Fiction March 2000

The Third Generation

She was a Holocaust princess, their living memorial candle, continuity. Who would have predicted that she would turn her back on her people to become a nun in, of all places, the convent at Auschwitz?

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."

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