From “Children of the Shadows – Voices of the Second Generation” edited by Kathy Grinblat. University of Western Australia Press in association with Benchmark Publications, 2002.
He was about to arrive. A candidate. Not an ordinary applicant, not someone going for a job, but someone about to take our mother out on a date. This was serious stuff. My younger brother and I realised with utmost gravity the implications of our decision, something akin to the Roman Coliseum; the feeling of almost supreme power, Will we approve or reject?
There had been several candidates already and all had received the big thumbs down; especially the unlucky first candidate. It was not conceivable to approve the first one when there were so many waiting in line. Yes, you could come back and re evaluate his credentials at a later stage but that would be very difficult, especially after a serious and forthright NO from a majority of the panel. There were few split decisions; unanimity was so much more satisfying.
We had a most desirable commodity, if you could call a mother that. One of the prizes going around the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney in those days, the heady early sixties, when you lived on hope. Or more correctly, hopes. Hopes of acceptance, wealth, status and just being part of what was to come. She was wanted alright; pretty, young, a sense of humour, with character, with two young boys (only a slight liability), with manners, multi lingual, a widow and owner of a deli, continental of course; and on display to anyone who wanted to inspect the culinary delights. The cultural context of Mamie was also important. The recipe was middle European, a combination of Hungarian and Czech in slightly unequal parts; it was difficult to ascertain which dominated as there were so many factors involved in that Sydney gemish, but Hungarian was rapidly gaining the upper hand. As a Holocaust survivor, with that tattoo on her forearm, ever present and always raising questions about the past, the present and even attempting to dash the hopes, she was part of that silent conspiracy you could detect but never uncover; but there was a most important ingredient thrown in, in the shape of that queen of cities, Paris. She had lived in Paris for a decade, not just in transit like so many others, and had dipped into the waters of ultimate cultural nectar. When you threw that in and the fact that we spoke French as our mother language, the recipe became irresistible, very hard to duplicate. You could say, unique.
If you wanted to apply, it was quite simple. You first needed to come by and make some quite “appropriate” purchases at the deli. Located at the epicentre of Jewish communal life, Bondi Junction. That was the usual way but there were others. It was the best, because you could choose your time of arrival and you had, only very slightly, the upper hand. After all, the customer is always right. So he stood there at the counter, the widower or the bachelor and made his move while we, the selection panel, made up of Mamie, pronounced in the French way, and her two boys were able to get a preview of what may be coming up. The impressive ones were the big buyers. Those who wouldn’t care about the quantity or quality of their purchases. The imported goods were major choices; French biscuits, Belgian chocolates, Polish cucumbers; in fact anything with an exotic imported label or the rarest cheeses and smallgoods indicating refinement and taste. There were the good looking ones, not very numerous, and the not so good looking ones, more numerous. There were the smart ones, and the dumb ones; no amount of wealth or smoked salami buying was going to get over that liability. They became the butt of our jokes, the dumb ones; how could they even think of obtaining approval with comments like that.
The best buy of all, if only he knew, was the gefilte fish, home made by Mamie and in a class of its own. Not too sweet, just the right texture, great colour and the aspic just sat there, like an ice rink perfect and glistening, adorned with a fresh vermilion carrot slice just to complete the colour composition.
Mamie’s gefilte fish had reached celebrity status, or so it appeared to us as we served behind that high counter gleaning and processing the words, in several languages, within our 11 and 9 year old heads. People talked about it, Mamie talked about it and if you wanted to get at least to first base, as a candidate, you had better talk about it. When the gefilte fish ran out, which was around Thursday afternoon, because this was a Shabbat dish and Friday was the time limit for buying, and the candidate arrived for the buy, he had to express extreme and sincere, if you can fake that, disappointment. That look of dashed hope was important. All was not lost because what he did was place his order for next week; at which time you can come again and a third time with the compliments pre prepared, rehearsed and re rehearsed again. That ritual was major and very difficult to gauge. The sincerity thing again. Excessive praise was not viewed favourably. He had to get it just right. Judged from our Franco Australian viewpoint, the Hungarian excessiveness and sweetness had to be accounted for. We made allowance for that method of self expression; “that’s how they are.” Of course he had to be Jewish; that goes without saying. It is incredible to think that at that time Mamie had been in Auschwitz only 15 years before. It was still us, the Jews, and them, the Goys, for her and her generation. I couldn’t quite see it that way, being in daily contact with all types at school and after all, some of my best friends were Goys.
Mamie had been a widow for about a year. Papie died of lung cancer and unknown to us had been suffering from that and other ailments for years. He had kept it to himself, after all what good did exposing it do to your closest. We had migrated to the other side of the world, away from the cafes, the cobblestones, the artistry, the social milieu and our past on Papie’s decision, when he knew that his time was short. He had sacrificed his last years, where his pain might have had some compensation, to give us hope. The nature of that sacrifice only became clear much later. We weren’t destitute, because Mamie was the worker and we had a business. But it was hard work. For her and for us; she slaved all day behind that counter and we helped after school. When we closed the shop we did the deliveries. This was a difficult task, mainly for Mamie, for whom status mattered. Here we were delivery boys to “our equals”, but who had arrived in Australia before us, who lived in palatial homes, unlike our two bedroom flat and who often used their superior status unflatteringly. We knew it was only a matter of time however until someone would be delivering food to our own palatial home. Of course we would know how to treat them when the time came; with the utmost grace, humility and sensitivity. The candidate was the one who was going to get us on the right side of the delivery scenario.
