To commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, here is a different view of the Final Solution.
By Michael Oren
How much chicken soup can one man eat, I ask myself as the waiter shoves me yet another bowl. “Be thankful,” Wojchiech, my boss, snaps at me. “At the factory, they’re spooning out swill. And besides, you have to stay in character. It’s why we pay you 1200 a month.”
In character, yes, I remind myself as I pause with my face hovering over the bowl. My eyes close, my lips flutter and emit some guttural grunts. That is the way they used to pray, I was instructed, before and after meals. So I pray and I push back my sidelocks—payyis, I’m told to call them—and lift my wooden spoon. Only then, just before the first sip, do I catch my gauzy reflection in the broth. Behind the matzo balls which, like twin goiters extend from my neck, I see the sidelocks and the unkempt beard, the fur-lined hat I’m supposed to call a shtreimel, and the itchy collar of my made-in-China kaften.
“Hurry. Eat,” Wojchiech growls. “A group’s due any minute.”
I slurp, I dribble—that’s in character, too—and scoop out dollops of matzo balls which once tasted sugary to me but now go down like sawdust. When there’s time, and when Wojchiech’s not looking, the waiter will sneak me a kishke or a knish or two. And I’m grateful, though a knish could make anyone gag. What I really want is a fresh-fried kielbasa or pork knuckle washed down with white sausage soup. What I really need, as I hear the bus pulling up and gulp down the last of the balls, is a brimming glass of wódka.
Times are tough in our village, I know, and work’s hard to find. Not as lucky as me, others stand in line for government doles or deal in black market cigarettes. But all I have to do is wear these freaky clothes, the fake beard and wig, and memorize a bunch of bullshit. I just have to wait outside the L’Chaim Restaurant and Lounge for the tourists to come down off the bus. Then I dance a bit, bouncing from heel to heel on my clunky boots, with my hands flapping above my heard, and chirp “ay yai yai” and “bim boim bim boim.” I pass out menus and pose for selfies.
You see, the secret of this town, its only advantage, is Jews. Not real Jews, dead Jews. Thousands of them. Half of the town once, they say, before the war. Dentists, teachers, doctors, butchers—all the good jobs they had. The good apartments, too. In this neighborhood, especially, they lived, with their kishke and kasha and klezmer music blasting all day. At least that’s what the tourists think. Filing off the buses into L’Chaim and other traps like the Mazal Tov Inn and the Altshul Museum. I don’t know. Maybe it was different. Maybe it was like today with people going around minding their own business, bringing up kids, fucking and cheating on their wives, doing their damnedest to get by. Just people. Life.
But all that ended. The Germans came—Szkops, we called them back then—and crowded all the Jews into a few alleyways. They walled them in and shot anyone trying to escape. Where the Zabka market is now. A plaque shows the spot, though nobody but the tourists notice. The plaque says that the Jews froze and starved in those alleys for a year or so until one winter night the Szkops marched them out of town, straight down Kościuszko Boulevard and past the Jewish graveyard where, as kids, my gang used to squat with our backs to the stones with their fading Jew letters, gab and smoke weed.
A few minutes walk from there is this little forest—it’s still there—with nice trees and soft earth. A big hole had been dug so all the guys with guns had to do was line the Jews up and, one by one, shoot them in the back of the head. They fell, row after neat row, until the hole was filled and covered up. A plaque hangs there as well, where the hole was. The tourists leave lots of flowers and flags.
These newest tourists have only cameras in their hands and handkerchiefs for tapping their eyes. Which means they must have already visited the little forest. Which means the last thing they’re thinking about is our borscht and kreplach special, complete with watered-down schnapps. This is where I come in. My job is to get them toasting l’Chaim to one another, to life or to hell with it or whatever, at fifty zlotys a shot.
“What are you waiting for?” Wojchiech hisses. “Get your ass moving.”
I make some more of those prayer-like snorts, and wipe my mouth with my kaften. Smooth out my phony beard and tuck strands of blonde hair under my shreimel. Rising, my hands twisting above my head, I look pretty much like the people in the paintings on L’Chaim’s walls. Men dressed just like I am, their payyis flailing as they dance around this scrolled-up thing. The paintings are everywhere—even over the urinals—along with pictures of candles and bread and silver cups. Jewy things. Maybe the tourists know what they are but I’ll be damned. I’ve never even met a Jew.
