by Tova Reich
Not long after Jack Gallagher realized
that, in his previous life, he had been the Jew Yankel Galitzianer,
murdered during the war in one of the death camps of Poland, he
changed his name to Jacob Gilguli to affirm his reincarnated state,
and set out to Jerusalem to find himself. His girlfriend at the
time, Bathsheba Finkelkraut, a former drill sergeant in the Israeli
army of a physical type to which he had always been guiltily drawn—full-bodied
with mighty thighs and a visible mustache, a type in which he indulged
as a secret vice unsuitable to his Wall Street connections and Episcopalian
bloodline—accompanied him on this first stage of his journey
of self-renewal. She was the one, after all, who had guided him
to the insight that he was the gilgul of Yankel Galitzianer
when she showed him an ad in a Hebrew newspaper, a language he could
at that point neither read nor understand, for the New Jersey burial
society of the Polish shtetl of Przemysl, offering plots to fellow
survivors. Immediately he recited the names and described down to
the last detail the physical characteristics of his two boyhood
comrades, Jacek Lustiger and Henryk Pfefferkorn, who had escaped
into the forest three days before the roundups in the town, while
he, Yankel Galitzianer, had been herded with whips into a cattle
car by black-booted guards, and he rode for a week on the rails
in darkness without water or food and nowhere to relieve himself
decently until he arrived at a death camp—which camp it was,
he could not yet specify—where his fate was to be gassed and
cremated. For Jacob Gilguli, this was the absolute recognition of
who he was that he had been seeking all his life; not for one minute
did he doubt its truth. It fully explained his recurrent nightmares
featuring the lashing of whips and high polished black leather jackboots
and sealed freight cars packed with wailing women and children,
and yes, men too, young and old, weighed down with pathetic bundles
and satchels, and it clarified, too, his lifelong obsession with
Holocaust movies such as Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS
and others, which were included in his personal collection and which
he would flick on at four in the morning as he lay naked in the
darkness between the crisp white sheets of his platform bed in his
Tribeca loft, his heart pounding, startled into wakefulness by his
In Jerusalem, he let his lank blond hair grow long, parted in the middle like two curtains flounced on either side to present his face with its strong horizontals and vertical—the parallel lines of his thin lips and long eyebrows, the straight drop of his refined nose. His beard came in almost platinum in color, coiled and sparse—“Like your poobic hair,” Bathsheba commented as she wove her raw fingers through it in bed one night in the room he had taken at the King David Hotel. Soon after, as the last service he required of her, Bathsheba located a shop for him operated by a Muslim known as Abu Shahid, which specialized in outfitting fresh recruits and returnees to the Jewish faith. Gilguli made his way there through the Damascus Gate, into the winding alleyways and arcades of the shuk of the walled Old City. At Abu Shahid’s, he bought without haggling a long white cotton tunic manufactured in India, matching loose white drawstring trousers, brown leather Old Testament sandals, and a fringed garment to pull over his shirt like a double-sided bib, with a cluster of silken strings in each of its four corners threaded with celestial blue that lit up the pale blueness of his eyes. To cover his head, he selected a large, close-fitting skullcap crocheted in shades of red, to which he affixed, with small, fine stitches, a yellow star with the word “Jude” inscribed on it that he acquired from Abu Shahid’s exclusive private collection of genuine Holocaust relics at a staggering cost, though the merchant, placing hand over heart, swore over and over again on the life of his mother that he was practically giving it away. Even so, despite this economic setback, still unable to resist, he accessorized with a small shofar, which he spotted in a dusty heap in a corner and which, right there in Abu Shahid’s stall, he raised to his lips to let out a shattering blast without straining at all, thanks to years of French horn lessons that were among the fringe benefits of his entitled upbringing. All of these items, as well as his room at the King David, he paid for with money from his trust fund, established about a century after his ancestors stepped onto American soil, and which, to his glee, his family could not touch even in the face of their severe disapproval of the unexpected trajectory his career had taken. The yellow Jude badge was his second most costly purchase after the white donkey with its luminous Persian-rug saddlebags, which he acquired from a cousin of Abu Shahid’s, and upon which he made his way around the city of Jerusalem and its environs, stabling it at night in special quarters established by the municipality for the white donkeys of other penitents, the self-proclaimed Messiahs and the newly enlightened. Yet, notwithstanding this carefully considered equipage and the serious financial outlays it entailed, inevitably, every single Israeli he met would in short order inquire, with a jolting brazenness to which he was entirely unaccustomed by class or breeding, if he was really a Jew, that is, a Jew by birth. And even as he struggled to explain the complicated proposition that his lineage was even purer and more aristocratic than that, that he was a Jew by pre-birth, they would smirk knowingly and smugly proclaim, I knew it, you definitely don’t look Jewish, I could tell right away. There was simply nothing he could do to convince them. This was a stubborn, ill-mannered, arrogant, obnoxious lot he had fallen in among, but what could he do? It was his karma to be one of them.
