LETTER TO MAX
Robert S. Greene
I write of you, Max, of my younger self and the curse you laid upon us. And of the strange field that joined us. I write to tell you some of the things you didn’t know, to still the anger which still smolders in your ghost, and ultimately, to give you substance once again, bitter as that may be.
I was only sixteen when your first letter arrived from Prague.
Stern-faced you are, Max, in the picture you sent us, steel rimmed spectacles, looking at us as if a wind was blowing at you and you’ll be damned if you’ll budge. Your letter was in German, which my father barely remembered. There was absolutely no warning. How you found us in New York is still a mystery. The letter had been sent airmail and registered. It reached New York via Lufthansa over the North Atlantic. From the many cancellation marks on the envelope the letter had knocked around the city for ten days before it found us. Eventually it made its way to our door at 55 East 86th Street. It wasn’t opened until my father got home from his office that evening. It was written in German. Greta Fischer, a German refugee who was taking care of my grandmother, translated it. A bit overwhelmed to be back in her native tongue I present her translation it in a slightly shortened form.
15 November, 1938
Please believe me. It is not easy for me to beg you this way because I know it could be a risk for you. For a cousin you haven’t seen for forty years and practically don’t know. The water is beginning to rise in Czechoslovakia up to my mouth. I have lived here for 19 years, but I am still a foreigner, a German and a Jew. Any day I can lose my position, and I simply can’t overlook any possibility for myself and my family to give them a chance that I earn a living. I am sure I can manage it. And if its not in my specialty, then I would work as a shoe cleaner, a cook. I don’t have any hesitation to do anything to make an honest dollar.
Helfe Mir! Help me!
I speak a bad English, but people understand, and I promise you in four weeks I will speak it perfectly. My wife is used to working with me. She is not an extravagant woman, and she has helped me for years in my business. My younger daughter Liane is only 13 years old and is still going to school.
A young friend, Dr. Harry May, is on his way to New York now. Just before leaving he married my eldest daughter, Helga. She is eighteen. He got from Dr. Stephen Wise, a stranger, an affidavit and probably he will work with the Jewish Institute of Religion. I hope that he will soon earn enough so that he can provide for Helga and bring her to America. He arrives just today on the Ile de France in New York.
I am giving the dates of my family. Please don’t let us down. I thank you in advance.
Your cousin, Max Renner
We were at our dining room table.
“Who is Max Renner?” my mother asked.
I watched my father thinking
“Max Renner?” my mother asked again. “Who’s he?” Max, we didn’t even know who you were!
A long silence.
“Read it again,” my father asked Greta Fischer.
She held the letter, starting at the top, slowly translating in her heavily accented English, my mother, my father listening. I watched them think, trying to go back before the Depression, back to the golden years of their marriage, back to their wedding trip in 1919 from New York to a Vienna still smarting from the Great War, back to their visit to my father’s Viennese family until, finally, dimly, in a world almost completely forgotten, they recalled the image of a thin young man who was my father’s first cousin, and whose name was Max Renner.
“For God’s sake!” my father said. He took the letter from Greta Fischer’s hand and looked at it. “Oh, for God’s sake!” he said again.
“Could he have been at that dinner we gave at Sacher’s in Vienna?” my mother asked.
“Saccharin? Why do you use saccharin?” my mother’s mother asked.
“They’re talking of a hotel in Vienna, Mrs. Stern,” Greta Fisher prompted.
They peeled away the years, back to the old homestead on Fleischmarkt street, just above the Danube canal, the ancient buttressed building leaning against its neighbor with the help of a small stone arch, the roses hanging down from iron railings in the old courtyard, the sign “Renner” jutting out in the old engraving they had been given. Someone borrowed my father’s Graflex and took their picture, my father in his dress overcoat with the velvet collar, his suit and vest and Sulka tie, my mother with her silver fox scarf, both looking like a million dollars. Afterwards they invited the entire family to Sacher’s hotel, up to their suite overlooking the Opera, where a waiter served champagne and sandwiches on a silver tray. Downstairs, in the restaurant, a table had been reserved and, amid candlelight and bright silver, dinner was served at which my father was the host. It was quite a moment, Max. If you got the idea that my father had made it in the new world, you were right.
The family saw them off at the station. Porters, the leather luggage, the first class overnight compartment. Then, with a rush of steam and a hoot of the whistle, the New World slowly pulled away from the Old. You watched the train, Max, as it grew smaller, then made the turn, and slowly vanished. Then, with the others, the platform now empty, you headed for the tram back to Fleischmarkt. And that was that. It was the only time you saw my father.
If you imagined the next part, Max, you were right. The golden 1920’s lay ahead. Gliding across Europe, clickety-clack, eating in the dining car, silver service and flowers on the starched white tablecloth. Outside Europe slid by. Two days later pulling into the Gare de l’Est, Paris, the Meurice hotel, shopping on the Rue de Seine and the Rue Jacob, the last curios, antique boxes, onyx ashtrays, prints, tables, chairs for their new Park Avenue apartment. And when they had done, when they had exhausted both themselves and the weary shopkeepers, they took the train for Cherbourg and boarded the tender to go out to the waiting Aquitania. The fog horn bellowed, the great ship swung around, pointed its prow west, the tugs let go as she embarked for New York and the promise of the 1920’s.
They were breathing pure oxygen, Max. The Gainesboro suite, candlelight in the first class dining room, deck chairs and plaid blankets, until after five and a half days, Sandy Hook, the lightship, the Statue of Liberty, the Woolworth Building and New York.
If you thought my father had made it in Vienna, Max, you should have seen him here. With his textile firm doing a million dollars a year, he and his partner decided to branch out. Commercial banking, factoring other textile houses who would put up their inventory as security. By 1925 their volume was eight million dollars. By 1928 sixteen million! You should have come to America then, Max. A roller coaster! By 1929 they were doing twenty million. At that point they decided to go public. “Wouldn’t a hundred million a year be a grand goal to shoot for!” my father said.
They shot for it.
Instead, they hit their foot.
Their stock had just been issued when there was “a slight disturbance in the stock market,” as my father testified in court. Their timing couldn’t have been worse.
“WALL STREET LAID AN EGG!” bannered Variety. It was the Great Crash of 1929. With the smell of gunpowder in the air, they tried to call in their loans. No dice. Everything had turned bad. An uproar! Had they known? Had there been monkey business somewhere? Childhood memory, my father sitting with an adding machine, turning the crank, trying to find out where the money had gone. Furious stockholders threatening action. An indictment was filed, charging that they had deliberately defrauded the public by issuing worthless stock and moreover, “did so deliberately and knowingly.” Bail was set and the District Attorney began preparing his case. They were to be tried on criminal counts.
It took a year, Max, before the trial began. Penniless, we moved to the Croydon hotel where my grandmother Sarah, who had disliked my father even when he had money, now supported us, rubbing it in every chance she got and waited for him to go to jail.
He almost went.
The trial lasted six weeks. The case went to the jury and a verdict was returned that same night. “Guilty!” Pending appeal, they were free on bail.
It took another two and a half years of extensions of sentence before a higher court handed down its opinion. “Verdict Reversed.” We lived on the rack. But by that time no one cared. What had been page two news in the New York Times was now barely an inch on page seventeen. Ruined, my father found himself penniless in New York, the city entering the dark days of the Depression. It was 1932.
How do you like it, Max? Not quite what you remembered! Broke, miserable at home, he greeted the 1930’s smoking five cent cigars when he could afford them, and walking back from Wall Street so he could save the nickel. My mother was crossing the street to avoid people she knew. Sarah wouldn’t speak to him, and we ate at a card table in the hall while my father was banished to sleep in the dinette. “Would you ask your mother to pass the salt,” he would say, although their knees were practically touching. Are you still thinking of the courtyard with the roses on the iron grillwork, my father with his homburg hat and Sulka tie, my mother with her silver fox scarf? Sure you are, Max. Sure your are. No one clued you in.
While you were moving to Prague and settling in on Havelska street we finally moved from the Croydon hotel to a decent apartment. There we got our things out of storage, relics of the good days, relics which my mother had tried sell but which no one would buy in the Great Depression. My father, meanwhile, still completely broke, was selling life insurance and trying to think his way out of his mess. I remember him fooling around in the kitchen with a toy printing press, some colored ink and a cloth. He was trying to make a printed name tape, the kind you could sew into clothes. And I remember that first decent impression he got, using my mother’s monogram, filling it with ink, and then running a roller over it. I still have the cloth. With that idea he could have a machine built – if he could raise the money. Printed name tapes would be cheaper than the woven ones and quicker to deliver. He would call the company the Name-Maker Corporation. He was, quite literally, trying to remake his name.
He had to get my mother to plead with Sarah to lend him the four hundred dollars he needed for a tool maker in Bridgeport to make the first machine. Almost to his surprise, the machine worked. Now he needed capital to start the business. Sarah balked. “I will not lend that man another dime!” He had to give away half his rights to attract two partners for two thousand dollars!
They took a loft on 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Inside were two copies of his machine and a cheap stove in which to set the dyes. Before one machine sat a chap whose distinction was a shock of straight brown hair which fell into his face every time he turned the crank and slapped his paint brush on the plastic strip. On the upward turn the shock of hair would suddenly toss back on his head. Thirty six times he would do this to make up an order of three dozen name tapes. Three dozen tapes for a dollar. Yards of ribbon would be wasted on printing that smudged, was off center, letters that did not come up, wet hair from the paint brush which smeared the ribbon. It drove my father crazy. He was drawing sixteen dollars a week from the business, but that might soon stop.
“Adjust the doctor blade!” he would cry, bending over his invention. Sometimes it took an hour to get thirty six impressions passably printed. They would staple the good pieces of tape together, then roll the tape on a reel and put it back into the oven of the small kitchen stove sitting in the back of the loft. The Vat dyes had to be fixed with heat. He would be sitting at his desk up front. “Do you smell something?” he’d suddenly cry. Leaping from his desk chair - he was a stout man looking something like the actor Sidney Greenstreet - he’d run back to the oven which was already smoking. Inside would be a reel of browned and charred tape, a whole morning’s work ruined.
“That goddammed oven!” he’d cry. “That goddammed oven!” They couldn’t afford a decent commercial oven with a temperature control. “Can we salvage any of the tape,” he’d ask, perspiring as he leaned over the reel, studying the ruins. They’d sink the reel into a tub of Clorox to try to bleach off the stains. The rest of the afternoon would be spent doing over the order. “Sit by the stove after you’ve finished printing them!” my father would say. “Don’t’ move!”
That’s the picture Max. That’s what was going on when your letter arrived. I watched my father read your letter again, his face blank. Enclosed with your letter was also a copy of a circular letter you had written to colleagues in America, asking for small donations. “To get a Visum it is necessary to have $6000. Transfer is impossible and I have no money in Foreign.”
I saw my father scribbling with a pencil on my desk blotter. If he put half of his sixteen dollars a week aside it would take him over fourteen years to accumulate six thousand dollars. He stood there a moment, looking at the blotter
“Can you type a letter for me?” he said. We went into my room I sat down before the ancient L.C. Smith typewriter he had given me when dealer threw it in with the second hand file cabinet and desk he had bought for the business. I put a piece of paper in the platen.
Slowly he dictated and I tried to help. God help us, we did a terrible thing. Instead of telling you my father was dead broke we held out a shred of hope.
New York, November 30th, 1938
I received your letter and while I’ve forgotten most of my German, I was able to read it quite well. I will try to help you but I had a lot of trouble in the past ten years which you don’t know about. I am trying to get a new business started, but it is a very difficult time. I will ask around and see what I can do. I will speak to my partners in the business. Tell Harry May to get in touch with us when he arrives. I send my best you and to your family. With all my best wishes,
It isn’t so easy to say that you’re completely broke, Max, that you almost went to jail, that the business you’re trying to start is so weak it may not last through the year. But you are still thinking of Sacher’s hotel, way back in 1919.
Into the box went the letter. Some fifteen days later we received Max’s reply.
Prague I December 16th 1938
My dear cousin Oscar,
I received your letter and regret very much that I have not written to you in English. I am very glad you are thinking of to help me. Surely you are informed by newspapers of our situation in Europe and it is impossible for Jewish people to remain.
Till now I have no difficulties. But we do not know when Nuremberg antisemitical laws shall be introduced in Czechoslovakia therefore it is better not to wait. To day I have 47 years and this is the best time to work. I have forces enough to succeed in America. I have ideas and energy. I am busy and keen. I have experience. I am tailor, cutter, designer and expert in textile and rubber goods. But I see no possibilities for the future. My wife is a moderate person, which is busy, helps me since 15 years in business. The younger daughter has 13 years and is matriculated in the Grammar school.
