A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
BY IRIS MARK
The girl sits across from me, laying out her papers and supplies in an almost ritualistic fashion. I watch as she skims questions displayed on her iPad, getting a sense for where to start. I chuckle to myself thinking about the tiny, cluncky box computer still sitting on my desk downstairs. My, how things have changed.
“So let’s just start at the beginning…” She looks up at me expectantly.
Ah, the beginning is August 29 1932.
It’s the second largest city in Austria, and yet no one’s ever heard of it.
That was my entire world for five years.
I think back to the apartment block I shared with my parents. Trying to remember.
I shift in my chair as I sift through my mental filing cabinet, searching through 86 years of human interaction. One memory sticks up from the rest, the colors not yet faded. I grab it. It’s frayed at the edges, but all of it is still there.
I remember showering.
The splash of water against tiles in our bathroom, mother and father. All three of us.
I don’t remember much else.
The girl wants to know about my childhood.
I am an only child.
I don’t remember any childhood friends, but I remember Kindergarten. And the day I got into a shoving match with another kid. I lost, and was evidently pushed backward, landing on a sharp rock. I still have a lump on the back of my head.
A trophy, one could say.
Living proof that that life was real.
My mother took me to the hospital, where bleary visions of surgical lights, and concerned faces swim through my head.
“You want to put your finger on the back of my head here, you can see that there’s still an indent.” I say in real time.
The girl and her father nod, and touch their hands to the base of my skull. Young fingers, not yet taken by time’s vengeful grasp, feel my head; salt and pepper hair, soft to their touch.
I rub the skin under my eyes, and go back to the cabinet. Memories of me and my parents hiking through Austria, of my mother holding a basin in the car because I got carsick. A simple memory comes to me, of a child having the pleasure of licking the frosting off a spoon. Such a universal experience, yet to me that spoon was made for my enjoyment, and mine alone.
A child of a Nazi soldier probably experianced the same joy. Joy that can only come with the innocence of childhood.
When the Nazis came to Austria, it was more an invitation than an invasion. “Austria had endured a prolonged period of economic stagnation, political dictatorship, and intense Nazi propaganda, when German troops entered the country on March 12, 1938. The Germans received enthusiastic support from most of the population, and Austria was incorporated into Germany the next day.” I was only 5 years old when they came. A little jewish boy, who dutifully went where his parents sent him. Not knowing what was going on. I was sent to Yugoslavia to live with my father’s cousin. My parents stayed behind.
I didn’t know that I would never see them again.
It would take me until I was 12, safe in a refugee camp in a land called the United States, and with the luxury to think about the past, to realize that they were dead. Murdered in a concentration camp. For there is no other word for it.
I could have shared the same fate.
It was the spring of ‘38 when I arrived in Yugoslavia, and there I stayed for 3 years.
Within walking distance was a school; I picked up the language quickly, and started there in the fall. It’s funny how easy it is for one to learn a language, and even easier for one to forget it.
My stay with my father’s cousin passed like any other childhood. The only difference was I had left mine behind when I walked out of my parents house for the last time.
I became sick with the mumps once, and my shared time in quarantine with my second-cousin Peter, was filled with infinite games of Monopoly.
They had hired a gym instructor for Peter, who came about once a week. He had us do aerobics, and even made us run around the yards; most of which were gravel. The girl’s dad chuckles at this, and the girl smiles as she pictures a younger version of myself running in bare feet, chasing an equally elated boy around the paths snaking the property.
One memory joggs the corner of my mind, and I let the scene engulf the space between my eyelids. There was an empty pool in the backyard that was rarely used, so people rarely filled it up. I was learning to ride a bike, and still not yet used to balancing. I totterd, uncertain around the yard. At one point I had fixtated myself in one direction, but unfortunately that direction was straight towards the empty concrete abyss. Desperately trying to shift directions, I rode straight to what would have been an unfortunate landing. My uncle Felix caught me at the last moment.
What a different world it was. That large villa I lived in. I can remember the laundry ladies that came in, and the various occupations of people I’d met, even the first movies I saw and the actors that played the many roles.
I don’t remember being very broken about my parents. However, as a 5 year old, I had troubles with bed wetting. Almost as if my subconscious was aware of the loss of my biological parents, but I was not. Trauma that I had yet to face
I have a postcard.
It’s really the only thing I have of my mother, a momento from two people lost to history’s cruel sense of justice. Letting it run its own course.
It’s funny how when one is living through something, they don’t realize the significance of their place in time until afterwards. I had no idea what was going on. I had heard of the war, knew something big was happening, but I had never heard of concentration camps or mass genocide. All I knew was the family flat in Austria, and the life I led after that in Yugoslavia.
Eventually all good things must come to an end.
The Nazis came, tearing down the life I had built the last couple years, invading yet again into my narrative. Reluctant and unwilling to stay out of it.
A displaced Lost Boy, fallen from Neverland, clings to the side of a train car, wind whipping his hair into his eyes, as the countryside slips past him. That must have been me. I was helped along to Split, a town in Yugoslavia along the Adriatic coast still under Italian occupation, by a man who smuggled Jews across borders as almost a side job. I was like packaged goods in a hustler scheme, meant to be dropped off; . How that man managed to help me along the border without being caught, I have no idea.
Again, I don’t remember feeling afraid. This was simply another move, another place for me to set down shallow roots.
Distant friends from family removed oh so many times, took me into their home, and I became adopted once again. The days passed in a similar procession as my days spent with Peter, and I went along, now at age 8. I went to school, but this time, not for very long. There was an edict which passed that didn’t allow Jews to go to school. The war was getting nearer and I was no longer just a boy. I was a Jewish boy, and that meant I was branded with an invisible mark. It made me something of
Tucked away in a corner of my mind, a vivid image jumps out at me; a memory of my time caught in the crossfire of global conflict.
Not much happened in Split. It wasn’t a prime target for anti aircrafts, nor was it of any political significance. But one evening, I was standing on the balcony of the family’s house, and not quite down the street I saw a plane. Then a black thing fell from the plane as it flew off. It didn’t take much for me to realize what that black thing could have been. I ran inside, filled with a robust feeling that could either have been fear, or childish excitement at witnessing something so evident of the war so close to our home. I related the encounter to anyone within earshot.
And then, as though the bomb was a sick foreshadowing to events yet to come, my life came crashing down again.
It was a bad time to be a Jew.
One evening, the mother, her two kids, and I- who was basically a step child by this point, were rounded up, and taken to a big warehouse down by the harbor.
A preparation for being shipped like imported goods to a concentration camp in Poland.
Germany was facing misfortune on the eastern front. So, in a desperate attempt to salvage themselves, they withdrew their SS troops who were in charge of the camp we were being sent to, so they could go and fight the soviets.
This left our fates in the hands of the local fascists.
Depending on who you ask, our deliverance was either because people in charge let us go temporarily, or we simply sneaked out.
In any case, it was a scene from a movie.
But we couldn’t stay in Split anymore.
The girl looks more eager now, clearly this is the part that she’s looking for, the tragic tale of demons dressed as human beings, raining terror down on a little boy. Those are the elements for epic tales of woe, crisscrossed by emotional sagas of human connection and suffering. My story is simply the story of a boy who lived through the war.
In a way, that is its own mantra.
Iris is going into her sophomore year at Upper Arlington High School. She loves sharks and the ocean, and recently received her scuba certification. Iris loves to write as well, and this piece is a memoir about one of her dad’s colleagues who is a Holocaust survivor.