Essay from photo collection
Bon Voyage and All the Rest of It…
The skinny blonde girl of five or six, in a black and white framed photo, a faded photo with tiny cracks, stands dwarfed by five others, next to her older mousey sister who wears a dress that appears grown up and dowdy, too long, too dark, unfrilly and boring. The skinny blonde didn’t have any idea what was coming. Her chin-length fine straight hair would have curled up at the prospect. There’s the grandmother, bent over, arthritic, scoliotic, a fractured grin plastered on her face for the photo op. She’s stretching over the older girl and why did they put grandma in the back row when she’s the most scrunched up figure in the portrait? Next to the girls’ father and mother stands the grandfather, maternal side only, fraternal side dead and long gone. He looks exactly like the little girl’s mother, large hooked classic Semitic nose matching his daughter’s, his large sad eyes that I know were blue, I know were blue because I met him that one time, his large sad eyes staring ahead beyond the photographer, dark circles under each eye, (so deep I think I could place a coin or two in the pouches) he’s staring into that Second World War space, the memories of his eight brothers and sisters who refused to leave, who claimed that rich Prussians stayed immune. His eyes conjure up one uncle who later in the war actually slipped away onto the train to Poland, but they searched him at the border, discovered wads of cash hidden in sewn up pockets and linings, the money removed from German banks. He never crossed over that border crossing but crossed an ethereal border after his body was shot against concrete bullet-holed bleached walls and thrown into a ditch. My mother said they knew this from recordings of events that became historic record.
Oh where oh where could the brothers and sisters have gone?
I recall shoes that lingered in the holocaust museum in Tel-Aviv and all I could see were the shoes the shoes the shoes, cracked dried leather, dehydrated skeletal shells, the tiny baby shoes, little boy shoes, girly shoes with one bow on and one bow off, the old man shoes and the old lady shoes with a tired, beaten, hacked, moldy look like they were ready to fall into the mud with the bodies. But they didn’t.
I have filed away the death certificate of the one uncle in perfect German handwriting with beautiful curly q’s and tails on the y’s and the J’s. Such lovely handwriting, organized and fine. They took their time to record names, dates and methods, in perfect harmony with shootings. I was told they played Strauss for the condemned. Considerate.
The old grandfather knows more than his sad blue eyes say and he holds back, tense shoulders, a frown; you can see from the photo that he holds it back because he doesn’t smile or show his teeth except perhaps in his dreams. He has learned to grin and bear it because he got out. He got out. And how he got out was through the wisdom of the rare ones who just knew that hiding your money wasn’t the journey but the journey was one of letting go of the money and of the half city block of tailoring factories, letting go of the teams of German workers who sewed the seams of fine silk jackets that held the money. He knew. My grandfather knew. One of the wise ones. He didn’t share information the night they ran. My grandfather on my mother’s side lived because he didn’t share information either in photos or with neighbors. He escaped because he gathered his wife and three young girls in the middle of the night and walked away into the dark from an estate even then worth millions, an estate that he would never see again, millions that the children’s children’s children would never see again because it didn’t matter. After all, what price could he place on a life? The five people trekked to the train station in dark clothing with one little doll that the middle child could not leave behind, a ragged half- moth- eaten- piece of doll made from cloth and bandages, a sad doll that looked even sadder in the photograph, its eye black from the girl’s overstitching. The doll’s dark eyes have seen too much and stare out beyond the frame, beyond the photographer, hanging from the blonde girl’s hand, a mother’s once upon a time gift to her little girl, a raggedy- been- there- done- that- doll who doesn’t mean much to anyone but the girl who walked out in the middle of the night with the doll as witness. And the grandfather herded his wife and children onto a train with nothing but the clothes they wore, no jewelry as that attracts attention, but simple clothes and dark in color so they could shadow through the border. They cast their pearls before the swine and left. The train puffed them out of Germany, across Europe and into the land of the Bible in a time when Israel existed but in ancient texts. They came to the Levant, the land where the British ruled, 1935, and approachable by those who believed in Zion. And I recently said to an Israeli taxi driver that my mother had escaped during the Second World War to “Palestine” and he ranted at me in English and Hebrew that “Israel has always been Israel as it was in the Bible and in ancient days and always was and always is Israel” and why am I calling it Palestine and where did my parents come from anyway, a blonde woman with white skin and green eyes, an Australian American, an ignorant one that should have known, but did not know, the difference and now her chin length straight blond hair curled up with the “horror, the horror” of offense. And I explained in broken Hebrew that my mother had married a man whose heritage claimed Scotland and neither Germany nor Europe, whose parents knew poverty in Scotland and immigrated to Australia and that my mother had married a man and traveled ten thousand miles by ship through India to a foreign country and how crazy I sounded explaining such a phenomenon and I shut up mid-way explanation when my husband kneed my knee and I realized how crazy how crazy how crazy the story sounded and how crazy how crazy how crazy that story really was. (And I thought and still think of Jerry Garcia and his words about what a “long, strange trip it’s been”).
There stands my father in the photograph, in the black and white, tall and proud, dressed in a man vest, a man long sleeved white starched shirt and plaid tie (in a hundred middle eastern degrees of heat), in man pants with one ironed pleat down each leg, his bald head reflecting light (perhaps from sweat) and a ring of ginger hair softening the hard pate. A handsome man, sharp defined nose and face, a twinkle in his green black and white photo eyes and I know they were green because I met him. I met my father a long time ago when I was a little girl in the photo. And I met him many times since. I valued him as a best friend and trusted trusted trusted in a little girl stupid way that he might do the right thing but the right thing left his wife and the little girls in the photo abandoned in the Levant, a foreign country, a language in tongues not understood, a people not understood, a country of shadows, groaning camels, sweet orange blossoms and hands on breasts and butts and in those days, things were not as they are now because now a whistle has the same effect as a hands on approach.
And what are we celebrating in this black and white and why are we celebrating when the mother stares out of the photo with a half-smile, thin-lipped and hesitant, eyes glazed over with a look of “I told you so but let’s smile for the photo”. She wears a lovely gray dress that I know was red because I met this dress that day. Lace embellishes a high collar and hangs in a flouncy way down her chest, a clandestine collar that hides the fact that she doesn’t want to go back to Australia, that she will stay in this foreign place with her two little girls, that they will go to diplomat’s schools in the oldest city in the world, Jaffa, or Jephthah, but the girls will want to go home and they will cry for their father, especially when the blonde has her doll stolen on the street by a man with fleeting feet. The mother will laugh and make a joke about how the girls cry for their father. “Don’t be silly, you’ll see him in a year.” And what was the matter with that little blonde girl that she kept crying crying crying little girl tears when big girls should not cry.
What are they celebrating?
How dare they celebrate in a foreign land. They are saying goodbye. Bon Voyage. The father is going back to Australia for a year, but now I know he didn’t return. How dare they say Bon Voyage. This was a foreign land and the little girls stand as foreigners in the foreign land and the blonde just remembers oodles of colored streamers thrown from the ship where her father stared past her and waved goodbye to no one while laughing and talking with another passenger beside him too distant for the little girl to see, blurry and far away, so far away, but she glimpsed that glass in his hand waving and gesturing in conversation amid the colors of gaiety, despite thunderous warnings from the ship’s funnel.