My youngest brother Erwin is in Vienna and works there as secretary of GILGEMEEESTER Organization for Emigration. I do not know how long he can remain in Vienna.My elder daughter Helga is a pupil in art school. She is married with a young man, Harry S. May, Dr. philosophy, a theologian, and he is since 3 weeks in New York. The marriage was half an hour before he started by airmail to Paris. He is a smart young man and I would be very glad if you would communicate with him. If you will see him you can hear all details over us.
Thank you for looking to help us. If you give me the possibility to go over to America you will not any risk. I am waiting for further news from you and I remain,
Very truly your cousin,
We didn’t have to wait long for Harry May. He had just arrived in New York on the Ile de Franc, and immediately called my mother. She invited him to dinner. That’s where the real trouble started.
Harry May appeared at our apartment wearing heavy tortoise shell glasses, nicely shined shoes, a dark suit and vest beneath his overcoat. He carried flowers neatly wrapped in floral paper. These he held out to my mother as she greeted him in the foyer. “From Max,” he said, “and all his family.”
I watched him stand in our living room and look around. There, before him, were all the small treasures that had been collected during the great days and which had been in storage during the terrible hotel years. The decorative cups and saucers from the Rue Jacob in Paris, the antique tilt top table they had bought on the Rue de Seine, the English gravy bowl they had picked up in London. He saw the mahogany table with its antique Chinese vase sitting between the taffeta draped windows, the prints they had picked up on the Rue Napoleon hanging on the wall, the onyx ashtray on the coffee table beside an eighteenth century box that held some Pall Mall cigarettes. He saw the pair of “St. Cloud” type potpourri jars sitting on the mantle, the 19th century English coffee table, the rose love seat, the small French armchairs covered in floral chintz. And as Harry May settled into his French armchair beneath the mustard colored old French clock, and gratefully accepted a thin stemmed glass of sherry, he took a breath of relief and realized that what Max had told him was true, that indeed he had been invited to the home of a millionaire.
What he didn’t see was that everything had been up for sale, that dealers had been begged to buy the cups and saucers, the clock, the prints, the chairs, the tables, and only the ridiculously low prices offered accounted for their survival. Finally, he could not even guess that the stout man before him, looking like Sidney Greenstreet in the “Maltese Falcon,” had still not recovered from another ghastly day of burnt ribbons, smeared tape, and discussions with his partners how much longer they could
stay in business.
“How is Max?” my father asked.
“Getting bald like you, Oscar!” My father put his hand up to the few blond hairs that remained. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Harry May apologized. “I should not have said that. I just make a joke. I was told it was good to joke. I try to follow your American customs.”
“It’s all right, Harry.”
“Max and Vera, Helga the older daughter and Liane who is thirteen have a nice flat on Havelska street. On the second floor, opposite a church. The Opera house where Mozart played is only five minutes a way. Business is good, raincoat materials and linings. But now Max is worried.”
Before he could go into detail dinner was announced, and Harry May asked to use the bathroom. In the bedroom, in the subdued light from silk shaded lamps made from old apothecary jars, he saw the twin beds with their mahogany headboards, the green taffeta spreads Rebecca had put on for company, my mother’s dressing table with the antique chair before it, the large gilded French mirror behind her dresser. These too had once been offered for sale, but the prices offered wouldn’t buy cheap maple replacements from Macy’s.
He took it all in, Max. And when Harry took his seat and unfolded his linen napkin from the 1920’s and sat back to enjoy the roast specially bought by my mother and paid for by Sarah’s checkbook, he was convinced help was on the way.
In Germany, Harry said, Jewish life was impossible. “Jews must eat in separate rooms in restaurants. Restricted shopping hours. Only two hotels for Jews in Berlin. Some streets you can’t even walk on! For the barber you have only two hours in the evening. Libraries off limits. Theaters, concert halls. This is what will happen if Hitler comes to Prague!”
Now he passed pictures around. There was Max, very serious. Vera, plain but pleasant. “This is Liane,” he said. Liane peers out from the photograph, thirteen, delicate, with long hair and a lovely forehead. The light of your life, Max. Her dove eyes are frank and open, and she stares half timidly, half curiously, into the camera. Harry May sees my admiration.
“Maybe you will see her soon in New York,” he said. “Maybe we’ll all go out together.”
Later my mother goes inside to Sarah’s bedroom and writes a check for Harry May. She comes back with it in her hand. “Here, Harry. It’s only ten dollars. I hope it will help.”
Gratefully Harry accepted it and shook her hand. “I will pay you back. Every penny! As soon as I am earning! This is very nice of you.”
Harry May got his overcoat. “Give Max and the family our best,” my mother said.
He asked about me, and I said I wanted to go to Columbia.
“It is such a big thing to look forward to being a student at Columbia,” he said.
We saw him to the door. “I will write to Max,” Harry said, “and tell him what a fine evening you have given me.”
The elevator door opened, Harry May waved goodnight, the door closed, and he vanished.
Oh, Harry! You don’t have to tell us! I know what happened.
An hour later, at your cheap East 28th Street hotel, you got your key from the clerk at the desk, squeezed into the narrow elevator, and then walked along the threadbare carpet down to your room. Ignoring the overheated air, you threw your coat on the chair, and using the night table as a desk, began composing your letter to Max. The radiator was hissing, but you didn’t even hear it. You wrote of your gemuetlich dinner, of Oscar and Elsa and their beautiful apartment, “with many antiques of great value,” and of the two servants who were in attendance, “one to serve the dinner, and the other whose only duty was to attend Mrs. Stern.” You spoke of my mother’s generosity to you, a total stranger, and of the check she gave you. “They treated me like family. I’m sure Oscar will help you with your affidavit.” Then you sealed the letter, addressed it, and not trusting the mail chute, went back downstairs and mailed it from the corner box on 28th Street.
Prague! The magical city. Faust’s city! Kafka’s city! Looking down from Hradcany Castle the steeples and towers point the city to the sky. “One of the most magical cities on earth,” Thomas Mann said. A thousand years old. The old town on the right bank of the Moldau, the town of mystical legends and the old Jewish cemetery. The Mala Strana beneath the Castle. Kafka country. The old Jewish cemetery, the stones piled on top of one another. Mozart’s city. Past the Jewish town hall. Maiselova. The old clock with the Hebrew dial, the hands moving anti-clockwise. The scarlet flag with the embroidered shield of David in the Old-New Synagogue. The Castle with its history, the legendary house where Dr. Faust lived in Charles Square. Watching the clock strike the hour from the tower in the old City Hall, Death pulling the bell cord. Prague, city of philosophers and girls with high cheekbones and knowing eyes, Max Brod’s Café Arco, people crowded in four rooms, the air thick with smoke and the aroma of strong coffee. This was your setting, Max. We never even imagined it. But Hitler does.
Nineteen Thirty Eight is drawing to a close. It is almost New Year’s Eve in New York, Max. You are six hours ahead of us. There is a damp wind from the Moldau and there is a chill. You stand with the crowd and wait. The Square is a seal of cobbles. The towers of the Tyn Church rise off to the right. Beyond, across the Moldau, you can see the spires of Hradcany Castle. Everyone waits. And then, a cry goes up and the bells start ringing as the ancient clock strikes, the rooster crows, death reverses the hour glass, and suddenly it is 1939. The stars are pinpoints of ice in the sky. You embrace Vera and Helga and Liane.
You are asleep by the time midnight arrives in New York . I have spent it at RKO 86th Street, watching “Dawn Patrol,” with Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Nivin. I watched as World War I in the air unfolds before me, the sky full of dog-fights, Nieuports and Fokker D7’s, the clatter of Spandus and Vickers, helmets and goggles, white scarves trailing in the split streams, shots of the German ace leaning over the cockpit and pointing down with his gloved hand, then the screaming dive and the goggled face behind the windscreen, the chattering machine gun. We will win, of course. Then there will be Arlo at the organ, “Happy New Year!” flashing on the screen, and when we leave it will be 1939.
The year has stolen on all of us. It is a year of doom. The earth is casting its field, Max. We are iron filings on a sheet of paper, and although we cannot see the magnet, the lines of force appear. You are at one pole, Max. We are at another, but we are joined.
Not only has the year of 1939 arrived, but stages are being constructed for it. Here, in Flushing meadows, the World’s Fair of 1939 is being built. The Trylon and the Perisphere are going up under a lacework of scaffolding. The lagoons have been laid out, exhibitors are bringing in their wares and the “World of Tomorrow” is taking shape. The Fair, as we already call it, will open in late spring. But on your side of the world Max another stage is being constructed. The music will be by Richard Wagner and the sets by Albert Speer. It will be an opera unlike any the world has yet seen. Sound effects by the Luftwaffe, and the Wehrmacht will supply all the extras needed. The fireworks will be incredible. Case Green, it’s called, the German plans for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The stage directions, cues for the actors - all exist on this same New Year’s Eve. The libretto contains a few dirty secrets, that are being kept under wraps in Berlin.
For you, Max, and for the Jews in Prague, a director has already been chosen. His name is Reinhard Heydrich. A handsome man, save for a nasty scar on his chin. A chap of real ability, he’s already had thousands of Jews arrested during Kristallnacht in Berlin. And just this January of 1939, he has received some special orders. They come from Hermann Goering, who for all I know, might have been flying a Fokker D7 in that stock footage I just watched in “Dawn Patrol.” Goering has just instructed Heydrich to form the Zentralstelle, a central organization in Berlin to assist in Jewish Emigration. Euphemisms, Max!
“You are charged with promoting emigration of the Jews from Germany by all means,” Goering tells Heydrich. For now Heydrich’s orders apply only to Germany. You live in Prague. Things will expand shortly. But all that is still to come. For now we receive your 3rd letter, Max. This time it is written in a neat hand in pen and ink.
Prague I February 16th, 1939
My dear Oscar,
A fortnight ago was published a new decree that all foreigners which are not of Czech nationality can be turned out and must leave this land between 1-6 months. As we are German subjects, we must await every moment that this decree shall be employed for us. Therefore I feel necessary to do all I can in order to find a way of immigration and if there is no possibility to get the necessary affidavit. I planned to go to Ecuador, but the climate in this country is awful and I fear for the health of my wife.
Harry wrote to me that you and Elsa are to him like parents. Last week we got a cable, which announced us that he got a contract and I hope so that my elder daughter can go abroad in the shortest possible time. Surely you will understand that we would prefer to be in the land where our children are and our other relatives. Harry wrote that you promised to look for the possibilities to procure us an affidavit by your friends.
If you can do something in this way for me I should be very thankful. I send you our dates and if you have success I beg you that the affidavit may be sent to me and not direct to the consulate, because there it can be lost. With the best regards to you and your family, I remain yours,
In New York, over CBS radio, there is an interruption of of the scheduled broadcast.
ANNOUNCER: This is a special news bulletin. Word has just been received that German troops have entered Bohemia and Moravia encountering no resistance from the Czechs. Advance columns of motorcyclists are reported now entering Prague We will interrupt our regularly scheduled programs to bring you further word as it comes in.
Music, but it does not last long:
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen. We interrupt this broadcast. At 6 am this morning, Prague time, German Army infantry and aircraft have begun the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Tanks and motorized infantry have been pouring across the Czech border. In Prague squads of German students, in jack boots and arm bands, are jostling their way through bewildered crowds shouting, ‘Heil Hitler! Sieg Heil!
It is March 15th, 1939, just a month after your last letter. Suddenly the air waves are crowded. NBC and ABC join CBS on the air. We can’t see you Max, but you are there. Standing on the cobbles of the Old Town Square, as they come in, the Tyn Church, the old clock, the cobble stones, the crowd stunned into silence. Your maid had come in early with the news.“Er Kommt!” He is coming!” She refuses to go out but you have gone around the corner to watch.
The line of motorcycles with their sidecars is endless and the roar and exhaust fills the air. Two steel-helmeted Germans sit on each cycle, the one in the rear carrying a Mauser. Another helmeted German sits in the sidecar. All are carrying gas mask canisters. It has turned leaden and bitterly cold. Snow is beginning to fall, suddenly turning into squalls, whipping against you.. A tractor hauling a howitzer passes. A woman spits at it. The soldiers ignore her. Now come the troop carriers, tops down, steel helmets low, collars of the greatcoats turned up. Someone in the crowd throws a snowball. There is a rumor that all public buildings have been cordoned off. Throngs stand along the Prikopy and Vaclavske namesti. Already you can see German police among the crowds, giving orders to the Czech policemen. You’ve seen enough, Max. You know what it means. You head back toward Havelska Street. In the distance, through the snow, you can see the towers of the Hradcany Castle.
You stay in the apartment that afternoon, trying to calm Vera, keeping an eye on Liane and Helga. You go over papers, what you own, what is in the bank, how much cash you have in the house. Outside the sound of motors never stops. Then, shortly before dusk, it begins to grow silent. You realize all traffic has stopped. A hush descends over the city as evening falls. And then, in the distance, you hear the sirens waling, rising and falling, growing louder. You take your coat from the hook and go downstairs.