It had also been through Bathsheba, albeit indirectly, that he had the rare privilege of meeting the legendary holy man and guru Shmuel Himmelhoch, who, according to knowledgeable sources, took upon himself extraordinary acts of penance for what must have been spectacular sins in a cave outside the walls of the city, near Absalom’s tomb. Gilguli was astride his white donkey coming up from the direction of Hezekiah’s tunnel and the pool of Siloam, with Bathsheba pacing sullenly some distance behind him as he had been obliged to demand due to the unseemly and immodest and, it might also be noted, unbecoming costume of tight khaki shorts and plunging halter top she insisted it was her right to wear, which reflected so negatively upon him, so discredited his mission, so compromised him in his new emanation. Not surprisingly, two Arab boys, justifiably concluding her to be loose and available, leapt from the crags to grab the choicest parts. And though Bathsheba would have been fully capable of dispatching them thanks to her rigorous training in the elite Israel Defense Forces, at that moment Himmelhoch in his spectral white robes, his wild unshorn hair and beard flying, emerged from his cave, waving one arm in agitation while screwing his other hand against his ear in what looked to be intense spiritual pain, startling the boys like crows off a carcass and scattering them in horror. Gilguli and Bathsheba watched in awed silence from their respective stations as Himmelhoch completed his labors—Gilguli insisted afterward that there was no question that the holy man was in ardent communication with the One Above—removed his cell phone from his ear, glared at it reproachfully, and shook it in resignation before turning to enter once again the enveloping dead zone of his cave.
The first words that Himmelhoch spoke to him were in the form of numbers—167277. This happened after months during which Gilguli sat in the cave at the feet of the sage six days a week not including the Sabbath, dredging up from his very depths all of the woes and longings and griefs that oppressed his heart and soul, to be answered only with a weighty silence laced with subtext. Gilguli did not immediately realize that when Himmelhoch uttered those first words his intention was to pass on to his disciple his cell phone number, with the implicit suggestion that Gilguli might save himself a trip and spare his donkey the rocky climb simply by telephoning to continue his outpourings, even unburdening himself into the answering machine should he, Himmelhoch, not be available to take the call. Those first sounds coming directly to his ears from the mouth of the holy man shocked Gilguli for their precious rarity, they hit him as so auspicious and resonant that he instantly knew them to be the numbers that had been branded into his forearm in his past life, when he was the Jew Yankel Galitzianer. That very day he took the bus to Tel Aviv, to a tattoo parlor on Shenkin Street, and submitted himself once again to the ordeal as, in the very molecules of his being beyond time, he remembered having been forced to submit when he was a prisoner in the death camp. It is true that he also had another tattoo, at the summit of his natal crease, acquired in his Gallagher life, during his last year at St. Paul’s after a long wretched night of beer and despair—the image of a heart dripping blood pierced by a sword with the name Morgan carved into the hilt. Where was Morgan now? At Bloomingdale’s, no doubt, shopping in intimate wear. Of that tattoo he was ashamed, it goes without saying, but of this one on his forearm he remained defiantly proud. He believed with a full faith that some day soon it would be irrefutably shown that, through the collision of mystical forces, the holy man’s number was one and the same as his own when he was the doomed slave Yankel Galitzianer, and that through this miraculous confluence of digits a direct line to God was unfurled.
Then one day Himmelhoch took two metal sticks that had been propped in an alcove of his cave and led Gilguli out into the blinding sunlight. Gripping a stick in each gnarled fist by its curved cane-like handle and straining with all his strength to hold them out about a foot apart straight in front of him, Himmelhoch began to speak for the first time in complete sentences and paragraphs in a colloquial though heavily accented English. These were specialized divining rods, the holy man instructed, specifically endowed with the power to pick up auras from the energy field of the dead. Gilguli must stretch out the rods, exactly as shown, and ask them the question, Are there dead in this ground? When the rods crossed, the answer was yes. Then he must remember to say, Thank you, rods, and repeat the operation. He must speak to the rods nicely, Himmelhoch cautioned, never lash out or strike with them, and in this way, if in no other, he would surpass—no comparison intended, God forbid—even Moses our teacher who transgressed with his staff by smiting the rock. Even as Himmelhoch was explaining, the rods were crossing furiously under their own power, no matter how strenuously the holy man struggled to keep them apart, clanking together again and again as they picked up the frequencies and vibrations emanating from the dead in every direction. This, of course, was not surprising, as the two men were wielding the rods in the neighborhood of the ancient cemetery descending along the slope of the Mount of Olives, which overflowed with the righteous departed awaiting resurrection, longing through eternity for the sound of the shofar that would signal the final roll down the hill to the Golden Gate cast wide open at last and onto the restored Temple Mount toward blissful redemption. Himmelhoch passed the rods to Gilguli and gave him the assignment to go forth and practice his technique until the next morning, when he must return to his master to recount all that he had learned.
