The Beautiful Gathering
by A.C. Mehler
The kitchen door closes behind me. I hold tight to my cane and steady myself on the new-mown grass.
In this innocent garden, delicate coral bells send up tiny flowers to wave on impossibly thin stems, and caterpillars become butterflies far from the hate that curdles in the past and in the present. And David and Daniel and Eli are not dead.
Maybe because the bleeding hearts that fade in the heat of summer to stalks we’re sure are dry come back each spring whispering, We are alive. Or because the elms, no matter how hard the winter, come back taller, fuller, offering more shade, more protection from the wind.
Or perhaps because it's my daughter’s garden.
When she was a baby, Salek let Dana climb all over him and ride everywhere on his shoulders and sit behind the wheel of the jalopy he’d traded for two pairs of rabbits and got her a puppy I didn’t want and made up stories for her about people wandering the Frankfurt streets, and after he got an atlas, about the corner of the Andes to which, when she was four, we finally got visas. And when eventually, we made our way to New York, he walked arm in arm with our thirteen-year-old girl each Sunday afternoon in Fort Tryon Park. Rescued coins from pant cuffs and under cushions to buy her bits and bobs in Times Square. Complimented all the inedible food she made for him on the weekends I cooked at the mid-town nursing home. But he didn’t cheer her graduation, cum laude, from NYU, or suffer her terrifying dispatches: Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Guatemala, and god knows where else because I stopped reading. He didn’t meet our son-in-law, a tall, thin, waxed-mustache-wearing genocide journalist who this morning came back from Darfur. He never knew our grandson, Davey, bright and sturdy and in love with Thomas the Train.
The summer Dana was seventeen, the "family" we’d left behind five years before when we came to New York made her a gift of a ticket to visit them. Which is why she was in Quito when we rented—to get away from the Manhattan-in-August heat for a couple of weeks (and as my birthday present, Salek said)—a half-share in one of the wood cabins around Lake Oscawana near a rock formation as peculiar as the family that rented the other half and two minutes walk to the lake. Each morning, I arranged my striped beach chair and its matching umbrella on shore, read Conan Doyle novels, and watched for the occasional stork. Salek swam. One morning toward the end of our two weeks, he walked out of the lake rubbing his left arm.
You can meet me there, he said as he lifted himself to the gurney in the back of the red and white Pontiac Bonneville whose enormous chrome siren, curiously imbued with stylish flair, jutted like a proclamation from its right front fender. Get some clothes on, he called, laughing. The starched attendant closed the ambulance doors.
An evening gust rumbles through Dana’s garden.
Unsteadily, I make my way to the bench. Grammy’s bench, Davey calls it. It takes several tries to light one of the Chesterfields I pull from the pocket of my old gray sweater, and when I finally succeed, the smoke is as hard on my tongue as if it were gravel. Unyielding. Like our misunderstandings. Like the unsteady silence, full of what we couldn’t leave behind, that always followed.
Another gust. This one carries the promise of winter.
In Lithuania, winter means rain.
It stabs the walls of tenements at night, and by the time you have to get up for your work detail, has found its way inside and swollen the boiled wool blanket still damp from the night before. Your sons’ young bodies are almost warm. You don’t feel for your husband’s. You might wake him. So you wait. Not for the dawn that in two hours will seep through slits in the munitions factory walls—just for one more minute. You refuse to deprive him of even a single second of sleep.
But David wasn’t sleeping.
He’d yanked out a strand of hair and was pulling at its ends.
It’s strong, he said.
Drew his tongue along the inside of a forearm. Salt is good, right?
I wrapped my arm around him.
He’d always been thin, even dressed in his hat and coat, his tie carefully knotted against the plaid vest he was never without, running out the kitchen door in the morning, a satchel overfilled with student papers against his chest and a piece of toast between his teeth. But now, he was almost lost inside his once-white shirt.
I wonder why they didn’t put that place completely inside the barbed wire, he murmured.
What place, David?
The guardhouse. Its toilets flushed. Lights twinkled in its windows. Water ran from its faucets, and anytime anyone wanted, into teakettles. It jutted into the free world, a strange brown hump-like structure flouting the wall that penned us in. David insisted it was possible to leave this blighted enclosure through the guardhouse, but as far as I knew, no prisoners had done it.
