Jul 25 ● BY Deborah Kahan Kolb
Call me Matryoshka. It’s a fitting name, though not my own. It’s the name I’ve given myself to tell my story. The truth of it horrifies all who hear it, and it horrifies me still, these many years later. I’ve no choice, you see, but to change my name, create a little fiction—to preserve my sanity, and the shreds of my dignity—so that I can tell my story, and you can hear it, without us both shrinking from the ghastliness of it. Sometimes it’s simpler—safer, really—to couch the truth in fiction. I should know. I’ve been masquerading most of my life, ever since my childhood was stripped away.
When I immigrated to this country long ago, I surrounded myself with books, studied your language, and devoured the words, especially Dickinson who said it best: truth is blinding. You must tell it slant. The truth will not set you free, as the young people like to think. Take it from me, from my experience, all I’ve witnessed in nearly ninety years. The truth will first imprison you. And then it just might kill you.
I can never escape the truth—it’s imprinted on my left arm in faded blue ink. It lives in the heavy layers of my body. But I’m ready now, ancient as I am, to finally begin my life. Yesterday at the library where I volunteer, a young man asked for help finding Fromm. He reached up to slide the book off the shelf and then I saw it, the feather tattoo encircling his bicep. I swear I could feel the breeze, the gossamer whisper of those birds winging their way to freedom along the length of his arm. The philosopher who believed that man must give birth to himself was staring me in the face, resurrected on this boy’s skin. To me, all the signs pointed to you. You, with your needles and colored ink, your artist’s skill—you can help me reclaim my history. You can set me free. You look at me and see a round matron with heft: wide, expansive hips (birthing hips, I believe, is the phrase), wobbling fleshy chins, enormous bosoms held in place by some miracle of whalebone and artfully wrapped scarves. You notice the white wisps that peek from my patterned kerchief, the ropy scars folded into the creases of my cheek, the numbered tattoo, waxy with age now, on my wrinkled arm. How different I am from the other women here, who bare their skin—voluntarily! Imagine!—for you to pierce and ink their flesh. You can’t help but wonder how I became so big and grand, what happened, year after year, decade after decade, to make me so weighty, so consequential. So I will tell you the story of my favorite doll. Shoshi’s story will help you know my own. My doll and I are the same, so much so that sometimes, in the haze of my advanced age, I confuse the two of us. I become her and she becomes me.
Shoshi was made of many dolls, layers of dolls, with stories and secrets tucked into each layer, dolls and stories hidden, smaller and smaller, one inside another. We were both born in Cluj, in Transylvania, close enough to the border between Romania and Hungary that our extended family spoke both languages, plus the Yiddish of our people, fluently. Romanian Jews, Hungarian Jews—we shared history, culture, recipes. We shared the ultimate fate of near complete extermination.
The smallest doll inside Shoshi was petite, with the slender hips and strong legs of a dancer. Can you see her? Satin ribbons crossing her trim ankles, the sharp arch of her feet in satin slippers, the toe boxes of her pointe shoes heavy, fixing her to the ground. She bends her knees slightly, lifts up into the air. Entrechat. Her slim ankles kiss each other quickly, kiss kiss, before she lands and jumps again. She soars. Jéte. Shoshi is light and weightless, a sylph. She is just like the lissome Russian ballerinas, those willowy swans in feathery white, who toured in Cluj and Timisoara before the war. Shoshi stole unnoticed into the opera house, a small unseen shadow, to watch the ballet, breathless. Still a child, still awed and enchanted by the dancers who seemed to float across the stage, Shoshi ran, first to her bedroom to copy what she’d seen, then to the studio to practice. To become a white swan. To glide without anchor. Glissade. But this was before the war, before the dancer in her was destroyed.
Shoshi was still a small doll, only fourteen, when she was rounded up with her family and her neighbors, all wearing yellow stars sewn to their overcoats, and forced onto a train. It’s hard to describe the train, but it wasn’t the kind meant to transport people. There were no seats or windows, only wooden slats lining the outside. As a child, I’d seen the cows herded onto such a train, frantically lowing and jostling each other on their way to be slaughtered. The dreadful clamor, the fetid smells of frightened creatures—I’m troubled sometimes, in my declining years, by my misty memory—it’s hard to tell now if it’s the roundup of cattle or Jews I’m recalling…
Well, Shoshi’s train ride quickly became a nightmare. Days turned to nights. Random shouts, whispers, smells and sobs wafted through the railroad car.
