I Remember Who I Am

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


 

I Remember Who I Am

Michael O’Keefe

 

My name is Robbie Meyer and I’m a cop. I’m what you would call a big strapping guy; six foot nine, and a solid two hundred and eighty pounds.  I have a shock of red wiry hair on my enormous head, and freckles that remind people of leprechauns. I have to duck and turn my shoulders to fit through most doors. Everybody in this town calls me The Irishman. Which is hysterical, because I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me. The other name I am known by, but only very rarely, is Mad Robert. I’m slow to anger, but when I do, my size and strength ensure that massive destruction often ensues. My fury is brief and more a product of frustration than any real offense. I am usually able to catch myself before I hurt someone beyond their ability to heal.

Now that I’ve established that I am not Irish, and am not in fact mad, it bears asking what it is that I am. What I am is a Jew, and a proud one. That’s rare enough in a town like Dunson, Ohio.  We have very few Jews. But even so, I’m not talking about one of your pedestrian, reformed, only-Jewish-on-the-High Holy Days kind of Jews. I was a rabbinical student. My father inculcated a love of the law in me and an unquenchable desire to know God’s justice. I couldn’t have been a rabbi in Dunson. There’s not enough of us to constitute a real Jewish Community, so we have little need. So, if I was going to be a rabbi, it would have to be somewhere else.

I left Dunson only to study at Yeshiva University, in New York. After immersing myself in the Torah and Talmud for four years, I was no closer to understanding God’s purpose for us all, and was utterly befuddled by his sense of justice—random as it seemed. The laws in Judaism are written, and they’re clear enough, but nobody seems to obey them unless they feel like it, and God remains silent on the matter. I miss the Old Testament God. He spoke up and made his opinion clear, and smited the shitheads when he felt the urge.

Of course, to us Jews, it’s not called the Old Testament. We just call it the Bible. This New Testament thing is a Christian invention. That’s okay by me. The ethos for both religions are largely the same. Don’t be a dick seems to be the common thread. It’s good that I can find a kindred spirit with Christians. My wife was raised Catholic and so were my kids. For that matter, almost all of my friends and neighbors are Christian as well. There are a few other Jews here in town, but they don’t seem to think it very important, so for the most part we keep our religion to ourselves.

In fact, the only devout Jews I ever knew in Dunson were my mother and father. My dad picked this town. My mom met him in New York at a support group for families of Holocaust survivors. He was a speaker at the event, and for some indecipherable reason, my mother fell head over heels in love with him. She followed him back to Dunson and married him.

I loved my father deeply, but I could never see the attraction. My mother was gorgeous; a dead ringer for a young Ingrid Bergman. He was slight of stature and had poor posture, as if he was trying to invert his body to disappear into himself. He spoke quietly and slowly and was the saddest man I ever knew. But my mother brought out the best in him. She gave him a light he never had on his own. Even more glaring than the discrepancy of compatibility between them, was the seeming impossibility that someone as large as me could have been produced from someone so slight. Other than the little remaining red tinge to his hair, and his sad, thoughtful, blue-grey eyes, we shared nothing in common.

I asked my mother about it. When I was old enough to understand, she explained.

“Your father spent two years in a death camp,” she reminded me. “They were his most important growing years. All of the internees suffered horrible malnutrition, but it was worse for growing children. By the time he was liberated, his growth had been stunted. He weighed only forty-five pounds. He filled out some and grew a little, but there is no telling how big he might have been if the Nazis hadn’t dwarfed him.”

“Was his father big?” I asked.

“He remembers very little of his father. The trauma from watching his murder left your father nothing but a picture of his face, and that as a nightmare.”

“I don’t understand,” I admitted.

“When he remembers his father, all he sees is the sad, surrender in his eyes when poor Weiskopf cut off his head. He has no other family to ask. They all perished in the camps.”

 I never broached the subject with him. I don’t think he and I had a meaningful conversation until I was ten. He was much olde than my mother. So, it wasn’t like we had a lot in common to talk about. Other than the Torah and the Talmud, and of course, Hebrew, which he was teaching me in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, there was very little conversation between us.

Another thing that confused me growing up was how an emaciated, seven-year-old, Polish Jew ended up in Dunson, Ohio. My mother, the keeper of our family history, explained again.

When Birkenau was finally liberated in April of 1945 by the US Army, Private Robbie Hardcastle of Dunson, Ohio, found my father sitting among the dead bodies of his mother and sister. They had succumbed to malnutrition a day apart. When the other internees removed the bodies from the barracks to the burn-pit, my father followed. He was sitting with them awaiting his turn to die when Private Hardcastle found him.

