Majeurette

4 years ago
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Majorette only had two memories of her grandfather, one was of a tea party with him when she was five, and the other was a very peculiar Thanksgiving dinner at the age of 8, shortly before he died.  Liem Pfanzig (pronounced “Pansy” upon entering the States), was not a particularly happy man, having escaped Germany several months before WWII ended.  There were many secrets behind his dark eyes – secrets that he went to his grave protecting.  Liem was Jewish, however, his desire to practice medicine had led him to bury his heritage, changed his name (for the first time), and basically denounce being 50% Jew.  It served him well during the war.  He could move about freely and help his friends and family flee Europe – mostly to Canada and the States.  It served him well.  Until the Nazi’s offered him a job that he couldn’t refuse.

Marred by the second world war, it was during conversations and storytelling (a favorite pastime of Liems), that he would make sure to promote the fact that some of the world’s most influential cultural icons lived in Wiemar: Goethe, Liszt, Bach, Schiller – the renaissance men of Germany, the historical heroes of his day. Most folks wouldn’t put two-and-two together, of course, that Wiemar was home to one of the largest and most lethal concentration camps, Buchenwald. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a place as beautiful as Wiemar, with shining beechwood trees and picturesque, mountainous terrain as home to such atrocities.

            Most people know that the Holocaust resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews, but few stop to think about the total number of human beings exterminated at the hands of the Nazi’s – another 5 million non-Jews: gypsies, dissidents, homosexuals, disabled, mixed-race peoples to total more than 11 million. And this is not accounting for the number of soldiers and civilians that also lost their lives, for a total of 60 million human beings. It was 2.5% of the world’s population. It was a number that Liem would make sure people knew about after talking with him. What he kept silent about, however, was the part he played at Buchenwald.

            As a young lab assistant for Ellenback at Buchenwald, Liem Friedrich tried to keep his distance from some of the known atrocities occurring at the camp. It didn’t last long, however, when rumors of human lamp shades, forced cannibalism and live vivisections seeped into the exercise physiology labs. Most of the experiments at Buchenwald involved testing the latest “cures” for typhoid or Hepatitis B, which actually meant exposing prisoners to the disease before trying its remedy. As you can imagine, not many survived the cures.

            Being half-jew, Liem was constantly worried he would be found out, certainly his name change from Roggamon, to Friedrich was traceable – but perhaps he got lucky. As the war waged on, he became less worried, and more bent on helping (in any kind of small way) some of the prisoners, especially those that came to recognize him. For example, smuggling scalpels to the barracks so that tattooed prisoners could remove their markings before the “Bitch of Buchenwald” could inspect the population for additions to her “human skin” furnishings.

One evening, as he was taking the blood pressure of a subject, Bertthold Pfanzig, Pfanzig confessed to him that “he shouldn’t be there” that he was pure German, but he was being held for helping some Jews hide in the first wave of collection. Pfanzig made it known that he had heard of Liem’s heritage and would announce it if he did not help him escape. Unfortunately, Pfanzig collapsed of a heart attack the next day of his exercise trials – Liem quietly hid Bertthold’s papers until the day he was sent to Wiemar for supplies. He escaped to Canada, via Spain, roughly 18 months prior to the Buchenwald liberation in 1945.

            Unfortunately, Pfanzig wasn’t as innocent as he had claimed to be, irony that Liem had escaped the persecution of one race only to be persecuted because of the actions of another, was not lost on him.

            These are the moments in time, however, that can be lost or forgotten by descendents of war. Certainly it’s lost on an innocent girl at the tender age of five, re-entering the hospital because the “ureter re-implant” had failed in preventing yet another kidney infection. Certainly, the fact that the name on her birth certificate represented an ancestral enemy of her doctor’s gypsy-born heritage was lost on her mother. But for those that were victimized, and indeed, for all of the descendants of the victimized, it is never lost or forgotten. And thus, we have the makings of a silent, invisible and never-ending war.

Liem Pfanzig adored his granddaughter –not in a creepy way, but with pure adoration.  He frequently called her his seventh daughter – in fact it was he who gave little Margie her lifelong nickname.

“Ach mein libeling – mein Mayyjeauuuuretta,” he would say, beaming.

“I’m Margie, grandpa, not Majeurette.”

“My what beautiful hair you have, liebling, it’s as shiny as a fairy princess.” Or sometimes it was:

“Look at those muscles, little one, let me see you make a muscle.” Majorette would oblige his strange request, and they would drink their weak tea and toast together, on a tea set specially bought for the ritual.

And so it would go during most visits, until shortly before his death.  Majorette thought of a particularly awkward Thanksgiving, observing each moment as if she were reliving it.  Grandfather Liem had become increasingly senile and despondent, and had insisted that each entrée, side dish, appetizer and dessert have its own plate….for everyone. 

“Keep everyone separated!” he shouted.  Aunts and Uncles stirred about, frantically grabbing any dish they could find to accommodate him.  Grandmother was beside herself.

“The war’s over Liem!” she shouted from the other end of the table.

Grandfather winked at her as he looked up from his plate, and with the most utter lucidity, leaned in and whispered “The War’s not over, they just got caught, didn’t they mein liebling?” Then with a grim smile and a grunt, declared “The War is never over.” and went back to slurping his gravied potatoes.

  Majorette smiled as she remembered the pile of dishes stacked in the kitchen that year. At six, she was considered still too young to help – but as she moved through the years of her own life, she would never forget that moment.

Indeed, Majorette had grown up in a time of war. An unconscious, invisible war that no one realized was happening – until it was too late.

It took only 10 minutes for Majorette to submit to REM sleep.  Her dreams tonight were choppy and vague.  Avoiding any painful ones, she focused on those memories that felt energizing, powerful, willful.   Like sitting in the front seat of her mother’s car, listening to her mother practically screaming:

“All these questions, Little Mutt, they will get you into trouble one day, mark my words.”  Little Mutt was her mother’s term of endearment for her, a stretch for her mother, but somehow she understood the attempt, and accepted it as a good thing.  It was her screaming fits like this, or her apathy, or the rare, but violent forms of physical punishment that made her willfulness appear.

“Mommy, what would happen if I touched this?”  The girl pointed to the door handle.  It was 1971, no real child safety yet.

“Don’t you dare touch that handle, Margie.”

Margie looked at her mother defiantly, opened the door and rolled out onto the ramp as the car was entering the busy freeway. 

She remembered tires screeching, the aid of complete strangers, and the lingering fear in her mother’s eyes when it was all over.  Even at four, Margie was aware that she didn’t ask to be her mother’s daughter, refusing to be her victim. Or anyone’s for that matter.

Majorette shifted under the sleeping bag a bit, unconsciously clenching her fists and flexing her feet, as if they were numbing.