Iowa Writes

JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN
The Two Little Boys (Part 4)


        Pop told Mom the whole story when they were first dating.  Funny, how things like this can come up at the oddest times and places.  Mom had her own tale for him, too.  Mom's uncle and aunt came from Vilnius in Lithuania, and they made the same mistake moving to Minneapolis from New York.  After a couple of years on the Near North Side, they packed up and moved to Rochester where the Mayo Clinic is.  Uncle Sam and Aunt Sophie started a small medical supply business there, and raised their kids to be doctors.
        When Pop returned with Zaydie's brandy, the old man took it in both hands, and carefully sipped with eye-closing pleasure.  Soon, he quaffed it down.  We all wondered how Zaydie Mendel could stay awake from this glass he just downed.  He just smiled; his rheumy eyes a little bit shinier than before.  After he set it down by the chair table by him, Zaydie Mendel glanced at the ceiling for a moment, and then turned back to us sitting around him.  Somewhere in back of his study, a mantel clock chimed the quarter hour.
        Zaydie paused to ask for another brandy, and catch his breath.  Pop got up, relieved to be away again, if only for a minute or two.  He really became depressed whenever the Holocaust and our relatives came up.  Mom provided the support, the courage, I guess for Pop to be patient and a little more considerate.  To me, however, knowing our history as a family became important over the years.  I never quite figured out why Pop was adamant about avoiding this subject and, to some extent, his own father, but that is the way he was.
        When Pop came back with the brandy almost filled to the brim, Mom glared at him with "what are you trying to do, get him drunk, or dead?" type of look.  After setting the brandy on a pedestal lamp table by Zaydie's wing chair, Pop sat down on the other side of her, while Zaydie Mendel took the snifter from its coaster with grateful hands.  Then he resumed the rest of the story.