Hardcastle was a schoolteacher, and already a father of three. The liberation of Birkenau broke his heart. The level of inhumanity he observed there very nearly broke his mind. He needed to do something decent and human to counterbalance the unspeakable evil he had witnessed. If he could save just one innocent soul, he thought, perhaps he could hold his shattered psyche together. Finding my father among the dead like that he said felt like a mission of mercy sent directly from God.

First he saw to my father’s health and wellbeing. Then he made arrangements to have him declared his ward. After the war, he brought my father home to be raised as one of his family. Hardcastle would have adopted him but felt there was a greater duty to ensure my father knew and understood what was done to him, and to his people.

“Noah,” Hardcastle told him. “You are as much my son as my other three. I love you with equal vigor. But you have a responsibility to be Noah Meyerowitz. Noah Hardcastle can’t do what needs to be done. You must remember who you are, and you must tell the story of what they did to you. No one can be allowed to forget that this kind of evil exists—that it is among us. If we forget who we are, and of the wickedness we are capable, we are doomed to repeat it.”

Toward this end, Hardcastle arranged for a rabbi to come to the house to instruct my father in Judaism and Hebrew. He found the small Jewish community in Dunson and got my father over to them every sabbath, so he could practice his religion and stay in touch with his ancestral self.

Because Robbie Hardcastle was a schoolteacher, my father became one as well. He finally shortened his last name in sympathy for his neighbors, who couldn’t get their minds or mouths around Meyerowitz. He knew who he was, he assured Hardcastle. The last syllable was unimportant. When I was born, he named me after his mentor and savior. I wish he had lived long enough for me to meet him.  

 I was ten years old the first time I saw my father’s tattoo and asked him about it. A blistering heatwave gave him cause to bear his arms, which he never did. Six indigo numbers crudely etched into his left forearm—he said he was just five when he was interned with his father, mother, and younger sister at Birkenau. Taken from their home in the Polish Ghetto of Warsaw after the uprising, they were told it was a work camp. It wasn’t. It was a death camp. The only work being done was their systematic starvation and exposure to disease, and of course, removing and burning their fellow internees who had already perished. Most of the extermination work was already done before the Nazis opened their first can of Zyklon B.

He told me how he lost his family, beginning with his father. Most of it he witnessed firsthand. Some of it he gleaned from the testimony from the Nuremberg Trials. He remembered my grandfather as a proud man who made the mistake of ignoring a guard at the camp who gave him a senseless order. For the snub, he was butt-stroked viciously to the ground. But, this was evidently a great offense—far too severe to be satisfied by merely being beaten with the butt of a rifle. The guard was the worst possible one to offend. SS-Obersharfuhrer (the equivalent of a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army) Klaus Wunschman was better known by his sobriquet of The Beast of Birkenau. After offending him, my grandfather’s survivability had dropped to zero.

Wunschman was diabolically cruel. While he had no problem just shooting a Juden in the head, he much preferred to use the prisoners against each other, thus dehumanizing them further. So he waited for a better opportunity to address my grandfather’s transgression.

When he caught my grandfather’s best friend, Jacob Weiskopf, hoarding food for his starving children, Wunschman had the leverage he was seeking. He told Jacob he had a choice; kill Benjamin Meyerowitz or watch his own children die. Weiskopf begged to be released from this odious task.

“Fine,” Wunschman said, pulling his SS dagger from its holster on his belt. “It is the children then.”

“No!” Jacob shouted. “Give me the knife. I will kill Meyerowitz.”

Wunschman handed him the knife and told him, “Don’t stop cutting until the head is clean off.”

Jacob came upon my grandfather as he was walking with his family about the muddy yard. The prisoners had come to understand that a moving target was less likely to incur the guards random cruelty. It was also a good way to stave off the communicable diseases rife among the prisoners. A static and airless environment was a breeding ground for the infectious diseases the prisoners knew were being inflicted upon them as experiments by the camp doctors.

Without warning, Jacob plunged the dagger into my grandfather’s neck while he was holding my father’s hand. His only defensive move was to kick my father out of harm’s way. After that, he had no strength to defend himself. He was weak from malnutrition, having been hoarding his own food to feed his children.