What he had learned, Gilguli reported the next day, was that, although admittedly out of shape as befitted his new incarnation as a Jew, not even with all the upper body strength he had acquired from years of crew and wrestling and lacrosse in his renounced life at prep school and Princeton could he keep the rods from crossing like crazy—every step he took, no matter where he walked, notwithstanding all of his exertions, the rods crossed. He could do nothing to stop them. Himmelhoch nodded his head mournfully; the boy had done his homework at least. This phenomenon was to be expected, the holy man elucidated, due to the fact that the entire country, from Metullah to Eilat, from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, was a graveyard. Since time immemorial people have come here to die, Himmelhoch went on, and that includes those who come with the conscious intention of dying as well as those who come with the illusion that they might live, while the rest have their remains shipped in pine boxes in the bellies of the great jets. Israel, as everyone must have heard by now, is a land that devour its inhabitants. Then Himmelhoch commanded Gilguli to take the rods and set out for Poland. There he would find the ashes of Yankel Galitzianer. That is where he would find himself.
It was late July when Jacob Gilguli landed in Warsaw.
With his knapsack on his back and the two metal rods erect and quivering
before him, he embarked by foot on a pilgrimage to the death camps,
fasting all day until sunset and concentrating his brain waves on
the mantras of the Jewish prayers, Shema Yisrael, Kaddish, Dayenu,
a few others, which he had memorized on the Sabbath in the meditation
hall of a charismatic shepherd who gathered his flock of lost souls
at the Western Wall. He headed first in the direction of Treblinka,
where, according to the Never Again guidebook he carried in his
fanny pack along with his passport and credit cards and zlotys,
over three-quarters of a million Jews were exterminated. Of course
the rods went berserk when he arrived there, but it was also the
case, he could not deny it, that however hard he tried to restrain
them they kept on crossing, they had a will of their own, they crossed
almost every step of the way, on every superficially neutral road
and highway he traversed, though when he set foot on the killing
grounds he believed there was a difference in degree—there
they went into an absolute off-the-charts frenzy of crossing, he
believed. Still, how might Himmelhoch in the enlightenment of his
cave have interpreted this riddle of chronic rod activity even in
the lands of the gentiles? The holy man, Gilguli told himself, would
have taught that tragedy and atrocity, suffering and death are fermenting
just below the surface everywhere, leaving no trace, offering no
meaning, wherever there was once life—and gentiles, too, may
be considered a life form, Himmelhoch might have glossed, also God’s
creatures whether we like it or not, never mind if they saw fit
to classify Jews as subhuman, Jewish blood as racially inferior,
Jewish life as unworthy of life. Hadn’t the Master of the
Universe sent his own prophet Jonah to save the more than 120,000
idolaters of Nineveh who could not tell their right from their left,
not to mention all of the animals?
Gilguli proceeded southward with rods pointing valiantly in the direction of Sobibor (a quarter-million gassed, cf. Never Again, including, it must be conceded, some non-Jews with mothers). Streams of gleaming buses with banners—Holocaust Experience, Heritage Mission, Back to the Source, The Nation of Israel Lives, We Are Here!—passed him by, conveying tourists he recognized as Jews not only by features and costume and loud complaints about the air-conditioning, which he could make out through the opening windows, but also, to his mortification, by the inevitable gesture of pausing mid-greeting, freezing mid-wave, and then the shouts, Hey, wait a minute—that guy’s not Jewish, it’s some kind of hippie or something—Hey pal, what’s with the sticks? Only the German youth groups on their required mass guilt trip in a bus labeled Roots Kanal, the straps of their lederhosen and the feathers of their Tyrolean hats visible through the panes, howling Ja, ja, ja, ja at the tops of their lungs, hailed him warmly and fraternally as they hurtled obediently onward to do the next death camp. At the entrance to Majdanek (215,000 from starvation, torture, and disease, 145,000 by gassing or shooting—were the words “numbers” and “numbing” derived from the same root, Gilguli wondered), he was stopped by the dark-skinned, gold-chained Israeli proprietor of a kiosk selling death camp T-shirts and postcards, Holocaust trinkets and knick-knacks, who drew out from a secret compartment under his table a pile of authentic artifacts and memorabilia—Only for our most discriminating customers, he confided—and hustled Gilguli into buying a yellow badge with the word “Juif ” imprinted on it to attach to the other side of his skullcap—So that they’ll recognize you from the front and the rear. Even as Gilguli demurred, another product was flashed, a 100%-genuine knockoff, much cheaper, a yellow star stamped with the word “Jew” for an English-speaking market. And that was when, with the peddler hissing in disgust after him that he could go around with a sack on his head decorated all over with yellow stars like some kind of wizard, he’d still never pass—And by the way, chaver, what’s with the sticks?—that was when Gilguli realized that if he was ever to connect with the remains of his former life he needed to get off the beaten track, he needed to ask the rods the correct question, he needed a sign.
