Antonini, Part 1

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All of today’s photos come from the private archives of my father, David Dalton. He recently gifted me with 20,000 shots cataloguing our family’s life. This post I gratefully gift to him on his 78th birthday. Love you, Dad.

It was late autumn of 1987 in Warsaw, Poland as my parents, my husband and I found our way down what the Poles call Memory Lane, a street whose existence, however much its name sounds like a Nat King Cole tune, marks one of the most bitter delineations in modern history.  This was the border of the city’s former Jewish ghetto.

Only meters from our path was where the infamous month-long resistance had taken place, biggest of its kind in World War II, when 13,000 Jews – men, women and children – lost their lives fighting the Nazis’ effort to empty the ghetto with violence. Nearly all of its inhabitants were sent to the their deaths either right on their doorsteps or in outlying extermination camps.

On this particular morning we eventually found ourselves standing in the shadow of the looming grey stone monument to the resistance. It is, appropriately, a massive wall with sculpted figures emerging from the surface, thrusting hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, and bare fists into the air.

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I stamped my feet lightly against the late October chill and my husband wrapped an arm around me. We followed my mom, who was, as always, reading aloud to us from a guide book.  My dad, meanwhile, was in the middle of the square taking pictures. I could see he was also trying to keep warm, as a puff of vapor rose from his mouth.  Despite the late morning sun creeping over the upper edge of the 36 ft. (11 meter) tall monument, the world was chilled and palpably sober.

Then from a distance, I saw a white-haired man in a black beret and gray trench coat approach and begin talking with my dad. In a minute or so, my dad waved that we all should come. Quickly.  As I came closer, I saw the man held a small bunch of flowers laterally across himself, almost like one would carry a child.

“Shalom,” the man said to each of us as we approached.

“Shalom,” we each responded.

“Peace.”

And in return, “Peace.”

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The man was maybe sixty years old, compact and softly contoured with a face hauntingly reminiscent of a late Rembrandt self-portrait. The conversation as we entered it was an oddly functional hybrid of Yiddish (spoken by the stranger) and German, from the rest of us.

“Antonini,” my dad held his hand toward the man while turning to us to explain, “has come today on behalf of his kranke katholische Frau,” (his “sick Catholic wife”), whose birthday it was, and who’d asked that flowers be laid on this memorial site. The man and his wife had followed this ritual for decades, Antonini explained. Every birthday and on all other significant dates during the year, the two came here zur Erinnerung, or in remembrance.

With the hands of a butcher, I thought – thick  fingers, padded palms – Antonini carefully laid the flowers at the foot of the monument, then stepped back on his thick-soled brown leather shoes.  They looked like they were at least twenty years old but had been meticulously maintained ever since. Probably polished them this morning, I thought. He was dressed neatly yet modestly, and from where I stood now at his side I focused on his white sideburn that matched the shock of hair just over his ear. His profile was placid, almost immobile, as he looked up  at the monument and into its vigorous and oversized faces chiseled in stone.

“We’re so sorry your wife is ill, Antonini,” my mom said. “Why, if we might ask, would your Catholic wife want to pay special tribute to those lost in the Jewish uprising?”

His arms held politely to his sides, Antonini now brought his fingers together, lacing them at the tips, then lifted and dropped them once with a single breath. “Warum?” he sighed.

Why?

“Because this,” he said, glancing at the monument, “is our story, my wife’s and mine.” His eyes fell to the ground a few feet from where we stood, to a large engraved metal disc made to resemble a manhole cover. This, we’d read earlier, was the first monument to the uprising, a reminder of the manholes through which hundreds of Jews had lowered themselves into Warsaw’s sewer system in order to smuggle goods or to escape annihilation on the street. Countless many had hidden for days and weeks in those sewers, and upon trying to emerge, the Nazis fumigated them with Zyklon.

“This story,” my dad stepped closer, “your wife’s story, your story, would you mind sharing it with us? Unless, of course. . .forgive me. . .it’s too pain-“

“Nein. Ich meine, Ja. Ja, natürlich,” Antonini interjected warmly, “natürlich kann ich sie Ihnen erzählen.”

No, I mean yes, yes of course. He wanted to share the story with us.

That is, if we wanted to hear it.

Over a two-hour lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Warsaw’s main square, (my dad had asked Antonini where we could take him for a warm lunch; this was his choice!), Antonini shared his story.  We sat at a corner table with the window and its filmy white lace curtains at my back. I remember the afternoon in vivid film clips and didn’t miss a single detail of Antonini, neither his soft mouth as it molded around the German with its Yiddish lilt, nor his expressive eyes that were tokens of a life beyond my comprehension. We wrote it all down:

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I was seventeen when I fought in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis who had overtaken Warsaw. Along with all of the other Jewish teenaged boys I knew, I was shipped off to Lublin. I was separated from my family, from my beloved and gifted older brother, David, who was then the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. By a miracle and driven by my concern for my family and neighbors whose fate I could not know and was pained to imagine, I eventually escaped from Lublin. I made my way back to Warsaw. What would I find there? From my family, who still remained? And if they did remain, in what condition?

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I was so weak when I finally reached the city that I could only crawl in silence, terrified with every movement that I would be sighted by the enemy and tortured or murdered on the spot. At some point I grew delirious from hunger and fatigue and collapsed in the middle of a street.

I was awakened when someone, I did not know who, lifted me and carried me quickly out of sight and into a home. It was the home of a Catholic family who then fed me and gave me water to drink. They proceeded to care for me in every way they could although they, too, were victims of war with food and other goods in scarce supply, their own health and well-being at serious risk.  They then hid me for many, many months in their basement.  They hid me, as a matter of fact, until the war was over. They saved me.

