by Maury Gruszko
Having been puking off the wrong side of the ship to see her in the mist in the distance of the harbor, Gershon’s awareness of the approach came not from shouts and cheers but a swift diminishment of sound, a whole stretch of silence for the first time since they were herded aboard and down into steerage. Nights had been sleepless for so many, he knew, because it was they who’d kept him awake, retching, moaning, making pleasure for themselves in the misery and stench. The stench he could conjure in his memory anytime after, always without trying and never from desire. No one at home could have warned him about steerage, no one had ever come back from
אַמעריקע Amerike America, not to Łapy, which had been all he’d ever known. Had they, it wouldn’t have mattered, “choice” having not ever been much more than a word, an idea, and only rarely an option. And then, swiftly swelling like the rising roar of a deluge, the cheering began. From over one of the ship’s funnels he saw a massive, greenish torch, and then there she was. The colossal embodiment of promise.
He was 15 years old but said seventeen and had $9 in his pocket, for him a fortune, which he had to claim was twenty-five. There were over 2,000 other steerage passengers boarding the T.S.S. Rotterdam and no one in charge cared whether he was lying or not as long as he wasn’t sick or an imbecile, which would’ve forced the shipping line to be saddled with the cost of hauling him back to Europe; he, like the others down there, was not much more than cargo, just not as valuable.
He wouldn’t be going home. He would never be going home again. And the hell with home. Take out his mother and father and family, everyone he knew, and good riddance to everything that was Poland. He would one day bring them over, all of them.
Gershon’s new first name felt like what he was, but wished he wasn’t: short. His second new name wasn’t even a name, but a color. He had learned his English alphabet letters, his English colors and numbers right up to one hundred, which from his experience in all his life so far seemed enough if not plenty; plenty was a word he’d never had the pleasure to experience except by way of want, this he’d had plenty of. Gershon could do things with words in Yiddish, he could put words together on a page like some might arrange flowers into something new and even more lively than the fragrant beauties would be when on their own. He couldn’t write himself a sandwich or piece of pie or apple such as were sold in the boxes others around him purchased downstairs in the lunch room there at Ellis Island. Being hungry, now that he’d gone ashore, was what he thought about most when he thought about that day, years and years later. He’d walked with thousands of others in one line and then another and was poked and asked questions and finally set foot on a part of the earth that was not rolling and rocking with swells and waves, as even the island seemed to do for the time he was there. A few hours later and now named George Green, he was taken by the hand by an Uncle Abraham, whose long fingernails dug into his nephew’s wrist, Abraham’s grasp both anchor and hook and the only thing keeping George from being knocked loose and swept into the cyclone of arms and bodies swirling in fierce rapids around them.
Life was in color but all he could later remember was black and white, black frocks and trousers white beards and shirts, black shoes (they all had shoes if not always of a kind) and white sky, all of it; piles of bold letters black and Hebraic calling, pronouncing, declaring, announcing, loud as voices hawking and hakn chicken and tshaynik, white skin from life inside where work was always here done.
Letters home, to and from, got easier over the years, letters letters letters back and forth, a family of scribblers, George of course still signing ‘Your Gershon’. For the wealthy of those later years there were telegrams for urgent news, but wealthy he wasn’t, far from, and yet he had at long last, after more years than he’d ever figured, saved enough, enough finally for passage for his mother and sisters Sara, Feigel, and Chava, and his brother too, David, but David was doing well with a new soda drink he’d invented, something he called Kwas that was becoming very popular and besides, even with Pop gone already because of his heart, Ma was the first to say no, too old, too old for that trip, too old to start over, things were okay here, better than she could remember, and being who they were, how they were, as loyal as they were stubborn, just like himself, George’s sisters, too, said no, they wouldn’t leave without Ma. The younger siblings had one-by-one made their own way over, all chipping in what they could to help the next one leave Poland, but as far as Ma and the others were concerned, they were staying put. The family had been in Poland since who knows how long, but longer than anyone anymore knew to say where, as a people, the roots beneath the trunk of the family tree had originated. There in Łapy, though, for over two hundred years. They’d survived that long. Poland, they’d said in some of the last of their letters, was not Germany. And so they stayed.
