An Appreciative Smile

by Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

He stopped rather suddenly at the door pausing to take in the room’s layout and carefully eyeing its contents. Visibly on edge, he began to fidget nervously as though preparing himself for some  unforeseen danger that could possibly be lurking nearby. After all, he had managed to survive the war when so many had not. His short stature belied an inner strength and tenacity that had helped keep him alive during the most difficult of times. He had seen and experienced things that few could ever imagine and survival meant being constantly on guard–taking nothing, absolutely nothing, for granted. Although those horrific days have long since passed, he continued to feel ill at ease whenever finding himself in new and unfamiliar surroundings. Such indeed was the case today during this initial visit to the ear doctor’s office. Noting that all seemed to be quiet and in proper order, he took a deep breath, cautiously moved inward, and, as instructed, sat himself down on the waiting chair.

“Doctor, something tells me that you are a religious person. Are you orthodox by any chance?” he inquired just as I made my way into the room.

Hardly a question I would have expected from a first-time patient. It was the tone of his voice, however, laced with an equal mix of criticism and bewilderment, that caught me off guard. Sitting here before me, I thought, is a patient unlike any I had encountered before. Very few individuals would take the liberty to speak in this manner, especially before formal introductions were made and a doctor-patient relationship established. I could not think of any other patient or acquaintance, for that matter, with the temerity to ask such a question before meeting someone for the very first time. Yes, he certainly was different and only later on would I learn how remarkably different.

“Well, tell me, doctor, am I right? Are you religious?”

Not knowing how to respond to his persistent questioning, I quickly organized my thoughts and replied, “What is it exactly that makes you say that?”

Grinning proudly, he answered, “Well, every room in this office has a mezuzah, and not a one is covered with any paint. That tells me that the mezuzahs are routinely removed and probably checked every so often. Only religious people would bother doing such a thing. Isn’t that so doctor? Isn’t that what religious people would normally do?”

I nodded in silence, uncertain as to where this was all heading.

“What brings you here today? What seems to be the problem?”

“Oh nothing too bad,” he began.  “Just some ringing in my ears and I think my hearing may not be as sharp as it used to be.”

His distinctive accent, animated expressions and mannerisms were remarkably similar to what I had been exposed to while growing up. “I see you come from central Poland,” I remarked while removing a hefty amount of wax from his right ear.

But before I had a chance to attend to his left ear, he  turned abruptly in my direction. His face now sported a wide quizzical smile accentuated by the glitter of a solitary gold tooth.

“You are absolutely correct,” he exclaimed somewhat begrudgingly.  “But how could you possibly know? What tells you that I was raised in central Poland?”

It felt as though we were playing a long and difficult game of tennis and I had finally succeeded in gaining the advantage.

“My parents were also from central Poland, and they spoke with the same accent and often used the same expressions as you.”

In short order, we compared notes, discussed wartime experiences, and soon discovered that both he and my father were prisoners in the Flossenburg concentration camp. They were both liberated by American forces while on the same death march. For the first time since entering the office, he was at a loss for words. Just as the word ‘Mister’ left my lips, and before I could even mention his family name, I was cut short and reprimanded.

“By the way, doctor, from here on in, I want you to call me David. We have a lot in common, you and I. You must call me David.”

I had completely lost track of time. The door to the examination room suddenly opened and my receptionist entered advising me that a number of patients were still waiting to be seen and were beginning to complain about the long wait.

“Mr. …, I mean David, we have to end at this point. Forgive me but there are others waiting. Perhaps we can continue our conversation at a later time?”

He rose, took my hand, and declared, “I will be back doctor. I promise you I will be back.”  David was to  keep his promise in more ways than one can imagine.

There were times when David made appointments much like any other patient, but on other occasions he would arrive unannounced, usually when I was just about ready to leave for home.  During these latter visits, there would be a firm knock on the door and there stood David stating that he came to talk.

“We must talk. So few people want to listen. Nobody wants to hear about our lives back in Poland. No one wants to know what happened to us during the war. But I sense you have an interest in hearing about all that we Jews were forced to endure during that dark bleak period in our history.”

