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Calibrating Darkness

Children in the Warsaw Ghetto.

A child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and then of Auschwitz and Majdanek, Henry Tylbor (1929–2009) eventually settled in New York where he wrote and taught. A polymath, and fluent in several languages, he was especially interested in the fields of linguistics, neuropsychology, the sociology of culture, and their intersections. The present work of autobiographical fiction is among the manuscripts left at his death. In observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, it appears here for the first time.The Editors

         The room was steeped in darkness as I heard my mother softly approaching. She hovered over my bed for a few moments and, thinking I was asleep, left just as silently as she had entered. As soon as she left, I was overcome with a feeling of being drowned by the darkness all around me except for a shaft of light coming from under the door of my parents' bedroom. This thin illuminating bar of light became my anchor, allowing me to hoist myself and float in the dark. It was at that moment that I heard my parents' voices drift into my room. My father must have just come back from visiting a patient through the route of the backyards where the night curfew was less strictly enforced.  

          "Thank God you finally came, I was worried about you."  

          "Yes, I had to leave the patient. Dr. Steinsapier is staying instead of me because of the patient's perilous cardiac condition," he replied in a tired tone.

           I compared myself often to Marek Steinsapier. He was frequently forced to be alone since his eminent cardiologist father was usually away on emergency calls late at night. Marek's mother had died just before the war started. I imagined Marek going through terrible torments during the evenings as he waited for his father to return. People had been known to be arrested and never heard from again for just being out after a curfew or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Marek was often in fear at the very thought of losing his father, though the doctor appeared to be somewhat indifferent to his son's anxieties. Having no fear for himself, he did not worry about Marek and could often be heard saying, "I cannot imagine anybody would do anything to a ten-year-old, least of all take him hostage." Marek himself was not so sure; he had often listened attentively to the noise made by German cars and was even able to isolate the distinct sounds of the Gestapo vehicles. As he put it to me one evening: "Do you hear that buzz? That's them picking up orders from headquarters."

          "I hope it doesn't happen again tonight." This, haltingly, from my mother.

           "Let's say, in case it does happen, remember, the main thing is to sleep through the night and try not to hear whatever happens around you." My father's voice sounded nervous as it came through my bedroom door. "Besides, if anything does happen it will be at exactly 2 a.m., and there is not much you can do."  

          My mother didn't seem satisfied with this. "What happens if you're not around when they come?" she asked anxiously.  

          There was the sound of the floorboard squeaking. "In that case," he hesitated, "things turn quite a bit tougher."  

          "What do you mean?"  

          "They will get hold of anybody they can get their hands on, and then they prop you up and that takes care of that."

          "Prop you up" reverberated in my head until the sound grew fainter and I gave up the effort to extract any meaning from the phrase.

          Before the war, I'd never thought about night or sleep, believing that if you just lay in bed, curled up in a blanket, the world would discreetly turn itself off and dissolve into darkness, only to be revived the next morning when you awoke. That's what sleep was. Now I continued thinking about Marek; what was he doing now? Was he also trying to sleep? What was it like to be Marek without a mother to shelter him from his fears?

          Once, long before the war, I woke up in the darker recesses of the night upon hearing the rusty groans of the trolley with its glowing white sign replacing the black daytime letters (about which we would trade so many spooky stories in class). Once awake, I was drawn toward the rear wall of the room where I saw shadows moving slowly in an odd rhythm toward a brazier full of smoldering embers. I thought to myself, these must be the homeless and unemployed poor about whom one has heard so much. Another thought crossed my mind; what if I were one of them? I shuddered and ran back to bed, hiding under the covers in order to stifle any such reflections.

          But all that was before the war. This time I burrowed my head into the warm softness of the pillow and drifted back to sleep. My pillow and sheet had become an extension of my body until suddenly I realized I was waking up in a cold sweat, no longer at one with my covers. Instead, they had become soggy intruders from a hostile world.  

          The nighttime street outside my window once pulsated with crowds, while the houses used to appear cozily slouched against and nudging each other, emitting familiar groans. Now the night curfew has drained the street of all life. Only in the backyards can an occasional passerby be seen sneaking along.

