The House on the Hill
Lying on the thin mattress in the Bristol Hotel, I closed my eyes, hoping to drop into a deep, forgetful sleep. Mosquitoes buzzed around the hotel room, and the sticky night air clung to my aching body. I didn't want to think anymore. I didn't want to be hurt by one more memory. I tried counting forward and backward in all the languages I knew, but my mother's voice kept intruding: "Where are you? We need you." Her voice was calm and steady. I tried to remember my father, but his face was contorted. Taubcia and Rachel cried out my name. I couldn't recall Rachel's smile or the exact shade of Taubcia's green eyes.
In Moscow I'd begun taking Luminal to sleep, and when the hands on the clock slid past midnight I got up and took a pill. The Luminal slowed and stretched my thoughts, dissolving their connections. I lay awake and dreamed at the same time. In the middle of the night someone knocked at the door, and I sprang out of bed. In prison I slept like this. I'd fall asleep as soon as I found a place to lie down but slept vigilantly, afraid of being robbed, raped, beaten, killed. Like an animal, I woke up alert and ready to respond. The pounding continued. I expected to see an NKVD officer who had come to tell me that something had happened to Julek or that something was wrong with my visa. I put my hand on the lock, ready to turn it, and asked gruffly, "Who is it?"
A slurred voice responded. "Open the door, you dog's prick." I opened the door and stared at a flabby, pale-chested man standing in his underwear. "Who are you?" he asked, glancing inside my room. Then he slapped himself on the forehead and said, "What an idiot I am. This isn't my room. Sorry." He extended his hand and drunkenly bowed again and again.
Unable to sleep, I put on my pants and sat on the windowsill. I could see the old movie theater and the small park where all the trees had been cut down. The silhouette of the Roman Catholic cathedral was on the horizon. Just before dawn I lay down and fell asleep. I awakened a few hours later in the sunny, stifling room. I got up and went to look for a newspaper and cigarettes on Farna Street.
I sat down on a bench and watched people scuttling off to work. Most of the workers were Soviet—Ukrainians and Russians who'd relocated after the war. I could tell by their drab clothing and purposeful gait. Before the war people used to linger while walking down Farna Street. They stopped to talk to friends or bought something in a shop before going to work. But not a single storefront on Farna Street was the same as it had been before the war. Lerners' clothing store, where my father, Julek, and I bought our clothes, had been turned into a food store. The privately owned shops had been replaced by nationalized stores. Second-floor apartments had been gutted. Storefronts were boarded up.
I don't know how long I had been sitting with the unread newspaper on my lap when I recognized a tall, lanky, blond-haired woman. Her name was Miriam Tabak, and she'd been in Julek's class. Her father was a carpenter, and I played soccer with her younger brother, Moyshe. I wouldn't have recognized her if it hadn't been for her rounded shoulders and slightly stooped walk. Her blond hair was cut to the chin, and her face appeared longer and more angular. I leapt off the bench and ran across the street to meet her. "Miriam!" I shouted. She looked around and clutched her bag to her chest. I called her name once more, and when she saw me she ran into the street to meet me, cutting across the path of several pedestrians. We hugged each other like family members, even though I'd barely known her before the war. Miriam's eyes darted left and right. "I work in the pharmacy in your grandfather's building. Moyshe and I still live in our old house on Kowelska Street," she said, grabbing my arm tightly. "Come back to the pharmacy with me." Her beige jacket slipped off her arm and onto the street, and I bent down to pick it up. I noticed she wore the same bulky black shoes as most Soviet women, and a pair of mended black tights.
Miriam found two stools in the back of the pharmacy. She told me that a Polish friend arranged for her and Moyshe to escape from the ghetto and that for over two years she and Moyshe hid in the cellar in her friend's home in the village. Her parents didn't dare to leave the ghetto, afraid of the hardships imposed by a life in hiding. Miriam got up to check the counter for customers. "How's Moyshe?" I asked.
Miriam began to cry. "He's not well. I have to lock him in the house whenever I go out. He's still frightened, and he doesn't want to see anyone but me. He won't go to a doctor. I don't know what to do. I want to live like everyone else, but I can't leave him."
