When I was nine, I lived for a year with my family in London. It was my father’s sabbatical year from George Washington University, in Washington, DC, where he was a professor of economics. Before we left, my mother talked about what fun we’d have; all the places we’d see and visit; about the school she’d enrolled me and my brother in; about the funny, old-fashioned uniform we’d both be wearing; about learning to take the Underground---“the Tube,” she called it laughingly, laughingly employing an English accent--which I pictured as a 19th century steam-engine pulling something like the inside of a tire. I couldn’t help it. I was a dreamy, romantic boy, somewhat weak in the knees and ankles, with a tendency to get bad colds in the winter and allergies in the spring.
We flew to London, took a train into Paddington, piled into a taxi, and arrived at our new flat---all four of us already calling it that. Our mother seemed slightly dissatisfied with the size and arrangement of the kitchen: she said it was ill-equipped and she’d have to go out and buy some decent pots and pans, what a waste given that she’d have to leave them behind at the end of the year. Otherwise she seemed reasonably pleased, and if our mother was pleased then the rest of us were too. What did we males—our brooding, ambitious father; my messy, moody, adolescent older brother; and myself---know about houses, about the arrangement of furnishings or for that matter the arrangement of our very days? What did we know about finding places in which to put our clothes in that small and rather cramped flat---small for us, that is, with our ramshackle split-level in the suburbs? Versus the flat, where Mother said there weren’t enough closets; moreover, the closets were shallow, almost miniature, as if built for a hobbit. The room that I shared with my brother was narrow, with twin beds and a single cupboard that was meant to serve as both closet and bureau, which he instantly claimed as his own. No matter: Mother made more space with some wine-cases she’d found in the alley, stacking them just so, making a place for my socks and sweaters, hanging my own jacket and pants besides my brother’s in the cupboard. She upended an end table such that it served as a place to put my brother’s sports equipment. She told him to stop putting his feet on my bed, something he did just to annoy me. And so on: she was the genius of the place.
Our father was spending the year as something between a scholar-at-leisure and a lecturer at the University of London. He was very proud of this, he couldn’t stop marveling at it—how he, a middle-class Jewish boy from Huntington, Long Island, the son of a dentist and a piano teacher, a boy who hadn’t distinguished himself in any way until halfway through college, at SUNY Stony Brook, had made it here, all the way to University College, London. One of the top-ranked universities in all of Britain. with students coming from all over, from India and Pakistan and Spain and Italy and even America—and he was a part of it! He’d been given an office, a computer, a new set of colleagues, and time. Time was what he craved more than anything else: time to think, to study, to read. Time to exchange ideas with other scholars. And most of all, time to write.
He was always working on a book or an article, mulling over the next idea---and how he hated it when one of us interrupted him when, at home, he sat writing at the dining room table, his papers and book spread out on the polished wood. It’s not that he yelled or even scolded so much as that you could see it on him, how angry he was, how his whole face would tighten, the small muscles under his ears pulsing like a terrified fish’s. Sometimes we’d hear him complaining to our mother: his days were spent teaching and sitting on committees and dealing with all kinds of academic business; he mowed the lawn, went to our soccer and baseball games (my brother’s games really, as even then I was somewhat allergic to sports.) Was it too much to ask that on occasion he have a little time to himself to get some work done? “But they’re boys,” she’d reply, as if he didn’t already know it. But now that we were in London, things were different. His palms spread wide as if to take in the entire glory of Britannia and his face alight and smiling, he’d say that it was a miracle, his having all day long to do nothing but think.
So there he was, thinking his thoughts at the great and ancient university. So that way things hadn’t changed much. What had changed was the quality of time itself.
Come September my brother and I went to a public (that is to say, a private) school not far from our flat in Maida Vale, where we ate hot lunches and wore scratchy woolen uniforms. At home we both went to the neighborhood schools, the rough-and-tumble public schools that we and all our friends attended, that we didn’t think twice about, where we wore our own clothes and brought our own lunches. Our afternoons were either devoted to sports (my brother), or, for me, tending to my collection of unusual rocks or bicycling around looking for cast-off treasure. But London was a city, and once school was over, there was nothing to do. I was bored. I was miserable. I whined. I drove Mom crazy.