The first sign came in the form of Never Again opening of itself to the words “out of the way,” “practically in Ukraine,” “end of the earth,” “neglected,” “forgotten”—“God forsaken.” Jacob Gilguli surrendered to the sign, setting out to the southeast as if pulled down by ropes. That was how he arrived on a bright morning toward the end of summer at what he hoped might be his final destination, as the airline pilots like to say: the Belzec death camp in the far depths of Poland, where, consulting Never Again, from March to December of 1942 600,000 Jews mostly from southern Poland, including quite plausibly his former self when he was Yankel Galitzianer of Przemysl, were offloaded from cattle cars, gassed with carbon monoxide, dumped into great pits, then dug up again, haphazardly cremated, and reburied in the rush to blot out the evidence. Gilguli lowered his eyes and took off his shoes before treading upon camp ground. He stepped onto the gray ash that stretched endlessly before him like the remnants of a cosmic bonfire; a hard white substance was strewn everywhere, reminding him of sea shells, cutting into the soles of his feet. “Will these bones live?” Gilguli spoke out loud. That was the question for the rods, and it burst from his throat on its own, the way an animal squeal leaps spontaneously from a person who recalls something shameful. It was as if he had been seized by the shock of prophetic madness. Raising his eyes from the ash-and-bone-blanketed soil, he was rewarded at once with the second sign.
Figures in the foreground with metal rods outstretched were roaming the devastated landscape, multiple shapes like his own almost floating in the early morning light, divining for the dead. How could Jacob Gilguli doubt for one moment that this astonishing replication of his own mission, men everywhere dowsing for corpses, was the definitive sign he had been praying for? This was what he took in at once, his image mirrored, as a man’s gaze originating from deep within his consciousness and obsessions will settle first upon his own reflection and only then turn to take in what surrounds it. Only then did he see the mounds of freshly excavated earth rising everywhere, swirling into focus, the upheaval of a construction site—he saw a bulldozer, a cement mixer, a crane, earth-moving trucks, and farther back, the green cubicle of a portable toilet. Struggling like the other seekers to hold out his rods against the overwhelming crossing force rising from the stirred-up dead, Gilguli made his way deeper into the camp, a dog at his heels leaping exuberantly to sniff at his warm parts. Would it be sacrilege, he wondered, to use one of these rods to get rid of the dog? Here and there he noticed men sitting on camp stools with buckets at their sides, bandanas wrapped around their heads to sop up the percolating heat of this late summer’s day, jiving on their perches to the beat from their headphones, pushing down between their spread legs on drills probing deep into the earth. From one of these drillers, a Polish kid transmitting in video English, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth bobbing dryly, spilling ashes to ashes, Gilguli learned that what they were doing here—the rod wielders, the drillers, and so on—was knocking themselves out to pinpoint the locations of the remains, the bodies, the corpses, the mass graves, the burial pits, yadayada, in order to cover their rears against charges of plowing through the dead in the process of creating a memorial in their honor. The memorial was slated to be a narrow pathway cutting through the entire camp, starting at ground level, then slowly, slowly descending to, say, ten meters deep before dead-ending at a wall—Very major chills and thrills for the visitor walking this walk, the driller said, goose pimples big-time, you feel like trapped, suffocation, buried alive, can’t breathe, get me out of here, but after you’ve done the tour, you feel good, you feel very, very good, you go into town, you look for something to eat, something to buy, go on, treat yourself, do something nice for yourself, you deserve it, you are on the side of the good.
Gilguli was shaking with emotion. He felt himself almost physically overcome by the noble concept underlying this memorial—of vicarious suffering, of sympathetic dying, of entering this constricting passageway, penetrating the space of the dead, the victims pressing in against you from both sides with flattened palms and frozen screams, he could almost see them as through the glass walls of a fish tank, and yes, feeling their pain, experiencing what it must have been like to be them. It took everything in Gilguli’s power to refrain from lowering himself then and there into the ash-and-bone-laced depths that had been exposed even at that stage of the digging in order to achieve the blessed state of becoming one with the dead. What could this uneducated Polish kid from this anus mirabilis of the world possibly understand about aesthetics? This was not your usual kitsch, it was not schlock, it was a shattering memorial concept, a brilliant design, moving beyond words—if this didn’t force you to feel something, nothing ever would, you were a lost cause. Problem is, the kid was now saying, the dead are everywhere, you can’t dig this ditch without smashing into them, shaking them up—above ground, below ground, it’s bodies all over the place, bodies all the way down. He gestured at the contents of one of the buckets beside him. Gilguli noted a portion of a skull sprouting a tuft of hair cushioned in ash, a piece of femur on a bed of bone fragments. The kid drew his drill out of the ground and indicated a chunk of waxy black stuff in its scoop. “Fat,” he said, and plopped it into a bucket.
Coming toward them now was a delegation of four men in suits and ties, all wrestling with the rods. From a distance they appeared almost identical: short, squat, bald, the three older ones with cardboard yarmulkes peaking on top of their heads, the younger, slightly taller one with a glossy black beard clearly set apart, the leader, the guide, sporting on his head a well-worn crocheted model with the phrase “Belzec, My Little Village, Belzec” worked into the rim—Rabbi Heshie Lemberger, American-born from Brooklyn, New York, the driller informed Gilguli, as Virgil is said to have informed Dante, recently condemned to be chief rabbi of greater Poland with a congregation of more or less three thousand souls above ground, moonlighting here as fundraiser for the Belzec memorial project, giving the grand tour to prospective donors, those three little fat guys with the tepees on their heads, survivors of the Holocaust from southern Poland, Galicia, morphed into real estate titans from Florida, Miami.
