"Liberator" was first published in the Chicago Review, vol. 41, numbers 2 & 3;
then in "When Night Fell: An Anthology of Holocaust Short Stories," edited
by Linda Schermer Raphael and Marc Lee Raphael (Rutgers University
by S.L. Wisenberg
My father was a liberator. I don't know when I first knew that. It's
one of those things you know before you know what it means: My father was
When he was a young man, a son, before he became a husband, father,
owner of a Texas delicatessen, before his hair turned gray and thin, he
was a member of a platoon that opened the gates of Mauthausen, the gates
that his country would not bomb. Opened life back up, offered it to the
prisoners, the ones who waited at the gates and the ones who did not
He wore a dull uniform pinned with shiny badges, and shoes that
glistened with mud. He was a liberator. Like a gladiator. Like a
knight, his mail glinting in the sunshine, silvery as fish scales. I
imagine him strong, sword upraised, a shield in the other hand. The frail
grateful, kneeling at his feet. Like certain engravings of Lincoln with
the slaves. Chains broken, rendered harmless, like beheaded snakes.
He loved Lincoln. Abraham, patriarch of a divided nation. Abraham,
dark-bearded like a Jew.
My father talks about Lincoln. He talks more about Lincoln than he
talks about the war. A little bronze bust of Lincoln sits on the piano.
As if he were a bringer of music. On the shelf, as far back as I can
remember: Sandburg's biography. My father refused to read Gore Vidal's.
He said, "Let an old man keep his illusions, Ceci."
But he is not an old man. He is a gray-haired, clean-shaven man who
admires Lincoln. Some of the time he can remember who he was.
My father never signed up for an army reunion. He didn't tell war
stories. He left Europe with the rest of the U.S. troops and went back
to Houston, to work in his father's bubble bath factory downtown. He
stayed there for a year. Then he bought a delicatessen nearby. Named it
Ruben Rubin's Reubens. He thought about making it kosher, decided that
his clientele wouldn't care.
He was right. He patented his special five-course meal: peanuts in the
shell, Lone Star Beer, kosher-style Reuben sandwich, scoop of Borden's
Butter Brickle, a Lovera cigar. His logo, on napkins, give-away pens,
plastic cups: a map of Texas, a corned beef sandwich instead of a dot for
"A five-course meal," he says now. "I used to charge only a buck fifty.
Can you believe it? In 1950s dollars. The things you could buy for a
dollar then. When a cup of coffee was really only a dime, just like in
I am here only for a visit, but he speaks as if I have always been here.
Then other times, other times -- I wait for those times, am relieved
when they finally arrive: the worst, the mind like a naked wall, awaiting
the family movies. "Who is it? Ruthie? Ellen? Miriam?"
Every time he looked out the window of the deli he could see the family
bubble bath factory, just down Main Street. On top of the factory was
the kewpie doll he'd designed as the symbol of Barnston's Bubblers just
before the war. Dolly, the Barnston bubblegirl. (My grandfather Chaim
was the one who'd invented the name Barnston. Thought it sounded
American, New England-y. Instead, it sounded like an Ellis Island name.
Suppliers would call the factory, demanding to speak with Bernstein, the
owner.) Every day from the deli window, my father would watch Dolly
twirling in neon and every Friday he would take my mother to his parents'
house for Shabbat dinner. And every Shabbat my grandfather would wink at
them and say, "You know what they say, Ruben, Ruthie -- the Sabbath is
the time to be fruitful and multiply."