I got closer yesterday, he said, propelling himself up off the floor and throwing off the blanket that covered us.
Up. Up. Time to get up, he bellowed.
My sister-in-law, startled awake by his yelling, popped from my brother’s dark-brown coat like a scruffy Jack-in-the-Box. After a moment’s blankness, she lit the candle stub, lifted practiced nurse’s hands to sleep-messed curls, tugged them into their usual twist, folded the long thick overcoat that had covered her family, and woke my brother with a kiss. Their three tow-headed daughters too.
We’d been captured at our dinner table not quite five months after my release from a Soviet prison. Curtains drawn (to hide the brief flicker of tapers snuffed after prayers between thumb and index finger to make them last) hands on spoons about to plunge into watery potato soup. The Lithuanian partisans who broke down our door said, so you can continue your party, as they cast us into this ragged room empty of everything but a bird-like woman, her head and shoulders covered in a black shawl, her arm around a tearful teenage girl rubbing a bruised and naked foot. They crouched under glass-girdled gaps in the wall. All that was left of once ornate windowpanes.
As a truck roared by, its headlights pierced them.
And traveled along the rain-warped floorboards to the brown leather boots of the partisans who, in a tangle of oaths and laughter, thundered out the door.
This is our room, the bird-like woman proclaimed in a high-pitched cry, cutting through the acrid smell of bar exhaust.
And heaving herself up,
I won’t cower in some rat-infested basement or in some attic no higher than a rabbit warren. This. Is. Our. Room.
She opened the door the partisans had slammed and, standing in front of it, threw her cupped hands across her body and over a shoulder again and again. She was shoveling us out.
My brother’s lips flapped like the mouths of those river trout he caught when we were kids.
My sister-in-law patted his cheek and steered him and their daughters into a corner.
My husband corralled us behind him and backed us into the one opposite.
The woman kept shoveling.
The bruised foot girl hopped over and closed the door.
Mama, she implored.
At daybreak, my brother’s twelve-year-old unzipped herself from the puppy-like clutch of younger sisters and, lifting her face to the slashes of pink teasing the broken window, murmured, I’m hungry.
David stood. I’ll see what I can find.
No, I’ll go, my brother said.
We’ll go together.
Over the next three days, we took turns going out in pairs. Late on the third day, I went with the woman (Judith, but everyone calls me Jutka). We roamed the streets for half an hour before we saw a wagon heaped in ash-covered loaves of bread and paid sixty of my rapidly dwindling groszy, twice the price my neighborhood bakery charged, for one. Still, I was relieved the bread seller hadn’t asked for the rubles everyone demanded since the Russian invasion. Jutka pulled the scarf from her head, tenderly brushed the ashes into it, and took the little black hobo pack of cinders into the alley behind us.
That night I dreamt Jutka swayed back and forth from the alley like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, cheerful and frog legged and carrying a scarf-wrapped package that, hilariously, grew with each trip. I clapped. Until the bloated scarf gave way to a huge pile of ashes, and she disappeared underneath. I woke in a sudden, terrifying rush.
Jutka’s corner was empty.
I put my shoes on.
The front doors parted to the clamor of knee-high dust whirlwinds vaulting from curb to curb. To bits of cloth and straw and paper chasing each other across rain-puddled streets and gathering in small moonlit hills only to scatter against the tenements. To a barefoot woman howling and running in circles on the icy cobblestones. And to a bearded man who tossed his head in the woman’s direction and through missing front teeth, in heavily accented strangely organized speech, lisped,
Yesterday they have combed the streets, the Lithuanian partisans. Her husband has hidden her under a pile of trash, but him, they grabbed. They shoot him. She see. They shoot three thousand no can find house in ghetto. Germans take pictures.
The woman pounded the stones with her fists.
The bearded man went to her.
Something vaguely sweet burst on my tongue. It burned as it trickled down my throat.
In the distance, the empty ash-covered-bread cart shuttled by.
We never saw Jutka or her daughter again.