Translating this as the third sign, Gilguli instantly attached himself to this contingent, sticking fast even in the face of unconcealed irritation from the three little moguls—they didn’t even bother to lower their voices when inquiring of each other in chopped-liver accents, Who let in this guy, did he bought a ticket or what, didn’t they told us it was a private red-carpet tour what we was getting? Still, Gilguli hung on relentlessly, tagging along behind as the rabbi patiently instructed them in correct rod technique—Do sticks like this, boys—demonstrating how and vigorously asserting that, cutting- edge scientific advances notwithstanding, nothing, not even all the systematic drilling along a mathematical grid and so forth and so on, has yet proved as effective as two simple divination rods in finding the dead. “This is not mumbo jumbo, friends, it is not hocus pocus or black magic or voodoo or witchcraft or idolatry, God forbid, avodah zarah, no way—this is an ancient method, the wisdom of the ages, tried and true like chicken soup, like pearls from the lips of your bubbes and zeydes, may they rest in peace.” His gaze took in the desolation of the old folks’ resting place surrounding him, the churned-up topography of where they lay beneath his feet.
Turning sharply, the rabbi marched his troops, with Gilguli bringing up the rear, to a forlorn tree standing apart and wrapped both arms around it in a rapturous embrace. “You see this tree, my friends?” the rabbi cried. “This tree was here during the killings. The younger trees we chop down, naturally, to make room for the memorial, but this one is holy, this one we let stand. Why? Because it bore witness. So we call it a Witness Tree. It’s a very great mitzvah to sustain such a sacred tree—he who performs a good deed of this magnitude will not only earn a place in the world to come, munching on leviathan and wild ox, sipping honey mead and enjoying the luxury of having his wife as his personal footstool, but he will also be privileged in this life to have the tree named in his honor, with a beautiful engraved plaque in solid brass affixed to it so attesting.” Reflexively, the three donors began to grope inside their jackets for their checkbooks. “Relax, friends, it’s all right, you can pay on the way out, we trust you completely. And even if you happen to forget, don’t worry, it’s okay—we’ll just lock you in here for the night until you send us the check, that’s all—ha ha, just kidding, just kidding.”
With an indulgent laugh, the rabbi then went on to reassure his three willing contributors that in addition to the witness trees there were plenty of other ways they could support the Belzec memorial project; for example, by endowing a position in one of their names, like a chair at a university, for an assistant who could fill in for him in supervising the memorial construction on site when he was called away by his pastoral duties elsewhere in greater Poland or was obliged to travel abroad for fundraising or other purposes, as was so often the case. He already had someone in mind for this assistant job, as it happened, but unfortunately he had not yet been able to raise the necessary funds, however modest, to cover the stipend—“Not some fancy expert or anything, this fellow I’m thinking about, not a scholar in Jewish law and ritual pertaining to the handling of the dead and so on, no big genius, but between you and me, businessman to businessman, exactly right for our purposes—a warm body, a fact on the ground we can put in place and point to when the protesters and fanatics out there, the destroyers, my friends, not the builders like you, start up again like clockwork with their yelling and hollering: Desecration of the Dead, Violation of Victims’ Remains, and so on and so forth. With God’s help and yours, friends, I’ve found just the right man for the job, and believe me, it wasn’t so easy, not too many normal human beings would be willing to work in a place like this, a haunted house, a ghost town, a hell hole, a terrible place, of course, terrible, terrible—we should never forget for one minute, it goes without saying.” Then, sweeping his arm in the direction of Jacob Gilguli, the rabbi requested him to step forward and introduce himself. The three donors turned in unison, their necks craning audibly, to bestow an appraising look on the face hovering like a strange fruit more than a foot above them. Gilguli nodded formally to the rabbi, like a junior partner acknowledging his boss before starting a presentation, and crossed his metal rods ceremoniously in front of his chest. “Yankel Galitzianer,” Gilguli said, “the rabbi’s assistant”—and a moment later, had the satisfaction, albeit not unalloyed, of hearing one of his new patrons remark, “Go on, a Galitzianer no less. And the whole time I’m thinking he’s just some dumb goy. Who would believe? Live and learn!
And so Jacob Gilguli dedicated himself to the dead.
He took a room in the nearby town of Belzec, in the home of a widow
called Kaczka. He never learned if this was her given name or her
family name; in accordance with the proper manner in which he had
been brought up to address an older person of the female persuasion,
he respectfully called her Ma’am, including in bed. It was
at the Belzec railway station, the terminus that had, after all,
made the transports to the death camp so convenient and efficient, that the ancient
dispatcher directed him to Kaczka’s for lodging, an ideal
match for this American, as the widow was famous locally for her
mastery of the English language, having spent much of her adult
life in Chicago, where she and her husband, the late Bolek, had
operated a Polish deli. After Bolek’s passing, fortified by
his life insurance policy and a monthly social security check, she
signed over the business to her son, Bolek the younger, and made
her way back to end her days where they had begun, in her childhood
village of Belzec, where she supplemented her income with boarders
in the house and chickens and pigs in the yard. That was where Gilguli
saw her for the first time—in the yard, mucking out the chicken
coops in a flowered housecoat and rubber galoshes, her broad, ruddy,
babushka-framed face reminding him at once of the Polish pope—the
same sturdy peasant stock. She turned to him, as he approached with
his knapsack on his back and his rods in his hands, as if she had
been expecting him all along, and shook her head sadly, pointing
to the wornout, bedraggled hens. “That old cock he is killing
them for sure, he don’t leave them in peace for one minute
even,” she said. Those were her first words to him, delivered
in a Slavic-accented no-frills Midwestern American. A feminist for
my sins, Gilguli thought; his instinct was they could do business.
