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On the first morning, I wake up in Cambridge overcome by gloom, disorientation, and a sense of utter meaninglessness. I feel I’ve been deported to a new and uncharted country, a place offering few prospects beyond temporary survival. I believe it is guilt that motivates me more than anything else, and a need to demonstrate love and loyalty to my missing dad. My father, a fervent Zionist from an old-school Galicianer family, has always read Jewish songs and prayers with the correct modern Israeli Sephardic pronunciation. Yet now that it’s my turn I gravitate toward the more folksy, whiny Yiskadal v’yiskadash. And no sooner have I begun than my father is standing behind me, reading over my shoulder and asking why I don’t pray in the proper language.
“I thought you’d feel that way,” I tell him. “But actually I prefer to say the first two words of the prayer in the old manner — to me it sounds more authentic.” I recognize his mild disapproval, but he’s plainly moved to see that I’m bothering to do it at all. I’ve printed the prayer from the Internet and though he withholds comment, I’m surprised that he hasn’t mentioned the obvious — that I don’t own or use a decent prayer book, especially when honoring my one-and-only father. Instead, he asks why I haven’t at least washed my face and brushed my teeth, maybe even shaved and put on some decent clothes — a clean pair of pants wouldn’t hurt — before engaging in this rite. “Next time,” I tell him.
The next day, I am fully dressed debating whether or not to wear shoes, just in case he decides to show up. I remember that many years ago we went to a Knicks-Rockets game at Madison Square Garden, and when he noted my high-top sneakers, he said, “Don’t you own a decent pair of shoes? What, do you think you’re coming here to play in the game?”
In an attempt to impress him, I read the text loudly and slowly, feigning intonations of comprehension. But my fluency, as my father suddenly comments, “leaves something to be desired.” When I kiss the small sheet of folded, printed-out prayer — before stashing it back in my night table — he appears to be more remote, but reassuring. “This is what I paid for when you attended five years of that Hebrew School in the Bronx?” he asks.
For the next two weeks my facility for reading aloud does not dramatically improve, so I distract my father by performing one morning in an exaggerated Yiddish-inflected Ashkenazi cadence. This time he bursts out laughing as if it’s one of the fun-niest things he’s heard in a long time. His eyes are watering. Afterwards, we agree that it’s too soon to make jokes. “That’s the best you can do?” he asks. “You were better at your bar mitzvah. Remember, how good you were?” What I do remember is that directly following my bar mitzvah service, still in the sanctuary, there were tears in his eyes. I think it was his first synagogue service since Barney’s death.
After a month of consistently following the ritual, I begin to miss days here and there, but I also detect improvement in my pronunciation and rhythms. My father insists I can do better. One afternoon, not remembering if I’ve said the prayer earlier in the day, I say the Kaddish a second time. My father laughs in seeming frustration — more like an inverted cry. Speaking to some imaginary version of my mother, he comments, “I don’t know why your son has to make this Kaddish into a big deal — once is perfectly acceptable, but a whole production he is now making out of it.” After his short soliloquy, we are happy to agree that once a day will do. “If it’s making you sadder, don’t do it anymore, that’s all.” he says. “It’s already enough. We give each other, as best we can under these circumstances, an awkward hug.
But what’s gnawing at me is that he hasn’t mentioned a thing about the obituary. I know he read the eulogy I wrote, because the letter I handed him two weeks before he died became the eulogy. But I am sure he’s still bristling over the inaccuracies in the newspaper, and maybe he’s even furious that the writer of his obituary emphasized his betrayal to the Nazis by his Polish neighbors.
“I’m sorry, you know, there was no mention of chess in the entire article,” I say.
“Please say it,” I mutter to myself. And then as if on cue he mumbles, “No big deal.”
“Were you mad that the obituary portrayed the Poles as evil accomplices to genocide?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, “to tell you the truth, because mostly Jews are reading Long Island Newsday, I prefer it said something about how for every Jew who survived from Poland there was a righteous Polish gentile involved in saving his life.”
That’s it? I can’t believe I’m off the hook.
“It’s true,” he says. “There were Poles who were our friends. So sure I was startled and very aggravated when I first realized this, because I’m sure the journalist repeated only what you told to her. Yes, I was furious.”
“Well, I have had time to think without too many distractions and interruptions, and I’ll tell you one thing. If this obituary were written for a Polish gazette, let’s say, or a bunch of Catholics or Holocaust deniers or whatever, I would give them all hell. The Poles were some of the biggest anti-Semites.”
I’m relieved. I’m sure there are other small issues we’ll need to resolve over time, but nothing so major. I can sense my father wanting to leave. But I feel compelled to ask, “Will you tell me that thermometer story one more time?
“One day, half the building was gone,” he says. “Literally, one side of the hospital vanished overnight, the best hospital in Vienna mind you. Sure, they were Nazis in the hospital, but the Soviets were coming, you could hear rumbling, you could see obliterated a skeleton of a building, in ruins, a construction site, maybe one girder left, holding up nothing. So I stopped rubbing the thermometer. Of course, I wanted to be near to my mother and my sister if we were going to die. My father, we were sure, was already somewhere dead, but I knew if my temperature was going down the doctor would send me out. You know, of course, his name was Meyer, and since Meyer and Mayer are the same, he gave me some kind of a special treatment. But as smart as I was —”
And he pauses. Because sadly, my father is ashamed to admit what he is about to say. He laughs self-effacingly at his 14-year-old self, and continues.
“As smart as I was, when the doctor dismissed me, I walked directly to the SS headquarters and asked to be escorted back to the camp. I mean I could have been shot to the head in one second. A 14-year-old Jew in pajama pants, what do you think? I think I was stupid and lucky. When I arrived back to the camp my mother and sister were collapsed in an airplane hangar on a few strands of hay, unconscious completely. Maybe 2,000 people, mostly women, no kids at all, stretched out on the ground, starving to death. The lice were everywhere. And then just by pure luck, just in time, the war was over. You know the rest.”
Each time I call my mother now, I’m surprised when she picks up the phone. This is something she never used to do. After we talk for a while, I expect her to yell across the house for daddy to pick up. My mother still watches TV in the fireplace room at one end of the house. Every one of our conversations seems half-finished. No one is watching hockey or basketball on the other side of the living room. When I visit Long Island I see my mother as always, reclining on her leather couch in the den, with the TV on, doing her New York Times crossword puzzle, very sad but comfortable and smiling — heartbroken but managing — the rest of the house completely obliterated, leaning on one broken steel girder.
Larry Mayer’s previous essay for the Forward, “To Sir With Compassion” was a 2014 finalist in arts reporting for the Deadline Club and runner-up for the 2014 David Twersky Prize.