Now the motorcycles are entering Old Town Square. They slow and draw up on the cobbles in two full lines. A crowd has gathered. A moment later a black Mercedes, red white and black swastikas waving, enters the Square. The hood is covered with light snow. Then another, then another. And in the third you see him, behind the glass, in the back seat. It is Hitler! In uniform. Two more Mercedes enter the Square. In one sits Heinrich Himmler Their cars stop for a moment. Then the motors gun and they pass under the arch toward the Hradcany Castle. The motorcycles spit and then roar from the square and fall into formation behind the three Mercedes. The crowd stands there, not making a sound. They follow the vanishing lights of the cars. The engines have faded. Gradually the Square becomes silent in the snow. You stand with the others. And then suddenly, on the Hradcany Castle, floodlights are switched on. And now, slowly, it billows out, brilliant under the lights, Hitler’s gold and black standard, slowly ballooning out between the towers.
As you turn on Havelska Street there is the sound of glass breaking. No one has to tell you what it is. It is the window of the Jewish shop on the corner.
Later that spring Harry May dined with us again before going off to Cincinnati. My mother gave him another check for fifteen dollars. If he wrote to Max after his visit to us there is no record of it, nor if Max ever received any letter. From Max, from Prague under German occupation, only silence. I took my College Entrance examinations in the Columbia gym in June. Then I went up to my old summer camp in Vermont as a junior counselor. Once again the night skies, northern lights snaking across the heavens, bars and stripes of colors momentarily shaming the stars. In New York my mother has coaxed the ailing Sarah to the Fair, the tall Trylon pointing to the sky as if a rocket to the moon, and the huge white ball of the Perisphere foreshadowing the moment of ignition of a grapefruit sized core of atoms. Together they board one of the little trains and snake their way by the flags and lagoons to get a taste of a world Sarah will never live in. It is too much for both of them. “I should have hired a chair,” my mother said, “but it was too expensive.” They return tired and unrefreshed. Later in the summer my parents go by themselves. It is a bittersweet experience. They love the recreation of an old New York street that Con Edison has built, with its tangle of overhead wires, gas lights, brownstones and front stoops. In this World of Tomorrow they catch a last glimpse of the yesterday of their childhood but the Fair is no fun for them. Still broke, they enter the French Pavilion, look at the prices, and realize they can’t afford dinner. Memories of Paris and the Meurice Hotel, of golden years. My father can shrug it off, but my mother is still haunted. For me my summer vacation is ending. Up in Vermont the nights have grown cold, the stars brilliant in a black sky. On an old radio in the clubhouse I try to catch the news. Howitzers in the green Mountains, Northern lights flashing. The gods are making signs, thundering static through gaps in the White Mountains, speeding over storms in New Hampshire. Now the voice of the CBS announcer breaks through:
ANNOUNCER: “There are signs that German troops are now mobilized on the Polish frontier. We take you now to London and Edward R. Murrow.
MURROW: The last word that has reached London is that at the British Embassy in Berlin all the luggage of the personnel and staff has been piled up in the hall. There is a feeling here that if Hitler does not back down, he will probably move against the Poles. Then the decision must be made here and in France and a terrible decision it will be. If it is to be war, how will it end? That is a question Englishmen are asking. And what will be the position of the United States?
New York is waiting, America is waiting. Now again Murrow’s voice, speaking from Broadcasting House in London, relayed from a transmitter in Spain, spanning the Atlantic, speeding over the waves, making landfall in Newfoundland, relayed down to New York, where it slips into the panels of CBS Master Control at 485 Madison avenue, fingers electrons, is patched into the network, flashes down coils, and then resounds into waiting loudspeakers all across America.
MURROW: Forty five minutes ago the Prime Minister stated that a state of war existed between Britain and Germany...Almost directly following that broadcast air raid warning sirens screamed through the quiet calm of this Sabbath morning. There were planes in the sky. We’re told that the all clear signal has been sounded in the streets, but it’s not yet been heard in this building.
The Germans have attacked Poland. Britain and France have reacted at last. It is September 1st, 1939. World War II has begun.
A few days later I enter Columbia College for my freshman year. War is coming closer.
GERMANY INVADES NORWAY
CHURCHILL BECOMES PRIME MINISTER
It is Spring, 1940. The headlines scream again. The Germans have burst into the Low Countries. Motorized columns break though the Ardennes and invade France. Cutting north of the Maginot Line, armored columns begin enveloping fleeing French troops, while Stukas with sirens attached to their wings, begin their terrifying dives. The Meuse line is pierced. Paris is in danger. In the north a German advance heads towards Dunkirk to cut off the British along the coast. On the radio in my bedroom Churchill’s growl spans the ocean.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields, we shall never surrender!”
At Compiegne, in the same railway car in which the Germans had signed the armistice of 1918, the French sign the documents of surrender. The Germans threaten to be in England in a month. In the history department at Columbia there is much concern of what will happen to the French fleet. In her bedroom on 86th Street, Sarah is engaged in her final struggle. A trained nurse is brought in. There are final in the rickety chairs in the Columbia gym and, suddenly, I find my freshman year of college is over.
From you, Max, only silence. But there is a field between us, we are filings on a piece of paper, and the force runs through us. I resonate with you, Max, though in my isolation I do not realize it. You are drowning. And the seas are so rough we cannot even hear your voice. But now, suddenly, you appear once again.
It is in Sarah’s now empty room.
Her desk is open. I have just come home. It is Spring, 1940.
My mother and father are standing by the desk, a letter in their hands. My mother is pale. My father holds the letter and his hand is shaking. I look at the envelope. It has three stamps, a red censor’s stamp, a New York region stamp, a Church Street Annex stamp, and a second registration stamp.
How many letters had you written, Max? How many? But this one got through, and it crucifies us against the wall.
May God damn you, Oscar!
I curse you and damn you and your family forever! I pleaded with you, as my only relative in America, to save me and my family. You lied. Now it is too late! This is your gift to me! Now I make my gift to you! May God strike you down! May God, without pity, strike down your family as mine has been struck down! May he strike down you, your wife and your son! I shall curse you every remaining day of my life, and I will curse you from hell. You have left me my legacy. This I now leave to you! May an avenging God strike your souls with affliction, and damn you and your family forever!
His scream fills the room. You have appeared, Max. It took this long but finally you have appeared.
“We have to do something!” I cry.
My father is frightened and furious.
“What do you want me to do!” he bellows, his voice rising. He grabs his trouser pocket and turns it inside out. “Look at it! It’s empty! Look at it! Put six thousand dollars in it and I’ll give it to Max. But it’s empty! You understand that?” He is red faced. He stands there a moment, and then with a startling motion, grabs the letter from my hands, ripping it violently and in a fury hurls it into the waste paper basket. “Leave me alone already!” he cries out, and storms from the room. I have not seen him so upset since the days in the Croydon hotel.
My mother and I stand there, the letter in Sarah’s basket beneath us, the curse still ringing in the room. She is badly shaken. Then she turns and goes to my father. I look into the basket. I want to reach in and retrieve the torn letter. I am afraid to touch it.
I don’t recall we ever spoke of Max Renner again. My father never mentioned him and I didn’t dare to. Nor did my mother mention him. Yet he hung over us. His previous friendly letter had been a year and a half ago. Surely he had attempted to write since. What had happened in the interval? What had happened to the missing letters? What had happened to him?
It wasn’t until after my father’s death in 1972 that once again the letters of Max Renner re-emerged. My father had kept them, all those years, in the drawer of the green chest in his room. Now, going though his papers after his death, they reappeared. But it was more than the letters. It was you, Max, your ghost, waiting. You never left us. It was as if you directed that I find you once again. Now I can begin to follow your trail.
My search begins with the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. Leo Baeck had been the chief rabbi of Berlin before the Holocaust. In their files there begins to emerge a paper trail I had not suspected. The Germans registered the Jews of Prague, as they did all Jews of Western Europe, on duplicate index cards and records. Their persons, their possessions, their bank accounts, their furniture, their professions, their place of birth, their birth date. “Prague Jews found themselves entered on at least fourteen sets of index cards.” The Germans knew what they were going to do, the Jews did not. But before they threw you out of your apartment, Max, they made life hideous
JEWISH STUDENTS EXCLUDED FROM ALL PUBLIC AND HIGH SCHOOLS!
CURFEW FOR JEWS IN FORCE EVERY NIGHT FROM 8 PM UNTIL MORNING!
JEWS EXCLUDED FROM THEATERS AND MOTION PICTURE THEATERS!
JEWS PROHIBITED FROM PUBLIC PARKS AND GARDENS IN PRAGUE!
JEWS FORBIDDEN TO SET FOOT IN CERTAIN STREETS!
PUBLIC LIBRARIES OFF LIMITS TO JEWS!
JEWS PROHIBITED FROM RESTAURANTS, SAVE IN ROOMS FOR JEWS!
JEWS EXCLUDED FROM ACCESS TO THEATERS!
JEWS NO LONGER PERMITTED TO RENT VACANT APARTMENTS!
JEWS DENIED LEGAL PROTECTION AGAINST TERMINATING OF LEASES!
JEWS FORBIDDEN TO LEAVE THEIR PLACE OF RESIDENCE EXCEPT BY SPECIAL PERMISSION!
JEWS BARRED FROM ALL BARBER SHOPS!
This is just the beginning, Max. At Wannsee, a large and pleasant villa in Berlin’s suburb, certain arrangements are being made. They are the fruition of the memo Goering has sent to Heydrich and they are deadly.
In completion of the task which was entrusted to you of solving the Jewish question, I herewith charge you with making all necessary preparations with regard for an overall solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe. I further charge you with submitting to me promptly an overall plan of the preliminary organization, practical and financial measures, for the execution of the intended Final Solution of the Jewish question.
Eichmann, who took the minutes of the meeting, remembers Heydrich’s words. “The Fuehrer has ordered the physical destruction of the Jews.”
The entire Jewish population of Europe is to be murdered!
Highest levels of the Nazi bureaucracy are present. All relevant Reich agencies now need to be coordinated. There are over eight million Jews to be eliminated in Europe, eleven million if Britain and Scandinavia are included. The list has been drawn and tabulated. It is a staggering project. An entire bureaucracy must be organized to achieve it. Death factories will have to be constructed, barracks built, gas chambers and sufficient ovens to handle the traffic. In Poland and Russia the killers went to the victims but shooting Jews into open pits is too slow and cumbersome. Now, in a clever twist, the process will be reversed. The victims will be sent to the killers! It will require an accurate census of the Jews, then concentrating them in ghettos where, on carefully worked out schedules, they can be fed to the railways and taken to the death camps. Arrangements with the Reichsbahn will have to be worked out so that the railroads can handle the traffic, be paid, timetables coordinated, books kept, Hollerith machines collected, operators trained, millions of punch cards ordered. First comes the census. A census like no other census before. It is a census for death.
Plans for the destruction of all of Europe’s Jews must be drawn, and for every country. Before the Jews of the former state of Czechoslovakia can be destroyed they must be concentrated. Where shall they be put? The name of Theresienstadt begins to appear. It is an old fortress town some 80 kilometers northwest of Prague. It once held, at maximum, seven thousand troops and seven thousand civilian workers. Surely fifty thousand Jews could be put there. In an old Baedeker (1891) I find the following:
Theresienstadt. (Rail. Rest.); the fortified town (Hotel Kronprinz Rudolf; pop 11,482, lies 1 ½ M. To the N., the influx of the Eger. Fine view of the picturesque basaltic cones of the Mittelgebirge from the station: to the N.E. the Geltsch and the Kelchberg; to the N., the Kreuzberg, Radischken, and Radobil; to the N.W., the Lobosch, Mileschaur, and Kletschen; to the W. the Kostial, with a ruined castle; to the S. W. the isolated Hasenburg. Beyond Theresienstadt the Eger is crossed.
The garrison town had been built in the 19th Century and named after the Empress Maria Theresa. It had never been attacked or besieged but quietly settled into the wake of time. Perfect for “settling” the Jews of the Protectorate and from elsewhere in Europe. With its ramparts it would restrict movement and there was a rail line only kilometers away. A spur could easily be built into Theresienstadt itself. That it will become a way-station to death is not even breathed. Plans are being made for you, Max, although you may now suspect it. And I am now, seventy years later, trying to follow your trail.
In the Baeck files in New York there are constant references to “Yad Vashem.” Here lies the great Archive in Jerusalem where are kept the records, the memories, the fragments, the documents of what were once living Jewish communities. Other records are found in Pages of Testimony by family or friends who knew the victims. The Yad Vashem Archives are an effort to reconstruct, with a sense of life, locale, and substance, what the Germans had degraded into tattoos and numbers. Now I have the background but I want more. Are you more, Max, than just a few letters, a curse and silence? Is there any further record?
Jerusalem 91043, Israel
Can you help me?