Well, David pushed the right button, and we spent many hours discussing his personal experiences during the Holocaust, Jewish life in Poland, and his views on religion.

He spoke emotionally of his family back in Poland, all of whom were strictly observant, God-fearing Jews. “How could it be that they all perished and I alone survived?” he would occasionally whisper when lost in thought. Although he had long since strayed from organized religion, David loved to describe Jewish customs and tradition in great detail. He spoke tenderly of a way of life that suddenly was no more, a life that had gone up in smoke along with the victims.

After an hour or so of conversation, he would check his wristwatch, finish his sentence, and then declare, “I’m sure you have had a long day and want to get home to your family so we will end here.”

In spite of the late hour, I knew only too well that he wanted to stay longer, but in spite of my best efforts I could no longer conceal my impatience. On many an occasion, he would call me either at the office or at home asking if I had a minute or two to spare. There was something that he wanted to share–a story, a thought, or perhaps a recollection. Once he began, he found it difficult to stop. He had a mission to complete, and complete it he would.

During one particular office visit, David entered excitedly and informed me that in six weeks he would be returning to Germany. “I have been working with some German officials about commemorating the death march we spoke about earlier. A number of survivors along with family members will be going back to revisit the route by marching from the camp to where we were finally liberated. Doctor, I think it would be worthwhile if you were to come along and see firsthand where your father spent the last months of the war. Come with us to Germany. There are a number of survivors who are returning with their wives and children and wish to retrace the death march perhaps for the last time. You will be able to speak to people who may remember your father. And, by the way, don’t worry. There will be plenty of kosher food. As a matter of fact the inn where we will all be staying is to be entirely kosher. Many of us are no longer religious but keeping kosher would be the proper thing to do while in Germany.” How could I possibly say no?

It is difficult to describe the survivors’ reactions as they retraced their steps as free men. Some would stop at particular locations revealing all that had transpired at one site or another. Talk of death and suffering permeated every discussion. There were some, however, who remained silent–their teary eyes making it clear to all that certain recollections were to be kept within.

We paid homage to those who died while on the march stopping at a number of makeshift burial sites where nameless corpses were laid to rest soon after liberation. The haunting words of the Kaddish could be heard at each stop. This special prayer for the dead was recited in unison by the entire group. It mattered little whether one had forsaken religion or still happened to observe. The words of the Kaddish touched everyone’s heart and literally singed our souls. Thanks to David, I had the opportunity to visit the camp where my father had been brutalized and tormented. At the end of the march, I stood at the place where he had likely been liberated, rubbing his eyes in disbelief as American servicemen fast approached. And for that I shall forever be indebted to David.

David was always on a mission of some sort traveling back and forth to Poland and Germany, either seeking to right a wrong or fighting to keep the few remaining vestiges of Jewish life from disappearing.  He would arrive at the office seeking medical advice or simply wanting to sit down and talk for a while. David’s visits were becoming somewhat less frequent and I assumed he was involved in some new Holocaust related venture. And then sadly, two days before Christmas, I received a phone call from a friend of David’s family informing me of his death. Apart from the day, time and place, no other details were given. I rearranged my schedule and set out for Manhattan in the early morning hours on Christmas eve.

I approached the rabbi who had officiated at the service and asked who would be saying the Kaddish for David during the next twelve months.

“I’m not certain,” declared the Rabbi. “I did not know him very well. There are no sons and I know of no one in the family who is likely to do so.”

I remembered the very first time I met David and how curious he had been about my religious observance. What is there to think about, I thought. Before the Rabbi could offer a solution, I immediately volunteered to say the Kaddish. Given the choice, David would have preferred that  the Kaddish be recited by someone with a familiar face and an appreciation of all that he had endured during the Holocaust.  And so I say the Kaddish every day.

Just as I begin to recite the prayer, I sense David’s presence and can make out the defining features of his face. His customary smirk has now been replaced by a soft appreciative smile.  David seems finally at peace.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears(http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry

One response to “An Appreciative Smile

  1. thank you for sharing this beautiful story

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