Classic Round Robin

~ Music of the Soul ~

Chapter 4
by Tunnel Dweller 4

 

After a long stretch of tossing and turning, Avram was finally able to sleep. And in that sleep, the dreams came. 

Avram was in the food line.  He had just received his gruel and what passed for coffee, but it was warm.  He was cold and shaking when the young guard ran into him, causing him to drop all his food.  The young guard laughed as Avram tried to salvage what he could of his food from the frozen ground.  A kaleidoscope of pictures ran through his dream: the young guard, so arrogant and pompous, making the pitiful lives that he was in control of even more miserable; his fellow prisoners, so thin that their filthy, threadbare clothes hung on their skeletal bodies.  Their sunken eyes were full of misery and hopelessness; but still they hung on, hoping, praying that help would come.  They put one foot in front of the other, breathing in and breathing out, hoping the seconds bled into hours and days, willing the time to pass.  Where was the help, when would it come, would it be in time, could he hang on?  And that young, sneering face was always there.

He woke up suddenly, with that familiar, cold dread still lingering in his soul … still in the grip of the restless, haunting dreams. Disoriented and trying to decide where he was, he lay still, his eyes scanning his surroundings for clues. Then, seeing the familiar stone ceiling and walls, he remembered.


Avram had made his way to the tunnels the night before … back to the place that gave him comfort, protection, and respite when he had needed it. He had gone to Father’s chamber to confess his carelessness and apologize, hoping that the tunnel community would forgive him enough to allow him a place to gather his thoughts.

After the disclosure of his time at Dachau and of the recent death he felt such guilt for, Father had gone to his desk and retrieved the brandy Peter had given him for his birthday. He had poured Avram a generous glass and then poured a less generous portion for himself.

Vincent had quietly left them sharing their drinks in the comfortable, understanding silence of old friends.

"I need a place to stay tonight, a place to think. Is that okay?  I don't want to impose …”  he remembered asking, his voice trailing off.

 

When he checked his watch, Avram realized it was late afternoon. Apparently he had slept more than he had expected, restless and fitful though it had been. Not feeling the strength to move yet, he lay there in the bed in the guest chamber father had given him to use, but in his mind he was "there".  Did "there" ever leave or does it become a part of who you are? And in being "there" do you become "one of them"? He didn’t sleep, but his eyes drifted closed.
                                                                                                                                                                                            

It was snowing and he, along with all the other prisoners, stood at attention for the morning roll call.  Those who had died in the night had to be brought out and counted also.  They were laid in rows in front of their barracks mates. Orders were read, minutes and hours passed, counts and recounts droned on, and still they stood.  Those who were too weak or sick to stand were beaten, sometimes to death.  And the terrible smoke continually poured from the smokestacks, the smell clinging to everyone and everything.  It was always there, there was no getting away from it.  He didn’t know whether to be sad for the people who burned there or to be happy that at least they were out of their misery.  He tried not to wonder if his Gerda had been among those who perished in those hated chimneys.

They worked hard, had little to eat and were never warm enough. Avram thought often of his wife.  Where was she?  How was she?  Would he see her again?  They were young and in love, just starting their life together, when they were captured and hauled away to the camps.  He remembered her tear stained face the last time he saw her.  He told her to be brave, that he loved her, that they would be together again, and he would always look for her. That terrible, sick feeling in the pit of his stomach returned every time he thought of that day.

Avram knew his story wasn't unique.  This was happening to thousands of his people.  Where was the help?  Where was the rest of the world?  Did they know the terrible things that were happening to human beings?  Why did the rescuers not come?  How could the world abandon them and leave them at the mercy of their tormentors?


The tears streaming down his face brought him back to the present time.  He wondered: "Had his soul turned to stone?"  "Was there no forgiveness left inside his heart?"  "Did that make him, 'one of them'? He forced himself from the bed and sat in the overstuffed chair in the corner of the chamber, head leaned back, eyes closed, and feet stretched in front of him. 

That's where he was when Father brought him a tray of hot tea, toast and jam.  "Is there anything else you need to talk about, Avram?  I'm here and have all the time in the world.  Years ago when one of our helpers found you and brought you Below, you said your wife had died and you just didn't know what to do or where to go.  We never asked more than what you were willing to talk about.  Is there anything now that we can help you with?"  

