that is one of the most important stories I have ever heard.  I am so thankful that you told me.
S30: I went to Washington and told my story.  Recorded it there at the . . . .
C25: Holocaust Memorial?
S31: Yes.
C26: Do you tell your stories to others?
S32: Well, my grandchildren, they are too young.  I don’t want to scare them.  But the one, she just turned 18.
C27: About how old you were when you were in Auschwitz.
S33: Yes.
C28: So maybe you can tell her when the time seems right?  It’s important that people can hear what it was like from someone they know and who was there.
S34: There are so few of us left.  And someday when we are gone . . . [she stops]
C29: The stories can go on because you told them to your grandchildren, and people like me.  I will tell your story, believe me.  I mean, if that’s alright with you.
S35: Of course.  But it is just one little story.  One person.
C30: And that’s why it’s important.  Because you are a person.
[She smiles.]
S36: People in Auschwitz, when we see each other, it is like an instant family.
C31: Of course it is!
S37: And we share something that other people cannot understand.
C32: No, I can never really know what you all went through.
S38: We grew up fast.  Very fast.  You had to, to survive.
[A doctor comes in and they talk about the epidural and how the patient will need to get up in a chair today.  I wonder at the irony of two women talking about a man’s epidural.  The doctor leaves.]
S39: So, we thought when the war was over, that we had seen the worst.  But it’s not true.  It is as bad now as it ever was then.  People killing in the name of religion.
C:33: Yes.  The Sudan today, but we have plenty before that too.
S40: People say Stalin killed, what 20 million of his people.  And then Cambodia. 
C34: Yes.  It seems it will never end.
S41: No.  I wonder if, after the Messiah comes, there will be peace.
C35: Well, my religion says the Messiah already came, but still there is no peace.
S42: Oh, I don’t want to talk about religion.  That will just be trouble.
[This strikes me as a very odd thing to say, given the conversation she has been having with the chaplain.]
S43: But the evil that people do.  There is no limit, it seems.
C36: No, there is not.  I wish that Hitler had been the worst possible.  But I’m afraid not.
S44: I cannot understand it.
[A physical therapist enters the room and is putting on gloves.  We both stand up.]
PT1: Hello, how’s he doing?
S45: Good.  They already took the epidural out. 
PT2: No, I am here to get him up.
S46: Oh, to put him in a chair?
PT3: No, we’re going to take a little walk.
C37: Okay, I will leave you be now.  Thank you so much for talking to me.  [I put my hand on her shoulder]
S47: Thank you for your visit.  It was kind of you to listen to me.
C38: Really, it was an honor.  I don’t come back to the hospital until next week.  You said he should get discharged on Sunday?
S48: Yes.
C39: Well, okay.  Then, hopefully I will not be seeing you anymore.
[We both smile]
C40: Thank you Mrs. G.
S49: Thank you George.

In order to avoid the assignment of excessively high numbers from the general series to the large number of Hungarian Jews arriving in 1944, the SS authorities introduced new sequences of numbers in mid-May 1944. This series, prefaced by the letter A, began with “1” and ended at “20,000.” Once the number 20,000 was reached, a new series beginning with “B” series was introduced. Some 15,000 men received “B” series tattoos. For an unknown reason, the “A” series for women did not stop at 20,000 and continued to 30,000.