Included is a story about my father, Joseph Labi. It was recently published in the January 2013 online issue of “JewishMag.com”
Keeping Company with Anne
By Maurice Labi
The letter didn’t arrive. At first my father hinged the delay on Israel’s antiquated postal service, making it known to anyone who’d listen that it hasn’t changed much from the times of the Turks. “They might as well carry mail on camelback,” he said from the living room, his eyes fixed on the wall-mounted clock.
My mother got up from a floral-print armchair that had been reupholstered more times than she cared to admit and went into the kitchen. She stirred a pot of vegetable soup over the stovetop. “What do you expect from government workers?”
My father followed her, crouched under the sink and withdrew a near empty trash bag from the wastebasket. “I’ll dump it out,” he said and pulled on the strings. “I hate the smell of fish bones.
“They’re chicken bones.”
“They stink too.” He held the bag at arm’s length and pretended to pinch his nostrils shut.
My mother brought a spoonful of broth to her lips. “Joseph, if you want to loiter near the mailboxes again, say so. But don’t take your anger on the postman; he’s only the messenger.”
“Funny, you’re very funny,” he said, shaking his head, all the while lumbering out the front door of their apartment complex, to the elevator that took him down five flights of stairs to the ground level, to the lobby and its rows of mailboxes under lock. The Israeli summer heat slammed him, stole his breath. At the back of the building he hurled the trash bag in a giant dumpster overtaken by flies and stray cats and swiftly resumed his stance near the mailboxes, a sentinel at no one’s request.
“Where is he?” my father hissed. Why couldn’t the postman be punctual like the Germans?
He focused his attention on mothers and their young who were returning home from the beach after a morning swim in the Mediterranean. Boys shuffled past him with inflatable rafts and surfboards under their arms. Girls whose cheeks were kissed by the sun dragged their feet over the limestone pavers leading to the main entrance. Powder-white sand sifted from their rubber thongs with each step they took. This slightest sign of untidiness prompted my father to dash for an out-of-the-way janitorial closet, brought out a broom and swept the sand to the sidewalk. Within minutes the stone pavers returned to their former spotlessness.
A teenage boy walked past him, said something, gestured to an ivy growing on the wrought-iron fence. My father nodded, started to groom the flowers. At eighty-one, he was hard of hearing and the less he spoke the lesser the chance he’d be misunderstood or ridiculed. He used the same tactic on my mother, chose to shove the hearing aid in his pocket and enter a world of silence.
The postman pulled up in his Jeep. “You’re late,” my father said, forgetting my mother’s advice not to rile the man. “Where did you come from, Tibet?” he continued above the drone of the roaring engine which was little more than a pesky buzz in my father’s ears.
“It’s you again, Mr. Labi, loitering.” He chuckled. “I might as well hand you the master key to the mailboxes.” His khaki shirt was soaked at the armpits, the sweat the shape of large continents. “I can use the help.”
My father read his lips, said nothing, preferred to follow him, to fill his vacated footsteps. The postman peeled back the leather flap of his mail bag, sending a whiff of raw hide into the humid air. The mailboxes surrendered to his key. His arms became a blur, a master at work. Flyers, coupons, promotions and letters dove into the mouths of the hungry boxes. The feeding ended abruptly. He locked up and turned to face my father. “Your building is the nicest and cleanest on the block, never a blemish, never a graffiti scroll. Why?”
My father smiled, offered his folded, pressed handkerchief which the postman took willingly to his sweaty brow, to his sun-scorched nape. “I’ll wash it and return it tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to,” my father said, not wanting to separate from his favorite handkerchief and the JL monogram stitched onto the cotton, one he’d washed and ironed for years, one he’d received as anniversary gift from my mother. Its romantic significance had diminished over time but its usefulness didn’t.
“I insist,” the burly postman said and stuffed the damp cloth in his pocket. “I think your letter arrived,” he winked, then jumped behind the wheel of his Jeep and roared off.
Joseph lingered by his mailbox. The wait made the prize doubly worthwhile. It reminded him of the excitement he felt as a teenager, waited all night on his wooden bunk bed while the adults and children had slept, before he finally polished off the potato lumps at the bottom of the soup bowl with a crooked spoon.
The letter beckoned him. He unlocked the mailbox and sorted through utility bills and the local election campaigns.
He held up the envelope against the blue sky, seeing the light penetrate the edges. His heart pounded in the hollow of his throat. Israel’s official government seal — candelabra and olive branches – was embossed in the corner of the envelope.
The elevator wouldn’t come fast enough. Once inside, he watched the numbers climb 2, 3, 4, 5. “Yvonne,” he called the moment he stepped into their apartment overlooking the sea. “It’s here.”
