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A blue and yellow-feathered parakeet as tall as our salt-shaker scampered across our kitchen table, his tiny feet making a light percussive score on the yellow formica. Pretty Boy stayed with us every February while his owners, my mother’s Uncle Velvel and Aunt Lottie, found refuge from the Massachusetts winter in Miami Beach. Lottie sent weekly letters in which she asked after Pretty Boy as though he were a child dropped off at summer camp, and complained about their shabby, studio apartment with a hot plate on which they heated canned food because Velvel refused to waste money on restaurants.
I extended my forefinger to Pretty Boy. He lifted himself off the table and landed lightly on it as though it were a branch. “I loff you. Geef me a kees on you,” he said in the Yiddish accent Lottie and Velvel had brought with them from Poland.
Lottie, tall and creamy-skinned, had emigrated to America in the early part of the twentieth century. She had been beautiful when she was young, a model even, she’d told us many times, before she developed a mysterious skin condition that lasted for years until she and her father traveled back to Europe where they found a doctor who cured her. A chronic depressive, she recounted the tale of her skin malady and recovery as if she’d survived a sadistic Nazi experiment.
Velvel, on the other hand, had hidden from the Nazis in a hole in the ground for two years, but seemed content, if not thrilled, with life itself. Average in height, handsome and broad-chested with deep set eyes and a wide smile, he delivered a booming, cheerful greeting every time he came to our house. If I was anywhere near him, he’d reach two knuckles towards my face and pinch my cheek so enthusiastically it took minutes for the pain to subside.
I was ten when I heard that Velvel had spent two years in a hole in the ground. Never asking why he’d been alone in the hole, I pictured him huddling like a groundhog beneath a backyard like ours, a medium-sized patch of grass bordered by trees. The details of his physical and emotional agony were both too threatening and remote for me to grasp. When I complained to my mother that Velvel’s pinch hurt my cheek, she said I reminded him of the daughter he’d lost. I had known moments of terror during shopping trips to Cherry’s department store when I’d lose sight of my mother after absent-mindedly wandering away, but being without her forever was a nightmare beyond my imagination. Far easier for me to absorb was this colorful parakeet whose ability to mimic the speech of immigrants seemed miraculous even though, of course, it was far easier for a parakeet to say “I loff you” than it was for Velvel to have escaped the Nazis.
“Say shut up, Uncle Velvel,” my father yelled to Pretty Boy from across the table, as though, rather than months of patient repetition that Velvel and Lottie must have endured to teach the parakeet phrases of love, my father could utter an insult once or twice, and Pretty Boy would repeat it. My father was a kidder, but I sensed he found Uncle Velvel, with his stout, coarse body, tiny pet and tight fist, an easy character to ridicule even with his financial success. In the ten years he’d been in America, Velvel had bought several tenements. While he and Lottie were in Florida, my brother Tommy, four years older than I, bicycled weekly to a scruffy neighborhood on the edge of ours to collect envelopes of cash from Velvel’s tenants which he handed dutifully to my father who gave them to Velvel upon his return.
Velvel was born in Torchin, Poland in 1889, the younger brother of my grandfather Julius who emigrated from Poland with his wife, Shprintze, and their five children after World War I to New Bedford, where Shprintze’s parents were already living. Velvel stayed in Torchin either because he lacked the money to leave or had become a successful trader or shopkeeper, or, like so many European Jews, couldn’t have imagined what the future held.
The Germans occupied Torchin in 1941. Six months later, they forced the town’s Jews into a ghetto. Eight months after that, they liquidated the ghetto and, except for Jews like Velvel and his family who were hiding in the houses of sympathetic gentiles, took the inhabitants to the Jewish cemetery, shot them and tossed them into a mass grave.
Velvel and his brother, Chaim, while searching for their next hiding place, heard that the Nazis knew where their wives and children were. Chaim turned back to be with his family. Velvel kept going.
