The book of things that I have forgotten contains most of my life. But then, what would we do without forgetfulness? I feel like there is hardly room for everything I do recall.
Sven Birkerts, my sky blue trades
It began with a mental image: Mr. Vaszily standing with his sleeve rolled up, the inner part of his forearm exposed to view, blue numbers tattooed across the skin. The image was sharp and clear. It came to me out of nowhere, while I was walking down an aisle in a Publix Supermarket in Clearwater, Florida in the spring, 2005. Nothing I was doing at the time – no writing, no reading, no thinking – was anywhere near the Holocaust. I hadn’t touched the Holocaust since 1999, when I was in Jerusalem and had visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. My former father-in-law, an Auschwitz survivor, had been dead for years. And Mr. Vaszily? He had died in 1972, when I was living overseas. I had last seen him alive sometime in the 1960’s.
So what, you wonder? We all remember things. Sometimes they pop up unexpectedly.The problem was, for the years I had known him, he had never rolled up his sleeves in my presence.
I met Mr. Vaszily – I did not know his first name, John, until many years later – when I was six or seven years old. He and his wife lived in a small house down the hill from ours. He was probably 70 when I met him and did not work. Mrs. Vaszily went to work each day while he stayed home, tending his garden as well as the rabbits, chickens and ducks that he raised in his backyard, selling them to the many Italians who lived in the neighborhood. When the weather was good I would see him walk down the street toward an overgrown field in the middle of the village where he would scythe the tall grass to be used as bedding for the rabbits.
He stood out because of his garb: shirt buttoned to the neck, a vest, a kind of suit-jacket, sturdy work pants and boots, a fedora. Sporting a carefully trimmed mustache, he was bald and wore that hat to protect himself from the sun. Later, I would see pictures of men like him, prosperous farmers from Central Europe, perhaps from Hungary where, we were told, he was from.
When he was scything that field, or working in his backyard, where I would often visit him, he would sometimes take off the jacket, maybe even the hat. But never did he roll up his sleeves in my presence.
There was nothing I could do about the “vision”, if you will, at the time it appeared. I was working in Florida for the semester, while the village where I had grown up, Croton-on-Hudson, is north of New York City. I did call my mother, who had been a nurse for the doctor who had attended to the Vaszilys. She could not tell me anything.
I live not far from my childhood home. When I returned north I began to dig. With the help of some friends still in the village I was able to find out that he and his wife had been buried in the village cemetery. I found the gravestone, which is where I learned their first names: John and Elizabeth. He died in 1972, at 90. She died in 1984, at 89.
My first assumption was that he had ended up in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and that they had come to this country after the war. I knew he was Catholic: he and his wife attended mass in the same church where I was an altar boy. I knew that the Hungarians had begun to cooperate with the German in dealing with the “Jewish question” only later in the war and I thought that perhaps he had been rounded up for helping the Jews. Or he had simply run afoul of the Germans or their Hungarian allies and ended up a prisoner. Or that he had been Jewish himself and later converted to Catholicism.
There was a problem with the theory that he had come to America after the war. According to his obituary, and to the immigration records I was able to find, he had come to this country sometime around 1915 or 1916, had worked for the New York Central Railroad for many years as a car inspector and had retired not too many years before I first met him. Which left me holding feathers.
The Vaszilys had one daughter and I was able to find out that she had graduated from the local high school in the Thirties. She had married and had a son, Douglas, whom I would play with when he and his parents came up from New York City to visit the Vaszilys. Perhaps they could help me. But they had disappeared as well. More feathers.
I talked to as many people as I could in Croton, many of them old-timers who had worked on the railroad. None of them recalled the couple. One of them told me that at one time there had been a small Hungarian community in the village. Nothing remained of that.
I discovered that a friend’s mother had once held the deed on the Vaszily’s property, making me think that they had rented from her or her husband before purchasing the property. My friend questioned her about it; she recalled nothing.
A secretary at the same Catholic parish they had attended dug through her records, but informed me that while the church went back many years, some of the records had gone missing.
I sent out an SOS to friends who had grown up in the same neighborhood, asking for help. One of them was a woman who had lived perhaps a block from the Vaszilys and whose house looked out over the field where he scythed the grass. They, in turn, passed the message on to others. Nothing.
I even contacted Yad Vashem (the Israeli Holocaust memorial mentioned earlier), but they could not help me. Nor could they offer any suggestions.
If it weren’t for my mother, who remembers them clearly and fondly, I would wonder whether I had made them up out of thin air. But I know that’s not the case. Mr. Vaszily had an air about him that I only later realized would be called gravitas. He was made of something very solid. And Mrs. Vaszily? She was his opposite, laughing where he was grave, embracing me whereas he would simply extend a hand and say hello. No less real, though.
Perhaps you are hoping at this point that something, someone appeared at the eleventh hour to solve the mystery. No.
Perhaps you are thinking that my vision was simply some neurons misfiring, crossed mental circuits. I don’t think so. As I said at the beginning, there was no reason for me to think about John Vaszily at all in 2005.
Or, perhaps it occurs to you, as it occurred to me, that he did have a tattoo, but that it was not what I thought it was. The problem with that theory is that I am confident that if he had had a tattoo – not the numbers – I would remember what the tattoo was.
Although I cannot prove it, I believe that John Vaszily’s arm was tattooed with numbers; that the likeliest explanation is that they were put there by the Nazis or their henchmen and that I, too young to know what they meant, had stored away the image against the day when the meaning would come clear. And that something in the spring of 2005, something I cannot reassemble, prompted the memory.
I have no one idea as to how John Vaszily got in the Nazis’ way. One possible explanation is that, during the Depression, he returned to his native country and was trapped there by the war. Another is that he returned to Hungary to rescue family members and was arrested and imprisoned in the process. There was never any reason for the Vaszilys to talk to me, a child, about this. And Mr. Vaszily’s habit of not exposing his forearms is consistent with the idea that he had something there that he did not want others outside his family to see.
John and Elizabeth Vaszily seem to be completely forgotten, the only record of their time on earth being a headstone in the Bethel Cemetery in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Other than having the grass around it mowed by the cemetery caretakers, it is untended, while gravestones around it are replete with freshly picked or planted flowers. Later this month I will go down there to plant some bulbs – daffodils, most likely – and will try, as long as I live in the area, to see to it that the gravesite is tended. Perhaps I will even leave a note on the headstone, just in case someone wanders by who knew something about them, who remembers them at all.