Best reader, best friend
I FIRST MET MILLIE WERBER AT HER SON MARTIN'S HOUSE. He and his wife, Bracha, are family friends of mine, and once a month on Friday nights, they invite a group of twenty or more to their home to share a potluck Shabbat dinner, filled with casual conversation and song. Millie had been coming to these dinners for several years, ever since her husband Jack died in the autumn of 2006, and I had seen her, sitting quietly at the end of the table, listening, attentive, but always a little held back, an observer more than an easy participant in the boisterous goings-on. A diminutive woman, barely touching five feet tall, Millie was always impeccably dressed—a tailored dark blue dress, or perhaps a simple sweater jacket and slacks. Her clothes, like her demeanor, were graceful and quiet. We had been polite with each other, and I could tell there was a warmth to her—her eyes would brighten readily whenever she greeted the many people who came over to her—but she seemed rather reserved, and her stillness made her seem somewhat fragile, too; our interaction had never gotten far beyond the how-nice-to-see-you's.
Martin first proposed the idea of my interviewing his mother and writing a book about her wartime experiences. Though urged over the years by members of her family, Millie had been reluctant to speak in detail about her life. It can be that way with survivors, I'm told—not wanting to impose themselves on others, not wanting to burden people with the horrors of the past. But Martin thought that perhaps now, finally, Millie might be agreeable, and he thought that the two of us might hit it off. He had a feeling about us, I suppose.
I was reluctant, too, at first. I'm an academic, a professor of English literature, not a history buff and far from a Holocaust scholar. And though Jewish, my family has little connection to the traumas of the war. No one in my family died in the Holocaust. Three of my four grandparents were born in the United States; the fourth came from Hungary late in the nineteenth century. Growing up in suburban New York, I barely had any experience of anti-Semitism: When I was in high school and played violin in a county orchestra, my stand partner, a devout Catholic, asked me once if she could see my horns. But this was harmless, a parochial silliness; whatever malevolence lived in the age-old slur she had heard, none of it lived in her.
So I was tentative starting this project with Millie, because I could see no way in; there was no clear connection between Millie and me that would make such a project viable. If I had experienced nothing of real anti-Semitism, nothing of true hardship, nothing of danger or the kind of dread that keeps you awake and trembling in your bed at night, how was I to understand Millie, who was forged in these things, who was made by them and still lives them? How was I to understand the experience of what she would tell me, the feeling of her experience?
Nonetheless, we decided to try. We agreed that I would visit Millie regularly in her home, an elegantly appointed ranch on suburban Long Island.
"Where shall we begin?" I asked the first time. And without further prompting, the stories came pouring out. Like a dam undone, a torrent of stories, jumbled together, all intermixed. One ran readily into the next, the contours wholly unclear. After holding back for so long, it seemed, Millie wanted to tell everything. Something had been unleashed, and it was running—not wildly, not chaotically exactly, but with such profusion it was difficult to sort. I was lost in the surge, and Millie was, too, I know. Our first session lasted four hours; many hundreds more together followed.
At first our meetings were somewhat formal—the interviews were question-and-answer sessions. I reviewed the material from each session and returned to her with more questions—clarifying dates, pressing her for details, ensuring I understood to whom all the pronouns referred. Reconstructing the basic chronology proved relatively easy: September 1939, Germany invades Poland; spring 1941, two ghettos are established in an industrial city called Radom; summer 1942, the deportations begin, slave-labor factories are formed; a young girl marries; a good man is betrayed; too many die; the war grinds on. The incidents lay on the surface of memory.
But Millie's inner life was harder to find.
Millie told me many of her stories multiple times; often they seemed almost canonical in her telling—the words of the story recited nearly verbatim. It was as if her stories had crystallized, had become fixed in her memory in very specific terms. The telling was often difficult—we always sat with a box of tissues between us—but somehow, too, the immutable form of the stories seemed to work like an emotional buffer, providing some small measure of protection from the unformulated feelings beneath. Millie didn't always have ready access to these feelings, yet it was precisely these that I most wanted to know—that I most needed to know if I were to know her and give voice to the unarticulated reaches of her inner life.