My father watched in stunned silence as Weiskopf felled my grandfather with the one blow and began furiously sawing at his throat with the dull dagger. My father remembered my grandfather’s only response was to bleed, gurgle, and twitch. Finally, Weiskopf held the severed head up in front of him. He dropped it and the dagger at his feet before storming off toward the barracks, leaving my grandmother and her daughter to shriek and wail, while my grandfather looked on in stunned confusion. He said the guards later used his father’s head as a soccer ball. Even though my father never engaged in hyperbole, I refused to believe such casual cruelty could exist in the world. He had to have been mistaken, I thought. He identified the murder as the moment his spirit broke. He admitted he was never the same.

“Weiskopf was an evil man, Papa—as evil as the Nazis,” I said.

“No,” my father corrected. “Weiskopf was a good man who loved his family. He only sought their protection. When he was confronted with an impossible situation, he forgot who he was. When he remembered, he was so horrified with what he had done, he took his own life, hanging himself from the center beam in the barracks.”

“What became of his children?” I wondered.

“They were poisoned during medical experiments a few weeks later.”

“So, Weiskopf killed your father for nothing?”

“When the Lord turned his back on my father, he turned it on Weiskopf as well.”

“Doesn’t that make you angry?” I asked. “Don’t you want vengeance?”

“My father foresaw his end,” he said. “He told me that the Lord is just, and he will even the scales in his own time. Vengeance is not ours. If we seek it, we forget who we are—just like poor Weiskopf.”

“But, that makes no sense,” I argued. “Wunschman has to pay.”

“And one day, the Lord will see that he does,” my father said, ending the argument.

It was this quandary of injustice that sent me into the study of the scriptures. I needed to make sense of this type of random brutality. It took me many years, but I finally figured out that God is inscrutable, and his justice may be beyond our reckoning.  After achieving a degree in Talmudic studies at Yeshiva, I was no closer to understanding the Lord. I was also in love and missed her terribly. Dunson was where she was, so it was where I needed to be.

I met my Irish wife in high school. Her family had moved from Donegal when her father, who worked in textiles in Ireland, was attracted to the opportunity for advancement available in Dunson’s booming textile mills. Our relationship was almost foreordained. We were the two greatest athletes ever to attend Dunson Regional High School. Both brilliant students, we took all the same honors classes throughout our time there. Our love began in the ninth grade and burned hotter as time passed. We were perfectly suited for each other. She was a beautiful and talented soccer star; the Irish girl, and I was the big, handsome donkey and captain of the football team. Except that I wasn’t Irish. Mora didn’t seem to mind.

Amazingly, our religious differences never posed an impediment to us. Neither of our parents objected. They understood love and devotion and appreciated that it was more important than what house of worship one attended. Mora took a scholarship to Ohio State and turned it into a master’s degree in education. She returned home to Dunson to become a math teacher and assistant soccer coach.

I shrugged off numerous football scholarship offers and went off to Yeshiva to chase the cat’s tail that is the will of God. After four years and getting no closer to his purpose, I gave up on finding justice in the scriptures.  I turned my back on Judaism and returned home to take this job. I thought perhaps, if I couldn’t find justice with the Lord, I might affect a modicum of it as a police officer. But really, I came home to marry the love of my life.

Five wonderful, happy years and two children later, Mora developed an inoperable brain tumor. Ripped from my life, she was gone in a month. I would have rent my clothing, smeared ash on my face, and cursed the cruelty of my God. As much as I would have liked to fashion myself as a modern-day Job, I had two children to raise.

I sold our home and used the proceeds and the life insurance settlement to buy a five-bedroom fixer-upper in town. It turned out I had a knack for construction and home improvement. My parents moved in with us, and my mom took care of the kids while I switched to midnights. Late-tours satisfied a lot of our needs. I was able to be at every important moment of my children’s lives. I slept in the mornings and was awake to greet them as they came off the bus after school. It might not have been a typical existence, but it was good.

As the kids got older, they developed athletically, as their parentage would have suggested. I made every practice and game of their high school sports careers, sometimes shuttling from field to field to catch half of one game and half of another. With my parent’s help, I was able to raise two healthy, well-adjusted, happy children, who are conscientious and contributing members of society.

They’ve moved away to pursue their careers. My son is a young prosecutor in Manhattan and my daughter has begun her first year of residency at University Medical Center in Cleveland. I miss them, but they call frequently. I’m not much of a conversationalist, but they know how happy I am to hear about their lives. It works.

