Tag Archives: The Kommandant’s Mistress

Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Urbach & Schindler, Goodkin & Wallenberg, 2014

Yom HaShoah 2014
Holocaust Remembrance

During the Holocaust, with its Nazi-sponsored, systematic persecution and genocide of the Jews, there were some people who risked their own lives to protect Jews and to save them. Sometimes, as in the case of Oskar Schindler, the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (from Australian author Thomas Keneally’s award-winning novel Schindler’s Ark), the person is relatively well known to many of us. In other instances, such as that of Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared during the War, most probably taken by the Nazis and executed, the people who saved Jews are not as familiar. It is then that we must rely on Survivor Testimony to learn about some of those who did risk everything to help save the European Jews.

Sol Urbach
saved by
Oskar Schindler

Oskar Schindler

Oskar Schindler

 

Sol Urbach was born in Poland in 1925. He was one of the Jews that were protected and rescued by Oskar Schindler in Cracow and then in Plaszow (from Yad Vashem Holocaust Testimonies).

Based on a true story, Schindler’s List is Steven Spielberg’s epic drama of World War II Holocaust survivors and the man who unexpectedly came to be their savior. Unrepentant womanizer and war profiteer Oskar Schindler uses Polish Jews as cheap labor to produce cookware for the Third Reich. But after witnessing the violent liquidation of the walled ghetto where the Krakow Jews have been forced to live, Schindler (Liam Neeson) slowly begins to realize the immense evil of Nazism. When his employees are sent to a work camp, they come under the terrorizing reign of sadistic Nazi Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). With the help of his accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), Schindler creates a list of “essential” Jews. Bribing Goeth, Schindler manages to get 1,100 people released from the camp and brought to the safety of his munitions factory in Czechoslovakia. Spielberg’s glorious film is wondrously evocative, visually stunning, and emotionally stirring (from Schindler’s List website).

If you haven’t seen the film, I urge you to do so.

Vera Goodkin
saved by
Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

 

Vera Goodkin was born in Hradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia in 1930. Her family fled to Hungary, where after the German occupation they were protected by Raoul Wallenberg. Vera Goodkin remembers her father’s meeting with Wallenberg. (from Yad Vashem Holocaust Histories)

You can read about others who saved Jews during the Holocaust at Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations, sometimes referred to as “Righteous Gentiles,” and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) sites, among those featured are Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

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Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust

Rare Historical Holocaust Photos

Holocaust Timeline and Overview

Holocaust Days of Remembrance

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the Holocaust database
or to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Documentary/Historical Video, E-books, Free Books, GiveAway, History, Holocaust, Memoir, Movies/Films

Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Zanne & The Twins, 2014

Yom HaShoah
International Holocaust Memorial Day
Monday 28 April 2014

When young Israelis first began learning about the Holocaust, many of them couldn’t relate to the victims. The young generation, raised in the newly established state of Israel, among survivors, who swore “Never Again,” felt that the European Jews had been “led to the [Nazi] slaughter like lambs.” It was then that the activities of the partisans, the members of the Underground, the Resistance, and the Ghetto Uprisings were included in the teaching and remembrance of the Holocaust. Also, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust History Museum, began collecting oral histories from the survivors, which seemed to resonate more intimately with younger people. Many of them learned, for the first time, that people their own ages had been sent to concentration camps and extermination camps like Auschwitz. Here are two of the stories.

Zanne Farbstein

Zanne Farbstein was 16 years old when she was deported with her two younger sisters to Auschwitz. While working as a slave laborer, Zanne found her father’s prayer shawl while sorting through the clothing of the prisoners who had been murdered in the camp. Zanne survived Auschwitz , and moved to Israel with her few surviving family members, where she began a new life. (from Yad Vashem)

Twin Survivors,
Iudit and Lia

Identical twin sisters Iudit Barnea and Lia Huber (nées Tchengar) were born in 1937 in the town of Şimleul Silvaniei (Szilagysomlyo), Transylvania. In 1940, Transylvania was annexed to Hungary, and in June 1942 their father Zvi was taken to a forced labor unit on the Russian front.  Miraculously, both twins survived. (from Yad Vashem)

Please join me and millions of others this Yom HaShoah, as well as the days before and after, remembering the victims, the activists, and the survivors of the Holocaust. Share their stories so that the past does not die with them. Remind others of the atrocities and the genocide of The Holocaust so that it can never happen again, anywhere. At 11:00 a.m. Monday 28 April, stand and observe the two minutes of silence in reflection and devotion.

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For a Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust, visit my Pinterest Board

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the database or
to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Documentary/Historical Video, E-books, Free Books, GiveAway, History, Holocaust, Memoir, Movies/Films

Anna’s Tattoo

For Anna Brunn Ornstein

Anna Brunn

Anna Brunn

From the age of five to almost 30, I dreamt I was in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and that I died there. I would wake — screaming aloud, sometimes weeping, shaking and disoriented. The older I got, the more often the nightmares came until, finally, I asked, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” The answer came immediately: “Write about the Holocaust.”

Despite its being kept a secret, I had known my family was Jewish since I was 8, when I asked my Great-Grandfather Hirsch. All the Hirsch daughters attended Catholic schools. All their children and grandchildren did the same. We were all baptized, attended Mass every day (that’s how Catholic schools started when I was young: with Mass), learned our Catechism, and never ever talked about being Jewish or about the Holocaust. I didn’t even know what that word meant. When I was older, I learned that my Great-Grandparents had paid for everyone in the family to go to Catholic schools, to protect us from the rampant anti-Semitism that existed in America in the 1950’s & 1960’s.

It didn’t work.

Despite my coloring — every member of the family had strawberry-blonde hair and green eyes, as well as “the famous Hirsch nose,” as everyone referred to it each time a new baby was born into the family — my classmates mercilessly called me “Yid” and “Kike” from the first grade. When I walked home from school every day, I had to pass my Great-Grandfather’s corner grocery, which was on the same block where my mother, divorced with 4 young children, lived in a house owned by her parents. I loved my Great-Grandfather more than anyone else in my family, so every day I stopped by his store.

“What’s a ‘Yid’?” I said once, after a particularly brutal and distressing day in second grade.
Grandpa Hirsch came around from behind the counter, knelt before me, and wiped my face, though I’d long stopped crying.
“Somebody called you a ‘Yid’?”
“What’s it mean?”
“It’s short for ‘Yiddish’.”
“What’s Yiddish?”
“It’s a German dialect. What Grandma and I talk to each other.”
“What’s a ‘Kike’?”
“That,” said Grandpa Hirsch, handing me a piece of my favorite candy, “I do not know.”
“Why do the kids at school keep calling me that?”
“Because sometimes you say Yiddish words.”
“Is that bad?”
“Not in my opinion.”