All that stopped when I discovered The Diary of Anne Frank jammed at the back of the closet. My brother had shoved all kinds of stuff there—school assignments, half-smoked cigarettes, candy, books he was supposed to read but didn’t. I was already in the habit of stuffing my head with paperbacks--science fiction, detective stories, fantasy, thrillers, and most of all, horror, the more horrible the better. But The Diary was something new for me, giving me a glimpse of something so huge and awful that I couldn’t resist its pull. Not that I lived in a cave. Like every other kid, I knew something about what had happened, about the valiant allies and the evil Germans as well as the camps. But this was something new and different, something personal, and I had to know more. Thus I set out one day, with a house key and a map which my mother had drawn for the purpose, to the library. Equipped with my best manners, I asked the librarian where the World War Two books were. I was afraid to ask him directly to take me to the Holocaust section---what if he thought I was too young, or asked me where my parents were?---but it made no difference. I quickly found what I was looking for, an entire archive of the Holocaust, with maps, histories, and most of all, photographs: skeletal Jews in striped pajamas being liberated from the death camps; more skeletons, this time with dead eyes and mouths shaped into soundless screams; Germans saluting Hitler; Hitler himself, with his fat hips. Place names: Auschwitz. Belzec. Treblinka. Terezin. I collected other words too: kapo, bloch, crematorium, SS, Judenrein, Fuhrer.
I was stunned. Why hadn’t my parents, who went on and on about everything, debating the merits and demerits of books and movies and politics and basic finance, about home décor and core values, never filled me in? All Mom and Dad had ever told us was that our own ancestors had immigrated long before the disaster, and were safe, in America. All my brother and I knew about them was that they’d come from Russia (on our mother’s side) and on our father’s, from Germany and Poland, maybe both, he wasn’t sure. There were some old letters, some old ticket stubs, a few old sepia-toned photos which my mother had framed, and not much else. “They were poor, religious, God-fearing Jews,” my mother would offer by way of explanation. “They kept their heads down.”
I couldn’t quite imagine any of that, what life would be like if you were poor and religious, and as for God-fearing: what did that even mean? We didn’t even belong to a temple. God, the Torah, the Sabbath---that stuff was for other people, Jewish Jews who cared and talked endlessly about Israel and what did or did not constitute kosher, what you could and could not eat, and why.
I ate everything: fried pasties, donuts, hotdogs, ice cream. Food was important to me. At school the food was atrocious. We ate it anyway, ravenously. Both of us, my brother as well as myself, were always hungry.
“You boys are termites,” my mother said. “You’d eat the walls if you could figure out how.”
I wondered if you actually could eat a wall---something we might have to do if the Nazis started rounding us up--but even with my overheated and morbid imagination torturing me at night and my awful older brother torturing me by day, I managed to settle in well enough. Our father, when he came home from his office on campus, would grab a beer and tell us funny stories about his new colleagues, their accents, their bad teeth. Even the weather cooperated---days of cool sunshine and slowly turning leaves, not that it much mattered to me now that I spent most of my free time at the library. When I asked Mom if there were still Nazis in Europe, pointing out that London was in England which was part of Europe, she laughed and told me not to have such a morbid imagination.
I figured that if Mom was laughing, things were fine, we were safe, life would continue rolling on in its usual boring way, no one would check my penis to see if it was circumcised or brand numbers on my arm. Then disaster struck. When I got home from school, instead of Mom greeting me, there was a note from her saying that she was out and would be back soon. But when my brother came home an hour or so later, she was still gone. By then I’d started worrying: what if she’d been kidnapped, or rounded up, or---I didn’t actually think that she’d have been put on a transport, but by then my mind was already playing horror movies, and called Dad, who didn’t sound happy. Finally he told me that she’d had to have some medical tests done: no doubt, this being England, things had gotten backed up. It was dark when he got home, and I was starving. “What’s for dinner?” I said. He glared at me like I was a demon, and said that if I was hungry I could make myself a sandwich.
