All last night I thought about Lou, waking between my dreams to wonder if he was still alive, feeling that sense of Lou-ness surrounding me. His voice is vivid to me (especially his laughter), and no wonder since I have dozens of hours of interviews with him and many years of hearing his stories of surviving and making a new life after all his family members, except for his brother, were killed in the holocaust that put him through six concentration camps and three death marches. I know Lou from the vantage point of being his friend, but also his biographer (for the book Needle in the Bone about the Lou and his dear friend, Jarek, who was a Polish resistance fighter during the war).
All last night, I also thought of Jarek’s wife, Maura, who died on this precise day one year ago. Maura was so full of spirit and sass, laughter and outrageously entertaining stories that it’s still astonishing to comprehend that she simply stopped being alive a year ago today.
I awondered if Lou would die on this anniversary, especially after I saw him Sunday, lying so still on the hospital bed in the living room, only opening one eye in understanding when I kissed him goodbye. It turns out he did: at 3:30 this morning, peacefully at home with Jane by his side.
There are those who might say Lou lived a long life, with a notable second act supreme after surviving Budzyn, one of the most brutal concentration camps; the selection process at Auschwitz; and many near-death, nothing-left-to-lose experiences. But none of those rationales mean anything to me or those of us who love him: Lou is dead, and when someone you love dies, it is always too soon, and it always breaks your heart into a million pieces.
Driving to and from Topeka where I had dental work (a good diversion actually because the physical pain distracts from the broken heart), sometimes crying so hard that I kept taking wrong turns, I thought about Lou and his family. Although there was no way he wanted to die, at least he died the way he chose: at home, in the peace that befits such a gentle man, and with Jane beside him after many family members from Lawrence to Paris, San Antonio to Northampton, called and visited, told him how much he was and still is loved.
But what speaks to me most is how he lived. He found the strength to go on after his father was shot, mother was gassed, and extended family members were
killed. He survived starvation, illness, oceans of loss, greedy foster families, having to learn multiple languages on a dime, and moreover, the world in which he grew up being utterly destroyed beyond recognition. He and Jane, who was able to flee Europe with her parents before being sent to the camps, made a life here that rippled out into two more generations.
What Lou gave me — the gift of hearing his story, threaded with laughter that took the edge off the unimaginable horrors of it, and the gift of trusting me to convey his story to others — is one of the greatest gifts of my life.