THIS was not the first time that the father-and-son team Maurice and Norman Messer, respectively chairman of the board and president of Holocaust Connections, Inc., had traveled home from Poland, but it was definitely the saddest. In all their business dealings for clients they had always come through with flying colors, which was how they had built their enviable reputation and their legendary success. But this time, in a most painful personal matter involving an exceedingly close member of their immediate family, indeed, the very future of their line, they had failed completely. Nechama, only child of an only son, had absolutely refused to see her father or her grandfather, either one-on-one or in any constellation. In any case, as they were categorically informed, she had taken a vow of silence. This was communicated to the two men by a matronly nun in sunglasses, who came to meet them outside the gate of the Carmelite convent—the new convent, that is, a little farther back from the perimeter of the Auschwitz death camp, to which the nuns had moved after all that fuss. "Sister Consolatia asks that you respect her right to choose," the nun told them with finality, in English, though Maurice of course knew Polish. Hearing the signature phrasing, the Messers, father and son, could not deceive themselves that this was anything other than a direct quotation from their apostate offspring, their lost Nechama, now reborn as Sister Consolatia.
Nevertheless, despite their unquestionably genuine and heartbreaking disappointment, they made themselves comfortable, as usual, in their ample seats in the first-class compartment of the LOT airplane. They always flew Polish, as a matter of policy, to maintain healthy relations with the government with which they had so many dealings; and they always flew first class, because to do otherwise would be unseemly for men like themselves, steeped as they were in such nearly mythic tragic history, a history that set them apart from ordinary people and therefore required that they be seated apart. And from a practical, business point of view, to go economy would look bad, as if their enterprise were falling on hard times. Everything in their line of work, naturally, hung on image. "Look," as Norman formulated it, with the pauses and swallows that usually heralded the delivery of one of his aphorisms, "we already did cattle cars. From now on it's first class all the way." Clients expected a premium operation from the Messers, and were billed accordingly. This trip, for example, had been paid for by an anti-fur organization that was eager to firm up its honorary Holocaust status, and Norman had managed, even in the midst of his private anguish, to do a little work for them, still in its early stages, admittedly, involving the creative use of the mountains of hair in the Auschwitz museum, shorn from the gassed victims—a ghoulish idea on the face of it, which he was now massaging and dignifying in order to establish the relevant ethical connection that would ennoble the agenda of the fur account and give it that moral stamp of the Holocaust.
By now, of course, father and son knew all the flight attendants on the airline. Maurice persisted in referring to them, politically incorrectly, as "hoistesses," a teasing liberty for which he took the precaution of propitiating them, just in case, with little offerings from the luxury hotels of Warsaw and Krakow—miniature shampoos or scented soaps from the bathrooms, chocolate hearts wrapped in gold foil plucked off the pillows. He squeezed and harassed their vivid blondeness and springy buxomness hello and good-bye and thank you, muttering, "Don't worry, girls, don't worry, I'm safe."
"And he gets away with it, too," Norman painstakingly and unnecessarily explained to his wife, Arlene, "because he's this cute little tubby old bald Jewish guy with pudgy hands and a funny accent, and the dumb chicks from Czestochowa, they think he's harmless—big mistake, ladies!—so it turns into a stereotypical Polish joke."
They boarded the plane ahead of the common passengers, wearing to the very last minute their trademark trench coats—the sexy semiotics, as Maurice and Norman interpreted it, of international mystery and intrigue. Then one of the attendants, Magda or Wanda or someone, without even inquiring, her brain imprinted with their preferences as if the storage of such information were her reason for existence, glided forward with a welcoming smile such as had long vanished from their wives' repertoires, bearing in front of her two living and breathing breasts a tray with their usual—for Maurice, a glass of Bordeaux ("I'm a red-wine male," he liked to confide urbanely at official functions), for Norman, rum with Coca-Cola, two containers of chocolate milk, and a dozen bags of honey-roasted peanuts.
FOR a long time they sat side by side in silence, each with his own thoughts, perfectly at ease with the other, apart yet joined, Norman tearing open with his teeth pack after pack of the peanuts, pouring them out into the ladle of his palm, jiggling them around like dice, and then, with his head tilted slightly back, dumping them into his mouth with a smack. He went on doing this automatically, mechanically. Dispatching the nuts this way was okay when he traveled alongside his father. The old man didn't mind, most likely didn't even notice; like most survivor parents, he probably just registered gratefully that at least his son was eating, and for Norman, it was a stolen pleasure, because this was not a snacking style in which he could ever have indulged had he been with his wife or daughter. That robotic, cranelike up-and-down motion of his arm drove the two of them crazy; they could feel its vibration even if they weren't looking directly at him. Maybe that's why Nechama went into the convent, Norman speculated—because of his annoying habits.