Vi gehn mir? Mamme! Where are we going?
Ikh bin azoy darshtik! I’m so thirsty!
Ikh ken nisht ohtemen, Tatte. I can’t breathe…
Shoshi found herself paralyzed by the endless wails of the very young, the very old, the dying; by the stink of human excrement, and terror.
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me the story of God’s promise to Abraham—that his descendants would be plentiful as the stars. Perhaps God, in His promise, neglected to mention the plentiful yellow stars that would condemn millions of Abraham’s children.
* * *
When Shoshi’s train reached the end of the line, she was kicked and thrown out along with all the other miserable travelers. Raus! Macht schnell! Raus! Raus! Some who began the journey with Shoshi, who were driven from their homes into the boxcar with their families, remained prone on the floor of the train, covered in vomit and shit, unmoving. On the platform, no one gave a thought to Shoshi, that she might be the beloved toy of a young girl. She gripped Mamma’s hand with such force that she left marks on her. Music was playing, violins, a lively Hungarian folk tune. The czardas. The briefest flash of joy blazed through her at the sound. Might things be better here, in this place that plays cheerful songs for arriving passengers? That thought, that flare of delight, died almost immediately. Through coils of barbed wire, an iron gate with German words, Shoshi heard someone whisper something about “work” and “freedom.” Hard-looking uniformed soldiers marched up and down the platform, accompanied by dogs who matched their masters in viciousness. They raked the new arrivals with their cold eyes; the forbidding one in charge pointed left and right. Shoshi pressed closer to Mamma’s side. She’d lost sight of her father and brothers after they unbolted the cattle car doors, dispensing the lot of them, soiled with their own filth, or already dead, onto the ramp. Dogs and soldiers barked in German. Wispy tendrils of Mamma’s prematurely gray hair escaped her kerchief. Mamma was sent to the left along with the old women, the sick women, the women with wailing babies clinging to their skirts. Shoshi heard someone mutter something about a shower. Then hope—just a flicker, fleeting—in her chest. Would they be reunited after they were showered and clean? Shoshi felt Mamma’s fingers clawing at her hand, pulling her back, nails scraping her palm. She heard Mamma’s strangled cry.
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me a tenet in the Talmud—that there are three partners in the creation of a child: the father, the mother, and God. When my father disappeared and my mother was sent to the left, I wondered if God, my third parent, would be there to care for me.
* * *
Shoshi spent the next eight months in a hell of grim smokestacks that belched a fine gray ash which settled on her striped rags and in her lungs. A foul stench that was beyond the earthly comprehension of the prisoners permeated the place. Shoshi never again saw anyone in her family. She did not—could not—mourn them there. She existed among living skeletons with hollows for eyes. But even in hell, some fare better than others. The Lagerkommandant came to her barracks one night, a scant few days after her arrival, looking for a diversion. A girl she knew from school in Cluj pushed Shoshi forward: Asta poate ša danseaza. This one can dance. In that moment, Shoshi didn’t know if Maryam was condemning her or saving her. But it was also in that moment they became each other’s life preservers, sharing fading hopes, tears, muffled screams, and whatever meager scraps of food they could scrounge, clinging to each other in the dark of the barracks.
From then on, my lovely doll was singled out for “privileged treatment.” She was allowed to grow out her long brown hair, hair that I’d spent many contented hours brushing and styling as a girl, hair so lustrous when she first arrived in that place, hair that grew dull and tangled over time. At least Shoshi had hair. All the haunted women around her were bald, with itchy scalps that they scratched until their fingernails drew blood. When Shoshi’s hair became infested with lice, the kapo threatened to cut it off, and part of her scalp with it, so my innocent little doll seduced an inmate in the kitchens who doused her with scalding water every few weeks when the lice started biting. The inmate never let on about the mealy potato Shoshi palmed, every visit, to share with Maryam, whose own long locks ended up in piles used to stuff pillows for the war effort. Shoshi, the commandant’s newest plaything, was allowed to grow her hair, a crown for a dancer. Because even in hell a shorn head is off-putting.
