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Germany: I Remember

800px-White_Tower_Bad_Homburg_Germany“Al! You’re up early. And where’s your ‘shtick’?” I asked, using the word he substituted in place of ‘cane’. He opened the door for me before I put the key in the lock. “You shouldn’t walk around without it.”

“Forgot,” he shrugged, waving away my concerns with a brusque motion of his hand. His posture, though stooped, possessed a quiet authority. Thick white hair crowned his head. Slender his whole life, he wore the same clothes size (and the same clothes) as he did in his youth.

At 91 years old, Al had reluctantly allowed caregivers into his home.  The loss of his driver’s license was the first blow to his independence. Several falls and trips to the ER later, his guardian insisted on hiring a companion to ensure Al’s safety. That’s where I came in.

“I’ll get it for you.” The cane hung on the door handle in his room, undisturbed from the night before.
“Why are you up so early?” I asked again, after I helped settle him into his recliner.
He handed me a copy of that morning’s paper.

“I remember,” he said, pointing to an article on the front page. ‘Remembering Kristallnacht: For 3 Area Residents Who Escaped Germany As Teens, Visions of Nazi-Led Anti-Jewish Riots of 1938 Remain Vivid’ was the headline.
“November 9, 1938.” I calculated the years that passed. “Today is the 75th anniversary, Al.”

“I was there.” His brown eyes, a complement to the stern and implacable expression he’d worn for most of his life, softened.

“I was working as an apprentice in Frankfurt. I took the train every day. When my train came in, I was scared.
“I went home through the forest. I could smell the smoke. I could see the smoke. Then I saw it. The synagogue was burning. Terrible,” he shook his head from the madness of it.
“The windows to the houses on the street were smashed. When I got to my house, the windows were smashed.” His fist pounded on the armrest, punctuating the brutality of his memories.

“They arrested my father. They only let him go because he was a veteran of the first war.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said after a pause, searching for the right words, unable to find them.
He sat quietly, with a faraway look, as if he were reliving that terrible night.

“Did you escape from Germany soon after that?”
“Yes. It got worse. The Hitler Jugen paraded the streets at night…with candles. At school, when everybody gave the salute ‘Heil Hitler’, I refused,” he said defiantly. “I kept my hands at my sides and said nothing.”
“You could’ve gotten in trouble for that!”
“Damn right I could’ve.” He clenched the handle of his cane. “I went to England first. Then I went to America to join my brother.”
“And your parents?”
“No,” he replied, looking away. “I never saw them again after I left. When I was in the army, I was stationed in France. I went AWOL for a few days and hitchhiked to my town. All the men were gone. My parents were gone.”**

I reached over and put my arms around him, and lightly held him. He leaned into me, put his head on my shoulders. After so many years of stubbornly clinging to solitude, he grew to like my company and the hugs I gave him.

“Was that the last time you visited in Germany? Or did you return after the war?” I asked after a moment’s pause.
“Never went back after that.” His voice tightened.
“You know what, Al? I’d like to visit your town. Show me where I should visit.” I turned on my tablet and looked up his birthplace.
“The Taunus mountains are close. There is the castle where the Kaiser would visit in the summer. Also there are the springs where rich people would visit…”

We spent the rest of the morning discussing his childhood, the schools he attended, the fussiness his mother indulged when making his meals, the chocolate his father brought him just for him, the family dog. Though he shared many humorous stories, thoughts of Kristallnacht were never far from his mind, and he circled back to that memory often during our conversation.

Later that day, Al suffered from a fatal heart attack. He died a month later, on December 10, 2014.
I was fortunate to have received Al’s cane after he passed, courtesy of his guardian. It sits in the passenger seat of my car, as he did, when we drove to the mall or the park, and sang songs from the 40′s, arm in arm. For weeks afterwards, I cried, grieving for the loss of a man I knew only 2 years, yet touched me so deeply. I held the cane in my hands, longing for a connection to him. I prayed and meditated, asking for a way to honor his legacy.

Two months later, my prayers were answered. I received a plane ticket as a gift, and I promptly booked a flight to Germany.

This summer, I will be visiting Al’s birthplace, his school, and the Holocaust Memorial in Frankfurt. I will place a rock on the brick that bears his parent’s names, and thank them for the privilege of caring for their son. Al taught me the importance of living in the present; for there is no other time, he said. “Do it, M,” He smiled, kissing my hand. “Find a way.”

Thank you, Al. You will always live in my heart.

**With the help of an archivist, the records of “Al’s” parents were found. They perished at Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia, which had been turned into a concentration camp. “Al’s” name was changed for privacy reasons.**

About the Author: When she is not writing or reading, M. Fonseca works as a caregiver for the elderly. Her clients inspired her to let go of her fear and live authentically. It is for them that she dedicates her work.

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