C R E A T I V E N O N F I C T I O N
b y z e l d a l e a h g a t u s k i n ~
a l b u q u e r q u e , n e w m e x i c o
"FROM ONE END OF TIME TO THE OTHER" - Collage by Zelda Leah Gatuskin
IT WAS Faval; I know it was Faval; Faval who sat rigid in a straight-backed wooden chair with his hands resting on his thighs, his skin pale, his frame gaunt, his eyes and hair soft and dark brown. It was Faval in his twenties, and but for being an adult, he appeared exactly as I have always imagined him as a boy of five: seated in a straight-backed wooden chair, in a poorly lit house, watching the front door and, through it, the ghost of his father fighting back Polish police. Perhaps I was only five years old myself when I was first told the story of Faval's vision by my grandmother, his older half-sister. Because Faval's boyhood vision is a family legend of a magical event:
The police did come to the house that night -- so the story goes -- looking for young men to draft into the army. But they found none. For Faval had told his vision to his mother and she had understood her late husband's message and sent all the elder sons away to hide.
Still, this story of Faval's vision is not one of victory but of ultimate defeat. It is always told with a shake of the head and a sigh for the young Faval, the favored one, the love child, descendant of Rabbis and magistrates, graced with the eyes of a prophet; Faval who carried in his veins the promises of generations past, the refinement of every gene of intellect and inspiration and beauty, and yet was destined to waste away within the walls of Warsaw until... until...
Faval himself finally appeared as an adult to tell me the truth, which only he may tell. Because he was the youngest, he saw things as they were, saw the danger lurking sooner than the others, saw the need to fight, raised the alarm; Faval and his young friends, the ones who were born into war, who had no memories of countrysides and friendly townspeople, of elbow room and hope. Yes, fifty years later, Faval himself showed up in a dream to tell me exactly how the Nazis killed him and his family (our family). "Gassed us." He told it to my companion more than to me, as if he couldn't fully face me. (But it was my dream; I was the one who couldn't fully face him.) "Gassed us." And acting as dream editor, I censored the message and penned a last name, G-A-U-S-T-A-U-S, which on waking I also duly documented, thinking this was connected to the name "Gatuskin." But, as the day went by, I kept hearing him say it (he, who could only be Faval). "Gassed us; gassed us; they gassed us." He wouldn't have felt he had to tell me his name. I was supposed to recognize him from his posture, from the straight-backed chair and the wide eyes. (I have always seen his eyes, his eyes watching the door, and beyond it -- through it -- the ghost of his father...) It was Faval, of course. After the dream, I had the nerve to ask specifically about the circumstances of their deaths (but not before first asking for the story of Faval's vision just once more). "Gassed."
All of them, my grandmother continued, the whole family, while trying to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto; "gassed in the underground." (I count the names on my chart, the names that do not have, "Paris," "U.S.," "London," "Israel" penned after them; I count twenty-five names.) The shake of the head, the sigh, the defeat, stopped me from asking more. So I read; how and when would they have been trying to escape? What exactly was the "underground?" I read; and I wonder again about Faval; and a new vision emerges of him.
He does not sit. He is busy, he and his friends who know nothing of freedom or fat. It is they themselves who are the underground, they and the resistance inside and outside the Ghetto; and the goal is to get from the inside to the outside and then from the outside to Russia and there to join with the bigger movements for relief and resistance. So the underground becomes a physical thing as well, a maze of cellars, sewer lines, sealed-in rooms, and tunnels, tunnels; tunnels that push their way to the very walls of the Ghetto, and below... and out! Faval does not sit. He connives, he cajoles, he reconnoiters; he convinces his family that they are doomed if they stay and it is his own rank among the resistors that wins them their chance through the tunnel.
Now, fifty years later, Faval may again sit, in a straight-backed wooden chair, with his hands on his knees and his brown eyes wide and his jaw set. Only now it is my vision; I will him to tell more and myself to listen:
"Gassed us. And I led the way; I and my young friends who knew nothing of green grass, for whom walls and tunnels and cellars and locked rooms were our playgrounds and hide-and-seek was a game of life and death. Deep into the thing, with the Ghetto burning to the ground above us, and we the very last desperate survivors scrambling through our tunnels and bunkers, waiting for some sign that we might move on, I saw him again. In the hidden room, atop the grate in the floor, my father wrestled with the soldiers of the SS. But he could not save us this time; we were trapped. They let the gas in slowly so we might suffer longer while we died."
Now I know why my grandmother believes that Hitler lives still in Hell, forever tortuously dying, forbidden the respite of death. He is allowed to die only so that he can be brought back to life again to experience yet more agony; millions and millions of deaths must he suffer as punishment for those he wrought.
And Faval sits enthroned in Heaven, on a straight-backed wooden chair, a stern guardian angel. He teaches me that to have a vision is not enough; one must act swiftly and with faith. Once I closed my eyes and tried to conjure him for inspiration, to which he said: "Do not set aside your pen. Dreams are the flimsy stuff of ghosts, but in your works we live again."
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