Friday, January 27, 2012

"Empty Chairs" --A short story for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year's theme is the millions of CHILDREN murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. These children did not just perish due to hunger or natural disasters, but as a result of cruel and deliberate acts of killing!

I was ten years old when my mother was the class mother on a one-day trip to Jerusalem and Dora got her first period.

My mom didn’t tell me. Dora did, a couple of days later, assuming that my mom had. In the separate building that housed the school lavatory, Dora also wanted to show me her new special belt that held the pad, which she was supposed to wash every day. The whole thing was just too gross. I fled.

Throughout the next two years, weird and mysterious things were happening around Dora. Not awesome, but rather repulsive, like the curious importance she gave the gigantic mounds that filled the front of her dress, and her seeking the boys’ attention, which I so dreaded.

The boys' after-school hangout had shifted from the schoolyard to the front of Dora's apartment building, where the branches of an aged, massive sycamore allowed them to climb up closer to Dora’s perch on the third floor. On my daily trek with Sarah, Bella and Debbie to the private library off Allenby Street, where, for a monthly fee, we took out three books each day, we would spot Dora at her window. Her pretty face with warm brown eyes was framed by light brown curls, and she smiled easily even without a good reason. If the boys weren't around, Dora walked with us to the library although she rarely even read the one book a week from the school library while the four of us would often finish a book on our walk back home.

For a long time, Dora wasn't even the subject of discussion among us four. Whatever was taking place around her dwelled in the periphery of my consciousness, but had I been interested, I wouldn’t have known what questions to ask. My three friends had begun to bud, and Debbie's mother badgered her not to stoop and to let her buy her a bra. We had perused the drawings in the midwifing book my grandmother had brought from Russia in 1920 and had been horrified to discover what we really had “down there.” Yet none of it had anything to do with the way Dora pushed out her large breasts or with the boys, all a head shorter than she, acting crazy, punching and hitting one another just to show off, but looking like idiots.

In fifth grade, on the nurse's day off, I tore a ligament in my ankle. I sat in class, whimpering until the teacher could no longer ignore it and sent Dora with me to the Red Star of David emergency room. I couldn’t hobble the four blocks, so Dora carried me on her back. After the doctor bandaged my leg and ordered home rest, she carried me uphill on Mazeh Street all the way home. Her sweat was tangy and full-bodied, like an adult’s.

A couple of weeks later, when she invited me to come to her home to play, I couldn’t refuse. It would have been rotten of me.

Dora's mother had blue numbers tattooed on her forearm. She was a handsome woman, older than everyone else's mom, her hair coiffed, her yellow dress tailored, and she smelled clean in the heat of summer. She was so different from my Israeli-born mom who, like me, wore her dark hair in a waist-long braid, walked around in blue shorts and Biblical sandals, and who favored industrial soap for our bedtime shower.

Dora’s mother said something in German to Dora, and Dora led me to their dining room. Their furniture--heavy, dark, and smelling of lemon and wax--was the kind salvaged from Europe. The inlaid-wood table was so shiny that I could see my reflection in it. Dora's mother gave us cloth napkins trimmed in lace and served us tea in a silver set and home-baked butter cookies that were the best I had ever tasted.

After her mother had left the room, Dora pointed to the corpulent buffet, made of the same shiny, grainy wood as the dining table. Above it hung a framed beveled mirror. On top of the buffet were two framed photographs, one of a woman with a boy and a girl, and one of a man with a younger set of a boy and a girl. Although the boys in both pictures wore knee-long dark pants held up with suspenders and their hair was plastered to their foreheads as if still wet, they weren't the same boy. The older girl was blonde. The younger one was just a toddler, with a huge bow on top of her brown hair. Her pretty eyes looking into the camera reminded me of Dora's.

“My parents' families before the war,” Dora whispered.

My stomach lurched as it caught the implication. I had seen photographs of Jews being rounded up, of cattle cars, of barbed wire, of gas chambers. Bella's dad from Poland and Debbie's mom from Rumania had lived through the Holocaust. But the photos they had in their homes were of young people and grown ups, not of little kids.

Dora went on. “Then my parents met and made me. To make up for the kids they’d lost.”

I busied myself with the tea. I thought it wasn’t polite to keep staring at the dead children.

We moved to Dora’s corner room, which had large windows and was filled with dolls dressed in real clothes. An armoire had as many board games as a store. The pink bedspread matched the curtains. As I explored Dora’s treasures, I couldn't take my mind off her four siblings. Dead brothers and sisters she had never met. I thought it must be very sad to live in this home. I tried to imagine that my sister had been born before me and had been gassed or hurled against a wall, her scalp smashed. It made me want to cry.

Otherwise, the whole afternoon was a drag. I beat Dora easily in the board games. We practiced our flute lessons, and she was okay, but got bored. When playing with dolls, she agreed too quickly with my plots, never offering a new idea. Dora was so unlike Sarah, Bella, and Debbie with whom I could stage plays and then serialize them for weeks. It was like playing alone, so I finally just ignored her as she sat cross-legged on her bed and watched me dress and undress her dolls while I made up stories.

