I thought about a question I was asked by a once close friend right after my father died. “Did you let him have it?” he asked, “did you tell him off for good one last time?”
The question struck me as insane. I answered him that my father’s death had been about him, not about me. He was the one who was dying, I said, and I’d done what I could to make his passing easier. I cannot imagine the difficulty of leaving this fucked up world.
“Well, you acted like a mensch,” said the skeleton of my father, “and you helped me a lot in those last hours and I am forever grateful, if such can be said by a dead man.”
I’m wondering now if I was too hard on you, judging you so harshly all those years for telling me to suck it up and be a goddamned man, when I was eight or so, and sick to heart after learning about the murder of everyone in our family left in Europe.
“You were not too hard on me, what I did was inexcusable. Even if you can understand it now, more than fifty years later, it does not excuse my behavior. You were a boy, a sensitive kid, and had just learned about the most nightmarish thing any child can learn: in this world there are gangs of laughing people who will murder whole families of people and dance over their dead bodies. Across history, and in my lifetime, many of these gangs have been delighted to kill Jews, like our family. What kind of world is that?
“You go on a class trip to the United Nations and get the pep talk about a new world risen from the ashes of World War Two, a world where diplomats will now work together to keep the peace. While they’re working together to keep the peace there are gangs of laughing people murdering huddled victims all over the globe. At the U.N. brows are furrowed, ancient enemies debate who deserves to be avenged by mobs with crude but deadly weapons, resolutions are blocked by powerful nations. There has been more widespread war and mass murder since Hitler than ever before. It’s just what homo sapiens does. When in doubt, wipe ’em out. Put your finger anywhere on a world map, chances are pretty good there are armed gangs killing another group of people.
“But, as I mentioned the other day in connection to my mother’s life, I was terrified to think about it very much. I was afraid to think about it at all. I was the man in the house and I was supposed to be strong, go out and hunt and bring home the food. I was frightened that if I opened that door to the horrors of the recent past I’d never be able to close it.”
I can understand that. I searched for hours yesterday for any clue about the doomed little hamlet your uncle and later your mother escaped from. Not a trace of it on the internet. How is that even possible? A settlement across the river from Pinsk, seventy years after people lived there, gone without a murmur? Of the tens of thousands of Jews who lived in Pinsk we have the grim statistics, the dates on which the “aktions” took place, how many were killed, etc. We presume they marched your mother’s family off to be shot with the rest of the Jews in the area, took a giant rake and raked the muddy little hamlet into the nearby swamp.
“Well, you see, that’s what I couldn’t consider. I never met my Uncle Yudel, Aunt Chaska, Uncle Volbear. Only Yudel ever made it to the United States. Aren sent for him at one point, then Yudel got sick. ‘America is no place for a sick man,’ Aren told him, ‘here you have to work’, and he sent him back to Truvovich where he eventually met the fate of everyone else back there. Yudel came to America and was sent back before I was born. I never even heard the story until Eli told it to you.
“I don’t know whether it’s a blessing or a curse for you, and you probably don’t either, having an endless hunger for these kinds of details. You seem to have an ability to probe into these things without screaming. That, coupled with too much time to probe…. I literally can’t imagine the torment of that. I always worked two jobs; when I wasn’t working, I was exhausted. When I had a little energy I’d read the Times cover to cover, listen to the news, read one of the many left wing publications that were published back then. Then, thank God, it was time for me to go to work.
“Whatever I may have thought of the fate of my aunt and uncles, of my grandparents (who were probably long dead before the local anti-Semites got a crack at them), of the earlier life of my mother, it was like the twitch of a horse’s ear. I’d flick away the thought like a horse flicking away a black fly. Really, what is the point of imagining such painful things? Better to work.”
Arbeit Macht Frei, baby. You know, I understand that this is the way of the world.
“If I may cut you off, you are working right now as you tap out these words. You have always worked, you just don’t get paid most of the time, or you’re paid pennies on the dollar. You work in silence and your work is greeted with queasy, confused silence. I don’t know how you do it. Nobody who thinks about it for a minute knows how the hell you do it, or why you do it. I’m not looking for your explanation, I’m just sayin’” said the skeleton.
Fair enough. Not everybody has the stomach for what I do. I don’t seem to have a choice, it’s what I was designed to do. Part of it is being kept in the dark about the most compelling parts of the story. I have to fucking know. Knowing won’t give me much, I know that too. But I have to know everything I can.
“You poor, poor bastard. And I did this to you,” said the skeleton.
Well, don’t be too hard on yourself. You couldn’t consider the things I am working with, they would have reduced you to sobbing helplessness. You leave all that to your over-sensitive little son, it’s fine. I got it. I will always have it.