        Pop told Mom the whole story when they were first dating.  Funny, how things like this can come up at the oddest times and places.  Mom had her own tale for him, too.  Mom's uncle and aunt came from Vilnius in Lithuania, and they made the same mistake moving to Minneapolis from New York.  After a couple of years on the Near North Side, they packed up and moved to Rochester where the Mayo Clinic is.  Uncle Sam and Aunt Sophie started a small medical supply business there, and raised their kids to be doctors.
        When Pop returned with Zaydie's brandy, the old man took it in both hands, and carefully sipped with eye-closing pleasure.  Soon, he quaffed it down.  We all wondered how Zaydie Mendel could stay awake from this glass he just downed.  He just smiled; his rheumy eyes a little bit shinier than before.  After he set it down by the chair table by him, Zaydie Mendel glanced at the ceiling for a moment, and then turned back to us sitting around him.  Somewhere in back of his study, a mantel clock chimed the quarter hour.
        Zaydie paused to ask for another brandy, and catch his breath.  Pop got up, relieved to be away again, if only for a minute or two.  He really became depressed whenever the Holocaust and our relatives came up.  Mom provided the support, the courage, I guess for Pop to be patient and a little more considerate.  To me, however, knowing our history as a family became important over the years.  I never quite figured out why Pop was adamant about avoiding this subject and, to some extent, his own father, but that is the way he was.
        When Pop came back with the brandy almost filled to the brim, Mom glared at him with "what are you trying to do, get him drunk, or dead?" type of look.  After setting the brandy on a pedestal lamp table by Zaydie's wing chair, Pop sat down on the other side of her, while Zaydie Mendel took the snifter from its coaster with grateful hands.  Then he resumed the rest of the story.
        "When the War came, Papa had already made preparations to sell the mill to some people from Lodz who wanted it.  We were lucky.  When the Russians took over our town, they shot the new owner like a dog in the streets.  Soon after the news of his murder and the mill's seizure reached Papa and Mama, they warned all of us to be quiet -- like mice -- and forget that we knew anything about these things."
        "Why?"  I asked.
        "Because the Reds had policemen and soldiers with guns, and the power of life or death over us.  That is why," he answered.  I said nothing more in response, especially when Pop looked over to me to shush.
        Zaydie sipped some brandy, and wiped his mouth with a sleeve.  Mom looked at the clock ticking on the mantel and signed Pop, "we should be leaving soon" look.  With that signal, he flashed back his enthusiastic agreement.  I paid no attention to their antics.  I wanted to hear the rest of Zaydie's story about the two little boys.
        Zaydie picked up his cue to continue and wrap up.
        "When we arrived at Sobibor, I remember one nice thing from the transport carrying us to extinction.  Somehow Elihu kept that violin next to him up to the end of this nightmare.  He was quite good on that fiddle.  Had he lived, perhaps Stern, Heifetz -- or even Perlman -- might have taken him as their student.  Especially Perlman, since he understood polio.  I don't know what happened to Zachariah's clarinet.  The violin, yes; the clarinet, no.  I am surprised that this memory came to mind so clearly."  He shook his head as if to clear it of the brandy mists, and to stay on track with the rest of the arrival at Sobibor.
        "Anyway when we were pushed in and out of a cattle car, Elihu clutched his violin case with one hand and Zachariah on the other.  All three were inseparable.  Only during the selection did the violin case get separated from the two little boys.  Elihu and Zachariah went to the gas chamber, holding hands, and inseparable. . . ."  Zaydie's eyes watered, and he became silent.  He smacked his lips for a second or two, and nodded to himself a couple of times, as if to affirm the fate of the two little boys.  Zaydie had no more to tell.  The ensuing silence draped softly like a shroud over me, as I wiggled a little in my seat next to Mom.
        A few minutes passed, and finally my parents rose in unison to take our leave.
        "Papa," my Pop asked.  "Do you want your dinner put in the oven before we leave?"
        The old man said nothing to him, as he slowly sipped some more brandy.  Mom got our coats, and bussed Zaydie on his forehead.  The old man smiled at her, and then looked in my direction.  He nodded his appreciation.  Again, Pop asked his "Pop" if he wanted his dinner put in the oven.  Finally, Zaydie said "yes".
        What came next was a surprise.
        "Jacob," Zaydie said to Pop.  "You and your sister can have whatever things you decide when I am gone.  One thing I ask. Please keep the pictures on the mantel together.  I don't care which of you takes them, but please, please, don't let them get separated.  One separation in this life is enough."
        When we left Zaydie that evening, it was the last time I saw him alive.  On the following Monday morning, he was found in that arm chair by a friend who played chess with him.  The snifter was almost empty, resting on the coaster's edge; his dinner overcooked in the cold oven.  He must have passed in his sleep.
        Years later when I was writing a term paper on the Holocaust and our family for a college history course, I finally understood what Zaydie meant by "one separation in this life is enough."  Death separated our family.  Zaydie Mendel wanted to prevent death from separating our memory, too.
        When my paper was returned by the professor a week later, she made a written comment on the last page that propelled me eventually to become a scholar of the Shoah:
        "Dear Ms. Rachel Bennesavitz:
        "This paper is remarkable.  What is particularly striking is the relationship between the family photographs and the two little boys your Grandfather so loved in his recounting of your family's loss.  I believe you would make a fine historian from the way you presented the history, and its humanity, in this paper.
        "Thank you for a moving and enlightening experience."
        Years later from this memory and that term paper, I am now at the University of Iowa teaching Holocaust History to the next generation of decent, and wonderful people.  I am no longer amazed when students come to my office and are surprised by the bunch of framed pictures behind me taking up one whole shelf where books and scholarly journals normally are.  It seems the framed picture of two little boys -- which they can see front and center in the grouping -- gets most of their attention almost immediately.  I wait knowingly and patiently, until someone asks a question about who the two little boys were.  Nearly everyone remarks on their soulful eyes and smiling faces, so full of life in those days.  That's when I explain a little of the history surrounding the photograph of them.  After a moment or two, I can see some of my listeners seem touched by these two little boys from another time, another world, which they can barely imagine.
        Those two little boys still amaze me.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN

Joseph Richard Goldman has taught modern European history at the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas.  He is now writing two novels.  He has participated in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival since 2014.




The Two Little Boys appeared on the Daily Palette in four parts.  If you missed Parts 1-3, you can find them here, here, and here.

This page was first displayed
on March 10, 2016

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