by Planaria Price

Love thy wife as thyself; honor her more than thyself.

He who lives unmarried, lives without joy.

If thy wife is small, bend down to her and whisper in her ear.

He who sees his wife die, has as it were, been present

at the destruction of the sanctuary itself.

—Rabbi Simon, the son of Lakish


kitchen-utensilsHelen, I have often talked to you about your grandmother, Hendla Libeskind. We named you after her, and to my delight, you look so much like her too. I’d always wanted to be a mother like her: loving, warm, caring, a strong and smart working woman who could also run the home, never too busy to be there for her children. But I only told you my memories from when I was a child. Those happy, magical times living in exciting, warm and welcoming Piotrokow Tribulinski, Poland. I talked about the beginnings only and stopped my stories the day the war came. Now, you ask me: What do I remember of my mama at the end? We had been locked in the ghetto for nine months and you want to know. What I remember is a year of such a dark, swirling fog of unbearable pain that I remember hardly anything at all.

Mama is stirring the potato soup and asks me to get her an aspirin. She has a headache. It is so hot and humid, and stirring the soup makes her hotter. Her face is bright red, and I am a little concerned. She brushes me away. “No! No, I’m fine. Nothing is wrong. It’s just too hot.” I go to the bathroom to find the aspirin, and when I get back, she is lying on the kitchen floor, the dripping soup spoon in her hand. I scream. My sisters, Hela and Regina, and cousins, Sprintza and Mendel, and Papa and my brother Beniek all come running; and we carry her to my bed in the living room.

She is burning hot. I bathe Mama with alcohol and keep putting cool compresses on her face. I open her blouse to put cool cloths on her breast, and I see the ugly truth. There it is. There is an angry red rash on her chest. Little red dots running all over those breasts that once fed and comforted her eight children. No! It’s not possible! For nine months we have checked all of our clothes and hair and seams. Not one louse has been found in the apartment. We have boiled and cleaned and boiled and cleaned for nine months. How can this be? Mama cannot be sick.

We fear spreading the typhus. Like every family in this overcrowded ghetto, our apartment is immediately quarantined. So, for the next two weeks, I alone care for Mama all day and sleep with her each night. I know this puts me in a greater danger of catching it too. I try not to think about it. But Mama is getting worse. So, with most of the little money we have left, we hire a nursing nun from the hospital to come every day. Sister is very gentle and kind. She bathes Mama and tries to make her comfortable. Mama is so weak. She has no strength to talk, to hold up her head, to smile. The Rabbi says that the name of this disease comes from the Greek word typhos, meaning smoky, and that is how Mama’s brain and body must feel. Wispy and weak and foggy and smoky.

When the sister leaves in the evenings, I get into bed with Mama, and I murmur soothing words to her before falling asleep myself. Then one night I say, “Mama, I’m going to sing to you.” There is a little smile on her face. I realize that even through the smoke and fog of her fever, she must be remembering my teenage humiliation at summer camp. We were singing and dancing and I was having such a great time, when Heniek said to me, “Gucia, you really have a terrible voice!” I was mortified and so heartbroken that Heniek would say that to me, and I never sang again from that time on. But now I will try anything that might bring Mama comfort. And I sing “Gadolf’s Rein,” the song she always sang to us as children:

I don’t need fancy dresses

I don’t need money

I need only my beautiful children

To conquer the world.

I sing this lullaby over and over, thinking what Mama sang is true. Even with the nightmare of this war and our cramped, hungry and horrible life in the ghetto and the murderous Nazis and their guns and vicious dogs, as long as we have each other, our world still belongs to us. As I lie there and sing with my terrible voice, Mama puts her hot, hot hand on my head.

Sister tells me she is going to go to Ogrod Bernardinski, the park on Slowackkiego Street, outside the ghetto. “Praise God that it is July,” she says. “The lindens are beginning to bloom, and they are the sacred tree of the Blessed Mother.” She is going to gather blossoms to make linden tea. It will make Mama sweat and break her fever. I envy Sister for being free to walk wherever she wants without applying for special permission or having to wear that hated blue and white armband announcing that we are Jews. The idea of just strolling to the park any moment you feel like it—that life is over. But even just imagining the lindens, so magnificent this time of year, and their sweet smell soothes and calms me a bit. I pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (hoping Mother Mary might overhear) that the tea will work. Sister boils the water and throws in the blossoms, and I find a little bit of honey still left in the old bee hive of the apple tree. But Mama cannot swallow anything. We try many times, spooning little drops of the healing tea into her mouth, but it just dribbles back out. “Maybe tomorrow,” says the sister, and leaves for the day.

