October 1954 London
It was, by far, one of the boldest exhibitions I’d ever planned.
Where I lived and when I lived nobody wanted to talk about the worst parts of our previous war. Not because they wished to deny it but that it was just so horrible they didn’t want it to be real in the slightest. Out of sight out of mind, they often said. And to my shame, I never felt inclined to fight it. My sister and I, out of anyone, know just how bad those times were and if we could forget it existed we’d be happy. If we could hide the tattooed numbers, use makeup to cover the scars and hide our bouts of depression as often as we could we might almost say that we’d never seen Auschwitz. But as I’ve come to know most recently, life didn’t work that way. Somewhere, somehow, we would always be reminded of our past.
For me that reminder came two months ago when some young woman showed up at the house I shared with my sister. She pushed herself in and started calling us by names we hadn’t used in years; asking questions about our childhoods, then getting more invasive with queries about the concentration camps. My sister shrieked, covering her ears as she fled into the living room, a shaking, sobbing mess. I froze in place, feeling like an invisible noose had worked its’ way around my neck, pulling and pulling until I turned blue. I’d recovered my senses faster than Agathe had; pulling the sleeve down over my tattoo and shoving the insolent girl out. As I’d pushed her out the door I caught a small glimpse of the notebook she had stowed in her coat-pocket. A reporter. Somehow had found out who we were and now they were sending reporters.
A few days after that ordeal I had a brainwave. Our life here was not going to remain private anymore and if they were going to expose our pain, I was going to control just what they could see. So I started to paint. I sat myself down in my studio and made myself go back to that dreadful place. The imfamous view you got of the main building going into the camp, the way you felt like a cow to the slaughter as you were pushed through that wild crowd towards the doctor on his podium. Being shaved, deloused, branded and de-feminized until almost nothing was left to differentiate you. Holding onto Agathe’s hand as we were made to run through mud and slush to get to our barrack, the dozens of bunks flanking each wall that had no mattresses or pillows. Every detail I held onto I transfered onto the canvas, as if plucking them from my mind and throwing them into the art.
It took me three, long weeks but everything was done. Fifteen paintings showing my initiation, my struggles and my gritty survival. Agathe was there with me; bringing me cups of tea, meals I’d missed and holding me when the memories became too hard to bear. This was it, I told myself. This is all they were going to have. Two weeks before the exhibition was due to open I contacted that same, young reporter and told her she’d have all the answers she was looking for if she came to the premiere. My sister was coming, my friends from the gallery, our neighbours and my old cohorts from art-school would be coming too. It was a big night and I was nervous beyond anything.
“Angela? Where do you want these two?” Geoff, one of the workers at the gallery asked me, holding up the two of Mengle’s examination room.
“Oh-on the stand there between number ten and thirteen please.”
I wanted everything else to be simple; nothing to clash with or overshadow the primary subject. The display stands were black, the walls black and there was no special lighting. In fact, I wanted it almost harsh. It reminded me of the first room we were taken to on arrival; a sort-of locker room with urine-stained floors, the smell of louse powder and a big, hanging bulb casting that harsh glow that brought neither warmth nor enlightenment.
“Well, you did it.” My close friend Eli was beside me, taking in the display for himself. “I think this has got to be more brutal than any of those photographs.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. Those were taken from a camera; from some poor sod who was told he’d be shot if he did anything to help them. Your paintings come from your memories Angela, that’s what makes them real. I’ll be surprised if these don’t end up on the cover of every newspaper in the city.”
I became afraid for a moment. Was I doing the right thing? If mama and papa were here they wouldn’t have liked it. I could hear papa now ’you’re making a spectacle of your suffering, my girl! Your making a spectacle of your sister’s suffering! Adam’s suffering! Our deaths!’. I hated the thought of disappointing them but it would’ve only been all me if I was the one to expose us. Somebody else has beaten me to it.
“You’re overthinking it, aren’t you?” Eli sensed it, as he was able to every, other time. “Don’t. It’s your art Angela, your experiences. You’ve got every right to share them the way you want to.”
“But I was trapped into it, remember?”
“By some little-girl reporter straight out of college?”
“She knew about me Eli-she knew about Agathe too. I don’t know how she found out but-”
“But she hasn’t broken you, has she? Just like how the camps haven’t broken you. And now you’ve taken control of it just like you always do.”
“I just worry how the others are going to take it. They didn’t ask for all this attention I’m going to bring them; they’re just trying to live their new lives in peace, as they’ve got every right to do.”
