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Memory


ISSUE:  Autumn 1994

I was standing blindfolded waiting to be shot and when no one shot me I turned to the woman next to me to ask, “Do you think they’re trying to make us crazy so we’ll run and they won’t feel so bad when they shoot us?” Then someone jerked at my blindfold, yanking at the knot as if they couldn’t quite reach it before finally pulling it from my face. I squinted down at what seemed to be a short Japanese person. I’m a tall woman, and at 16 I stood at my fullest height despite Dachau. He was smiling, very excited and pleased. Now the Japanese are going to shoot us, I thought. To show you how things were by then, this turn in events didn’t move me.

“So go ahead and kill us,” I said to the Japanese person, and he spoke back to me in the German which was my second language, the language in which I’d addressed him.

He said, “You’re not going to die. I’m an American. You are free.”

This made no sense to me and I turned to the woman beside me once more.”What did he say?” I asked her.

“You heard him,” she said, “He’s an American and we’re free.”

I turned to this Japanese man and said, “You are not an American. You are Japanese and you are going to shoot me.” He did an amazing thing. He fell on his knees before me and buried his face in his hands, weeping, saying, “My name is Hiroshi Hiyashi and I’m from San Bernadino, California, You’re free.”

“Why are you speaking to me in German?” I demanded. “Who are all these people?” Because by now I had my head up and the light was becoming manageable. I saw hundreds of Japanese men in United States Army uniforms, all around me, running. There was no shooting. There were no screams or cries, only this quiet intent running. This is what it looked like to liberate Dachau.

Was this Grace, the flesh and blood incarnation of the word Sister Bernadeta had used so liberally and with so little apparent feeling throughout my confirmation preparation? If this were Grace, she had misled me. She talked about it like a little package from heaven that could be cradled in a palm and felt everywhere its surface met your skin. What was happening to me now had qualities of confusion and mystery she hadn’t addressed, and was by no means defined by its surface. It occurred to me that she might never have had any experience of Grace herself despite having a vocation and being a nun and all. I’d been fooled. To my astonishment this realization made me smile as I stood and watched the movement around me, as I registered the revulsion in the American faces as they breathed the air, which was filled with whatever in rotting human flesh and excrement becomes airborne, as I noted the relative cleanliness and fatness of these alien people. Fooled again.

That is how I came here. One night Krishna Epstein came to me and begged me to hold certain family treasures, which she had boxed and bound in a silk blue ribbon. When my family had first arrived in Germany, it was Kristina who sat next to me in class and taught me to forget how frightened I was, how to speak and seem to be in style and close to popular girls and fashions.”You are very beautiful,” she said to me, pushing hair away from one place and holding it somewhere else, stepping away a bit to study the effect.”As beautiful as those other girls.” Kristina brought me into the center of her family, which meant their kitchen. She taught me to bake and pickle, and we spent hours poring over pictures of elaborate meals and presentations.

That night she came she said it was her family’s turn to begin again, and I understood because we had started again, here, in Hannover. They were going to France, and I spent many hours telling her that she would meet a Kristina there, just as I had met her here, and she would become French. The food there was wonderful, I told her. I took the ribboned box and listened carefully to her instructions for transferring it after her. I didn’t think I could ever be sadder in my life no matter what happened, ever.

I was 15, with bright orange hair and the remains of the brogue that still overlay my German and I could not imagine that any of the things that were happening to people like Kristina would happen to me. I had been confirmed. My brother went to Hitler Youth Camp. I was not even remotely Jewish.

That didn’t matter in the end, and it was my brother himself who pointed out the box to the authorities. He wept when they came, and I think his tears were sincere. He didn’t know what Dachau was, after all, and he was so young. They told him that I would be educated and that he was a good German. My father stepped forward, thinking this act would save me, perhaps, and claimed responsibility for the box himself. My mother joined him. We didn’t know what was in it, they protested; it was just a favor for a friend. This tiny impetuous act swept them into the net. They were arrested with me.

