Ilona

| April 24, 2016 | 0 Comments

     I stayed late Sunday night after the Bible group to speak to Ilona. It was after eleven, and I had to get up early the next day, but I had something I wanted to say. It was something I never told anyone and I wanted to tell Ilona because Ilona saw things more clearly than anyone I’ve ever met. She saw pretense and vanity too. I don’t think she ever had a banal conversation in her life. Not since the war anyway.

     Ilona Karmel was a Holocaust survivor living in Belmont, Massachusetts. She didn’t like the term “Holocaust,” and referred to that time as “the war.” The day she was liberated, a German in a truck ran her over, killed her mother, and sliced off Ilona’s left leg at the knee. She told me she lay there thinking it looked like “a piece of chicken.” She didn’t think much of self-pity.

     Ilona was a short women, slightly hunched in the shoulders, with iron gray hair, and remarkable, truly remarkable, pale eyes behind thick glasses—I sometime think the glasses are to protect the world from her eyes—and very strong forearms and hands. She spoke with a heavy Polish accent but her English was excruciatingly exact. Ilona spent three years in Sweden in various hospitals, undergoing various operations. She summed up those years saying, “Look, they’ve wheeled out the piece of meat again.” Ilona was my mother’s age, though their lives were, to say the least, different. Ilona was one of three people I’ve really wanted to like me. She never had children.

     Her house was always clean. We were in the living room. The group, which Ilona liked to say was “the most secular Bible group since the Creation,” was reading Dante, which she liked, being neither irritated nor distracted by its Christianity. She sat on the couch with her crutches beside her. I moved another couch back to the fichus tree at the end of the room. Opposite the couch, over the fireplace, was a lithograph of the Krakow Cathedral, a blurry pastel of evergreen trees, and a sketch of a fat baby. Ilona watched me, and said, “Dante knows something we know and he knows something we don’t know.” I turned that over in my mind. I was talking to someone who knows more than I know and so much I don’t.

     “I saw Schindler’s List,” I said, sitting down in a chair opposite her. This wasn’t what I stayed to say, but I liked to talk about the war. “Isn’t it like Hollywood to make a movie about the war and have a German be the hero?”

     Ilona looked at me and said, “You’re wrong. The fact one of them did what he did is such a rebuke to the rest. Schindler was a remarkable man. He was in danger twenty-four hours a day. He could have been arrested at any time. No one knows why Schindler did what he did. He saved two of my aunts. He would come to Israel every year and they would do anything for him. No. He was remarkable.”

     I felt stupid, and out of my depth, which happened with Ilona, but I’d rather be stupid than silent. Sensing my discomfort Ilona said, “That new book, Hitler’s WillingExecutioners. The author was on Chris’s show and it made my blood boil.” She was talking about Christopher Lydon, a member of the group, who hosted a radio talk show. She pronounced Chris with a long i sound. Chriiis. “A book like that is to make Americans feel smug about themselves.” Ilona sat up and looked at me with those eyes that had seen things I can’t imagine. “How do you know what you would have done, if your life depended on it? The life of your family? How does anyone know? It was death to help the Jews. A few Poles helped us. Some helped the Germans. Most did nothing. How does anyone know what he would do in that situation?”

     “I’m not brave,” I said.

     “You don’t know.”

     I shrugged.

     “If the professor really cared about the Holocaust, he’d sell his house in Newton or wherever he lives, and give the money to people in Roxbury. But he’s not going to do that, is he?”

     Only one lamp was lit—a floor lamp with square shade that illuminated the ceiling and created a cave-like privacy. Ilona’s living room was for talking, not watching television. I ate the last piece of lemon poppy seed cake. “One always baked a cake for guests in Poland,” she said. I’ve never been to her house and not eaten cake.

     “I want to tell you something,” I said.

     Ilona watched me. She had harsh features but her eyes, even behind glasses, and the deep lines in her brow and by her mouth, gave her face a generous but stern warmth.

     “It happened when Carol and I were separated. You and I had just met.”

     “I remember,” Ilona said. “You used to come here and not say anything.”

     I told her about a day when Carol and I were separated and I took our six-year old son Harry canoeing on the Concord River. “It was the first time I ever done anything alone with him.”

     Ilona nodded. She liked Harry. Ilona had a cat, the fattest cat I’ve ever seen, which Harry called the “barrel-cat.”

     I told her it was a day everything went wrong. I got lost driving there. We went down the river with the wind and couldn’t get back until the wind died down. “Every little thing, every chance to be a dad, to be competent, went wrong.”

     Ilona watched me. The barrel-cat laboriously climbed in her lap and began to purr.

     I told her how hard Harry tried to paddle, how awful and impotent I felt. But that wasn’t what I wanted to tell. What I wanted to tell was after the river. After we got back and had ice cream at Friendly’s, Harry and I went in the old graveyard in Concord Center, not Sleepy Hollow, the big cemetery were Emerson and the famous writers are buried, but the small ancient-looking one across from the Unitarian church.

     “Harry got sad because he saw children’s graves and he asked me what happens when you die. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him Jesus would take care of him. I’m not a believer but I said it. I said He loved children more than grown-ups, because He said suffer the little children to come unto me when the disciples tried to keep the children quiet.”

     “You stayed to tell me about your temporary conversion?” said Ilona.

     “No,” I said. “We crossed Main Street and walked on the green of the Unitarian Church. That wide-pillared, classic New England church. As we walked, my grandmother was beside us. She turned to me. She was smiling. Her face had all the warmth and understanding in the world. It didn’t last a second but she was there. She’d been dead for thirty years. But she was beside us. She saw Harry.”

     “She’s the one you loved so much?” said Ilona.

     “I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in Jesus. But, by the church. It was Nanny, who had the love my parents lost or never had. The love Carol and I lost, but got back. It was religious, but that’s not the right way to describe it. I don’t know how to describe it. What’s strange is at the time, it seemed perfectly natural. Not scary. I decided not to tell anyone. If I told Carol, even now, she’d hum the theme from The Twilight Zone.

     “I didn’t tell anyone. A week later, my mother called, and said, ‘Have you seen Nanny?’ I said, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘I’ve been praying to her to come to you.’ ‘What?’ I said. ‘What?’

     “Nothing like that ever happened to me before or since.”

     Ilona shifted her weight from one side of the couch to the other. She had been watching me carefully. The barrel-cat purred. “My mother came to me once in a dream. It was by a black river that separated Camp A and Camp B. One was a work camp, the other a death camp. It was more than a dream, but I don’t know.”

     “I don’t know either,” I said.

     “It’s a gift,” Ilona said. “That’s all.”

     “All right,” I said. “A gift.”

      It’s fine as long as you don’t use it to feel good about yourself.”

               -Luke Salisbury

 Story originally published in Constellations: A Journal of Poetry and Fiction Volume 3 Fall 2013

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Category: Short Stories

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