“They have a right to their privacy Angela but remember, if they’re just going to pretend it never happened then they’re part of the present problem. The more everybody buries their heads in the sand the better chance there is that this kind of history will just keep repeating itself. You’re doing a good thing by speaking up and these paintings? These paintings will stay in peoples heads long after the exhibition is over. It’ll be one, more thing they can’t run away from.”
I looked to him, letting myself smile. I didn’t know what I would’ve done without Eli. He was one of my first friends when I first came to England, starting out at the Art college. He picked up on my lack of English fast and to my surprise, gave me a hearty hello and school tour, all in Polish. He helped to teach me the language, introduced me to the campus Jewish Community which he too was a member of and on weekends we would let ourselves into the school studios and just paint together. I honestly could say that I wouldn’t be the person I was today if I hadn’t met Eli Pinkham. Especially right now, in my biggest conflict.
“You want to go get some coffee after we close?” I asked.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
We were the only people left in the gallery after six O’clock. After double-checking everything we locked up and made our way over to our favourite, little bakery in Cheapside, ordering a pot of brew and some cinnamon pinwheels. From there we changed the subject entirely and talked as we’d always done. About new artists, about what art was becoming these days and all the up-and-coming gatherings we planned to attend with our old art-school friends. After all this was over we were going to go out and have some real fun. Well-what was fun to us anyhow.
After Eli had walked me home I opened the door to the regular, old smells of pine-scented floor-polish and potpourri. Agathe had been cleaning again. Some people would think it was her hobby-only I knew better. She did it ritualistically; as a way to take control. Eradicating the dirt, killing the grime, replacing bad scents with fresh, clean ones. It was her way of holding on when her life was spiraling into chaos. And when I came into the kitchen there she was, cooking dinner as if she were fresh from the pages of a homeware magazine.
“Good afternoon my dear!” She said in our native tongue, twirling over to the stove where the pasta was cooking. “Are you hungry? I’m making beef linguini-one of our favourites!”
“I’m starving,” I lied, smiling as I sat at the kitchen table. “What’s the occasion? We only usually have it when we’re celebrating.”
“It’s your exhibition of course! You’ve been working so hard and you open in four days; I think you deserve a little treat for your efforts. It’s been a little while since your last one and this one’s going to have reporters and all the important people to put your name out there.”
“Then shouldn’t we be cooking beef linguini closer to opening night?”
“I wanted to start celebrating right away! I knew tonight was the night you’d be getting things ready so I thought it might be a nice surprise.”
“It is Agathe, really. Don’t mind me, I’m just a little tired.”
“Then go and sit down, turn on the television if you’d like. I’ll just finish cooking off the beef then I’ll join you.”
I tucked myself onto the cream-coloured sofa, hugging one of the pink-satin cushins to my chest. I didn’t feel like watching any television just yet. I just wanted to shut my eyes for a few seconds and rest. I was on the verge of falling asleep-until something caught my eye. Just in the corner, resting on the coffee table on top of the newspaper. Agathe hadn’t touched it so it must’ve been for me.
Dragging myself up, I picked up the envelope and examined it back to front. I felt something drop in my stomach; Aniol Celeste Noeble. I hadn’t used my old name in almost nine years. I looked for a return address on the back and I was stumped. Brian Underwood. I didn’t know anyone called Brian Underwood. Another reporter? Possibly. I suppose I’d just have to read it to know for sure.
You probably don’t know who I am. That is not surprising. I changed my name just like you did and probably for the same reasons too. It seems everywhere I went to people frowned at you the second you spoke with the funny accent. But I knew you would be better at English than I am. You were always the better student-mother would never let me forget it.
But I will not, as they say, beat around the bush. I was in Glasgow for a holiday to see the ancient parts of Scotland and I came across an art magazine one of my friends had bought. I knew you would be in there somewhere. You were so determined to be a part of the art-world when we were younger and you carried that with you through all that has happened. Anyhow I looked in that magazine and I saw an advertisement for your show! Not just your first show but ‘a look through the eyes of an Auschwitz survivor’.
I can’t explain how happy it made me to know, first of all, that you had made it out alive. When I heard about your parents and didn’t see your name at all I assumed you’d perished with them. I grieved you for eight, long years and in a way I still am. Which is why I write to you, pleading for an invitation to your exhibition. I know this is short-notice as this will probably reach you just a few days prior to the show but I want to be there. To see you, to talk to you, to reconcile that part of me that has been at war for so long.
I understand if you’d like to decline my request but I would still like to see you regardless. Which is why I have left my telephone number on the back. Call me with your final answer; even if it’s a rejection I’d like to hear your voice.