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me the story of On, son of Peleth, whose modest wife, to save his life, uncovered her hair in the presence of strange men—who surrendered her virtue to preserve her marriage. Me? I had no modesty left in that place. They left nothing for me to cover. To save my life, I could find nothing there—not dignity, not pride, not a shred of shame—that was worth preserving.
* * *
In the evenings when the officers got drunk, their uniform jackets would come off, their jackboots would rest on tables, and they would call for der kleine jüdische Tänzer. They would force their little Jewish dancer to strip and perform naked as they laughed and drank. My poor doll should have counted herself lucky, even though she was in hell. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, but it could have been worse for Shoshi. She could have been raped. But the soldiers mercifully mocked her starved body and deemed it too small and skinny to bother with. So they violated other women—young women, often beautiful, who were selected from the new transports for this purpose alone. Like them, Shoshi was good for only one thing. She danced, exposed and unprotected, for the amusement of the SS, who provided a pair of pointe shoes to complete the spectacle.
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me the story of King David who danced naked before the Ark of the Covenant—who danced because the Spirit moved him. As for me—I did not see the Spirit or any other sign of God in that place.
* * *
It was probably for the best that Shoshi, being a doll, could not possibly process the horrors happening around her, to her. Instead, she built a bigger doll, one that looked exactly like her, and hid inside it whenever she was summoned for the entertainment of the commandant and his deputies. The officers believed they were watching my poor little Shoshi dance naked, but in truth, she was hidden – hidden inside of another doll. The beasts could not see her true self, concealed as she was. When she was forced to perform, Shoshi would rise up on her toes, Tchaikovsky’s lilting pitter-patter pulsing a heartbeat in her head. Pas de chat. The orchestra played for her alone, and drowned out the screams, the real ones and the dream ones, that tormented her day and night in that place. Shoshi was vapor, weightless and transparent as ash. She rose up, relevé. The little swan doll twirled a perfect pirouette, twirled and whirled and rose higher and higher, leaving her pointe shoes on the ground. Inside her shield of invisibility, Shoshi imagined she waltzed upon a lake of tears, and rose up, up, to embrace the curl of smoke that was her mother, or God, hiding.
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me which birds are kosher. Swans—exotic, extraordinary—are forbidden. From our elders, we often heard the Romanian aphorism about common birds dreaming of maize. Pasărea mălai visează. The longing of ordinary people for something special. I didn’t dream of cornmeal in that place, or forbidden food, or anything else extraordinary. I dreamed of being unseen.
* * *
The day they stuck a needle into her arm and tattooed the number that would shadow her for a lifetime, Shoshi retreated inside yet another doll, a bigger replica of herself. She presented her wasted chicken bone of a forearm to an inmate who smiled at her. What did he have to smile about? His graying teeth were smooth and even as tombstones. She watched with a distant horror as the needle pierced her flesh.
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me the biblical prohibition against permanently marking one’s body—doing so could prevent burial in a Jewish cemetery. I glanced up at the smoking chimneys. I assumed it wouldn’t matter in the end.
* * *
Shoshi’s left arm. The warm ooze of blood, then blue-green ink spreading into shape, staining her white skin. A-4540. Like Maryam, one ahead in the line to be marked, she was a number now. She was no longer Shoshi. She was hidden inside a more robust doll. The pain, the blood, the ink, the bruising grip on her arm—everything was mercifully dulled if she went inside. Maybe they wouldn’t notice her if she was deep inside.
There was no one to care for Shoshi, or see that she was fed. Day in and day out, she took her place in the work detail, endlessly pushing the massive cement roller, hour after hour, dogs snarling, barking, boots, helmets, guards whipping. Judenschwein! Macht schneller! And hunger—leaping at her insides, dancing the ciocarlia in the empty pit of her stomach.
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me the story of Passover, of the Israelites in Egypt—how the Pharaoh enslaved the Jewish people, forced them to build cities with bricks and mortar, flogged and beat them, until God finally sent deliverance through Moses. I looked for Moses in that place. I did. I waited for God to deliver me. But it seemed Moses was busy, and God otherwise occupied.