I climb into bed with Mama and sing to her. It’s now been three weeks since Mama fainted on the kitchen floor, the potato soup ladle in her hand; and even though I keep putting cool cloths on her, she is still so hot. She thrashes around, and her eyes are glassy. But the rash is gone. It is sweltering hot outside. Maybe it’s not the fever at all, but just the summer heat and humidity. I feel hot too and exhausted; and a little sick, weak, shaky. By midnight Mama seems to settle down. She swallows a drop of the linden tea. I go out and share this tiny glimmer of hope with the rest of the family. Until now the risk of contagion has kept everyone out of the room, but Papa can’t stand it anymore. He sticks his head in the bedroom doorway to talk to her, and I leave them alone for a while. When Papa leaves, I crawl into bed with Mama. I wish I could hold her burning, trembling, bone-thin body close to mine, the way she would comfort and hold me and all her children when we were little.

She is so hot and her skin so sensitive, holding her would not be soothing but only add to her suffering. “Mamashi,” I chant, “please get well. We need you.” I am beyond tired but, somehow, drift off to sleep.

Suddenly I wake with a start. It’s already dawn. I see a little bit of sunlight and hear some birds singing. And Mama is so much better. Her fever has broken during the night. She is cool. The tea must have worked. I hug her and then I realize. She is not cool. She is cold. Ice cold. I scream. “Mama! Mama! Mama!”

Everyone in the house comes running. But it’s over. My Mama, the person most dear to me in all the world, is dead.

* * *

Where am I? I have left my body. Look, there is Gucia. Down there. She is giving her Mama that one last bath. Gucia is like a machine making jerky little actions. There are no tears. She dresses her Mama in a lovely white gown. Auntie Sura comes and covers the mirrors with white cloth, so the Angel of Death can’t see his reflection, get angry at his ugliness, and take others. Gucia’s uncles and cousins come to join Papa and her brothers to make up the ten menneeded to say the prayers for the dead. We praise God that my brothers, Josek and Idek, can be with us. They have been trying to volunteer for work at the glass factories of Kara and Hortensia and the woodworking camp in Bugaj, where strong young men can gain safety from the Nazis as “essential workers.” If they’d been chosen, we would have been mourning Mama without her two oldest sons to say Kaddish,the special prayer for the dead.

Papa is another machine, just like Gucia. He moves like a robot. There is no one left inside, just a hollow shell. He makes the sounds of prayer, but there is no meaning to his words.

Did people come to visit? To pay their respects? Helen, I don’t know. I simply can’t remember. There have been so many deaths; this is just another one for the ghetto. But for our family, this is the beginning of the end of our world. Do we walk the two miles to the cemetery? Yes, now I remember. Four Jewish policemen escort us, because the Jewish cemetery is outside the ghetto, and we need special permission to bury our own Jewish mother in her own Jewish grave. We place Mama next to her two baby daughters, our redheaded sisters, Rifka and Chanusck. Do we come back home to the ghetto after the funeral? Does the rabbi tear the right side of my dress to show my mourning? It must have been, but it’s all such a blur. I know I went through the motions of comforting a sobbing Regina, because I remember envying her. She is able to cry. I feel empty inside. When I try to remember what is happening to Papa, I go blank.

The weeks pass into months, and I feel like the Gucia I used to be has died with Mama. I care nothing for life. The only actions I take are the duties of caring for the family, the housekeeping that Mama used to do. I go out every day to find rotten potatoes and wilted cabbage and wrinkled carrots. Is there still bread to be found? It hardly matters. Even though we are starving, the bread is so coarse and black and awful, it almost makes you gag to swallow it. My poor family. Now they have to depend on me to feed them. The only thing I know how to make is potato soup. And that’s what we eat—or at least what I call what we eat—day after day. In October, Josek and Idek go to work at the labor camp at Bugaj. I didn’t think the house could feel more empty, but it does. I do nothing. I just wait for what comes next—not caring, not caring about anything at all.

Helen, now I know why I didn’t catch the typhus from Mama, that it wasn’t a miracle at all. We thought it was so terribly contagious from person to person. We didn’t know that you had to be bitten by a louse. That I was the one to take care of her, there was really no choice, and I felt it was an honor. Your Aunt Hela had to protect herself for Marek, who was only four, and I was the next daughter. I will always cherish the deep intimacy of those last days of my mother’s life, and the chance to repay a little bit of all the love and care she had given to me. And when I think of it, her death saved her from the later horrors of the emptying of the ghetto, and extermination camps. Helen, maybe I never would have fled the ghetto if Mama had still been there. Maybe her death gave me life.



Category: Short Story