When the Nazis retreated from Warsaw I finally discovered the horrors that had happened to my people.  Flamethrowers and smoke bombs had been used to drive out or kill all the inhabitants of the ghetto.  All those left had been shipped, as I had been, to extermination at Lublin, Treblinka, and other concentrations camps.

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The resistance had ended a month after it had begun when, with the press of one detonator button, Warsaw’s great Jewish synagogue had been instantly turned to rubble. In the end, after searching everywhere, I found that my entire family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and my dear David – had died.  I was alone in the world.

The Catholic family gave me more than the gift of survival by hiding me under their roof.  They gave me a future. They advised that until it was absolutely secure for Jews to move freely in society, I should change my identity.  Antonini is the new name I took; I had to deny my Jewishnesss, and for years ceased to speak Yiddish or Hebrew.

And in time the remarkable happened: their daughter and I – we had been through so much together – we married.  I married the Catholic daughter of my adopted Catholic family, the only family that remained for me.

To my knowledge – and I must believe this is true, since I have been in Warsaw all these forty years since and know the Jewish community here well – I am the last living survivor of the Ghetto Uprising.  I am where that terrible story ends.

We finished our lunch.

Asking what time it was, Antonini apologized but he really needed to get home to his ill wife. While we paid the bill, we had all the leftovers packed up for him to take home, although the waitress puzzled openly at the idea of “leftovers.” (The people she knew, people who had known real hunger, never ever had food, what was it called? “Left over”? ) But she found three large glass jars in the kitchen, filled them with everything we hadn’t been able to touch for all our fixation on Antonini’s story tellng, and put the heavy jars in a nylon sack.  After thanking us for that extra food that would make for his wife’s birthday meal, Antonini shared one parting detail:

“In Jerusalem in the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, a trees stands in honor of my wife.  We received a formal letter with a picture and identification attached inviting both of us to the dedication.  Signed by prime minister Menachem Begin. Framed. It hangs in the middle of our apartment wall.”

We clapped and laughed in quiet celebration for our friend, and told him how wonderful an honor that was.

“Yes,” he nodded, his head titled slightly to one side.  “But of course we could never afford to travel,” Antonini’s eyes were, for the first time in over three hours together, not just glassy with tears but spilling over with them.  “And now my wife is too ill to make the trip. She’ll probably never see her tree.”

With that, my parents looked to each other, my mom sat up ramrod straight, beaming, and my dad’s usually professorial face softened, melted. He let out a single, muffled laughed. Then he lifted one eyebrow.

“Antonini,” my dad said, clearing his throat and leaning his whole weight on his elbows on the table, looking Antonini in the eyes, “it so happens that our youngest son, Aaron, will be in Jerusalem in two weeks. He is part of the study abroad group we are leading in Vienna, and some of the students are going to be visiting the Holy Land.”

My mom jumped in, “Can we give you a gift, Antonini?  Can we promise you that Aaron will visit the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles for your wife?”

“He’ll take a picture of the tree, of the honorary plaque,” my dad said, “and then may he send that photo to your address? A belated birthday gift? To your wife?”

And in one slow-mo instant right in front of me I witnessed a transformation. Our Rembrandt portrait came to life.  His lips parted. Then they pursed.  Then, almost imperceptibly, his eyes widened. Then he bent into his shoulders, slowly placing one wrinkled hand and then the other across his chest. He shook his bald head to one side and then, heaving a sigh, to the other. Then he brought his stare up to meet our collective stare, and spoke in half a voice, “Heute haben Sie einen schweren Stein von meinem Herzen aufgehoben.”

“Today, you have lifted a heavy stone from my heart.”

With those words we all embraced, exchanged addresses, and watched our Antonini walk away, a big bag of bottled egg foo yong and fried rice hanging at his elbow.

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As he walked up the street and around the corner, I felt the words, “heavy stone” echoing in my mind and I focused on the weight of that sack, the one Antonini was going to carry alone and all the way home. How far did he have to go yet, I wondered. How many blocks? Would the weight of the bottles break the handles of the sack? How many times would he have to stop, bend over, place the bag on the ground, straighten his tired back, rub those padded palms together and knead those thick fingers, bend over again, switch arms, heft the sack and trudge on, one step at a time?

He’d insisted, though. He’d said he could carry it alone, the bag, that he didn’t want to burden us with it. Really, his home was not far, he’d smiled with those moist painter’s eyes.  Not far at all.

And you know? I believed Antonini. He’d be fine. He was resilient, after all.  One of the great survivors. The last of his own people.  Certainly if anyone could carry a weight all alone, it was he.

So I waved one last time as he came to the last corner, waved with both arms in the air and raised up on my tip toes. Auf Wiedersehen! Bye! Shalom!

I don’t have to tell you I was pretty young and inexperienced. Dewy.  Unscarred. You’ll forgive me, I hope, that back then I’d had little visceral experience with the harsher realities of life, and so although drawn to Antonini and captivated by his story, I wonder today: did I see him?  Did I truly see and experience who he was? Because I know only now that I had no eye, really – no cellular sense – for the ponderous but invisible weight of his vast loss and lasting grief, the burden of his lifelong loneliness.

Maybe Antonini could manage just fine without me. Chances are he did.  And that evening, he and his sick Catholic wife had a joyous dinner during which he had his own unusual story to tell of a family of foreigners who were at the monument that morning. How they listened to the story. How their son – Aaron, a good Hebrew name!– is traveling to Jerusalem. . .

I can go for days on the fumes alone of that thought.

I wonder, too, what might I have learned from walking – continuing, listening, carrying even a bit of Antonini’s bag of leftovers – just a few more steps? A few more steps or even, if he had let me, the rest of the way home?

**
Antonini, Part 2 in our next post. . .