Authors: Lily Brett
Things Could Be Worse
Lily Brett is the internationally acclaimed author of six novels, four collections of essays, and nine volumes of poetry. She has been the recipient of many literary awards, including France's Prix MÃ©dicis Ãtranger in 2014 for her novel
Brett was born in Germany in 1946 to two Auschwitz survivors. When Lily was a small child, she and her parents migrated to Australia as refugees. She started her writing career in the 1960s as a journalist for an Australian rock music newspaper. She interviewed scores of musicians, some of whom became legends, such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger.
Today Lily Brett lives in New York City with her husband, the painter David Rankin, who created the illustrations for
Things Could Be Worse
. Brett's work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, and life in New York City.
By the same author
You Gotta Have Balls
Too Many Men
Just Like That
What God Wants
Only In New York
Between Mexico And Poland
In Full View
Wenn wir bleiben kÃ¶nnten (If We Could Stay)
Liebesgedichte (Love Poems)
Mud In My Tears
In Her Strapless Dresses
After The War
Poland And Other Poems
The Auschwitz Poems
For David, forever
It Was After The War
It was only after the war that Renia Bensky became obsessed with death.
In Germany in 1945, Renia had contemplated suicide. Her baby son was dead. Her mother and father were dead. Her grand-parents were dead. Her brothers and sisters were dead. Her aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces were dead. Everybody she had belonged to was dead.
Her girlfriend, Basia, after surviving Stutthof and Auschwitz, had thrown herself off the top of a five-storey building. But Renia Bensky was too tired to die.
She sat in the barracks of the displaced persons camp and sewed. A British soldier had given her part of an old parachute. Renia was making a blouse for herself and a skirt for Rooshka, the young girl in the next bunk.
Rooshka screamed for her mother every night. As soon as Rooshka began, Renia would run out of the barracks with her hands clamped over her mouth. She was frightened her own screams would fly out.
The rhythm of the stitching reassured Renia. The skirt was taking shape. Some things were still predictable.
Renia didn't know where her husband was. She had been separated from Josl when they arrived in Auschwitz. She learnt later that he had been sent to a labour camp. Lists of the dead and the living were posted up regularly in the DP camp. Every day, Renia read the lists. But Josl's name had not yet appeared. Renia didn't know if Josl was alive. She didn't know if she was alive.
Renia was suffering from a bad cold the day she found out that Josl had survived. She hadn't had a cold in her whole year in Auschwitz. Nobody had had a cold. There had been plenty of typhoid, and the Gestapo recorded diseases among the prisoners that had previously been seen by the SS doctors only in medical textbooks. But there were no cases of the common cold. Now Renia's nose dripped, her voice was hoarse and she had a harsh cough.
She could hardly look at Josl when they met. She felt separated from him by what she had seen, and what she had breathed. She felt poisoned. She could hardly accept who she was now. Her new knowledge was embedded in her. It seeped through her every thought. Sometimes it attacked her in her sleep and she would wake up crying. She knew it would always be like this.
How could she embrace Josl? How could she let him embrace her? She was not Renia Bensky, wife of Josl Bensky. She was someone else. She was a stranger to Josl. She was a stranger to herself.
Josl looked almost the same as when she had last seen him. He was much thinner, but he had the same childlike, optimistic smile that used to make her want to cry. He looked at her quietly for a few minutes. Renia now saw that he looked exhausted. He kissed her on the cheek.
In Auschwitz the prisoners were pressed so closely together on the bunks that they could only turn over if the whole row turned together. Often prisoners' vomit or diarrhoea dripped through the bunks.
In Germany after the war, when Renia watched Jewish girls flirting with soldiers, she wondered how they could think that there was any comfort to be had from somebody else's body.
When Renia kissed Josl, he wept. She knew that he understood something. She didn't know what. She went to her barracks and vomited and vomited. Josl sat silently and watched her vomit.
When she arrived in Australia in 1948, Renia Bensky hated it. Melbourne was so empty. And the food! The cheese tasted like wax, and the bread was like cotton wool. The people at the Jewish Welfare Agency were kind. They found the Benskys a room in Brunswick, and gave them a bed, four blankets and two pillows. But Renia felt so alone. More alone than she'd felt in Auschwitz. More alone than she'd felt in the ghetto.
Renia and Josl were taken out by Josl's cousin, Max Borg, who had come to Australia in 1933. Max's friends, who were mostly assimilated Jews, looked at Josl and Renia strangely. Renia felt that she was an embarrassment to Max's wife, Esther.