Some of the tourists might be Jews, but they sure don’t dress like one. Americans, mostly, in their windbreakers and sneakers, their visored caps with all sorts of things written on them, they peer at me from behind their cameras and smartphones and click photos of me bobbing up and down, ay aying and bim boiming and doling out menus. “Sholom Aleikem!” I bark at them. And “Es gezunterheyt!” Whatever that means. And slowly, most of them anyway, begin to smile. Some of them even want to eat, even though the food’s shitty and the prices downright criminal. All of which makes Wojchiech happy.
My life’s meanwhile a mess. No steady job, no future. No money which means no girl and no hope of ever getting out of this shithole. Just smoking weed with the same kids who aren’t kids anymore but grownup losers like me, doing odd jobs, dressing up like zhids. Nothing like the people who used to live in this neighborhood—the dentists and the teachers and whatnot—who had real lives, real futures, until the Szkops came and marched them down Kościuszko to the forest.
The tourists are really buying into my routine. They stand in line to take selfies with me. The tables are full and the chicken soup is flowing. Wojchiech is practically gleaming, reaching now behind the bar for the wódka bottle that he tips into a coffee mug and plugs.
So it goes throughout the day and late into the evening. One tourist bus after another. More borscht, more schnapps, and Wojchiech getting happier and happier, slapping my back and toasting me with his mug “L’Chaim!” One could almost think that what happened to those Jews was this town’s only break.
It’s nearly midnight when the last of the tourists stagger out for their hotel. The waiter’s long gone home and Wojchiech’s slumped down in a chair with his mug, a half-eaten knish, and his cheek on the table in front of him. The klezmer tape’s been turned off and the only sound comes from a clock with strange Jew letters instead of numbers on its face. Bim Boim Bim Boim, it ticks.
This is the moment I wait for. To sneak behind the bar and see what’s left—no more schnapps or wódka but a half-empty bottle of Slivovitz that should do the trick. I swig it deeply and swig again as I slip out of L’Chaim and steal past the Mazal Tov Inn. The smack of my clunky boots echo in the courtyard of the Altshul Museum and then go silent as the cobblestones underfoot turn to pavement. Soon I’m on Kościuszko Boulevard, empty of traffic at this hour, with nobody around to screw up their eyes or make catcalls at some drunk in a Chinese-made robe and ridiculous fur-lined hat. The Zabka Market is closed for the night. Only its yellow neon sign remains flickering, illuminating now and then the plaque that only the tourists ever notice.
Kościuszko ends at a crumbling brick wall behind which stands the graveyard. Not really stands but slants this way and that, the tombstones like crooked teeth. Still, guzzling, I make my way through the most distant rows were the stones are no more than stubbles.
The silence is so complete that I can almost imagine the Szkops cursing and shouting, the howl of their dogs, and the shuffle of the Jews too weak to plead or even cry. And from somewhere up ahead, strange, too-sharp pops.
Then, suddenly, the forest. Into a chilly mist I stumble, drunk enough now to slip and break my neck, sidestepping the trees that seem to rise up ghost-like in front of me. I try to think, imagine what it’d be like to be somebody, not some underpaid clown in a cheap tourist joint, but a man with a family, a profession, with dignity. Maybe it’s the Slivovitz, but I try to picture myself with a life worth losing, a life that somebody—even tourists—might remember.
Surprisingly, since I can’t see a meter in front of me, I find myself standing at the hole. The earth is sunken here and surrounded by a knee-high fence. I climb over it, trying not to stomp on the flags and flowers strewn on the ground or trip over the plaque in the center. But the booze has rubbered my knees. I fall to them and then, finishing off the Slivovitz and chucking the bottle, I let myself lie flat.
Face-down in the spongy grass, I can feel the fog penetrating my kaften, wafting up under the shtreimel. I wait like that for who knows how long, wrapped in earth and darkness. Waiting for what—a pop, a bang to the back of my head?—or for the guttural noises I’m supposed to make each day as the sun comes up. The grunt of morning prayers.