My mother fetched his reading glasses and together they went to the balcony, to the cooler air, to the light. Joseph cleared his throat and unsealed the envelope. He unfolded the paper, glossed over the opening statements and formalities, finally read aloud the meat of the letter: “You are invited to give your video testimony on Tuesday, August 15, at 10:00AM.” He read to the end, stalled at the last set of instructions. “They want me to bring two shirts, one white, one dark,” he said bewilderedly.
“Lunch is ready,” my mother said and together they took a seat at the small dining room table. She handed him a thick slice of rye bread. “After my nap I’ll pluck the hair from inside your ears. Then I’ll trim your nostril hairs and thin out your eyebrows.”
My father took a bite from the bread. “You’d think you’ve been living with a caveman for sixty years.”
My mother dunked her bread in the soup and sucked the broth. “You’re the handsomest man alive, but you’re going in front of a camera. And you only have several days to go over your notes.”
On Tuesday, at 5:00AM, my father awoke without an alarm clock. He didn’t need a metal box with spinning dials to make a racket. For decades he’d shoved off to construction sites at dawn, his lunch pail swinging at his side, laying dozens of bricks before the sun climbed out of bed.
My mother slept, pulled the summer bed sheet over her head. There’s was no changing the man’s habits, hard as she tried.
In the dark he groped the handle to the closet and withdrew two clean shirts draped over hangers. He trudged to the small living room, flicked the light on and propped up the ironing board. He plugged the iron, waited. He then licked his thumb and touched the hot iron. It hissed. The white shirt would go first, he decided, and spread the cotton fabric over the board, ran the iron over and around the buttons, over the shirt pocket, applied pressure on the collar until it stiffened. Real and imagined wrinkles melted. The navy blue shirt was next. He removed his pajama and wore the dark slacks he reserved for the Sabbath services at the synagogue. He was not a religious man, attended services out of respect for his son-in-law who started most sentences with “If God wills it.”
In the bathroom he stood before the mirror, watched his thinning hairline. In his 20s his thick black hair rivaled Rock Hudson’s. Hudson was dead. He was not. He dunked his shaving brush in an ivory cup, lathered his gray stubble. The Wilkinson Sword blade plowed through the white foam. His eyes watered. Tears rolled down over the foam like streams carving snow. He looked away from the mirror and rinsed his face. “Be strong,” he said.
He wore the white shirt, showed better his tanned complexion. But he’d carry the navy blue shirt with him, let the State official decide. The cameraman knew best.
After breakfast my mother ranted about why my father needed to rise at five when the appointment was set for ten. “You’re not rocketing to the moon,” she said and applied cold compress to her sleep-deprived eyes. “You’re the movie star, Joseph, but I can’t look like a wreck, either.”
My father paced the length of the apartment, counted the floor tiles. “We’ll be late.”
“Because of you we’re never late to anything. At weddings we arrive before the bride, at funerals we arrive before the dead.” And with that, she sliced apricots and peaches and packed the fruit wedges in her handbag. There was no telling when famine might strike. My father held a thick folder under his arm and together they marched into the elevator, into the sunlight and into an awaiting taxi that would take them to the Holocaust Memorial Library at the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
My father spoke little during the ride, set the folder on his lap and looked out the window. My mother chewed on a juicy apricot and offered one to my father. “No, I don’t want to stain my shirt,” he said and pulled at the tips of the white collar.
Minutes later they arrived. From the street level the imposing three-story building took up the entire block. It exuded all function and no form, a large concrete cube that could have housed any one of Israel’s run-of-the-mill government ministries. The sharp-edged building was softened slightly by swaying date trees and a patch of green on which bronze figure sculptures of indiscriminate gender appeared to be in dance motion. Or were they fleeing?
An armed guard at the gate questioned my parents, went though their papers, motioned them to proceed. Inside, dullness pervaded. Two sets of staircases at opposite sides of the building, a throwback to the days of Communist-influenced architecture, led up from the main lobby, converging at a wide landing at the top, and from there, again, to the third level, my father’s destination. The gray, concrete-poured walls enveloped them as they reached a receptionist behind a metal desk. “Mr. Joseph Labi,” she said and removed her glasses, acknowledging my mother’s presence with a nod.
My father cleared his throat. “I have an appointment with-”
“Of course,” she said and rose from her chair, directed them to a wooden bench. “Please, take a seat. I’ll get Mr. Berkovich.”
They sat like schoolchildren, watched the comings and goings, their eyes fixed on efficient staff pushing files on wheeled carts, a lively parade before them without the price of admission. My mother finished the last of the apricots.
