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Raymond M. Berger
Real Bullet Points

Breathe: On Holocaust Remembrance Day

Mom and Dad didn’t talk a lot about the war.

I am wound up on a spool. I get tighter and tighter. I want to unwind. Instead the thread tightens, until I think I will burst.  But I never do.

I can’t breathe.

My brother Stevie is a year older than me. I hang on him. Wherever he goes, I go. Sometimes I get jealous. When Mom and Dad give us identical toys I manage to break mine. So I break his too. But Stevie never gets angry. To me he is not a kid. He is the better part of me.

A phone call from the nurse brings Dad and Mom and me to a big white room at the hospital. An impossibly tall doctor walks in. He speaks.

Suddenly Dad begins to pace frantically up and down the room. Both his weathered hands grab the top of his head and don’t let go. He wails. A deep sound that rises and falls, rises and falls. Will it ever stop?

Stevie won’t be coming back with us in the car today. Or any day. He is just 7 years old.

Mom sits in the back of the room. She is silent, but drops of water leave her eyes and slide down her face. She doesn’t wipe them away.

An earlier storm of unnatural grief had weakened the tree. Now a new grief snapped a branch. It did not kill, but it wounded the tree forever.

I stare at a potted snake plant on a window sill. I pretend to count the colored gravel pieces in the rectangular ceramic pot. Blue, red, green, pink. It is the beginning of my pretend life. Pretend that I am interested in something else. Pretend that nothing happened. Pretend that Stevie never was. Better that way.

There was a reason for pretending. It was my fault. I took Stevie for granted. I should have seen the danger coming. If I had been paying attention I could have alerted the adults and this would never have happened. That must be why the adults stopped speaking to me.

I remember the shiva. A stream of adults walked into our apartment. Each one stopped to touch Mom and say a word. Each one stopped to touch Dad and comfort him. Then they left.

No one ever told me what happened. Where did Stevie go?

Before, Dad slept in the big bed with Stevie. That way, when Stevie cried out from the pain in his legs, Dad was there to massage them. Mom slept in the bed with me in the other room. Even after Stevie was gone, she still slept away from Dad.

After that, I remember Dad hitting me, not just once. But I can never remember why. Had I done something wrong? Sometimes he raged. Once he beat me with his belt and the metal buckle caught my groin. It became a tender spot. For years, the pain flashed unpredictably in that spot. How could that be?

Mom and Dad didn’t talk a lot about the war. But it hung above us like a menacing hawk.

The words, in my parents’ native Polish, reverberate in my head: Przed wojna. Po wojnie. Before the war. After the war.

I heard it every day. Shockingly, the war had opened an earthquake-fissure in time. It trapped what was left of my little family. The fissure was so vast we could never get from one side to the other.

I was just a kid. I didn’t know about the forced deportations, the ghettos, the camps. I didn’t know that Death robbed them, just like it did me. I didn’t know my parents had lost their parents, siblings, and everything else. Later Mom told me, “After the war, I cried and cried until I had no tears left.” She was wound up on a spool too. Dad never spoke to me so I didn’t know what happened to him. Better that way.

One time Dad returned home from work. He affectionately put his arm around my shoulder. I drew back instinctively. I was wary. I was still angry about the hitting. Mom accused me of being cold. She said I had no heart.

Dad was wound up on his own spool of grief. He was wound up tight. He didn’t know there were two people there who could have used his love. But the tightness in the spool sucked up all the love that used to be there.

“Do you think those other fathers are any better?” Mom challenged me. She was talking about the survivor fathers we knew.

“He wasn’t like that before the war.” Przed wojna. Po wojnie. Is that what war does to people?

Meanwhile my spool tightens. I join a group of Children of Survivors. By the second meeting I learn that the group members are children of Jews who fled Europe before the war. To my mind, their parents are not survivors at all. Although they lost family members, none had felt the horrors directly, as my parents had. I am shocked to realize that the genocide was so successful that not many people like my parents are left.

I wind up tighter. I can’t breathe.

God. Please don’t let there be another war.

About the Author
The author is a life-long Zionist and advocate for Israel. He believes that a strong Jewish state is invaluable, not only to Jews, but to the world-wide cause of democracy and human rights. Dr. Berger earned a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has twenty-seven years of teaching experience. He has authored and co-authored three books as well as over 45 professional journal articles and book chapters. His parents were Holocaust survivors.
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