My mother’s first contact with death came in 1919, when she was nine years old. My mother and her mother had survived World War I, and the famine caused by the British blockade, but many had not. Famine kills. With peace, in 1918, came the Spanish Flu, inadvertently brought to Europe, most probably by American troops, and the many deaths that caused, including that of my grandmother. My mother was left to be raised by her aged father (who was sixty-nine at the time), and her older sisters. In the early 1920’s, my mother lived through the economic chaos of Germany’s hyperinflation, and then came Hitler, both in Germany and Belgium, and then the Holocaust and the Final Solution. My mother’s life and her continued contact with death continued throughout World War II and its aftermath.
My mother’s marriage to my father had been a disaster. Naturally enough, she never discussed it with me, but her luck with men was to be no better later, as the death of her lovers seemed to stalk her.
I believe that Ferdi was the great love of my mother’s life, but he didn’t survive the war, dying in Auschwitz. After Ferdi, came Poldi, who died of a heart attack shortly after being released from a psychiatric hospital, where he had faked insanity for several years, hiding from the Nazis. Next, and for a very brief time, there was a man who had returned from the death camps whose name I’ve forgotten, and who made exquisite gold rings. He was really a master jeweler and made my mother several gold rings, at least one of which is still in the family. That relationship ended when he committed suicide for no apparent reason. One day he just jumped out of a high window.
And then there was Max Gringer. Max was one of the men who had returned from Auschwitz, he was one of the living skeletons in striped pajama-like suits I had admitted to my aunt’s house. I hadn’t paid too much attention to him other than to note that he had a broken nose, and he sort of disappeared after our initial meeting, although I did hear him mentioned in some of the conversations, but I don’t remember in what context. I think that people felt sorry for him, as he had returned, but his wife had not. She had also been in Auschwitz. And then, one day, his wife did return, and there was much joy in the family, although neither Max nor his wife was really related to us. Max and Eva resumed their lives, much as others had done, doing I don’t know what. A couple of years later, Eva, Max’s wife, committed suicide by means of gas. To have undergone all of what she had, the long train ride to Auschwitz, the constant fear, the cold, the abuse, the killing slave-labor and lack of food and freedom, as well as the long, hard trip back, to have undergone all that and then to commit suicide. . . It was a mystery, and people guessed at it, but that was all.
I believe that Eva’s funeral was the last funeral my mother attended. After that she never attended another, saying that she’d had simply enough of death and dying. She had attended enough funerals. And as for Max, she felt sorry for him, sympathized, empathized, and then one thing led to another. . .