“This way,” the receptionist said, gesturing to an office with an open door through which a man’s Hebrew peppered with a sharp Polish accent was heard. At the sight of the diminutive man behind the desk, my father said, “I also brought a navy blue shirt.”
“Good,” Berkovich said calmly and shook his hand. “It’s good to finally see you in the flesh. I’m your interviewer, your documentarian. The videographer will be here shortly, but first, how about some tea or coffee?”
“Yes,” my mother said. “I’d like two spoonfuls of sugar in my coffee, one in his.”
“Right away,” Berkovich said and set his empty teacup on a tray, about to leave.
“Shouldn’t she,” my mothered wondered, pointing to the secretary.
“She’s your camerawoman. Her name’s Sara. We’re running a trifle late this morning.”
“Let me help you then,” my mother offered, and before he could answer, she carried out the tray.
My father remained alone in the office, the folder on the desk. From his pocket he withdrew his hearing aid and set it in his ear, set the volume to high. He noticed a video camera mounted on a tripod, a stage light. He got off his chair and examined a slew of items on a makeup table: combs, brushes, lotions, eye cream, and mascara. He held a hairbrush by the handle and swiped the tough bristles over the palm of his hand. It tickled.
“You can use anything you like,” Berkovich said as he came in the room with coffee cups. “People forget to bring a comb, forget to bring lipstick. We’re equipped for every contingency.” He set the cups down. “One time a man forgot to bring his dentures,” he joked. “You brought yours?”
My father exposed his teeth, as if a patient in a dental chair. “They’re mine.”
“You’re a lucky man, at your age.”
“I have my own teeth, too,” my mother announced.
Berkovich said, “Good, very good.”
“Well,” my mother said and tapped the side of her handbag. “I’m leaving. In the meantime, I’ll go shop for a dress or work on some crossword puzzles.” She took several gulps from the steaming coffee and made for the door. “Remember, speak slowly and clearly,” she told my father.
Sara switched on the stage light, came to my father and helped position him in his chair. “You look wonderful in that white shirt.” She gave Berkovich the cue.
Berkovich took note of the date and the time in his logbook. “Today we’re documenting the atrocities of the Nazis against the Jewish people. You survived. The testimony you’re about to give today will last forever.”
Sara zoomed in on my father’s face.
Berkovich said, “This video is not rehearsed. It will not be edited or polished. I’m your listener. I’ll guide you, if you need me. You may begin anywhere in your life’s story. Anytime you’re ready, Joseph.”
It wasn’t stage fright that prevented my father from speaking right away. But after sixty five years, he wasn’t quite sure where to pick up the story, which chapter to open up with. Mr. Berkovich was in no apparent rush, either. He’d seen and heard it all before.
“I lived in an orthodox Jewish home,” my father started. “I’m the second youngest of many brothers and sisters; we lived in Benghazi, a bustling seaport on the Mediterranean coast, in Libya. In 1943, I was fifteen. The Italian Fascists and the Germans were losing against the British in North Africa. They began to retreat. The Fascists captured me and many others. At first, I couldn’t understand why. What possible value did a fifteen year-old have to the Italians, to the Germans? I soon found out. My grandfather, long dead, was born in Gibraltar. That made him a British subject. That made me a British subject. In the eyes of the Fascists I was valuable commodity to be exchanged as a POW. Without much notice, they rounded us up and put us on a ship bound for Italy. We docked in Genoa.”
“You can slow down, if you wish,” Berkovich said. “We have plenty of film. But it’s up to you.”
“The life I knew as a Jewish boy in Benghazi was gone forever in the mountains of Northern Italy. They transported us to a village called Castelnovo ne’Monti. It wasn’t far from Parma. I was a prisoner but without fences. We were put under house arrest, not allowed to step beyond the village. The stone houses crept up the slope of a tabletop mountain. Postcards cannot describe its beauty. In the beginning the Italian authorities allowed me to attend school. Three nuns administered the school, taught us Italian, history, a little mathematics, and plenty of Catholicism.”
“They knew you were Jewish?”
“They did. They took it upon themselves to convert us.”
“Did you resist?”
“I don’t remember. I didn’t want to be cold. The school had a wood stove in the middle of the class. I didn’t want to go hungry. I ate sausages. First thing every morning we milked the cows, chopped wood, then off to school. It didn’t last long.”
“The Fascists changed their policy. No Jew was allowed to study. They threw me out. I spent my days in the streets, kicking a football I made from a giant sock stuffed with newspapers. Throughout the village church bells tolled at all hours of the day. I remember covering my ears, wanting to block the foreign noise. I longed to hear the voice of my rabbi at our synagogue in Libya. It didn’t help. The grand synagogue I knew was gone. Also gone was the magical call to prayer from the muezzin at the top of the mosque.”
