Gdansk. My father in a pram. That’s his older brother Moshe
standing like a soldier, his cap pushing out his ears.
Grandmother and grandfather on the settee wear borrowed clothing
from the photographer: grandfather a black frock coat over
a high-collared shirt, grandmother some dusty, Edwardian
straight jacket. They’re not smiling. The occasion
is Moshe’s Bar Mitzvah. Father doesn’t remember any of it,
of course, but here’s the photograph.
Grandmother sits in the only chair that they own
in their tiny fifth floor apartment. “Your husband
was seen stealing food. Do you understand the trouble
he’s in?” The ghetto policeman asks. My grandmother is
in her forties with strikingly beautiful brown eyes.
She offers him a boiled potato and opens a jug of wine.
The policeman finishes his potato and takes a drink from the
jug; bits of food wash from his mouth and swirl crazily
in the blood-red liquid. “Tell me, where did you get wine?”
He asks, wiping his mouth with his shirtsleeve. He takes
grandmother’s hand and kisses it softly. She draws
her hand back slowly, curling her fingers into a fist.
“I know nothing of his business,” she says.
“I am a good person. The rabbi can vouch for me,”
she whispers. She unbuttons her blouse. He buries
his head between her breasts, wiping his wet mouth
over her soft skin. She lifts the jug to her lips and drinks.
She blindly reaches for his cigarette pack on the table.
The cigarettes fall from the pack like holy cards
from gilded pages of random scripture. She pulls
him to the floor. The frail light in Moshe’s and my father’s
hiding place beneath the creaking boards turns to darkness.
Father can smell burning flesh. Bodies are scattered
over a wide swath of the compound. He looks around
several times before removing Moshe’s shoe. The photograph
is warm. With eyes closed, he places it under his nose
and draws in his scent. Mouthing the words to El Malei Rachamim
for the dead, he drops the photo to the ground and wipes
his hands on the hand-me-down camp uniform, remembering
the story — grandfather complaining about borrowed threads.