I was an adult with a husband and daughter of my own when I heard about Velvel’s choice to save himself rather than return to his family. In an effort to comprehend such a decision, I forced myself to imagine the moment: Surrounded by a stand of birch trees, the two brothers hear the bad news. Chaim’s heart immediately sends him back to his family even if it means dying with them, which it does. Velvel’s heart doesn’t have a chance to speak. Neither does his mind. Only his feet do: They propel him immediately through the woods before him and keep him running as long as his lungs and heart allow, like an animal in the cross hairs of a hunter’s gun.
Eventually, a Polish farmer hid Velvel beneath the floorboards of his house and fed him in exchange for pieces of silver flatware Velvel was carrying. While he hid, the Nazi’s killed his wife and daughter. They also killed his son, who was hiding in his non-Jewish girlfriend’s house until a neighbor told on him for a reward. The Nazis came to the house, saw a burning cigarette and asked if anyone smoked. Everyone said no. Figuring someone must have been smoking, the Nazis searched the house until they found Velvel’s son, took him and his girlfriend and her family into the street and shot them all.
An older cousin of mine remembers sitting around my grandparent’s kitchen table with our aunts and uncles reading a letter from a relative, listing which family members had been killed in Torchin. Over and over they cried, “Him, too? Oh, no. Her, too?”
After the war, Velvel went to France, then to Canada, where he met Lottie, and brought her to New Bedford to live near Julius and his family. He still had pieces of silver flatware with him. Perhaps he’d held onto it for the same reason he’d later be so tight with money: He never knew when he might need it to bribe another goy to save his life.
If guilt plagued Velvel because his need to survive had been stronger than the urge to be with his family, I never saw him express it. If, while he hid beneath the Polish farmer’s house, or, years later, while he prospered in our provincial New England town, the image of his wife and children captured, lined up and shot by the side of a house haunted him, I never heard about it. If he woke up screaming from a nightmare or was morose in the privacy of his own home, to my knowledge, Lottie never spoke of it.
Velvel died in his 70s while I was in college. Lottie inherited his money and, despite her resentment at how tightly he had held onto a dollar, she adopted his miserliness as her own. Unhappy and lonely until the end, she’d habitually threaten to remove any relative from her will who didn’t show her sufficient respect. But she loved my mother, who, whenever I came home for a visit, would insist I call Aunt Lottie to ask how she was. Her voice soft and breathless, as though it took great effort to speak, Lottie would say, “Oh, I’m okay, dear. Thank you for calling.” When she died at 96, she left my mother, also a widow by then, $50,000, enough for relatives to nickname her, “The Heiress.”
I can only assume Velvel would have approved of Lottie’s bequest. My mother always welcomed him in our house. The last time I saw him, he was standing in our doorway, wearing a cashmere coat my father had given him from his men’s clothing store. “Guta nacht. Zay gezunt,” (“Good night. Be well”) he announced loudly, his farewell as exuberant as his hello had been a few hours earlier.
I picture Velvel back in his apartment a few blocks from our house, reading the paper in the living room while Lottie prepares flanken and mashed potatoes for dinner. Velvel looks up at Pretty Boy’s cage and makes a kissing sound.
Pretty Boy tilts his head from side to side like a metronome. “Geef me a kees on you. I loff you.”
Velvel laughs as though Pretty Boy is not just mimicking random syllables, but expressing genuine feelings. He gets up from his chair and opens the birdcage. Pretty Boy flutters out to freedom, takes a spin around the living room and lands on Velvel’s shoulder. Then he nuzzles his head in Velvel’s neck as though the two creatures, one in captivity, the other having narrowly escaped extinction, both forever separated from their flocks, draw comfort from each other.
“Did you hear that, Lottie? He loves me, taka (for real).”
I imagine Lottie, too old to have children by the time she met Velvel, suffused with maternal warmth after hearing Pretty Boy’s affectionate expression. Even so, she considers it foolish to think the bird knows what he’s saying. “I heard him,” she says. “Come eat. Your food will get cold.”
Velvel guides Pretty Boy from his shoulder onto his forefinger and walks towards the bird’s cage to place him on his perch inside. Just before he does, he lifts his finger toward the ceiling until Pretty Boy takes off and swoops once more around the room.
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