Did I know then which words I said that were Yiddish? No. Did I know then that Yiddish was a Jewish dialect of German? Of course not. Our family never spoke of such things. Despite the fact that Grandpa Hirsch closed his store every Saturday and opened it on Sundays — in an era of the so-called “Blue Laws,” when no businesses whatsoever were permitted to operate on Sundays. In fact, I always feared that the local policemen who walked the neighborhood and who invariably stopped by his store on Sundays for fresh coffee and my Grandma Hirsch’s pastries would arrest my Grandpa for breaking the Blue Laws. They never did, of course, and they always seemed to be chatting genially and laughing with Grandpa, who had a wicked sense of humor, whenever I went to the store on Sundays to make sure he was safe.

“But why do you stay open on Sundays when it’s against the law?” I said almost weekly.
“Somebody has to be open,” said Grandpa. “Everything else is closed on Sundays.”
“Is that why you take Saturdays off?”
“I’ll take Saturday as my Sabbath,” he would always say, “since everyone else takes Sunday.”

Eventually, somehow, I figured out what the elaborate Friday night suppers meant, what Yiddish really was, and why Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch’s Sabbath was on Saturday instead of on Sunday, when everyone else was off work and went to church.  (My Grandparents never attended Mass: they were working in the store. It seemed reasonable to everyone in the family at the time.)

When I was 8, the only thing I wanted for Christmas as a chess-set, having learned the game from my mother’s boyfriend, who eventually became my step-father and then my adopted father (when I was 15). It was no accident that my Grandpa & Grandma Hirsch gave me the chess-set for Christmas. Grandpa treated me as a favorite: he was the only one who cared that I wanted to be a writer and listened to my stories, he always remembered my favorite candies without my having to remind him (though he gave all of us children far more candy than our pennies or nickels could have actually purchased), and, from the time I was small, I believed he was the only person in my entire family who actually loved me. So, when I opened the Christmas present to reveal my first chess-set — still in my possession almost 50 years later — and looked up in excitement at his happy, grinning face, I was naïvely astonished that he knew I liked chess.

“Grandpa, how did you know this was the only thing in the world that I really wanted?”
“A little angel whispered it in my ear,” he said, tapping his shoulder.
“An angel?” I said. “Aren’t we Jewish? Do Jews believe in angels?”
He patted me on the head.
“Such a clever little girl we have.”
“Who’s a clever little girl?” said Grandma Hirsch from behind me, her hands on my shoulders as she kissed me on top of the head. “And why is she so clever?”
“Because she just asked me if we were Jewish.”

Grandma Hirsch dragged me over to the dining room table, looking very frightened. Grandpa followed. She knelt down in front of me and, still holding on to me tightly, glanced around the family gathering in their home before whispering.
“If anyone ever asks you if you’re Jewish,” she said, “you must say, ‘I was baptized and I go to Catholic schools.’ You understand?”
I nodded, not knowing why she seemed so distressed and frightened.
“Are you Jewish?” she said.
“Yes.”
“No,” she said. “You were baptized and you go to Catholic schools. Are you Jewish?”
“I was baptized… and go to Catholic schools.”
“Good girl,” said Grandma, kissing me on the forehead before she hugged me.
“You see?” said Grandpa, messing my hair in that nice way he always did. “I told you she was clever.”

The rest of my family didn’t consider me so clever. They said I was “obsessed with being Jewish,” only they said it in the same hateful way my classmates called me “Yid” and “Kike,” often using the same anti-Semitic terms. Though everyone in our family used Yiddish words and phrases, though everyone acknowledged that Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch were German and that all the rest of their family had remained in Germany, and though everyone said we all had “The Hirsch Nose” — whatever that meant — no one ever admitted that we were Jewish. Most, eventually, probably never realized it.

Yet I still kept dreaming that I was in the Nazi Concentration Camps, and every night I died there. As the years passed, I noticed that my Grandma Hirsch often cried to herself, alone, in the kitchen, but if I found her there and asked her what was wrong, she always said, “Nothing. Go play.” I realized that Grandpa Hirsch had an air of grief that no one else seemed to notice. If they did notice it, they never acknowledged it. Once, I asked Grandpa why he was always so sad, despite his jokes and his laughter around other people. He sighed.

“Because so many bad things happen in the world.”

How could I have possibly known that he meant the Holocaust? How could I have known that he and my Grandmother had lost every other single member of their family — all of whom were in Germany — between the years 1940-1945? No one else would even admit that we were Jewish, my Grandma insisted that I must keep it a secret, and eventually, most of my family even forgot that we were Jewish, calling me crazy or obsessed whenever I insisted that we were.

So, about ten years after my Grandpa Hirsch died, when I had long lost contact with my abusive parents and siblings, when the nightmares of dying in the Nazi Concentration Camps increased to the point that they were waking me every single night, when I asked myself and the Universe, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” and the Universe answered, “Write,” that is what I decided to do.

I was already a writer — a poet, specifically — with many poems published in prestigious literary and university journals, working on Ph.D.’s in English and Comparative Literatures, and in Creative Writing. So that was what my dreams were telling me, I thought to myself in the dark in the middle of the night: I’m supposed to write about the Holocaust.

It was then that I realized that I knew nothing about it.

Beyond knowing that the Nazis had perpetrated this genocide against the European Jews during World War II, I knew nothing about the Holocaust. We had never studied the Holocaust in the Catholic schools I attended as a child nor in the history classes I took in college. I had never read Holocaust literature or, to the best of my knowledge, seen any films — documentary or otherwise — about the Concentration Camps, the Nazis, or the Holocaust. (My step-father watched World War II movies when he wasn’t watching football, but those John Wayne/Dirty Dozen-movies were always about the soldiers and how they’d beaten or escaped from the terrible Germans, who were Nazis. Those movies were never about the Holocaust and what had happened to the Jews. They were adventure/action movies about  the American heroes who ended the war, or about the American POW-heroes who outwitted the mostly dimwitted German-Nazis.  [My father was a huge fan of the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.”] The movies and shows he watched were never, ever about the Jews or the Holocaust.)

What I read while researching the Holocaust so that I could write about it did more than depress me: I found myself crying to the point of grieving. I was unable to do anything else but think of the Holocaust, the Jews, my lost heritage, and my poor Great-Grandparents. Yet none of the books or films or memoirs answered some of my most important questions.

That’s when I decided to find survivors and ask them if I could talk to them about the Holocaust and their experiences.

That’s when I met Anna Ornstein, who was in Auschwitz when she was only 16 years old.

