Wednesday, July 11th, 2007
STORIES OF MY PATIENTS
In my office, time after lunch is always special. I can allow myself to relax a little bit and think over my plans for the rest of the day. Lounging in my chair, happy to have at least fifteen minutes alone to myself, I looked through the charts of the patients scheduled for today.
My nurse broke the silence. A patient was waiting. I shifted my attention and assumed a pose of the all-knowing healer.
A tall and robust man, visibly limping, came into the office and quietly sat on the chair. He appeared to be in his mid-sixties. His nose had an unusual shape, obviously having been badly broken in the past. He was dressed in a dirty uniform and it was easy to see he made his living by manual labor.
“Are you working nearby?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m working as a plumber here in the neighborhood.”
His strong Jewish accent gave away his provincial origin. As I looked through the patient’s form, I immediately stumbled on his birthdate—the man sitting across from me was eighty-two.
“David, you don’t look your age. You seem to have had a happy life…”, I glanced at his nose, “although in youth you weren’t adverse to fighting, were you?” My jokes were not the best that day.
“You know Doctor,” David answered seriously, “My life was very interesting, but happy…not always.” He paused. “I spent the war in Minsk’s ghetto in Byelorussia.
In bewilderment I started to mumble apologies.
“But before the war, I was a dancer in a gypsy ensemble. Everyone in Minsk knew me as ‘David the Dancer’. I danced polkas and gypsy dances. Several times I even performed in Moscow. It is easy to dance—what’s most important and difficult to do is to respond to the mood of the audience. In order to make ends meet, I also worked as a plumber. It was a happy time for me.
And then the war started. I immediately went to the recruiting office, but it was too late. Within the next few days, the Germans landed their troops in Zhdanovichi. As a result, nearly the entire city of Minsk was under German occupation. I had a good friend, Rafka Bromberg, an incredibly handsome man. His wife Galina was of Russian origin. She offered to change the information in my passport. So, instead of David Levin, I became Daniel Levinyuk, which sounded more Russian. But it didn’t help at all.
‘The population of Minsk had been driven to Drozdi and divided into two groups—one was captured military, and the other, civilians—mostly Jews forced together with criminals released from the Minsk jail. These thugs pitilessly robbed and beat the Jews. The Jews were then moved into the jail, seventy-five to eighty people to a cell which was only designed to hold fifteen. People died like flies from hunger. They died, standing in these cells. You would turn to your neighbor—’How are you doing, brother?’—only to realize that he was dead, unable to fall down.”
“And how did you get into the ghetto?”
“The city was divided into two zones—Russian and Jewish. We were were brought to the sorting point. Germans started taking people from the ghetto for work purposes. We even had a labor exchange there. Germans took tailors and shoemakers and I was taken as a plumber into the Russian zone where I stated to work in a hospital’s boiler room. There were only three Jews that stayed in this zone—all the others were taken away.
“I made a friend there, Semka. He also had a fake passport and naively mentioned this to someone. He was arrested immediately and shot. I ran to the boiler room and threw my passport into the furnace and
destroyed it. Two Germans started to interrogate me. “Where did I live?’ ‘What was I doing before the war?’ Denying everything was the only was to stay alive.”
“And how did the Germans treat you?”
“You know, I was pretty lucky. They allowed me to take my father from the ghetto. They liked the way I worked. Once I asked an officer, who was Austrian, to bring me into the ghetto. I told him I had a sister there and asked him to help me get her out. He turned out to be sympathetic and took me into the ghetto. Pogrom was in effect at this time. I knew that Jews that were to be shot were usually not brought into the zone on working assignments. The Jews that were gathered on the square realized their unfortunate fate.
“I was here on the square looking for my girlfriend Lisa, who I had met before the war. We went to the center of the square with the officer. I walked around and looked for Lisa and began calling her name. Sud-denly she came out and grabbed my hand. Her mother and her sister appeared as well. The officer tried to help us exit the square. People started becoming frantic. The police dogs were barking. Women were plead-ing for their children to be spared. We approached the exit. The officer spoke to the policemen and Lisa’s relatives were held back. I took Lisa to my hut in the zone.
“We stayed in the zone for one and a half years and were later sent back to the ghetto, where I met my old friend Ephroim. As it turned out, he was sent by guerrilla fighters to recruit several people into his group and agreed to take me along. I tried to persuade Lisa to join, but she refused, afraid to leave her mother and sister behind. Together with Ephroim and my father, a very robust man, we reached the barbed wire entanglements. Again I asked Lisa, ‘Will you come?’ She refused and returned to the ghetto. I never saw her again.
“We were moving in the direction of the guerrilla fighters’ group and were ambushed. My father was killed. Ephroim and I somehow broke through.
“Several months later, our commander Sidyakin sent us on assignment to Minsk. By that time the ghetto had been destroyed and no one survived.”
I sat there in my office completely stunned. In an clumsy attempt to break the silence I said, “I know the money from Germany is hardly compensation for what happened but, thank God, at least you have that.”
David interrupted, “For many years, I refused to take it. I considered it blood money. I thought, ‘Why do I need it? My children are grown. There are people who need this money more than me.” My relatives said I was crazy but still, I resisted. After a few years, though, I accepted the money.”
After examining David, I drew out some prescription blanks and started writing down the long Latin names for the medicine. I tried to focus, but my eyes watered. The long Latin names I was writing became blurred. I heard German Shepherds barking and the screams of the Jewish women, ‘Please spare my child.’