Authors: Patty Friedmann
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Dramas & Plays, #Regional & Cultural, #European, #World Literature, #Jewish, #Drama & Plays, #Continental European, #Literary Fiction, #Historical, #Fiction, #Novel, #Judaica, #Jewish Interest, #Holocaust, #New Orleans, #love story, #Three Novellas, #Jews, #Southern Jews, #Survivor’s Guilt, #Family Novel, #Orthodox Jewish Literature, #Dysfunctional Family, #Psychosomatic Illness
New Orleans, La.
Copyright 2010 by Patty Friedmann
Cover by Nevada Barr
Mobi ISBN: 978-0-9829997-4-5
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First booksBnimble Publishing electronic publication: October 2010
Digital Editions (Kindle, iPad, Nook and others) produced by:
Interior design by Rickhardt Capidamonte for BookNook.biz.
Email us at:
I'm sure I'm not the first person who's come to America and felt ambivalent about giving an oral history. On the one hand, I am pleased to be included and feel deeply the importance of having my story available to succeeding generations. I haven't sensed that I was a person of significance in the great sweep of history—or in the narrower context of Southern history. Or especially in the narrowest confines of what has been my immediate world. But I wish to speak. For this reason I want to participate.
On the other hand, I know that stretching back through memory will be a painful exercise, and I have avoided doing so for a long time. I am going to look at a past I haven't brought to conscious mind almost since I lived in it. Because of that, I'm going to start off by introducing myself in the present. I think if I tell just a few things about "contemporary me" I will be ready to probe my younger self. It will be as if I'm protecting myself from the wrongs of the past by the parameters and comforts of the present.
So here are three simple facts about me that I've chosen because they say worlds about me without my having to explain a lot.
The $64,000 Question
is my favorite television show. That's one.
Second, I think the coincidence of Letty and me not knowing we passed each other at LeHavre the day war broke out is worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel. That's an excellent story. I'll allow Letty to tell it.
As for the third, if I tell my history, I'd like to make a special request that it will not be released for the public to hear or read until fifty years after I die. By then I'll be part of history, and right now I'm a father in the house with a twelve-year-old child. She doesn't have distance from me. In fifty years I trust my daughter will have seen enough. This is why I will not allow her to read Anne Frank's diary. As she grows into adulthood, she will learn about the war. But I don't want her learning about my story in front of me.
Those three facts describe the Bernie Cooper of now, of 1958. These aren't exactly demographic facts that would allow a descendant to say, "Oh, so that is where I got my artistic ability from" or "Oh, I know where that street is; let's go drive by." But these are three nuanced facts that, having been told, make it easier for me to look back.
It's true, I read Thomas Hardy. I can recall that it was when I was fourteen. I read him in translation, of course, but I read him independently, outside of school assignment. When I was sixteen, laws removed us from schools, so I never went to
, but I think I educated myself very well. A boy alone with books can get some surprising insights. I was my mother's boy, and I wasn't seeing a lot of behavior out among people, but I understood books well without instruction. I figured out how Hardy twisted plots around people not knowing what was going on nearby. I think today the poor man might have a job writing for television, but thank goodness he was British, so he wouldn't be writing for American television. Though I enjoy situation comedies. I like to think it's because of the irony, but I probably just enjoy the buffoonery.
One of my daughter Darby's favorite shows is
The Life of Riley
. Riley is comic-book fat. I don't ask her whether he reminds her of me. I've packed on quite a few pounds since I was a young man. We laugh about it at the table. Last week I made Darby a sandwich of cold breaded veal cutlet with purple onion and schmaltz on rye. "We're both going to have a heart attack," she said, and we laughed, that chicken grease on all our cheeks.
When I answer her questions about my childhood, I tell her that we were so poor that we had chicken-neck picnics, and afterward I would use the bones for jacks. I'm telling this because I'm not going to go that far back into the past. I think if I start in 1939, the year I almost met Letty, my story will show more of my life as a German Jew than I want to remember. One month in 1939 is more than I want to remember.
I know I live in the American South now, and that is what this history is supposed to be about, but I always will be a German Jew. Not a Jew in Germany, which was a crime punishable by death. Rather, I am a Jew with an accent and a tenth-grade education in the South, which is a crime punishable by contempt. I don't like thinking about that much, either, but I will.
* * *
My mother never wanted to know where I was that summer. Or that's what she said. But she always had been an old mother, so I didn't believe her. I'd never been able to learn the rules of mothers from watching my friends, because they were born at the right time in their mothers' lives. I would go into their houses and see wedding photos, and close by would be photos of their mothers holding them as babies, and the mothers hadn't changed. My mother was forty-eight when I was born. A girl child had died in infancy, and it had taken a wait of two decades to have me. Now it was 1939, and my father had been dead seven years, and my mother could pretend not to worry, and I could pretend to believe her.