Anna Brunn

Anna Brunn

I got her name and professional address from one of my dissertation advisers, who had heard her speak on the Holocaust. She and her husband Paul, also a survivor, lived in Cincinnati, where I was working on my Ph.D. I sent them a copy of my first — and at that time, my only — Holocaust poem: Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays For Himself. In the accompanying card, I told them I had questions about the Holocaust and wondered if I could talk to them. Anna called me right after she and Paul read the poem. She asked what camp I’d been in.

Paul Ornstein on his bike, going to see his girlfriend Anna Brunn

Paul Ornstein on his bike, going to see his girlfriend Anna Brunn

The Ornsteins both thought I was a survivor myself. (Part of that might have been due to my adopted father’s last name: his parents came from Hungary during the war, and Anna, Hungarian herself, recognized the name. She and her her husband Paul are the only ones who’ve ever pronounced it correctly without being told how to say it.)

Anna Brunn and Paul Ornstein

Anna Brunn and Paul Ornstein

Because Anna wanted to know as much from me about myself and creative writing as I wanted to know about the Holocaust from her, we decided to meet. She was fascinated in how I could have made her believe that I had been in a Nazi Concentration Camp, how I could have known some of the things I’d written in my poems if I’d never been there. I wanted to ask her about things I couldn’t find answers to in books. It took more than one meeting. It took more than a few months. It took years. What began as a common interest in examining the Holocaust, on my part, and understanding how artists create, on her part, developed into a life-long friendship. She and her husband Paul, who had escaped Auschwitz and survived the War with the Partisans in the woods surrounding the infamous extermination camp, welcomed me into their home, their hearts, their lives. They told me everything about themselves and their families – before, during, and after the war. They discussed moral issues surrounding the Holocaust. They introduced me to other survivors.

They read everything I ever wrote.

They reminded me of my Grandpa Hirsch, only without having to hide the fact that they were Jewish.

Anna Brunn Ornstein and her friend Lili Gluck

Anna Brunn Ornstein and her friend Lili Gluck

Eventually my poems on the Holocaust became so long that editors at the journals where I submitted the poems began to write me notes on the bottom of the rejection slips: “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” and “Is this supposed to be a short story or a part of a novel?” and, after I submitted a 32-page single-spaced poem, “Our journal is only 50 pages long…”

“Maybe I should write a novel about the Holocaust,” I said to myself one day, realizing that I had so many moral issues still to explore about it.

As soon as I thought that, I heard the voice of The Kommandant, from a poem I’d written (originally, a very bad short story) during grad school, about a Nazi Kommandant who forces a Jewish inmate with whom be becomes obsessed to be his “mistress.” I heard the Kommandant, who had no name up to that point, say, “Tell my story.” At the same instant, I heard the voice of the girl saying, “You can’t tell his story without telling mine.” And I saw a vision of the book I would write.

(By the way, I don’t know how that happens. It’s one of the mysteries of my art that I have never attempted to figure out, but this is what it’s like: I’m in a dark, unfamiliar room. For one instant, there is a flash of lightning which illuminates that room. In that moment, I see everything in the room, know most of its history, and understand something about it. Then the room goes dark again. My job then is to re-create, in words, that momentary vision. And that is the most difficult work I have ever done in my life.)

Throughout the writing of the book which would eventually become The Kommandant’s Mistress, I had many questions to which I could not find answers in my sources, primary or secondary, or from other survivors. Whenever that happened, I turned to Anna.

Paul & Ann Ornstein (L) celebrate a wedding with their best friends Lucy & Steve Hornstein

Paul & Ann Ornstein (L) celebrate a wedding with their best friends Lucy & Steve Hornstein

One of the most important questions I had while writing the novel involved the numbers the Nazis had tattooed on the arms of the Auschwitz inmates. These tattooed numbers, visible on the inner left forearms of many survivors, originated in Auschwitz, designed specifically as an Extermination camp rather than as a Concentration Camp.

Auschwitz was not meant to “detain” Jewish inmates for extended periods of time. It was built as part of the Nazi’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” — said “problem” being how to eliminate all Jews from Europe and other Nazi-occupied territories. It was constructed with the sole aim of killing Jews as efficiently and quickly as possible. By gassing them, en masse, mostly upon arrival,  with Zyklon B: cyanide-pellets that turned to gas when exposed to air, designed to exterminate rodents, a term by which the Nazis had long referred to the Jews.

Not all the Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately killed, however. It seems the Nazis needed the Jewish labor for the war effort. By the time Auschwitz was operating at its highest capacity, Germany was losing the war. As its martial defeats increased, so did the Nazi escalation of eliminating the Jewish population in its occupied territories. Hitler’s rabid obsession with the Jews, and Nazi anti-Semitic attempts to exterminate the entire Jewish population in all of Europe, Russia, Greece, and any other Nazi-occupied territories, directly corresponded in escalation with Germany’s defeats and loss of territory in the War.

Thus, in 1944, when Anna, her family, her future husband Paul, his family, and other Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, the extermination camp was operating at what was probably its highest capacity: 450,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in about five weeks. The remainder were interned there, to be worked, starved, beaten, and tortured to death. Unless the Kommandant of Auschwitz was in one of his more playful moods. At such times, he would order all the inmates to line up in groups of five – zu fünf – and arbirtrarily shoot every tenth, or fifth, or umteenth one, until he got bored and trotted away on his famously beautiful white horse.

It was in Auschwitz that the practice of tattooing inmates began. These random, meaningless numbers were not a way to identify and keep track of the Jewish inmates, though the Jews believed that they were, but a way to further insult, degrade, and dehumanize them. These tattoos also mocked the Jewish beliefs: the origin of the traditional Jewish prohibition of tattooing seems to be in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” Tattooing may have been considered idolatry or part of pagan practices, which the Torah forbids.

Of course, some Jews have always gotten tattoos. Ilse Koch, wife of  Karl-Otto Koch, the Kommandant of the Nazi Concentration Camps Buchenwald (1937-1941) and Majdanek (1941-1943), and one of the first prominent Nazis put on trial by the American Military, harvested Jewish tattoos, selecting interesting tattoos, having those Jews killed, and the tattoos cut away from the bodies; she is rumored to have said tattoos made into lampshades and other decorative items. Additionally, there are photographs of Auschwitz inmates’ tattoos, considered attractive or unusual by the notorious “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, who requested that these photographs be taken for him. One such tattoo that Mengele wished to have photographed was of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. (Later in his life, the Nazi photographer claimed he was “forced” to take the picture, and that he “regretted it.”) It is assumed that the Jewish inmate with that tattoo either died as a result of Mengele’s experimentation upon him, or in the gas chambers after the photo was taken.