That part I do not know for certain. I am spinning here. I know that
for six years my parents were not fruitful; they were fruitless,
non-multipliers. They did not divide, add or subtract. I imagine my
grandfather, for whom I am named (Chaim becoming Charles, becoming Chaya,
my Hebrew name, turning into Cecilia, Ceci), leaning over my
grandmother's white table cloth, the one she would soak in bleach every
Monday, and hang out to dry; I see my not-yet- dead grandfather leaning
his arm over the crumbs from the challah, and asking, every Friday night,
without fail: "When will you kids give us a grandchild? You know what
the rabbis say about creating on the Sabbath --"
I stop here, with the yellow crumbs making indentations on Chaim's
lower arm, his fingers (long and sure, like my father's? Like mine?)
clasping my mother's, and my mother, circumspect, looking down, wanting
to get up to help her mother-in-law in the kitchen, where she can hear
water running over the china and silver. I stop with my mother's
embarrassment, my father's slight dip into anger, wearying of his
father's joke that never varies. I stop -- it doesn't pay to delve too
deeply into the lives of your parents. This is what I do know: My mother
and father wanted children so badly that they consulted a specialist. He
advised them to keep track of my mother's temperature every day. My
older sister Ellen was a wanted child. This is what they told me once.
Faces aglow. They didn't mean to tell, as if they felt a taboo against
discussing someone else's wantedness.
In their sixth year of marriage, this is what did or did not happen. My
father tells me this story on this visit. As if it is a parting gift.
His speech is clear, like a polished window. I see the images perfectly,
the way I see the entrance of the camps, the big iron gates, the dark,
This is what he, Ruben, ex-liberator, ex-owner of a Texas delicatessen,
tells his daughter in English, his mother tongue: that one afternoon,
after the press of the lunch crowd had ended in the deli, a man walked
in. Quietly. "He had a scrunched-in face -- like a crumpled piece of
paper," says my father, scrunching up his face. The man was carrying a
rolled up Yiddish newspaper in his coat pocket. He must be visiting from
New York, my father thought, must be in for Passover; nobody in Houston
read Yiddish newspapers. My father was intrigued by this man. He wanted
to ask him how he came to be carrying a Yiddish paper, how he had
happened upon Ruben Rubin's Reubens non-kosher deli in the heart of
downtown Houston. It was the afternoon of the first night of Passover.
Without thinking it through, my father asked him to the seder. It was
going to be a small one --just my father, my mother, an engineering
student from Rice and his wife and three-year-old daughter. My
grandparents had gone to Corpus Christi to be with elderly cousins. The
real reason they left: My father felt the need to make his own table,
away from pointed comments about where was a young child who could ask
the Four Questions.
He called my mother to set another place. She was worried about having
enough food. My father told her, "He's just a little old man. Very
little." My mother laughed into the telephone. "I'll put more water in
the soup," she said. I have heard her say this. She would say it when I
brought friends home for dinner in junior high, and I would say, "What
soup? Are we having soup?" My father said, "I'll bring him home with
me." The man seemed content with the invitation, but not so grateful
once he arrived at the house. He seemed to be a scholar. He knew much
Hebrew and extemporized from the little haggadahs that each person had,
the Passover booklets that came free from Maxwell House Coffee. He
complained about the thinness of the service. Everyone grew tired,
impatient, but he was from Europe, it was clear, and was therefore
Toward the end of the meal, my father asked the daughter of the
engineering student if she would walk to the front door to open it for
Elijah the prophet. "A cute kid," says my father now. "All red hair and
freckles. They called her Howdy Doody for a nickname." The mother and
daughter opened the door. The mother came right back to the table. The
little girl dawdled. "I figured it's because her legs were shorter,"
says my father. As soon as she returned to the table, she started to
Blood streamed from her eyes. My father repeats this. Blood. He
raises his eyebrows, impressed with the simplicity of this extraordinary
sentence. "Real blood, Ceci," he says, looking me in the eye. "I was
thinking at the time, `as if from a gunshot wound.'" Everyone saw this,
her cheeks as if washed with dark red watercolor. But when they went to
wipe it, the tears became transparent again, plain salt water, no stain
on the napkin. He shakes his head: "The darnedest thing," he says. "It
seems impossible. All we could do was stare."
