Nonfiction

Cathedral, painting by Carmen Germain

Lerissa’s Monologue

Lerissa continues to talk while I move around the kitchen making us lunch. She talks and talks, somehow scarfing down the egg salad sandwich, dipping the crudités into the hummus, drinking two glasses of ice tea. She talks even through the closed door when I go to the bathroom, describing her recent trip to Germany with her aged mother, knowing its importance as their last trip together. Her speech has an urgency, as if she must tell me everything all at once like an actress performing a one-woman show without intermission.

 

On their trip, her mother showed her the once-elegant home where she lived the life she had before Lerissa, the one of leisure and elegance and no small privilege afforded ordinary Christians in 1930s Berlin. They visited the bank where her father worked, and where he swiftly became its youngest manager. They sat in the café where her parents had savored sweets with milky coffee every Sunday afternoon while their first child, a son, doodled or painted.

Lerissa’s mother, then in her eighties and too wary about her balance to hike her beloved trails, walked slowly yet purposefully from the car to the edge of the forest, to a home-made monument to dead soldiers, where she told her daughter, “Every dead soldier’s mother mourns. Every one,” no doubt a reference to that delicate, artistic son who didn’t survive basic training, much less military action. “No more paintings, no more theatre scenery, no more art. Such a beautiful boy, the army was no place for him.”

Lerissa, speaking to me in a careful, precise way, adds, “My parents emigrated during the the war, from Germany to Canada, where I was born after a few years.”

“I remember you telling me that,” I chime in, finding a tiny pause in her story to speak. An image of the day I told my family about the new girl at work, a Canadian born of German parents, flashes across my mind. “And, what did her father do in the war?” my parents had both asked as if playing the same chord of a song. I knew that part of history, of course, and had absorbed the message that it could happen again. My uncles, my father, sons of Jews who fled nineteenth-century Russia with its despotic tsar and cruel pogroms, had all returned intact from World War II. None of my family perished in concentration camps, under bombs, from hunger or the duplicity of those who collaborated with devotees to that era’s axis of evil. We all now lived a completely assimilated life; I had several friends who weren’t Jewish, yet I never thought to ask about their parents or what they did during the war. Wasn’t it enough that anyone who shared my interests offered a good basis for a friendship?

That was then; on this day, after decades of Lerissa’s friendship, I do ask, “How did your parents get permission to leave Germany once the war began?”

She brushes some crumbs off the tablecloth, rearranges the silverware, folds and unfolds the napkin before saying, in an atypical monotone, “My father, he did some favors.”

A chill cloaks me. My emotions fly all over the place, yet I’m mute. We both remain quiet, then I push for an answer, not quite trusting my voice to be calm, “Favors? For whom?”

She keeps her eyes on her hands, now clenched in her lap.

I repeat, “Who did he do favors for? What favors?”

“Well, you know, he was a banker. With many men working for him, many were friends,” her voice trails off. “Some were Jewish. Then, in 1938, after Kristallnacht, everything changed. My father…”

“What?”

“My mother said he had no choice. His hands were tied. He was thinking of her, my mother. My brother, he was dead by then.”

“And?”

“My father might have mentioned bank information to certain officers. Or, maybe just names,” she whispers.

“Might have? No wonder he drank himself to death!” I try to swallow the words back but they’re already out, hovering over our friendship. I could not understand—why this confession? How could this woman, who had known since forever that I was Jewish, who acknowledged every Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah, tell me this story? Why now?

I never met her father but she spoke of him, often mentioned his drinking, how he had never worked after leaving Germany, much less in a bank; how he hung out all day either at home or in the neighborhood pub while his wife took in boarders, cooked for them, cleaned up their rooms; took in piecework sewing; sold her special cakes and cookies—all humble, dogged efforts to survive in Canada until the emigration many years later to the States. By that time, it was a pubescent Lerissa and her mother only, the father dead and buried in Canada, left behind so to speak, as they ventured off to another life chapter.

“Maybe that’s why I drink,” Lerissa says, “to be close to my dad. He wasn’t in my life that long. I was twelve when he died. Sometimes I forget his face,” she adds, with an unresolved flatness, like how an ellipsis might sound.

Silence drapes the room no longer infused with daylight. As I turn on a lamp, I see her eyes: glassy, pleading, as if the sins of her father require my forgiveness. Lerissa has no need to atone, let alone to me. So why am I unmoved, numbed by her revelation? Is it anger I feel, to have shared a friendship with a person whose family contributed, even in a small way, to annihilating Jews in this part of history? No, I don’t hold children responsible for the actions of their parents, even those who were Nazis or their collaborators. And yet …

Several times, Lerissa and I attended concerts with her mother, who loved classical music and the outdoor charm of the Hollywood Bowl. That woman was always giggling, even when things were not funny. She never failed to tell me that she was often mistaken for someone’s Jewish grandmother. Once, again with that damn giggle, her mother told me she’d contemplated ending the pregnancy with Lerissa. “I’m so lucky I didn’t. Look what a wonderful daughter I have,” she said, as if this was typical small talk while waiting for the musicians to enter from the wings onto the stage. Lerissa’s face showed nothing; perhaps she’d heard this story too many times to have feelings about it anymore. What kind of mother says such a thing so casually, with her daughter sitting right next to her? Was the giggle embarrassment, nervousness?

When her mother died a few years ago, I went to the funeral, of course. Friends are needed at such times, and Lerissa and I continue to be there for each other during dramatic changes: new jobs, moves, divorces, other deaths. We no longer live in the same town, so our friendship is sustained through emails, phone calls, only the occasional visit.

Not once have we spoken of that day. I still wonder why she shared her story of the choices made by that high-level banker in 1930s Berlin; whom he knew; what he did, willingly or not. If my parents, if I, had known the answer to “What did Lerissa’s dad do in the War?”– could this friendship have even begun?

 

Ghana Paintings
by Helen Bar-Lev
  Helen Bar-Lev, whose vivid paintings of Ghanaian men and women illustrate this issue’s poetry page, is offering a special set of her paintings of the people of Ghana, either as originals (for $350) or as signed and numbered prints ($20). The paintings, which Bar-Lev refers to as pencil paintings, are exquisite miniatures, each approximately 11cm by 15cm (4.5" x 6"). Sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of these paintings goes to support the Ghana branch of the Sheenway School. Sheenway School in Sasekope Village is the first registered private school in the Volta Region of Ghana. Its partnership with the original Sheenway School in Los Angeles, its enriched curriculum, extended education, and cultural aesthetics provide an unparalleled opportunity for Ghanaian children from pre-K through secondary. To see the full range of Ghanaian paintings or prints available as part of this special offer, contact Helen Bar-Lev and let her know you are a Persimmon Tree reader.

Bios

Diana Rosen’s first full-length hybrid of flash and poetry is High Stakes & Expectations (thetinypublisher.com). Her work appears online and in print in England, Canada, Australia, India, and the U.S. She lives and works in Los Angeles where her "backyard" is the 4,200+ acre Griffith Park, one of the largest urban green spaces in the country. authory.com/dianarosen





A poet and painter, Carmen Germain is the author of three poetry collections and has paintings and drawings published in various literary/art journals. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.


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