Despite putting my personal ambition as a cop aside to raise my family, I’ve still managed to have an eventful career. Dunson is a suburb, situated halfway between Cleveland and Cincinnati. While we don’t have a crime problem of the magnitude of the big cities, we still have one. Gangs, drugs, guns, theft, murder, and greed are part of the human condition. They don’t look at a zip code and go somewhere else. So, even in uniform, I’ve done my share of hard police work. In twenty-five years, I’ve been awarded Dunson’s Police Officer of the year a half dozen times. The plaques are on the wall behind my desk at my daughter’s insistence. She’s proud of my service and far more impressed with it than I am. So, they’re up there for her. I’ve turned down promotions to detective and supervisor dozens of times. I’m content with the solitude of late-tours. They let me examine my thoughts in a way only the darkness will allow. I need that kind of introspection. So, here I remain.

My reputation as a cop has grown. Given my history and outlandish size, most people are wise enough not to challenge my authority. But, stupidity is also part of the human condition. There are a handful of criminals who would tell you if they still could; when I order you to drop your weapon, you should comply. I don’t know if their deaths were God’s judgement, but someone had a final say in the matter.

Two years ago was a bad year. I lost my mother to cancer. But my loss was pale compared to my father’s. I watched what little life he had left in him drain right out. His eyes—never beacons of light—became wan, hollow, and somehow even sadder than they always had been.

A week after my mother succumbed, my father crawled into a hot bath and opened the veins in his left arm, next to that hideous concentration camp tattoo. I found him. Curiously, my sadness at his death was muted by my relief at the end of his suffering. He left a note. It wasn’t an apology.

 

 

Dear Robbie,

This world is a cruel and harsh place. I bore it as best I could. But after the death of your mother, continuing seemed pointless. I was always weak. The Lord gave me people like Robbie Hardcastle and your mother to shore up my weakness. But, Birkenau killed my spirit over seventy years ago. The gifts God bestowed on me kept me going. You kept me going. But I can go on no longer. I have told my story again and again in the hope it wouldn’t be forgotten.

In the end it was—by everyone but us. I’m tired now, and don’t want to tell it anymore. I’m content that I have kept my promises—to you and the Lord. I’ve never forgotten who I was. If you do the same, you should be alright. You’re a good man. You help people. As long as you remember who you are, you will continue to be one.

I’m confident I will see you and your mother again. I think with all I have endured; God will forgive me for taking a life that was not mine to take. I made good use of the years since Birkenau. I have not seen the Lord’s justice yet. Perhaps it was never meant for me to witness. I still believe in it though, as should you. Just continue to remember who you are. God will show you the way.

I love you,

Papa

 

After burying my father, I didn’t believe in the Lord’s justice anymore. I would never see it because it didn’t exist. I believed God had forsaken us all a long time ago. Things that happened were merely pointless, random occurrences. God had disappointed me for the last time. I wasn’t expecting anything more from him.

A month later, I was on patrol in the old north-east section of town. I got a radio call for a man down in his home. I discovered the front door unlocked and could hear moaning from inside the house. When I entered I saw an elderly man lying on the carpet in front of his television. He was clutching his chest as if in pain and rasping as he struggled to breathe. I could see from the way his left leg was bent; he had broken his hip. I was about to announce my presence when I looked past him into the next room. On the wall were two flags in four-foot wood and glass shadow boxes. One was the banner for the Waffen SS. The other was the classic swastika flag of the Third Reich. These were bracketing an old framed official German Army photo of Klaus Wunschman. As I got closer, I could see the little brass plaque beneath it identifying him by name and rank.

Festooned about the walls were other framed pictures I recognized as being from Birkenau. These were many of the same photos I had seen at the various Holocaust museums I had visited over the years to get a better understanding of my father’s suffering and how a merciful God could permit it.

These pictures were not grim reminders of the depths of depravity to which man was capable. These were part of a shrine. They were a celebration. I looked closer and recognized a photo of my father as a boy, looking frightened and forlorn. Then I saw a photo depicting uniform Nazi guards kicking a severed human head around like a soccer ball. I could see a seven-year-old Noah Meyerowitz staring on mutely in the background.

I could feel the fury begin to radiate through my limbs, a wash of crimson from my surging blood heating my skin, which prickled like goose flesh. My jaw ached from clenching it so tightly. I squatted down to get a better look at the old man. Though in his nineties, I stared into an unmistakable face of evil. This was the monster who haunted my nightmares since I was ten years old; Klaus Wunschman.

“Oh, thank God,” he said through a thick German accent when he saw me.

“God isn’t here, Klaus,” I assured him. “You need to focus on who I am.”

He looked back in pain and confusion.

“How do you know my name?” he stammered.

“I am the son of Noah Meyerowitz, and the grandson of Benjamin Meyerowitz,” I said. “And you are The Beast of Birkenau—the murderer of them both.”