“I have never wanted to kill one of my own children before,” my father said as we crouched together in the back of the truck that took us away.”If I’d left him in Ireland, he’d know a devil when he saw one. When this is over we’re going to Australia.”

No, I thought. I won’t go to Australia with you. You were the one who chose this place when you escaped from Ireland. My mother wanted to go to America, but my father had insisted it was full of once-removed Englishmen who made sure that Irishmen found signs refusing them work and housing and a seat in a restaurant. Yes, he picked up his family and moved them, but that was not a courageous act. He was afraid, and he was starving. His brother’s family had been among the two million who died. He chose his family’s new life like any peasant drawn to the Capital City, imaging streets of gold, milk, and honey. Simple ignorance, complicated by fear.

Dachau was a door that closed on everything I had known and been before it. Immediately on the far side of that door was chaos—a complete absence of order and reason. For a long time there I could not remember what my family looked like, or how I had come. I could not have described Kristina Epstein, the color of the quilt on my bed or what my brother’s favorite foods were. I had been separated immediately from my parents. I don’t know what happened to my mother but I saw my father buried. I don’t think he was dead when it happened.

The train ramps where they disgorged us at Dachau were ringed with hanging bodies. Under this skeletal fringe families were torn apart and dogs allowed to rip away parts of children. We fell asleep, all of us, for a time after this, fell into a disbelieving twilight. One frigid night, standing in a line to the one outhouse serving our half of the camp, a woman behind me whispered, “Can you describe this in words?” “I can,” I said to her, and I turned to see her blue lips rise at either end. I had satisfied her. Somewhere around this time I woke from my sleep and saw that I must try to stay clean and disobey camp rules whenever I could and most important, I was to remember. It was as though a decision had been made in me somewhere besides my mind, and it determined that I could either remember or not. If I had chosen not to remember, I would have died. I can’t tell you for sure why or how burning the details of this place were linked firmly to survival, but it’s a fact. I might have made the wrong choice, but it sprang up, as I said, out of someplace besides my mind and I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

I managed to place myself in a position to be noticed when more administrators for the “hospital” were being chosen and, once there, took on both paperwork and direct service in the typhus wards, the one place in the camp that the S.S. would not go. Here I learned to switch records and drugs in ways that actually resulted in patients being cured. More often I concentrated on smuggling healthy prisoners in danger of being killed or shipped to a death camp onto a sick list, into the hospital, and relative safety. I arranged to have most of these prisoners “killed” by switching records, leaving them to live on under the names of prisoners who had actually died. Every night I wore a new pair of hospital shoes and hospital underwear back into the barracks. I became part of an intricate network of prisoners who used the typhus wards to hide smuggled goods, to transfer prisoners to other camps where they were needed or where family members had been found. We were told, through this group of moving prisoners, that a revolt was being planned in a camp at Treblinka. This information made me bold and I “killed” off record numbers of hospital patients. For an exhilarating, courageous week I planned out my own “death” and the route I would take after escape. I lay awake and weighed my worth and survival chances here in the camp against foraging my way through a forest to the Swiss border. I don’t know in the end if my hopes for the ones I could save stopped me, or if it was my terror of the woods and mountains that kept me where I was. I knew nothing of mountains. I would have died in the woods and mountains.

In Dachau, after I saw my father buried, I began to pray again. I prayed for myself mostly, which I imagined was why the prayers didn’t work, but I kept on because they persisted. If I didn’t have the strength of character to pray for others, well Jesus Christ himself spent the night before his crucifixion asking his father to find some other way—to let him escape his fate. When I got to Dachau, I still had the idea that Jesus Christ suffered much more than we do and sacrificed himself to save us. Now I know that we suffer, a good many of us, much more than he ever did. And I saw what happened there so I can’t think that he saved us.

