I could barely hear her as she spoke about Poland. Every sound of the street -- a delivery truck unloading, a kid ringing the bell on his bike, a dog barking -- obliterated the words coming out her mouth, running her story down. I felt like asking the street itself to stop, to plead with the world to allow this woman one moment of peace so she could speak and be heard.
She spoke about Poland -- the beauty of the country, the cities and towns, the churches where they light candles for the Jews. She visits often -- every year, to escape the torrid summer of Tel Aviv, where she lives. This is how we''d gotten to Poland: there was no sun that day, Valentine''s Day, as we sat outside what we discovered is our favorite cafe. But, I say, in summer there is sun -- only sun, always sun, ceaseless sun "without break," I say, awkward in the Hebrew.
Yes, so she "flees" the summer sun to Poland, and tells me of that place, their respect for Israel, the candles they light for the Jews on Hannukah, the Seders celebrated by church members. She forgives them and yet I cannot.
As I wordlessly recite my homily of Polish guilt, she says the words -- and the street stops. I strain forward to hear her whisper, the muscles of my body are tense, my brain seems like it''s trying to leap out of my skull to hear her better, as she says, "I went through the Holocaust," my literal translation hearing, "I passed through the Shoah," as if through Sheol, the land of shades, the nightmare world of memory that doesn''t exist.
She spoke no louder telling me about the ghetto she was locked into as a child. No complaint or sadness, there was nothing tragic or elegiac in her tones. Simple story of repetition--she tells this boy facing her her story.
The ground seemed to swell, as it does when reality is upended. (Watching a vase fall to the ground, a car careening towards a lamppost, a missile bursting over the city sky.) What could I say, when I didn''t even know what to think? The woman sitting for a coffee at the place where I sit for coffee talking with me about the catastrophe that inflicted itself upon her life, senselessly, with no reason. How could I relate at all? Have the audacity to mention any hardship I faced? (What a sad potential.)
She nodded with a slim smile on her face, blue eyes looking forward. I told her that we--my generation--don''t understand what it is, the Holocaust, but we remember. And so it is, that we keep it close to our hearts, not because we want to, but because we have to. Not knowing it, it''s still a part of us, a sort of historical instinct.
But she went on. Poland, she said, because she traveled often. It was her dream since she was a girl to know the world. She went to America in the 60s, to Canada, and over the years to South America, South Africa (yes, safari too), and Japan--Japan that she loved so much, where there is a Holocaust museum and a choir that sang songs in her to Hebrew.
Her eyes light up about Japan, as they do about Yiddish, and I mention the few Yiddish writers I''ve read, and she nods her head as I mention the Polish writer I''ve read. She remembers--he was a journalist, wasn''t he? Yes, before he killed himself after "passing through" the Shoah.
She misses the sun because it warms her. It''s February and warm --but the sun was still hidden behind a gauze of cloud, trying its best to break through, as if for her. But it will come back soon, as I say, in a few weeks. She hopes so because she likes to sit on her street where she can meet people on the weekend (the cafe is closed for Shabbat), and where the sun can warm her.
Her friend comes to visit her from Poland--but her one friend, a "Jewish soul," is sick. Cancer, she says a few moments of pause after my asking. I don''t know what to say. I don''t say sorry.
She tells me of a ceremony at Yad Vashem next week and I tell her I want to go. I ask if she''ll be going. She says no, Jerusalem is hard to get to in the winter, with the cold and the rain, and she doesn''t need to learn about the Holocaust. But she tells me to go, it will be nice, and that, handing me a simple business card with stark blue letters detailing her name and phone number, to call her if I have questions. She''s right--I do have questions, I just don''t know what they are or if I''ll ever be able to ask them.
I take the card and hand her mine, and pay for my coffee (she refused to let me pay for hers) and get up. I have to get going, it''s Valentine''s Day and I have to buy flowers.