I am trying to discover the fate of my father’s cousins in Prague. I assume they perished in the Holocaust, but I have no details. I enclose their names, birth dates, and the last address I have for them in Prague. These are all the pitifully few details I have. Please accept this small contribution. I thank you for your efforts. While I realize your search may be futile, I shall be relieved that it has been made.
I despair of getting any information. To my surprise a Rabbi Schachter replies, almost immediately. “I received your letter this morning, the day after Yom Kippur. I hasten to respond. Herewith my worksheets from the Terezin lists.”
His worksheet is a piece of paper divided in half. On the left are the three Renner names, Max, Vera and Liane. Beside each name are their birth dates and the letters Au-1, Ay, Em. These are the transport designations. The numbers 388, 389, and 390 are written beneath each of their names. Then, with skill and sensitivity, he leaves it to me to put everything together. And as I do so the past beyond the dark window slowly emerges.
For their assembly point in Prague before delivery to Theresienstadt, the Germans have chosen the Trade Fair grounds, an open expanse where trade fairs had been held in the spring and fall. The names of the victims have been selected from an enormous card file of registered Jews. Groups of one thousand or two thousand Jews are ordered to assemble. Summonses are usually delivered at night, a day or two before, along with a sheet giving instructions how and where to report. Ruth Bondy, in her superb book, Elder of the Jews, reconstructs the scene at the Fair Grounds.
“The deportees were to bring all the cash in their possession, their savings-account passbooks, certificates of stocks and bonds, jewelry and food-ration slips to the appointed assembly site and hand them in, together with the keys to their flats. The keys were marked with the transport letter and the owner’s personal number. The same number was stamped on the cargo, and on a piece of cardboard hung with string around the neck that was compulsory apparel for every deportee.”
Schachter gives the details. The Renner’s convoy number is Au-1. Max, Vera and Liane are given the numbers 388, 389, and 390 and handed the cardboard and string. Cipher is being changed into flesh. Rabbi Schachter interprets:
“The numbers after the Au-1 indicates the ordinal position in the convoy. Thus, 388, 389, and 390 indicate family.”
Your curses Max, must have rent flesh! The Germans are now ready for the next step. From the Fair Grounds, before the city is awake, with a guarded escort, you are now all marched off to the nearby train station. It is done carefully, before the dawn, lest the sensitivities of ordinary Prague citizens be offended.
Early morning chill. The three of you, trying to stay together. With the crowd, the checking off of numbers, the waiting, the standing about, it takes several hours. At first passenger cars, later freight cars fitted with benches. There is a hiss of engine, a cloud of steam. Transport number Au-1 pulls out. The date is May 15th, 1942. You are leaving Prague for the last time. You have only days to live, Max.
The trip to Theresienstadt takes two to three hours. An old Baedeker describes it:
Vor (78km) Stat. Theresienstadt – Bauschowitz (Bahnrest.) uber die Eger; es beginnt das deutsche Sprachgebiet. ½ St. n. die ehem. Festung Theresienstadt (Gasth. Erzherzog Karl; Restaur. Deutsches Haus) an der Eger, die unterhalb in die Elbe mundet. – Jenseits Aussicht auf die malerischen Basaltkegel des Mittelgebirges. R. an der Elbe Leitmeritz.
Over the Elbe river. The fortress Theresienstadt. Now one begins to speak German. The restaurant Deutsches Haus. In another age they might have stopped. But that’s another time and another planet. Ruth Bondy describes your arrival:
“The passengers poured out into the commotion of the railway station, physically and emotionally drained, bewildered, the elderly often dazed. Awaiting them were Czech police in green uniforms, Jewish police in train conductor caps, the SS… workers who had come to unload the cargo…The Germans urged everyone on. ‘Schnell! Schnell!’ Transportation [for the old and sick] was provided on trucks, or platforms towed by tractors, driven by the SS ‘Kindergarten.’ Arranged in groups of four, the procession set out, the marchers clutching their hand luggage.”
It is a march of three kilometers to Theresienstadt. You see the old fortress town in the distance.
Theresienstadt lies on the Ohre River in a gentle plain among meadows and low sloping hills. In the distance appear the blue tinged mountains of Bohemia. But the town itself is grim. Its chief features are high scarps and deep moats, fortress walls and huge gray barracks. Streets intersect each other at right angles and the old, dark and dismal homes are indistinguishable from the barracks. The S.S. camp command overflows into the town and takes up numerous houses as well as barracks. Streets leading from the outside to these buildings are lined with barbed wire and wooden fences.
You, Vera and Liane are led over the moat and through one of the six gates, into the underground reception depot. Ruth Bondy describes it:
“The depot was called ‘die Schleusse,’ meaning sluice or lock, for the most part located in the damp, dark, subterranean dungeons of the ghetto walls, where new arrivals spent two or three days on soiled floors, waiting for all the procedures. ...After the SS warned the newcomers against hiding money or jewelry, people turned them over voluntarily. Then came the luggage check by Czech gendarmes, sometimes followed by a body check. ...every article of value on the official list of contraband was confiscated the moment it was spotted; tobacco, contraceptives, soap, toilet paper. ...By the time the luggage was returned to its owners, if it was returned at all, it contained only a pitiful remnant of all the articles that had been prepared with so much care, so much thought and deliberation. It took some time to recover from the shock of this loss.”
You are in the sluice two days. It is crowded. You sit on the earthen floor of the old fortress with the others, the dampness, the mildew, the smell. Here the paperwork is being done, the lists consulted. But now comes even more. Having taken away your rights, your money, your ration cards, your apartment, your freedom, your hope, they now tear out your heart. It is Liane they come for. She is to proceed into Theresienstadt itself. You and Vera are directed to stay. These are the last moments you will ever be together. Finally they have amputated your soul and your screams must have rent hell itself! I can hear you, Max. I can hear you.
Rabbi Schachter knows what comes next.
You and Vera are alone now, bereft of Liane. Are you aware of the others crowded in the dampness around you? Or is the pounding of your pulse so thick in your ears you are now in a hell of your own? After endless hours your names and numbers are marked off against the transport lists. You retain the numbers you had on leaving Prague. It is not a random process. Each transport contains an inventory that has to be verified. Then you, with the other deportees who are not to remain in Theresienstadt, are ordered to get back on your feet and marched back to Bohusovice station. A train stands on the track. It waits for you, Max.
Rabbi Schachter tells your fate:
“They were not ‘settled in’ at Terezin – but merely ‘processed’ for transfer to Poland on May 17, 1942.”
You knew, Max. You knew when you were evicted from Havelska Street, had your movements in Prague proscribed, were denied the amenities of life. You knew when you handed over your bank account, were marched to the Fair Grounds and boarded the train for the trip to Theresienstadt. You knew when you lay those two days in the sluice with Vera trembling beside you. You knew when there was still time to curse and you knew that moment when the earth shattered and they came to take Liane. You had seen it coming for three and a half years and now it was here. And when finally they shoved you and Vera on to the cattle car at Bohusovice and the steel door banged shut your curse must have split the skies! The consciousness of me and my father and mother were slammed in with you.
“Died in Majdanek two days later,” Rabbi Schachter writes.
In ghetto Theresienstadt there is the turning of the leaves, but now the sound of trains once again fills the air. There has been a lull but now the transports resume. They come in from Bohusovice station to the siding that has been built into Theresienstadt. The lists of deportees have been drawn up two days in advance. The cars are loaded and then pull out. No one knows the secret, or will admit they know.
Liane Renner is still there. She has been there for almost a thousand days. She has spent the summer of 1942 here, then the long winter of 1942-43. Never a word from Max or Vera, nor has she been informed they are long past words. She has been here for the spring of 1943 and yet another summer. Finally it is autumn, 1944, the skies clear, the air growing brisk. As life flows through the countryside, so does it flow through her. She is now eighteen. October has arrived. Cold and damp winds from the Baltic begin to sweep through Theresienstadt. The war has just seven months to run. It is going badly for the Germans but there is still time to wage the war against the Jews. There are a few weeks before the gas chambers and crematoriums are to be dismantled before the advancing Russians. Eichmann’s charts show there is still room on the schedule. The Jewish Council has been forced to prepare new lists. Who shall be protected? Who shall go? How much more time can be bought as the end of the war draws closer? Dr. Jacob Jacobson, who was there, remembers that autumn:
“At first, two transports, with 2,500 men each, left Theresienstadt. The men had been told they would be sent to work in Germany. Then the wives of these men were persuaded to volunteer for joining their men folk…Then one category of Ghetto inmates after another was sent away on transports, some of them selected personally by the SS officers. Transport Ej pulls into Theresienstadt. It is September 27th. It is loaded and pulled out. Transport Ek follows, destination Auschwitz. Two thousand, four hundred ninety-nine people are put aboard. More orders issued, more numbers assigned. The pace is picking up. It is September 29th, 1944. Another transport, El, destination Auschwitz, with 2,499 people on board. The whole staff of the post office is being deported, along with doctors, dentists and nurses, nearly all the rabbis, many of the musicians and artists, war cripples, the blind, almost the whole kitchen staff, most of the leading officials, and many employees of offices and workshops. We lived only from transport to transport. We knew by now that all these transports went to the East, to Auschwitz.”
It is October 1st, 1944. The transport Em pulls into Theresienstadt. Slowly the engine slows in on the single track, the empty cars behind it. The deportees have been notified and given two days to get ready. Liane Renner has been told to get ready. In her barracks the tiered bunks have been cleared, the few belongings packed. Along the platform fifteen hundred deportees wait. She stands with them. She is number 1107. Does she know without knowing? The desks, the checking off, the wait. Who is with her? Who is there to comfort her? Are there goodbyes?
All that is known is that Liane Renner, ciphered into a number and a date, steps off the platform into Transport Em, along with 1,500 other deportees, to meet her fate. She will not be at Theresienstadt when news of the Allied victory is heard. She will not make her way back the eighty kilometers to Prague to see what legacy of the family still remains. She will not look up at the windows of the apartment on Havelska street. She will not see her nineteenth birthday. The train doors are slammed shut, the orders given, the shrill whistle sounds, and the string of cars move away from Theresienstadt and then slowly makes the turn toward the East. Following a route like that of her parents, the train climbs along the Vistula, then continues for three entire days, endlessly heading east, finally slowing as it enters the grounds of the great death factory the Germans have built, stopping at last along the long platform where the doors are unbolted and slid open. She has arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Suddenly the guards, the dogs, the shouting, the leather booted SS, the riding crops, deportees dismounting, the shouted directions. The Germans no longer have need for pretense. She has arrived where the gassings take place. The moment has come. What hopes she had, what dreams she had, can only be registered in heaven. Only her epitaph is left, written by Rabbi Joseph Schachter.
“Because of her youth she might have been selected for slave labor in Auschwitz, or killed on her October 3rd arrival there.”
The dark window shuts. It is over.
Is there any more? Schachter can supply no further details. “We have no more information. I suggest you write to Beit Terezin, on a kibbutz in Israel. They have the most comprehensive archives on Theresienstadt.” He enclosed the address.
I write immediately to “Beit Terezin.”“Do you,” I ask, “have any lists of Terezin survivors on which Liane Renner’s name might be mentioned? Do be kind enough to let me know!”
From Beit Terezin an Alisah Schiller promptly replied: “Dear Mr. Greene,
We have lists of survivors from the Em transport on which Liane Renner was sent to Auschwitz. I am, however, sorry to tell you that she is not on the list and also in our index she appears among the non-survivors.”
It is over. And so, Max, this is my letter to you. I have carried your surviving letters to Prague and stood in the courtyard of your building on Havelska Street, your letters in my pocket, looking up at the windows from which you looked down as you wrote them. I have mailed your letters and your picture to Beit Terezin in Israel and now have visited there myself. And I try to think of what went wrong in a world completely gone wrong that might have helped save you.
Three things come to mind. The first is our answer, in 1938, to your first letter. I remember sitting at the old L. C. Smith typewriter as my father and I worked on a reply. We made a fatal mistake. We held out a shred of hope when there was no hope at all of my father procuring you an affidavit. He had absolutely no money. It was out of the question. But it took a certain courage to write that and in that we failed. And so we said polite things and I typed them. The error was compounded when Harry May visited us. Harry saw the rich furnishings left over from the 1920’s that my mother had been unable to sell during the Depression. He must have written to you that he was well received in an opulent home. He never dreamed that my father was trying to get along on sixteen dollars a week and that his new business was in great danger of failing, and that we were being supported by my grandmother’s small income. And so you were mailed an illusion, not reality.
A second miscalculation might have been made by you. You mentioned that you had had a possibility of going to Ecuador but that you hesitated because of the climate and fear for your wife’s health. How real was that possibility neither of us know. Emigration was not easy although we met, later, some of your relatives that had indeed gone to South America. Whether you lost a chance or not can never be known.