When I was writing the scene where the female protagonist, Rachel, is getting tattooed in the unidentified Auschwitz-like camp, I had not yet gotten my first tattoo (which I would get at age 47), so I did not know what it felt like. Anna Ornstein has two numbers tattooed on her inner left forearm. I called her to ask about what getting a tattoo felt like.

“I don’t remember,” she said.
“Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know. I felt so happy those days we were tattooed that I simply don’t remember what it felt like.”
“You felt happy?”
“We thought it meant we would survive. We weren’t registered anywhere, so we thought they were identifying us with tattoos to keep track of us. I remember the sun was shining, birds were singing, and I was happy.”
“Why do you have two numbers?”
“They told us they got the numbers wrong the first day,” said Anna, “so they had to do they again the second day. To get the numbers right.”
“But the numbers were meaningless.”
“We didn’t know that, so I was happy. Besides,” she said, “we thought, ‘Even the Germans wouldn’t be stupid enough to go through all this trouble and then kill us all’.”

Anna went all along the line of tattoo artists until she found a girl who was doing very neat, small tattoos on the inmates’ inner left forearms. (Some inmates’ numbers are very large, stretching along the entire length of their forearms. Some numbers start on the inside of the inmates’ forearms before continuing on the back, down to their wrists.) Anna complimented the girl who was doing the small, neat tattoos on her work. The girl was flattered. Anna’s original tattoo — B-71 — if done under any other circumstances, could be called tasteful or even attractive. (Having had it so long, Anna simply considers it “part of [her] body.”) The next day, when they were ordered to get an additional tattoo — Anna returned to the same girl, complimenting her again and requesting that she be the one who did Anna’s next tattoo. The B was crossed out. An A, supposedly for their barracks though Anna was not in Barracks A but in Barracks B, was put before the original B. The number 200 was put above the previous 71. Anna’s number was, supposedly, technically, A-20071, but it ended up looking like this (I’m not sure of the type of line used to cross out the B, so I have not put it in):

         200
A-B-71

In the seven years I’d spent researching the Holocaust, first for my poems, then for my novel, I had never been able to find any information on the tattoos, other than the fact that some Jews had them and some did not, and some photographs of them, like this one:

Partial Photo Mural of Auschwitz Survivors displaying their tattoos (On permanent display at the United State Holocaust Museum)

Partial Photo Mural of Auschwitz Survivors displaying their tattoos (On permanent display at the United State Holocaust Museum)

Anna’s story was so unlike anything I expected to hear that I put her story about the tattoo, exactly as she told it to me, into the novel (when Rachel is getting tattooed).

World War II ended 67 years ago. The Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps were liberated 67-68 years ago. Soon there will be no Holocaust survivors left to tell their own stories. Only those of us who knew them, and their own family members will be able to tell their stories. Eventually, however, the Holocaust will, inevitably, become part of the “distant past,” existing only in art.

Some children and grandchildren, in an effort to preserve their family members’ stories, have had the numbers of their loved ones tattooed into their own arms. Some oppose this; some approve. I believe that we each must choose our own ways of remembering the Holocaust and reminding others that this kind of hatred and genocide still exist, against Jews as well as against other ethnic or religious minorities.

I have written two books on the Holocaust, telling the stories of the survivors, the victims, the perpetrators, and the observers who stood by and permitted it to happen. In addition to telling the story of Anna’s tattoo in The Kommandant’s Mistress, I wrote the story of her mother’s and her time in Auschwitz — based on all the stories she told me over the years —  in the poem “Sofie and Anna,” which appears in Where Lightning Strikes.

This year, I decided to go another step toward Remembering and Reminding others about the Holocaust. Yesterday, with Anna’s blessing and permission, I had her Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with the transliterated Hebrew words Yizkor (Remember) and Zachor (Remind).

My intention is to tell everyone who asks what it means Anna’s story and the story of the Holocaust. Until the day I die. After that, if I am lucky, I will be able to continue to tell the story through my books.

Already, however, I know I made the right decision, getting Anna’s numbers tattooed, along with Yizkor and Zachor, on my inner left forearm.

Because of what happened at the tattoo shop.

Of the three younger people (aged 33, 27, and 26) working at the shop where I got my tattoo, only one knew what the Holocaust was: the oldest. She’d asked what I wanted to get as a tattoo while I was filling out the required paperwork, awaiting the tattoo artist on duty that day. When I showed her and told her what it was, she said, “Oh, my god, that is so incredibly awesome and wonderful of you. Tell me about Anna.”

I did.

The young man who did the tattoo did not know what my intended tattoo meant. When I told him Anna had survived the Holocaust and those were her Auschwitz numbers, he said, “What’s the Holocaust?” (Apparently, it is still not taught in many schools, at any level.) He wanted to hear Anna’s entire story before he did the tattoo. Then he spent hours, literally, preparing the tattoo (it’s drawn on transfer paper, pressed onto the skin, and everything “approved” before tattooing begins, since, once done, it can’t be undone). In fact, the actual tattoo took less than fifteen minutes. It took so long to prepare, he told me, because he wanted it to be as “respectful” as possible, and to be as “beautiful” as he could possibly make it, considering what it originally represented.

When he put the transfer on my inner arm, I got emotional.
“Don’t get emotional on me,” he said, “or I’ll get emotional and I won’t be able to see what I’m doing.”

Afterward, with a catch in his voice, he asked if I would please tell Anna how honored he was to have been chosen (even if by fate) to have done “her” tattoo. I told him that I would tell her as soon as I got home. He shook my hand several times, thanking me for telling him Anna’s story. He also told me that he has had many Jewish customers come in for tattoos, usually for a Star of David. He said he will tell every one who comes in about my tattoo as well as about Anna’s story. He said he also intends to read up on the Holocaust.

When I went to pay, I was charged much less than the price I was originally quoted. I asked why. The other young man in the store said he was told to give me the largest discount they offer, for that tattoo and for any other tattoo I ever have done. He then asked to see it. He asked what it was. The young girl told him.

He said, “What’s the Holocaust?”
“You love history,” she said, “but you don’t know about the Holocaust?”
“I know it happened during World War II. I guess I better read up on it.”
Then he asked me to tell him Anna’s story.
Afterward, he, too, shook my hand and thanked me.

I know some Jews fiercely object to having the numbers of Holocaust survivors tattooed on a child’s, grandchild’s, or friend’s inner left forearm. Some famous survivors have spoken publicly against it. The Internet is filled with debate on the “trend,” as it is sometimes derogatorily called, and the debate seems equally divided for and against people having the numbers of their loved ones tattooed on their own arms in order to tell the story of the Holocaust. There are others, too — non-Jews — who oppose this practice: some state their reasons, some do not.