The boys' interest in Dora climbed up a notch when she started showing them her bra. One by one, she took them behind the lavatory. I knew about it because she told me and once even asked whether I, too, wanted to see it. I was incredulous at her stupidity. I didn't want to laugh at her because of her dead siblings and how sad it was to have to make up for their loss, but neither did I want to have anything to do with her.

In March, when she turned twelve, her mother sent pretty hand-written invitations to her Bat-Mitzvah the following Tuesday. It was to be a small dinner for Dora's “best friends.”

Tuesday was a school day, but since it was the day when, during Creation, God had said twice that the day had been “good,” it was all right to have a party. But I was mortified to be considered among Dora's best friends. Sarah, Bella, or Debbie surely weren’t her friends; they no longer allowed Dora to walk with us to the library, because the boys would follow and taunt us. Besides, there was something contaminating about associating with Dora. People might think that I, too, was the kind of girl who showed the boys my bra—or would do so when I needed one, that is. I had discovered that the females in my family all wore “falsies.” With the twin almonds I was growing, I wasn’t about to break this tradition.

I wondered who were the other girls who had been invited to Dora’s party. Probably the ones living behind Dora’s building in the next block, which was zoned for the other neighborhood school. I wished I hadn't been invited. Unlike Sarah, Bella and Debbie, who thought boys were disgusting, these other girls might think I was Dora’s friend. That I was like her.

But after the trip on her back to the emergency room, I couldn’t refuse the invitation. I thought about those butter cookies.

My mom gave me money to buy a set of handkerchiefs folded in a flat cardboard box under clear plastic. I drew a picture of Dora carrying me on her back. I rhymed birthday wishes that all her dreams would come true so she wouldn’t be blue. I starched and ironed my mint-colored organza dress with the black velvet bow. Along with my patent leather Mary-Jane shoes and white socks, no one would think I wore a bra or had dirty pads. No one would think that I took boys behind the lavatory to show them anything.

Dora was dressed in a red Tyrolean dress, the section below her chest crisscrossed with a thin cord. The cloth of a white blouse underneath was gathered over her cleavage and was embarrassingly stretched wide over her ample breasts. Below the full, embroidered skirt, the one-inch heels did nothing to make Dora look taller than wider.

I felt like a fraud as I handed her the present and nodded politely to her mother. I wanted to find the opportunity to explain that this was a mistake because I wasn’t Dora's “best friend,” or even “a friend.” But then I glimpsed the dining room and felt as if I had stepped into a fairy tale.

The table was open to its full length and covered with a white tablecloth. It was set with silver candelabras and silver finger bowls and silver napkin holders and multiples of silver forks, knives and spoons. There was a bouquet of red roses in the center. The first course was already waiting in each of the plates, half a grapefruit sectioned and topped with a cherry. On a teacart, crystal glasses of lemonade with mint leaves were ready. Another flower arrangement sat on the buffet, where silver serving platters awaited the food. The smells coming from the kitchen were foreign and delicious and made saliva gather in my mouth.

The pictures of the dead children remained in their spots, untouched, old-world with their foreign clothes and hair, the sepia-color pinning them to those bad times less than twenty years earlier, when the Nazis exterminated Jews like cockroaches.

Dora's father, a big man with a broad face and neat wisps of white hair and kind brown eyes like Dora's, was meticulous in his movements as he placed the needle of a gramophone on the record. Classical notes poured into the room, the kind that old people went to listen at concerts, the kind I heard on neighbors’ late-night radio.

I tugged at the black velvet bow of my dress. Dora's mother gave me a glass of lemonade and invited me to sit down on the sofa in the adjacent living room. For the occasion, the two double doors were opened to combine the two rooms into one. I obeyed, and Dora came to sit next to me. We didn’t speak. Her father said something in German, and she replied, her tone polite like to a teacher, so unlike the easy tone I used at home. I sipped my lemonade while examining a glass cabinet that contained magnificent porcelain figurines. Their faces were angelic, with tiny, pointed noses, their hands graceful, the tilts of their necks delicate. I was awed by the beautiful, flowing dresses with porcelain lace petticoats. Princes with rapture in their eyes wooed the princesses, kneeling or striking princely poses. I put down my empty glass on the coaster, rose up, and stood fixated in front of the display.

“This princess strolls out to the woods, following the enchanting sound of gurgling water,” I said, pointing at two of the figures.

“There’s no woods.’

“Pretend woods,” I said, and went on. “She's sitting by the spring and she doesn't know that the shepherd in the clearing is really a cursed prince. When the wizard who hates him will try to cast a spell on the princess, this dog will bark to alert the prince, and the prince will draw his sword and fight the wizard—”

“And the dog will pee on her shoes,” Dora added.

I was mortified. I couldn’t bear the thought of ruining that delicate stroke of muted red on the tiny feet. “No. These are satin shoes,” I said with exasperation.

What was the use? Standing quietly, filled with rapture, I went on weaving new stories in my head, the music filling the room blending them into wonderful pictures.