Hiroshi picked up his German from Mark Himmelfarger, the next door neighbor in San Bernadino. He offered this baker’s son English lessons in exchange for German ones, just to pass the time, he’d said, and they listened to music together besides. Hiroshi’s parents had struggled for English fluency from the moment they got to Lakeview Avenue and they never spoke Japanese in front of their daughter and three sons again.

A militant group of No No Boys began Japanese language classes in the internment camp in Kansas, but Hiroshi didn’t see how Japanese language skills could make his life any better. He enlisted, and his father, a First World War veteran who had fought in blood crusted holes and ditches in France, was laughed at for having such a stupid son.

Later that first week in camp he introduced himself to me as Frank Hiyashi. He was dishing out soup in the temporary canteen they had set up and he reached out a hand and touched my elbow as I trod by. Poor boys. First here at Dachau, not prepared for what they saw and smelled and shoveled away and burned down. That’s why I spoke to him at last, seeing how much he needed some pity. He was in the middle of the enormous task of adjusting his vision of human potential to include this. Everything was different now, for everyone.

“Do you know what happened at Treblinka?” I asked him.

“Treblinka? I don’t know. I’ll find out.”

He did. The prisoners had burned it down on August 2 of the last year. The rumors had been true. I felt myself coming back from where I’d been. I was scrubbing a potato when I realized that I had felt happiness at this news and I dropped the potato right into the mud and wept with gratitude. Otherwise it was a typical evening including poker, laundry and discussions of food supplies and transportation logistics. The day before he kissed me for the first time, lightly on the top of the head in a friendly way. We were leaving a meeting, still talking about selecting other translators to keep the chaos in the camp tamped down a bit. Czechs, gypsies, Germans, Poles, even a group of Russians had landed here and survived, and the Americans could communicate with none of them. My English and German fluency, a bit of Czech I had picked up, some Russian, my intimate knowledge of the camp’s records and ways and residents, all these had pushed me into a busy relationship with the Americans. When he kissed me, I was saying something about laundry because I had regained interest in the ways you removed spots. He leaned forward and just pecked the top of my head so lightly it could have been a lot of things. It took me a moment to realize it had been a kiss that I felt on my head.

Potatoes, work, new (green, stiff) clothes and the possibility of cleanliness all compelled me back to life. In fact, potatoes and soap might have made all the other feelings possible. I imagined an ascending ladder whose bottom rung was a potato, followed by clean cotton, bars of waxy Ivory soap, aromatic Hershey chocolate, sleep, and relief from digging graves among stones and mud in sleetstorms. At the top of this imaginary ladder was my future life, which I was becoming interested in again. Otherwise I would never have noted, much less recognized, the light pressure of a kiss on my head. It was a very pleasant sensation.

Somewhere between the Midwestern internment camp and Germany, Hiroshi had become Frank—Frank Hiyashi. He became Hiroshi again in the mid-Sixties when you were supposed to be yourself, but I was always Kathleen Donogan, Kathleen Donogan Hiyashi after 1951, Mrs. Hiyashi to the man who runs the fish store at the end of our block in San Francisco.

Hiroshi’s status had risen along with mine and anyone’s with bi or trilingual skills. We were a Babel, appealing for help all over Europe and in the United States. No one had any identification, and their claims to citizenship were varied and confusing. No one knew if they had any family or friends alive, and if they did, where they were. We worked 18 hour days for a while, eating chocolate bars and smoking Camels and breaking for poker and the necessities.

I tried to find my brother and my mother. I tried to find the Epsteins. All the channels I learned for my camp survivors I used for myself, but I understood that it could be months or years before any of the people we sought were settled somewhere securely enough for them to be easy to find. We invented refugee publications and filled them with names of relatives and friends. We set up communications lines at relocation sites and worked with all the involved countries to establish government offices that cleared information on refugees. I was very young, but I was also very good at this. I had purpose and energy, and the unending action felt so good.