To reach inward, I realized, much would be required of us both: We needed time for Millie to tell and retell her stories; we needed honesty and candor, too, and a growing, mutual trust. Above all, we needed to believe that somehow it would be possible, despite our differences, truly to know and be known by the other.
And for that we needed love.
I decided to step back and let Millie speak without much direction from me. I asked open, broad-based questions—what was on her mind that day; what had she been thinking about as she waited for me to arrive; what drifted through her thoughts as she lay in bed the night before? I didn't want to rush her; I wanted to let her mind go wherever it willed. And slowly I began to figure out the patterns underlying the associations of her memory, the emotional keystones that structure her experience of the world.
We soon started to see each other quite frequently, some days devoted to interviews, some devoted to fun. We found ourselves becoming friends—a Holocaust survivor in her early eighties, a suburban New Yorker touching fifty. We'd go to Lord & Taylor—one of Millie's favorite places—where we'd survey the recent arrivals, assessing the season's styles of cut and color. We'd stroll arm in arm through the departments—dresses, sportswear, accessories—and then take the elevator to the third-floor restaurant and eat grilled vegetable sandwiches among the white-haired ladies sitting with their shopping bags. We went to an eight-week film series on Holocaust movies from the 1940s at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center; we went to matinees on Broadway; once, we went to hear La Traviata at the Met in the middle of a violent snowstorm. I introduced Millie to YouTube, and we watched videos in her den—clips from the Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball shows, and Lily Tomlin playing Ernestine the Telephone Operator.
And we talked for hours, holding nothing back. Whom we have loved in our lives, how we have loved. The fire of a first kiss, and what it takes to sustain a marriage over decades. What we have wanted for ourselves, for our families; what we believe in and what we fear. What started as a series of formal interviews—"Tell me about the ghetto: Where did you live? How did you get food?"—turned into something else.
Millie now calls me the sister she never had. I demur: I'm thirty-three years younger than you, I say. Why not call me the daughter you never had? She gets the point and laughs. But she prefers sister. And that's fine with me.
One day, almost a year after we started, Millie took me to her bedroom. I'd been there before—she would want to try on a new dress for me or show me what she'd be wearing to an upcoming family event. But on this day, she just asked me to sit on the settee across from the bed. She went into her walk-in closet; I could see her rummaging around in the back behind her clothes. She came out holding an accordion folder filled with old pictures and documents. I'd seen copies of most of these before—an entire wall of her spacious furnished basement is decorated with family pictures—some of her own children and grandchildren, most of her family from Europe. Her mother, her father, her brother, her aunt and uncle, her two cousins. Millie's aunt had retrieved the pictures after the war from friends in Paris to whom she had sent them in the 1930s.
But Millie then showed me some things I hadn't seen before—the dried, yellowed petals of a chrysanthemum, remnants of a flower given to her by Jack on their wedding day; a pair of gold rings, one with the initials HG engraved on a little medallion on the top of the ring; a small, tattered photograph of a young couple looking expectantly toward the camera. "My Heniek," she said, "this is my Heniek."
She gave the rings to me to look at, and then she told me what she had never spoken of before—how she had managed to save the picture and rings through the war, where she had kept them for the many decades that followed, what she did with them, secretly, throughout her life, who knew about them, and who didn't. Millie had told me much about Heniek by then, but she hadn't told me this. When I saw the look in her eyes as she held the picture out to me, her finger gently tracing the creases and ripples on its surface, I knew that here was the heart of Millie's story, that hers was not in its essence simply a survivor's story of suffering and loss, but more deeply a story of young and ardent love in the midst of the horror—in spite of the horror—and one that in some quiet way has continued unabated ever since.
In writing Millie's story, I have had to decide how to present her character. Millie doesn't talk about her feelings, and she is not naturally given to introspection. Though she's absolutely fluent in English, her cadences and inflections owe a lot to a kind of Anglicized Yiddish—"you shouldn't know from this"; "too much I worried about these things." Although I thought at first to restrict myself to her words only, I soon realized that, more than replicating the kind and range of sentences she speaks, my goal had to be to express what I believed was in Millie's heart, even when Millie herself didn't have the words to formulate or express it.