Max and Esther were lesser lights in the Jewish social life of Melbourne. Renia could see that Esther looked down on her. One of the first things Esther had said to Renia was: âYou should buy yourself an Australian dress. Here it is called a sunfrock. It will help you look like an Australian. We Jews are just beginning to be accepted, and you shouldn't cause trouble for us. Last week the bank manager did come to us, to our house, for a cup of coffee. He had coffee and a piece of cake, and he saw that we are normal, just like everybody else. It is important to be normal.'
Josl tried to tell Max what had happened to Max's niece in Poland, but Max stopped him. âI know, Josl, she had a terrible time. You know, Josl, we didn't have it so easy here in Melbourne during the war. We couldn't get any herring. It wasn't so easy.'
Renia tried once to talk to Frieda. Frieda was the nicest of Esther's friends. Frieda had taught Renia to make gefilte fish, and she always talked to Renia with tenderness in her voice. âFrieda, do you know that I saw some terrible things in Poland,' Renia said one day. âIn concentration camp, I wanted to keep living so I could tell somebody what I saw.' Frieda interrupted her. âRenia darling, it is over now. You are here, safe in Australia. It is best to put those things out of your mind. It is best not to disturb yourself with those thoughts.'
Esther's daughter, twelve-year-old Rivka, once asked Josl why he had big holes in his back. Renia and Josl were at St Kilda beach with the Borg family. Josl began to answer. âIt was â¦' he began. Esther grabbed Rivka by the arm with such ferocity that the girl began to cry. She dragged Rivka away. Fragments of Esther's conversation with Rivka floated over the tea-trees. âHe could have a heart attack if he talks about such things. You should know better.' Rivka returned red-faced and swollen-eyed.
After one month in Australia, Renia wanted to leave. But she had nowhere to go to. She remembered how she had begged Josl to get them out of Germany. From the moment Josl and Renia were reunited, all Renia's thoughts were focused on leaving Europe. She hated Germany. Every German sounded like a Kommandant. Josl gave her ten American dollars for her twenty-third birthday. With her birthday money, Renia bought four extra locks for the door of the room they were renting in Bayreuth. When Renia found out that she was pregnant, she bought another two locks.
One morning Renia was alone in the room. She was stitching the edges of a square of woollen material to make a blanket for the baby. The baby was due in one month. At a quarter past ten there was a soft knock at the door. Renia silently walked to the cupboard next to the bed. She got in and closed the cupboard door behind her. When Josl came home at half past six, Renia was still sitting in the bottom of the cupboard.
Josl would have been happy to stay in Germany. For a while, at least. He was doing business on the black market and making a little money. With his first bit of profit he bought Renia a black leather jacket. He felt so proud when he looked at Renia in her new jacket. It was a moment of pure joy. Josl thought that there couldn't be many higher levels of happiness than the happiness he felt looking at Renia in her leather jacket.
The rations that Josl and Renia received in Germany were enough to keep them from starving, but not enough to stop them being hungry. Josl began looking for ways to make more money.
He felt alive. He was no longer tired. He had a beautiful wife, and a child on the way. He had something to live for. God had given him a second chance. Nothing could stop him now.
Josl discovered a supply of extra food. The US army base. Josl waited outside the mess hall. When the soldiers had finished their meals, they scraped their plates into a large rubbish bin. Josl took the best scraps from the bin. He took potatoes, carrots, sausages. Sometimes he was lucky enough to find eggs. The food was so tasty. He carried it home, trimmed some of the chewed edges, and arranged the food nicely on plates. Josl never told Renia where this bounty came from.
Josl's business dealings with the US base expanded. He began buying cigarettes from the soldiers. He sold the cigarettes at a substantial profit. Josl used this profit to buy more cigarettes, and then some tea and coffee and chocolates.
He decided to branch out further. He hid himself on a freight train going to Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. There he did some shopping. He invested the bulk of his money in small electric hotplates.
Josl sold the hotplates to the Americans for cigarettes. He sold the cigarettes to Germans, who paid for them in Allied marks. Josl sold the Allied marks to the Americans for US dollars.
He bought an Opel Kadett. It was black, snub-nosed and very shiny. Josl hadn't driven a car for six years. He thought he would burst with pride when he first drove Renia around Bayreuth.
He bought a small white fur coat for baby Lola. This coat would keep her warm in the coldest winter. And he bought a small diamond for Renia. A new engagement ring. A new engagement with the future.