But there was a third error, perhaps the most fatal of all, and we both share it. That the Germans would seriously set out to murder all the Jews of Europe was utterly beyond comprehension. We all shared an illusion – that in a civilized world such behavior is impossible. It lay beyond imagination so we never imagined it. There might be war but not mass, deliberate murder on a continental scale. We were all mistaken.
So it is now time to say goodbye Max. How does one do it? I suppose by picking up pieces of broken hearts, left along the way. Theresienstadt is paved with them. Beneath the weeds and wild grasses which now cover the deserted grounds lie the dreams and hopes of a generation. Almost 160,000 souls passed through Theresienstadt. Of these more than 88,000 were sent on to be killed in the extermination camps while 35,000 died in the ghetto itself. But with these words you and Liane and Vera come to brief life again, if only to say farewell. To give you body, substance, feeling, is all I can do. It is, perhaps, better than anonymity, bitter as it may be.
White space. But it doesn't last.
Your voice again, Max! We have made our farewell, our compact, yet still I can hear you, your cry, insistent above the waves, an atom or two, as if still vibrating in the thin air above Newfoundland or in the aether above Long Island. You are a stubborn ghost! Tell me what you want and then please leave me alone. But can you? Is it you, Max, or is it still my conscience? Or are they the words of Rabbi Schachter in his note to me from Yad Vashem.
I turn again to the handwritten work sheets that Schachter sent me, with the terrible transport numbers, the destinations, and the dates. "I checked our pages of testimony and none were recorded. So that's where you come in. Blank pages are provided. It would be much preferable that he be remembered by what a loving relative writes than the 'Nazi murder lists' of Terezin."
He has nothing but numbers, Max. But they are your numbers.
"Lieber Oscar. Glaube mir! Help me! Please do not let us drown!"
"Write something, if only partially, for our Pages of Testimony," Schachter wrote. He is asking me to write your tombstone, Max. But what more can I tell him?
I feel my heart beating. This is not what I prescribe for myself. I've gotten old, Max. You've ridden my conscience for over seventy years. I've written our farewell, made my donation. I'm entitled to some peace now. What do you want? And in spite of myself I realize I have not accounted for Helga, the one thin thread of life still unaccounted for, the Helga who married Harry May "just before he left by airmail to Paris."
I begin to understand, Max. My words are the only semblance of biography you will ever have. You deserve more than a few lines to Rabbi Schachter. You deserve more than choking in a gas chamber in Sobibor, being belched from some stack in Poland or lying in some unnamed ditch in Majdanek, fermenting in the earth. Is there a living thread yet unraveled? Is there a Helga?
How can I find her? The war ended sixty five years ago! All I have is a name. Find Helga? In what country? In whose census?
I write to Rabbi Schachter with vain hope. It is no use. "I did not find Helga," he replies, "so I cannot give you any help there. I suggest you write Beit Terezin, on the kibbutz Givat Chaim Ichud in Israel. They have the most comprehensive archives on Theresienstadt and are in constant touch with the Jewish community."
I do so. I write a letter of inquiry. It is my last hope. "Do you have any record for a Helga Renner?" I explain who she was. To my surprise I get a swift reply from an Alisah Schiller. She is the director of Beit Terezin, but my quest is in vain. I get the same bleak information as from Yad Vashem."Enclosed you find the pages from our computerized card index concerning your relatives. In case you know more about them please let me know. With warm regards and best wishes."
Once again the deadly numbers, once again the destinations and the dates, once again the names and the death dates. Nothing for Helga. The Germans have made death tangible, catalogued, as if in a library's stacks, but a card for Helga is missing. Life is by omission, tabulation only by death. I have entered a Kafka universe.
Dead end, Max. I take the letters from their nest in the small green dresser in my father's bedroom, wrap them, and mail them to Alisah Schiller at Beit Terezin where at least they will be preserved and serve as some evidence that the family had once lived. It is my final act.
Two months later the gift is acknowledged in the Beit Terezin newsletter.
Call for Help by Raincoat Maker.
Robert Greene (USA) gave us 4 letters written by his relative Max Renner (Vienna 1891-1942) documenting movingly the plight of Jewish families in Bohemia at the start of the Nazi occupation...Renner writes about his family, his wife, his older daughter Helga, married to a rabbinical student and the 13 year old Lia and begs "Please help me... I hope you won't let us drown...
I am gratified to see Max's name in print. No longer do I hold it alone. But then, to my astonishment and that same month, on flimsy blue airmail stationery from Israel, a letter arrives. It is from a Ruth Schwarz in Haifa.
“Dear Mr. Greene,” she writes. “In the Newsletter from August, 1999, I read that you delivered to the archives letters of a relative of yours, Max Renner. I believe from all you said, that I knew the family very well. The older daughter Helga was a schoolmate of mine in Prostejov, Moravia. I lost contact with her before I left CSR in November 1939. I only knew that she had to be married to a rabbi when she was seventeen years old. Through the years I did inquire about her, but never got an answer.
I am very anxious to know more about her and would be very grateful to you to let me know her fate. I hope she is fine and it will be great to be in contact again. Thank you very much in advance.
I cannot believe what I hold! Someone knows you, Max! After utter silence since 1941the first sign of life! From old letters in a green bureau another voice has finally appeared. Your Helga exists in the memory of Ruth Schwarz! I almost tremble as I type to her:
"Dear Mrs. Schwarz, thank you for writing. It certainly must be the same family. I never expected any response from my donation of the letters. You mentioned that Helga married a rabbinical student. His name was Harry May.This must be the same Helga! Unfortunately, I cannot give you any more information."
But there is more and it is stored in the memory of Ruth Schwarz. And with it Max, Vera, Helga and Liane suddenly become alive.
"I will try to tell you what I remember about the family," she writes. "Max Renner was a tall handsome man and Vera, his wife, was a dark beauty. I remember her always smoking. Helga was a slim girl and Lia, her younger sister, was a lovely child. They were not members of the Jewish congregation Helga did not attend Jewish lessons. They lived opposite my parents home in Komenska street. I used to come to their home."
Your molecule is vibrating, Max! I was not so wrong that I felt it. It was not just poetic image. You begin to come alive. Tall and handsome you are and Vera is a beauty. And Helga is slim and Lia a lovely child. And your home is coming back to life too, an unobservant Jewish household, an attempt at assimilation. But now Ruth Schwarz completely knocks my socks off.
"I enclose a copy of a picture I have in my album. It is of Helga about the age of twelve. If you come to Israel for a visit I will be pleased to meet you." And suddenly, on my desk, there now appears Helga, a living image, a name transformed into a picture.
The photo is crumpled and creased but it does not matter. Helga stands in fine posture in a heavy belted trench-coat with round leather buttons, a coat well wrapped around her, fitting comfortably on the shoulders, and she wears a beret off her wide forehead, looking out directly at the world with firm features and a pleasant smile. She will be a beautiful woman and the marks are already there. You know how to cut clothes, Max. The coat is for winter and it's big and snug at the same time. I can imagine you when she first put it on. She stands against the corner of a building, it could be a church. The photograph shows years of handling and wear, but Helga comes through. She is not one to hold back. She will need all the self-reliance you have given her, Max.
It is almost a holy moment. What to do with it? The snapshot needs a home. And so I press the picture of Helga into the frame of a portrait of Johana Renner, my father's mother, who would have been her great-aunt. Worlds divide them, yet she is now with family. Does anyone on earth, beside Ruth Schwarz and myself, know that Helga even existed?
Warmly I thank Ruth Schwartz. What now? Maybe Harry, the elusive Harry May,, can be traced. If we can find Harry maybe we can find Helga. Rabbi's can't vanish. Or can they?
First I try the Leo Baeck Institute on 15th Street in New York. No trace of Harry, but I am given a list of Jewish organizations I might contact. I try the American Jewish Historical Society. Nothing. I try the Rabbinical Assembly on Broadway.
"He was not a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, nor was he a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis," comes the reply. I write to Ruth Schwarz that the trail seems thin And then comes a hit from the American Jewish Historical Society from a Lyn Slome, Assistant Archivist.
"I discovered that there is an entry for him in the correspondence files of the Stephen Wise Papers," she writes. "The collection is available on microfilm at our New York facility. If you wish to come in and look at the microfilm, please contact me."
A trace! There on 15th Street on microfilm I find two telegrams from March, 1945, sent by Dr. Harry S. May, Director of the Zionist Organization of America, Midwest Area, 220 South State Street, Chicago.
The telegram is to a Philip Slomovitz. Harry writes: "RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE INVITES YOU AGAIN SINCE FIRST INVITATION REMAINED UNANSWERED TO ATTEND EMERGENCY COUNCIL MEETING. "
You're moving in high circles, Harry! In the name of the prominent American rabbi, Stephen S. Wise, you're repeating an invitation. Ben-Gurion will be there, major policy will be determined. This is clearly about the formation of the State of Israel.
At last I have a trace, but it is over sixty five years old. With growing excitement I thank Lyn Slome for her help and seek a next step. "Contact the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem," she advises me.
The Central Zionist Archives is the official historical archives of the World Zionist Organization. It also holds the personal papers of individuals involved in the Zionist movement, holding about 500,000 files of original documents. Somewhere, Harry, in those 500,000 files you exist:
"Would you be able to contact them to see what holdings they may have on Harry S. May?” I write Ruth Schwarz. “ With his prominent position and his relationship to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise they must have something.” While I wait for her reply I write to the Zionist Organization of Chicago, which Harry formerly directed. Surely they will have something on an ex-director. To my surprise a Mrs. Isaacs phoned me from Chicago three days later. She had seen my letter. Her husband had been director of the Chicago chapter in 1950 to 1953. No knowledge of Harry. She suggested I call William Kaufman who was his predecessor. This would put him in the range of Harry's years. She gives me the phone number.
I telephone William Kaufman. He said he did not remember a Harry May and the name meant nothing to him!
Impossible! If Susan Isaacs husband was director in 1950 after Harry and William Kaufman was director before that, what happened to Harry? You must be somewhere in the middle, Harry. Someone must know! You're big now, after my mother's two pitiful loans, and now suddenly you vanish! You exist only in two telegrams. It doesn't make sense! Did you send for Helga like you promised? Did she somehow come to America? Did you change your name? Was it an auto accident? Where did you go, Harry?
Meanwhile, in frustration, I start searching telephone books in the 42nd Street Library. There are too many. I find a Helga May living in Greensboro, Pennsylvania and write to her. "It is vey unlikely that you are the person, but your name matches. If you are this Helga May Renner do please contact me. Distantly we are related through our families in Vienna." Some weeks later, on green floral stationary, postmarked in Pittsburgh and in a shaky European hand, I receive a short letter. "I have to tell you I am not the one you are looking for. Good luck in your search." It is signed "Mrs. Helga May." I wonder. The hand matches the age Helga would have been. Has someone had enough and put the past behind her?
I now receive a reply from the Zionist Organization of America. "Unfortunately we do not have in our archives any information of Dr May. All such information may have been sent many years ago to the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. They hold over 500,000 files!"
Full circle. I write again to Ruth Schwarz asking her if she will contact the Archives in Jerusalem and see if she can find a trace. She has already done so. “I did call the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem but they told me they have no documentation about Harry S. May. Then I contacted Yad Vashem. And now I found something!"
"And now I found something!"
Ruth Schwarz works miracles.
"There is a name Feiglova May deported from Prague on October 31, 1941, to Lodz and survived the war, liberated in the Czech Republic. Maybe it is her! "
In my hands I hold a list of deportees from Prague to the Lodz Ghetto. For the first time since Max's letters of 1938 Helga's name appears in print.
The Xerox is stained and creased from the original but legible.
TRANSPORT D - PRAHA.
Lodz 31. rijna 1941
Beneath, in ball pen, Ruth has written "liberated." With that the rest then becomes clear. 937 dead. 63 survivors. And among the survivors stands Helga's name.
Feiglova, Helga [Mayova] 12.9.1921 osv. Porici.
"You have done wonderful work!" I write Ruth Schwarz. "You have found Helga! The paper you have sent me gives her correct birth date according to Max's 1938 letters. I have no idea of the meaning of the name FEIGLOVA but ‘Mayova’ is close enough to May to give it meaning. Let us keep working!”
It sounds impossible but the impossible seems to be happening. Dear insistent ghost - I keep seeking and slowly you are appearing. I can't add to your life but perhaps I can still add to your memory. Maybe I can do it in Israel and be done. I should have made a visit long ago. Now is the time to go. I want to visit the Terezin memorial, meet Alisah Schiller, make a donation in the name of the Renner family, see Ruth Schwarz, go to Yad Vashem, and finish my "Letter to Max." This should be enough to put finis to what had begun in 1938.
It is January 2011. New York is cold and unpleasant. I look forward to the warmth of Israel. Through a rental site on the web I have arranged for a studio apartment on Nechemia street in Tel Aviv in a small building on the southern end of the city. It looks pleasant enough.
