Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Mengele Shitting

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Mengele Shitting

Article excerpt


Taking My Name

I walked around New York half-dazed, and what had happened? Almost nothing, except everything looked different for the change in a few syllables.

Some hours before, twenty years old, I found out my name was not my name and wandered, discovering whatever happens happens in the world

and an altered vision has objects in it: this octagonal lamppost, that car - the wrong end of binoculars in their estrangement.

Earlier, the sharp white of a china plate circumscribing the square of brown honeycake, laid down by my Aunt Lilly's hand,

which I'd been looking at, seated between my cousins, when my Uncle Harry - Herschel, Lilly calls him - started in about my name. I'd breezed in for a meal

from an East Village sublet where I lived on the cheap with a girl from college, apparently to let my relatives know just what the thinking was

about the war, who was behind it and what our demonstrations aimed to do in addition to airing summer plans to work

driving a cab awhile and go back up to Boston for some festivals and such. Piqued by something I said, no doubt, and much about my manner,

my uncle, easygoing usually, given to after-dinner jokes, laughed suddenly, tunelessly through thin lips. "Jason Sommer's summer

plans, Jason Sommer, Sommer Sommer," he singsonged. "You think that is your name - Sommer?" "Herschel," Aunt Lilly hissed, as he went on:

"Maybe the man who had it didn't need it anymore and so your father took it." "Herschel, du herst?" Lilly said.

I wanted to ask him what he meant but I was used to the etiquette around survivors. Those who'd been through

the European fire could speak or not, or any combination of the two. I left - the evening anyway would not recover

from his tone, which addressed me as American in a definition other than the one they so desired for themselves, my uncle and my father,

in Displaced Persons camp, a new definition Harry learned by living here and having children for whom he really wanted a softer life than his.

In his voice I was a luxury item no one could afford, least of all me. He intended this little jolt I got to be the smallest cost of ignorance

relieved, so much ignorance, so used to it. But the jolt became a shaking, widening on the subway home with the hypnotic ticuh-ticuh, ticuh-ticuh

of the train where I remembered a queasy trip to Canada when at the border I felt my father lie about his birthplace, his voice odd

as he answered the guard, "Breslau, Germany." And Harry's melody continued - from every time I ever heard the faintest hum of what he meant

and what I was now believing, despite my efforts at reply as I walked under the ordinary signs enumerating, denominating from walls, store

windows, posts, and poles, seen before and read on sight, now seen somehow unread. Harry seemed to say: a person didn't think

and then he did - all I had to do was look around awake, which is what he learned in hard times even before the labor camps. As if looking around

had meant anything for Harry when he walked in front of troops to find landmines and found no landmines, or when he tried to kill himself

by jumping from a tree and had the branches break his fall and the fall break his arm, landing him in dispensary whereby he missed

a fatal deportation. I think that's the story, which I didn't know then, nor was I so conscious of how much our own failings trouble us in others,

and especially the young. But he seemed right - perhaps I hadn't assembled all the evidence in my possession. I should have known

with what I knew already, or known enough to ask. Worse still, though, might I have suspected and pushed away suspicion,

not wanting some ungainly Jewish name, more easily identifiable even than my face, ready to say Jew before I was ready

to say it? Though I was not in hiding, or trying for safe haven as far as I am aware, I also had an alias instead of another name,

more frankly Jewish-sounding, an alias that properly pronounced sounds German, is German. …

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