Our boys had spent August with my brother and sister-in-law and their three girls in the summerhouse we shared along the banks of the Vilnia, just over the Polish border. It’s a long river and stretches to Vilnius (the river doubtless the source of the city’s name) where my brother and I grew up.
I’d been glad to send the boys. My brother, a pediatrician, was really good with kids, one of those people who was himself while hunting for perfect stones with his girls or building miniature roads for our sons’ improvised cars, or even, with stick rifles and the girls as hostages, playing at the war the papers had been talking about for months. We thought it was just talk. Hitler was something we shook our heads at. We read only buffoonery in the little man, his heated nationalism no more than a bad joke. And we scorned the people who’d elected him. Political discussions at our university faculty coffees usually ended in the certainty that Hitler would let those supporters down sooner or later and they would turn on him. Nothing serious will happen, we assured each other. But the first day of September 1939, two days after my husband had gone to bring the boys home to Kovno from their summer holiday, Hitler marched into Poland. All travel was canceled, both coming and going. No phone, either.
My husband-and-child-empty-house whispered in the dark,
If they were safe, David would find a way to get in touch, wouldn’t he?
I tightened my hand on the kitchen knife I’d slipped under my pillow.
Four weeks passed.
Poland was defeated and partitioned between the Nazis and the Soviets. Stalin gave Vilnius back to Lithuania. A gift, he said. But David, who’d often been the lone dissenting voice among our colleagues when the evening chats turned to politics, claimed (during the long-distance phone call we managed a week after Stalin’s proclamation) that he wasn’t convinced by Stalin’s gesture or by the respite that followed, and in staccato bursts over the disjointed static of our terrible connection, added,
I think. Vilnius. Might be safer. Than Kovno.
Kovno had been made the seat of government.
He went on to tell me how well he liked the university in Vilnius. Which unlike the one in Kovno, he said, has a strong history department. We’d be able to teach a variety of advanced classes. There are vacancies…
I said nothing.
Neither, for a while, did David.
In the end, we decided I’d finish out our terms at Kovno (I’d already been covering David’s classes as well as teaching my own) join him and the boys in Vilnius in January, and use the spring to set up our new home. Spend the summer at the river house. Plenty of time to go back to teaching in the fall. Maybe things would be different by then.
In the months that followed, thousands of Polish Jews sought refuge in Vilnius. Journalists. Writers. Lawyers. Physicians. Teachers. They crowded in cafés to discuss the war and before long, barred from work and penniless, in soup kitchens. But it wasn’t only Polish Jews who couldn’t get work. Despite the vacancies at the university, David couldn’t either.
We decided I’d stay on in Kovno through the spring.
And when by April, things were no better, I signed up to teach summer school.
On June 15th, the summer semester in full swing, the Soviets invaded Lithuania.
The Lithuanian Activist Front, which had been making noises since the November before promising to “purge the Lithuanian nation of its Jews” (so far only a promise even if it made for troubled times) papered Kovno with literature blaming “jew outsiders, enemies of ordinary people” for the occupation. On my way home from teaching a night class, I ran into one of their posters. A bald man’s face—outlined in heavy black on mushroom-colored sheets—plastered the bottom half of a building. Threatening mouth. Beady, treason-filled eyes. Weak chin. Hairy moles. A sinister hooked nose. Above each grotesque image, a black Star of David. And in large block letters, JEW.
A passing scooter caught the building’s ground-level windows in its headlight, and in one of them, a disheveled young woman holding a just watered geranium. She saw me, set the oozing pot on the windowsill, and wiped her hands on her apron. Our eyes met for a moment, and she smiled. Her right arm shot out in a Nazi salute.
I don’t remember how I got home, but I still see myself wrenching open the small bathroom window and throwing myself in. As I lunged and twisted, my house keys fell out of my coat pocket and stunningly, soundlessly, clattered to the blue tile floor. I sat in David’s reading chair all night, the keys clutched in a fist as rigid as the saluting woman’s arm.
By the time I realized I was still wearing my coat, it was morning. I shook it out and brushed it and drank a cup of tea, and hiding under David’s large black umbrella as if from a downpour, made myself go to the weekly summer faculty meeting.