His eyes went wide at recognition of the names.

“It was not me!” he wailed. “It was Jacob Weiskopf. He killed him!”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “My father told me. He used that SS dagger you have displayed under glass on your desk. You gave it to poor Weiskopf and ordered him to kill my grandfather, or you would put his children under the knife. Don’t you remember? Your adjutant testified to this at the war-crimes trials. You’re proud of that knife and it’s bloody history, aren’t you?”

“No!” he pleaded. “I was only following orders!”

“They tried that argument at Nuremberg,” I said. “They hung you Nazi scumbags anyway.”

“I’ve changed! I swear. It was a long time ago. Forgive me!” he begged.

“Forgiveness?” I scoffed. “That’s between you and the Lord. I’m just here to arrange the meeting. But you can rest assured. You will be in excruciating agony when you meet him.”

I loomed over him, allowing all of my mass to shadow him in my growing darkness. I raised my enormous boot and stepped down hard on his broken pelvis. His screams were horrible, even muted as they were by his chest pains. I kept exerting more pressure, grinding his brittle, old, hip to dust, when I heard the voice of my father in my head.

“Vengeance is not ours. It belongs to the Lord. Remember who you are, Robbie.”

Wunschman gasped as I stepped off his shattered hip and slumped my shoulders in resignation. He looked confused as I keyed the radio microphone pinned to the epaulet of my uniform shirt.

“Dispatch,” I said in a dispassionate voice. “This is sector Alpha, Bravo. I’ve got an elderly male with an apparent broken hip, experiencing chest pains. Roll an ambulance and a paramedic forthwith.”

Klaus began weeping. Through his tears, he sobbed, “Thank you.”

“Do not dare thank me,” I warned. “I will crush your skull with one stomp. You only live out of respect for my father’s mercy. But I have none. You will be exposed as the miscreant you are. The world will know what you did. You will finally pay for your crimes at Birkenau.”

For the first time, I saw real fear in Wunschman’s eyes. He had been living in dread of this day for seventy-four years. Now that he was discovered—alone—with no one to hide or protect him, one way or another, he knew he would die for his sins.

As I had promised, Wunschman made it alive to Dunson Medical Center. He was placed under police guard while I made sure he was still wanted. A computer check through Interpol verified the death warrant from Nuremberg, where he had been convicted in absentia. He was still listed as one of the top ten fugitives by the Wiesenthal Center for Justice. They had tracked him to Buenos Aires, where he remained until 1950.  After that, he seemed to vanish into the ether.  With no further sightings, Wunschman was presumed dead. So, no one had been looking for him any longer—until God put me in his living room.

In the morning, I contacted the FBI in Cleveland. An agent Degrassi was thrilled to look into the case. It’s not every day you get to arrest a Nazi war-criminal. The US Attorney was beside herself with delight. This was the kind of high-profile case that could propel her into the governor’s mansion.

The case played out with Wunschman getting the exposure and universal loathing from humanity he had always been due. He was convicted of his crimes again, this time in Cleveland. He was sentenced to die, at the time the most reviled man in the world. I had planned to attend the execution, but he succumbed to his shame and old age before the sentence could be carried out.

I was more confused than disappointed. Why did it have to happen only after my father’s death? Why have it happen at all if Wunschman was going to snuff out a few months later? I finally realized I was never supposed to understand the will of the Lord. I certainly was never meant to be his avenging angel. If that were true, Klaus Wunschman would have ended with his head as a bloody footprint on his living room carpet. And as far as the Lord’s justice was concerned, perhaps the Beast of Birkenau received it.

 God allowed me to be an instrument of that justice. While in my opinion it was incommensurate with the evil that earned it, it was not my vengeance. So, I didn’t get any say in its severity. I will have to content myself with the fact that the Lord is mighty and just, and I’m not. Ultimately, it is none of my business how He chooses to wield that particular sword.

So I get along with the knowledge that I do what a good man does—what I should—what I’ve sworn to. It should be enough, but sometimes the injustice of life is so overwhelming, the fury and frustration build. The confusion tilts me until I feel myself slipping into the abyss. I want only to rip, and tear, and destroy every discordant thing in my wake. But then I hear the voice of my father. He reminds me that I am not the Lord. I am not his instrument of vengeance. I am but a man. My fury begins to ebb.  My frustration and ignorance seem to matter less. At my father’s gentle prodding, I remember who I am, and I’m alright again…for a while.

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: August 14, 2019

© Copyright 2021 Michael O'Keefe. All rights reserved.

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