When the phone finally rang, Dad picked it up immediately, but all we heard was him “Okay.” When he got off the phone, he looked stunned. That’s when we knew for sure that it was Mom who’d called, and knowing that, we begged him to tell us what was happening. He told us that she had been diagnosed with cancer.
“We’ll know more as soon as she gets home.”
It seemed like another week passed until we heard her fumbling at the door, but when she let herself in, I could see no difference in her. There was the same small neat face; dark curls; red lipstick; raincoat. But when she took her coat off, I noticed that her blouse was buttoned wrong and hung unevenly off her shoulders.
“How bad is it?” Dad said.
“They don’t know yet.”
She said that her cancer had been caught early, that though she’d have to have an operation, she’d only be in the hospital for a few days. After that, she said, we’d all just have to wait and see until the lab reports came back. “To see if I need chemotherapy or not.” Chemotherapy. That was a word I was familiar with, and though I didn’t know exactly what it meant, I knew it was bad, that it made you look like the corpses of Auschwitz with bald heads and skeletal bodies. With that image in my mind, I began to cry.
“Not now,” Dad said.
“But I want to go home!” I wailed, diving into my mother’s lap, while my father, his nostrils flaring, looked at me as if he’d never met me. But it didn’t matter how much I—or anyone else—wanted to go home. We couldn’t. My father’s grant was time-bound, and to lose it would mean losing that year’s income. And where would we go, anyway? Our house in Maryland had been rented out. And as it turned out, Mother insisted that she didn’t want to go home anyway. She was adamant about it. She loved travel, adventure, wandering. She didn’t want to give up our year in London, our magical year across the sea.
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
But she wasn’t fine. After her surgery, she was in the hospital for a full week, with tubes sticking into her side and a funny sort of smell coming off her bed. When, later, she came home from her first chemotherapy treatment, she was both flushed and pale, and her hands shook. For the next two or three days, she slept a lot and whimpered, which I found confusing and terrifying and sad all at once, and even when I tried to comfort her, when I threw my head into her lap or brought a poem that I’d secretly written just for her, she was still sad. I could see it, feel it, how sad she was. “For God’s sake, get a hold of yourself, you’re scaring the boys,” our father said some days after her first treatment when, at the dinner table, she began to weep. But then she felt better again, and started talking about all the things she wanted to do to take advantage of our year abroad, all the places she wanted to see, explaining that she could plan around when she knew she’d be feeling better.
Sometime later, she announced that during our winter break---which was a good deal longer than at home—we’d be taking a trip to Eastern Europe to see the countries that until recently were “behind the Iron Curtain.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she said. When she herself was an undergraduate, studying abroad, such places were off-limits. You couldn’t visit them unless you had special permission, and even then, it was difficult. Such places were police-states, under the thumb of Communism, and in any event, why go there? But now things were different. The Berlin Wall had come down---did we remember seeing that on TV? (Not really.) You could book a hotel in advance, and walk around to see the sights, just like in any other country. Here were the homelands of Kafka, Freud, Klimt, Adolf (that name!) Loos, Otto Wagner, Max Lieberman! That’s where we’d be heading---to the cradle of modernism, where Jewish civilization was once so magnificent that it outshone a million diamonds. This was all from my mother, who loved this stuff.
Our hotel in Budapest was old and elegant in a shabby, dusty sort of way, with faded flocked wallpaper, sea-green and pink, and employees who spoke perfect English with heavily Slavic tones. My brother and I had one room; my parents were down the hall. Neither room had a working television, which didn’t bother my parents at all, though it was hard for my brother, who was not only addicted to sports and sporting events, but unused to entertaining himself, impatient when our parents tried to explain that the chances of there being anything on television that would interest him were slim to none. For the first day, he sulked around complaining of boredom as our parents trekked us through the Hungarian National Gallery and to various pastry-and-coffee shops and late-Gothic churches, but during breakfast of our second morning, he met a girl—we both did—who was his age, thirteen. She too was on holiday from England---she lived in the north, in Manchester—and she had blonde curls and small hands and feet, and wore a heart-shaped silver pendant on a silver chair around her neck Her name was Liza, and she not only smiled at me, but told me things about herself: that she loved Toblerone chocolate, that she had a collection of teddy bears. I was instantly in love with her, loving her as only a dramatic and imaginative nine-year-old boy could do, with complete devotion, and an inner knowing that somehow, through the grace of fate and fortune, we were meant to be together.