And then the man, the strange little man, like a Yiddishe
Rumpelstiltskin, carefully removed his shoes and climbed up onto his
chair. Then he pointed his finger at my father and began to speak. His
words were clumsy, dense, the words of a foreigner struggling for
elevation: "You, Ruben of the double name, you Ruben, born of American
soil, you looked at death in the eyeballs, you, you --" and then the rest
of his words were in Yiddish, but a Yiddish no one could understand.
Says my father, "A meshuggenah kind of Yiddish, garbled, half-words,
pieces of words stuck on other words that didn't make any kind of sense.
And I know my Yiddish, Ceci. I used to speak it like a native." He
laughs, his old joke, because Yiddish is from no country, every country.
Your mother thought we should call the cops. I said, `For what?
Speaking a foreign language in America? Relax,' I told her. `Have a
good time. Bring on the dessert.' It was that coconut cake that she
made every Passover, a recipe she got from Mother. I told her I'd make
sure the old man didn't break anything." My father's eyes look to the
side, as if seeing the same younger self that the old man saw. I have
disappeared. I am not yet born.
My father continues: "And then the man kissed the little red-haired
girl, who was now sleeping, and walked out the door that they had opened
for Elijah. His kiss made a red mark right on her cheek. And that
mark," says my father, pausing for drama, "this red mark, has confounded
dermatologists to this day."
Where did the girl go? What is her name?
How, I wonder, do her parents explain the mark to her?
She would be six years older than I am. I imagine myself searching the
city for women with this mark, women with the Howdy Doody grin and
freckles. I will not be distracted by marks on arms, legs, fingers. I
will not imagine that her father left town as soon as he was awarded his
engineering degree, that she has moved, had cosmetic surgery, or died.
That Passover night was the night they conceived my sister Ellen. (I
feel their tiredness, after the guests have gone. I see them washing and
wiping the dishes, sweeping the floor. Or did my father say, "Ruthie,
let the dishes go hang, we'll make a child and if we like her, we'll make
another." I see them clutching, clinging, into the night.) He puts it
delicately: "That night we created your sister Ellen." He looks down
shyly. I count the months: April, May, June, July, August, September,
October, November, November 20.
"Every day in life is a miracle, Ceci," he says, as if this is the
logical end of the story, the story of The Mysterious Little Old Man Who
Came to the Seder and Removed the Curse of Sterility. The story blossoms
out of what is known as a lucid moment. Or more precisely, lucid passage
of time. Lucid -- a word no one uses except in cases like this.
When he is not lucid, I learn formulas for bubble bath, old marketing
approaches abandoned, names of scented flowers, suppliers of corned beef.
Shelf-lives of fragrances. I hear what I think are Zionist Labor songs
in Yiddish, which he must have learned from his father.
Sometimes he falls asleep in the middle. Drops off, head drooping on a
pillow. In sleep he appears scholarly.
I ask my mother about the old man and she says, "Yes, there was a man
My father walks into the room, drowsily, "Like one of those Saint
Patrick's Day, Saint Pat's -- leprechauns."
He retrieves the word himself.
"-- a funny little man," says my mother. (It hurts her to look at my
father, to remember, actually hurts the most when he is silent, because
then she forgets, forgets he has changed.) "I think he stole something,"
she says, "some little knickknack. Where did he come from? We never saw
him again, did we? I think that couple brought him. What was their
name? They both taught French, didn't they, at a high school in Clear
"No, no," says my father, angry, and his face crumples up like paper.
I look for tears in the edges of his eyes.
"They had a daughter," I say. "With red hair. Maybe freckles."
My mother shakes her head. "No. There wasn't a child at either of the
Seders that year. Those were the smallest Seders we've ever had. That
was the year that Chaim and Rose went to Corpus. There was only that
couple and the old man. I remember that I had to ask the Four Questions.