After the department chair’s gavel called the agitated teachers to order, instead of the program notes and calendar updates and syllabus changes she usually provided, she declared, in a small voice, They’re talking again of closing the university. Some students…
It was a very short meeting. When I left, I hunkered so far down under David’s umbrella that when I ran into Darius, I literally ran into him. Slender, tall, a shock of blond hair always falling over his blue eyes, known for activism on campus, he was one of my best students. His two companions were also history students though not mine. They were all on their way to afternoon jobs at a bakery I knew for its braided egg bread. Challah. The baker’s wife made it every Friday. It was just like the loaves that as a child, I helped my mother bake for Sabbath dinner.
Darius tapped an index finger on my umbrella and said, laughing, It hasn’t rained for several days, Professor.
And relieving me of my nervous efforts to roll it up, Let me help you.
I was headed to your bakery, Darius, I lied. I’ll walk with you.
Just as we reached the store, a boy, university insignia on his jacket, face still marked by adolescent acne, came out wielding a long stout pole and yelling purvini žydai, purvini žydai. The pole had blood and hair on it. I learned later that when the boy struck the baker, his wife rushed in, and the boy hit her on the head. It was her blood and hair.
Purvini Žydai, the boy screamed again. Dirty Jews.
They’re not Jewish, I stammered. She just bakes Challah.
Shh, Professor, Darius said, reaching for my umbrella, I know that boy. You two, he said to his friends, take the professor home. Don’t run.
The green-uniform-wearing would-be historians linked arms with me. Darius adjusted his own green uniform, and with a friendly wave of the metal-pointed umbrella, called, Hello, Matis, hello. It’s you, isn’t it? It is!
The would-be historians vowed, This will pass, Professor. It will pass.
But before I could eat my way through the apples and cheese and bread I planned to live on until it did, Soviet soldiers shot through the door and accused me, like they had hundreds of others, of being an enemy of the state.
We were herded into a makeshift courtroom in groups of five, charged, and told we’d be held over for trial. Then we were dragged back to the cells. Everyone but the man who asked, When? When will my trial be? They hurled him out a different door.
I swore to myself that when my trial came, I’d keep my husband and my boys safe (no matter what, you won’t tell them where they are). But my trial didn’t come. By the time I started marking the wall each time the guards slopped out the once-daily bowls of gruel, my small breasts had all but disappeared. As had much of my hair. One winter morning, I woke to frostbitten fingers. After that, I slept with my hands under my arms. But I didn’t get diphtheria or typhoid. I didn’t die.
And one day, without explanation, armed soldiers pushed the few emaciated women out of the cell, through the gates of the prison, and into a sweet-smelling summer afternoon.
Four light-filled days later, I knocked on the door to my brother’s house. She’s alive, my sister-in-law screamed when she opened it. Guta’s alive!
That night, after I’d bathed yet again and lay against the linen-covered pillows of what seemed like an impossibly soft bed, staring at the lights of Vilnius clustered in the window, my husband asked, Why do you think they let you go?
So I can barter for food, I said six months later when I told David I’d volunteered for his forced labor detail. Women have better luck. And the marches to and from the ghetto give me four hours a day.
Two are in the middle of the night. Guta. And bartering is a shooting offense.
I glanced over at our starving boys.
David lifted long delicate fingers, so like my father’s, to my cheek.
Hooligans, my father had said, combing through my mud-encrusted child’s curls with his gentle fingers, running them over my bruised arms, sliding them over my torn dress. Poor and uneducated. They don’t know any better, my sweet angel.
My brother, four years older, the shadow of a mustache on his upper lip, fifteen-year-old cheeks exploding in spots and blotches, chimed in: And, my sweet angel, Hitler promised the poor and uneducated to make their country great again and blames its misery on the Jews and swears he’ll make the "poisonous race" pay for it and the poor and uneducated want a piece of that. Of us.
I started to cry.
Shah. Shah, my father crooned, cleaning my face of mud and spit. He hissed at my brother. You’re as bad as those thugs. She’s a baby.
It’s not just thugs, Papa, my brother insisted, his voice cracking. It’s nationalists like Hugenberg and his newspapers, and business owners and industrialists who pay for Hitler’s hoopla. And … she’s not a baby.
My father glared at him.
