…I helped everybody else.
She opens the door and offers us some juice. We politely declined and then we sit in plastic wrapped couches in a room crammed with shoe boxes. I am about to ask her how her day was when she stops me and starts pointing out proudly at photos of her family.
“this is my daughter’s wedding, you see how beautiful I looked then. Very different. I was skinny there, now I am fat, heavy. My husband was also there, now he is dead. I had many chances to remarry, but I never remarried. I loved my husband. So I lived and I took care of my children instead.”
Her name is Dora Benjamin, she is 87 and she is a Bergen-Belsen holocaust survivor.
She lives alone in one of the house project on Madison Avenue in the Lower East side where she is the only Jewish woman in the building among only Hispanics, but she is ok since she is tougher than anyone else around.
We sit with her for over two hours and she just begins to speak, we don’t even need to ask questions, she just goes on and on. She tells us about meeting Ann Frank when she first got in the camp and how she would not even talk to her: “She looked so sick and she would not eat anything. I even offered her some potatoes and she said she was not hungry. But she was a nice girl, a very smart girl.”
Dora likes to speak in repetitive sentences where she tells us the same information, but constructed differently. So, it is hard to get a cronological accounts of the events. Having met other holocaust survivors, I know this is a very common form of “dementia” or “post traumatic stress disorder-induced dementia.” So sometimes she sounds a bit frantic and almost diplomatically short and cunny in the reply to our questions. She remembers facts, things, feelings, but she does not want to feel them once more, so she jumps here and their, but never fully expanding on anything she speaks about for fear of feelling the horror again. This is the same reason why she never went back to Poland for many, many, many years.
“Why would I ever want to go back there. That country took away my entire family. I can’t. I won’t. There are many bad people in Poland. I have no business there!”
Before we left we asked her if there was something else we could do to make her feel more comfortable.
She replied “I have never been happy. My life was stoled when the Nazi killed my parents and my sisters. There is nothing you can do to make me feel better. I am just not happy. That’s all, but in the morning I still get out of the house, put my gym suite on and go exercise. I do not sit around. I just go. I volunteer 20 years at the hospital, you know. They know me there…”
And so the blue door opens and the three of us step out of the past and back in our normal lives leaving behind the volunteer coats and one more ghost of such horrible atrocities. She will survive just fine like she did for these past 60 years. Yet, as she said, she may never be happy, no matter the number of times we offer to go visit her again, make her food or simply keep her company.
Part of me feels proud of having spent a Sunday night in such wonderful company, the other part feels utterly lost and quiet angry. Not matter how hard I will try, I will never be able to help this person as much as I would like, as much as I would have liked to help my great-grandparents who did not survive Auschwitz.
But then again, all of these are just empty thoughts and all that matters is the fact that they lived.