What remains of an 8-year-old boy who was murdered?
Testimonial page at Yad Vashem: "Delivered in Tel-Aviv, 26.3.1956, by Rina Govrin (formerly, Regina Poser-Laub ), 'wife' (widow ) of: Laub Gabriel. Place and country of birth: Przemysl, Poland. Place of death: Hovniki, near Przemysl. Married. Number of children: 1."
At the bottom of the page: "Names of children under 18 who perished: Mordechai. Age: 8. Place and date of death: 14.5.1944, Auschwitz."
Mordechai Laub. Marek.
The testimonial page and a couple of photographs were in the small album bound in soft brown suede, hidden in Mother's dresser. Nights when I was left alone, the only daughter of a second marriage, in a third-floor apartment in Tel Aviv, my little girl's hand groped for the album. I removed it with a pounding heart, and my dread obscured the features of the boy in the yellow photograph, with faintly-slanted almond eyes.
Grinning under smooth shining hair, combed to the side, wearing shorts with suspenders. Standing upright, at once bold and bashful. He'd stare straight back at me, with a slight movement of the mouth, somewhere between a smile and a serious look of concentration, before I hastened, my heart beating fast, to slip the album back into its hiding place.
Mother's flicker of words, her face illumined: "I'd take Marek out onto the balcony covered in snow, to have him breathe the cold air. The governess was horrified, but I'd bundle him up and take him out." Or in a soft, caressing voice: "I would bring Marek a gogel-mogel." Without my knowing this dish with such a strange name, or my imagining under what terrifying circumstances Mother would "bring" it. And when she died 25 years ago, Mother took with her Marek's features lodged within her, his gestures, his outbursts of tears, and his mirth.
And yet, I knew him. From up close. He pressed against me in Mother's bosom. She bent over him too when she stooped over my cradle, singing in her molten, golden voice to both of us in a tongue that was foreign to me: "Aha, Aha, kotki dvah, aye li loo li, loo li la." He was hovering by me like an obscure shadow. Mother's son. For years. Without my even daring to say, "my brother."
Marek. The beloved son of Regina and Gutek Laub, the owner of successful lumber mills in Przemysl. A spacious flat, a modern apartment building, the first with an elevator in the entire city. In a room filled with toys he plays, perhaps, with the electric train Father brought back from Vienna, and the tiny carriages chug up the bridges, the rising barrier-bars, the small lake, the curving rails. The train I yearned for in the modest apartment in the tenement block for state employees in Tel Aviv when Father, Pinchas Govrin, Mother's second husband, built with me a grocery with a miniature scale made of cardboard, and real flour.
A dreamy, mischievous child, climbing up the trunk of the chestnut tree in the garden, clasping it with his strong hands and his legs half-exposed in shorts. "Marek! Marek! You naughty boy!" the governess calls after him in exasperation. He must have been like that, because I too climbed the pine trees alongside the freshly planted grass that grew under different skies between new, white buildings, hugging the rough-barked trunk that oozed sap.
Mother never told me how Gutek was murdered and hanged in public, or how she'd removed his body from the scaffold in spite of the injunction against doing so, in order to give him a proper burial, as I was informed years after her death. How had Marek reacted? Did he leave his room for the vestibule when the driver from the lumber mill rang the doorbell, holding his cap in his hands, and in the end lifting his face, darkened with fear, toward Mother, and say, "They hung Pani Laub"? How Marek, behind Mother's petrified body, clings to her, and the pain slices through him, like slivers of glass from the lamp he lets fall as he rushes back to his room sobbing bitterly, gasping for air, just as my throat would constrict when Mother's body stiffened and for no visible reason her face clouded over. And how, left alone, Mother and Marek traveled in haste from Przemysl to Krakow, to the grandparents who had already been driven into the ghetto? And what did Marek do in the ghetto?
One day I gave a lecture at a university in New Jersey. At the end of the lecture a sensitive-looking man with bright, penetrating eyes came up to me. "My mother is from Krakow too," he said. "I think we once spent a summer together in Safed." "Could be," I said, recalling the Polish conversations Mother conducted with strangers, as I, dragged along, a solitary child, would stand by her side in agony in the clear morning air. "I'll ask her on the phone whether she knew your mother," he suggested. "Yes, do ask her."
And the following day I received an e-mail with the answer: "My mother said she was well acquainted with your mother. Also in Safed. She said that as a matter of fact she had been your half-brother's kindergarten teacher in the ghetto, and in the same breath she described his dreadful death."
Already in Tel Aviv, in the apartment of the former kindergarten assistant in the preschool that had been formed in the Krakow ghetto, I'd heard from her directly, "I remember very well the day your mother came to the kindergarten. A tall, elegant woman, holding Marek's hand. 'This is my child,' she said, 'he needs special attention,' she added, 'he's gone through a lot. His father was murdered.' I can't get that child out of my head," she said.
"You know, there were a lot of children, and one can't remember all of them. But your brother" - I shuddered - "I can't get him out of my head. Always neatly dressed, tall for his age. A very bright child. Sometimes he'd burst out in laughter, and sometimes in anger. He was a natural leader. The children followed his every word."