One day Josl was stopped by an American military policeman. The military police, Josl always told Renia, were gangsters, not normal people. âYou just have to look at them and you can see they are not normal,' he would say. âWhat normal person wants to be a military police? And they are all so big. Big gangsters. Big criminals. That's what they are.'
The military policeman accused Josl of driving over the speed limit. The Kadet didn't go over sixty kilometres an hour, but Josl didn't argue. He was wondering what he would have to pay this giant to avoid being charged with speeding when the MP ordered him out of the car.
Josl knew he was done for. It took the MP two minutes to find the kilo and a half of butter that Josl had hidden in a box of old papers. Grinning with delight, the MP said, âToday I am in a particularly good mood. If you eat this butter up now, in front of me, you can go home a free man. I will not report you for trading on the black market.' Josl ate the butter. He was sick for a week afterwards.
Every day Renia asked Josl when they could leave Germany. She begged him not to do business on the black market. Each time Josl travelled to Czechoslovakia, Renia prepared herself for news of his death.
Finally, Josl couldn't bear to keep Renia in Germany any longer. They packed up. Josl gave his business tips to his old friend Moishe Mittelman, and Renia, Josl and Lola set off for Australia.
Moishe Mittelman remained in Bayreuth for another three years. In 1951 he migrated to America. He arrived in New York with $50,000.
Soon Renia Bensky became acclimatised to Australia. She no longer felt blinded by the harsh light. She owned sunfrocks and sunglasses. In the summer of 1948 she bought a pair of bathers.
Renia's next-door neighbour, Mrs Brown, taught her how to make an apple pie, and soon Renia's apple pies were the toast of many Sunday card evenings.
Renia became patriotically Australian. She hummed âGod Save The King', and wouldn't let anyone voice any criticism of the country or its people.
Renia began to feel happy. At the same time, a new feeling edged its way into her consciousness. She felt that she was going to die.
In bed at night, Renia began to feel small pains in her chest. She went to see Dr Johnson. He examined her and sent her to the Women's Hospital for tests. âThere is nothing wrong with you,' he told Renia. âI think, Mrs Bensky, it's your nerves. It is definitely not your heart. Why don't you relax a bit? Do you have a dog? I find that taking the dog for a walk takes my mind off things. Why don't you get a dog?'
Then Renia's periods became irregular. In Auschwitz, Renia had been grateful that her periods had stopped. Her first and only period there had left her with blood-streaked legs and feet. Now, Renia was sure that this irregularity was a symptom of something terminal. Dr Horowitz was kind to her. âMrs Bensky,' he said, âwe usually only worry when women bleed too much. Irregular and slight periods are nothing to worry about.' Renia's next period was so heavy and painful that it reminded her of her adolescence.
Renia began to diagnose and prescribe remedies for herself. Her bathroom cupboards contained antibiotics, antihistamines, diuretics, tranquillisers and sedatives. She lectured friends on the difference between a viral and a bacterial infection, and sometimes dispensed medicines to them.
âI won't live long. You won't have me forever,' Renia used to say to Lola. Sometimes she screamed at Lola: âYou are killing me. Hitler didn't manage to kill me, so you want to finish me off. You will cry on my grave.'
Renia went to a lot of funerals. She went to the funerals of people she hardly knew. She went to the minyans. She looked after the bereaved. But it was not enough. Renia couldn't feel as though she had buried her dead.
During the day, Renia was not alone. She carried the cries of orphans in the ghetto, and demented mothers, and lost fathers. At night when she went to bed all the dead came to visit her. The dead were all unburied. They were all in limbo. Renia often screamed in her sleep. Her screams were the screams of dying Jews. The screams had left the bodies of the dead and lodged themselves in Renia Bensky.
At lunchtime at the Renee of Rome factory, the machinists ate in the staff kitchen. They shared cups of tea, sandwiches, sadnesses and happiness. Renia liked the women. All the sewing machines were pushed together in one corner of the factory, and Renia felt snug sewing in the middle of that crowd of machines. But at lunchtime Renia stood out in the hallway, in the dark corridor on the fourth floor, in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Australia, and talked to her mother.
âWhere are you, Mama? Are you in the air here in Australia? Or did you stay in Poland? I am frightened, Mama, that one day I won't be able to remember your face. Mama, there are no photographs. No photographs of you and Papa. No photographs of Shimek and Abramek, Jacob or Felek. No photographs of Bluma or Fela or Marilla. I tried to go with you, Mama, but somebody knocked me on the head and pushed me into the other line. The line of life, Mama. I don't know if you saw, Mama, I don't know if you knew that I didn't want to leave you. Oh, Mama, I am so lonely.'