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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Raw Potato
by Mihai Grunfeld

"Mishike, come here and stay with me a little," Mother called out in a friendly voice from the bedroom. I was in the kitchen, tying my white tennis shoes and getting ready to go out and look for my friends, so I walked into the bedroom reluctantly. Mother was sitting on the carpet, leaning on the wall, with a soft bed pillow behind her back and holding a small notebook on her lap.
      "Sit down here with me. I want to teach you the Hebrew alphabet." She signaled the pillow next to her, in between the tall bedroom mirror and the cold wood-burning stove.
      "The Hebrew alphabet?" I asked surprised. "Now? Why now?"
      "Please come and sit by me." Her voice was friendly and inviting so I sat down by her, resigned.
      A bright sunlight was pouring in through the windows on this Sunday morning, in the early spring of 1957, lighting up the white crumpled sheets of my parents' unmade beds, in front of me. I was eight years old. Through the open windows I could see the tops of the chestnut trees in the park, and could hear children's voices faintly, coming from the park just across. Mother put her arm around my shoulders and gently drew me close to her. "I would like to teach you the Hebrew letters."
      It was always Father who read the prayer book, so although Mother recited the Shabbat prayer on Friday evenings, I was surprised that she knew how to read Hebrew. Sitting on the soft Persian carpet by my parents' beds, I could feel her warm arm against my skin. I snuggled in closer without saying a word. She opened the notebook and slowly drew a curvy letter that resembled the strange letters I had seen in my father's prayer book.
      "Aleph," I repeated, tentatively. Than she drew a few more, pronouncing each one slowly: "Beit, Gimel, Dalet." I repeated these unusual sounds trying to feel their curvy shapes in my mouth.
      "Would you like to draw them?"
      The idea of learning these strange letters did not mean much to me. There was no Jewish school in Cluj, and I did not know any Jewish children my age who studied Hebrew. No, I did not want to draw them, but by now I had something else on my mind. I thought it was the right moment, so I dared slowly: "Mama, would you tell me something about the camps?"
      I knew that both Father and Mother had been in the concentration camps during the war, but they never spoke of it. Father said it made him sick to even think of it. The few times I asked him, he would close his eyes as if going somewhere else, then slowly shake his head from left to right: "I cannot speak about it. It is too painful."
      So my brother and I didn't ask any more questions, even though we really wanted to know. There were a few pictures of our family on the bedroom wall, besides the brown terracotta stove. In one, a little girl of about three, my mother in a short white dress, with black hair down to her shoulder and round black eyes, was sitting in an older woman's lap. My grandmother, wearing a dark long dress and hair parted in the middle was sitting on a chair with her heavy body relaxed. Behind her, my grandfather looked stiff, standing in his dark suit posing for this picture. His elongated face was serious, his brown hair parted on the left side, with a dark moustache dividing his face horizontally. I did not know anything about my grandparents, not even their names. Somehow I knew that Mother had also had several sisters, but besides Zoli Baczi, my uncle in Bucharest, everyone had parished in the concentration camps.
      Mother waited for a long time, as if letting the echo of my request sink into her conscience. She put the notebook on the carpet, pulled me even closer to her and with a sigh began speaking. I can still remember the stillness of the morning air as she started telling me the one and only very short story I ever heard of her life in the camps.
      "I was taken to Auschwitz, in Poland, during the summer, towards the end of the War," she started in such a soft dreamy voice that I could barely hear. "I spent my first winter in a large wooden barrack, together with many other women. It was terribly cold, and we were hungry all the time." She paused for a few seconds as if trying to sift through her memories.
      "During the day, from early morning till late at night, I was working in a factory. It was an airplane factory."
      "What were you doing there? I asked curiously, almost disbelieving that my mother had been working in an airplane factory. "Were you building airplanes?"
      "No, I was a riveter. I was riveting the wings of German airplanes."
      "You mean the war planes that the army used to bomb cities?" I asked almost incredulously.
      "Yes. Early every morning we had to walk to this factory, and return in the evening, after the sun had set. It was far away and the work was hard. And we received very little food. We were hungry all the time. Very very hungry." Then a faint smile appeared on mother's face as she continued: " We were so hungry that some of us risked our lives to get a bit of extra food, anything at all."
      Mother's voice perked up a little here, as if she were telling me about some kind of an adventure.
      "I did this only a few times because I was too scared," she started.
      "One night I was so hungry I got up, and very quietly, I sneaked out of the barrack. At first I walked a few steps towards the fence that surrounded our camp, and then I crawled so the guards in the high posts would not see me. There were lights that moved across the camp and the fields and the fence. I knew of a spot where I could get out, through a hole under the barb-wire fence. A friend told me about it. I crawled all the way to the hole and made my way under the fence carefully.
      "What if the guards saw you?" I asked, scared of her courage.
      "They probably would have shot me," she answered in a low voice, "but I was so hungry that I didn't care any more. I just had to get some food. I crept slowly into the field that surrounded the camp. Not far, there was a place where potatoes had been planted a long time ago, and we all knew about. It was early winter and the ground was half frozen, but if you scraped it with a stick or your bare hands, you could find a potato. I started digging the half frozen ground with my fingers and eventually I found a potato. I wiped it clean on my shirt and bit into it right then and there. As it gradually warmed up in my mouth, I chewed slowly. It tasted really good, and I wanted to feel it for a long time before swallowing it." At this moment, Mother turned to me with a faint smile on her face and asked:
      "Have you ever tasted a raw potato?"
      "No," I said, amazed at her question.
      "Let's get one," she said. She got up, went into the kitchen and returned with a small round potato, a knife, and a piece of paper. Slowly and quietly, she peeled the potato, lost in her thoughts. It was so solemn, I would not have dared to whisper a word.
      "Of course, there we did not peel the potatoes," she said with a faint smile. Than she cut a slice and put it in her mouth. She also cut me a slice. I started chewing. It tasted starchy to me, mostly bland and raw. I looked at mother's face as she was eating it slowly. I expected her to cry, but she didn't. She was just somewhere else, far away.
      "During the nights in the camp, these potatoes were a real delicacy for me. The few times I got them I would savor each bite. They tasted so good, I promised myself that if I survived and ever got out, I would eat one raw potato every day. Just to remember how good they are."
      I looked at my mother knowing the answer before I even uttered the question: "Have you been eating a raw potato every day?"
      "No, of course not," she said softly. " Time has passed. I don't need to eat a raw potato to know how good life is. And I do not any more want to remember what happened there."

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