Every morning, with Kaczka’s blessings, he mounted the ancient bicycle that he found leaning in her shed, and with his rods tied to his back like arrows in the quiver of a hunter-gatherer, and the shofar that he had purchased from Abu Shahid cradled in the shredded wicker basket tied to the handlebars, he pedaled off to the death camp. His responsibilities were twofold, as the rabbi had outlined them that first day while the three donors sat in the limousine and refreshed themselves with slivovitz poured by the Polish driver. Number one, first and foremost, he must be vigilantly on guard against the protesters, our own people unfortunately, the rabbi was sorry to say, who could descend on them unannounced, at any moment, like biological warfare so to speak, with their self-righteous accusations of desecration of the dead blah-blah-blah, occupying the site, planting their bodies in the path of the construction, sabotaging the works, creating a hullabaloo and ruckus and scandal that would reek far and wide—obviously not a good thing for the Jews, not to mention the repercussions for their financial investment in this memorial, already considerable, already well into the millions. To deal with this very real threat, the rabbi armed Gilguli with a cell phone and specific instructions to immediately alert not only him, wherever in the world he might happen to be, but above all the relevant Polish officials who were equipped to move in fast in the event of a raid by the Jewish lunatics and take the necessary action, the less said on this subject the better; in such a case, the rabbi decreed with the full weight of the divine authority vested in him, it was not only permissible to remain a silent bystander while the storm troopers did what they had to do, it was actually a mitzvah. Gilguli’s second task, the rabbi went on, was to keep his eyes peeled for human remains, but in that department, the rabbi cautioned him, he must use his common sense, he must be extremely careful not to insult the Polish workers, who could become very touchy and sensitive as a result of the slightest critical innuendo. If, for example, he happened to notice body parts being dumped out with the garbage or crushed under the wheels of a truck or soiled by the foreman’s dog Bogdan, the thing to do was to quietly and discreetly gather them up on a piece of newspaper or something, dispose of them in one of the officially marked burial mounds, and maybe whisper a little prayer if he happened to know one by heart, but by all means do not make a big show of it, please. Beyond that, visitors should be kept strictly off the premises during the construction phase due to the attendant hazards, and this includes not only the idly curious, but also relatives of the victims who might show up on pilgrimages to pay their respects, no matter what distances they have traveled to this blighted corner of the planet; however much they may beg and cajole, politely but firmly he must bar them from approaching or viewing the operation in progress, the way a patient is prevented, for his own good, in the interest of ultimate healing, of sparing him unnecessary psychological trauma, from seeing his own entrails exposed and the organs or tissues, solid or liquid, being extracted from his insides during a surgical procedure. At the end of each day’s shift, when dark descended upon the death camp and all the workers went home, the rabbi expected to receive a full report by e-mail—a duty that Gilguli took pains to execute every evening from a rundown little internet café in the heart of the town of Belzec, where the screen saver showed a collage of multiple, identical stooped figures with hooked noses and lascivious lips and rubbing hands clutching money bags, who, he had to admit, really did not resemble him at all. The rabbi looked up into Gilguli’s blue-blooded eyes in an effort to probe the level of comprehension of this alien creature. “So, have we covered all the ground?” he asked with an awkward laugh, gesturing in spite of himself at the expanse of the death camp stretching behind them. Without waiting for an answer, the rabbi clapped his new assistant on the bicep and swiveled abruptly to join his donors in the waiting limousine, its engine already growling. That was the last time Gilguli saw him, except for one other occasion, in a large appliance store some years later, when the rabbi showed up on the screens of several dozen floor-model television sets, one of three experts on a panel offering insights on the topic “Holocausts—Yours, Mine, Ours.” The rabbi had put on considerable weight, even from his talking heads that was manifest, and had shaved off his beard; nevertheless, Gilguli fingered him in the lineup again and again, no problem, he was not fooled for a minute.
