- A Plaque On a Park Bench
Copyright 2012 by
“In Memory of Jacob Schoenfeld. Jacob, a Holocaust survivor, took his own life, 72 years after moving to London from Auschwitz in 1945. He died June 12, 2012.
He loved this park. And this bench.
Think of him when you sit here, won’t you? I certainly do.
I had to slow my gait to finish reading it as I strolled past on a very cold late December afternoon in Grovelands Park, north London. It seemed the many benches that dotted this park, including the half dozen or so like this one that looked out on the lake, sported small plaques in memory of a loved one who had passed. The sentiments were all rather banal, even superficial. I imagine it was not inexpensive to purchase such a permanent reminder, a public headstone, as it were, and have it affixed to city property. Yet most if not all of the plaques bore uninspiring prose.
I’d never had to slow down to finish reading one before.
This gesture, this final tip of the cap, is not unique to Europe. These messages are on many park benches in the states, where I am from, and are used as forums for final sentiments. The family takes care of the headstones, but it’s friends who are usually behind these bronze plaques that say goodbye and often invite strangers to set a spell. I’d even fantasized a time or two as to whether I would ever warrant a bench plaque. Hell, I’ve even wondered about the headstone.
Jacob clearly had made at least one post-Holocaust fan. I wondered if I should assume ”Eloise” was his wife? And I could not recall ever seeing a question mark on a bench plaque. The question mark certainly implied a request to both sit, and ponder Jacob.
Can you ponder someone you never met or knew?
I stopped and retraced my steps until I was standing in front of the bench. It felt almost like a confrontation. But from whom?
I read it again.
“Think of him when you sit here, won’t you?”
Inherent in that sentence, (or is it a question?) was the assumption that I, someone, anyone, would sit there. But of course people sit there. So the request was to ruminate about Jacob. How could you read that, sit down, and not think of Jacob, however abstractly? I was doing it now, without even sitting.
I sat. Careful to sit to the left of the plaque.
And you know what I was thinking? What the hell could have happened to Jacob that, compared to his Holocaust experience, would have brought him back to the edge and propelled him to jump off of it?
Eloise was on to something here.
She was looking for cosmic help. How could Jacob kill himself after surviving the Holocaust? I even sensed a ‘Was it me?’ question in between the lines there from Eloise.
This particular plaque may very well be a permanent cry for help. I have endured two suicides. One wife, one mother. These haymakers from the life vault have left me, ultimately, with the heaviest three letter word known to man:
Why did Jacob decide to end what the German’s could not.
I remained there for over an hour. I was about to leave when an older woman approached, walking a small Yorkie in a plaid black and red sweater. She slowed as she approached the bench.
She was tall, fairly well-preserved, but probably over 80 years old. Her carriage was firm and upright, proud even. Wispy strands of gray hair escaped from a dark blue knit cap that was pulled down over her ears. Her eyes were pale blue, and sad.
The Yorkie sat suddenly, staring at me. She came to a halt as well. I nodded and she nodded back.
“May I sit with you?”
I shifted slightly toward the end of the bench. “Certainly.”
She gathered the little terrier up in her arms and sat on the bench with the dog in her lap, stroking him thoughtfully. She was sitting on the opposite end,. Jacob’s plaque was centered between us, unobstructed.
We sat in comfortable silence for a few moments. The little Yorkie was motionless in her lap, already asleep.
She turned toward me suddenly. “Did you know Jacob?”
I shook my head. “No, I did not. Sort of feel like I do now, though. That’s a rather revealing little plaque. Goes well beyond the empty platitudes that adorn most of the ones I have seen.”
“Thank you. He was my rock of Gibraltar. I’ve been empty since he died.”
“You are Eloise.”
She nodded and sighed.
I put my hand out and she shook it. “I’m Peter.”
Her smile broke my heart, for it contained zero mirth. It was simply a reflexive action based on muscle memory. I patted her dog. “What’s his name?”
She laughed, though it was more of a harsh, bitter sound. “It was Laddy. When Jacob died, I changed it to Jacob. I don’t even think he noticed.”
“So why the revealing plaque, Eloise, if you don’t mind me asking?”
She waved her hand. ”Not at all. Jacob and I have no family left. We never had children. I think this was my way of trying to share the burden of his passing. I’ve no one to lean on.”
I reached out and patted her shoulder, then pulled my hand back. She said nothing. Jacob eyed me from her lap. Once again awake.
“How was Jacob’s health?”
She looked at me quizzically. “You’re genuinely curious, aren’t you?”
“I am. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t care.”
“Both of us were in excellent health, for being in our 80s.”
I noticed the past tense and chose to let it pass. Maybe her health had deteriorated in the six months since he died. She looked ok, but it is a very real phenomenon where long-time mates simply choose, consciously or otherwise, not to go on without their loved one once he or she dies. A walk through any grave yard will show husband and wives buried together, headstone invariably carved with dates of death in the same calendar year.
“How long were you two married?”
She looked out over the lake, which was dotted with a wide variety of water fowl. Ducks floated placidly by near the shore, eyeing Jacob. She sighed once more, heavily.
“We met at Auschwitz. On the day we were liberated. January 27, 1945. We were married February 18, here in London.”
“Wow. No lengthy honeymoon.”
She smiled. “We were grateful to be alive. Our entire families, both of them, all died at the hands of the Germans, in one way or another.”
“Since 1945, it’s only been the two of you, then? No family and no children.”
“Friends, of course, though for the first couple of years, yes, just the two of us. We got to know each other. He proposed to me on this very bench. We must have sat here a thousand times since then.”
“Seventy two years is a long life together, Eloise.”
“Peter, you have no idea.”
I scratched my head and grimaced, which usually signaled a difficult question was clogging my output pipes, and I was trying to force it through.
“Why did he kill himself, Eloise?”
She picked up Jacob, set him gently on the ground, re-established her purchase with his leash, and rose to her feet.
She was crying.
“I have absolutely no idea.”