ZET WOULD TELL you that you don't have to watch. She would tell you not to feel guilty and she would agree that life is for the living - for laughing and for springtime flowers and love and the warm smiles of children. She would agree with that but she would tell you also that for tonight her schedule is set. She will watch the show on the Holocaust. Zet is a very brave woman.
Zet is a survivor. She is a close friend - Aunt Zet to my son, a virtual member of the family, a handsome woman of nearly 50 with a French accent, a hearty laugh and a Gallic appreciation for fine food. She spent her teen-age years in the camps, mostly at Auschwitz, and she did things like move rocks from place to place and work in munitions and cling to will to live. They moved her, half-dead and half-alive, back to Germany near the end of the war and while they were on the road, Zet simply walked away from her guards. She walked, 15 years old and weak, and she met a black American GI with a loaf of bread. He gave her some and she fainted.
Her mother was French. She died at Auschwitz the first day. Her father was Dutch. He probably died somewhere between Auschwitz and Buchenwald. A friend from summers in Holland was Anne Frank. We all know about Anne Frank. Zet's brother was hidden by the Trappist monks and later fought in the resistance. He's now in textiles, I think, and an aunt who went with Zet into the camps, died last week in Holland. Now of all those in her family who went, there's only Zet.
There are other survivors, of course, and they meet, those who can face the past, ffom time to time for memorial services. Zet has been going to these things lately and she went to one last year on the campus of Brandeis University. They all stood next to a statue of the weeping Job on as brilliant a fall day as you're likely to see, and after a while a rabbi came to the lecture to talk in Yiddish, which is the Language of the Holocaust.
I played reporter, taking notes and pretending to be a professional, and my sister translated his words. He talked of the children in the concentration camps and how the guards came around with a pole could work. They lived. The others died.
"The children understood," the rabbi said. "They tried to stand taller. They tried to stand on their toes without being seen. But they knew if they were caught standing on their toes they would be shot. The little children stretched upwards, the Nazis came around on Rosh Hashanah."
Now only the wind made a sound. The rabbi's face was strong and stern, European in the way that's hard to describe. He was dressed in a brown suit and a white shirt and a yellowish tie and he was maybe 60 years old - maybe older. All around people were crying softly. My sister was crying and I was crying and behind me Zet, too, was crying. The rabbi looked into the sun with clear eyes. He continued.
"A rabbi had a shofar (ram's horn blown on Rosh Heshanab). He went from barracks to barracks blowing the shofar. The children . . ." My sister paused in her translating. "The children asked him not to blow the shofar. The children said it was dangerous . . ." Here she had to stop and here I put away my notebook and later, after the rabbi had finished his story, we could find no one who had heard the end of the story. Of course, we all knew the end. A million and a half children died in the camps, and later when I told Zet that I could not write about the memorial service, she said she understood.
There is a picture of Zet that was taken several months ago. It shows her standing in the yard at Auschwitz. Behind there are some people and behind them the brick barracks. She is dressed in a fine coat and her glasses are pushed back on her head and her hair is nice and stylish. She is a woman from Boston, a professional in the field of social work, and you cannot tell from the picture that she has come to confront her memories and symbolically bury her parents. But she did just that. She said the proper prayers and she went home.
There was a time when Zet could not talk about her past. You knew and she knew you knew but you said nothing, and inside her she was struggling once again, coming to grips with the past - coming to grips with her very survival. It was a hard fight but slowly she learned to talk about the past and she went to universities to lecture and students with term papers came to her and asked her questions. Always it was hard to talk and sometimes the questions were dumb and insensitive but she stayed with it and when I went to Auschwitz it was both to see the place and write about Zet - how she ahd mastered that place after all.
I got there on a cold November day and the wind was always at my back and the horizon was always barbed wire and watchtowers. I went to the ovens and to the pits and to the barracks. I saw the cells and the gallows and the hospitals where lives were taken, not saved, and I gagged on history. I left that place and went back to the hotel and I found I could write nothing. I told Zet what had happened and she said once again that she understood.
So she will understand, too, if you do not watch and she will understand if you felel there is something else you must do. As for herself, her schedule is set. I called her and she said, yes, she would watch. It would not be easy, but she would watch.
She's a very brave woman.