Guilt by Association
Irving A. Greenfield
It’s lunchtime and the cafeteria is crowed. But George, Harry, and Saul already occupy a booth near the window and saved a place for me. They too are members of the Group and the four of us usually lunched together on Tuesday before the group session began.
I place my jacket and shoulder back on the windowsill and go off to get something to eat. But I am not very hungry and settle for a raison bran muffin and bottle of water. The three of them are involved in a conversation about another member of group who has undergone serious stomach surgery. I barely hear what they are talking about. Even with my hearing aids in place, the background noise overwhelms what the men are saying. Besides, I still hadn’t let go of that unfulfilled feeling I had when I left Dr. Eeekin’s office.
The muffin tastes like a cross between cardboard and sawdust. I leave half of it and make do with drinking the water. Several employees occupy the table in front of ours and are speaking volubly in Spanish, and it bothers me. I hear them better than I am able to hear the men at the table with me.
Then George, a bald-headed man with glasses who taught photography at the University of Syracuse for many years and is now retired and lives Brooklyn, asks me what I am writing.
“Nothing, now,” I answer. “I’m looking for a project.”
He nods and says, “So am I,” adding, “It’s always a difficult time.”
I agree, and the other men join in our conversation. Harry had been a graphic artist, Saul, a writer/ director of horror and pornographic films. He and I are the only ones in the group with combat experience. Both of us were in Korea before the line was stabilized at the 38th Parallel. For all of us, being without a project to work on is a horrific state. There is always the fear that another one might not happen, that we’d be barren. For an author it’s what is known as “Writer’s block.” It is something I experienced a couple of times, and each time it required enormous emotional and psychological effort to overcome.
The conversation ends when George looks at his watch and say it’s time to go.
The Group Session began at precisely one o’clock. By that time Paul, the men he lunched with, and three others: Morris, Thomas, and Larry were also in the small room that served the dual purpose of the Group’s meeting place and the office of Doctor Nathan Spencer, the Group’s Leader. In addition to these eight men, a graduate student in Clinical Psychology, Ariana, was also there.
Paul sat close to the door in a chair with armrests. It was his place. The other men had their places and they were seldom changed. All of them, including Ariana, formed a rough semicircle around Dr. Spencer and his desk, which was set against one wall.
Paul said, opening the session, that since they were in a Federal Building, the people who work there should speak English.
“What’s your feeling about that?” Dr. Spencer asked.
“English is our language, not Spanish or Russian,” Paul answered.
“That’s not a feeling; it’s an opinion.”
“Okay,” Paul said, annoyed.
“Anyone else?” Dr. Spencer began
“Yes,” Larry said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Morris and Saul agreed with him, and Morris added, “The fact that this is a Federal Building, I think is meaningless.”
“English is our language,” Paul said again. “It’s the richest language in the world and the one I love with every fiber of my being.”
“That’s a cliché,” Harry said, “the kind that politicians use in their speeches.”
“But it fits,” Paul countered.
“There’s something else working here,” Dr. Spencer said looking at Paul.
“What’s working is my pique at the use of another language in place where—I’m not bothered by people speaking other languages. I’m bothered when those other languages enter an environment where most of the people speak English.”
Dr. Spencer rubbed his chin and paused for a few moments before he said, “I want you to tell the Group what you’re feeling now.”
“Good. Anything else?”
Suddenly Paul couldn’t speak and gestured with his right hand, as if he was pushing something away. “Hup Mine Madel,” he said, managing to clear his throat. And he repeated it.
“German,” he told them. “Skip my lassie.”
“What are you feeling?” Dr. Spencer questioned.
Again he gestured with his right hand and said, “The words are the same in Yiddish.” His vision blurred. “The Holocaust,” he wept.
“What about the Holocaust?”
He shook his head, and again gestured with his right hand.
“Sometime, maybe nineteen-thirty-seven or thirty-eight, a letter came from Austria, the town where my father was born. His cousins maybe asked for help. We were very poor. We couldn’t help them. They died in the camps. I was eight or nine years old. But I remember. Now at eighty-five, I can’t get it out of my mind. I don’t know why it—the Holocaust—means more to me now than it did when I was forty. I don’t know. I don’t know.
“Let it out, Paul,” Dr. Spencer said. “Let it out.”
“What’s to let out?” Paul asked. “Years of what—I don’t know. My Russian friend Igor was with Valsalva’s Army. He killed Jews. At my son’s bar mitzvah, drunk on Vodka and Cranberry juice, he came to me and asked me to forgive him. What could I say?” Paul shook his head. “I don’t know. All I said was ‘that was a long time ago.’ What else could I have said? How does anyone forgive what happened?”
He stopped speaking. He wept.
“So far back,” he said.
He looked at Dr. Spencer. “Tell me how does a person, me, you, anyone explain the meaning of the ‘banality of evil’ and the smoke of human beings coming out of chimneys? Yes, I know most of the answers. But they aren’t answers. Maybe there aren’t any answers. Maybe all of us are wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Paul, where are you?”
“In the abyss.”
“You can’t stay there; you must come out.”
“Munch’s painting, THE SCREAM . . . I am screaming.”
He shook his head and made the familiar gesture with his right hand.
“Paul, you must come out.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter whether I do or don’t. What happened can’t be changed or even understood. But I must go to the camps and find my family; I owe them that much. I must say each one of their names aloud so that I hear them and know that they belong to me and I belong to them.”
“I’m all right,” he said, still weeping. “I’m here.” And he wiped the tears from his eyes with a clean tissue. “I’m here, but I was there in the past.”
Essy and I occupy the same bench. It’s Sunday again, a perfect spring day and people are out in droves. The river has several tugs with tows on it, and the New York Water Taxi looks like a big yellow bug as it crosses my line of sight to drop off and pick up passengers just a couple of hundred yards from where Essy and I are.
Naturally what happened in Group on Tuesday has occupied most of my thinking. I haven’t spoken about it to Essy or anyone else and I don’t intend to. If I write about it sometime in the future, it will not be about the experience I am writing about now. The combination of time and memory will have altered it. But now it is still fresh in my mind. I know that the combination of my imagination, what I have read about the Holocaust and pictures I have seen after the camps were liberated and other events relating to it, provided the means for me to experience what I experienced. Like Bottom in Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM I know I that something unique took place. Unlike Bottom’s experience, mine was terrifying. What I was imagining could have remained my reality, and if not for Dr. Spencer’s constant calling to me, I might have remained in Auschwitz, which is where I was.
I am not going to look for the lost members of my father’s family; I have already found them and the little German song will, over time, fade too.
“Paul,” Essy says, “you look happy.”
“I am,” I answer. “I really am.”
“Good,” she says and kisses the back of my hand.