As for Arlene, well, he was just not going to think about his upcoming meeting with her while he was masticating. He simply refused even to begin to plan how he would manage her on the Nechama problem when he got home, how he would confirm that, unfortunately, it looked, at least for the time being, as if this nun thing was a done deal. They could do nothing about it for the moment except, of course, to use Arlene's idiom, go on being supportive, love their daughter unconditionally, always be there for her, but, at the same time, they needed to allow time to grieve—figuratively grieve, that is, not actually go into mourning by sitting shiva for seven days, like those ultra-Orthodox fanatics when one of their kids converted—and then, of course, they'd need closure, they'd need to move on with their own lives, to let go of all this bad stuff, put it behind them, give the healing process a chance to work, blah blah.
"Look at it this way," he could say to Arlene. "The bad news is, it's a fact: she's a nun, so that makes her a Christian, I guess, a goy, a shiksa, even worse, a Catholic. We just have to face it. And also it's a problem, I suppose, that she had to go and pick that Carmelite convent right by Auschwitz, of all places, for her nun phase, where three quarters of our family were incinerated. Know what I mean? On the other hand"—and here he would slow down and suck in air for greater effect—"the good news is, she's safe, she has a guaranteed roof over her head and food to eat every day, guys can't bother her anymore, and, from a parent's point of view, we will now always know exactly where she is at all times."
Hey, he loved the girl as much as Arlene did, Norman thought resentfully. Why was he always the one on the defensive? Did he really need this added grief? Nechama was his daughter too, for God's sake. This whole mess was no less an embarrassment for him than it was for Arlene. Jesus, this could even impact their business, their lifestyle—you hear that, Mrs. Messer, hel-lo? How was it going to look, he demanded of his wife in his head: "HOLOCAUST HEIRESS DUMPS JEWS"? It was an emergency damage-control situation requiring a rapid response. He had to figure out some way to market this negative to their advantage, to turn it around—something like, you know, the ongoing trauma of the Holocaust, the continuing threat to our survival, the Holocaust is not yet over, et cetera et cetera.
No problem; he was prepared to deal with it. But there was one thing he wanted to know, just one thing—why was he always the one who had to be, as Arlene would put it, supportive, like some Goddamn jockstrap? Why couldn't she be supportive of him once in a while for a change? Had it penetrated her ozone layer yet that everywhere her poor schlump of a husband went, he was a big man, he was greeted like a hero? Was she cognizant of that fact? In Warsaw the women adored him, especially since he had lost all that weight; but the fact is, over there they had always loved him, they loved him in any shape or form, they loved him for himself. They came up to his hotel room carrying bouquets of flowers and bottles of champagne, with beautifully made-up faces and beautifully sprayed hair, in shiny high-heeled shoes and gorgeous real-leather mini-dresses with exposed industrial-strength steel zippers running from neck to hem—not that he carped the diem, needless to say. In the States they worshipped him, idolized him for his aura of suffering, like a saint, like a holy man out of Dostoevski. They revered him for never letting up on this miserable Holocaust business, for immersing himself in it every minute, for schlepping the Shoah around on his back day and night, for sacrificing his happiness to keep the flame going—not for his own health, obviously, but for the moral and ethical health of humankind. The anguish in his eyes, the melancholy in the set of his mouth, the manifest depression in the way he blow-dried his hair, the sorrowful awareness of man's inhumanity to man in the way he belted his trench coat—it turned them on, yes, it turned them on.
So big deal, his wife didn't appreciate him. So what else was new? She was happiest when he was away from home, that was obvious; she was delighted that his job required so much traveling. Fine, he could live with that, too, as long as somebody appreciated him, as long as someone somewhere was glad to see him once in a while and showed him a little respect. But it was another thing entirely to blame him for the whole fiasco. C'mon, was he the one who put the kid in the nunnery? Please! And why was he going home now, of his own free will, to listen to all that garbage? He must be meshugga. It was masochism, pure and simple, a sick craving for punishment—he should see a shrink. Did he have any doubts whatsoever about what Arlene was going to dump on him, with her squeegee social worker's brain and her prepackaged psychological explanations? Oh, it was an old song; he had heard it a thousand times already. She would start in again with the whole bloody litany—how it was all his fault, everything that had happened was his fault. Right from the start. First of all, what kind of sick idea was it to insist on naming a baby Nechama? A poor, innocent baby, to give her a name like Comfort, as in "Comfort ye, comfort ye, oh my people," like some sort of replacement Jew, like some sort of post-catastrophe consolation prize, as if they were all depending on her to make things right again after the disaster. Such a heavy load, such an impossible burden to saddle a kid with—no wonder the poor girl took herself out of this world. Did he think names don't matter? There was a whole literature on the subject, on the effect of names on development and identity and self-image. What kind of father would do such a thing to his own flesh and blood? It was criminal, unforgivable. Why couldn't she have been given a normal name, some sort of hopeful, pursuit-of-happiness American name that people could at least pronounce, like Stacy, or Tracy?
