The train to Auschwitz was late—but it was totally fine with me. I was stoned off my ass. Our senior class trip to visit the Nazi death camps was well into its second week and it wasn’t going well, even by the relatively low standards of Nazi death camp tourism. The only thing that kept me going were the chocolate chip cookies—mercifully laced with weed—courtesy of my pal Micky. That, and the opportunity, the unfounded hope really, of harpooning the heart of Yael, she of the big eyes and floppy auburn bangs. Or, if not quite harpoon her heart, then maybe just get her attention for a split second, to inform her that, yes, I’d been born and now actually exist as a living person.
The trip was led by one of our teachers, hapless and melancholic Rabbi Jencks, an obese widower whose leaky fountain pen had systematically stained every shirt he owned. Jencks bore more than a passing resemblance to what Shakespeare would have looked like if Shakespeare had had a busted-out, late career Vegas period. He’d recently recovered from cancer of the balls. He was joined by a guest trip leader, a dapper, pint-sized elderly gent from our community named Feigenbaum. Feigenbaum’s qualification for leading this particular trip was simple: he was a Holocaust survivor. Lost his whole family, narrowly escaped when they were forced to dig their own graves. You know, the works.
But here’s the thing about that. Feigenbaum was no Elie Weisel. Not even close. The guy lacked the moral authority to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He was completely irresponsible, and just basically a total dick. The school had asked him to join the trip to help “make it feel real” for us spoiled 21st century kids. As it turned out, he was the spoiled kid. He acted like we were ruining his vacation. Instead of pointing out sites and telling poignant stories, or anything, he spent most of the bus rides putting his arm around girl’s shoulders and whispering in their ears, or else complaining loudly that the trip was boring, that we didn’t do enough shopping, that the ride was taking too long. Some nights he would disappear and only show up again, hungover and disheveled, in the late morning. Feigenbaum was, hands-down, the worst Holocaust survivor ever.
At the moment, he was getting annoyed with the delayed train that was supposed to take us to Auschwitz. After much pacing and agitation, he finally piped up.
“Ok, ok, here’s a story for you,” I heard him saying, as he slipped an arm around Jess Kranzler. He was projecting his voice so that the whole group could hear. “Hitler!” he shouted. “You’ve heard of him, maybe? Yes, the Hitler. Adolf. Hitler.” Strangers nearby were starting to give us looks. “This Hitler,” said Feigenbaum, pointing to himself with a triumphant smile, “he came to my town.”
“And believe me,” he continued. “You never seen such an event in your life. Hitler! The famous man, like Alexander the Great, in my little village. Hitler, on my street! You never seen such flowers and flags and music and dancing. And the cakes! Oy, the cakes! It was heaven.”
The senior class stood dumbfounded. Rabbi Jencks looked ill.
“Best part?” said Feigenbaum.
“This hand,” he said, holding up his left hand like a precious jewel, “this very hand touched Hitler. Yes! This hand pulled, a little bit, on his sleeve. This hand touched Hitler’s fingers.”
“Who here wants to touch this hand?”
Nobody dared take a breath.
Feigenbaum seemed genuinely surprised and more than a little bit hurt. Just as he was about to speak again, a little voice was heard.
“I’ll do it,” it said.
Everybody looked back. It was Yael—my Yael.
She walked through the crowd, to the edge of the railway platform where Feigenbaum was standing. He held his left hand aloft, palm up, as though balancing the moon. For an intensely long moment, the two of them just stood there like that: Feigenbaum with his hand floating in the air, suspended by magic, and Yael gazing wide-eyed—like all of us—at this hand. Finally, she swept her bangs to one side, closed her eyes gently and placed her smooth hand on his wrinkly one, palm to palm. Watching this, I became so painfully hard that I had to close my eyes and walk away to avoid embarrassment.
As I sat on the train, fifteen minutes out of Auschwitz, I watched the passing countryside. But for the rhythm of the train, all was silence. I stared out, trying to hold that image of her hand on his. I imagined myself arriving in her village, the honored guest, welcomed with flowers and dancing and cakes.
All I want, all I want—I thought—is to be her Hitler.
I could see her looking up at me adoringly, could feel her hand pulling on my uniform trenchcoat, grazing my fingers. I kept my gaze fixed and tense on the glass of the train window. I knew that if I relaxed, the picture would fade.