Fragments of Memories


©Vera Meisels


Summertime, two months after the war, the beginning of the school holidays.Vera Meisels

The girl was nine years old. Skinny, short for her age and less developed than the other girls. Three years of hunger during the war had left their mark.

There she stood, among the crush of customers in the small town’s butcher shop, clutching the coin her father gave her for candy. Actually, he had told her to go to the candy store near home, but she preferred to pamper herself with something real. Eager to prolong the time she could spend there, she kept moving to the end of the queue of customers being served by the two butchers. High on the wall behind the counter, tightly packed on two rows of hooks, hung a variety of smoked delicacies: salami, spicy smoked sausages, thin ones, thick ones; a sight for sore eyes. She felt a strong urge to swallow, even if only the image of them. Never in her life had she seen such abundance. The variety and aroma were magical. She didn’t care that the crowd of shoppers in front of the counter obscured her view of the fresh meat. She didn’t want any of it.

Next to the counter was a blackboard with something written on it in white chalk, maybe the prices; she couldn’t read words or numbers anyway. She had never been to school. She stood there, gaping at the sausages and salami, swallowing saliva as if she was already enjoying the taste. All that interested her was which to choose. That one in the corner, or maybe the longer one. This, or maybe that, it was a hard choice to make. She consoled herself with the thought that in spite of her confusion she was going to have at least one of them. She anticipated the happiness that the coin in her hand would bring her when she paid, while the smoked delicacies were wrapped in waxed paper.

It’s hard to guess how she managed to suspend the pleasure of this confrontation with so many smoked meats. She waited, engulfed by the women – most of whom were peasants wrapped in many layers of wide skirts that completely concealed her – as she sniffed the heavenly odors that reminded her of the cylinder of sausage...

The sausage that was the talisman of their survival. A thick, dry sausage from which Mother managed to cut thin slices with a sharp pocket knife, giving one to each of the occupants of the bunker where they were hiding. The little girl, who was the youngest of them, knew there was no chance of a second slice, Mother shared everything with dedicated fairness. Day after day, the girl lay motionless with her parents and her big sister, waiting for evening and darkness. She amused herself during the day by looking at the view from the opening of the pit that was deep inside them. She closely observed the snowflakes drifting down like stars that changed shape as if she was seeing them through a kaleidoscope. At times, the white-clad forest glittered with falling snow in the moonlight, as if at the touch of a magic wand. The canvass cover collected a layer of snow that camouflaged them well. Even the German soldiers’ wolfhounds never discovered them. To be safe, to prevent the dogs from smelling it, the sausage and other sparse food was only uncovered at night, after the German patrol.

“Yes, little girl, what do you want?” asked the shopkeeper, dispersing her snowbound memories.
She approached the counter, stood on tiptoe, held out the coin and said, “I want the kind of sausage and salami to get the most for this coin.”

He was surprised. Usually, although it did not happen often, the children came with a list from their mothers. He eyed the coin and smiled at the girl. She fixed a pair of yearning eyes on him and he could not resist the impulse to make her happy. He was under the impression that the sausage was for cats, or a puppy, so he pointed to a big heap of assorted off-cuts.

“From these you can get the most.”

The little girl, delighted at the thought of being able to eat as much as she liked from so many kinds, nodded her approval.

The fat butcher in the apron that was originally white and now was stained down the front, heaped a generous amount of scraps onto a sheet of waxed paper without weighing it; he then wrapped it in more paper so that it wouldn’t spill on the way home. Handing her the parcel, sure of his generosity, he said he hoped it would be enough for a few days. The girl took the parcel as carefully as if it was a fragile treasure and thanked him nicely. She could not know that the man had given her an ample amount without considering the value of the goods in relation to the coin. After leaving the shop, she went into a yard and sat behind a shed, where she could not be seen. She opened the parcel and ate until she was full. Replete and happy, she re-wrapped what was left and hurried home for a drink of water. Nobody noticed her. Father was in his shop, Mother was listening to the radio and her sister was in the city. She slipped into her room and hid the parcel under the bed. When everyone was asleep, she planned, she would take out her secret and enjoy it again.

When she seemed to have grown up, something that was only outwardly apparent, she tried to be like everyone else. On completing her army service, she found work in an office and functioned as a disciplined marionette. But at heart she remained the little girl suddenly deprived of the pleasures of childhood. She told nobody what she had endured in the war. In those days, people weren’t interested anyway. “One must look ahead, one must put the events of the Diaspora behind one,” was the message of the Immigrant Youth instructors on the kibbutz. During the day she worked for a living, at night she studied. She enrolled in various courses, including ceramics, where she learned to sculpt. Her psychiatrist suggested that she enroll in an art class and it was there she met the one she thought was destined for her. She fell head over heels in love, dazzled by his career air force uniform. She had no doubt at all that this was the perfect man for her. A proud sabra, in whom she saw everything that she considered right for a sound relationship and perfect parenthood.