* * *
Shoshi witnessed things with her dead doll eyes no living person should ever see. A shivering infant, the terrifying secret of the women’s barracks, thrown screaming onto the hiss of the electrified fence. The rrrat-atat skitter of machine guns, the spray of bullets raking jerking bodies—bodies that were women only hours earlier, huddled in the bunk above Shoshi, hiding the terrifying secret, hushing it. The frozen pre-dawn roll calls in the Appellplatz that ended with someone fainting, then the clap of a shot to the head. One time that someone was Maryam. Shoshi watched her crumple like a paper puppet. All the stolen rotten potatoes she’d risked her neck for, to keep Maryam alive, had been for nothing. Shoshi was forced to shove her friend’s body into the pit of fire consuming heaps of corpses the crematoria could no longer process. She rolled Maryam into the pit, her tattooed puppet arm flopping, A-4539, into the flames. And through all of the horror the dogs, the snarling feral dogs, and the barking like explosions. Achtung! Achtung!
* * *
Back home, my teachers taught me the story of the khurbn of antiquity, of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the siege of Jerusalem—how the enemies of the Jews engaged in the wholesale slaughter of our people and delighted in torturing them—how the city lay in ruins, on fire, overrun by wild dogs—how the rabbis and great leaders lamented and prayed to God for mercy. I saw no sign of mercy in that place. I saw no sign of God. I saw only wild dogs and devastation.
* * *
With each atrocity Shoshi was forced to watch, she retreated into herself, creating bigger and stronger dolls to shield her, only her outermost layer visible to her tormentors. She became so clever at hiding her innermost self, even Maryam, before they shot her like a dog, never noticed her friend’s façade.
The eight months of hell finally ended with the liberation of the lager. My battered and emaciated little doll Shoshi, who had escaped death and was now marked for life, tumbled out into the world again, ravenous. The thing I remember, after all these years, is the food. We were fed by the Allied army. We were fed by the Red Cross. We were fed in the DP camps. We were fed and fed and fed again by good people seeking to undo the deprivation wrought upon our shrunken bodies—people horrified by the hollow sunken eyes, the papery skin stretched taut across the cliffs of cheekbones—people so shocked by us Muselmänner, by the fact that the dead walked among them, that they tried their best to put the flesh back on the bones, the light back in the eyes.
We never again wanted to see the inside of a train, but it was the only way home. We made our wandering way across a ravaged Europe, Shoshi and I, back to Romania, searching for the remains of the families. What would we find back home? Who would be there to greet us? By now, my little Shoshi was a more substantial doll, large, with ample layers added by the frenetic feeding of the post-war months. The innermost Shoshi, the slender Tänzer, was well hidden. She never danced again.
We settled into what passed for normal after the war. I married my neighbor in Cluj but kept from him the details of my “privileged treatment” in the camp. Izak Leib never knew I was once a small, slight version of myself, kept alive as a means of entertaining murderers and butchers. He had, like everyone else I knew who’d survived, seen most of his family disappear up the chimneys. Parents. A young wife. Their two babies. In the warm dark privacy of our bed, we resolved to rebuild what was destroyed, take back what was stolen from us. Mir veln zay iberlebn. We would outlive them. We would make a new home, a new family. We would thumb our noses at Hitler—we would reclaim happiness.
After the war, I became what some would call a woman of appetite. I craved food and love and joy. I discovered lust. I desired. I wanted my husband, all the time. Ganaydn it was, there in the bed—Eden, and me Eve, him Adam, the two of us discovering apples and snakes and the rest of the world like newborns. The onset of my monthly cycle after the privation I endured in that place was a shock and a blessing. Gone was the fragile, undersized dancing girl: in her place, a rounded woman, a child-bearing woman. Every month, I counted the required seven clean days after the cessation of my flow, impatient to immerse in the ritual bath, eager for the pleasures to be found in my husband’s bed. Izak Leib delighted in me then, a wife so hungry—for his body, for love, for the erasure of suffering. Kish mikh, I would whisper, feverish with want. Kiss me. Take me. I want you… ikh vil… ikh vil… I want I want I want… I wanted Izak Leib to seed me, fill me up, make me huge, pregnant, a life giver. I wanted babies to nest inside me. I wanted to grow, to become heavy with child. I wanted to give birth to more dolls, miniature Shoshi dolls. To replace what Hitler erased. Each child I ushered into the world—three sturdy sons and finally a daughter I could dote on, a daughter who would never suffer what I suffered—provided a stronger, heavier, more fortified layer for me. I became stout and robust, able to withstand anything. Everything. With each birth, my girth expanded. I became expansive, weighty. A woman of substance. And Izak Leib, swollen and urgent, would press himself into my body, month after month, trying to plant more babies in my already distended womb. More children for the Jewish nation. More Jews who would live and carry on.