So I wrote what I intuited to be true of Millie's inner world—the desires and fears and hopes and judgments of a young woman, barely more than a girl. And then I read every word to her, every sentence, every revision. Sometimes I wrote things that made her uncomfortable, and we had to negotiate to decide what to keep in and what to take out. (Millie doesn't like talking about herself as being attractive, for example, or having been attractive to men, though I can easily see how she was—and is—and the love scenes with Heniek still make her a little uneasy.) But every sentence that's written here is true to her; every sentence, though it may not so much sound like her, nonetheless to her mind bespeaks her heart, her truth, the reality she lives. "Yes," she says, "it is true; what you have written is true."
As for the historicity of what's written—I can say that everything that can be checked has been checked. The names of the factories in Radom, the names of the various people in charge of the ghettos and the factory where she worked and subsequently of the concentration camp where the laborers lived, the dates of the ghettos' establishment and subsequent liquidations, the death marches. Millie visited Auschwitz in 1987 and brought back a copy of a document that lists the names, birth dates, and occupations of all the arrivals on a certain day during the summer of 1944. Millie is listed, along with her aunt—both from Radom, Millie a "student," her aunt Gittel a "seamstress." And Millie, of course, has a tattoo—A-24542.
The rest is true to Millie's awareness and memory. She was often unsure of sequence and time frame, especially about the tumultuous winter of 1943–1944. She really has no clear sense of how long she was married to Heniek, perhaps months, though sometimes she says it was just a matter of weeks. I've tried to convey this uncertainty in the text, not pretending, after sixty-five years, that she has a full and clear purchase on the exact chronology of specific events. Millie has been determined to be as honest here as she can—about the depth of her love, about the persistence of her hate; about what she remembers and what she doesn't; about what she has clear-cut evidence for and what she can only surmise. She knows she has no access to the causes of things—why the Germans proposed the exchange of Jews for Argentinean citizens, why there was an option of getting on a death wagon on the march to Tomaszów Mazowiecki, whether the way the Radomers put together the sequence of events leading to the death of the thirteen policemen and their families from the factory is really accurate. Millie knows that the story as she tells it is how she and other Radomers in the factory understood what happened. But however strong her accusations, she recognizes that she can't know with complete certainty what in fact did happen.
Though Millie can at times be fierce in her judgments, she herself fears the judgments of others even more. She dresses beautifully but simply, often preferring costume jewelry to gems, for example, because she doesn't want people to think her self-indulgent or, worse, that she's trying to call attention to herself. Once, despite her desire, she decided not to go to Israel for a wedding, because she had just been there a couple of weeks earlier for a long-planned visit, and she worried that people might think her extravagant, traveling such a long distance twice within a month. A gentleman friend asked her to dinner, an innocent gesture of companionship between adults who had known each other for more than a half-century, but Millie declined, concerned that others might think it unseemly for her, a widow, to dine with another man.
These are trifles, as she knows. But the fear runs deep, perhaps because exposure to judgment during the war was literally a matter of life or death. Millie never told her sons about her first husband, in large measure because she feared their judgment. She did speak about her experiences to some extent to her family, of course, and sometimes, too, in public, giving talks at synagogues and local Holocaust museums, speaking to schoolchildren, once even traveling to Germany to speak at a high school in Gütersloh, near to where she was interned toward the end of the war in a forced-labor factory. But she never spoke fully or deeply about her past, and she revealed episodes of her life only piecemeal.
This was true to some extent even with Jack. For sixty years, Millie shared her stories with Jack, who, having suffered his own experience of the war, understood whatever she said but was willing not to push when she didn't want to say more. Jack knew that she was briefly married to Heniek and that he was killed, just as Millie knew about Jack's first wife, Rachel, and their three-year-old daughter, Emma, both of whom were also killed. But they respected each other with silence, too, and never pressed the other for details.
Millie resisted telling her sons for a simpler reason—she feared their disdain. What would her children think of her if they knew about Heniek—that she was so young and so much in love; that she was caught in calamity and yet found, though only for a moment, a respite of tenderness and peace. She worried (wrongly) that they would think it improper.