Avram sipped his tea and slowly set his cup down.  Without a word, he rolled up his sleeve to reveal the hated tattoo on his arm…the number that had changed him from a human being to a thing.  "This is what torments me.  It's like an overcoat that you can't take off.  It's uncomfortable, but you learn to live with it.  It's the memories that make the living hard.  It's the pain that those memories bring that just drags you down."

Father covered Avram's hand with his.  "I am so sorry.  I didn't know."

Avram rolled his sleeve down and looked away. "You know, Father, there were times when I was in Dachau that I wanted to lay down and die.  The one thing that kept me going was my belief that one day I would leave that terrible place, find my bride, my beautiful Gerda, and we could continue our lives together."

He sipped his tea again, rose and walked across the room, letting the memories come to him and through him as he shared with his friend. "Like I said, it was a terrible, terrible time.  We all passed the time as best as we could, trying to live long enough to be free humans again." 

Father knew his friend was physically in the chamber with him, but in his mind, he was reliving that terrible place; and he hoped, in the telling of it, Avram would feel a little better.

Avram continued: "As if the cold, the hunger, the beatings and torture, and the sheer hopelessness weren’t enough, there was one guard who reveled in tormenting us.  He was relentless, always watching for an opportunity to increase our misery. There were others who were more physical, gave more beatings, even beat some to death, but this one guard just enjoyed our misery.  He didn't want to kill anyone; he wanted as many people as possible to be alive so he could enjoy tormenting them.

“Finally, we were liberated. I knew as soon as I could find my bride, life could begin again.  I went from place to place, always asking, always looking for my Gerda. Did I ever show you her picture?  She was so beautiful.” He pulled out a battered wallet and shared several pictures.  "Look at those eyes. Did you ever see such beautiful eyes? Anyway, after some months, I found out that she had died at the camp.  I was told that an aid group was assisting some of those who wanted to relocate, so I left for America. I wanted to be as far away from there as I could get.”

Avram stopped and looked up, seeming to be surprised that he was in the guest chamber with Father. But he continued his story.

“Not having a reliable job, things became more and more difficult. A few years after I had rrived here, I was ready to give up.  That's when a helper found me, just wandering. Looking ... for what I did not know.  He brought me here to the tunnels to recover.  I found family here, family that I hadn't had for so long.  A part of me died with my Gerda and will always be so, but the people of the tunnels helped me find a part of myself that was still able to live.  I eventually moved from the tunnels to an apartment house where other concentration camp survivors lived.  They also became like family.  I found purpose in my work, in being a helper to others.  My life was as good as it could be without my Gerda." He looked down and gently kissed the worn picture.

“Then, two days ago, a man walked up to me on the street.  He said, 'I know you.'  I looked at his face and couldn't place him. The man began to speak about concentration camps, and then I knew. He was that young guard who was so mean and enjoyed our misery so much.  I pushed him away and shouted, “You have the chutzpah* to even approach me, to dare to speak to me? You are dreck!* Never, ever let me see your face again!!! Do you understand me?" I turned and started to walk away. 

“By this time, the man had his hat in his hand. ‘Please, listen to me,’ he begged.  ‘I am changed.  I have given my life to the Lord and have pledged to spend it in repentance for the horrible things I have done.  I know I can't change what happened, but I need to ask forgiveness and have vowed to ask that forgiveness from anyone that I have harmed.  Could you please ....’ I cut him off, told him, ‘Do not EVER ... DARE ... to speak to me again!!!! You are nothing, you are a momzer*, the lowest of the low!!!! I wish you Meesa Masheena!!!!’”* At Father’s questioning look, he explained in great agitation, “A curse …‘I wish you a horrible death.’”

In the telling of this, Avram stood and paced the room.  His face was red with anger and pain.  “Father, it seemed like that man was stalking me.  I would turn and he was there.  I would be at the market, and he was there.  Then he approached me, and I stupidly turned into the alley…and there he was, still asking for forgiveness and saying he was SORRY!  Like his words could make a difference, like his words could restore my beautiful Gerda, could erase the memories of what he had done.  I never gave him anything but mean, ugly words.  I hated him and wanted him to know it.  The last thing I said to him was, “Ver derharget!!!”* Are you familiar with that term, Father?" he asked.  

