First Edition features new original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.
After Auschwitz: A Love Story
by brenda webster
Renzo, the narrator, is an aging film director suffering from the onset of dementia. He calls up episodes of his past involving his younger and healthier wife, Hannah, in an effort to retain mental coherenece and understand their complicated relationship.
Hannah’s brother Eddie used to dance with her when she was a child in their Romanian village, she told me, to make his wife jealous. Then, after the liberation of Auschwitz, when the war was over Eddie pushed Hannah into an early marriage — so early it was ridiculous. She was only sixteen and had lived much of her short life in a death camp. Though she never admitted it, I got the feeling that she had been pregnant. Once Hannah was married, Eddie encouraged her to emigrate to Israel with him and her sister Leah. He painted a picture of the land of milk and honey. Instead, Hannah said, Israel became part of her nightmare. She and her boy husband were housed in tin sheds, hot to the touch at midday, and after a week he was inducted into the army.
When she complained, Eddie and Leah were unsympathetic. Unlike Hannah, they had taken their dead mother’s religion to Israel, clinging to it with ferocity. Naturally they expected Hannah to go along.
“I’m for peace,” she’d tell them. “That means I hate the violence on either side.” They shook their heads as if she were a meshugeneh.
I was impressed by just the things her family hated, Hannah’s evocations of Romanian village life: her sled made out of an old tray, the river, the surrounding forest, and especially their poverty — poverty her siblings were ashamed of, just as they were ashamed of their brutal expulsion by their Christian neighbors. Hannah didn’t deny the expulsion; she talked freely about it, admitted how it hurt her, even how it was the source of her phobias — her stuckness as she calls it — but she also talked about running wild in the woods, getting mud all over her second-best dress, and being slapped by her mother when she came back because she played with the boys as though she had a right to some freedom.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw her. She was chain-smoking, her blond plait down her back thick and glossy. Her early marriage was over and she was surrounded by men. I say I’ll never forget, but it’s more accurate to say that it will be one of the last things to go when my memory is ultimately lost. I keep her photo in my pocket and take it out several times a day, communing.
It’s easier to remember that Hannah than the one who sits at her typewriter furiously typing day after day.
“Go away, Renzo,” she says. “I’m working. Later we’ll walk. I’ll fix you a spagettino — you’ll like that won’t you? You go now, work a little on your poems. No, really, let me work for a bit! Weren’t you the one who was always urging me to write?”
She has the slightest smile. I can’t tell. There might even be a touch of malice.
“Be careful what you wish for,” she says, smiling.
My poems are stillborn now. I lack the force to tie the isolated images together. Instead my thoughts flow easily to her at twenty with the blond braid and the blue eyes scanning my face, judging.
The year after she came to Rome there was a new documentary about the Holocaust made by a friend of mine, a fellow director. I would gladly have gone alone but she insisted on coming too, she was always testing herself. Trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Towards the end of the film, or maybe it was the beginning, there was an image of a pile of men — so thin that at first they seemed to be rags. It took a moment to make out the skeletal bones of hands or feet, bones barely covered with skin.
Suddenly, Hannah screamed and fell to the floor between the red velvet seats, tearing her hair. I got down with her, dropped to my knees, and put my arms around her, soothing her the way I would a heartbroken child. That night when we were lying in bed listening to the church chimes, she told me what had happened. Eddie and their father had been interned together. Eddie had gone out to work one day. When he got back their father wasn’t in his bunk. Eddie finally found him in a pile of corpses. He said the prayer for the dead.
Brenda Webster is a novelist, freelance writer, playwright, critic, translator and chair of the PEN West American Center in Berkeley. She splits her time between Berkeley and Rome.
The author will be reading from “After Auschwitz” at 5 p.m. April 27 at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F. www.brendawebster.com
Works may be submitted to fiction editor Ilana DeBare at firstname.lastname@example.org or poetry editor Joan Gelfand at email@example.com. Fiction excerpts may run up to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online. All prose and poetry published to date can be viewed at jweeklylit.wordpress.com.