So here he came, not up to the counter, but to our home, ready to take our mother out on some date. We approved of this naturally. She needed to enjoy life. We wanted her to be happy. Happy in every way, with no compromise. Why should we even contemplate compromise when we knew we could have it all? As he arrived, every action, every word, every item of clothing was fully evaluated and scrutinised. Strangely what I thought myself was only secondary to what Mamie might be thinking. Every decision had to be weighed up with that two sided problem. Yes I like what he just said, but did she? If she wouldn’t, then you didn’t either. It became very hard to know what you really liked yourself.
He had black rimmed glasses, not much hair, quite tall, not overweight, kindly but boring. This was to be, as it turned out, a major factor. Our father had not had any kind of relationship with us. He had been there, all the time, but very distant in his world of books, acid strong coffee and Gitanes unfiltered cigarettes. I can still see him there sitting at the dining room table, the centre of all activity, reading a thousand page book, his head resting on his cranked arm, a half empty blue pack of the dancing gypsy with a full ashtray to the side waiting for the next deposit of residue and a Gitane alight in his stained fingers moving towards his mouth for the next inhalation of smoke and comfort. All these were really barriers that he put up to insulate himself from the outside world, which unfortunately included us. With this background of family relationships, the knowledge that there had to be something better, raised our anticipation of the candidate.
There wasn’t much time. Just a few minutes with some trivial conversation and some form of connection that might linger till the next time. He could do little with us. In fact because of his generation, his values, his age, his background, he found it very difficult to connect at the best of times with two young boys embarking on times that would question all his values. There were no baby sitters while they were out except for the newly marrieds downstairs who were warned of our being alone. We were left with our homework, our TV and sometimes books. Rawhide or Bonanza took precedence on the 61 inch timber panelled HMV console. What presence that had in the home. A presence heightened by the rules set on it. No TV after school, only 1 hour after dinner and only predetermined programs. “Mamie can we please watch TV?” was the question. It was still an intrusion in “life” which consisted of much more serious matters. After a few short hours they returned from the date. Of course it wasn’t called that in those days. There were no labels then, just descriptions, with no strings or baggage attached. Usually, Mamie came in alone, having left the candidate in his car and his solitude. That was a sure sign of rejection; there was no thought of oneself in these matters. This was a family matter which included everyone.
“Alors ?” we asked with anticipation, looking up at her eager for the slightest message. “Ach !” was the answer, punctuated with that downward motion of the hand. We asked in French and were answered in German. Nothing can replace ach for an answer, No details were necessary when the negative was involved. Shrug him off and lets move on to the next one; “ach !”, pregnant with multi faceted meanings ; wasted effort; don’t bother asking, it’s not worth answering; how could I be so stupid; what disdain.
This process was repeated several times and over several months; some followed with ach and some with glimmers of hope. The anticipation of obtaining a positive answer was exciting and fearful at the same time. A complex melange of feelings all wanting to achieve a happy ending for everyone.
Eventually, something had to happen. This kind of adventure cannot continue for long and in the end and in hindsight all the past trials have combined to make that most important decision. But when that time came, somehow the rules had changed. Yes we were consulted, but we knew what the answer had to be. Our leader had made up her mind and all our machinations had to fall into place to confirm the pre determined decision. Candidate No X had passed all the necessary preliminary tests. He had bought gefilte fish regularly, he had visited the deli on pretexts, only around the corner from the factoery (that’s how you pronounce it). That became one of the most important words in our lives; the source of our happiness, our pride, our hopes.
Mamie had made a good choice. Things were not perfect. But we never had any illusions that it would be. Perfection was not one of the hopes in our lexicon. A kind of smooth getting on with things was quite adequate.
The main generator of our hopes was Mamie. She manufactured them daily. Here was another achievement to strive for, usually exemplified by one of the many examples of shining success in the community. Having come out of Auschwitz, that land of the unspeakable, one had to strive. Not striving meant a slow mindless death. The world was offering some compensation to its “survivors”. And we had to grab them with both hands.
Thirty five years later, Mamie and I are walking on Bondi Beach for a morning canter. She is super fit and makes her bodily health a case of survival. None of her friends come anywhere near her stature as a “working” human. I’m trying to keep up with her pace, as we discuss the passers by, sometimes stopping to talk to them, when Mamie casually points to a skin and bone man standing in the waves, so frail looking that any moment now a gust of wind will sweep him away. She points and says “Auschwitz. That’s how they looked, walking skeletons.”
I focus on the object, a darkened wiry back lit silhouette, contrasting perversely with the playful sparkle of sun and sea, and in one instant a giant shadow is cast. Shoah, a deformed monster, dormant, is called to life. By only the slightest breach in normality or by the interplay of words and events, the monster rises to remind us of its presence. For me, the Shoah’s existence is a matter of imagination and empathy; while for Mamie (and her fellow survivors), such insights open up the reality of pain, anguish and stolen lives. Here, imagination cannot cross the bridge to reality.
The walk continues, as our delight at nature’s gifts is singed by the experience of reliving, if only by the smallest fraction the horror of the past.