El Al flies directly from JFK in New York to Tel Aviv. It has its own security in addition to airport security and a careful interview and screening of passengers. Once boarded the big 747 is more like a family outing than an airline flight. The aisles are crowded with noisy reunions, Hassidic Jews, T shirts and yarmulkas, even some phylacteries as the plane entered sundown. Once the seat belt sign is turned off I enter a new land.. There is a spirit in the plane I have not encountered before. I am already in Israel.
The apartment turns out to be in a cluster of low and somewhat shabby buildings on the extreme southern end of Tel Aviv, a completely un-rebuilt area, but only two blocks from the beach. It is almost next to the old Mennonite community. The clock tower of Jaffa lies within sight. At the end of the street stands a cafe, a small glassed-in terrace, a few tables atop one another, stools painted black, young Israelis bent over iPhones and laptops, girls with firm legs and short skirts, New Balance running shoes, older men in black T shirts talking. Inside some scattered tables, a small open kitchen, a baby carriage, some pottery on the walls, a makeshift bookshelf, and through the door leading to the corner more tables outside in the sun. It feels like the East Village. Beyond lies an open air bus depot, and beyond that the great Carmel market. Everyone looks as if they had just come from the gym.
I walk to the beach to watch the windsurfers with their giant kites, hurtling past one another at breakneck speeds, the seafront, sun, parallel bars, Israelis chinning themselves, cafes with chairs reaching into the sand, bicycles everywhere. Everyone is fit, everyone is young. The waters of the Mediterranean wash up and I realize I'm at the far end of this ancient sea. Here have floated the hulls of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, the ancient Israelis. 86th Street and Madison Avenue suddenly seem a manufactured world. I walk around in complete anonymity. In Paris, where I speak the language and try to be a Frenchman, I don't fit in. Here, without a word of Hebrew, I fit in easily. No one seems to give a damn.
I call Beit Terezin on kibbutz Givat Chaim-Ichud to speak to Oded Breda, its current director. He kindly offers to drive into Tel Aviv and pick me up. I wait for him in front of the small apartment building. Since I don't know Israel nor how to get to the kibbutz, it is the only way.
He appears on time, his weather-beaten blue Honda pulling up on Nechemia street to the curb. He gets out, a strong medium sized man with a heavy brow in a sport shirt and dark trousers. He is all business. Beit Terezin is considerably north of Tel Aviv and he has gone out of his way to meet me. Alisah Schiller had obviously spoken to him.
The drive takes less than an hour. I am surprised at the freeways, the cleanliness, the green fertility of the countryside. There is not a hint of desert or dryness. Modern glass and steel buildings appear along the highway, factories or research centers of some sort. I feel a sense of power and purpose in the landscape.
We enter more country surroundings, a winding road finally leading us to the kibbutz and Beit Terezin.. A wooden sign on the wall of a small one story building proclaims it. Trees, open air, a parking lot.
Beit Terezin occupies a section of the kibbutz, a flagstone courtyard badly in need of repair, a tiny business office with a secretary, filling boxes scattered on the floor, cabinets, telephones, computer, printer. It is a confused scene - they are in the process of expanding. Breda apologizes for the mess. I can see the new one story office quarters under construction. Breda is trying to bring the memorial into the 21st century, put their documents on the web, allow greater access and to assure longevity. The recently completed museum is now ready.
The kibbutz itself consists of small houses with plots, a medical center and a central dining room. Breda takes me to lunch in the large dining hall that once served as the community center. I take a tray and walk to the long serving table on which the hot food is displayed in long metal trays. Only a few tables in the large hall are occupied. I sense that I am in a space whose days are now over, that the hall belongs to an older Israel of pioneers and builders, and as I fill my plate from the serving counter and make my way to the cashier, Breda tells me that the small houses are now private homes and that the kibbutz, as such, no longer exists.
We now go to meet Alisah Schiller. She occupies one of the small houses on the grounds of the kibbutz and we walk there. A kindly white haired woman in her eighties, she has been one of the creators of the memorial. She herself had been a prisoner in Theresienstadt. She is still deeply involved in research and with the "second generation" as she calls it, for there are few survivors left.
She has broken her hip and is on a walker. She greets me warmly and we sit at the table, already prepared for tea and cakes. A helper is there. We talk, the voyage, my pleasure at finally being in Israel. Tea is poured. I present her with a check for ten thousand dollars, made out to Beit Terezin. I tell her it is in memory of Max Renner and his family, She thanks me with warm appreciation and it is done. Yet I feel no lightening of memory, no release from the past. I am unable to complete the circuit, unable to get in touch. I can't settle you with a check, Max. The six thousand dollars you once requested is contained within it but somehow it doesn't speak.
Breda takes me to the museum. It is a small square room, beautifully lighted, with beige sliding panels on the walls showing photos and mementoes of the Theresienstadt camp. Pictures of the camp, its courtyards, an enlarged photo of its soccer team. Some children's drawings are displayed. But the peaceful setting is deceptive. Theresienstadt had once been a barracks town for 10,000 soldiers under Maria Theresa in the old Austrian empire. From here some 88,000 Jews had been transported to Auschwitz. 33,000 had died in the camp itself. The crowded conditions in the old horse barracks had been unbearable yet somehow a culture was created.
The Museum is beautifully done but I am surprised at how little I feel. Whatever vibrations I expected don't appear. I am in a museum. Yet one image strikes - a large mural in color of a central square in Theresienstadt, now grown over with grass and weeds, the former barrack buildings with their arched windows staring down at the deserted courtyard. The picture haunts. It is the camp as it looks today, the past buried beneath it. Run the picture backwards and the courtyard will gradually fill, the weeds will vanish, the sound of voices will emerge, the lines for the transports to Auschwitz will form, the young and the old will mingle, faces will appear under the arched windows, and the census of death will move through the camp like a silent tide. I realize I have the ending of my Letter to Max.
Breda takes me through the new office under construction, a few small rooms still smelling of paint, wiring lying in the corner. He is the badly needed manager, trying to bring Beit Terezin up to speed in a digital world. And he is doing it. He shows me plans for the reconstructions of the courtyard. "The roof leaks in the rain!" and the need for new paving stones. Groups of young Israelis are received here. It is all about the preservation of memory. "Your check couldn't have come at a better time!" And so my memorial to Max has already vanished into plaster, the smell of paint and a week’s bills to be paid.
Next day I telephone Ruth Schwarz. "Take the train to Haifa," she says "and then a taxi to my apartment." She hasn't used English in a long time.
From below the cafe I take a bus to the Central Station, pass through security, have a coffee at a counter in the station, and then board a train to Haifa. It runs north along the coast. I catch frequent views of the Mediterranean. The waters stretch from here to Gibraltar, then out into the Atlantic. It is the oldest sea I have ever seen and I am excited by the touch of the ancient world. And then suddenly I am at Haifa before I have really settled into the journey. Israel is a small country.
From the station I look up. Haifa is high. The ground rises sharply to cliff like heights. I had thought of Israel as flat. This feels more like the hills of San Francisco. I get a cab at the small uncrowded station and we begin to climb, circle, climb some more. We are on Mount Carmel. Finally we reach Rachel Street. The air is fresh, thin from the height. Reaching the apartment I have trouble finding the number of her flat. I go into the courtyard and call out her name. Finally a window opens. She will meet me downstairs.
She is a small woman, bent, somewhere in her eighties, but with a sense of energy. We take the lift up. She opens the door into a small foyer and leads me immediately into the kitchen where a small table is set. We sit down to lunch, a bowl of stew, bread, coffee.
I am sitting with someone who knew you, Max. I am getting that close! You have become more than letters to my father. You live in someone's memory. But now comes even more and with it I almost enter your home. For Ruth Schwarz excuses herself, goes inside, and reappears holding a small diary-sized book. It is bound with soft leather, now very worn. "This was under the Renner Christmas tree for me. A gift from Helga. I have used it as an address book ever since." She hands it to me.
I take the book and hold it, touch the warm soft leather, turn a few pages, feel the weight, the texture, and suddenly all comes alive. I have broken through the crust, Max. I am in your home at Christmas time, holding something that lay under your tree. You are beginning to assume tangible form. I can feel the currents running through me as you and Vera and Liane and Helga start coming to life. The letters you wrote my father so long ago are fleshing out. You are becoming real, Max.
I finish the Letter to Max on Nechemia street. The visit to Ruth Schwarz helped. For me Max has now gained an identity before the letters, before the curse, before the trap snapped shut. I write of the tragic mistake we made in 1938, of our offering polite hope when my father had no resources. I write of his reluctance to go to Ecuador while there was still time, and I write of the failure on both our parts to imagine the unimaginable - the intention of the Nazis to murder all the Jews of Europe. I close with the hope that this violently abridged account of his life be better than the anonymity Rabbi Schachter deplored, and that my account, however incomplete, be kinder than the deadly numbers the Germans had assigned him.
Ruth Bondy, the superb historian of the Terezin ghetto, is good enough to look over the manuscript, suggest a few changes, which I put into my computer and then email the finished manuscript to Oded Breda. Breda sends me a copy as it will appear on their web site. We make a few formatting changes and it is done. A day later it is on the web. I simply google it and it comes up.
After a bad cold, a visit from my trumpet playing friend Eli Priminger, another visit by his mother with chicken soup and cough drops, I pack and prepare to leave Israel. I have a last walk through the Carmel market, buy another bag of chocolate-coated orange slices from the mound of them on the stall, walk past the stores on the edge of the open air bus depot, past the open air heap of chicken bones and the stray cats, and make my farewell to the corner cafe. Save for some trips to Jerusalem I have seen nothing of the country, but that was not my purpose. Suddenly I find myself back in New York, and then back in Amagansett. I have left little of myself in Israel save my visit to Beit Terezin, my donation, and my piece about Max on the web.
Once again silence.
But something has happened, an electronic alchemy I never anticipated. Wherever you lie, Max, wherever the winds have blown you, suddenly you have been augmented beyond belief! You are on the web, your words, your plight, your fate. My letter to you is now amplified almost two billion times, two billion computers in the world, tuned to frequencies beyond measure. You can enter any home on any continent, at any hour of day or night, and do so unannounced. No longer are you confined to a few lines written to my father in 1938 and one stern picture. You have a silent footstep that can admit you anywhere, a virtual life infinitely wider than your terrestrial life, and if amends cannot be made, at least recognition is now possible.
It is fully eleven months since I have left Israel.
First comes a message from Alisah Schiller from Beit Terezin. She writes:
"Dear Mr. Greene. Now we got an email. 'Could you help me get in contact with Mr. Greene?' This was kind of hard for me to write because I do not know how you will react."
Something has happened! From one of those billions of computers, randomly scattered throughout the world, picking their signals out of the sky amid a celestial traffic beyond calculation, my screen lights up. It is a message from a Mrs. Vera Ebels in Amsterdam and it shakes me to the bone. It comes in the night and it comes unexpected, and its footprint is silent as a ghost. Mrs. Ebels has found my Letter to Max on the web, fully eleven months after it has been posted. She has been taken utterly by surprise, but my consternation, my utter shock, is no less than hers. For in the message that comes through the night Mrs. Ebels identifies herself with the very woman I have searched for so long and so in vain. I am the daughter of Helga Renner, she writes. I am the daughter of Helga!
Suddenly the gates of time have swung open! I can hardly believe what I am reading. The bells are tolling, Max! Somewhere out there contact has been made! Helga survived and I have just received an email from her daughter. The impossible has happened! You have a family, Max - a family you and Vera never knew existed. You were here all along, in spite of your failed letters, your anger, in spite of the round-up in Prague, the eviction from Havelska street, the degrading of your life, the uncertainty, the waiting, the nightmare of the Fair Grounds. You have re-appeared in spite of Theresienstadt, in spite of the deadly transport to Lublin, in spite of the ditch. Your germ has survived! Amid all the rubble, all the death camps, all the ditches, the chimneys, there is now word that you are more than memory, more than a curse, more than a leather-covered diary from a lost Christmas in another world. You are flesh and blood Max, and I have just heard from your granddaughter!
I write back. "All this seems beyond imagination! How I have tried to find your mother! I tried to find Harry May. I have visited the house in Prague, the original letters in my pocket, and looked up at the windows on Havelska street where Max lived, but that was as close as I could get. I even located a childhood of friend of Helga's but there the trail stopped. Now you write. Flesh and blood. A granddaughter Max Renner never knew he had!”
I feel as if a signal has finally been received from outer space. An algorithm beyond our capacities to understand has finally closed a circuit. You are no longer alone Max. Now at last I can fill out the life you never had and give you a semblance of biography. A virtual life but at least something. You and Vera and Liane have ceased to be numbers and now reappear with a family. And with this there begins my sundown conversations from the eastern tip of Long Island into the midnight's of Amsterdam as Vera Ebels and I ride the optic cables and slowly the miracle of our exchange becomes incidental to the freshness of our discoveries.