Mother's elderly cousin is the only other person left who still holds on to a shred of his memory, as, after being confined in the ghetto, she lived with the rest of the large family in an overcrowded apartment. However, she spoke sparingly, "I remember him ...," she'd say. "Yes, the boy was tall for his age, very bright" - same expression - "he liked to draw."
Stored in cartons in the Yad Vashem archives are onion-thin carbon copies, crabbed lines printed in German. Testimony taken down from my mother in 1973 in the police division for the investigation of Nazi war crimes. In the charges pressed against one of the commanders of the Krakow ghetto, she describes the Aktion, as she saw it from her hideaway in the garret over Zgodi Square, "which I prepared for my son and myself."
Horrifying descriptions, of people shoved into the square, shots, strewn dead bodies, the sick flung out of the windows of the hospital for the treatment of chronic diseases. A family she knows passes by, and the accused aims his pistol at them. She doesn't hear the shot, only sees the bodies falling. "I couldn't keep looking," words from her testimony jump at me, "for I was hiding with my son and I couldn't leave him."
And suddenly they are there, both of them, in the garret. With the booklets she perhaps prepared for him for when the time came. Marek, already nearly 7, holding tightly on to his teddy bear, so that Mother wouldn't hear how fast his heart was beating, for he could hear barking and shouts and children crying, screaming outside. He clasps his teddy bear with all his might and tries to shut his ears.
And then, probably drowsy from the sleeping pills he'd been given, he is concealed in a rucksack in spite of his long limbs, borne on Mother's back during the liquidation of the ghetto and, at the climax of the Aktion, the rounding up of the children of the ghetto. Bearing him on her back during the march to the Plaszow Camp, among the few children who'd been smuggled in with their mothers.
And how, mornings, when the women left to work in the sewing workshop - the Stickerei - alone in the women's barracks, he'd gather around him other children, perhaps, who'd been smuggled in. And evenings, when Mother returns, she always brings something. "She was the only one who bartered in goods," Erna, who worked with her in the stickerei, told me, "because she had a child." And once again the gogel-mogel surfaces from the egg she whisked into a thin layer of foam. And the voices speaking to me about the sewing workshop capo, who discovered the egg Riga Laub "had arranged," and how she faced him when he threatened to send her to the firing squad, and standing erect she rebuked him in front of all the female interns, he should be ashamed of himself for "betraying his people." And an ominous silence descended around her, like the time when all of a sudden in a bus in Tel Aviv, Mother rebuked in so many words the bus driver, who lowered his head in silence. "He was a kapo," two incomprehensible syllables muttered under her breath as we got out of the bus.
And then, after the order was given to round up the children who'd been smuggled into Plaszow, I read documents describing how they hid every morning in the latrines. How did they play there? And how were they caught in the end and transferred to the Kinderheim? And did Marek stand out there too, nearly 8 years old, a bright, mischievous child? Did he tell the children who gathered round him about the moonbeams, which bore them at night beyond the cracks of the barracks in a tiny electric train far far from the shots, the yelping of the ferocious dogs, the women pushing wheelbarrows laden with rocks, and the scorched smell of burning bodies?
I refuse to think of Marek, shoved with the other children of the Kinderheim into the truck, covered by a black tarpaulin, their hands protruding from under the black canvas in one mighty outcry, "Mama! Mama!" The outcry drowned out by the singsong of German lullabies, resounding from the loudspeakers hung from the trees around the Appelplatz with calculated sadism, transmitting live the Mother's Day celebrations from Germany, muffling with gay melodies the screams of 20,000 prisoners and the fusillade coming from the machine guns of the beefed-up unit that surrounded them, firing at the mothers running after the black trucks bearing their children away to Auschwitz, to the gas chambers.
And the last hours.
In Bnei Brak, in a heavily furnished apartment, I meet one of the ultra-Orthodox women who stuck together and survived as a group of 10, including Mother, the only secular Jew among them. "When we reached Auschwitz," she recounts, "we were left for the entire night outside, next to the gas chambers. There were some women who prayed. There were others who threw themselves on the electric barbed-wire fence. Your mother told me, "Let's look." She led me behind the gas chambers. There was a little birch grove. And she scrutinized the tree trunks. "Maybe Marek left me a sign. Maybe he wrote something to me."
Many years later, when I arrived with my eldest daughter to what had been turned into the Auschwitz museum, over there, near the ruins of the gas chambers, my body froze. I moved with effort, retreated toward the solitary birch trees. Scrutinizing the tree trunks as my head spun. From afar could be heard the voices of the visitors, the tour groups. I feebly removed from my handbag a plastic knife. I carved an M on a tree trunk, slowly. M, Marek, Mama, Michal. As if this way, one line after another, a boy would join us for a moment, who'd certainly turn into a handsome man, his already graying hair parted to the side. A boy in shorts and suspenders, gazing through slightly slanted eyes. Bright, mischievous. Marek. Standing for a moment among birch trees, on the thin grass.
Translated from the Hebrew by Gabriel Levin. Michal Govrin's novel, "Love On The Shore" (Ha'hava al ha'chof) will be published by Hasifria Hahadasha/Hakibbuz Hameuchad.
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