But already, by having my friend Anna’s Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with Yizkor and Zachor, I have accomplished what I wished. One young girl who knew about the Holocaust learned Anna’s story. Two young men who knew about World War II but nothing else, learned about Anna and about the Holocaust itself. All three are determined to share that story with others.

My tattoo, with Anna’s blessing & permission, of Anna’s Auschwitz numbers, followed by the transliterated Hebrew words YIZKOR (Remember) and ZACHOR (Remind)

This is how we will help keep the Holocaust from becoming the “distant past” that can “never happen again” — by telling the story, over and over and over. By making it personal. By emotionally involving others so that they, too, feel compelled to tell it. Perhaps, by continuing to tell the stories, in every way we can, we can make a difference.

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Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust

Rare Historical Holocaust Photos

Holocaust Timeline and Overview

Holocaust Days of Remembrance

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the Holocaust database
or to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

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Never Again: Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah
International Holocaust Memorial Day

We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, not only because of the large-scale persecution and execution of the European Jews, but because such hatred, intolerance, and genocide still exist today, against Jews as well as against many other groups of people. Soon, there will be no Holocaust survivors remaining to tell their own stories, so we must prevent this horrific event from becoming “distant history” by telling their stories for them, and by creating, reading, and viewing art which reminds us that “the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

In honor of Yom HaShoah, in memory of my great-grandparents’ family members and all the other Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, in honor of my friend who survived Auschwitz at age 16 – Anna Brunn Ornstein – and all the other survivors of the camps, I present my novel The Kommandant’s Mistress, Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition; and my collection of Holocaust poetry Where Lightning Strikes. Read the descriptions, see the covers, and get the links for each book below.

The Kommandant’s Mistress

The Kommandant's Mistress

Viewing the Holocaust from multiple perspectives, The Kommandant’s Mistress tells the story of a Nazi Kommandant who forces a Jewish inmate to be his “mistress” during the war; first, he tells us his version of events, and then she tells us hers.

Historical Fiction set during Holocaust & World War II
Warning: Adult Content, Violence.

The rumors spread by the Camp’s inmates, other Nazi officers, and the Kommandant’s own family insist that she was his “mistress”, but was she, voluntarily? Told from three different perspectives – that of the formerly idealistic Kommandant, the young Jewish inmate who captivates him, and the ostensibly objective historical biographies of the protagonists – this novel examines one troubling moral question over and over: if your staying alive was the only “good” during the War, if your survival was your sole purpose in this horrific world of the Concentration Camps – whether you were Nazi or Jewish – what, exactly, would you do to survive? Would you lie, cheat, steal, kill, submit?

Flashing back and forth through the narrators’ memories as they recall their time before, during, and after the War, and leading, inevitably, to their ultimate, shocking confrontation, “Szeman’s uncompromising realism and superb use of stream-of-consciousness technique make [this novel] a chilling study of evil, erotic obsession, and the will to survive” (Publishers Weekly).

Winner of the Kafka Prize for “best book of prose fiction by an American woman” (’94) and chosen as one of the New York Times Book Review‘s “Top 100 Books of the Year” (’93), the tales told by the Kommandant, his “mistress”, and their “biographer” will mesmerize and stun you, leaving you wondering, at the conclusion, which, if any, is telling the complete truth about what happened between them.

Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition
Includes Discussion Questions & Chapter-by-Chapter Scene Index,
all hyper-linked back to text in novel.

The Kommandant's Mistress

United States
United Kingdom
Canada

Read an excerpt from the novel: Chapter One, or download a free (3-chapter) Sample from Amazon [this link is to the American site: each site offers free samples].

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Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes includes all Szeman’s Holocaust poetry, from the poems featured in her Ph.D. dissertation Survivor: One Who Survives, to the original versions of “Rachel’s poems” appearing or mentioned in Szeman’s award-winning, critically acclaimed first novel The Kommandant’s Mistress.

The poems in this collection revisit the classic themes that have inspired poets for generations: love, passion, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, faith, and survival — this time in the context of the period before, during, and after the Holocaust with its systematic persecution and extermination of the majority of European Jewry by the Nazi regime.

In this collection, victims are given voices. In “First Day of German Class” a young, teenaged girl unfamiliar with the Nazis and their atrocities in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territory develops a crush on the handsome and enigmatic SS Officer who passes out the yellow Stars of David they must now wear, like a brand, to identify and isolate them from the rest of the population.

In the author’s first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays for Himself” — excerpted in The Kommandant’s Mistress — a female inmate forced into sexual servitude by the Kommandant of the camp considers suicide as an escape from her personal bondage and from the camp, even as she alternately pities or condemns those “weak enough” to “go to the wire” (grab the electric fence), offering her own suggestions for suicide to “escape” the intolerable situation.

“Survivor: One Who Survives,” the title poem of Szeman’s dissertation, also mentioned in her first novel as one of Rachel’s poems/books, explores the life of a woman who “survived” her experiences in the camps but is having difficulty “living.”

Other disturbing yet lyrical poems trace the Holocaust from the perpetrators’ perspective. We hear Albert Speer’s musings about which “path” to take in the dramatic monologue “Learning the New Language,” in which he initially claims not to understand the “new language” that everyone in the Nazi-regime is speaking, but then begins to practice some of the words himself.

A Warsaw Ghetto guard in “The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets” bitterly complains about all the dead bodies who watch his every movement, whisper behind his back, and generally prevent him from doing his job effectively and from sleeping well.

Early, unnamed versions of Max, of The Kommandant’s Mistress, appear, isolated and morally confused in “Dead: Out of Play Though Not Necessarily Out of the Game,” where he momentarily sees an inmate as a fellow human being.

A younger SS officer finds himself disconcerted and alarmed after he is unexpectedly attracted to one of the female inmates when he sees her dancing ballet to the music floating from his office window in “White on White.”

In the camp itself, one of the Sonderkommando, who were in charge of guiding the Jews to be exterminated into the gas chambers, gives “instructions” to a new member of this chosen group on how to survive the camp, in the grim yet spiritually philosophical “On the Other Hand.” Nursery rhymes and children’s songs take on a deadly, mesmerizing meaning in the stunning, award-winning “Lager-Lieder (Camp Songs).”

The true story of Auschwitz-survivor Anna Brunn Ornstein, who was in the camp as a young girl with her mother, is transformed from Anna’s own stories and related in the disturbing yet moving poem “Sofie and Anna.”

