Friday, October 19, 2007

The One Who Said Hi

We are having coffee and cookies after Friday night services, the first half of my friend's son's Bar Mitzvah. I am talking to Lily, one of my favorite older ladies at the synagogue, about her knitting, and how I haven't picked mine up since the day she sat so patiently and tried to teach me how to purl.

Just listening to her talk in her still-somewhat-Germanic accent makes me remember something I've been wanting to ask her for a while. "Lily," I say, "do you still speak fluent German?"

"I wouldn't say I'm fluent any more," she replies slowly, sipping at a cup of coffee. "I can read it fine, and I have no trouble understanding it when it's spoken, but I always end up putting English words in when I try to speak it."

She puts the cup down on a nearby table; her hands shake a lot these days. But she doesn't really pause before saying, "You know, there's this woman who looked me up just recently. And we've been writing back and forth, but I write to her in English and her husband reads it for her, and of course she writes to me in German. She still lives in the town I grew up in, and we went to school together. Well, until 1938, of course. After that I wasn't allowed to go to school any more, because God forbid the German children should have to sit next to a Jew."

She says this all in the same conversational, smiling, wry voice she uses for almost any topic. This is, apparently, almost any topic.

I knew that Lily grew up in Nazi Germany. As part of a 'living history' project the synagogue's been doing, the bnai mitzvah classes have been interviewing all the older members of the congregation. I remember watching Lily's interview before I knew her well at all, and having tears run down my cheeks the entire time as she talked into the camera about being part of the kindertransport. I'd even spoken with her before about her time in England, where she lived for a number of years before coming to the United States, since I myself had a spent a year in Scotland. Under vastly different circumstances, of course.

Still, there is something about this offhanded comment, made over chocolate-chips and a cup of decaf, that feels more devastating even than that interview. And then, without much of a pause, she adds, "I always remembered her, though, because she was the only German girl who would still say hi to me after that, if she saw me on the street." This, too, is said calmly, smilingly, and I am completely incapable of doing anything more than nodding to indicate that I've understood the words, even if I still cannot really comprehend them.

And she continues telling me about how this woman tracked her down, and how there are other people she's hoping to get in touch with, and, "Oh, will you be here tomorrow for morning services? We need someone with steadier hands than mine to hold the trays of wine for the bar mitzvah guests."

And then the rabbi comes up to wish us a good Sabbath, and the conversation shifts again, and I have two more cookies and another half-cup of coffee and talk with another friend about a fundraiser we have coming up and then gather my family and go home, even as I'm wondering how I'm ever going to live with the image of a teenaged Lily walking in her home town, suddenly invisible, and the gratitude she must have felt for a single raised hand, and a simple, "Hi."


po said...

I'm speechless. This is such a clear example of how the extraordinary and incomprehensible can become mundane to the people who live it.

Rich | Championable said...

I'm just not so sure those circumstances are as extraordinary as we'd like to think. I think they are all-too-common things taken to extraordinary and horrible LENGTHS, but not so unusual, as a base behavior. I think that's the sad truth of the world, and has been for a very, very long time.

In terms of adjusting: what else is there to do? You either adjust to and assimilate the past, or you let it burn your insides to cinders.