Memoir

After Kohn’s father Hershel had run off for good to live with his young, robust shiksa in Monaco, Kohn and his mother Balalaika found a manuscript under Hershel’s sweaty neck pillow. It had tea stains all over it and was entitled “A Toast to the Holocaust.” The dedication read: “For everyone except my wife Balalaika.”

And it began like this: “Last week Mr. Fichtenbaum on the plank bed next to me had such bad stomach problems that I had to go out and get some fresh air in the middle of the night. I took a walk on all fours to the mass graves. I like it there. They remind me that I’m still here and yet no one can blame me for not paying my cell phone bill for years. I crawled under the searchlight beams to the camp gate, which was ajar as always, and this time I would even have tried to escape if I hadn’t suddenly remembered that tomorrow there would be jello for lunch. That’s a big difference from the dirty shoelaces on which Mr. Fichtenbaum is always secretly sucking! He shouldn’t be surprised that he has salmonella.Â

I was still standing by the camp fence and entertaining the tired guards with a few excellent Obama jokes when all of a sudden the scent of Marc Jacobs’s Splash was in my nostrils. I saw a small blond woman on the other side of the barbed wire, the electrostatic discharges sparkled magically in the Polish night, and now here was that fragrance of lime, cactus and lotus flower. How is this possible? I thought. That’s a men’s perfume. She and I stood for a while silently facing each other, and then I said: ‘Do you know Marc Jacobs’s Daisy for women? It’s flowery and fresh and has a heart of musk. Just the thing for dark times like these.’ She replied: ‘And have you ever stopped to think that one should be happy to get any perfume on the black market, you chochem? I’d even wear Bunker for German Shepherds by Karl Lagerfeld, if need be.’ ‘What,’ I whispered, ‘is there such a thing?’ ‘Of course not, not yet. But actually a good idea, what do you say?’ Then the laughing guards fired a few powerful machine-gun bursts at us, and I crawled, injured, back to my barrack. But a wonder rabbi healed me.Â

After that we met almost every night at the fence. Now and then Rivka – that was the name of the small blond, who unfortunately was as flat as a burnt latke – brought me a perfume sample or a muscle shirt from the designer outlet in Krakow. That always made me happy, and I was also delighted that she gave me a washable rubber matzah on Pesach, which I passed around for free at the first Seder among my two thousand fellow prisoners in Block 11 and rented to the idiots from Block 21 for the second Seder, but they didn’t pay. The only one of Rivka’s little gifts that I didn’t find that compelling at first was the leather buttons from her old Agent Provocateur catsuit. ‘You can go ahead and suck on them,’ she said. ‘I don’t have salmonella.’ I smiled like a hypochondriac at the dentist be-fore the injection comes, and then shoved them all into my mouth at once. The next day I gave Rivka a ring, which I had kneaded for her out of bread crust. ‘Now we are engaged,’ I said, ‘so don’t eat it up as soon as you get a bit hungry.’ I coughed and choked softly. ‘Between us, it tastes best with smoked pecorino.’

Who was she? The sister of Roman Polanski, the famous director of Hans the Vampire and Men in High Heels, who since 1978 was no longer permitted to enter the United States because a trial awaited him there for pajama parties with minors. He was currently hiding from the Germans in a school in Plvov – specifically, in the girls’ showers. Rivka was staying in a Tantra ashram near my camp. And her parents were in Block 21 – of all places! She begged me not to tell them anything about our nightly meetings, because they would worry that she was out so late and not yet in bed. ‘They think I’m still a virgin, Hershel, imagine that!’ ‘Actually I thought so too,’ I cried out, deeply hurt. I tore the en-gagement ring off her finger and angrily chewed it up. Then I could already hear the laughter from the watchtower, the first shots whistled toward us, and I crawled back wounded, but a wonder rabbi healed me.Â