The bell on the pharmacy door rang, and Miriam dried her eyes and hurried to the counter. When she came back she sat down and resumed talking. "Tell me what I can do to save Moyshe. He can't stop talking about the war. He's tried to kill himself, and I don't have anyone—." I took Miriam in my arms and held her tightly, unable to find any words to ease her pain.
When I left the pharmacy I promised to visit her again before I left, and she smiled with a smile that reminded me of how much she had been admired for her beauty and charm.
Throughout my life, whenever I met a person who survived the war in hiding, I thought about Moyshe. I regretted that I didn't go to see him that day. Perhaps my presence would have triggered good memories from the past and helped him get back into the real world. Moyshe was one of the last people I would've thought would become psychotic under the duress of hiding. He was one of the smartest students in class, the toughest in school, and the most athletic on the soccer field.
I often wondered why some people were able to persevere under the conditions of hiding, while others became chronically depressed, even psychotic. Everyone who survived in hiding lived with the fear of being discovered and killed. In addition, there was the fear that something bad would happen to the hosts, leaving the survivors to starve to death in the darkness of their shelter. Poles and Ukrainians who hid Jews sacrificed a great deal emotionally and financially and endangered not only themselves but their families.
Hiding places were often shared with strangers, and tensions ran high and fights erupted with little or no provocation. After years in hiding, most survivors suffered from a mental disorder. Paranoia and depression were the most common afflictions. Phobias—avoiding other people, open spaces, close quarters, or anything that reminded them of their years in hiding—were rampant. Survivors tried to go on with their lives in a number of ways. Some people spent many years in psychotherapy trying to regain mental stability and a feeling of inner safety. Others never talked about their past, not even to their own children. A few became so ill that they spent most of their time in psychiatric hospitals or in total isolation.
Most of the survivors I knew tried to start new lives after the war. They studied, worked, married. These people did much more than survive; they regained their dignity, security, and self-assurance. Some of them talked and wrote about their years in hiding. But others, after a period of living seemingly normal lives, became depressed and withdrawn, evidence that they had never recovered from the years under Nazi occupation.
I walked down Uscilugska Street toward the "house on the hill," the name our family and friends gave to our light gray house, the place I lived from the time my family moved from Odessa when I was an infant until I was sixteen years old. With its barn, stable, yard, and garden of fruit trees, the house on the hill was the only home I ever wanted to have, and while we lived there life was good and I thought the goodness would last forever. After my family moved downtown I returned frequently to the house on the hill, like the two cats that returned to live in the barn there.
Walking to the house on the hill, I felt its presence in my bones before I saw it. I felt it as I tore moss and weeds from the stone wall at the bottom of the hill, and I felt it as I opened the gray, weathered gate and walked up the red-brick footpath. The house appeared as it always had but without the apple and cherry trees around it—they'd been chopped to the ground. The porch still had four frosted window panes and one transparent pane, which my father had replaced when a bird slammed into the window. On each corner of the house there were downspouts with wooden barrels underneath to collect rainwater, which my mother considered very special for washing hair and delicate clothing. I imagined that fish, frogs, and eels lived in the barrels, and I spent hours trying to catch them.
It was just a small, wooden house, half the size I remembered, with a cluttered veranda and broken gray shutters. My father used to close those shutters every evening, and if I heard the squeaking and banging I came running home so that I could walk around the outside of the house with him, especially when it was dark or the weather was bad, so he wouldn't be alone.
I walked over to the sun-scorched yard between the house and barn, where I played with the two dear friends of my youth, Billy and Lady. My father gave me Billy when I was eight years old. Our handyman, Ignatz, said that Billy was half German shepherd and half wolf, and I believed him. Billy's muzzle was long, black, and narrow. His palate was black, and he had large black spots on his tongue. He had a black saddle, dark brown legs, and a light brown underbelly. His dark brown ears cocked forward when he was alarmed, and his bark sounded like a half bark, half howl. He acknowledged only my father, who trained him; Marynia, our Russian maid, who fed him; and me, who ran with him in the garden and spoiled him with bones.