From the internet café, he made his way each evening back to Kaczka’s, where a hot supper awaited him: potato soup with black bread, kasha and mushrooms, vodka and tea. He had declared himself a vegetarian that first day when he followed her into her kitchen and saw the knives and cleavers and the empty casings hanging like an old lady’s stockings and the great tubs of blood on the table and the butcher boards heaped with the chopped-up fat and intestines to stuff the winter sausages. Kaczka only laughed and observed that she had heard somewhere that Hitler was a vegetarian too, but hey, you’re the customer, mister. As the nights grew longer and colder, as the savage onset of their unacknowledged gropings glided into a kind of comfortable comradeship, they would lie side by side beneath the great mound of the goose-down quilt and talk quietly, sometimes until the rooster took a break and dismounted from the hens to give out a crow. Gilguli opened his heart to her, told her everything, poured out all of his sufferings and humiliations and doubts, held nothing back—emptying himself in the dark without shame, without fear of consequences, into this old woman who did not matter, after all, who was invisible even in daylight and would soon disappear altogether from this cursed and barren edge of the universe, taking his secrets with her to eternal cold storage. He told her about his past lives and his present, about his days standing watch against the protesters, the self-proclaimed Jewish guardians of the dead, the extremists and obstructionists, who could swoop down any minute without warning and park themselves like ghosts with their white prayer shawls hooded over their heads, clogging up the memorial works. He told her about the Polish diggers tunneling out the underground walkway, tossing ash and bone over the sides, stuffing a hunk of jawbone in a pocket to bring to a girlfriend for a souvenir. Passionately he strove to explain to her how pierced to the very core he was by the idea of communing with the dead through descent into the depths of this memorial pathway; this was not a ghoulish concept, it was not sick, this was as close to the real thing as one who had not been privileged to be there in this life could get, it was almost too much to take in—all he wanted was to go down and curl up in that crevice forever, sex was nothing in comparison, this was a full-body-penetration experience, the birth canal transformed into death canal. Gilguli could feel Kaczka nodding her approval in the darkness beside him. Like the tube, she said—which, she told him, was what they called the narrow path the naked Jews were herded through in the death camp, between the undressing room and the gas chamber. When she was a small girl during the war, she used to play tube with her little friends. It was their second favorite game, after doctor. Yes, just like the tube, Kaczka said—and therefore, for Belzec, a very appropriate memorial idea.
She could see the construction equipment from a distance, she said, the cranes especially. It looked from a distance like a very major project, very impressive, but personally she’d rather not get too close, she did not like to go into the camp anymore, she was too old for that now, though the truth is, for years after the war, when the Communists took over from the Nazis, all the kids used to sneak out there at night—what else was there for a young person with hormones to do in this miserable place? We would make bonfires there, roast chunks of meat on sticks, drink beer, dance to the transistor radio, make out—necking and petting like they used to say in the States, until they skipped over that stage for good—go all the way. Yes, she too, she had to confess. It was so creepy, so sexy, and our parents could never find us, they would never dare go in after us to the camp at night, guaranteed. It was just lay back and enjoy. But even if she personally at this stage in her life had outgrown the camp, she was glad to see the cranes in there, glad about this memorial project, Kaczka said. Of course, she could not predict what the local hooligans might take it into their heads to do to the memorial once it was completed, they were already pretty pissed at the Jews for everything that happened to them, and frankly, she couldn’t imagine who in his right mind would be willing to trek all the way out to this bunghole of the world just to take a stroll through one morbid crack in the ground and hit a stone wall—but who knows? Maybe a death camp is a great natural resource after all, maybe the memorial will be good for the town, bring down the tourists and sightseers and shoppers and eaters, maybe business will finally go boom. The cranes in there now, to build this memorial, Kaczka told Gilguli, reminded her of the ones she used to see during the war, when she was still a small girl—you know how children everywhere are so interested in giant machines, girls too for your information, for some reason they find this fascinating, like dragons, like dinosaurs, her grandchildren are crazy about them also, Kaczka said with a fond laugh. Yes, during the war, before they finally left for good, the Germans also brought cranes into the camp, she told Gilguli, to lift the dead bodies out of the burial pits. At first, they used Jewish prisoners for this filthy job, to dig up the bodies and cremate them, but then with all the pressure to finish up and get out fast, they brought in the heavy machinery, they brought in the cranes. They would lift the rotting corpses out of the pits with these cranes, the Germans, and roast them on great bonfires. She could see the flames leaping up night after night when she was a small girl during the war, the black smoke rising. Some of the bodies were so swollen and decayed they had turned into liquid, that’s what her father told her, like a Black Forest fairy tale—imagine telling such horror stories to an innocent child, a baby almost, but, hey, this was in the time before mental health. The smell for miles around was unbearable. We all walked around like outlaws in the cowboy movies in those days, with handkerchiefs tied across our faces because of the terrible stink when the Germans were burning the corpses, just before they left town for good. Everyone blamed the Jews for polluting the air.
