1. You’re probably asking how I first met her, and I would have to say that it was around sometime in the late 1940s; down in the boon docks.
She’d been born in Mainz, Germany on January 1st, 1900 and had seen more than her fair share of everything in this life.
She was a Jew, and a proud one and, as you can probably guess, watched most of her family disappear into concentration camps.She was feeding the birds by the docks that day. I remember it was a warm sultry afternoon in New York.
I asked if I could help and she said sure, I could. I had some coffee and we sat and shared it, sitting on an old crate. She had an almost permanent smile on her face, as if to say, I’m happy world, just get used to it.Boy did we talk. I told her about my family who lived upstate and how my great-uncle helped invent the automobile.
“You must be very proud,” she said in a thick German accent. Sure I was, I told her, sure I was. And her grin became a huge smile. I asked her about her own family, and she said that there weren’t no one left.
“All gone,” and then she nodded her head as if to say into the showers of those camps.
“All of them?” I asked.
“Yah,” and then she took another sip of her very cold coffee.
“Where were you?” I asked.
And she told me she had been there too, along with her three brothers, three sisters and her mother and father.
“At the end, there was only me,” she said sadly.
So I asked her, how or why she survived.
“Only the good Lord knows that one,” she said.
Then she told me how she got through those days of death and hatred. She said that she would close her eyes for one minute every day. One minute when things were getting really bad and she would remember who she was. It was as simple as that.
“Just close your eyes and recite your name and then remember who and what you are. Some things or someone in the universe went to a lot of trouble to get you here. Just think of that.”
It was just as the sun was on its last legs that she said she must get back home, and that it had been very nice talking to me.
Here’s the funny bit – every day after that I did the very same thing. One minute with my eyes closed just to remember who I was.
I have to tell you, it’s got me through a lot of life’s stuff.
2. The clanking of the train as it went over the gaps in the rail made him think of home. If he closed his eyes, he could still hear the horse and carts passing outside the family home in the west of town.Oh, those days of endless sunshine and hope. Everyone was friendly.
Everyone shared. Everyone was in and out of each other’s homes. My son did this, my daughter has achieved that – my, hasn’t your youngest grown. They were the best of days.
He would come home from school and there was his mother sitting at the table, smiling, as only she could. No matter how bad the day had been, that smile would melt away any pain and discomfort. Those were the best of times. No doubt about it.
His father had taught him to help those who needed it, without complaint.
“And I want you, my boy, to do a good deed each and every day without telling anyone about it. Promise?”
And he crossed his heart and hoped to die that he would do it – and he had, as best he could. There was no point in thinking of them all over again – for that would be praising himself for his good deeds.
So why was what he was about to do the most selfish thing he had ever done in his life? How had he got to this point?
Perhaps in every good deed is the seed of its own destruction.
He had seen the boy from across the street many times. Now and again he had nodded or even, on occasion, said good morning. The boy and his family had intrigued him greatly. Although they seemed to be very well off for this part of town, they never ever smiled. It had taken him a while to work out what it was that had bothered him about the boy and his people. They didn’t laugh. How strange, he thought. Perhaps, money doesn’t make you happy after all.
Then one night as he as staring through the window, he saw that the boy was being whipped by his father. It was severe, but as far as he could see, the boy did not appear to show any pain on his face. He just held the side of the kitchen table tightly and gritted his teeth.
He saw the boy the next evening, standing alone watching the carriages pass by and for the first time he spoke properly to him.
“Would you care for a chocolate?”
The boy looked at him suspiciously, then smiled and said thank you. And as quick as the smile came, it went in again and the boy’s face grew dark. It wasn’t until a week later that he saw the boy standing on the corner of the street and he was sobbing. He said good afternoon to him but the boy turned his face away. He asked the boy how he was doing and the boy grunted that he was okay but could he go away and leave him alone. However this was his good deed for the day and he wanted to help the boy. He gave him his handkerchief that his mother ironed for him every day. The boy eventually took it and wiped the blood from the mark on his face. The boy said thank you then wandered off home.
The next day the boy’s father, the one who liked to hit his son, came to his door to return the handkerchief. The man looked at the signs on the wall and said:
“You are…..?” Then the father spat on the ground and ripped the handkerchief up.
In the middle of the night they came for his mother, his father and himself. As they led them away, he could see the boy’s father looking from the window and smiling.
They had been on the train about two days when the wooden slat had opened up at the side. It was only big enough for him to get through, no matter how hard he wished it, his mother and father could never squeeze through that hole.
They told him he had to go and that he had to go as soon as the train slowed. His father pushed his son through the hole.
And that is why he jumped from the train – leaving everyone he loved aboard and on their way to Auschwitz.
3. Everyone called him Papa – that was how he was known in our part of the square. ‘Papa, the storyteller’, to give him his full, well-deserved title.
Whether the stories were as old as the hills, or maybe Papa himself, or even little ditties he made up on the spot; they were always the same thing, they were wonderful and they took us away from our own lives.
“Gather around children, gather around, push-up close to one another, I don’t want to have to shout,” he would say with the biggest grin I had ever seen.
We would all push in to the front, and in doing so, keep each other warm and for a few minutes we would forget where we were and get wrapped up in the warmth and colours of Papa’s stories.
They were as rich as cream, and as light as feathers. They made us laugh, always they made us laugh – that was the one and only rule of Papa: “these stories, my little blessed ones are to make you all happy in there,” and that is when he would point to his heart.
There are times in your life when something so terrible happens that you push it to the back of your mind. Then in the morning, when you awake, you are happy for the merest of seconds before you remember whatever it is you have experienced.
And so it was with Papa’s stories, when they were done, and only when they were done, I would suddenly remember where I was and immediately feel sad again.
It was the same for us all.
I remember Papa’s last story as if it were yesterday.
“Come close my little kinder. Closer still, we don’t want those others to hear our precious little stories,” and then we would all sit as close as our little frail bodies would allow.
“Can you all hear me?” and he’d put a hand to his ear.
“Yes!” we would all whisper.
“Then I shall begin. Once upon a long ago, there was a little child, a little strong boy by the name of Joseph.”
“That is my name,” said Joseph, who sat next to me, proudly.
“So it is, and much like you he was full of life itself. And this little strong boy decided to help the oldest woman who lived in their village. For they all lived in the highest of highest mountains and each of them had to help the other. The town was two days ride away and so everyone needed everyone else. The little boy knocked on the old lady’s door. He was nervous – for it was told that she was a witch. At first she shouted ‘go away’ because through the years, she had been tormented by some. But the little boy persisted and knocked the door again. This time the old lady, who some say was as old as the moon itself – opened the door. ‘What do you want?’ she asked and the little boy explained that he wanted to help. At first she was unsure but as she asked the boy to do more and more tasks, he seemed to enjoy all of it. ‘Why are you helping me?’ she asked. And the little boy explained that he had been taught that helping others was the only way to live. And so the boy came and helped the old lady, day after day, week after week. Then one day, the old lady said she would reward the little boy, who said it didn’t really matter as helping the lady was all that counted. But she insisted and she told him to close his eyes and in doing so, he could go anywhere he wanted. And sure enough, he closed his eyes and the next thing he knew, he was standing on top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Now children I want you to do the same,” Papa said to us all.
And sure enough we all kept her eyes tight closed and imagined the greatest of all places to be; and while we were doing this, the guards were waiting on Papa outside the hut and then they marched him to the showers.
We only found this out a little later.
Like the rest who took that walk, Papa never returned, but like the little boy, I still close my eyes and wish of somewhere else.
bobby stevenson 2017