For my fourteenth birthday my father gave me Lady. She was a retired racehorse, and Ignatz taught me how to wash, brush, and saddle her. She was dark brown, with white socks and a white star on her forehead, and she had a mind of her own. She taught me that if I rode out one way I had to return the same way or she would throw me off and go back alone. I felt a special sentiment for these two animals because they were my friends only. I felt responsible for them. I used to talk to them, thinking they understood me, because Ignatz told me that the only way to develop a close connection with animals was by talking to them, and I did everything Ignatz told me. The barn and backyard were my private kingdom, and Billy, on a long chain, made sure no strangers entered.
No one had played in the yard in a long time. I couldn't find the outlines of the makeshift soccer field or the circle Billy had worn into the ground, and I came back and sat down on the front porch. Looking at the windows of my parents' bedroom, at the peeling paint, broken shutters, boarded-up kitchen entrance, and rotting roof, I couldn't stop crying. I cried because everyone I loved was gone and I would never see them again. I cried because I didn't know where to lay flowers. I cried because I didn't know what to do with my life when no one was with me for whom I would like to live.
I didn't hear the man and heavy-set woman walking up the footpath, and I was startled when I caught sight of them out of the corner of my eye. I wiped my face with my handkerchief and stood to shake their hands. "I'm sorry to be on your property," I said, and introduced myself. "I lived here with my family before the war."
The man wore a Soviet military uniform with the insignia of the engineering service and introduced himself as Vitali Semyonovich Glebov and his wife as Ariadna Nikoleyevna. He paused awkwardly for a moment, then put down one of the avoski he was carrying and opened the door. "Please, come inside," he said. "A guest in the house is like God in the house."
In the dining room, Ariadna offered me a chair at the round dining table. Vitali brought out a bottle of vodka and three glasses, while Ariadna chopped up onions and herring and placed them in a glass bowl. I told them about my family and said I was living with my brother in Moscow. Vitali poured vodka in the glasses and said, "Let's drink to the memory of your family. May they rest in peace." We drank our shots and remained quiet for a moment. I felt that these two people, childless and in their forties, would honor the memory and spirit of my family. "When did you move here?" I asked. "The house was assigned to us two months ago," Ariadna said. "Do you know who lived here during the war?"
"A Ukrainian family," Vitali said. "The man and his brother-in-law were in the Ukrainian police during the war. They're awaiting trial along with seven others."
"Do you know who?" I asked, hoping it wasn't anyone I'd been friends with before the war.
"I don't know the names, but there are plenty of these people around. We're trying to track them down, but they've got hiding places with people in nearby villages." Vitali poured another shot of vodka and said, "Let's drink to their being found and hanged." We clinked glasses. Vitali gulped his shot forcefully. "You're welcome to look around the house," Ariadna said. "I'm afraid we don't have much furniture. We live a simple life here."
I got up and went from the dining room into what used to be my parents' bedroom. Sunlight shone through the long lace curtains. A double bed and two nightstands were pushed against a wall. When I was growing up my parents had two beds pushed next to each other and nightstands with ceramic knobs and reading lamps. Until I was seven I slept on a loveseat at the foot of their bed, separated from them by a tall curved footboard and gauze curtains.
This room had been my mother's sanctuary, and it brought back memories of the time we spent there together when I was young, the time when I was closest to her. I was a highly energetic child, exploring everything, unable to sit still for longer than thirty seconds. I wanted to be part of every conversation and every activity, and I'm sure I exhausted my mother, who was quiet and reflective. The bedroom was filled with her books, paintings, journals, jewelry, and perfumes. Our closest moments were when I was sick with bronchitis, which happened frequently, and during these spells she kept me next to her in my father's bed, where I could cuddle up to her, feeling safe and loved. I liked it so much that I often faked being sick, sending my father to the couch and me to his bed. I loved my mother's touch, the smell of her powdered skin, her sparkling gray eyes and bobbed auburn hair. I thought there was no woman in the world more beautiful and better than she. She'd been severely burned in childhood, and scars spread like vines across her left arm and leg. I thought they still hurt, and I used to stroke and kiss them. The ritual existed only between the two of us, and even on her bad days she smiled when I did it, but sometimes she cried bitterly and held me tightly. It took years before I understood her sadness. After she married my father and moved to Wlodzimierz-Wolynski, she never stopped longing for Odessa, her birthplace, her "house on the hill." She missed the lively intellectual life in Odessa, the operas, theaters, art galleries, and philharmonics. She missed her family and friends who remained there after the Revolution. For several years she applied for a visa to visit her family, and the visa was finally granted in 1928. I was nine and Julek fourteen when she took the two of us for a two-month summer vacation.
