Thursday, January 7, 2010

Harold Hernesh

I am late sending out my holiday cards again, but I did remember to slip one under Harold Hernesh’s door.  Harold lives in our building on the Upper Westside, and our family, including my children Aaron and Isaac, befriended Harold when we rented a one-bedroom across the hall from him.  The following year we bought a co-op in the same building, but on another floor; Isaac was a mere three-weeks-old.  We have lived thirteen years in this building-qua-miniature-city of 350 apartments.

Harold, who is eighty-seven-years-old, always reminded me of my grandmother, Doña Dolores Rivero, a survivor of the Mexican Revolution.  Both were unbelievably tough, gruff and perpetually half-frowning.  Yet if you stopped to talk to them, and got to know them beyond their flinty exterior and garbled retorts, beyond their complaints about dogs or inept store clerks or greedy banks, these viejitos revealed a fearful vulnerability of what they had seen and what they had barely escaped.  Harold was eighteen when he was imprisoned at Dachau by the Nazis in 1941, for being a Jew.

I have given Harold copies of my books.  He doesn’t know it, but I made a version of Harold a hero in my story of violence and redemption, “Remembering Possibilities.”

Yesterday Harold stopped me in the lobby and handed me three lollipops, one for me and each of my children.  He always carries candy in his pockets, and hands it out to children, or their parents, every day.  I have a jar of Harold’s candies in the kitchen.  For years, Harold sat with his sister in the lobby of our building, chatting and introducing her to his friends.  But Harold’s sister died recently.  Harold is now, I think, alone.

So when he uncharacteristically asked me to follow him to his apartment, I said yes.  I had been to his place before, to fix his cable because he had forgotten he needed to have both the cable box on and the TV on channel 3 for the system to work.  Honestly, how do oldsters survive in this complex, idiosyncratic world?  I don’t know.  I battle with these things myself, and I can only imagine what shape I’ll be in when I’m eighty-seven.  Will I be able to manage an apartment by myself at that age?  Laura and I can barely do this now.

“The Lithuanians!  They were worst than the Nazis!” Harold blurted out, as he handed me a book to read, a story of another Holocaust survivor.  When Harold says words like ‘Lithuanians’ it sounds like ‘Lith-punians,’ and he half-spits every other word he says.  It’s possible Harold had a stroke a long time ago, but I’ve never asked him.  His blue-gray eyes wandered into the distance, and he recounted a story I had never heard before.  As he said, “The luk-thpiest daay of mai lifept.”  The luckiest day of his life.

A Nazi soldier and his Lithuanian collaborators had taken him to a field of mass graves, and ordered him to dig.  He would be digging not only his own grave, but the graves of other prisoners who would be shot that day.  His spade hit the ground, but it was frozen solid.  They beat him, and yelled at him to dig.  He smashed the shovel into the ground, but still the ground would not give.  They snatched the shovel away from him, and tried to dig themselves, to no avail.  “The luk-thpiest daay of mai lifept,” Harold repeated.  Bitterly cold and windy days like today, he said, have never bothered him on Broadway.

I don’t talk to Harold, nor did I ever bike fifteen miles as a kid to visit my abuelita on Saturdays, because I feel sorry for old people.  I listened to them, because I loved their stories.  I relished the bittersweet humor that came from hardscrabble or harrowing experiences.  They took me ‘there,’ wherever ‘there’ was, and I was captivated by and transported to another world.  For me, it was their gift.