“She thinks you’re a freak, freak,” said my brother. “She only talks to you because she’s nice.”
“She thinks you’re weird, which you are. You’ve got boogers hanging out of your nose.”
I went to wipe my nose on my sleeve, the only surface available for wiping, but as usual my brother was winding me up, running me up the flagpole, and when I challenged him on his booger-dripping assertion he told me that just because nothing had come out on my sleeve didn’t mean that the offending matter wasn’t there. Which of course meant that I had to explore by hand, putting my finger deeply into one nostril at a time, jiggling it around a little, searching with my fingernail for whatever bits of flakes or clotted snot might have found their way forward.
“She’s watching you.”
I yanked my entire body backwards against the chair, managing to fall over, and though unhurt, I felt stupid and angry at my brother for having tricked me again. At least Liza wasn’t in the breakfast room or even in the hall outside the breakfast room. In fact, when I knocked on her door a few minutes later, she opened it, smiled vaguely at me, and told me that she and her parents were getting ready to go out but that I could come back later, after dinner but not too late, and we could talk then if I liked, adding that she’d never been to America and wanted to go and had I ever been to Disneyland?
I hadn’t been anywhere other than to Washington D.C. a few zillion times, the apartment building filled with old people in Baltimore where my grandparents lived, and to Florida, where my other grandmother lived. And London, of course---I got that in too, hurriedly and slightly embarrassed, not wanting her to think I was stupid.
“See you, then,” she said.
“We’re going to the old Jewish quarter,” our mother said.
“It’s your mother’s idea,” our father said, his brow furrowing just enough to let us know that he was displeased. “There isn’t really anything to see other than abandoned, decrepit buildings. The old ghetto, good God, who wants to see that? It’s a ghost town.”
But I couldn’t think of anything better. A real live ghetto? I didn’t know there were any left. In my mind’s eye I could picture skinny terrified starving Jews crushed, twenty or thirty to a room, with no heat or running water, surviving on melted snow and the occasional crust of moldy bread.
“Don’t forget the Grand Synagogue,” Our mother said.
“It’s called the Great Synagogue, and I doubt it will be open.”
“The man at the front desk said it would be.”
“The man at the front desk didn’t even know what it was. He looked at you like you had horns growing out of your head.”
I didn’t know what that meant. Nor---despite my new obsession--could I have imagined that anyone, even Hitler, could believe that Jews were so bestial that we were actually beasts, with actual horns. (I learned all this much later.) I thought maybe Dad’s comment had to do with how strange my mother looked now, with tufts of hair falling out from the edges of her silk scarf. But her head, unlike mine--which I regularly checked it for signs of impending brain tumors-- wasn’t weirdly shaped at all. Wrapped as it was in a blue silk scarf, anyone could see that it was regular, a perfect, regular oval, like a blue balloon.
“In any case,” she said. “This is our one opportunity to see it.”
When we got to the Great Synagogue, our father went to open the massive doors and found out that he’d been right after all: the place was locked. No amount of banging on the doors changed that. “See?” he said, with a glint of victory. “I wish you’d listen to me. It’s a matter of common sense.”
“Well, we’re here now anyway. So let’s make the best of it.”
So instead of going inside and seeing whatever there was to see there, we ended up trudging around the old Jewish quarter, now abandoned, as our father had predicted, one empty frozen courtyard surrounded by empty peeling apartment buildings after the next, all of us trudging through the slush. I still wanted to find the ghetto, the exact place where Jews had been herded together, but there weren’t many signs and even if there had been, none of us knew Hungarian. But I persisted, asking question after question until at last my father, his hands balled into his pockets, exploded with annoyance. “This whole damn place was a ghetto. Is a ghetto. Look around. It’s the old story. First they caged us in. Then they starved us. Then they drove us out. Finally, they murdered us. And for the coup de grace, communism destroyed the rest. Not to mention, who would live here?” He shook his head slowly, as if to indicate the obviousness of it all. “This whole city is no doubt still crawling with Jew haters.”