I sang it with that French woman. She was French or Belgian. I think
she was Belgian, yes, she was Belgian, I remember thinking I'd never met
anybody from Belgium before. I kept thinking about lace. She'd met her
husband in Europe, during the war. He was American, and he spoke French,
and she spoke beautiful English. I remember the tunes were the same. I
couldn't get over that, that she'd learned the same tunes for all the
prayers in Belgium. It gave me the shivers." Goose bumps rise on her
arms, now. "The next year, that was the year Ellen was a baby, and Chaim
took pictures all during dinner."
What about the little man?
"He just up and left in the middle of everything," she says. "Why --?"
She is going to say -- why bring it up now? Then she remembers again
that she is grateful for any link he can give her, any bridge to the past
life they had, because it makes him closer, but then she remembers the
closer he is, the more painful it all seems. She sighs, turns away.
Then, in a minute, two, the scrim drops and he asks, "What man? What
man? What little man?"
He does not look different. He does not, for example, drool. He has his
teeth. He does not gum. He looks the same.
They still sleep in the same bed, together; he's on the left, she's on
the right. Which gates, once opened, remain open?
My father was a liberator. This is undeniable. There are records that
declare it. They are in books, microfilm, microfiche, in government
depositories, archives. You can look up ranks, platoons, serial numbers.
Combat Command B of the 11th Armored Division of the Third Army. You can
watch documentaries, read diaries and memoirs of survivors and soldiers
and workers from the Red Cross. You can examine maps, store up details,
memorize the lexicon. Kapos. Badeanstalten. Mussulmen. Mussulmen were
the slaves who lost all hope, who moved like zombies. Became as foreign
and unknowable as Moslems. Named for the hollow-eyed people seen in
newsreels, before the war, starving in foreign lands.
My father and his buddies in Combat Command B opened the doors of
Mauthausen, 80 miles from Vienna, and liberated the people who might have
been us, the people we used to be. They were emaciated, diseased. Some
were too frightened to come out of their shacks. Some gathered a minyan
and prayed. Some stooped down to kiss American hands and feet.
My father was a liberator. He roams the neighborhood. He talks about
Lincoln. He takes bubble baths. He eats corned beef sandwiches. There
are times he remembers how much he has forgotten. And times that he
remembers only that he's forgotten. And times that he says, "What little
old man? What delicatessen? I was never a soldier boy, soldier boy. I
was killed in the war. A bullet pierced my skull. All men are created
equal. God sails the open seas."
The books about liberators say that most of them are silent about the
experience. Even the ones who are Jewish. An alloy of pride, impotence,
fragility. I get this idea and I fight it: that a shrapnel of the past is
lodged in his brain, damming up the currents of now, of this life, and if
he could remove it -- if I could remove it -- his life would come
flooding back to him.
Or this: If he could somehow retrieve the crazy, garbled Yiddish words
of the old man, unravel the riddle of the Rumpelstiltskin, and get them
translated -- find some combination scholar-psychiatrist, a healer, who
could tell us what the message was that the old man was trying to impart
When my father arrived at Mauthausen on May 5, 1945, I imagine he felt
mingled pity, grief, shame: They did this to his people. But they were
not his. His people were the men in his division, men who were dressed
like he was, in drab, helmeted to protect themselves. They shared
coffee, cigarettes, they joked. The ones from the South had familiar
accents. They passed around pictures of their girls, of Betty Grable.
They were fighting for those legs. For Veronica Lake's curtain of hair.
The story is: We always arrive too late, never knowing what the other
has seen. We open gates that others have locked. Scraping the earth as
we pull. Rooting out grasses tethered, clinging.
He did or did not tell the prisoners he was Jewish. Is it too much to
say that he saw his own death there?
Did you try to use Yiddish? Did you look for those who could understand
English? Did you ask them, as the doctor asks you, "What is your name?
What is your family name? Where are you from? How old are you? Are you
in pain? Do you know what is wrong?" Did you ask them in Yiddish, the
language of your early lullabies and curses: "Brothers, sisters, where
did your lives go? At what point did you feel it fly from you? Did you
strain to catch it? Did you shrug, did you turn away?"
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