Last night – it was as dark as inside Obama’s briefcase – I woke up from a loud noise. What was that? The machine guns of the SS again? No, it was Mr. Fichtenbaum. He had been secretly sucking on Rivka’s leather buttons in the morning, and then he’d eaten them and had been moaning and farting like a mule ever since. If he goes on like this, I thought, tomorrow morning during roll call the Doc will send him to the sick barracks, and no one has ever come back from there. Well, except me, in February 1942. ‘You’re malingering’ the Doc said to me that time, just as I had stretched out, yawning and happy, on the sickbed and pressed my head against my old Simpsons pillow. ‘You don’t have a gas-trointestinal infection. At the most it’s a mild lactose allergy. Do you really believe you can get in here with that? Back to Block 11, Hershel Kohn! And never show your face near the gas chambers again.’ ‘I thought,’ I said, ‘they don’t exist.’ ‘Dream on,’ said the Doc, and gave me an enema in farewell, and for a few hours afterward I was doing as badly as Mr. Fichtenbaum, but a wonder rabbi healed me.Â

How on earth did I end up here? Why did this have to happen to me of all people? And why isn’t President Ahmadinejad here too? Of course, during a pogrom such questions often come to mind. But not the answers, unfortunately, and when they do, there’s absolutely nothing you can do with them. The other day, for example, I thought: The Shoah is like Las Vegas without those people with the T-shirts that say “Girl in 20 Minutes.” What was that all about? And then I thought: The Holocaust is like a basketball game between the L.A. Lakers and the champion of the African pygmy league, and guess on which team there are more Jews! No, we Jews have never had it easy, that much is clear, but after the war we’ll establish our own state, and that’s when it’ll get really complicated.Â

I haven’t seen Rivka in a long time. Hopefully she’s doing well and hasn’t died of a multiple orgasm in her ashram. No, I don’t think so, sexually she and her brother aren’t so easily fazed. Damn, I really regret breaking up with her. What a hypocrite I was! After all, I wasn’t a virgin either. Well, at least I really would have liked not to be one. If we should see each other again after my liberation, I will beg Rivka for forgiveness and ask her if she wants to go into the perfume business with me. I already have a few names and fragrances in mind. Restitution, Reparation, Eichmann Trial, something like that would definitely do a thousand times better than Cool Water or Love in Paris or Égoïste. Oh, Rivka, Rivkale, how lonesome are the nights beside Mr. Fichtenbaum without you! I promise you, my bubele, if tonight I cannot sleep again for lovesickness, then I’ll get a prescription for melatonin from the wonder rabbi. Or preferably go straight to Xanax. Strange that there’s not yet a fragrance with that name. What do you say?”Â

“I didn’t know,” Kohn said to his mother after they had finished reading his father’s secret Holocaust memoirs, “that Dad wrote.”Â

“And I didn’t know he’s a survivor,” Balalaika said angrily. “During the war we were together in Shanghai and had the first kosher dumpling restaurant in the world, which wasn’t kosher at all.” She closed the manuscript and threw it in the garbage can.Â

“What are you doing, Mom?” said Kohn. “Now that Dad’s gone you need money. This story is so unbelievably awful that we can definitely sell it to Tom Cruise. And don’t forget the Spielberg Foundation!”

“Alright,” said Balalaika, taking the manuscript back out of the garbage can. And then – it was only a moment, but it made her sad life briefly meaningful and beautiful – for the first time in decades she thought of her missing husband with sympathy. Probably the only reason he, who usually wouldn’t even write a shopping list, had labored for years on this long, thick, terrible book, which of course everyone would read, was so that she’d be comfortably off even without him until the end of her days. “Actually your dad is a really sweet guy, you know,” she said to Kohn, and she had tears in her eyes. “But did he always have to be as dishonest and stubborn as the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials?”

What do you think?

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10 Responses

  1. Puck

    I keep seeing that ad for the Dreidel Hustler doll…disturbing…very disturbing…and yet…strangely erotic :P

    Reply

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