Michiana Chronicles: The lost elder
I have left a pebble on her tombstone more than once, but we never met. Last week, in the office, sparked by Holocaust Remembrance Day, a friend and I recalled what we knew about her life during the war years. Her brother was a dashing young tailor. His clothes were all sharp lines, pressed fabrics, symmetries and curves and elegance. His face was alert and alive. He'd pull a hard candy from behind his niece's ear. The thought of him doing so, and handing over the candy, made his niece smileseven decades later.
After the Nazis came into Czechoslovakia, surely the family pondered their choices and their chances. The young tailor never came home one night. Family members heard later that he’d been out with friends, or so he thought, and he had criticized the country’s new rulers.
There was no sign of him, and then there he was. He’d been beaten to death, his body thrown in the river. After the observances and the burial, his sister boarded a train north to a town where their mother lived in an old folks home. She would deliver the news of his death.
It's one thing, and more than enough, to take the news of a son's death to an aging mother. It's another to bring news of murder, and another still to bring news of that kind of murder. The keen violence, the hatred and domination of an entire people that the murder implied, as many other things did in those days. It's another thing to bring that sort of news.
Perhaps she considered softening the story she would tell their mother, and even the story she told herself. Yes, these were bad times, but maybe this was just a bad seed or two that her brother had run into. It was an exception. On a lonely train ride, maybe a person could talk herself into this narrower version of the truth, who knows, but if she did, that version of the story would have soon disintegrated before her eyes.
She left the train station and took herself to the old folks home. It was empty. There were no elders, no caretakers, no sign or note, nothing. On that same block, she went from door to door, knocking, trying to find someone who could tell her what happened. At some doors, nobody would answer--they pretended not to be home. A couple of doors opened a few inches. She asked, “Where are the elders from the home?” Someone would shrug and quickly close the door. One person accepted a slip of paper from her, with an address. “Please send a letter if anything is known about the elders missing from the home.”
Soon she was back on the train, heading south toward their river town. If she had by chance talked herself into thinking that her brother had been unlucky and had just run into a couple of thugs, now that story would not hold. The threats to her family and her people were not accidents and bad luck, the threats were comprehensive. Anyone might disappear now. The idyllic farm fields passing at the train window might as well have been poisoned. There would be no harvest sustaining enough, healthful enough, to have a hope of healing this new kind of world.
In the office, on our break, my friend and I pieced together this understanding from what we knew of her story. No trace of the elderly mother was ever found. In time, after the war, a few surviving members of the family settled in South Bend. When I visit the Jewish cemetery here, I think of the niece who was delighted to have a piece of hard candy brought by her dashing uncle from behind her ear. And I leave a pebble for remembrance on the stone of the woman I never met, who took it upon herself to journey north by train with bad news, and who journeyed south again with worse.
Music: "Bittersweet" by Kevin MacLeod