I'll never forget my first border crossing at Shepetovka. The Soviet border guards, dressed in green uniforms and with rifles slung over their shoulders, gruffly ordered us to show our passports and visas. They searched through our suitcases. They snatched our pillows away from us and ripped them open, scattering the white feathers on the filthy floor. One young officer ordered my mother to follow him to a back room for a personal search. She came back a long time later, crying, her hair and clothing disheveled, and she cried for a long time after we reboarded the train. Because she was now a Polish citizen, she had undergone a customary body search to make sure she wasn't smuggling weapons, currency, or anti-Soviet literature.
We stayed in a spacious dacha on the Black Sea that belonged to my mother's older brother, Marcel, a professor of neurology at the medical school in Odessa. His wife, Rosa, was a famous painter, and her portraits were exhibited at galleries and museums in the Soviet Union and abroad. She painted my mother's and Julek's portraits while we were there, but I couldn't sit still long enough for her to paint mine.
Although close in age to my two cousins, Nathan and Misha, I didn't become friendly with them, finding them too bookish and well behaved. But I fell in love with the Black Sea and its sand and rock beaches, seahorses, starfish, jellyfish, and palm trees lining the boardwalk. On the beach I played with the bezprizorniki, children orphaned during the war, who lived on the beach in shacks made out of tin and cardboard. The long-haired, darkly tanned bezprizorniki were excellent swimmers and divers, and they showed off their skills to beachgoers for coins thrown into the sea. They walked the beach begging for food and money. My mother brought a sack of food for them every day, and they took to her with their eyes wide open, pleading for warmth and affection. I was happy not to be an orphan, and in those moments I loved my mother even more. In Odessa my mother seemed to be a different person, more vivacious, energetic, joyous, and talkative. I had never seen her laughing, singing, dancing, and enjoying herself the way she did that summer.
In Wlodzimierz-Wolynski my mother attracted a mixed group of friends who came frequently to our home for dinner and late-night discussions. She would sit at the head of the table, pouring Russian tea into tall glasses from a silver samovar. She created an atmosphere in which people were judged not by their appearance but by their compassion, intellectual prowess, and depth of feeling. From my mother I learned the value of ideas, ideals, and integrity, as well as the respect that I owe to others and myself. She didn't consider herself a leader, yet she was the one who brought people together at our long dining room table or on the veranda to talk about art, literature, and, predominantly as time went on, politics. I regret that I couldn't appreciate her intellectual qualities when I was young. At first I didn't understand her, then I couldn't express my feelings for her, and then it was too late.
I walked through my parents' room into what used to be Julek's bedroom. It overlooked my mother's flower garden, which was now choked with weeds. I shared the room with Julek from the time I was seven until he left for the university when I was thirteen. Julek behaved like a crown prince when we were growing up. He considered me a great nuisance and frequently kicked me out of the room. All I heard from him was that I was in his way, he had homework to do, and that I must leave him alone.
I was in my early teens when I began to distance myself from my family. I wanted to meet different people and participate in every activity. As a twelve- and thirteen-year-old I wanted to be completely independent, and it made me angry when my parents wanted to accompany me in town. Initially I argued with them, but then I just left on my own without telling them where I was going or how long I'd be gone. My parents tried to control my behavior, but all I wanted was to be out of any control. I was convinced that I was mature enough to take care of myself. My main desire at that time was to stand out, to be in some way smarter, better, stronger than others.
My first experience with anti-Semitism was when I started going to the Polish gymnasium at ten years of age. Until then I hadn't realized that people were discriminated against on account of their religion. I thought that being Jewish was no different from being Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian, and I didn't care if my friends were Christians or Jews. I was neither proud nor ashamed of being Jewish. The anti-Semitic remarks made at school both surprised and humiliated me. At first I tried to gain the respect of my tormenters. I was a good soccer player, and I was pleased when the same boys who ridiculed me wanted to be on my team. I thought it was a sign that we were friends. But in the locker room I became another "fucking Jew."
