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Reunited Again

Paul Data

Navigating the Dating Pool

orking 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 was gone."

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 yourself?"

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 him!"

"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 in Auschwitz."

"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.


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