And then this whole second-generation business that he had gotten himself involved with, dragging Nechama along like some sort of archetypal sacrificial lamb, like Jephthah's daughter, like Iphigenia. As a matter of fact, Norman knew very well that most mental-health types just loved the second-generation concept. They ate it up. But Arlene—surprise, surprise—didn't believe in it at all. Why? It was completely predictable: because it served Norman's agenda, that's why, because it legitimized and explained his obsession, and gave it status. There was nothing in it for Arlene. As far as Arlene was concerned, second generation was a made-up category, an indulgence for a bunch of whiners and self-pitiers with a terminal case of arrested development. The so-called survivors were the first generation; they were the ones who had been there, had experienced it all firsthand, and after them came their children, this bogus second generation, the survivor proxies, these Holocaust hangers-on, Norman and company, throwing a tantrum for a piece of Shoah action. So all those tough, shrewd, paranoid refugees who came out of the war—you don't even want to begin to think about how they made it through—suddenly they get turned into sacred, saintly survivors with unutterable knowledge, and then the second generation, born and reared in Brooklyn or somewhere, far, far from the gas chambers and the crematoria, gets crowned as honorary survivors. Suddenly these lightweight descendants are endowed with gravitas, with importance, with all the seriousness and rewards that come from sucking up to suffering. What could be neater? All the benefits of Auschwitz without having to actually live through that nastiness.
And what did they do to deserve this honor, this second generation? What exactly are their suffering bona fides? Well, they had it rough, poor babies—they are victims too, you can't take it away from them. They suffered the psychic wounds of being raised by traumatized, overprotective parents with impossible expectations. They bore the weight of having to transmit the torch of memory, that kitschy memorial candle, from past to future. They endured a devastating blow to their self-esteem in consequence of the knowledge that their lives were a paltry sideshow compared with their parents' epic stories. It was sick, sick, pathetic—"Holocaust envy," a new term in the profession, coming your way soon in the updated, revised edition of DSM-IV. And to think that he would expose his own child to such a pathological situation—to think he'd go ahead now and render this acute condition chronic by prolonging the agony, by trying to pass the whole load on to Nechama like a life sentence, like indentured servitude, like guilt unto the tenth generation. Was it an accident, then, that she abandoned the Jews for the ultimate martyr religion, complete with vicarious suffering as its main value and a tortured skinny guy on a cross as its main icon? Was it an accident that she found her way back to the gates of Auschwitz? Had it never dawned on him where this morbid Holocaust fixation would lead?
"MAYBE we should've come with one of those deprogramming fellas," Maurice was now saying. "Maybe we should've climbed the wall from the convent like that crazy rabbi—what's his name?—when it used to be in the other building where they used to keep the gas in the war. Maybe we should've kidnapped her from the schwesters. "
Norman shook his head. "Bad idea, Pop." He swallowed portentously before elaborating. "It would have been disastrous for Polish-Jewish relations, a nightmare for Catholic-Jewish relations, not to mention curtains for business relations."
"Nu. Anyway, you have to be a younger man for that kind of monkey business, climbing walls. You know what I mean? And you're not so young anymore, Normie, ha ha, and I'm not in such good shape—like your mama says, svelte. I'm not so svelte like I used to be when I was a leader from the partisans and fought against the Nazis in the woods."
Norman had to catch his breath and squeeze the bridge of his nose to stem the keen rush of longing for his daughter that swept over him at that moment, as Maurice recited the familiar refrain in exactly those words about having been a partisan leader who fought the Nazis in the woods. It was a private joke between Norman and Nechama. They would mouth those exact words every time Maurice uttered them, flawlessly imitating his grimaces and gestures, mouth them behind the old man's back at gatherings with friends and family or even at the public speeches that he regularly gave in synagogues, community centers, and schools about his career as a resistance fighter, which he always began with the sentence "I'm here to debunk the myth that the Jews went like sheep to the shlaughter." Norman and Nechama would mouth this sentence, too, in fits of choking, mute hilarity. It was a harmless father-daughter ritual that had started when she was about eighteen or nineteen years old, after Maurice had given his standard talk, at Nechama's invitation, in her college's Jewish students' center, opening, as usual, with that sentence about the sheep-to-the-slaughter myth, and ending, as usual, by snapping smartly to attention when they played the Partisans' Hymn, "Never Say That You Have Reached the Final Road."
In a moment alone with Nechama during the reception following Maurice's talk, the two of them facing each other with their clear-plastic wineglasses filled with sparkling cider, as if playing a couple just introduced at a social gathering, Norman casually mentioned—in another context entirely, he forgot what—that of course nobody really knew exactly what Maurice Messer had done during the Holocaust except that he had hidden in the woods all day and stolen chickens at night. No shame in that, of course, under the circumstances. "You just gotta face it, kiddo," Norman went on, in the grip of something beyond his control, "he never shot in the woods—he shat in the woods!"
"You mean Grandpa wasn't really a partisan leader who fought the Nazis?" The child seemed genuinely shocked.