Real trouble with my parents began when I was in my mid-teens and started hanging out with a group of older Jewish teenagers my parents didn't like. Being with them, I had a sense of belonging and freedom. I began to defy my parents by staying out all night, fighting with the anti-Semitic boys who harassed me, and skipping school and spending the day on the riverbank. When I got Lady I rode to the river every day so everyone could see me horseback riding. I jumped Lady over bushes and greeted my friends with wild shouts. Lady did a great deal to satisfy my longing for unrestricted freedom. The wind on my face, the speed and strength of the horse moving beneath me, and the expanding horizon made me feel free. I dreamed about faraway lands and adventures and became engulfed in my own imaginary world. But at the same time the real world was becoming more and more dangerous.
The same year my father gave me Lady, the year I turned fourteen, Hitler came to power in Germany. At first Hitler was perceived by the Polish press and our friends as a political lightweight, a bombastic buffoon. There were many caricatures and jokes about him, and no one took him seriously. My father, uncle, and their friends predicted that Hitler's career would be short-lived and that the German Jews weren't in any danger despite the anti-Semitic slogans. The policy of the Polish government, headed by Josef Pilsudski, who led independent Poland after World War I, reaffirmed the notion that Hitler and Nazism were only temporary political aberrations. Pilsudski refused to have a close alliance with Nazi Germany and repeatedly declined to meet Hitler in person. He signed non-aggression treaties with both the Soviet Union and Germany, hoping to prevent aggression from either side. But in 1935, Pilsudski died and Poland became friendly with Nazi Germany and hostile toward the Soviet Union. State-supported anti-Semitism became widespread. Some of my classmates wore green ribbons, a symbol of anti-Semitism, and they actively picketed Jewish businesses with placards that read "Don't buy from a Jew," "Jews to Palestine," and "Poland for Poles." The Jewish community in Poland was deeply saddened by Pilsudski's death because he was considered to be a friend and protector of Jews.
The year Pilsudski died was my worst in the Polish gymnasium. I was sixteen, and I was doing very poorly in school. I was harassed daily by my anti-Semitic classmates, and I started skipping school to avoid confrontations. When I couldn't avoid fights, I fought back aggressively, not minding getting hurt because I needed to feel I could deal with the growing dangers on my own. I didn't want to study physics, chemistry, or math because I didn't like the subjects, didn't understand them, and didn't want to put any effort into learning them. Considering myself an atheist, I stopped going to Jewish religion classes. I became argumentative and rebellious at home and lazy and uncaring in school. Twice I was called to the principal for causing fights and was threatened with suspension. But the worst was when my parents were called to meet with the principal. My mother was upset and ashamed when she found out I'd been skipping school and spending time with people she didn't want me to associate with, and before long only my father went to see the principal. At times he was angry when he came home, but he loved me deeply, and I sensed that in some way he was proud that I stood up to the anti-Semites.
Not long after Pilsudski's death events in Germany became frightening: in September Hitler signed the Nuremberg Laws, which denied civil rights to German Jews. A campaign of open harassment, humiliation, and violence toward Jews began. We could hardly believe that in the middle of the twentieth century in a highly civilized European country, Jews were being beaten, tortured, and killed and their property confiscated. We couldn't understand why France and England, the great European powers, and the League of Nations in Geneva, wouldn't intervene to stop the brutality.
On July 18, 1936, civil war erupted in Spain when the Spanish fascists, called Falangists and led by General Franco, rebelled against the legitimate democratic leftist government. Many young people from Europe and the United States went to Spain to fight in the International Brigade against the fascists. My friend Moniek Korn and I decided to join the International Brigade, but my parents forbade me to enlist. They had never liked Moniek, believing him to be a bad influence on me. They also said I was too young and lacked experience on my own. I was furious, thinking they didn't have faith in me. It never crossed my mind that they were simply afraid I'd be killed in Spain. The next day, instead of going to school, I ran away from home. I left my satchel with my books in the barn, took my backpack and hunting knife, and rode Lady toward Uscilug, twelve kilometers away from Wlodzimierz-Wolynski. The weather was nasty, and when I reached Uscilug I was wet, cold, hungry, and angry—I was still angry at my parents for having treated me like a child, but I was also mad at myself for running away in such terrible weather.