The cart ride from Łapy to Bialystok he remembered only for the wetness of his mother’s drool on his collar and the tears he’d tasted kissing and kissing her cheeks. Gershon, not her first born but somewhere in the middle of what eventually would be ten, practical, smart, quiet and good. She cried for his hopes, fearing for his disappointments, or disappointment she could live with but God, please protect him. He had earned his own passage, working since age 10, helping his father deliver the flour Gershon’s uncle sold. Clever, he should study and learn, but work was done by necessity and his earnings were the family’s and it was they who did without, too, though not really so much in the five years he had portioned off a tiny bit, a kleyntshik bisl, every week for his eventually leaving – no, not so much leaving, but going ahead, toward.
When he sits in his chair in Scranton these years later, bum foot on the hassock (trying to rush delivery of a pinball machine three years before and it slipping and crushing his foot, and yet that’s how he met his Molly, who’d been volunteering as a Gray Lady at the hospital), the bones throbbing often still, George will turn the dial on the table radio from the programs (he could not listen to music for a while already) as soon as Molly’s gone to bed and he’ll find the news for a few minutes, then switch off, night after night seeing his hand trembling as he did so. Back in the chair, he takes off his glasses, closes his eyes, and feels his heart beating in his throat. Dear God, he wanted to be well, but if every doctor in town unconditionally forbade him from ever listening to the news again, he’d have to obey, wouldn’t he? It had been months since even a note from anyone. 1942.
Of course he wasn’t able to sleep the night before he’d left his home in Łapy. He’d tried to picture Amerike but felt foolish not because he couldn’t, but for trying to do so when he knew he couldn’t. From now on he would not waste energy on what he couldn’t do because look at what, come dawn, he would be doing because he knew he could because finally it was up to him. He knew he’d wanted to go to Amerike the minute his father Samuel had read a letter aloud from his, Samuel’s, Uncle Abraham and italicized with his voice the line “The word ‘pogrom’ does not exist here,” ‘here’ being Amerike, a word marvelous to the ears. That instant, Gershon determined this was where he would one day go and, once there, work to bring his family over too, even if he had to swim back and forth and carry them each, one-by-one, on his back.
“What does this one know from life over there?” his father had said to Gershon’s mother once their son was finally ready to buy his passage. “That it isn’t here,” Itke replied. And yet how, five years before, Pop had kvelled when his boy had pledged to him exactly what he had determined he would one day do, just as the two began the workday deep in conversation, just as always. Ten years old, and already wants the best for his family. Is that not already a mensch? Have you ever heard of such thoughts in such a young keppie? Pop’s admiration (spoken as always to his invisible, agreeable interlocutor) was food for his growing son’s growing will. But when had that feast begun to spoil? Lying awake the night before his departure and ages later on his chair in Scranton, he remembered Ma stopping the two from ferociously arguing as Gershon’s years-long Amerikaner dream approached the realm of reality, a message she’d flash her son with just her eyes saying she’d deal with Pop, work on him, not fight with him but weave what would be the fabrication – with threads of logic and fairness and hope – of a seamless and logical inevitability. Things might never get better in Poland and this one, no, none of them, was made to be dragged away as cannon fodder; this one could be the trailblazer for the whole family. What evidence had she or Samuel ever seen that things might ever get truly better and didn’t her husband remember how worse it could all yet again so swiftly become? That Gershon, he took after her in one big way: optimism. Nu? Simple – things may get worse here, sure, but who was to say that here was where they’d always have to be? When Moses was an old man already, wasn’t it the young who had lead the vanguard into the Promised Land? (Why the hell did she still have to seem so optimistic in even the last of her letters? Bluster for the censors? Was George missing something written between the lines?)