Then, as soon as those lousy Germans were gone, Kaczka told Gilguli, the whole town descended on the death camp to search for treasure. It was like a public holiday— schools closed, people took off from work, everyone felt justified, we had a right, we deserved it, nothing could stop us, not even the swarms of flies that formed a black canopy over our heads, this was our reparations for how we had been humiliated, for all we had suffered. And what we found among the remains of the dead was beyond imagining, unbelievable what the Jews had managed to bring along with them in the cattle cars, my own father invested in a metal detector to poke for valuables among the ashes and the bones and the fat and the half-burned corpses in the burial pits. There were pots and pans, cutlery, dentures, luggage, artificial limbs, musical instruments, tools, even some sewing machines, furniture, picture frames, eyeglasses, pocketknives and pens, toiletry articles, sports equipment for recreation, including skis and, believe it or not, a bicycle, and also silver and gold, not to mention the hundreds of gold teeth that the corpse-dentists had missed, and coins from all over the world, and jewelry, jewelry, jewelry; when she was living in America during the Seventies and Eighties, Kaczka said, there used to be signs in front of all the synagogues, Save Soviet Jewelry, Jews are very big on jewelry in case you haven’t noticed. And the gems we found in the death camp, it was like the road to paradise, a fortune in stones: diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, pearls buried in the ashes, they must have been hidden inside the bodies in unmentionable places, even the Germans with all their efficiency missed more than you could ever dream of during their inspections of the private parts of the corpses, but they had a point after all, those lousy Germans, they weren’t imagining things, the Jews were walking treasure chests—it took the fires of cremation to get them to give up their jewels once and for all.
It was still wartime when this happened, Kaczka told Gilguli, and you can imagine how embarrassing it was for the Germans—after all the trouble they’d gone to, getting rid of the incriminating evidence and all—when they got wind of how we were swarming all over the place, picking it clean. So one day they closed off the death camp—just like that, they closed it off, declared it off-limits. They stuck in some trees and bushes to give it a nice peaceful look, and handed it over as a present to one of their Ukrainian guards to farm with his family. That was the last straw, the final insult, handing over Polish soil to a Ukrainian—primitives, barbarians, animals, every last one of them, not a single one of them is any damn good. The Germans, at least, are a cultured nation, civilized; at night after a hard day’s work they would sit down like members of the human race to listen to classical music played by the orchestra of Jewish prisoners, Schubert, Beethoven, sometimes we could hear it too, when it wasn’t being drowned out by one of their drunken orgies—but hey, who could begrudge them a little relaxation? They were a long way from home after all, they missed their mamas and their pretty little Schatzis and their little doggie Putzi, all day long they were killing themselves processing Jews with only Ukrainians for company—whipping, beating, torturing, shooting, unloading the cattle cars and sending the cargo straight from the undressing rooms through the tube into the gas chambers, and after the gassing, there was the nasty business of removing the bodies to make room for the next load, it wasn’t so easy dragging those Jews out of the gas chambers, that’s what everyone said, they were frozen solid, whole families were stuck together, you could tell them apart, even in death they were still holding hands.
Kaczka reached over in the darkness and took Gilguli’s hand, gliding her fingers up to the tender underside of his forearm where his number was tattooed and tracing it familiarly. No way you got this in Belzec in your past life, darling, Kaczka said. In Belzec, it was straight off the cattle cars and into the gas chambers. In Belzec, the Ukrainians and Germans didn’t fool around. In Belzec, it was one hundred percent anonymous, one hundred percent assembly line, one hundred percent death factory. No tattoo for you in Belzec, mister—sorry. If you’re looking for tattoos, try Auschwitz, that’s my recommendation. Yes, in Belzec it was trains all the time, trains coming in through the night, twenty, forty, sixty cars long, engines screeching in the dark, dogs and Ukrainians barking, Germans shouting, Jews wailing. No one could ever get any sleep. Everyone blamed the Jews for keeping them up all night long.
He woke in the night with his heart pounding, because of the screams. The protesters were there, he realized this at once. Fumbling in the dark for his cell phone, he could only put his hands on his rods and the ram’s horn. He staggered out into the yard with nothing more than a sheet wrapped around his body. In her black rubber galoshes, illuminated by the headlights of her old pickup truck, Kaczka was plunging a knife into the heart of a pig. The pig was trussed up with ropes, screaming human screams. Desperate, terrified shrieks. Gilguli began to run, first toward the train station, and from there, half a kilometer further to the point of the railway spur inside the death camp where the cattle cars were unloaded. Yes, the protesters had come out, it was just as he had thought, they had appeared at last, he had been waiting so long, he had expected them sooner. They had congregated in the night—it was guerrilla theater cunningly plotted, ruthlessly staged, hundreds of thousands of protesters in diaphanous white shrouds, refracting their own cold light, their faces hollow and unforgiving, emitting a low hum that thickened the air, filling every space of the death camp to its distant edge. The rods in Gilguli’s hands were shaking uncontrollably. They fell to the ground and slithered away. He followed behind them, cutting through the massed protesters as if they were cobwebs, clouds, smoke, into the invading fissure that had stirred them up on this night. The protesters were closing in on him, he could feel them behind him along the entire length of his body, like the shades and spirits that had pursued him down the long dark hallways of his childhood. Without daring to turn around, he fled into the excavation, slid down the slope of the ravaged grave, into the heart of the disturbance in the field, down to its lowest depths. There he crouched down, naked among the snakes and the scorpions, huddling against the cold, his hands clamped against his ears. The protesters were bearing in on him from all sides, letting out their otherworldly hum that penetrated his head without passing through his ears, raging, raging, demanding the final sustained blast of the shofar that would bring down the heavens on all their tormentors.
Tova Reich is the author of the novels The Jewish War (Pantheon), Master of the Return (Harcourt), and Mara (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her stories have appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. (10/2005)