But then it was fear of judgment of another kind that finally prompted her to relent. What if she died and her children never knew why she had kept silent all these years? Might they suspect her of some wrongdoing? Might they think that she refused to speak because she had something shameful to hide? Though she knows her sons have never given her cause to worry about their judgment of her, she's been much affected by second-generation survivors whose books, to her mind, unfairly critique their parents' lives. Millie doesn't want others to wonder about her story; she wants to claim it for herself.
For sixty-five years, Millie has borne a secret, but she wants it known that her secret is both precious to her and pure. It was then; it is now.
HE WAS HOLDING A RING, TWIRLING IT BETWEEN HIS fingers. It wasn't much of a ring—a thin gold band flecked with a few diamond chips—but he was playing with it, and playing with me, saying, "Whose ring is this? Whose finger will it fit?"
It was early autumn, 1945. Jack and I were in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a small mountain town in southern Germany. I had gone there with my aunt Gittel—I called her Mima—several months after our liberation because we had heard that Radomers were there. Radom, the city we're from in Poland, had factories, like the Steyr-Daimler-Puch factory I worked in, and that meant that Radom had survivors—or at least a greater number of survivors than many other cities—because the Germans had needed workers to help make their war. Hundreds of Radomers had made guns and bullets—the armaments of our own destruction.
Mima and I had spent the first few months after our liberation in Kaunitz, a little town down the road from where we had been freed, but when we heard that other Radomers were in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we decided to travel the seven hundred kilometers to search for our families. I was looking for my father, and Mima was looking for her husband and son; we had last seen them about a year before, when the men and women were separated at Auschwitz. We decided to go to Garmisch-Partenkirchen even though we didn't really trust the information about the Radomers, because we had also heard that Jack Werber was there, and this we couldn't believe, because everyone from Radom knew that Jack Werber was dead.
Jack was twenty-five in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. Suspected of leftist leanings, he was arrested soon afterward and sent to Buchenwald on trumped-up charges of having held communist meetings in the back room of his family's store. I was only twelve when he was arrested and didn't know him, but my family knew his, and we all heard what had happened. Several months after Jack was taken away, his father was called to the offices of the Radom Judenrat and was told that Jack had died of dysentery. If he wanted, Jack's father was told, he could pay to have Jack's ashes sent back to Radom. Devastated that his son had died, Jack's father desperately wanted the ashes. He wanted to give his youngest son a proper burial in the city where his family had lived for a hundred years. So he paid, and several weeks later, a box arrived containing ashes marked as Jack Werber's.
We were so innocent then, so unready to understand what was happening. Jack's was a horrible but plausible story: He had been arrested, had been made to work at a hard labor camp, had gotten sick and died; Jack's captors had cremated his body, and out of some sense of human decency, they had offered to send his ashes home. A sane world, in wartime, might produce such a story. It made sense; it was a story his family was ready to accept.
Except Jack hadn't died. The Germans had simply found a way to extract money from unsuspecting Jews: All over Poland, Jews were told that their sons and fathers and husbands were dead and that they could have the ashes of their family members sent to them for a fee. Jack's father had buried some ashes, but not those of his son.
Had he buried someone else's child? Had he been sent the mixed remains of several people? Perhaps the ashes weren't even a person's. Perhaps Jack's father had buried a dog.
When Mima and I arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we found Jack living in an apartment with his cousin Itamar. Itamar, too, had survived the camps. He had set up a little boardinghouse in an apartment building in the center of town. There were about fifteen people in the place, all from Radom—mostly men, plus two of Jack's cousins, Zysla, who was eighteen, like me, and Renya, who was about ten years older.
Mima was ready to move on almost as soon as we arrived, wanting to search for her husband and son and for my father, who we had heard had all gone to Bari, Italy, the port for boats smuggling Jews to Palestine. I wanted to go, too, but Mima thought it better for me to stay in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I wasn't happy about this, being left behind with people who were pretty much strangers to me, but Mima assured me that Jack would look after me. Jack Werber had a good name, she said; I would be safe with Jack.
I didn't have much of a choice. I did as I was told; I stayed behind.
After Mima left, Zysla and I moved out of Itamar's building to an apartment of our own. It seemed awkward for two young women to be living together with so many men. And I wanted to pay my own way, as it were, to not feel that I was relying on the group for my support. It mattered to me that I not owe anyone anything, that I not be in a position of being asked for something I might be unwilling to give.