“How long were you in Italy?”
“I spent two years in the village, mostly resorting to petty theft, going to the local cinema to watch American films and to admire the Italian girls. Then the Germans came. They’d retreated from Sicily, came up through the Italian Boot and set up camp in our village.”
My father searched the face of his interviewer for a sign to slow down, but when none came, he took a sip of water from a styrofoam cup and resumed his story. “Trains,” he said. He cringed at the mention of the word, as if he could still hear the piercing whistle atop the locomotive. “To this day, I don’t like trains. The Germans came early one morning, loaded us into the railcars.”
“Did you know where the train was going?”
“Did you try to escape?”
My father’s green eyes traveled to the past in search of a moment in time. He nodded intermittently. “I had the chance. But I didn’t act on it. The train made a stop somewhere in France. We disembarked for a few minutes. I went to pee. When done, I returned to the railcar. There stood a French soldier. He must have known the train was bound for the death camps. He leaned into me, said in a language I don’t remember, maybe French, maybe Italian, mostly hand gestures, signaling me to get under the train and flee from the tracks and into the woods.”
“What did you do?”
“I did nothing. I took a stick of gum he offered me and got back on the train. The few people I knew in the world were on that train. What was I going to do in the forests all by myself?”
“You were alone,” Berkovich said.
“Alone,” my father said. “After one day, and one night, and one day, we arrived in Germany, at Bergen-Belsen.”
“What was your first impression of the camp, Joseph? What did you see?”
My father cast his eyes down to remember what he was never to forget. “It wasn’t the eyes. It was the nose. The stench, the smell of rotting corpses in the camp is what I remember most. The dead were everywhere. And the living wanted to join the dead. The old, the weak, the infirm-they lost all hope. They purposely walked beyond the designated area, past the communal restrooms, started to scale the fences. The Germans shot them dead from the tops of watchtowers.”
“What was your daily routine?”
“Roll Call,” my father said sharply, as if called to stand at attention. “It was at six a.m. sharp. Germans love punctuality. They shot latecomers. After Roll Call, the unlucky ones, the non-British, were sent to hard labor. I was young; I had my papers, I was allowed to stay behind. I swept the barracks daily with a heavy broom, made sure the bare floor was spotless. Germans like order.”
“What did you eat?”
“Potatoes,” my father said. “As a British subject, they later assigned me to kitchen detail. I peeled potatoes, threw them in giant pots. We carried the daily food rations-one potato, a slice of bread, cup of black coffee-to each of the prisoners in the bunks. It was my job to return the empty pots. In my trousers pocket I hid a spoon at all times. It was a crooked spoon. I bent the handle back so it would follow the round shape of the pot. Once alone, I scoured the bottom and was able to scoop up a couple of tablespoons of soup, and if lucky, a piece of horse meat. It wasn’t kosher, but I didn’t care. It was that, or resort to cannibalism, which is best?”
My father stared blankly at the camera, and for a moment, at the youthful Sara behind the lens. “Girls liked me,” he said, the smile not fully formed on his lips. “In Italy I was strong. I chased after them in the snow. They giggled. We fell and rolled on the white fluff. One girl even kissed me. They liked my North African complexion, my dark, wild hair.” He clenched his jaws shut, but it was too late to stop the quivers. His shoulders shook. His eyes welled. “The girls in the Camp were ghosts. They may have been beautiful once, but to look at them then was to look at death. Their eyes were hollow, the life snuffed out of them. They crossed the grounds in groups-a gray mass moving without purpose from one end of the camp to the other. Under the heaps of filthy clothes, they were nothing but skeletons in motion. They were the living dead. I cried for them then; I cried about me, unable, unwilling to ever venture and ask for anyone’s company.”
“Do you want to take a break?”
My father continued, “We weren’t like Auschwitz. We didn’t have gas chambers. The Nazis brought excess Jews from the other camps to die in Bergen-Belsen. Soon dead people were piled everywhere. Sewage flowed. Typhus was everywhere. In the beginning it shocked me, but later I walked past bodies with little regard for the dead. They were the lucky ones, it seemed. Around me, many died of fever, infections, of starvation, of giving up hope, of giving up on God.”
“You said, Joseph, you grew up in a religious home. Did faith help you?”