Haunting depictions of abusers’ and survivors’ lives after the war appear in works like “Those Who Claim We Hated Them,” where the narrator insists — not always convincingly — that he, his family, and his colleagues held no contempt whatsoever for the Jews, and only did what was politically and morally required of them so that they themselves might survive the Nazi regime and the War.

In the collection’s title work, “Where Lightning Strikes,” a survivor of the camps who now holds a Professorship likens his encounter with contemporary anti-Semitism to a tree’s being struck by lightning: swift, unexpected, brutal, devastating, but terrifyingly and sadly illuminating.

Szeman’s work speaks to us with clarity and resonance. Her themes, though set, in this collection, around the Holocaust, are universal, encompassing the perpetrators’, victims’, and survivors’ perspectives equally insightfully. Though the line-breaks are syllabic — imitating the arbitrary rigidity of the Nazi persecutions as well as of the concentration camps’ operations — the language flows passionately over the artificially imposed line-breaks and formal stanzas. The poems’ many fans often state that, despite the fact that they may have been initially wary of the subject matter, they were enthralled and shaken by poetry which so clearly, simply, and memorably portrays such complex and harrowing events in human history.

Several poems were part of her dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives (University of Cincinnati, 1986). Along with her non-Holocaust poetry collection, Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, this volume, Where Lightning Strikes, was unanimously accepted for publication by all outside readers of UKA Press in 2004.

As powerful, unsettling, and lyrical as her first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, these poems will take you on a compelling, chilling, and unforgettable journey into the lives, hearts, and minds of all those who were victims, perpetrators, and survivors of the Holocaust.

1st Prize (1985), 2nd Prize (1984), Grand Prize (1983) University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Prize (anonymous competition), and awarded The Isabel & Mary Neff Fellowship for Creative Writing (1984-85).

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

United States
United Kingdom
Canada

Read an excerpt of  three poems, or download a free Sample from Amazon.

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Don’t have a Kindle? You can still read the novel with the free Kindle.app for any device you have: Smartphones, Tablets, PC, or Mac.

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Only with the Heart: My Life with Alzheimer’s

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly:
what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Little Prince

I learned about Alzheimer’s the way most people learn about the disease — involuntarily, when someone they are involved with gets the disease and they themselves are forced to become full-time Caregivers, as I was. My ex-boyfriend, Dick, whom I’d been dating off and on for several years, decided that he wanted us to move in together after I was purchasing a house. As roommates. Despite the fact that I’d broken up with him several months previously, and despite the fact that we were no longer involved in a relationship, I decided to share a house with him. I have no idea why I let him convince me to allow him to move in with me, but I did. I believe Dick had Alzheimer’s at that point, but, because I was completely unfamiliar with the disease and had never known anyone who had it, I didn’t recognize any of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia.

For instance, when we decided to move in together, we also agreed to buy Mortgage Insurance, which pays off the mortgage should one of the owners die. Afterward, however, Dick denied ever even having that conversation with me. I was hurt. It never occurred to me that he simply couldn’t remember having that conversation or agreeing to purchase that Insurance. I thought that, for some reason unknown to me, he was simply being spiteful.

Soon after we moved in together, Dick began having serious troubles at the University, where he taught Mathematics. Though students had been complaining for a few years already that he was difficult to understand when he lectured — and, conversely, he complained that they were inadequately prepared to take the Advanced Calculus classes that he was teaching — the complaints became more frequent and vociferous: to the point where the students walked out of his classes en masse, went directly to the Chairman, and insisted that Dick simply made no sense.

Dick was then assigned lower-level Algebra classes, which outraged him because it was, as he claimed, degrading for someone of his intelligence to be teaching such basic classes. Unfortunately, despite Dick’s “keen intelligence” the same scenario ensued in the lower level, basic classes. Dick had a drop-rate of 98% — the highest at the University. He blamed it on the students’ lack of preparation. Once again, the students blamed it on the fact that he made no sense, adding that whenever they asked him questions, he yelled at them or gave nonsensical answers. Dick was then assigned the Basic Arithmetic classes. The Chairman must have thought that anyone could teach those classes without difficulty.

Unfortunately, because the Chairman didn’t know Dick had Alzheimer’s — because nobody knew that Dick had Alzheimer’s — the Chairman was wrong in believing that Dick could teach the simplest classes. He couldn’t.

Dick was forced into early retirement in the middle of the quarter: a friend took over the classes. Dick was simply unable to teach any longer. In hindsight, I realize that the Alzheimer’s was beyond even the moderate-advanced stages by then, but no one knew it at the time. Not me, not his colleagues, not his family or friends, not even his physician.

Dick became depressed. Unbeknownst to me, he called his grown children, both of whom lived in other states, and told them that there was no food in the house and that I was forcing him to eat dirt. Imagine my shock and horror when, one evening, the police arrived at the house, telling me that Dick’s daughter had called them and said it was an emergency, that I was starving her father, “holding him prisoner,” and that Dick had called her “in fear of his life.”

As soon as the police came, they examined all the cupboards and the refrigerator, all of which were full of food. They also saw the partially eaten roast still in the pan on the top of the stove. They asked Dick if he’d eaten any of it. He said he didn’t remember. I told them I was a vegetarian and hadn’t eaten meat for over 10 years. While they were standing there, Dick went over to the pan and began tearing off pieces of meat, stuffing them into his mouth.

The police looked at each other. They looked at Dick again, who, at that point, was about 30-40 pounds overweight and had a huge belly. One of the policemen made the remark, to Dick, that he didn’t look like a man who was “starving to death”. Dick then pointed to me and said, “She forces me to eat dirt.” The officers asked him to show them the “dirt” I was forcing him to eat. He went over to the cupboard, opened it, and took out a dish of homemade, dark chocolate fudge with walnuts. He peeled back the foil. Over half the dish was gone: I’d just made it that morning. And I hadn’t eaten any.

Both officers, who knew us since we lived in a small village, went over to the pan of fudge. They asked if they could have some. “It’s dirt,” said Dick. “With rocks in it.” The officers ate some. “Damned good dirt,” said one, while the other asked for the recipe so his wife could make it.

They then asked Dick if he’d called his daughter and told her that I was starving him. He looked confused. They asked if he’d told her there was no food in the house, or that I was forcing him to eat dirt. He pointed to the fudge: “This is dirt,” he said. The officers apologized profusely and left. Dick asked me why the police had come to the house. After I explained it, he said, “But why did the police come over?”

Whenever his daughter called the police again, they refused to come to the house.

I thought Dick had “lost his mind”, but Alzheimer’s dementia never occurred to me. I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that ever since we’d moved in together, he seemed constantly to be lying, forgetting things, accusing me of being a liar over the most ridiculous things — like not doing the laundry, which was sitting, clean and folded, on his bed — having more car accidents, getting lost when he went to the grocery or to his daughter’s home for holidays.