So Zysla and I set up in a little apartment down the street, and we came by to Itamar's apartment every morning. We had all been given food stamps, and these entitled us to a certain amount of bread every week. It wasn't enough, but everyone seemed to have a way to get a little extra here and there. One man from Itamar's group, Srulik Rosensweig, worked at the kitchen for the American army, and every few days, he would bring us some cans of soup. Zysla and I used these rations to make breakfast for everyone in the apartment. In the mornings, we would open the cans and skim from the top the little bits of fat floating on the surface. Then we'd spread the slick morsels on the bread we were able to buy with our food stamps. A carbon copy—an odbitke—that's what we called it: We'd press two pieces together, the fat would blend from one side to the other, and we'd have carbon copies of bread flavored with fat. It was delicious, we thought, this breakfast. And it was exquisite to be able to eat, to have something to chew, in the mornings.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 1945. Jack is in the back row, third from the left; I am third from the right
In those days, everyone was looking to start over. The young men wanted to settle down, take care of someone, and have someone take care of them. They wanted other things, too, of course, but it was marriage most of all that they were looking for. If you had a two-minute conversation with a man, he was ready to make a proposal. Even back in Kaunitz, a young man I hardly knew—we had taken an evening stroll together once or twice—gave me a letter offering me "a piece of [his] heart." Maybe he wanted to marry me—I don't know; I had no interest in that. But all around me, there was matchmaking going on: "How about this one? Do you like her?" "What about so-and-so? He's interested in you." People were trying to inch forward into life.
Once we settled in with the group of Radomers, it seemed there were quite a few men interested in me. I find it embarrassing to say this, mortifying even to admit it at this point in my life. Somehow it feels unseemly to speak of myself in this way, as desirable to men. I prefer to say it more discreetly: I was always lucky with people. And that's true, I was. But it's also true that there were men who wanted me, or wanted to make a match with me. I was fairly young, and there were many more men around than women, and, well, that's the way it was. One man tried to get Jack to speak to me on his behalf—Jack joked to me later that this was like asking the cat to give his milk to the mouse. Another man from our group sometimes would come up behind me, if I was standing at the sink washing dishes or maybe tidying up around the apartment. And then he would start to sing softly to me, just by my ear, so only I could hear. He must have thought his singing was a kind of courtship, that he could woo me with his voice. But I wasn't interested in his attentions, or in anyone's. I had been married once already; I knew I wouldn't marry again.
It was different, though, with Jack. He and I were "just friends," as the young people say today. I was fascinated by him, by his stories, and by the simple fact that he was alive.
A woman among the Radomers—Fela Gutman—advised me to stay away from Jack. She claimed that Jack was sickly, even before the war. His mother had died from tuberculosis when he was only seven years old, and except for his brother Mannes, who had moved to America before Jack was even born, all of Jack's brothers and sisters were dead. Reared in a house that people thought was tainted by disease, growing up without a mother, eventually the only living member of his immediate family in Europe, and then made to endure five and a half years in Buchenwald—Jack was surely fragile, Fela claimed, somewhat worn out, somewhat spent.
Later I learned that Fela was speaking on behalf of the man who would sing to me—that he had asked her to try to dissuade me from spending time with Jack. But I wasn't convinced by Fela's warnings. I was intrigued more than put off by Jack's history of hardship. What kind of man could have endured what he did? What kind of man could have survived all that? Of the thirty-two hundred Jews and Poles who were taken to Buchenwald with him, only eleven made it to the end of the war. I thought there had to be some kind of strength, something unbreakable inside him, that made it possible for Jack to have survived.
So Jack and I would spend some time together every day—sometimes a walk in the park if the weather was pleasant, sometimes just moments together on the old velvet couch in the apartment's sitting room. Jack would tell me his stories about the war, reluctantly at first and only in response to my pressing him to go on. But eventually his talking eased, encouraged by my interest, and I would listen to him speak, filled with admiration and pity, in equal measure.
For the first fourteen weeks that he was interned in Buchenwald, Jack was made to work in the rock quarry. Twelve hours