My brother’s bare feet smacked the just-waxed parquet as he disappeared down the hall. It was a raw and sticky sound.
Come. Let’s clean you up, my darling, my father said, kissing the top of my head. This too will pass.
This. Too. Will. Pass.
It. Has. To. Pass.
This. Will. Not. Last.
It. Can. Not. Last.
March. Two. Three. Four.
One. Two. Three. Four.
To and from the munitions factory.
One hundred and eighty-two marches on the night that ended with David’s pre-dawn ramblings about the guardhouse.
The next morning, as if foretelling disaster, the artillery shells I filled quivered in my hands. After the factory sentries set their weapons against the wall, ate their lunch, and pulled cigarette packs from their pockets, the shrill siren—its promise as hollow as the steam rising from the turnip broth two prisoners carried in—whistled through the plant. Slave women lined up. And behind them, men. Heads bent. Tin bowls clutched in starving hands.
One of the guards, a cigarette hanging from his lips, pointed at me and at the broom next to my station. Snapped his fingers. I stepped out of line, picked up the broom, and swept, eyeing the advancing line of male prisoners from time to time. No David. Maybe they’d sent him somewhere. Or he was way in the back. That’d be good. He’ll get some of the turnips in the bottom of the barrel. I filled the rubbish drum with cardboard fragments and aluminum dust and dragged it outside.
The guard stationed at the dumpster usually left his post during our soup time to go to the latrine. Smoke with his buddies. Only steps beyond where he usually stood, past the factory sign, past a cracked sidewalk no longer filled with people pushing prams or on their way to church or market or work, across a street no longer loud with city noises, lived a woman who traded with prisoners.
She had a telephone.
I emptied the trashcan, lifted it to my shoulder, and carried it across the street as if I’d been ordered to do it.
Latrine. Smoking. Buddies.
In front of the woman’s kitchen door, I slipped my hand under my shift and took out the Belgian lace collar I’d hidden in case there was a chance to barter. Images of our holiday in Bruges rose from the bit of filigree: cobblestone paths, brick archways, stone churches, quaint bridges. Canals like strings of pearls. Swans on the water. Horse-drawn carriages. Daffodils.
The woman cracked the door open, her face as flushed as if a too-tight corset hid under her colorless tunic. Warm air heavy with garlic and onions wafted out. I offered the bit of lace, stretching it gently between TNT yellowed hands.
Bread? she asked.
I looked at the ground. A phone call. Please.
She caressed the lace between thumb and forefinger. Cleared her throat a couple of times. Shoved the collar into the pocket of her apron and, with a single sideways nod of her head, waved me in.
My words tumbled into the wall-phone like potatoes from a hole in a burlap sack.
David’s friend, a historian who now worked for the government, cried,
God help us all. This horror cannot last. Dear God. It will pass. It has to pass. Dear God, Guta, I have small children … I can’t … God forgive me, I can’t … Aš labai atsiprašau … I’m so sorry … I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.
The woman dropped a bar of soap into a tin bucket, filled it from a copper faucet, took a cloth from a cupboard, and plunged it into the soapy water. Her thick hands squeezed the rag and, eyes on me, swung it toward the door she’d opened. Drops of water flew through the air and landed on the shiny floor. As I replaced the handset in its cradle, a curious lightness crept into my hands as if they too would fly. In the distance, the factory siren marked the end of soup time.
Then everything went black.
You fainted, the woman said through the tea towel she held to protect herself from the Jewish diseases people were warned about, prodding me with the toe of a sensible brown shoe. I scrambled to my feet and lurched toward the door. Wait, she said, reaching for a tin box and taking out a loaf of bread wrapped in an embroidered napkin, a colorful flower-strewn cross-stitch of children dancing in a circle.
Ring around the rosy. A pocket full of posies.
Ashes. Ashes. All fall down.
She took a block of cheese from a sideboard, added a wedge of it to a thick piece of bread, and put them on the floor. Pushed them toward me with the tip of her sensible shoe.
I’ve been ordered to clean the rubbish shed, Sir, I’d say to the dumpster guard to explain being out. He wouldn’t check until after the return march was underway, so I’d have plenty of time to pass the bread and cheese to David. Maybe he wouldn’t check at all. Or, if he did and I was lucky, I’d get away with a beating.