That wasn’t like my father, but the words had come out anyway, and with them, my heart was seized with fear. As we trudged on, I saw murderers and anti-Semites in every shadow, and ready to dart ahead at a moment’s notice—ready to scream, to cry for help--I clutched my mother’s hand. She chattered along about how, when we were older, my brother and I would have to read the great Yiddish novelists, how they’d captured the world we were walking through when it was still bustling with life. But it was clear that even she, with her endless capacity for exclamation, was disappointed.
After about ten minutes more of walking around like this, I stepped into an icy puddle. When I came out, my feet were soaked up past my ankles. I burst into tears, frantic that now I’d have to spend the rest of the already miserable day with cold wet feet, that I’d never be dry, that eventually I’d succumb to pneumonia, or worse, pleurisy.
“Retard,” my brother said.
“Shut up, you’re the retard, retard,” I said.
Dad told both of us to hush.
“But I’m wet!” I wailed. “I’m freezing! My feet are soaked! I’m soaked through with ice! And it’s December and I’m freezing and I’m already getting feverish!”
“You walked into a puddle,” my father said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“Ha ha,” my brother said.
“My feet are going numb. I’ll get frostbite!”
“That’s enough,” my father said.
“Take me back to the hotel!” I wailed, thinking of how nice it would be to get back inside my bed with my book---I was then reading Sherlock Holmes in a frenzy of obsession that wouldn’t cease until years later--and how, when Liza returned from her own day of sightseeing and learned of my incident, she’d bring me hot chocolate and pet me and maybe some of the other things that I’d heard my brother and his friends brag about. Then I’d tell her everything that was in my heart, how my father, despite his intellectualism and fancy degree, was impatient and said things that made me feel bad, how Mother, though ill, had to placate him, and most of all, how ignorant, how brutish, and how mean my brother was. Then that thing that my brother was obsessed with would happen, and I’d tell her that someday, when I was grown, I’d love her with all my heart, and then we could be married. “Take me back now! Do you have any clue how uncomfortable it is to walk around with wet feet in winter? It’s like I’m in the Holocaust!”
“Simmer down!” our father said while my brother snickered.
“I’m going to die and you don’t even care!”
“Good God, you’re not going to die!” my father said, clenching and unclenching his fists the way he did when he was seriously, seriously angry. “Just enough! Enough! You’re nine years old. Show some self- respect.”
At least my mother had pity on me and, grabbing me by one of my mittened-hands, said: “We’ll find a store and I’ll buy you a new pair of socks. That ought to do it.”
“Where will you find an open store in Budapest on a Sunday?” our father said. “Everything is closed.”
“It’s Sunday, not Christmas. We’ll find a place.”
“But what if we don’t?” I whimpered. Truly, I was miserable.
“We will,” she said, leading me out of the courtyard we were in and into the next and then the next until we were on a busy boulevard in a busy neighborhood somewhere near the river. The blue Danube was brown and frothy, like icy hot chocolate, laced with large chunks of brown ice.
My father was right: the shops were closed. Even the one pharmacy we came across was closed. But by then we were in a district of shiny hotels, newer ones than where we were staying, big well-scrubbed places with a flurry of bright flags flying and lines of taxis out front. That’s when Mother decided that, if nothing else, she’d take my socks and dry them out in the ladies’ room, using the hot-air hand dryer.
“You can’t do that,” my father said. “You can’t just march into a hotel where we’re not staying and use the facilities.”
“Because we haven’t paid for it. It’s not honest.”