Norman raised an eyebrow. His daughter was not being ironic. Maybe he had gone too far this time. Maybe she really was an innocent; maybe she was just too fragile for this kind of realpolitik. Incredibly, it looked as if she truly hadn't fathomed until that moment that her grandfather's story was just an innocuous piece of self-promoting fiction. But when, after a long pause to absorb the new information, she mischievously blurted out, "Okay, Dad, I won't be the one to tell the Holocaust deniers that it's all made up," he breathed again with relief, impressed by how quickly she had caught on, how alert she was to where her interests lay and her loyalties belonged, how sophisticated she was in accepting human weakness as another amusing fact of life.
"Look," Norman intoned, "it's not as if he didn't really suffer. You think it's easy being considered a victim all the time, having people feel sorry for you—especially if you're a macho type like Grandpa? Who's going to be hurt by an old man's little screenplay starring himself as the big hero? Tell me that, please." He slowed down emphatically now to make way for the flourish. "The Holocaust market is not about to collapse due to one old man's inflations, trust me. Those loonies who say the whole thing never happened should not take comfort."
Should not take comfort, he had said—not take nechama. Anyway, it was from that time on, as he recalled it, that they engaged in their tradition of delicious mockery, all in affectionate fun, whenever Maurice warmed up and delivered his partisan spiel. It had evolved into their own personal father-daughter thing. And it was the memory of this innocent conspiratorial bonding with his child that took possession of him now and overcame him.
NU, Normie," Maurice was saying. "Yes or no? Why you not talkin'? You remember that hoo-hah with the schwesters at the convent with that crazy rabbi, like your mama calls him?"
Maurice, whenever possible, liked to quote his wife, to whom he gallantly conceded a superior mastery of English idiom and pronunciation, and whom he regarded as a nearly oracular source of common sense. For example, whenever the subject came up of that rabbi who had caused an international incident with his protest against the presence of a Catholic convent at Auschwitz, where a million Jews had been gassed—the very same convent in which, in a more acceptable location ordained by the Pope himself, their granddaughter Nechama was now a nun praying for the salvation of the souls of the Jewish dead—Blanche would open her eyes wide and exclaim, "But, darling, he's crazy!" In consequence, Maurice never failed, when referring to that event at the old Carmelite convent, to include the epithet "that crazy rabbi"—as if the rabbi's mental state were a genuine clinical diagnosis, because Blanche, with her peerless common sense, had declared it to be so. Common sense, in Maurice's opinion, was an exceedingly desirable quality in a woman, and there was a time when he had advised Norman to put it at the top of his list of qualities in choosing a mate. To which Blanche would always remark coyly, "When they tell you a girl has common sense, that's a code for not so ay-yay-yay—in other words, not so pretty." "Common sense together with pretty," Maurice would then chime in with alacrity, "just like mine Blanchie."
They discussed everything, he and Blanche, even the subjects they did not discuss. They discussed but did not discuss, for instance, their shared sense of the limitations of their Norman's capabilities. It was not an understanding that they cared to seal in words. But around the time they sold their ladies'-undergarments company, Messers' Foundations, from which they had made a more than comfortable living, the Holocaust had become fashionable, more fashionable even than padded brassieres and spandex girdles. At first the two of them had booked up their retirement by becoming leaders in the survivor community and popular lecturers on the oral-testimony circuit. The Holocaust was hot, no question about it. Blanche then urged Maurice to start the consulting business, Holocaust Connections, Inc., and to take Norman in as an equal partner. "Make Your Cause a Holocaust," as their smart-aleck Norman packaged it; he was just too much. It would be first and second generation working and playing together, an ideal setup, a perfect outlet for their Norman, the original futzer and putzer, as they lovingly called him, whose jobs until then, they agreed, had been totally beneath him, totally unsatisfactory and unchallenging. Now Norman could hang around all day long, talking creatively with clients on the telephone, holding forth with all his brilliant opinions, cracking his wicked jokes, writing an article now and then for a Jewish newspaper, traveling and schmoozing in diplomatic channels and the corridors of power with all the other politicians and insiders—the best possible use of his considerable gifts and talents. Unspoken was their shared sense that Norman needed their help, that fundamentally he was a weak person, that he could never manage on his own. Never mind that he had gone to Princeton University—Princeton, Shminceton!—where he had even taken part in a sit-in in the president's office for three days and nights, though his mother had marched right into the middle of that nonstop orgy to personally hand him his allergy medicine. Never mind that he had a law degree from Rutgers, where they trained poor schlemiels to become a bunch of creepers and crawlers. Never mind that he was an adult, to all appearances a grown man, with a social-worker wife and a beautiful but moody daughter. They knew in their hearts that if the war broke out tomorrow, their Norman would never make it. Without saying it out loud, they recognized that, unlike themselves, Norman would not have survived.