But the dumpster guard wasn’t there.
There was a small lightning-shaped crack in the wall behind his post.
It opened to the factory floor.
Where, at stilled work stations, hands behind their backs, prisoners cast hidden glances at the guards clumped around the smoking gauges used to test the seal of weapon bores. The dumpster guard’s head (I recognized his severely parted, side-shaved coal-black hair) appeared and disappeared among them.
I didn't stop to think. Carried the trashcan to its place at the factory’s side entrance, pulled open the heavy metal door, and picked up the broom just inside. Holding my breath, I swept my way to my post.
A few minutes passed. The smoke subsided. The back-to-work whistle blew. The guards shouldered their rifles and yelled us to attention.
And started the afternoon headcount.
That night, after our sons had devoured the bread and cheese, David, his voice hoarse and wounded, one hand gentle on each sleeping boy’s head, muttered,
A hunk of bread and cheese makes it all better. Poor little animals. We’re not human anymore. Do as we’re told to prevent punishment, like animals. Know nothing about the world around us, like animals. No Papers. Radios. Calendars. Is it even still 1941? I know one thing, though. They’re going to kill us.
David. No. They wouldn’t organize our lives if they wanted to kill us. They wouldn’t bother with policemen and representatives and work details.
A few seconds passed before he started crooning the lullaby I sang to the boys.
Under your cradle sleeps a small white goat that goes to market to peddle its goods. One day you’ll go to market and sell raisins and almonds.
Sleep, my little love, sleep.
After that, silence parted us like a knife.
Until the night, a few days later (my brother and sister-in-law and their eldest daughter not yet back from their work details, the two younger girls asleep in their corner) that David said we were to turn over any valuables we might still have.
And our representatives, our policemen?
Our representatives are going to see that it’s done in an orderly way.
David … I started, but at our feet, Daniel coughed.
Two for you, Eli, one for me, he rasped, cross-legged, ripping old newsprint into bits, feeding his little brother.
A blood-filled scream rose from my body and choked me. I coughed. But it was the only sound I made.
I wedged the three remaining Meissen figurines, the photograph of the four of us in its pencil-thin silver frame, and the gold-nib fountain pen my father gave me (that even David didn’t know I’d kept) behind the loosest board in the ceiling.
I put David’s watch and my wedding band into his old book satchel. He carried it to a place by the entry. Our representatives heaped it and the other worn baggage on the waiting trucks.
Two days later, our representatives were called to the guardhouse. When they returned, they announced that three hundred men—lawyers, doctors, engineers, and university professors—were demanded for a special assignment some distance away. My brother and David were on the list.
Two of our policemen came for them, and David kissed my forehead, my cheeks, my hair, my lips. He held the boys. Said, I’ll be back soon.
We followed him to the street. And watched as three abreast, our best young men began their march to the train. Each carried a small parcel. In David’s were the two potatoes I’d traded for my fountain pen.
They didn’t go a dozen steps before he turned back.
The sun has set on Dana’s garden.
To the invisible coral bells and the blackly rustling elms and the faded bleeding hearts, I say,
We named that first small selection The Beautiful Gathering.
I don’t say,
We didn’t name any others, though they became the calendar by which we marked time’s passing. For example, That was before they took the old people. Or, My sister-in-law died a month after the action that took the children. Or even, I’m not sure. Between selections, the winter before last.
The kitchen door whines.
My daughter and her husband come toward me, but I cannot see them. They are lost in the fallen dark.
Then, one by one, the sparklers on the birthday cake in Dana’s hands flare into stars.
And wrestling a white floppy poster almost as big as he’s tall, on which earlier today I helped him crayon a lopsided chocolate cake and an 8 and a 1 and red and blue and green dotted lines (lots of candles, Grammy, lots) little Davey scampers into the beam of his father’s flashlight.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A.C. Mehler is a child of Holocaust survivors. Based on her own family experiences as well as on those of patients in her clinical practice, she writes about how people manage suffering and endure despite it. She holds a Ph.D. in Human Development and lives in the foothills of the majestic Rockies of Colorado.
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