Working closely and very hard with these G. I. ‘s, I began to love the United States. My father had taught us all to hate it because of the once-removed Englishmen supposedly abusing Irishmen there. But my father’s judgement had proved to be very weak indeed, and these smiling, chocolate-eating young men looked nothing at all like once-removed English. What was this country that could take away all someone’s material possessions, as it had these Japanese G.I.’s, refuse them the right to vote and then inspire them to arm themselves and defend it? America must be a spectacular place.

There were terrible moments when I wondered if my departure would weaken any possibility of my brother and I finding one another, or my mother, if she still lived, or if leaving would make it impossible to ever know the Epstein’s fate. But one morning it was simply clear to me that I should go to the United States. I was looking at a rain barrel when it became a thought, a certainty, I remember that.

Most of these soldiers were from California and when I asked them to draw me maps and show me exactly where they lived and tell me what they ate and what grew on their land, they gave me a somewhat skewed vision of the United States. I accepted it wholeheartedly. I wanted to go there and eat maki and sip miso and pickle vegetables. I would be as American as any of them.

In 1947 I reached San Francisco with a German passport and a pile of raggy little pieces of paper with the home addresses and telephone numbers of most of the G.I.’s I had worked with in Dachau. Hiroshi’s was the first number I called that actually helped me. He guided me to his old neighbors from San Bernadino, the bakers. The Himmelfargers had moved to San Francisco, as Hiroshi himself had, and he told his boyhood friend that a German citizen in need of help was in town. I went to meet them and we ate hot sugared buns and coffee with cream and sugar in the back of their shop, whispering in German so as not to be heard using that language by any customers in the front. They hired me.

That job kept me alive until another G. I. called to tell me about an opening for the U.S.government helping West Coast families who were trying to locate men who had been categorized M.I.A.Right up, as my new American friends would put it, my alley. All my performance reviews talk about my calm manner, my reliability, my doggedness and sense of detail, my grasp of complicated bureaucratic structures. My time as a counter clerk in the bakery had also given me a chance to get rid of the shadow of a German accent that I brought with me and which would have kept me from the government job.

Hiroshi kept in touch even after I left the Himmelfargers. We met once or twice for dinner during this time. One night, just before I was offered my first government job and when I was feeling my most frightened and alone, I broke into tears across a restaurant dinner table from him. His hand floated gently over the veal chops, his knuckles gently touched my cheeks.”You’re very beautiful,” he said.”And smart. You’ll get the job.” His hand floated back to his side and he smiled at me, not in the least embarrassed by my behavior. I hadn’t felt as calm as I felt that moment since before the war. It was as if he had brought some kind of spell, some magic to the table. Everything that lay between the night my family was arrested and this moment was still there, but he had somehow created a round protected moment in which it was defused. I was beautiful. I was smart. I had a long while yet to go.

Though later everyone said that it was perfectly plain, I was blind to the fact that he was falling in love with me. He had introduced me to his family, who liked me well enough but threatened to disown him when he mentioned marriage. They didn’t disown him. His brothers the No No Boys, embittered by the war years, had gone aboard a Japan-bound freighter in a relocation program and been lost at sea. His sister was just a daughter. They needed him, and so they inherited me. I had no family to negotiate with. The colonel I reported to in the government office gave me away at my wedding (and remains a friend to this day), and I became, through marriage, an American citizen.

“You’ll have lots of babies. Lots of sons,” Hiroshi’s mother whispered in my ear on our wedding day.”Lots of boys.”

“Many, many children,” his father said.

“What are they going to do if we only have two?” I asked Hiroshi jokingly as we danced that day.”Disown us?”

“Maybe,” he said.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“It’s because of my brothers, partly,” Hiroshi said. “My parents feel it would make up for some of that loss.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just do.”

“We can’t replace anybody. We can’t get them back by making brand new people.”

“I know that.”