Father shook his head, “No, Avram, I am not.  What does it mean?"

“It means, ‘Get killed’ … ‘Drop dead’.”  

“And then the stones,” Father whispered.

***

Catherine gathered her things at the end of the work day and told Joe that, since their case had solved itself, she was going home on time.  She said that as she was heading for the door, leaving him no time for argument.

On leaving the building, she hailed a cab and headed for Chinatown.

“Catherine!” she heard as she entered Henry and Lin’s restaurant, and Henry met her at the entrance. "Will someone be joining you?”

“I wish,” she answered with a grin that Henry returned, knowing what she meant. “But I’ll be joining him. I came to get a big order of Vincent’s favorite.”

“Lin says we should name it that on the menu.”

Catherine laughed and whispered, “And may I use your threshold?”

“Whatever you need. Sit wherever you’d like,” he answered as he ushered her into the restaurant. “It isn’t too busy yet, so it won’t be long. I’ll get your order in.” He turned back and added, “I’ll let Lin know you’re here. She’ll want to see you, too.”

Catherine talked to Lin for what seemed only a few minutes before Henry delivered a large bag. “I don’t think I ordered this much, Henry. Are you sure it’s the right order?”

“Come on back with us, and we’ll check on it.” As they walked toward the kitchen to take Catherine to their threshold, he told her, “I threw in a few other things that I know Vincent enjoys … and that shrimp appetizer that you like. Someone Below will make good use of it of the two of you don’t finish everything.” Taking Catherine to a storage room near the back door, he asked, “Do you know your way from here?”

“It won’t matter,” came a deep gravelly voice from the level below the floor. “I know the way.”

“I sent him a message to meet me here,” Catherine explained. She handed the bag back to Henry and swung herself over the threshold. After Vincent helped her down, Henry handed him the bag, and they parted in a brief flurry of thank-yous and good-byes.”

“You brought dinner?” Vincent asked

“I did. Can we go to the falls? We pass close on the way.”

“I’d like that. We have things to talk about and there shouldn’t be interruptions there.”

“I’m sorry I was so impatient. It wasn’t fair to you. I need…”

“I should apologize, too. I could have stayed and discussed it, but I simply laid down the rules and walked away.”

“We’ll work this out, Vincent.”

“Yes,” he agreed, taking her hand with his free one.

“I have good news,” she told him and saw him look at her expectantly. “The death has been ruled an accident, so it looks like your helper is off the hook.”

“That will be a relief to all three of us. Only Father and I know that Avram was a suspect. He seems determined to blame himself; but as yet, I don’t know why. He said he killed the man with his heart. I don’t entirely understand, but I think it has something to do with his experience in a concentration camp when he was in his twenties.”

“Then there are people he should meet, Mischa and Sophie among them. They might be able to help him.”

“He is with us for a day or two. You can talk to him later if you’d like.”

“First I’d like to have a quiet meal with you. It’s nice to have you to myself now and then.”

Vincent smiled and released her hand, bringing his arm up around her shoulders and squeezing lightly. “I enjoy that, too.         

As they arrived at their favorite spot at the falls, Catherine said, “I don’t think either of us will leave hungry. Henry seems to have added at least as much as I ordered … and included everything we need for a picnic."

Vincent spread his cloak on the ground, and they took out the food and filled their plates. He laughed at the wealth of extra mushrooms in the dish Catherine had ordered.

“It seems Henry remembered how much I enjoy these mushrooms.”

“Good thing I like them, too,” she joked. “I think he sent dessert, too.”

“I spotted that already,” Vincent answered with his little half smile and leaned against the rock wall close to Catherine.

“Let’s enjoy our dinner, then we’ll walk back and talk to … did you say Avram?”

“Yes. And I believe he’ll forgive us for taking this time for ourselves. He’s a good man, Catherine, a loving man with a good heart.”

“Then I look forward to meeting him,” Catherine answered, and Vincent impulsively planted a soft kiss on Catherine’s head before settling down to the serious business of consuming his mushroom-rich surprise and enjoying Catherine’s presence.

_____

*Reference link: http://www.sbjf.org/sbjco/schmaltz/yiddish_phrases.htm

 

 

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