SURVIVAL—that was the bottom line. You couldn't argue with it. It was the fact on the ground that separated the living from the dead. That was the lesson they had struggled to drum into their Norman: first you survive, then you worry about such niceties as morality and feelings. When someone tells you he's going to kill you, you pay attention, you take him seriously, you believe him. You wake up earlier the next morning and you kill him. If you survive, you win. If you don't survive, you lose. If you lose, you're nothing. What is Rule No. 1 for survival? Never trust anyone. Suspect everyone. Take it as a given that the other guy is out to destroy you, and eat him alive before he gets the chance. Why had they survived? Luck, they always said. It was luck. But they didn't believe it for a minute. It was the accepted thing to say, so as not to insult the memory of the ones who hadn't survived, the ones who were now piles of gray ash and crushed bone that people stepped on. The real truth, they knew, was that they had survived because they were stronger, better—fitter. Look at the survivors today, the ones who had staggered out of the camps like the living dead. They were your classic greenhorns, eternal immigrants, afraid to offend by harping on the Holocaust—why make a federal case of it?—a bunch of nobodies until they had their consciousness raised by the survivor elite, by Blanche and Maurice's circle, the ones who survived with style, the fearless ones. "Me? I'm never afraid!" Maurice always said. It was his motto. Now, thanks to them, the Holocaust was a household word. They built monuments and museums. They were millionaires, big shots, movers and shakers. They ran the country. Survival of the fittest. Blanche had once read in a magazine that cancer cells were the fittest form of life, because they ate everything else up, they spread, they reproduced, they survived, they won. Maybe this wasn't such a wonderful example; maybe this didn't reflect so nicely on her and Maurice and the rest—to be compared to cancer. Cancer was bad, but in this world if you survive, you win, and if you win, you're good.
They were a formidable team, Blanche and Maurice Messer, a fierce couple, and proud of it. For their fortieth wedding anniversary Norman and Arlene had given them a plaque engraved with the words "Don't Mess With the Messers," which they hung in "Holocaust Central," their den off the living room, right above the composition that Nechama had written when she was eight years old, in third grade. The topic was "My Hero"; Nechama had chosen Maurice.
Grandpa had a gun in World War II. He killed bad Germans with the gun. He was a Germ killer. He saved the Jewish people. He loved the gun. He kissed the gun goodnight every night. He slept with the gun. After the war they gave Grandpa a ride on a tank. He was holding the gun. Then they took the gun away. Grandpa was sad. He cried because he missed his gun. So he married Grandma.
The teacher gave her only a "Fair" for this effort, but Blanche said, "What does she know? It's not by accident that she's a teacher," and she hung the composition, expensively framed, on the wall. "I'm the gun," she asserted defiantly. Maurice also didn't care much for this composition. "What for is she telling the ganze velt this partisan story? It's private, just for family." "What are you worrying about, Maurie?" Blanche said. "Every survivor is a partisan. Survival is resistance." "Don't be so paranoid, Pop," Norman said. "It's safe to come out of the closet now." Then, swallowing deliberately and pausing pregnantly, he added, "Ziggy and Manny and Feivel and Yankel, and everyone else who was with you in the woods in those days, they're all dead by now, may they rest in peace—and quiet."
Again, it was a question of survival, this time the survival of the Jewish people in an age of assimilation and intermarriage and the mixed-blessing decline of anti-Semitism in America—another Holocaust, frankly, even more dangerous in its way because it was insidious, underground. Blanche and Maurice would do anything to ensure Jewish survival. No effort or sacrifice was too great, and, as they knew very well, nothing could compare to the Holocaust for bagging a straying Jew; it was the best seller, it was the top of the line, it got the customer every time. Why did God give us the Holocaust? For one reason only: to drive home the lesson that once a Jew, always a Jew. You could try to blend in and fade out, you could try to mix and match, but it was all useless, hopeless. There was no place to hide, no way to run. Hitler would find you wherever you were and flush you out like a cockroach.
And what could be more effective in sending this message loud and clear than a partisan leader and his wife—herself a survivor of three death camps, maybe four, depending on how you counted—telling their story over and over again until they were blue in the face, pounding in nonstop, day and night, the lessons of the Holocaust. Whatever it took to beat in the message, even if it meant pushing themselves into the limelight in crude ways that ran thoroughly counter to their refined nature, even if it meant giving the misleading impression that they were exploiting the dead, they would do it, not for personal fame and glory, God forbid, but for the cause, because this was their mission. This was why they had been chosen. This was the reason they had survived. They were the first generation, the eyewitnesses. Norman was the connecting link. Nechama was continuity.
YES, continuity. She was their designated kaddish, their living memorial candle, the third generation. And now she was a Christian. This was tragic—tragic! How could it have happened? Who could ever have foreseen such an outcome? It was beyond human imagining. They had thrown everything they had into that girl. She had always been the ideal apprentice and protegé. She was, as Maurice used to say in his speeches, the spitting image of his mother, Shprintza Chaya Messer the guerrilla fighter, shot down by the Nazis during the roundup in Wieliczka while she screamed at the top of her lungs, "Fight, Yidalech, fight!"
