From the Holocaust to Kentucky

    May 2008            
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Remembering the Holocaust in Kentucky


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On Yom Ha-Shoah I Remember Love

By Annette Keen*

Kentucky was my first English word. The number 5 was its partner. An American GI taught them to me when I was three years old, as he lifted me up to his shoulder, pointing to a sign over the doorway of the building where I lived in the refugee camp near Munich, in 1947. I repeated the words slowly, “Kin-tuck-ee FIVE,” my tongue thick with chocolate from the Hershey bar he had given me. I accepted his chocolate and his affection as my due. Everyone loved me.

I was everyone’s child. Adored, petted and cherished by an army of parents. Certainly, not then, and not for decades to come, would I begin to fathom the abyss out of which the people I lived with had emerged, to love me. When that abyss overwhelms me, it is the memory of love that lightens the darkness.

I’m not sure that I realized my two new words were in English. I lived in an amalgam of languages, English, German, Yiddish, Russian, Polish. I wonder if I realized that when I slipped in and out of a language, I moved into different universes.

Why I lived in a barrack-like building named Kentucky 5 with my parents and a throng of people somehow connected to me, I did not yet wonder. That in this particular building of the DP camp, I was the oldest child did not seem to me odd; It simply was. I do remember wondering what lay beyond the gate where friendly American soldiers loitered about. Finding out was traumatic.

One day someone led me by the hand and lifted me onto a jeep. The familiar contour of my world fell away, soon replaced by a world of streets and cars and trams and nicely dressed people moving about with things to do and places to go. Gripping the hand of he whom I cannot remember, I felt alone, knocking into strangers who hurried past and did not stop to love me. In hindsight, I can define that terror: it was only away from the displaced persons camp that I felt displaced.

What joy I felt to come “home.” There, where I had been missed, and searched for, desperately. Distraught, greedy, stubborn love greeted my return. If I lived in a mélange of languages, I also had countless names, and I answered to each of them.

“Ruchele, kimt tzu Mame,” (Little Rachel, come to Mama), Sonya with the stringy black hair murmured, stretching her skinny arms towards me, without moving. “Scheindele tauchtarew, vu loifts tzu?” (Sharon daughter, where are you running?) chuckled Golda, catching me in her warm flabby arms, administering spectacularly loud sucking kisses. “Suralele, hartz, gib a kish dem Taten.” (Sara dear heart, give Daddy a kiss), whispered Alter Lazer, through trembling lips.

And I, “Chanele” (Annie) to my own parents, raced into the tattooed numbered arms of all my parents, knowing without knowing, that this was my role. To be shared, to be passed around from lap to lap, to be swept up in desperate clutches. To be kissed and crooned to. To see dull eyes shine briefly, as I answered: “Vein nish, Ich bin du.” (Don’t cry, I am here.)

I was the hopeful thing in this desolate place, comforting parents of murdered children, who exulted in my survival. Nourished by their lavish love, I tore around the camp happy and irrepressible. All my memories start from there, and with them. Their love and presence has stayed with me for over 60 years. They come to me in dreams, floating out of a milky fog, a multitude of arms reaching to embrace me. A chorus of voices whisper softly to me in languages my heart remembers, which my waking mind no longer does.

*Annette Keen is a freelance writer in Upstate New York.


from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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