My father was deep in thought, the wheels of time spinning. “I turned seventeen in the Camp. It was 1945. I didn’t make a fuss over it. It was like any April day, cold, gray, icy-two weeks before the Liberation, but I didn’t know it then. The Jewish elders in the bunk below me found out it was my birthday and rose to congratulate me, as much as to congratulate themselves-every day we survived was a miracle. An old man who’d recited the scriptures nightly asked, ‘Were you Bar-Mitzvah’d?’”
The question, then and now, hung in the air for a long time awaiting an answer. Then and now, my father doubled over in his seat and buried his face in his hands. He sobbed liked a child.
The camera kept rolling.
Berkovich said, “Let’s take a break, then.”
My father soon straightened his back, dismissed the suggestion to stop, dabbed his eyes dry with tissue. He wished he’d had his handkerchief, the one that was yet to be returned by the postman. He said, “I want to go on.”
“As you wish,” the documentarian said.
“The Germans robbed me of my childhood; they stole me from my family, from my home. They robbed me of an education. I was alone in the world. But what I curse them most for is they robbed me of my Bar Mitzvah. I will never forgive them.” He wiped the tears with the back of his hand. He was no longer an old man. For the next few moments, he was a young boy. “I remember my brother’s Bar Mitzvah in Benghazi, David’s. I remember how proud my father was. David wore new clothes, a beautiful white shirt, and new polished black shoes. The synagogue was packed. Prayers were said. He got up and addressed the congregants, read from the open scrolls of the Torah. On that day he’d become a man. I sat in the front, next to my father. At the end of service my mother hurled sweets from the partitioned balcony above, and burst into song. Children dove after the sweets-candied almonds, pink, baby blue, and yellow. The usher went up and down the synagogue aisles and splashed rose water on the men, as was customary. It smelled heavenly. I remember the feast in his honor at the house. The help butchered sheep and goats. Chickens roasted on spits. Spicy fish simmered in pots. Bowls of couscous and slabs of meat made the rounds. We finished off with honeyed pastries and Arab-style tea.”
My father pinched up his shoulders and let them drop. “The old man asked me again, this time louder, ‘Were you Mitzvah’d?’ I said no. The old man assembled a group of men in a flash, put a kippa to my head and helped me sling the tefillin up my left arm. He walked me through the ritual, helped me recite the prayer, and wound the leather straps tight around my forearm. My flesh swelled from the pressure. The pain felt good. I didn’t ask how he got his hands on tefillin in the Camp.
“David’s feast lasted two days and two nights. Mine lasted three minutes. The ancient men soon returned to what they did ordinarily, staring blankly at the walls for hours. I so wanted to thank them, to treat them, but there were no candies, no meats, and no rose water. I reached into my satchel and pulled a bottle of cologne I was able to smuggle in from my days in Italy. I marched up and down the barracks announcing to anyone who’d listen: ‘I’m a man today. Today I’m a man,’ all the while I sprayed the prisoners with splashes of cologne.”
“You mentioned girls. You must have learned about Anne Frank after the war. She too was in Bergen-Belsen.”
My father smiled sadly. “Anne was a year younger than me, I found out later. She died at age sixteen of typhoid. She would have been eighty-one today. I saw her pictures. She looks a lot like my first granddaughter. I may have run into her in the Camp, rubbed shoulders with her, but who’s to say? They were all ghosts, I tell you.”
“Did you go to her museum in Amsterdam?”
“No. But she was lucky if one can use that word. Even after her death the place she hid in is still standing. I can’t say that about me. My home’s been long gone in Libya. Arabs took over. I’m without a home.”
“But you have your home here in Israel.”
“Yes, yes,” my father declared the obvious. “I’m talking about my childhood home, the house I grew up in with my mother and father, my brother and sisters. I’m talking about my father’s silk and fabric shop; about the rooftop of my home from which we saw ships at sea, about the intoxicating smells of spices in the market.” He pointed to his head, tapped his temple with his finger. “My home’s right here. The Germans can’t rob me of that.”
“Did you write a journal after the war?”
“I’m no Anne Frank, Mr. Berkovich. I’m not a man of words. As a refugee, I wandered for months through the bombed out cities of Europe. I then infiltrated into Palestine under the watchful eye of the British. I fought in the War of Independence in 1948, looked death in the eyes and came away unscathed. I married. I have children. I have grandchildren. We’re taking them to the beach this afternoon. That’s my daily journal.”
Sara signaled Berkovich that the session was coming to an end. The documentarian said, “You survived, Mr. Labi. Millions didn’t. Do you consider yourself lucky?”
My father shut his eyes briefly, and then opened them. “Someone’s watching over me.”
“You mean God?”
“I don’t know. Someone’s watching over me.”
The camera stopped.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries. Read more at http://notesfromgalilee.wordpress.com. He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com or BN.com.