To this day people still talked about Nechama's bat-mitzvah speech—how she had turned to address the ghost of the Vilna girl with whom she had insisted on being twinned with the words "Rosa, my sister, you were cruelly cut down by the Nazis during the Holocaust. You never had a bat mitzvah. Today I give back to you what was so wrongfully taken away—because today I am you." Arlene, with her naive American Oh-say-can-you-see attitude, had called this gruesome, morbid, a form of child abuse, and had walked out of the sanctuary, but everyone else felt spiritually uplifted and morally renewed by Nechama's words, and wept contentedly. And who could forget the Holocaust assemblies that Nechama had organized in high school, at which either Maurice or Blanche gave testimony? Once even Norman, as the ambassador of the second generation, addressed the teenagers, with their yellow paper stars for Jews pinned to their Nine Inch Nails T-shirts, their pink triangles for homosexuals, black triangles for Gypsies. Especially, who could forget Nechama's original dance composition, presented each year, "Requiem for the Absent," with the flowing, twisting scarves and the arms reaching poignantly toward the heavens? She had always been so proud of her family, those Holocaust relics who would have mortified your average adolescent, and had even invited her grandparents and her father to accompany her to Poland for the March of the Living, with thousands of other Jewish girls and boys from all over the world—but she was in a class apart. She was a Holocaust princess. And she wasn't ashamed of the VIP treatment that she received because of her family's position in the Holocaust hierarchy, and she wasn't embarrassed to walk at a slower pace alongside the old folks for the three-kilometer march from Auschwitz to the actual killing center in Birkenau, with its remains of gas chambers and crematoria, and ash and powdered bone underfoot. She had turned to them and said—they would never forget it—"I see them, I hear them, I feel them. The dead are walking beside us." And then, in her essay for her college application, she had written, "The one thing about me that you may or may not have learned so far from this application is that I am, in the most positive and constructive sense, a Holocaust nut. What this means is that I am totally obsessed by the Holocaust, the murder of six million of my people, and am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that these dead shall not have died in vain." "Beautiful, beautiful," Maurice had declared, "like the Star Spangled Banana!" She was rejected by Princeton, even though she was legacy, because deep down they were, as Maurice put it, "a bunch of anti-Semitten and shtinkers." So she went to Brown.
With such Holocaust credentials, who would ever have predicted that she would turn her back on her people and become, of all things, a nun? Convent and continuity—these were two concepts that definitely did not go together. They did not mix well. They were not a natural couple. The idea of a nun was very foreign to Jewish thinking. Among Jews every girl got married one way or another, every girl had children, and if one didn't—well, that just never happened. Who ever heard of such a thing? Ever since she was a little girl, she had talked so movingly about how she would have at least twelve children to help make up for the millions who had been murdered—hurled alive into flaming pits, shot, gassed, their heads bashed against stone walls. She was going to be a baby machine for Jewish continuity. She was a pretty girl, everyone remarked—a little full, maybe. "Zaftig," Maurice said. "Baby fat," Blanche said. Her favorite food, according to family lore, was marzipan, and even that preference was regarded as a sign of her superiority. It was so European, so Old World—what ordinary American Mars Bars kid knows from marzipan? The boys who were attracted to her were usually considerably older, usually foreigners. One of the family's favorite stories was about how she had stayed out very late one night, and when she finally came home, at five in the morning, her excuse to her worried parents was that this Salvadoran guy named Salvador had asked her out, and she didn't want to hurt his feelings, so she had to explain to him that she could never date a non-Jew because of the Holocaust—it was nothing personal, but her duty was to replace the six million. And then, of course, she had to tell him the whole history of the Holocaust, so that he'd understand where she was coming from—starting with Hitler's rise to power, in 1933, and continuing to the end of World War II, in 1945, which took a long time. Which was why she was so late. She hoped they weren't mad. "So what did Salvador say?" Norman had asked, obviously not mad at all, obviously gratified. "Oh, he said, 'I only asked you out for a cup of coffee. I didn't ask you to marry me.' But that's not the point."
And she never did date a non-Jew, so far as they knew. In any case, soon after she entered college, her romantic life became a mystery to them, off limits as a subject. She did, it is true, bring home a number of gentile boys, but this was "purely platonic," as she put it—"We're just friends." She knew them in connection with her activities to end the persecution of Christians throughout the world. "A Christian Holocaust is going on as we speak," she declared at dinner in the presence of one of these guests, "and as a Jew who could have been turned into a lampshade, I cannot in good conscience remain a silent bystander." She brought home a Chinese graduate student who described how he had been beaten and tortured because of his membership in an underground church. She brought home a Sudanese lab technician whose family members had been burned or sold into slavery for practicing their faith. As they narrated their stories at the table, she listened raptly, her eyes moist, her mouth slightly open, even though she had surely heard them before. "Any guy who wants her will have to show torture marks," Arlene said. "What for is she foolin' with the Christians?" Maurice complained to Norman. "Where you think Hitler got all his big ideas from about the Jews, tell me that. And the Pope, you should excuse me, His Holiness, where was he during the war—playing pinochle?" "They're trying to hijack the Holocaust," Norman wailed. "Christians are not—I repeat, not!—acceptable Holocaust material. This is where we draw the line."