          From far beyond the ghetto wall, the plaintive sound of a train whistle drifted into my room, beginning as a faint ripple inside my ear. I try to shake it out but cannot; instead, the sounds becomes louder. It's now in both ears, filling the room and moving toward the house with the distinct drone of a massive Mercedes-Benz, the car used by the Gestapo. If it just passes our house without pausing, I think, I will be so happy. I imagine my projected body in the street, pushing the car with all my strength away from my home. It is getting closer. But the car doesn't seem to obey my metal commands. To my horror it lurches to a halt. Suddenly the clock strikes two. I run along the outer walls of my room and check the windows, hoping to undo the reality of the car's stopping. Peering out the last window, I notice the car has not only stopped but has turned around and faces my side of the street. I suddenly remember those past moments when I was a kid gazing through the windows' blackout paper at the empty ghetto street. But now everything has changed. Never in my life have I been so jealous of minutes past and gone. Previously my life has run parallel to external reality. Now the world envelopes me, remorselessly implanting itself.

           The four doors of the limousine swung open and then closed in unison. There it was, the standard squad: two in plainclothes and two in uniform. One had a distinct grimace and another appeared to be the group's jokester. At this point I forgot whether I was inside or outside the apartment; whether I was Marek or myself. I became an invariant point in space, a suspended eye absorbed in watching.  

          Now the four of them start walking toward my house. Four pairs of nailed boots, their heads floating above them. I notice how the nails of the boots grind themselves into the cobblestones with a kind of determination bordering on sarcasm. Just as they are about to step on me, they swerve and knock on the next-door neighbor's door. The traditional four knocks and then the yell, "Aufmachen!" Some shuffling sounds from inside and the frightened concierge opens the gate. Four pairs of boots clamor up the stairs. Pounding on a door again. To my horror, I realized it is Marek's apartment. A scared voice, obviously Marek's, drowned out by the shouts of the SS men. A shuffle and the sound of Marek being shoved down the staircase and the reverberation of the whole group marching out of the house.  

          The comedian of the "team," as such SS units were called, laughs. "That's what happens when you allow your father to roam about after hours. Besides, this whole thing is only a procedure. It's really quite simple. We're going to prop you up. That will take care of that. I don't see why you're making all this fuss." Marek must have realized with each step that he was getting farther away from his father and the rest of the world.

          And then it came to me, my father's statement: "They prop you up and that's that." Now it assumed its full meaning. I tried to imagine what Marek must have been thinking. Was it of a Borneo postage stamp that he would never be able to exchange for a Zanzibar blue one (which he had planned to do in the next few days)? It must have dawned on him there wouldn't be any more stamps at all. And what about school and the topics they were planning to discuss in the next semester, about David and Solomon, Odysseus and Homer, Napoleon and the French Revolution? He must be thinking that for him, there wouldn't be anything at all any more. All these thoughts culminated in one final, desperate outcry, "Why can't you just leave me alone?"  

          To this plea the comedian responds, "Not so fast, we have to go through our little procedure. We have to prop you up against the lamppost before we are finished with you."  

          A short silence. Three shots accompanied by three flashes illuminating the street with striations of luminescence and darkness. An echo of mocking laughter from the men and then the noise of four pairs of nailed boots moving toward the car. They are still laughing as the car slowly moves away. The grimacing member turns his head, waving his fist in the direction of my window and screams, "You'd better watch out, you're next on the list." They must have seen me watching them all along.  

          From the distance, the sobbing voice of Marek's father is heard in the back yards. The concierge is scraping the sidewalk.  

          My mind rambles. Where is Marek? Are his thoughts intermingled with the dirt across the street or a complete absence in darkness?  

          I hasten to bed as I hear my parents quietly entering my room. I quickly pretend to be asleep. My mother says, "Thank God, Henry didn't hear any of it."  


© Wendy Gittler  All rights reserved.  

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zelad harris on May 2, 2011 at 11:51 am (Reply)
Brilliant piece he must have ben an impressive man I have to wonder why he did not come to Live in Israel and he was not alone in that decision.

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