Navigating the Dating Pool
Working as an aquatics instructor at Manhattan's West Side YMCA,
I get to meet a lot of characters: veterans, seniors, tourists,
and your run-of-the-mill nut cases. But the most interesting to
me, by far, are those who bore witness to civilization's darkest
hour; the ones we call Holocaust Survivors. And there are still
quite a few of them around if you look carefully.
It was in the beautiful 1920's aquamarine tiled pool that I met
her for the first time. She was utterly lost, wandering about aimlessly
in a bizarre getup of lime green bathing suit, flowery pink shower
cap, red sneakers, huge dark sunglasses, a yellow silk scarf around
her neck, and a vague quixotic smile to top it all off.
"I'm looking for my brother," she said, "he brought me here to
the Y, told me to put away my coat, and when I turned around he
Confused, she scrutinized the surroundings, then sauntered off,
and then returned a few minutes later looking even more lost and
disoriented, if that were possible.
I asked her, "Where did your brother tell you to go?"
"The fourth floor," she replied.
"Well," said I, "the fourth floor is the gym, and this is the
pool, but since you're here, why not get in the water and enjoy
She watched me stretch for a few minutes, and attempted awkwardly
to join in, but it was obvious to me that she hadn't been doing
any sort of exercise for a long time. She said proudly, "My brother
has been coming here for two years; you should see the figure on
"Why don't you come to the arthritis class for seniors," I suggested. "It's
every day at 12:30," to which she replied, "But I'm not a member
here, I came with my brother, and now I lost him and don't know
where he could be."
After a few minutes, she got out of the pool and began to leave.
At the far end, I noticed my friend Joseph, entering the pool area.
Joseph was a survivor of the Nazi slave labor camps of WWII. Not
long ago, after we had spent an hour or two chatting together in
the relaxation of the warm water, he told me his story. At the
age of fifteen, his family in Hungary had been permanently shattered,
and he had been flung to and fro across Europe at the whim of the
SS, doing hard labor wherever he was needed. He had saved his own
life many times by telling the right lie at the right time. Ironically,
a couple years ago, he was hired by a film production company in
New York to portray a Nazi Camp Guard in a movie. I asked him how
it felt to wear the hated SS runes, swastika and totenkopf; to
which he replied that the pay was good, they treated him well,
and there was good food too.
"Joseph," I said, "there is a nice lady, a contemporary of yours,
over there, why don't you go over and talk with her; I think she
is a camp survivor like you." He smiled oddly and asked, "what
makes you think she is so nice?" And then he paddled off.
Meanwhile, the old woman was slowly making her way down the deck
of the pool toward the exit. I swam over to head her off and said, "Why
are you leaving so soon? A friend of mine just came in, a contemporary
of yours, why not stay a while and talk with him? He's a camp survivor,
just like you."
"How do you know that I'm a camp survivor? she immediately asked,
and I noticed that her expression had changed, hardened, not so
lost looking now. She glanced about warily, seemingly a little
scared. I indicated my left forearm and said, "I see your tattoo."
She furtively covered the crude, faded blue, six-number graffito
that had marked her arm for so many years, and said; "Maybe I should
cover that up?"
"No," I said, "I think you should be proud of it. It shows your
strength, that you survived.
"But," she said, "what if the bad people should see it, they will
give me a zetz on the head and that will be that."
"Well," I said, "we won that war, there are no more of them left
to beat you, and if they tried, I would stop them."
She smiled, then sadly said, " I am forever fourteen, looking
for my parents, my big brother, always lost and afraid. 1944
"Where were you born?" I asked.
"Hungaria," she replied. And in her eyes for a moment I thought
I could see vistas of a world long ago and far away. Joseph is
also Hungarian, I thought to myself, and then I said to her, "You
absolutely must say hello to this nice fellow Joseph, wait a bit,
don't go." And I quickly swam over to Joseph and said, "there is
the lady I told you about. She is very sweet and needs help; I'm
trying to fix you up, buddy! "He squinted his rheumy eyes, then
he replied, "She's not sweet, she's my sister!"
I laughed and then left them smiling happily together in the warm
embrace of the water, reunited again.