Dried Brown Ink

With the resurgence of Nazi ideology in many places in the world, including, sadly, America, my story, “Dried Brown Ink,” written in 2007 (when my sister was still alive), is a reminder of what happened once – and must never happen again. It is also a testament to the human spirit.

Dried Brown Ink (1)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick (2)

The little old lady presents the kind of idyllic grandmother you see in a commercial: perfectly waved white hair, no make-up, metal-rimmed glasses, a simple, white dress flecked with black, pearl necklace and earrings. And a soft voice. Her name, it turns out later, is Edith Reimer. Could be an Ashkenazi Jewish name, but she is not Jewish.

I am wearing a necklet, a small Jewish star. She leans forward and whispers in my ear, “People say it didn’t happen. But I saw it with my own eyes. I have the photographs. Of Bergen Belsen. I took them with my own camera.”

We are both sitting at an elegantly set lunch table at the British Home in Sierra Madre, California. On the white tablecloth, place settings of English china are framed by silver flatware in an antique pattern. English antiques, their polished dark wood glowing, stand stalwartly like guardians around the perimeter of the dining room. The tranquil, civilized setting amid five acres of green, rolling landscape seems a million miles away from horror. Yet all the inhabitants of the room are witnesses to history.

I am only a visitor to this room, a 21st century Canadian immigrant to Los Angeles who will leave after lunch. Considerably younger than the other diners, I have just entered my seventies, but I remember well what happened in the middle years of the twentieth century. I am a witness too.

The British Home in California is a private corporation with a connection (not financial) to the Daughters of the British Empire (a classy, long-distinguished organization) since the 1930s. It offers a retirement home in a beautiful setting to seniors living in California who come from the countries of the commonwealth. I learned about this remarkable facility from the Women’s Canadian Club in Los Angeles. I am checking it out for my sister, also a Canadian by birth. She lives in New York, and I would like to bring her to California. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the continuing terrorist activities that destroy innocent people, it seems so important to gather your loved ones close to you. Unfortunately, the Home is not licensed for wheelchairs. Walkers yes, wheelchairs, no.

“I worked for the United Nations after World War II,” Edith confides. She does not need a walker. “In the refugee camps. I was a nurse in England, and my husband was stationed in Germany. I came to be with him. My second child was born in Wittenberg.” The last city that was bombed in Germany. Her first child, a son, was killed in the blitz in England. He was five years old.

“I am sure he is in your thoughts every day,” I respond.

“Yes,” she nods simply, continuing to eat her salad. “My daughter was born in America. She comes every second Saturday to take me shopping. I was a nurse in America too.”( One of the longest residents, Edith had been living at the British Home for more than ten years when she told me her story.)

All of the men and women in the room – there are twenty-two at the Home at the moment, but there is a capacity for forty-one people in pretty bungalows framed by verandahs and placed like paintings at distances permitting privacy – have stories to tell, and most have distinguished backgrounds. A lady at the next table, just back from the hospital, was born in Winnipeg. She taught creative writing. “If you come from freezing Winnipeg, you can get through anything,” I joke.

“If you come to my room after lunch, I’ll show you the photographs,” Edith offers. We dispense with dessert, a frothy strawberry mousse, and walk up a slight incline to her bungalow. “I have the best view,” she chortles.

In her room, Edith shows me the handicrafts she makes for children – dolls , and crayon boxes, and dresses. Then she takes a small folder of photographs from her dresser drawer. The bed-sitting room is large enough to hold only a few of her cherished momentoes. She has parted with most of her fine furniture and china and silver, but she has hung onto these photos for half a century and carried them with her to this place of final residence. The folder still bears the imprint of the German photo shop that printed them.

The photos are inscribed with faded brown ink in Edith’s handwriting on the reverse and the dates. One photo shows Jewish bodies stacked up like cordwood for the furnaces. Another shows the bodies laid out decently for burial by American soldiers. The subject of another photograph is an American soldier offering a cigarette to a survivor; another refugee is crouched against the wall in the background. Then there are bombed-out views of Hitler’s house, Goering’s house. The destroyed houses of fanatical leadership whose followers exploded bombs on her little son.

We are silent for a few moments together. What is there to say? We both know.

“These photos are historical documents,” I suggest finally. “They should be in a place like the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.”

“Ah,” she says dismissively. “They have plenty of these.”

“Not taken by your camera,” I offer softly. “Not seen with your own eyes.”

As she puts them away carefully, I prepare to take my leave. We kiss goodbye. Born in companionate countries as members of the British Commonwealth, immigrants to the Southwestern United States  — one Jewish, one not — in different centuries, we have shared a memory that has faded for much of the world. Like the dried brown ink.

(1) “Dried Brown Ink” was first published in the 40th year edition of “Western States Jewish History,” Vol. XL, No. 2, Winter 2008, pp. 117 -199, ©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2007. The author has made a couple of small alterations to the story here.

(2) Corinne Copnick entered rabbinic school at AJRCA in 2009 and graduated as an ordained rabbi in 2015. Many of her original stories are featured on her website: www.rabbicorinne.com.