She did it anyway, marching straight into the grandest hotel of them all, and as I sat barefoot on a sofa in the hotel lobby, my brother sat on the other end, kicking his feet back and forth and humming under his breath in a way he knew annoyed me, he was doing it on purpose. Of course. At least he couldn’t do more than that now, not in the hotel lobby with people around and our father pacing back and forth behind us breathing audibly.
Finally Mother emerged from the ladies’ room, my still-wet socks in her hands. “At this rate, they’ll never dry,” she said.
Grabbing me by the hand and all but yanking me onto my feet, she pulled me into a group of German-speaking tourists who were only then checking in--I remember it was two couples, both of them middle aged, wearing beautiful heavy coats with beautiful leather gloves. She asked if any of them spoke English, and when one of the men acknowledged that he did, she asked him point blank if perhaps he had a pair of socks in his luggage that he wouldn’t mind giving to me, her son.
“His socks, as you can see, are wet,” she said, holding them out in her two palms like an offering.
“I only have men’s socks, I doubt very much they would suit,” the German man said.
“They’ll be fine,” my mother said.
“They’re very high quality, I just bought them, pure wool, very fine,” the man continued. “For hiking. We were hoping to get into the mountains.”
“I understand, but my boy here--”
He opened his suitcase to show her, holding them in the palm of his hand. “You see? Very fine. For hiking.”
“I’ll pay you for them.”
“You don’t have to pay me, but I don’t think they are suitable for a young boy.” He squinted at me under heavy black eyebrows that reminded me of Hitler’s mustache, those short thick black slashes that moved up and down when he fulminated from the stage, and as the tears rose afresh to the surface of my eyeballs, my mother took the socks, saying, “Thank you so much. Thank you.”
“But—” he said. “Please, Madame—”
“Thank you. Really. I really, really appreciate it.”
As my mother returned with the socks, my father, red in the face with fury, said, “You just can’t do that.”
“Well, I did it anyway.”
“Do you enjoy embarrassing yourself?”
“I’m not embarrassed.”
“First things first,” she said, indicating me with a nod of her head. “He can’t go around all day long in wet socks.”
“Kids go around in wet socks all the time. It’s part of being a boy. He needs to learn to suck it up and not be such a mamma’s boy. At this rate—”
“At this rate, what?”
“He’s already turning into a sissy.”
I hated him then. I hated him with hot rage and cold bitterness. I hated him for being mean to Mom. I hated him for making me share a room with my brother, and for how helpless he was in the face of Mom’s illness. I hated him for not understanding me. I hated him for subjecting me to the icy misery of Budapest, and for his own bitter certainty that the Great Synagogue would be closed—how snidely pleased he’d been to discover he was right!
A minute later, the German man’s warm thick woolen socks were on my feet, and how wonderful they felt, they were so thick they all but blocked out the dampness of my shoes. But even the wonderful comfort of those thick German hiking socks couldn’t neutralize the fear rising up from my belly to my brain when my father, his fists balled up at his sides, went at it again: “You can’t behave like that, Jill. You can’t just walk into a fancy hotel and ask a stranger to give you his socks, you can’t do that, Jill, it’s not done, you’re embarrassing to be with. What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you? You don’t think straight. Has the chemotherapy affected your brain?” He was so loud that other people, including the German man, were noticing, and when I saw the German man walking in our direction, I knew the game was up. The German man, with his thick, Hitler-mustache- eyebrows and beautiful, elegant luggage, would come and get me, he’d come and get me and snatch the socks from my feet and the next thing I knew he’d summons all the Jew-haters to aid him and we’d be herded out of the hotel and headed for God-knows-where, headed for extinction, for extermination, and I collapsed softly and slowly onto the soft, soft carpet of the hotel lobby.
When, a moment later (and it really was only a moment) I came to, my mother was hovering over me, and my father was standing far above both of us, his face looming like the moon. “Now look, he’s fainted,” he said. My mother, her own face gone yellow-white, remained just above me, as near to mine as a wish, and as her hair fell from the edges of her scarf and drifted in the air like snowflakes, I suddenly became wracked with curiosity, and reached up and plucked a piece for myself. How easily it came off in my hand! How filled with horror I was! I was nine years old, and my world was ending.