I went to the estate of my friend Janek Jochenson. Neither he nor his family was home, but the housemaid knew me and let me in. The next day she kept asking me why I wanted to stay when no one was around. On the third day, no longer angry, I rode back home. In town I ran into a classmate who told me the police had been out looking for me, and this news prepared me somewhat for what to expect at home. When I came through the kitchen door my father smacked me, my mother cried, and no one would talk to me, not even Marynia. I still regretted not being able to go to Spain.
Not long after this incident, I came home late one night and found my parents waiting for me in the dining room. My mother was knitting, and my father was smoking an Egyptian cigarette. "You have a busy life," my father said calmly. "Your mother and I have decided that as of today you must take responsibility for it. You're seventeen, and you may come and go as you wish, but we expect you to think twice about what you're doing and with whom you're doing it."
"There are some obligations we want you to fulfill," my mother said. Her voice was gentler than it had been in a long time. "We've decided you should transfer to the Jewish gymnasium. We hope there won't be any more fighting and that you'll do better in school. I'd also like you to pay more attention to Rachel. Take her with you to the river and teach her to swim, row, kayak, whatever you do. Take her to the woods. Teach her how to mushroom hunt. She admires you, and you should pay attention to her. The last thing I want is for you to remember that if you need anything, you can talk to us. But we aren't going to ask you any more questions."
This talk with my parents marked a turning point in my life. It was the best way to deal with me, because it meant I no longer had anyone or anything to rebel against. Never before had I realized that I had to be responsible for what I did. Elated by the new arrangement, I hugged and kissed my parents.
I believed that my father understood better than my mother or anyone else why I had changed so drastically. I believed he would help me if I got into real trouble no matter how angry or disappointed he might be. I knew he believed it was a difficult time for me and that I would grow out of it. I also overheard him tell his brother that he wasn't worried about my future because I was street smart, but he worried a great deal about Julek's. With my mother it was different. She loved me and worried about me, but she could hardly understand or tolerate my defiant behavior.
Waking up from dreams of the past, I touched the walls and windows and ran my hand over the tile wood-burning stove. Walking carefully across the floor, I found that the same two planks still squeaked like before, and the door to my parents' room didn't shut tightly. I wasn't sure what my parents thought of me after we parted. I wanted to ask for forgiveness from them, especially my mother, who may have died thinking I wasn't a good son. I wanted to thank my father and tell him how grateful I was for the life he let me live. I would have given anything to see them again and tell them that all throughout those six years I wanted to return home and do everything I could to save them, or at least be with them until the last moment.
I walked back through the dining room and into the kitchen. I didn't stop to take one last look around the room but continued out the door and into the yard. I raised my arms high overhead and waded through the sharp grass and nettles over to the barn. Billy's doghouse was gone, probably taken apart and used for firewood during the war, and my pigeons were gone, too. They'd probably been eaten. I'd raised over one hundred of them. I built houses for them in the hayloft, where they multiplied and raised their young. I studied their habits, observed the way the parents took care of the chicks, and marveled at their amazing sense of direction. I spent hours every day up in the hayloft, counting them, identifying them, and flying them out to attract and bring back other pigeons. When we moved to the apartment on Farna Street I regretted having to leave the pigeons with the new owners.
The shingles on the barn were rotted and broken and the whole roof sagged in the middle. One side of the barn door was missing, and broken chairs and filthy mattresses and box springs were piled in a corner. I leaned against the frame, my strength draining from me. I had hoped that visiting the house on the hill would bring back memories of the times when all of us lived happily together and no lives were threatened. I had hoped that in my hometown, close to the graves of my family, I would find a way to deal with my sorrow and despair. I had hoped that for a little while I would feel I was back at home. When I was growing up, home was a place that existed, had always existed, and would always exist. As a child I believed that every place in town was my home and that everyone in town was my friend. But the emptiness spilling out of the house, barn, and garden made aware that there was no place from which I could escape into my childhood and forget the years of terror and death.