Although she was almost thirty, a grown woman, she shared the pillow of her spinster bed with Zolaty, her faithful teddy bear confidant. He was always first to hear about events in the sculpting class and about the soldier who dazzled her.

Until she met her soldier, she never imagined that she would ever want to have children and involve them in the Holocaust Survivors Second Generation Syndrome. She was afraid of taking on a heavy responsibility she could not handle. However, the new chapter in her life and her great love promised much; they were married.

When she fell pregnant, she didn’t crave pickles, like others, she craved sandwiches with plenty of salami.

Feeling the movement within her, she knew she would always protect her child. She would peep into prams with babies as tiny as dolls inside and waited patiently for the day she would finally have her own, live doll.

She forgot the dolls she used to have before the day of that escape to the forest.

With pregnancy came the certainty that in the new era, with life germinating inside her, everything was now behind her; she would even be able to show her children the many teddy bears hidden in the depths of the closet. The teddy bears had accumulated during her single years, but since her marriage she had concealed them.

When her belly swelled and she couldn’t find a comfortable position to fall asleep, she would drowsily picture a cradle she saw in a display window. During the day, she visited shops to choose the furniture they would buy when the time came.

She went over every detail in her mind, but nothing prepared her for the moment when she found herself lying in an ambulance speeding to the maternity emergency ward.

“If your water breaks,” the instructor of the prenatal class had told them,”you have to get to the hospital fast!”

At the hospital, she vaguely heard someone exclaim, “We’re losing her, too. Straight to the operating theater!” Then she fainted.

She opened one eye and then the other in an unfamiliar room, before dropping off to sleep again. As if from a distance, still confused, she heard “Good morning!” in the middle of the night. Why did he have to shout and disturb her? Crossly, she sank back into sleep.

The doctor in his pale green clothes was sitting in the armchair next to her bed. His relentless “Good Morning” gave her no peace until she woke up. Looking somewhat embarrassed, the doctor asked how she was feeling and then gradually informed her about the baby.

”Your little beauty weighed two and half kilos,” he said. ”A perfect baby with an abundance of brown hair. Now, when I look at you, I’m sure she inherited her beauty from you.” After the flattery, he said,

“It happens once in a thousand times. Why? Nobody knows, but the baby passed away before we needed to perform the caesarean.”

Afterwards, her friends came and went. Her colleagues at work sent her a bouquet that drove her out of her mind. What insensitivity, she thought. But her friends enfolded her in love and tried to cheer her up with nice gifts.

When her husband asked what she wanted, she asked for only one thing:

“Lots of smoked sausages and salami!”

No longer dependent on the pocket money coin she remembered so well... her inclination to buy sausages became stronger as the years passed.

She lived on an income comfortable enough to allow her to indulge her passion. Without planning ahead she would simply be sucked into shops from which wafted the wonderful smell of smoked meats. She stored her extravagant purchases in the freezer. “You never know,” she thought, “this might be the last chance to hoard.”

This was her habit when she went abroad, too. There, she persuaded herself, the quality was better. As a matter of course, her baggage contained kilograms of various kinds of smoked foods, which went unnoticed until that embarrassing trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It was after the Munich tragedy. The El Al counter at Frankfurt airport was moved to an isolated hall at the end of the terminal. Policemen armed with sub-machineguns guarded the long, winding queue. The uniforms of the German policemen made her tense. The subdued line of people took her back to the line on the platform where she stood before entering the box car...

Finally, it was her turn to lift her suitcase onto the long counter manned by policemen wearing white gloves. She had to open it and unpack the contents. The sausage smell she loved so much filled the air — so foul to the policeman that he contorted his face. He made a remark that sounded bad to her. A shudder passed through her whole body, she imagined him as the wolfhound that had searched for her in the snowy forests. He hadn’t caught her then, but now, here, she was trapped.

“In ordnung. In order,” he said, rousing her from her memories, turning to the next passenger.

When he was gone and she was re-packing her suitcase, she sneaked a little piece of a thin sausage into her handbag. As soon as the luggage was loaded on the plane, the policemen herded the passengers into a kind of big glass cage with benches. Before she seated herself, she turned her back to the other passengers, stooped over her bag and nibbled her sausage until she calmed down.


©Translation from Hebrew: Riva Rubin

Published here with the permission of Vera Meisels. 
Please visit the "poetry" and "personal reflections"  pages to read Vera Meisels' poetry and personal story.