Ikh shvanger shoyn, I’m already pregnant, you know that, don’t you, I’d laugh at him and caress my round abdomen. He would take my heavy breasts in his hands, marveling at their weight. Gegosn vi de tsvay likhes… A work of art. Like the Tablets at Sinai. He’d sigh with pleasure, and when he emptied himself inside me, Izak Leib believed in God again.
I spent my days happily puttering in the kitchen. I found comfort following the recipes of my Mamma and my grandmothers, my Bubbes. Cooking, baking, eating their food resurrected them–kept them alive. I surrounded myself with heavy food, rich food. Food dipped in sugar, rolled in nuts, dropped in sizzling oil. Food that took hours, days, to come to perfection. Food that made me famous in town. I kneaded challah for the Sabbath, kneaded the sneer right off the proud Aryan face of the Lagerführerin Mandl; I punched down the dough each time it rose, punched an indifferent God. Nah dir. There. Take that. I twisted the bread into braids—braids shorn, torn from Maryam’s scalp—I twisted the bent and broken bodies of my barracks-mates into a thing of beauty. I stuffed helzel with matzo meal and fried onions and schmaltz, I stuffed and stuffed until it was bursting, suffocating, and if that chicken hadn’t already been dead, it surely was then—I strangled that chicken neck like it belonged to the sutn herself, the Aufseherin Grese, that Satan incarnate. I rolled kokosh cake, rolled the thin dough in cocoa and sugar—I rolled the pastry like we rolled the massive roller, pushing pitifully with our withered shoulders to pave the square in that place. I rolled until my arms wobbled again with flesh, until I created a divine masterpiece, until I could taste heaven. The wet cement of the camp—that was the charoses I prepared for Passover, a marvelous paste of apples and walnuts, cinnamon and sweet red wine, eaten at the Seder to commemorate the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt. Egypt, my foot. Ikh fahf dikh un, slaves in Egypt. I didn’t need to look in a book with three-thousand-year-old tales of ancient history to know about enslavement and torture. I didn’t need to look any further than my own arm.
All the cooking and baking and feasting surrounded me with layers of Shoshis. A bigger doll for every dobosh torte and cremeschnitte-filled holiday, every Sabbath celebrated with cholent and kishke and kugel. The fatter the doll, the more invisible der kleine jüdische Tänzer. Now the most visible doll, the most insulated woman, was one who was well-fed, immense. I busied myself not only with becoming well-protected, but also with protecting. With mothering. I made sure my sons learned about their heritage—the traditions, yes, but more important, their father’s gentle ways. I made sure to teach my daughter to be strong, to be safe. And of course I made sure to teach her everything I knew about food.
“This is how you stretch the dough for kindel, Bluma—you press upward in the center and stretch and stretch it out, use all your strength, use your arms, your back, ott azoy Blumale, just like that, stretch the dough, see how big it can get, look how it covers the entire table like a tablecloth, see how the dough—when it rises and doubles in size, when it bulks up—covers everything. If it’s big enough, it can cover everything.”
I survived. I taught my daughter to survive. Now I come to you, in my ninth decade on earth, for more than survival: I come for freedom. I’ve been a witness, a standard bearer, long enough. It’s my time now. You, with your needles and colored ink, your artist’s skill—you can help me begin my life again. You can change the numbers on my arm from a harrowing history into a revelation. A new truth, a rebirth: owning my own body. Draw a white swan from the blue numbers, a curved neck like love, wings in the wrinkles of my arm. Make me soar.