The last fight with Pop happened after Gershon had saved enough for his passage aboard the steamer but still didn’t have the fare for the train from Bialystok to Berlin and then the final leg to the Netherlands. He had, in fact, saved enough, but several months before there’d been a disaster when a torrential, late autumn storm forced Gershon and his father back home before half of the deliveries could be made, and though they’d managed to lash a tightly woven sheet of canvas over the burlap sacks in the cart and secured it so tautly that the rain bounced and beaded off the surface and swiftly rolled away, overnight an hours-long barrage of sleet made taking the cart out the next day impossible. And so it was a day off, a full day off when nothing at all could be done beyond a few chores and little repairs around the house and the usual lessons for the younger ones, but otherwise a whole day where no duties needed fulfillment, a day not of commanded rest and prayer but one of silliness and fun spent telling stories and drinking tea and making one another laugh. The next morning dawned without a speck of cloud to be seen, beautiful, and since the temperature had steadily risen overnight the weather felt far more springlike than autumnal. Repeating some of the jokes from the day before and walking through the slush with chosen steps, Samuel and Gershon began their new day happy and refreshed.
Itke came running from inside when she heard her husband shouting “No!” over and over and until she got there not four seconds later a panoply of calamities had brutally stormed her imagination. Both son and husband were standing, there was no blood, both were completely whole, no strangers were present, thank God, thank God, thank God, thank God. A rat, though, rats had gnawed through the canvas during the night (or even while, like bums, Samuel and his kin had laughed and drank tea) and what the rats did not eat had been turned into a gooey paste streaked and mottled with their noxious droppings. Itke’s brother, the distributor of the flour, the owner of the tiny business, was good to his brother-in-law and nephew and had, like Itke and Samuel, been blessed by a large brood at home, but he was not by any means at all well-off and though he wanted to snap his fingers and absorb the loss, he couldn’t, the next load of flour always being purchased with most of the proceeds from the one just sold. He would do whatever he could to help his own mishpocheh, always, but without the money to buy the flour for Samuel and Gershon to deliver, what work would there be? So it was arranged that he would cover most of the loss, but he simply didn’t have enough to cover all of it. Samuel and Itke had a tiny bit stashed away and the older kids gave what they had, but finally it was up to Gershon to untie the knipple of all he’d saved for an entire third of his life and cover the rest.
Pop hadn’t thought it a loan, what a disgusting thing to think, he’d told Gershon, who himself had said he didn’t want his money back, it wasn’t really a loan, he just needed to keep a greater portion of his weekly pay to save up and finally buy the train fare, and he begged his father’s pardon for asking, but did Samuel want his son taken for the army? It wasn’t a matter of if, it was more-than-likely a matter of when, a miracle he hadn’t been taken yet already.
Small as Samuel was, shorter even than Itke when her hair was up in the daytime, he was strong. Lifting, moving, sorting, shifting how many sacks of flour how many times a day for how many years on end? He couldn’t (and wouldn’t) throw a punch and was only so-so at splitting logs for the stove, but he just didn’t know that the force of his slap would knock his son over, hitting a little table and breaking a tiny milk glass swan, one of the only pretty things they had, Gershon howling and Samuel crying, holding, holding, holding his son, God forgive him he’d do it again to knock those words from God’s hearing! Gershon knew better than that, didn’t he know better than that?
So this was hewn in his memory with all the rest, both on the sleepless night before his voyage and all the years later in the place he hadn’t had the ability to even picture. His fear that night those years before was of a whole other breed than what gnawed around his heart in Scranton; he had never been on any kind of boat before, not even a raft on a pond (Jews were forbidden from parklands), and very soon there was to be entire oceans to cross. He wouldn’t mention his terrible fears to any of his brothers or sisters, not so much afraid that they’d scoff but rather easily convince him to stay. The money for his tickets could buy so many chickens – he could invest it and begin to make his own fortune – and think of Pop, finally really resting for once. And won’t you miss him and Ma? What if we never see you again? Countries and countries and oceans and oceans apart, thousands and thousands of versts away. He had no skills, really, no trade at all, what if there was no work there? And how will he ever learn the language, not just words? And if he were miserable? What then? Another five years of saving to come home? And what, they wouldn’t have the cruelty to ask, as he had asked himself over and over, what would happen to the family without him there to provide his income?