They tried to wean her from this new fixation by offering her a partnership in their business—complete control of the Women's Holocaust portfolio: abortion, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, rape, the whole gamut—but she wasn't buying. "The Christians are the new Jews," she said. "Christians have a right to a Holocaust too. Since when do Jews have a monopoly? That's the problem with Jews. They never share." So they broke down after all and offered to take on the Christian Holocaust as part of their business, however alien and distasteful it was to them—to have her create and head up, in fact, a new department devoted entirely to this area. "Forget it," she said. "You guys are too compromised and politicized for me. You'd sell out the victims for the first embassy dinner invitation."
THE last time any member of the family had seen her was a few days after she called to say that she would be entering the Carmelite convent near Auschwitz as a postulant, and because it was a contemplative, enclosed, "hermit" order, she would not be available much afterward for visitors. She insisted that though she would soon become a novice and then eventually take vows, she would always consider herself to be a Jewish nun. They should keep that in mind. They were not losing her. They should not despair. The family decided that Arlene would go alone to see her. She accepted the mission despite her frequently voiced resolve never to set foot in that "huge cemetery called Poland—it's no place for a live Jew; this back-to-the-shtetl nostalgia is obscene; these grand tours of the death camps are grotesque." The day after Nechama called, Arlene flew to Warsaw.
When Nechama had converted to Catholicism, she had told them that it was a necessary step toward the fulfillment of her "vocation" but they should know and understand that, like the first Christians, she remained also a Jew. "What you mean?" Maurice had demanded. "Are you with us or against us? Are you a goy or a Jew? You can't have it both ways. You can't have your kishke and eat it also!" Norman wanted to know if this was some kind of Jews-for-Jesus deal, but no, she said, it was in the best tradition of the early Church fathers. Norman then made the hopeful point to the family that nowadays maybe you could be both a Christian and a Jew, just as you could, as everyone knew, be both a Buddhist and a Jew—"a Jew-Bude" it was called, something pareve, nothing to get excited about, neither milk nor meat.
Even so, her conversion was a devastating blow, though not entirely unexpected, given her increasing immersion in the Christian Holocaust. After college she had worked full time for the cause at its Washington headquarters, and then had set out on what she called her "pilgrimage," her "crusade," to bear witness to the persecution firsthand at the actual sites throughout the world, and to offer comfort and strength to the oppressed. She had been kicked out of Pakistan for agitation and promoting disorder. In Ethiopia she had been arrested, and major string-pulling had been required to spring her, which, fortunately, her family was able to manage discreetly, thanks to its position in the world and its fancy connections in high places ("A little schmear here, a little kvetch there," as Maurice recounted with satisfaction). As it became clearer and clearer to them that she was heading toward conversion, Norman had tried to make the case to her that she was far more useful to the Christian Holocaust as a Jew, that her Jewishness was an extremely effective media hook. It piqued people's curiosity—what was a nice Jewish girl like her doing in a place like this? It made her far more interesting and, let's face it, bizarre, especially as she was so Jewishly identified, with her family so prominent in Holocaust circles, bringing even greater attention and visibility to the cause. "Besides," Norman added deliberately, "you don't have to be Christian to love the Christian Holocaust. When I do the Whale Holocaust, do I become a whale? Think about it, Nechama'le. Think again, baby."
From contacts in Poland they knew almost immediately when Nechama had arrived there. She began a slow circuit of the main extermination camps, stopping for a few days at each one to fast and pray—first Treblinka, then Chelmno, Sobibur, Majdanek, Belzec, until she came, finally, to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She called home to say that she had lit a memorial candle in front of the Carmelite convent for a "blessed Jewish nun," Saint Edith Stein ("Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross," Nechama called her), who was martyred in the gas chambers there. "Oy vey," Maurice had said. "She's talkin' about that convert Edit' Shtein? I'm not feelin' so good!" In another telephone conversation she had made the comment that traditional Judaism provides no real outlet for a woman's spirituality. "I mean, suppose a Jewish woman wants to dedicate her whole heart and soul and all of her strength to loving God and to prayer. Where is there a Jewish convent for that? Does Judaism even acknowledge the existence of a woman's spirituality in any context other than home and family?" She took a room in Oswiecim to be near the nuns. "They're such holy, holy women, it's humbling and uplifting, both at once. How could anyone ever accuse them of trying to Christianize Auschwitz? It's just ridiculous. Everything they do they do out of love."
Nechama arranged to have Arlene meet her at the large cross near the now-abandoned old convent, the building in which, during the Holocaust, the canisters of Zyklon B gas with which the Jews were asphyxiated had been stored, just at the edge of the death camp. She was already there, praying on her knees, when Arlene's car drove up. Arlene asked the driver to wait for her; she had no intention whatsoever of visiting the camp. After she finished with Nechama, she would go directly back to Krakow. She would be in Warsaw by evening. She would be on a plane flying out of this cursed country the next morning. As she approached the cross with her daughter kneeling before it, she could see two nuns in full habit posted in the distance. Nechama herself was wearing an unfamiliar sort of rough garment—probably some sort of nun's training outfit, Arlene thought.