Our virtual meetings take place in the evenings, six o'clock my time, just after midnight in Amsterdam. She is a night owl. What has happened is beyond her wildest dreams, she says. I ask about Helga. Incredibly Helga had survived war, dying in 1973 in Holland. But before that a story of romance and adventure that almost defies belief.
It seems that once Helga could not obtain emigration papers the marriage to Harry May was somehow dissolved. And then, still in Prague and under the German rein of terror, Helga now fell truly in love. His name was Pavel Feygl. He was forty, she was still under twenty.
How they met, where they met is unknown. The old stones of Prague have known lovers throughout the centuries, but now they resound once again. Living together somewhere in the outskirts of Prague, near the airport, they sought happiness under most difficult conditions. And when Pavel is summoned by the Germans to the Fair Grounds for deportation, Helga stubbornly goes with him, although she has not been called, and follows him ten days later to the ghetto of Lodz. There they live together and are formally married in 1943, but their lives are now reckoned in days, not years. For when the Germans begin the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto she and Pavel are separated once again. This time she cannot follow. He is sent to the Riederloh camp. She is sent to Auschwitz, and from there to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp at Christianstadt.
On her own, her life always in jeopardy and with the war nearing its end, she now escapes from a forced death march and manages to reach North Bohemia. Captured, she escapes once again from a camp at Parschnitz and manages to join the partisans. In May, 1945, she returns to Prague - one account says with a pistol in hand - only to learn that both her parents, her sister, her grandmother and Pavel have perished. Two years after the war ended she married an ex-officer in the Czech Army and settled in Prague to raise a family. Her first daughter was named Vera, in memory of her mother.
I look up Vera Ebels on the web.
"Vera Ebels was born in Prague in 1948, emigrated in 1968 to the Netherlands, and is now the director of the Fund for Central and East European Book Projects in Amsterdam. She has worked as head of the Documentation department of the Anne Frank Foundation. She is married to Ed Ebels and they have a son and two grandchildren.”
A son and two grandchildren! Max, you're getting a purchase on this earth you never dreamed of, but you'd pay with a broken heart. For after the war Helga secreted memories in a locked desk drawer and it was only after her death that Vera Ebels recovered them and translated them from the Czech. Once again the smoke rises from the crematoria in the distance. Once again Helga sits on a bench at Auschwitz by the railway tracks with 500 other girls, waiting to have their heads shaved as time recedes and the moment reappears. She feels the razor going through her hair, first in the middle, then to either side. Before her the crematorium smokes and she knows that the hair is cut before she and the other girls become part of the smoke. If the train comes they will be taken off to work, but if it does not come their lives are over. But the transport does come and she is spared to go to work in a quarry. There, amid the dust and old bricks, under the open sky, she is sent - day after day - sometimes seeing from the little open train people in colorful clothes and leather shoes, as if inhabiting another planet, and sometimes, just sometimes, a bit of fruit is thrown and once a longed for little apple.
The nights have tears in them as I read her little shards of memory. It is hard for me to believe that what arrives on my computer in Amagansett can contain so much pain. It is hard for me to believe that this is the future of the girl mentioned so proudly in Max's letters, the art student, betrothed to Harry May, the girl of promise. She might have been in our home on 86th Street with you, Harry, when my mother lent you that fifteen dollars. Meet my wife, Helga! Pretty, bright and eager - my mother so pleased to greet her, going inside to look in her jewel box for some token she might give her as a sign of her pleasure. And my sixteen years old self, in awe and admiration. Auschwitz? Head shaving? Crematoria?
This is your daughter speaking, Max!
She wonders about her mother, her beautiful young mother, and if she is also barefoot in the snow or even not alive. I can read no more.
Now the winter nights in Amagansett turn cold and blustery. Sundown is early. I find myself living in three worlds. I hold the copies of Max's letters in my hand and it is 1938. In another world I am ninety years old.. And in a third I am in liberated Prague in 1945, just after the war, with Helga. She walks in a transformed Prague. Does she go to Havelska street and look up at windows? Someone else is living there. The old furniture? The books? Does she dare to go up? Or does she let the gate of time swing shut and walk on. She must live, she writes, not for the sake of the dead but for youth and life. And someday she will find another man, a decent man, and she will fall in love and marry and not compare. Two years later she marries a fine man, an ex-army officer of the Czech army, and two daughters follow. Helga is indomitable. Helga carries your spirit, Max.
It is time to fly to Europe, meet Helga's children, and then go to Prague. Seventy years ago the Atlantic was six days wide, Prague another two days away.. Now I buckle myself into a KLM 747 for an overnight flight and some eight hours later will arrive at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. We are moving almost as fast as thought itself, save that my aisle seat is too narrow and the large woman beside me, of operatic proportions, keeps inching her elbow against my side until finally I put my pillow on the arm rest in an effort to fend her off.
I try to concentrate on what I am about to do but the impact is fading against the fatigue of the journey. They douse the cabin lights but I cannot turn off the white glare of the television screen eight inches from my eyes nor the elbow of the fat lady beside me. I am in the middle of a miracle but I am having trouble realizing it. I open my little silver pill box and take half a Xanax. I need a little help but it is hardly enough.
Daylight, the window shades raised. We have flown above Newfoundland, over Greenland, now England, and are heading south into Europe. The breakfast tray, knees against the seat before me. where to put the paper, the plastic fork, the pillow and blanket in my way, and I feel my temper rising. Customs and immigration forms to be filled out. Finally, the seat belt sign is on and we begin our descent. The night has been endless. And winter still lies outside.
It is noon when we finally land. Mrs. Ebels has told me they will be on the other side of the glass after customs. There is too much walking as I work my way through immigration, wait at the carousel for my bag and then finally pass through customs. I am exhausted. But there, as promised, through the glass, I see her, tall and thin, her long coat, her hat, Vera Ebels, her husband, and her sister Dasja. Both women are in their sixties but look younger. Smiles and waves. From a name in letter to a survivor's list from Lodz, from messages in the night to reading words Helga herself had uttered, I now walk through the open glass door, clasp hands and embrace Max Renner’s grandchildren. But at the moment I am too tired to care!
They can't do enough with my coat, the roll-on and my hand sac. Not until we are in Ed Ebels' Citroen do I begin to take stock. Vera Ebels is slender, straight, grey haired wearing, her glasses low on her nose held by a thin golden chain. Dasja is the opposite, shorter, stocker, dressed in black, moving quickly with an enormous Nikon camera slung around her neck. One holds the grace of Helga, one seems to exude the energy. We are driving toward the outskirts of Amsterdam where the Ebels live . It is a modern complex of buildings with garage attached and long walkways to reach the elevator. Finally we reach the apartment door and enter.
I am glad to take off my winter shoes, get out of my down coat, strip myself of the burden of travel, and hang things up with the many coats hanging from wooden pegs in the tiny foyer. To the left of the entrance stands the kitchen, a small crowded affair with stove, a fridge, and a wall and ceiling racked with pots, pans, serving spoons and skewers, all under a single swinging light bulb. It is a workplace for Ed Ebels who is a chef. Before me lies a heavy wooden table with chairs, the family center. The large room itself stretches out from left to right. Windows and computer work stations stand at either end, between which overfilled bookshelves line the walls. It is a room of books. Beyond the table stands an old upright piano serving as headboard for the double bed behind it. One wall holds a couch. In many ways it is still student quarters, probably not very different from the surroundings they had enjoyed in their early years. I sit at the table, a Gordon's gin is produced, and finally I breathe once again . Ahead lies dinner. I find myself, incredibly, seated at a table with Max Renner's family.
Vera Ebels was astonished, she said, when she first saw the Letter to Max on the web. Someone writing a letter to her grandfather! That anyone thought of him, remembered him! When she came to the part of Harry May there was no question -it was the same family. Up to then Max had been very abstract. Now that she saw some of the text of his letters to my father he suddenly came to life.
She goes to the bookcase behind the piano, reaches up and takes down four small albums and brings them over to the table. They are photograph albums. She opens the first one and the angels sing. Max in the happy days. Vacation pictures. Liane holding a puppy, Max and Vera on skis, snow in the background, the beach, swim suits, Helga as a child, kneeling, grinning impishly, Max's hat dangling over the side of her head, Max and Vera strolling down the avenue, Vera very beautiful with hat and trimmed collar, gloves and fine ankles, Max whirling Vera in a bathing suit, joy and motion.
I put my hands on the albums to feel their warmth, to let my finger prints touch Max, the pictures so neatly pasted in as Max and Vera had left them. They are the only pictures of Max I have seen since that single stern faced one pasted to his first letter to my father. I ask how the pictures were preserved and a chill comes over me as I hear the answer. Knowing deportation was near, Max and Vera handed over the albums to a Christian friend, Stella Kasova, for safekeeping. They were handing over their life. From this to the ditch in Majdanek, the terror, the dogs, the shouts, the forced kneeling, the shots. No, Max. I can't believe it either.
It is hard to breathe. I am shown one of Helga's writings. For the first time I see her handwriting. I pick it up and touch Helga.
We sit for dinner. I ask why Vera Ebels is living in the Netherlands. She met Ed Ebels while she was studying at the University of Groningen after the Soviet invasion of Prague. He was Dutch, her Czech visa was about to expire. Deciding to marry and not wishing to return to a Communist state she invited her parents and sister in Prague to come to Holland for the wedding. Choosing the freedom of the Netherlands over the repression in Czechoslovakia, Helga decided to stay. Their apartment, their possessions were simply behind. Helga's spirit has mercury in it. She soon got a job in the Hague but unfortunately the war left her with leukemia. She died in the Netherlands in the 1970’s. The long trail to find Helga is over, but now her daughters.
The Ebels cannot do enough for me in Amsterdam but save for the photo albums I cannot find Max here. It is time we move on to Prague. I sit in the cabin of the Easy Jet Airbus 318. The seats are small but the flight is short. I think of what I am flying into. I never expected, after my 1993 trip to Prague, where I stood in Max Renner’s courtyard, one letter in my pocket, to return, this time with his two grandchildren. I felt I was the only person in the world who remembered him. I thought my final gesture to him would be my donation to Beit Terezin and a bequest in my will. You are still full of surprises, Max!
What possible difference can our trip now make? We can't wake the dead. The past is immutable but for Max without witness. All we can do is to bring our consciousness to his, import ourselves to him, join him, break through the isolation that clutched him, stand where he stood, look up at his windows, place our feet when he placed his, see his house, be with him at the Fair Grounds, see the same sky, occupy the same space, attach ourselves to him so that once again he bears the semblance of a relative in living memory and not just a number in a transport. We will be separated no longer by space but only by time, walk some of his last steps, add our spirit to his, and so rediscover him as more than just a cipher, with barely a local habitation and a name.
Vera Ebels has arranged for a cab to take us from the airport into Prague. In contrast to the post Communist period of my earlier trip, with its broken down bus and cracked pavements, this was a smooth ride on new highways. I should have been forewarned that things would not be the same.
The Hotel Rott is right off Prague's ancient Old Town Square, a large European style hotel, with an outside lift running up through the courtyard. It has been modernized and spruced up. We have comfortable rooms with bath on the fifth floor. We freshen up, then meet in the lobby and go directly to the dining room for dinner. The setting is modern, with an open kitchen and booths against the wall. It takes an age for the food to be prepared, but there is a Gordon's beforehand, and I finally have a piece of roast goose which is excellent. After which we set off to find Max's house.
It is Saturday night and the streets are crowded. We start walking but some reason head in the wrong direction. I am just as happy we cannot find it. The mood is all wrong. Sunday morning, when it is quiet, will be better. Finally we give up and head back to the hotel. We are tired and admit it. But there is something very strange about Prague's Old Town Square and it gives an uncanny feeling. Above the first floor absolutely no windows are lighted. The windows on every second story are completely dark. The large window panes are clean but completely black. No curtains, no drapes, just black rectangles in the walls as if painted. It gives the Square a theatrical quality, as if the actors had gone, as if the scene had been erected for a show now closed and simply stand, empty, scene struck. Whatever it was, I noticed it every night we were in Prague and it did not change. Prague mumbles to itself.
Sunday morning. We breakfast in the stone cellar of the hotel and are ready to walk to Max's building. For the granddaughters it will be the first time they will visit the house of their grandfather.
We walk along Staromestske Namesti with the astronomical clock, see the distant towers of the Prague Castle on the other side of the Moldau, then on Zelezna and turn the corner to Havelska. The air is cold and damp. The shops selling crystal are closed. It is too early. We walk on new tiles set into the pavement. We should be there but I cannot find the old stone building. Suddenly I realize why. We are standing right before it. But the entire front of what was once 25 Havelska Street is now a cafe!
I am shocked.