I forgot about Dora until she spoke behind me. “Maybe no one will come.”

I turned, and my first thought was that I was the only one stupid enough to come to her party. Then I felt anger about the way Dora had brought it all upon herself and how she now involved me. But then I saw the tears in her eyes and felt bad. I felt pity for this big girl who towered over me but who wanted to be my friend. Pity for this girl whose life both at home and at school I couldn’t comprehend. I wanted to ask about the girls who went to the other school and were supposed to be here, but I wasn’t sure if I should.

“Are Sarah, Bella, and Debbie coming?” Dora asked me.

I swallowed. “I didn't know you invited them.”

Dora kept looking down at me, her gaze pleading. I felt so small, so uncomfortable with the power she handed me. I shrugged and kept my shoulders high up in a gesture of helplessness. I wished I could just leave.

The record had ended for the third or fourth time. Dora’s father changed it once more. Her mother peeked out the window again and again. They spoke in German. She gave me another glass of lemonade. Her skin was as translucent as the figurines’, and I realized that I had never before met anyone who had escaped the Israeli sun. We waited.

Dora began to cry, a soft, silent weeping. Her father stroked her hair. Her mother's lips tightened into a line as she stepped into the kitchen and closed the door. With all that lemonade in me, I wanted to pee badly, but dared not move. Dora went on weeping.

Finally, her mother came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with steaming food. Dora's father lit the candles in the candelabra. I sat down in the dining room, Dora’s parents at both ends, Dora and me facing each other at the center. On either side, three chairs separated Dora's parents and us. Twelve girls who hadn't shown up.

The four dead children looked straight at me. Grave, foreign children. Murdered by the Nazis. I wished I had thought of grabbing Dora’s seat first. She had known to avoid looking at them.

I examined all those utensils and wondered which one to pick first. My friends and I had read a manners book for when we would be invited to dine at a palace. We practiced with whatever was left from the set my father had inherited from his mother and which my mom hated because it was stupid to polish silver when we had stainless steel. Now I forgot everything the book had said except that it was very important not to make a mistake, so I watched Dora lift the outside fork and hold it in her left hand as she ate the grapefruit. I did the same, although it was difficult to eat with my left.

My bladder could hold no more. My face hot, I excused myself and went to the bathroom, certain that it was impolite and now they were talking about me in German. I wished that at least one other girl had come. But when I returned to the table, Dora’s mother was bringing more food from the kitchen and she smiled at me kindly.

The other dishes tasted as good as they smelled. I ate everything Dora's mother put on my plate, making sure to thank her each time, to dab my mouth with the lacy cloth napkin in between bites. I wanted to be good, to make up for the absence of the twelve others, to make up for the sorrow of the four dead children.

The last record Dora's father had changed ended. This time he didn't get up. The record went on turning, obedient in its soft, rhythmic hum, but the needle whimpered. The scratching gave me goose bumps. No one moved to do anything about it. I hugged myself and rubbed the skin of my arms. The twelve empty chairs and the untouched place settings gaped at me. Suddenly, Dora's father dropped his face in his hands. Dora’s mother said something, but he only shook his head. There was some strange trembling to his shoulders. Dora's mother bit her lips, her face contorted. I lowered my gaze into my fingers, not knowing where else to look. Then there was this odd sound in the room, like a choked moan, and I looked up to see Dora’s mother rush back into the kitchen.

I shifted in my seat. The four dead children in the photographs were silent. I wondered how old the oldest had been when they killed him. I was sorry that Dora was not the kind of child who could make up for the loss. She was a woman in a Tyrolean girl’s dress. At least her parents didn’t know what she did with the boys.

Dora’s father still didn’t move. His scalp between wisps of white hair shone. A guttural croak tore out of him. My first introduction to unbearable grief bore down on me. I wanted to cry with them, but I had no right since the Nazis hadn’t killed anyone in my family.

Dora just looked down, her fingers twisting and knotting the napkin in her lap.

For a split second I wanted to offer myself to them as their child. It was a stupid idea. I slid off my chair. My throat was constricted. “Thank you very much. The food was delicious,” I managed to say, even though I was leaving before dessert, before the birthday cake, possibly losing out on those butter cookies.

Neither one answered. I didn’t knock on the kitchen door to say good-bye to Dora’s mother before I left, although it was impolite not to thank the hostess.

Dora’s family—the dead and the living—walked with me all the way home.

EMPTY CHAIRS was published in Midstream, April 2002 and in Lynx Eye, September 2002, and was selected for THE BEST JEWISH WRITING 2002, John Wiley & Son, (published in Fall 2003 and received a special mention in the Jerusalem Post, 2004)

For more short stories, essays and articles by novelist Talia Carner, please check

Update 20015: Following the interest in this story, I wrote the novel HOTEL MOSCOW, (HarperCollins 2015,) featuring a protagonist who is a Second-Generation daughter of Holocaust survivors, but who tries to get away from this legacy. Only when she travels to Russia shortly after the fall of communism and faces anti-Semitism does she come to grips with it.