(EDITOR’S NOTE: I posted this a little earlier today as a series of Twitters, and it got such a nice response that I thought I’d collect it here in a more coherent form.)
Quick story: I can count on probably four hands the number of times friends or family have stumbled into my place a little tripped out. Always the same look on their face, and they always start their explanation the same:
“Uh, I just ran into one of your neighbors, I think…”
And I’m always able to finish the story. “…and he was like a thousand years old and he showed you his tattoo.”
Charlie is 97 years old, about four and a half feet tall, and still in possession of a thick Germanic accent. His tattoo is a faded line of crude numbers, an identification given to him at Auschwitz.
At some point, he shows everyone. And if he gets the sense you’re a visitor to our building, he shows you immediately. Talks about it. Obviously, this is a little jarring for most. One second your in an elevator with this ancient, smiling little guy, the next it’s Nazis and death. But he’s so kind and so sprightly, and it’s impossible not to engage him about it. Especially because he just wants you to know he survived. And to make sure you know that, because he survived – the only member of his family to do so – he’s more or less determined to be immortal. And it’s not as if he’s just hanging around idly. Half the day, he walks the neighborhood. Every Monday, he volunteers at Cedars. The guy is ACTIVE.
Anyway, I ran into Charlie today on my way to the corner store this morning. As always, I ask how he’s doing. As always, he answers the same:
“Can’t complain! God has seen fit to keep me around for another day, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll find he’s kept me around for one more!” Big smile. So we chatted for a second, and he talked about spending a few hours at the synagogue this week. “Because I’m Jewish, you know.” I do, and I giggle at the adorable but unnecessary reminder. But then he got somewhat melancholy. Told me he spent most of the time thinking about his family.
He talks about his family a lot. When he does, he usually talks about his kids, who come over in various shifts to hang out with him, shuffle him from place to place, take him to dinner. But today, for the first time, he talked about the family he lost in the Holocaust. His parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins.
“Over one hundred of us. One hundred! And I’m the only one who survived. I can’t explain it to people. Can you imagine?”
I can’t, Charlie.
He goes on to tell me that when he comes across people he doesn’t know, if they’ll stop to talk to him, he shows them his tattoo. And he’ll talk about his mother, an uncle, a cousin. All lost to time, he says, but not to him. Because he talks to people. And remembers.
And if the people he talks to remember their conversation…maybe they’re not lost to time after all.
On 1 November, Charlie turns 98. He’s going to go out to dinner with his kids. Volunteer an extra day at Cedars. Y’know, 98 year-old stuff. So maybe, on that day, take a second to think about Charlie and his family.
I have a feeling he’d like that.