In place of the grime of the old ground floor I remembered from 1993, clean glass windows are neatly set in frames of varnished wood. On spotless glass above the door reads the word "Cafe." "Bartida Bar and Shop" is printed on a sign in another window. I cannot believe my eyes. Modern, sparkling, new! Max's old house has completely disappeared. I stand there, waiting for it to reappear, wanting to apologize. I feel deceived. I feel I have deceived them.
There is still a passageway leading to the back of the building, but instead of the old concierge area with its shabby mailboxes and brooms there lies a clean passageway bordered with the windows of the cafe, leading into a courtyard, now neatly paved with small white tiles. A bright red truck stands there with a sign "Buongiorno Italia" in red and green, as if ready to deliver pizza. We stand there. I am almost in tears. At my back stand the polished display windows of an expensive looking wine shop and when I look up to find Max's old windows I see new glass set in red frames on bricks painted yellow. I cannot speak.
The let down is terrific. What was to have been a high moment of the trip is a dud. I take another look up at the windows, trying to bring him back, but can't. Max is not here at all. He has completely vanished and I know they can't find him either. We linger a while but there is nothing to be said. Silently we walk back through the passageway onto the street. A key moment of the trip has already been lost.
Reluctantly we head back to the hotel. That afternoon we are going to visit the Fair Grounds.
The Fair Grounds in Prague is the great open space where the Germans ordered quotas of deportees to gather, crowding lots of one thousand to fifteen hundred Jews together as if lumber to be carted, stripping them of their remaining possessions, marching them off to the station and then shipping them off to what was often their final destination. This is where Max, Vera, Liane, Vera's mother, Helga and Pavel were sent to meet their fates. This is where it happened. A friend of Vera Ebels has kindly offered to drive us there.
I feel the excitement rising.
We drive through a working class district of tram lines, overhead wires, small shops and stores and six story apartment buildings. The car pulls up and stops at the curb of a huge deserted lot. It is barren save for the new Park Hotel which rises out of it near Veletrzni street, and a large parked touring bus bearing on its gleaming side the word "Berlin."
An empty space. Dust and rocks. Behind a crumbled wall lies more. All is bleak with a bone chill in the air. Yet here, under the open sky, one feels something. There are echoes, there is resonance.
I walk over to the copper plaque that had been set in a wall near the hotel. From the street it is hardly noticeable. At this spot, it says, the Germans gathered some 80,000 Jews from Moravia and Bohemia and sent them to their deaths. And I begin to look for Max.
I find him.
I find him in the grey winter sky sweeping overhead. I find him in the isolating chill in the air. I find him in the loneliness. I find him as he hands over the keys to the flat where he had been displaced, the remaining cash he had, the jewelry he had not been able to pass along with the photo albums to Stella Kazova. And I find him as I hear a far off dog bark, the cardboard with his number around his neck, the crowd assembling, he trying to keep Vera and Liane and Vera's mother together, the German police, the Czech gendarmes. And I wonder whether we were in his consciousness, my mother, my father and I as the lines grew tauter, the orders snapped out, the sharp breath of the Dobermans, as slowly the long procession begins moving toward the station. Down Veletrzni street they are marched and after 400 meters make the right turn to Bubenska street. The few Czech citizens who are up in the dawn take off their hats as the slow procession moves by in a strange silence beneath the sky.
I watch them go as night falls in Prague and the Fair Grounds fade and become even more desolate. Only the sky, the Park hotel, and the Berlin bus remain. It is after five. Vera Ebels and Dasja walk over to join me. They have been chatting in Czech, on their own voyage of discovery, and I do not question them. I am badly in need of a drink when we finally return to the hotel and meet in the dining room for dinner.
At dinner they tell me. Once again Helga becomes incredible. Her daughters were getting bigger and she needed a larger apartment. One became available within sight of the Fair Grounds and Helga, knowing full well what the area held, took it. These blocks, with all their history, became their blocks. These streets, with all their doomed footsteps, became their streets. And from near this same station Helga took a tram every morning to commute to her job in downtown Prague. Here her entire world had changed. Here she changed it back again. And she never said a word! The girls never knew!
I am in a whirl. I am not sure which Prague I am in. I walk past houses that stood here 100 years before Columbus sailed, houses that were standing 700 years before we stood on the moon. The gates of time swing widely but in Prague one can almost hear them, the sound of jack boots, the roar of motorcycles, black helmeted riders, while the giant swastika flies over Prague Castle and the awful secret is being prepared in Poland.
"Lieber Oscar, Glaube mir!"
It is Monday morning, February 10th, and Prague is cold. It is time to go to the Pinkas Synagogue. It lies in the ancient Jewish section of Prague. Many of its stones are from the 16th century. One buys a ticket, passes through a swinging gate and suddenly one enters a hall of the dead.
The air in the small synagogue is cloistered and close. From invisible speakers comes the sounds of Kaddish as a voice slowly intones, one by one, the names of the dead. There are over 80,000 of them, Jews from Moravia and Bohemia, here each name hand-inscribed on the walls, a mosaic in red and black covering every inch of space. The air is thick with memory. I look for Max. Vera Ebels leads me to a wall and tries to point him out. I stare at the names until I finally see him, Renner in red, following him the names of Vera and Liane. I turn my eyes away for a second and their names are immediately lost amid the great sea of names. Once a voice, now a name on a wall. My eyes blur. I search for them again until finally they slid back into focus. They now belong not to us alone but to this vast legion of the dead.
I try to take a photo but a guardian on an upper level stops me. Dasja is working her camera, is also stopped, but won't. And while the sounds of the Kaddish fills the air I study the walls, each name occupying but a few inches, each once a person, a life, and I realize that this is but a fraction of the total, only part of the census of six million. Later, when I divide six million by eighty thousand, I realize that it would take a campus of more than seventy five synagogues of this size just to inscribe the names of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust!
I am dizzy when we hit the air and finally stand in the ancient cemetery amid five centuries of gravestones, toppled against one another, leaning against the years. You are the lucky ones, I think. With all your problems you had it better. It is enough for one day.
Prague is still very cold but today the morning sun makes a difference. We are going to Max's last address in Prague before he was ordered to the Fair Grounds. The address is 598 Na Klaudiance. The cab takes us along the river Moldau to a suburb south of the old city center. We follow a tram line. There are stores, auto shops, neighborhood markets, lots of sky, but Prague is thinning out. The cab goes slightly uphill and we arrive in a pleasant neighborhood, private homes, parked cars, trees, suburban. We get out and stand on the sidewalk. Large pleasant houses surround us. It is the opposite of the slum I expected, nor can we even find the house number. There is no sense of crowding, of difficulty, of anxiety. It seems almost opulent.
We stand and look. Which house were they in? How many families were crowded into one apartment? Something went on here but it has completely vanished.
We linger, searching, hesitating to leave, looking this way and that as if we've forgotten something. Finally, reluctantly, we get back in the cab to head back into town. We are silent. We have missed him again. It seems we can trace him no further. And then I am startled to hear Vera Ebels suggest we go back to the cafe and have dinner in Max's house!
The thought is so bold, so contrary to my feelings in the Pinkas and the Fair Grounds that it takes me by surprise. How can we! And then I think, how can we not! Vera is right. The building is there. We had entered only the courtyard, felt it at arms length. But this is now a house one can enter as it had once been a shop one could enter. We can eat under the same roof under which Max once ate. The building has changed back to a life before the Holocaust, a house of life once again. It is offering us a chance to turn back the clock. And I realize that if we enter we will be within a few feet of where Max, Vera, Helga and Liane once walked, now separated only by time. My image of an atom in the sky above Newfoundland pales before this.
I don't quite know how to prepare myself. The degrees of separation have grown less and less. To get this close, to even think of entering his house with his grandchildren and share a meal under his roof is overwhelming. He has become tangible.
The way is familiar. We walk from the hotel past the Old Town Square with the astronomical clock, Prague Castle rising in the distance, then Zelezna street to Havelska and turn right. It is still blustery and cold as we follow the sidewalk to the cafe. Another block and we arrive. Opposite stands the heavy St. Havel church. We walk into the passageway, open the cafe door and suddenly we are inside Max's house.
It is an odd feeling, as if passing through a gate of time. And I realize that's exactly what we are doing. A building that had been forbidding when I first saw it during my first trip, years before, is now open and inviting. Before us stands a serving counter, a coffee machine, some beer taps. Behind a bar. And to our left the cafe, tables, the windows, the street and a view of the church. A framed mirror on the far wall shows our reflection. Beneath it two men are quietly conducting business. At the front beneath the window another two are quietly looking at samples. We are standing in what was once the clothing store. I put my coat on a window ledge. We take chairs at a center table. I imagine the display tables, the fabrics, the woolens, the trench coats. Past the bar, where the restaurant lies, is what must have been the stock room. And with a start I realize - also Max's office. He typed his letters from there. I feel a shiver. I am that close. I am in your house, Max.
I find myself waiting for a rush of air as spirits pass by, voices as the excited girls greet their father. We order tea. In this space, in their time they were as real as we are now. I wonder who has precedence. We simply occupy the present.
We are quiet, as if looking for ghosts. Dasja has put down her Nikon. We are treading between worlds.
We sit for a while without speaking. Is it possible that a peaceful family in such pleasant surroundings could be deliberately gathered up and taken off to be murdered? It is unimaginable. I try to stop myself from thinking. I want to stay in the store with Max.
It is five and they leave to go back to the hotel. They will return for dinner.
I am alone. I am playing games with my head but it is hard to stop. I am alone with you now, Max. We started with so little of you and now end with so much. We are finally in your space, separated only by time. I have been sitting in your home with your two granddaughters, planning to have dinner within feet of where you wrote your letters to my father. And - I finally realize - you were both in the same business, textiles. You would have had much in common.
I order a beer.
I sit and let darkness come.
Outside the stones of St. Havel's church become grey and heavy. Darkness is descending over Prague. I let it sink over me, feel the mood change as day dies. There is a slight flurry of snow. Beyond St. Havel's stands a deep arched passageway. The sight from here must have been the same.
I sip my beer. I am coming to the end, Max. The long trail since 1938 is almost over. I am now 90.We have been together almost seventy-five seventy years since you first wrote . You were then so distant, a cry in the night. My last year in high school. Crazy about Benny Goodman, trying to learn to play jazz piano, my father just starting his name tape business, drawing ten dollars a week, H. G. Wells and his War of the Worlds broadcast scaring everyone, your first letter, then Harry May appearing, the old L.C. Smith typewriter on which we wrote our letter to you, the World's Fair opening, the first name tape orders arriving, my mother still paying for my father's life insurance, my grandmother dying. All the while you living in this very space where I'm sitting. I now know what you looked like, how you spent your vacations. I have met your granddaughters, seen the Fair Grounds, seen your name on the synagogue wall. I know the names of your grandchildren and great grandchildren, I have held your photo albums, seen the pictures you pasted in, the life you lived. I am here where you worked and am about to have dinner under your roof. From so little to so much. My head can hold no more.
More afternoon slips by and evening arrives. I have been sitting alone for over an hour. I have been touching spirits before they were names on a wall.
I hear the cafe door in the passageway open. Your granddaughters are returning, Max. I can feel the rush of cold air as the door closes. We greet one another. They join me at the table, nursing their coats against the night's chill. Dasja unstraps her Nikon. We know what is coming and are not exactly sure how to meet it.
It is still early. We will be the only ones there. We are about to enter your private space.
We walk past the bar and pause at the entrance to the dining area. The room is empty. In the half light recessed overhead bulbs glow amber over tables neatly set against the wall. Surely this is where the old stock room was and where Max had his desk.Where was it? Where was the typewriter? Three of the letters were typed. It was from here.
A table is being set up for us and on it lighted candles are being placed. I can feel the air thickening, hear the silence and there is a pressure in my ears. I stand at the portal, hardly breathing. I am in your space, Max. I am about to dine in your house.
We are led to our seats but I am listening for spirits. I am waiting for what cannot be - footsteps as Helga and Liane walk by, the smell of Vera's cigarette, the tapping of a typewriter. Focus time through a lens and it is now. Yet I am not at ease. For there is still unfinished business between us, Max. It is the key to what is happening now and the reason I've searched for you so long. It is the curse which you wished on us so long ago in that last furious letter to my father. And you meant it with all your heart. By that time they had taken everything from you except your life. A curse was all you had left.
But your curse insured my search, and from a cardboard slung around your neck and the agony in your heart, we end up here, seventy years later, in your house, family finally come home.
I sit in the stillness, breath bated, listening for vanished footsteps. The courtyard is no longer visible through the rear windows. At the Fair Grounds another night is descending. The old stones of the Pinkas synagogue slide another day into the past. Prague is old. It mumbles to itself. The gates of time have opened but now they are closing.
Goodbye, Max. I am in your home. I extend the hand of friendship. I hope for yours in return. You now have a biography, virtual as it may be. And so, in your name, in the names of your grandchildren, their children, and their children's children:
Yisgadal, y'yiskadash she'mei rabbaw...