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It happened in a split second—Just as the white-coated doctor wrenched the seventeen-year old’s face, the tattooist pressured her forearm to quell her screaming lest she be selected for one his brutal experiments. No matter their shaved heads, their dirty ill-fitting uniforms and wooden shoes, their enslavement at Auchwitz-Birkeneu, their dark eyes, with flitting smiles, found refuge in each other.

It was April 1942, the beginning of the three-year courtship, of sorts, between Gita Furnam and twenty-six year old Lale Sokolov, both Slovakian Jews, both determined to survive their rifle-toting tormentors with violent eyes.

Starvation, typhus, harsh weather, stray bullets, and the gas chambers sharpened the couple’s vigilance and heightened the urgency of their sporadic Sunday meetings behind the administration building. Both brought exceptional gifts to this relationship: Lale’s fluency in six languages and his position as tattooist in the camp that afforded him access to information and extra rations he liberally shared with others; Gita’s robust constitution and passion for life.

Fortunately for students of Holocaust literature, the widower Lale approached screenwriter Heather Morris with his story, three years before his death in 2006. While still decrying the injury he inflicted upon fellow prisoners and burdened by his collaborator status with the Nazis, he wanted the world to know what had happened in Auschwitz. Thus began another unusual relationship. Slowly, through long afternoons in his Melbourne apartment, Heather sifted these events through her imagination until the historical novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz emerged in 2018.

Again, we are deeply moved.

 

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“You do all the cooking ‘round here?“ I asked, pushing myself away from the table in the small dining room while patients toyed with their carrot cake and others slumped in wheelchairs. Above them on a wide-screen TV, a newsreader described Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for reunification with Taiwan, peacefully or otherwise.

“Just evenings,” she said as I approached her, wiping meaty hands on a cloth and tossing it upon the food warmer. Her eight-button chef coat fitted snuggly over her bosom like casing over sausage. “Only eighty-six tonight—The census is low ’cause of the holidays,” she added. Her speech suggested origins from the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta, her lightsome spirit from decades of graced angst. “Am glad to see you’ve been eatin’ better than when you came in,” she continued. “That you’re goin’ home tomorrow.” Her deep-set eyes bedazzled like the blinking lights on the flocked Christmas tree behind her.

“Yes, I am, and thanks for all you do each evening.” She had seemed tireless mingling among the patients, calling them by name, listening to their comments about the food, even returning to the kitchen to prepare special dishes for them. Hilarity infused her movements.

My feelings were running high. I had more to say. “And may we hug?” Instantly, her cook demeanor morphed into Earth Mother, with crooked teeth resembling centuries-old standing stones weathered into points; within that moment her juiciness sweetened me, commingling her world with mine—a psychic feeding like no other.

 

Drizzle hiccoughs through lowering clouds that resemble circus elephants at play.

Occasional splats on my slicker intrude upon the stillness and quicken my breathing. Languid breezes muss my hair, and my nose twitches with smells of musk. Alive to the freshness around me, I pause.

A solitary crow caws, as it flaps its wings against the leaden sky and soars to the upper reaches of an evergreen. Ahead of me, the slick asphalt road snakes around the bend, lined with a grove of yellow bamboo. Heaps of luminous leaves by the curb, their stems upended, smack of exhausted gymnasts after a tournament. A few whole acorns, unlike others crunched by passing cars, draw the toe of my sandal.

I resume walking, slowly—So much to take in—In the distance looms a mustard- yellow maple; from its brown-to-black-divided trunk articulate mothering branches that offer more inspiration, more protection—Droplets hug shriveled leaves of shrubs—A calico cat darts for cover in a nearby yard—Glistening jack-o-lanterns grin from front porches, and spent chrysanthemums brown and list sideways in gardens.

In every cell of my being subtle rhythms resonate: within them, I surrender, anew, to the multiple changes occurring within and around me. I give thanks.

 

 

 

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