Once, a Highway Patrolman found him by the side of the road in Illinois — two states west of where we lived, and nowhere near his daughter’s house in Georgia where he’d been traveling for Thanksgiving — confused, agitated, wringing his hands, crying. The officer only managed to reach me because after he contacted the local police, based on Dick’s driver’s license, which also happened to be expired, they’d given the Patrolman my name and my phone number at the house.

Dick’s daughter, who’d been desperately calling the Georgia Highway Patrol and all the hospitals when her father hadn’t arrived after five days, drove up to Illinois to get him and take him to her house. Her husband drove Dick’s car. Even then, she didn’t suspect Alzheimer’s, or, if she did, she never told me about it. Instead, she accused me of being selfish by not coming down to Thanksgiving with him and forcing him to drive alone (I hadn’t gone down to any holidays with him since before we’d moved in together, because I’d broken up with him, but I guess she didn’t remember that, or else he never told her that we weren’t in that type of relationship any longer).

Dick continued to deteriorate. Most important to my professional life was the fact that he seemed to “get increasingly sick” when I took out a loan to write my first novel — a loan for which he was in no way responsible since we were merely roommates sharing a house together: we were not married and had no finances in common. He constantly raged at me for taking out a bank loan to write “a stupid novel”, called me names, tore up what I was working on (no computers then — it was all handwritten) so that I was forced to hide my work, and stealing things: like my pens, paper, written drafts of the book, and research materials. I thought he was trying to punish me by keeping me from writing the novel by acting helpless. I did believe that he was really depressed — not because he had Alzheimer’s and was losing his memories — but because I was writing full-time, and he was jealous.

Dick often denounced my writing full-time, especially because, according to him, I’d been “stupid enough to take out a bank loan at 17 7/8% interest to write” since my own University would not allow me to take the year off with pay. Every day when I wrote, he’d literally break into my locked office where I was working, screaming things like, “Everybody has dreams and nobody gets to live theirs, so why should you?”

I admit that I began to hate him.

I very much regretted having moved in with him, especially since I’d broken up with him, once again, just before purchasing the house.

But since people like my parents and family had also always mocked me for wanting to be a writer, and had actually tried to prevent my doing so, I thought it was something all writers had to put up with. I still never suspected anything like Alzheimer’s.

I knew Dick was jealous, but didn’t understand why.

I was an English major/Professor who’d wanted to write since I was 6. He was a mathematician. What did he care if I took a year off work, took out a bank loan to live on, and wrote a novel? When he “calculated the odds” of my writing a novel that could actually get published as “less than 1 in a million, and by the way, closer to 0 than to 1”, I thought he was just cruel, and remembered why I’d broken up with him at least 10 times over the years we’d been dating, and wondered, furthermore, why I’d ever agreed to move in with him in the first place.

Dick’s condition worsened. He didn’t eat unless I cooked, but then called his daughter immediately after eating to complain that I was starving him. He didn’t go anywhere unless I forced him to leave the house, like when I took him to the Doctor’s office, but complained that I’d taken away his keys, locked him in the house (with me, I guess), and was holding him hostage. He didn’t even get out of bed. He never got dressed. He wore the same pair of mangy underwear even if someone came to the door and he answered it. He only talked to me to swear at me and call me by his ex-wife’s name. The only other person he talked to was his daughter: to complain that I was abusing him.

I thought Dick was doing everything in his power to keep me from writing and, determined not to let him control me, I continued writing even as I was taking care of him. I got pneumonia twice within 9 months. The second time, I got pneumonia with pleurisy, a very painful condition, and had to drive myself to an Urgent Care Center on Christmas Eve because Dick refused to do so, insisting that we were “divorced” and calling me by his first wife’s name. When I got angry that he kept calling me “Deborah”, he’d laugh and say it was just a joke.

Some joke, that Alzheimer’s.

His condition worsened when I returned to school, though his depression apparently lifted somewhat. He continued calling me “Deborah”, whom he’d divorced almost 30 years earlier. He accused me of having an affair with a previous boyfriend, one I hadn’t even seen or spoken to in over 15 years. He accused me of stealing money — how I could’ve done that, I do not recall. He accused me of trying to poison him. Probably by forcing him to eat dirt. The supposed adultery, theft, and poisoning he relayed to his children. Dick’s daughter drove up from Georgia to confront me, insisting that her father was ill and that I needed to take care of him better. I asked her to give me a break from taking care of him — I’d been doing it for almost 6 years — by taking him to Georgia to live with her, putting him in a Nursing Home or Hospital or Assisted Living Unit in Georgia, where she could be close to him. She was outraged. She claimed that she had enough to do with two small children, and that, besides, it was my responsibility as his “girlfriend.” When I told her we were only roommates, she just stared at me, her hands on her hips.

His son, in medical school in Michigan at the time, refused to take any more of his father’s phone calls, repeatedly calling Dick “crazy”.

Then came the physical violence.

My first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, had not only been published by HarperCollins and sold to publishers in 10 foreign countries, but had been reviewed extensively and well in most major, important publications, such as The New Yorker, Glamour, The San Francisco Chronicle, New York’s Newsday, and, most important, in The New York Times Book Review. One day, when an especially prestigious review came out, after Dick screamed at me and punched a few holes in the walls of the house, he got into fisticuffs in public with complete strangers at a local doughnut & coffee  shop. The police escorted him home with a warning that they would arrest him if he ever did anything like that again. As soon as the front door closed, Dick turned and screamed at me, “I’ve done more in the world of mathematics than you could ever dream of, and you’ve gotten more national and international attention than I ever have, and all you did was write a stupid little novel.”

I realized then that, no matter what was wrong with him — still, never suspecting Alzheimer’s — our arrangement as roommates was over. I had to move out.

Then he hit me. Punched me, really. Right in the face.

He threatened to kill me, and, indeed, raised scissors and stabbed them at me.

I left the house.

I found another place to live.

I began to see a therapist, who advised me never to be alone in the house with him while I was packing my things, and to begin sleeping at the new house I’d rented. I did. On the last day at the old house, when the movers came to get anything I couldn’t move myself, Dick, calling me “Deborah” over and over, beat me up right in front of the three burly, male movers. All of them were so terrified, they simply stood there. None of them came to my aid, and they refused to come back into the house until the police arrived and made Dick leave the premises until I was moved out.

We’d lived together as roommates almost 6 years, and I’d been his Caregiver the entire time. He’d attacked me physically, threatened to kill me, destroyed my personal property. Yet I felt guilty for leaving. I don’t know, in hindsight, if I would’ve felt less guilty had I known he had Alzheimer’s. Perhaps his children, especially his daughter, might have stepped in sooner to help care for him, I don’t know.

