StoryCorps brings oral history live
March 15, 2006
StoryCorps brings oral history live
By Nicholas Spangler
Not all lives end badly but every one is tragic.
The silver Airstream trailer parked these last weeks on Northeast 14th Street is outfitted accordingly. It contains recording equipment for an oral history project called StoryCorps, a guy named Jonah to work the controls, and a big box of Kleenex in easy reach.
The stories are broadcast on National Public Radio and copies are sent to the Library of Congress. First, though, StoryCorps participants enter the trailer two at a time to ask each other what the project flier calls “the important questions.”
”Every year around this time you commemorate certain days. Why is that?” Judith Lamet asked her husband Eric the other day. He is 75, and was talking about very old days.
”In 1938, five days after Hitler invaded Austria, we fled to Italy,” he said. “In 1941, the police said Jews were no longer allowed in the city. We went to the internment camp. It was almost an adventure, for a boy.”
Eric’s father was in Poland. Eric and his mother packed off to Ospedaletto, a small town in southern Italy. Very small. Few people wore shoes, and there was no running water.
”I remember your telling me once you saw a bathroom tub used for an unusual purpose there,” Judith said.
”Full of coal,” Eric said. “I don’t think anybody had ever taken a bath or a shower in it. They didn’t know about that.”
By 1943, German soldiers were patrolling the streets. German officers demanded a list of the town’s Jews. But Italian anti-Semitism was not so murderous as the Germans’. ‘The mayor of this town said `Yes, of course,’ and for all I know they’re still waiting for that list. That was typical of the Italians. That mayor never had any intention of providing the list.”
The Germans came with artillery and half-track tanks, fascinating to a 13-year-old boy. So he took a ride with them. “I remember my mother standing there, just ashen white, I don’t know from fear or anger. She didn’t hurt me then, but the sight of her — it was just as bad as if I’d gotten hit.”
Eric knew nothing then of extermination camps or genocide. The Germans seemed like great guys. Eric — fluent in German, Italian and Yiddish — helped them get around. They liked him. They had canned fruit, chocolate, whole chickens, and they liked to share.
There was one in particular: “One day he came to visit. He jumped down from the half-track and walked out some distance with me, away from the others.”
Eric started to cry now, sitting now in this tiny recording booth, across from his wife and Jonah.
‘ `I understand you’re Jewish,’ he said to me. Those words are practically chiseled on my memory. He said, ‘Not all Germans are alike.’ ”
So the soldier did not want Eric to see him as a Nazi monster. He might have been a good man. Eric never saw him again.
There were other stories. Eric’s mother met an Italian man and remarried; his father, missing and feared dead for years, showed up one day by train: ‘I had this picture in my mind of an elegant man, tall, sharp, and here in front of me is a man who is just broken. Broken spiritually and physically. `How are you?’ he asked. ‘And how is this Italian gentleman?’ We spent two hours there but I don’t remember what else we talked about.”
Before she disappeared, Eric’s aunt sent one last letter from a labor camp in Germany: she knew he liked stamps and gave him one emblazoned with the face of Adolf Hitler.
There was time for one last story. It was about the jacket Eric wore to ward off the sea’s chill on the S.S. Atlantic when he finally left Italy. He put it down on a New York pier for just a second, after disembarking, and it vanished: Welcome to America, kid.
”I would not want to relive those years for any sum,” Eric said. “But by the same token, I would not give them up for any sum.”
It was a hard thing to say. If someone, years from now, listens to the recording of this afternoon, he will hear silence and a swallow and one heavy breath: the sound of a man mastering himself.
Then Eric reached, for the first time, for the Kleenex, and Jonah stopped recording.
If you have a story idea, e-mail nspangler@Miami