Nechama heard Arlene approaching, and with her back still turned she signaled with her thumb and index finger rounded into a circle—a gesture she had picked up during a teen trip to Israel—for her mother to wait a few seconds more as she finished her devotions. Then, after placing her lips directly on the wood of the cross and kissing it passionately, she rose to her feet. "Mommy," she cried, and she ran to embrace her mother. Arlene shocked herself by breaking down in racking sobs that swept over her like a flash storm. Her mascara streaked down her cheeks.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she kept on repeating.
"What are you sorry about? Go on, cry. Crying is good for you—it cleanses the spirit. There's nothing to be ashamed of."
"I'm sorry for letting them screw you up," Arlene sputtered into the coarse cloth of Nechama's garment. She had not planned to begin this way, but she could not stop herself now. "I'm sorry for not fighting harder to keep them from poisoning you with their Holocaust craziness. I should have fought them like a lioness protecting her cub. They crippled you, crippled you, they destroyed any chance you might have had to lead a normal life—and I did nothing to prevent it."
"Mom?" Nechama pushed Arlene to arm's length. "Two things, Mom. Number one, I'm not screwed up, and number two, the Holocaust, believe it or not, is the best thing that has ever happened to me. It has made me what I am today. I'm proud of what I am. I'm doing vital, redemptive work. I'm bringing healing to the world. Do you understand? I don't want you to pathologize me—okay, Mom? I'm not a sicko."
Wiping her eyes with a tissue that she held clutched in her fist, Arlene now took the time to look closely at her daughter. Nechama's face, framed by a kerchief that concealed all of her thick, curly hair, her best feature, was exposed and clear—no makeup, and no sign either of the acne that had distressed her well into her twenties. So convents are good for the complexion, Arlene concluded bitterly. Instead of contact lenses she was wearing glasses with translucent pale-pink plastic frames. The expression in her eyes was serene and benevolent—too placid, Arlene thought; she looked drugged, brainwashed, dead to life. A faint moustache lay over her top lip; in her new life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in her tight schedule between Lauds and Compline, there was no place for the facial bleaching that Arlene had taught her as part of the beauty regimen of every dark-haired woman. Around her neck was a daunting cross made from some base metal. The womanly fullness of her barren hips bore down earthward against her skirts, pulled down inevitably by gravity whether they fulfilled their biological function or not, Arlene could see. She had put on a little weight—not that it mattered anymore. At least she was getting enough to eat.
Nechama quickly sensed her mother's appraising eye, and for a moment she was seized by a familiar irritation that she recognized from those times in the past when her mother had rated her appearance down to the last fraction of an ounce and had registered mute disappointment. By an act of will Nechama shook off this feeling, which she considered unworthy and a vanity.
"You look nice," Arlene finally said. She avoided Nechama's eyes, gazing up instead at the twenty-six-foot wooden cross looming behind them. "So this is the famous cross that the Jews and the Poles are beating up on each other about."
"Yes—isn't it silly?" Nechama said. "I guess I'll just never understand what Jews have against a cross."
The Crusades. The Inquisition. Pogroms. Blood libels. The Holocaust. If she can't figure out what we have against the cross, Arlene thought, especially when it is planted right in this spot, where a million Jews were gassed and burned, then she has strayed a long, long way from home. She has gone very far indeed. She is lost to us.
"I mean," Nechama went on, "what everyone has to realize now, if we're ever going to get beyond this, is that each Jew who was murdered in the Holocaust is another Christ crucified on the cross. When I pray to Him, I pray to each one of them. I pray every day to each of the six million Christs."
Suffering and salvation. Martyrdom and redemption. This was not a language that Arlene recognized. The cross cast its long dark shadow over them and onto the blood-soaked ground beyond. The afternoon was passing. Arlene adjusted the strap of the stylish black-leather bag on her shoulder and glanced toward the waiting car. More than anything else in the world now, she wanted to get away from here, from this madness that bred more madness, from this alien sacred imagery that justified unspeakable atrocities. She wanted ordinariness, dailiness, routine—plans, schedules, menus, lists, programs, things, material goods. "Do you need anything, Nechama?" Arlene asked. "I mean, before I go—like underwear, vitamins, toiletries? Tell me what you need, and I'll see that you get it."
"Oh, I don't need anything anymore. I'm finished with needing things," Nechama said, breaking her mother's heart. "We live very simply here. Other people have needs. They send us long lists of what they need, and we pray for them. That's what we do. I can pray for you, too, Mommy. Tell me what you need."
What did she need? She needed to think and see clearly. She needed to remember everything she had forgotten—or she would soon lose faith that she had ever existed at all. "I need to have you back with me," Arlene said quietly, in the voice she would use when she lay down in bed beside her daughter at night, to ease the child into sleep.
Nechama smiled rapturously. "We'll pray for you," she said, and her glance moved from her mother and the cross above them to encompass her whole world, the two nuns motionless in the distance, and the million dead inside the camp who never rested.