It seemed as if he’d only just finally fallen asleep when Ma gently woke her Gershon. The sun had not yet come up and he knew then at once that what he would most miss was seeing his mother’s silhouette with her hair softly wound atop her head, the first sight he’d seen just about every morning of his life. The light behind her in the other room was the same color of the braided crust of the challah she’d bake every week and all was still quiet. Ma held her finger to her mouth and Gershon followed her into the other room. Food and coffee was set for him on the table and Ma sat with him as he ate, too nervous for much but his mother told him, as if he needed reminding, that the cart ride to Bialystok would last for many hours, the city well over fifty, closer to sixty, verst away. When others had left Łapy, really only so many and few enough that each name was remembered, often what seemed like the entire shtetl came to bid well wishes and goodbye; Gershon did not want this, not only because of his modest way but, too, what had become an enduring mar to the always indelible bond between he and his father made the idea of a festive farewell seem insulting to their profound love. And so over the past week as one-by-one he said his goodbyes, some said how proud his father must be for so young a man to do something so bold, and Gershon would just smile, but many others had parted with, “Go and make your parents proud” and to this he said, shaking their hands, “Yes.”
Meanwhile, for this last morning Ma wanted just a little time to have her boy all to herself, just until it was time to wake the others. There was everything to be said and yet nothing had remained unsaid. Never once had they been awkward and silent with one another and after a few moments Itke reminded her son of two very important things. She had written out the name and address of Pop’s uncle who would be meeting Gershon in New York, kindly Uncle Abraham whose flat on Mulberry Street was already bursting with his own family and two boarders, every corner and surface occupied with the this-and-that of the piece work the entire family did just to get by (but just get by in safety), and so he could only offer hospitality for a single night before seeing his great-nephew off the next day to the train bound for Scranton, in the state of Pennsylvania. Itke had written Abraham’s address three times, twice in pencil so it shouldn’t wash away and these she placed one in his pants pocket and one inside the tiny wad of extra clothing she had folded and rolled and tied in a blanket, and once in ink in the tongue of Gershon’s right shoe. The money, his money, she had pinned deep in his pocket with a rather long, strong and sharp safety pin, telling him then with God forbid as a preface and toi toi toi punctuation that should he need it, the pin could be opened and quickly straightened to be used as a weapon.
Gershon could not imagine the changes that would be inscribed on the unturned pages of what would be the history of the Twentieth Century; no one but the most wicked and ingenious could have jotted more than a word or two of horrendous and spectacular conjecture of what depravity lay ahead. Since the second generation of humankind, he had been taught, murder was a trait of our species, brother to brother, tribe to tribe, village to village, nation to nation. A Pandora’s Box of murderous innovation would soon be thrown open in what neither George, nor anyone sane, would yet think possible, and one atrocious means of unfathomable slaughter was, rumor said, the use of gas. His foot on the hassock, his heart in his throat, his eyes open again from the perverse torments of his imagination, the rumors he had heard were, that night and for years to come, all true.
Maury Gruszko‘s stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Confrontation, cream city review and, most recently, Oxford-based The String magazine. He has written a novel, Amidst The Its, and is nearing completion of his second novel, from which “Gershon” originated as a chapter. Maury dedicates this story to the memory of his great-grandmother, Itke, her children, and his wife Chloe’s innumerable family members, all murdered by Nazi Germany not so long ago.
Image source: Dylan McLeod/Unsplash