“How do you know that’s what’s in your parents’ minds?” I said, but he asked me about someone at a nearby table, someone from my office he hadn’t met yet.

We never had children. We consulted a general practitioner who took me aside and suggested that “mixed” marriages were sometimes “unsuccessful” like this. In a rage, Hiroshi took us to a Japanese herbalist who took Hiroshi aside and suggested the same.

I had seen them, our children, so clearly, and felt so much hope and love for them, that I might as well have seen them perish before my eyes.

“The camps,” I whispered to him one night after another desperate attempt at pregnancy.”That’s why we can’t have babies.” And because he had seen the camps and knew where I had been when I was there, he understood what I meant. He understood that I was afraid my body was doing this horrible thing to us, holding some poisonous vision of life that prevented it from reproducing, refusing to perpetuate itself as long as it contained that history.

I began to understand that we would not have children. I would never become the person that a child would have made me. That person died in my full view as surely as my baby did. I had only myself, the person I was right now, and Hiroshi.

That began a terrible time that nearly ended in our divorce. His family did indeed judge Hiroshi for remaining childless, blaming him. He and his father fought bitterly and finally simply avoided one another.

“Do you blame me?” he asked me outright finally, clearly anguished.”Do you think it’s my fault?”

“No.”

“I don’t believe you.”

I didn’t blame him. I was telling him the truth.

“Do you love me?” Hiroshi asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Why do you love me?”

This sounds like a simple question when people ask it, but it never is. I hesitated.”You love food,” I started. He waited expectantly “You smelled Dachau. You make me feel beautiful.”

“That’s all?” he asked.

“All I can remember now. I can keep thinking. Do you love me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I answered you,” I told him.

“You remind me of my brothers,” he said finally.

“The No-No boys?” He nodded

“Why?”

“In Japanese families, people do not defy. It is shameful to lie or find ways to get around the ways things are done. My brothers were the first people I loved who did that. You were the other. I loved it when they defied the camp authorities, though I did not agree and didn’t want to do it myself. And you, you’ve made a career out of it.”

“I don’t know what you mean, really.”

“I mean only that I would have died from obedience in Dachau. You did not. My brothers would not have. I mean that I need you. I need you more than I need a son. I think I would die from obedience now if you weren’t here with me. I am not Japanese any more, and my family and I are not at peace with one another. And I am not American and I am not at peace here. I am like you, except I lack courage.”

At the very darkest time I began to remember what had not happened to me. They were my father’s memories, and during this terrible time they settled in my mind. I remembered the two years of blight, and the large single-room shack that housed his uncle’s family. I could clearly recall the darkness and the smell of seaweed, which this uncle had heaped around the rocky yard for the sake of the potatoes. For years the seaweed had raised what they needed on their patch of rock but then the potatoes blackened and rotted. The toddlers died first, and then his wife’s milk dried. The two who were nursing died next. These little ones were buried in the seaweed because the others still had the energy to do so. My father remembered this room’s smells and look from later, from the moment he and his own father came upon the bodies when there were flies and excrement, darkness and enormous bones and eyes in rows on the floor. I imagine these deaths saved my own life, because seeing them made my father decide to risk everything to leave. I see the dust in the air and hear the flies. I see ants. I hear breathing.

One night the breathing went on, became strong and regular, not like the breathing of a 17-year-old Irish boy about to die of starvation on the dirt floor of his home, but like the breathing of an adult German S.S.officer about to find stolen shoes beneath my mattress, shining a light in my eyes in the middle of the night and then screaming and putting an enormous hand around my throat. This was the moment that had led to my place in the firing squad line. This was the exact man.

I must have called out, because Hiroshi was sitting rigidly beside me, quite awake, saying, “You’re fine. You’re safe. I love you,” and then he did an amazing thing. He buried his face in his hands, still weeping, saying, “You must forget about the baby.”

I think that’s what I’m doing, I did not say.

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