April 16, 2015 by Jaimie Gusman
More than Sisters
Barbara lived with her husband Alex in one of the largest retirement communities in South Florida. Their apartment was only one flight up from my grandparents’ place, a modest two bedroom with low ceiling fans and a large mirrored wall.
When I was young and I visited my grandparents, I ran down the concrete hallway, racing with my younger sister to the elevator that would transport us–very slowly–to Barabara and Alex’s apartment. I was excited to see them. They listened to our stories. What was going on in school. Friends we’ve made. When I won an award for a poem I wrote in fifth grade, I gave my first poetry reading in their living room.
But Barbara couldn’t stand one thing: when my sister and I would fight in front of her. Barbara would always say you must be nice to your sister. When the bickering didn’t stop, my grandmother would take us back to her apartment.
There were three things I loved about visiting Barbara and Alex: their candy dishes were fully stocked with the good stuff (chocolate kisses), they actually used their air-conditioning (unlike my grandparents), and it always smelled like Jewish food (greasy carbohydrates and thick meats).
Barbara had a happy voice. She was always bright, always quick. As soon as you sat down in their home, Barabara would ask, “Are you okay? Do you want something? How about some ice cream?”
Alex on the other hand had a sadness about him–even when he smiled. He spoke softly, always in a whisper. Like there was a thorny secret lodged deep in his throat.
My grandmother was there almost everyday. “We were more than sisters,” she told me. They shared everything.
“Anyone would be so lucky to have a friend like that. Everyone should.”
Barbara died while I was away at college. After the funeral, one of Barbara’s sons pulled my grandmother to the side and asked, “Beatrice, will you tell me about my mother?”
When people talk about how they know people who have holes in their hearts, they are talking about people like my grandmother.
Beatrice talks to the dead. She goes to the cemetery and makes the rounds. “I tell my sister I love her. I tell Barbara I miss her.”
I’ve heard my grandmother talk to her dead husband while standing in the kitchen. I’ve seen her look up at the ceiling and call him a schmuck for leaving her alone in this godforsaken world.
There is such a thing as a Death-star. It’s brightness reminds you of its hovering, and that you don’t understand a thing about it. There was a galaxy left in my grandmother’s gut. When you get old, everyone starts to die.
People sent cakes and briskets. Made pies and kugels. My grandmother couldn’t eat for a while after Barbara died.
Barbara survived so much. It was in her blood.
Soon after Barbara passed, Alex died. They were in love. You could feel it when you walked into their apartment. We all felt safe there, like you could say anything within those walls and your words would be met with compassion.
But they didn’t like to be around raised voices. Petty jealousies. Hearsay. They shut down, said they were tired.
What does it mean to survive?
People talk about the survivors of the Holocaust as if they are heroes. Like war heroes. Like they’ve volunteered to the fight monsters no one else wants to fight.
My grandmother told me, “When you’re faced with death, you’ll do anything to survive.”
My grandmother has stories about Barbara and Alex. How they both survived the Holocaust. The images are so horrific they still haunt me. She made a tape of their stories. My cousin has the tape somewhere. I’ve never listened. My grandmother says I shouldn’t.
I never asked Alex about the tattoo on his arm. The numbers. I knew what they meant. I learned about it in school. He was a concentration camp prisoner. My grandmother told me that to escape the German soldiers, he lived in the woods.
He was a teenager.
He ate horse flesh.
Eventually he was caught and brought to Auschwitz. My grandmother told me he endured “experiments” on his vocal chords. This is why his voice was so hushed.
Barbara told my grandmother that Alex used to like to sing. That he once had a beautiful voice.
Barbara and her older sister were sent to Bergen-Belson, the same camp where Anne Frank died. The camp was primarily known to be a labor camp, but it also had a gas chamber. When the sisters arrived, they were split into two lines: one line led to the gas chamber, and the other led to showers. Gas meant death, and showers meant you were fit for work.
Barbara was sent to the gas line. Her sister, along with a group of women, were sent to the showers. Barbara’s sister knew that Barbara was going to be killed. When they came out–cold and naked–their heads were wet. Then, suddenly, the lights went out. There was a power outage, which created chaos and stalled the gas line from moving.
In the dark, Barbara’s sister grabbed her. She and the group of women that emerged from the showers urinated on Barbara’s hair.When the Nazi soldiers came by, they patted the top of the prisoners’ heads to determine which prisoners had been showered, and which were to be sent to their deaths.
Barbara’s sister, along with a group of women who were strangers to Barbara, saved her life.
On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belson prisoners were liberated. Over 60,000 people were found emaciated, plagued by various diseases. Barbara’s sister suffered from malnutrition. Unfortunately, Barbara could not save her sister like her had sister saved her: she died in Barbara’s arms on the day the British Army arrived.
Barbara knew that her parents had died because she found their clothes. That was Barbara’s job at Bergen-Belson–to go through the pockets of the dead, sift through their clothes, collect their valuables.
Barbara’s brother survived. My grandmother told me he was hung upside down from a tree for a week, but he survived.
When Barbara returned home in 1945, she found her brother. The first thing he did when he saw her was say, “You are the one that survived?”
There wasn’t a day that went by that Barbara didn’t think about her sister, or about what her brother had said to her after the war. But they remained close. My grandmother told me that “they lived for each other.”
Today I remember the only two Holocaust survivors I’ve ever known. Barbara and Alex never talked about their experiences. Even when I got older and I found out that they had been in concentration camps, it wasn’t something we discussed. But Barbara shared these stories with my grandmother, who still holds on to them.
This morning, my grandmother said to me over the phone, “It could have just as easily been me.” And I guess Barbara probably thought the same thing about her sister. That Barbara could have been the one who died in someone else’s arms.