I was twenty-two years old. In a different world I would have been married and living on my own. I would have been like those parents I saw in the photographs in my friends' homes, a few years past being a young groom, possibly with a baby. But society slowly had changed in the past six years, much the way life would be in Oran in
which I read after the war: we learned French before it became impossible to continue in school. We did not have a plague, of course, but we had more and more restrictions, less and less food, and those of us who remained felt no shame in how we lived our lives. A man my age who shared an apartment with his aging mother was a good man. I saw only one reason I would wish not to live there. It was painful, seeing her every day, having no escape from watching age and deprivation envelope her. I had a feeling I didn't hide my sadness from her. She knew me too well.
I came home in mid-afternoon, long before curfew. I had left early in the morning without eating, and now I was dry nauseated. My mother and I had not spoken of where I had been going. I would tell her I was seeing Mady, a girl I had known since childhood, but my mother had many friends still in the city: she might have known that Mady and her family had gone to England four months ago. In reality, I'd been waiting in line at the
It was a strange agency, promoting emigration to anywhere but Palestine.I would go and ask questions and consider my options and talk to my friends and never get up my nerve to talk to my mother. And then another friend would leave. And then the Reich took over the office, but I still went. Today I was ready to talk to my mother.
It was warm in the sitting room, with windows facing west. My mother kept the drapes open, but she didn't open the windows. Ever since November, when so much glass had been destroyed, my mother had been quietly cautious. We had not had a business since my father died and we sold his factory, but she was cautious. Sealing up the apartment gave some feeling of safety. Safety sometimes was terribly warm. That day she sat on the sofa in a silent room trying to cross stitch with only three colors of thread. She did not play the radio. "I don't like anything I hear on the radio," she said the one time I asked. Not even the music? "Especially not the music."
"I do not want to do this," I said, and I sat down next to her. I never cried, but I could feel tears. She was not going to see tears.
She looked up at me, let her hands stop working. She gave me a little smile. "Then don't do it."
"We have to talk about leaving," I said. I had practiced that one sentence all day, but it did not come out smoothly. I knew it was the most important sentence I ever was going to utter to her, and I didn't want it to come out. The subtext was that I had made up my mind.
"We can talk about it," she said. "But I'm a lot older than you are, so I hope you're prepared for my answer. I've lived in Stuttgart since I was a girl, and I've seen bad times before. This is all going to end eventually." My poor mother had been waiting for this talk, too. Her voice was clear, as if she were reciting.
What she said was what I'd heard for a while. It wasn't what I was hearing now. "There's going to be a war any day," I said.
"There was a war twenty years ago."
"No one wanted to get rid of us twenty years ago."
"Everyone always wanted to get rid of us," she said. Why was she afraid to say who "us" was in the privacy of our apartment? But then I was abiding by her code, too.
My mother was unschooled and superstitious, but she had just enough information to be a danger to herself.
"Mother, I've been to the
so many times. I've been in touch with Axel, who's in New York. I don't have facts, but I almost have facts." For a few seconds I'd been cold and factual, but now I was getting frantic.
"Ah, Boobi," she said, and she said it with such affection, "
is what you always brought home. I love you for
I extricated her hands from the thread and needle and cloth and held them in mine. They were so dry. She was seventy years old. "I've waited as long as I could, because I knew what you thought. But everyone is leaving. I need you to leave with me." Now I had tears.
She squeezed my hands. "Not everyone. I see my friends. Mina is here. Hilda, too. And others I don't know so well. I admit, I don't know much about the younger people. Maybe it's what we learn with age that keeps us here. But we know history. Besides, how can you think we can start new lives? Where else do people speak German? Not even in Palestine do people speak German."
"We can go to New York. They speak everything in New York. I could learn English, but you could find friends who speak German."
She looked thunderstruck. If I had said we would fly to the moon, I could not have said anything worse. Maybe if I had said the Netherlands, it would have been different, but I knew we had to get off the continent. And Axel was in America. Axel was going to help me if I could get to New York. Axel was going to help me
I got to New York. We'd always talked about going into business. We thought it was going to be in Stuttgart. Now it was going to be somewhere else.
"Everyone's rich in America. What would you do in America?" she said.
"We'd be rich." Axel already was rich, to hear him tell about it.
"Feh," she said. We'd been comfortable when my father manufactured high-end women's shoes. We never ate chicken necks—not even when the Reich started cutting back on our ration cards. Rich seemed like an impossibility for a woman who now was seventy.
I told her Axel could send an affidavit of support. Not from him, of course. Since he was a German, he was considered a resident alien even if he was you-know-what. But he had cousins with a nice Aryan-sounding name who'd vouch for us in what he called a New York minute. They'd promise money wired to a German bank.
"Axel is something of a bum," my mother said.
I had to smile. Axel always had had the largest blue eyes and spiky black hair that made even annoyed mothers fond of him. By the time he liked girls he had tamed that hair and everyone around him.
"Axel broke girls' hearts when he was sixteen," I said. "And Axel got beatings in school for his attitude. But that was when he was nine years old. Don't keep judging the man by the boy."