I only knew that I had to save myself, and save myself I did. From Dick and his violence, Dick and his jealousy over my professional success, Dick and his rages, Dick and his crippling depression, Dick and his incessant lying. Dick and his Alzheimer’s.

It was only afterward, when he kept coming over to my new house and asking me when I was coming home, stopping me in the street or at the grocery and asking why I never came home anymore, that I began to suspect that something was seriously wrong with Dick.

Something besides jealousy over the fact that I wrote a novel that actually got published. Something besides the fact that my novel got good reviews and won awards. Something other than my promotion to Professor and my being awarded tenure at the University. Something was wrong with his brain. When I told my therapist, who happened to be an expert on Alzheimer’s, her eyes widened. She was the first person who began questioning me in detail on some of Dick’s behaviors. It was she who suggested that Dick not only had Alzheimer’s, but that he was in the late-moderate to advanced stages, and that, furthermore, she suspected Dick had had Alzheimer’s when we first moved in together, if not several years before that.

I was stunned.

As I began to research Alzheimer’s, I saw more and more evidence that Dick did, indeed, have dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, and had had it for years. Certainly he had it all the 6 years we lived together, but he had also exhibited signs of it for several years before that.

For a long time, I was saddened and depressed myself.

Then, in an attempt to heal myself, I decided to write a novel about my experiences with Alzheimer’s dementia and as a full-time Caregiver: Only with the Heart. It helped me heal because I was honest about my feelings as a Caregiver. I also tried to understand what it must be like to be a victim of Alzheimer’s: to lose your memories, your life, your very self. Eleanor, the character in the novel who has Alzheimer’s, narrates the second part of the book, after she has Alzheimer’s. Many readers have thanked me for helping them understand what their own parents or spouses had been going through. Publishers Weekly wrote, “It is a testimony to Szeman’s skill and artistry that Eleanor, stricken with Alzheimer’s, is perhaps the most reliable narrator in the book.”

Irish folksinger Tommy Sands, who lost his own mother to Alzheimer’s and wrote a song to her called “Good-bye, Love, There’s No One Leaving”, graciously met with me while I was writing the book and told me that, every time he performed that song, he felt his mother’s spirit on the stage with him. He was honored that I wanted to include it in the novel — as a song that Sam plays for his mother Eleanor — and said that his mother would have liked me.

Here’s Tommy’s song, as well as his commentary about his mother’s Alzheimer’s and his guilt about putting her in a Home.

Good-Bye Love There’s No One Leaving
(Tommy Sands)

Now is the moment of parting,
I can feel all the fear in your hand

Leaving a home full of memories,
on the verge of a strange new land

It doesn’t seem so long since the last time,
the first day you took me to school

Searching for words that are gentle,
being brave so the tears don’t come through


Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

How swiftly the years seemed to follow,
but I never could see you grow old

We both turned the hay in the summer
and we sang when the winter was cold

And the stories I tell to my children
are the ones that you told me before

But the story now slowly unfolding
is the saddest story of all

Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving
Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

I don’t know how much you can hear me,
but you seem quite content on your own

Are you drifting away to the summer
of the days of your childhood at home

And just when I feel I’ve betrayed you,
I am lost and I don’t know what to do

You smile and you whisper, My darling,
you must go and take your wee ones to school

Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving
Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

And Tommy’s comments, which he also told me when my boyfriend and I had lunch with him during an Irish folk-song festival, where he sang this song. (By the time we met Tommy and he graciously gave me permission to use his song lyrics in the novel, his mother had already died.)

[1995:] I couldn’t help but feel a sense of betrayal as I led my mother out through the door of the family home for the last time. She had Alzheimer’s disease and we weren’t able to look after her anymore. I could feel the fear in her hand, just as she must have felt the fear of uncertainty in mine the first day she led me out to school. Early the next morning in the unfamiliar surroundings of the residential home I sat with her, not wanting to, or knowing how to, leave. She was the one who came to the rescue as usual. “You must go and take your wee ones to school,” she whispered suddenly. She had done her duty, now I must do mine. We still wave good-bye nearly every day as she drifts with dignity further and further away from the pains of the earth towards the perfection of the heavens. My thanks to the great people in Kennedy’s Home, Rostrevor, for being so good to her.
(Notes, Tommy Sands, ‘The Heart’s A Wonder’)

My novel Only with the Heart was published to critical acclaim, and is on the recommended reading list of most Alzheimer’s Chapters across the country. After writing it, I did feel that part of my own pain had healed. I also thought my experiences with Alzheimer’s were over.

I was wrong.

About 13 years after I’d left Dick, just before I was to move out of state, he appeared at my front door. My boyfriend opened the door, realized who it was and, locking the screen door, called to me. When I came to the door, Dick asked when I was coming home.

Without saying anything, I closed and locked the door (my therapist and the police had advised me to do this, for my own safety, whenever Dick showed up). Dick wouldn’t leave. He kept standing on the front porch, wringing his hands, crying, shouting, “Just tell me when you’re coming home.”

I phoned the police, who had been there many times before to escort Dick back to his house, trying always to explain to him that I didn’t live with him any longer, that I hadn’t lived with him for 13 years, and that he had to stop bothering me.

That was the last time I saw him: one of the officers was trying to convince Dick that he had to go home, the other was phoning Dick’s daughter and telling her that someone would have to drive up from Georgia to deal with this ongoing situation, Dick was swinging at the officers while trying to persuade them to get me to come home with him. He left the premises in the back of one of the squad cars, and one of the officers drove Dick’s truck home. The officers later returned to make sure that I was all right. They were always very good about that: protecting me from someone who, through Alzheimer’s, had unfortunately not only lost his memory but become physically violent.

Only with the Heart was born out of my unwilling experiences with Alzheimer’s and with being a Caregiver 24/7/365 for almost 6 years. My “patient” did not die and release me from being his Caregiver. Instead, he became violent, threatened repeatedly to kill me, and attacked me. A part of me died, many times over, because of Alzheimer’s. The part of me that survived left Dick and his disease so that I could live. Dick has 2 grown children and an ex-wife who, I imagine, have taken good care of him. If they put him in a Home, then he was well taken care of by the staff. I don’t know whether he’s still alive. If he is, I know that he doesn’t remember anything about me or most of his life by now.

That is the saddest part of Alzheimer’s dementia: it steals lives — the victims’ and the Caregivers’ — long before it ever kills the victims.

And, so far, there is absolutely nothing we can do to even slow it down, let alone cure or prevent it.

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