For most of my life I have been frustrated by the fact that people did not comprehend the all-inclusive meaning of the word “everything” and the all-exclusive meaning of the word “nothing”. “We had lost everything; we had nothing.”
“Oh, that must have been just terrible” – yet people were inclined to think it could not possibly be completely true, that some Benign Hand had somehow provided that certain taken-for-granted items were salvaged: birth certificates, baby pictures, marriage certificates, wedding pictures, life insurance policies, pensions, bank accounts, credit cards. And that somehow this same Benign Hand had continued to pay the premiums on insurance policies and kept everything else current for the 3 ½ years that we were in the concentration camp.
Imagine yourself in a nightmare as a boy standing in the middle of the open prairie in the Midwest somewhere, holding a child’s suitcase and a note in your hand that tells you what your name is, when and where you were born, and the names of your parents and brother. It also says in bigger letters “If we get separated, take the train to Chicago.” Your memory is a fog with outlines like shadows and you have no idea why your body wants to take you where you are going other than that you hear the wail of a locomotive in the distance. So you start walking and, as you walk, you have to gradually dump the heavy items in your suitcase that make the muscles of your arms burn. You look back and all you see is blue-grey-black space. No horizon. Everything has evaporated in this void that opens behind you as you go forward. Your house, City Hall, the Court House, the Bank, the Insurance Company, the Church, the Hospital, the School. Moonbeams are groping for some vertical surface to light up. There is nothing.
You ultimately make it to the railroad tracks and you manage to get on a train that is headed to Chicago. In order to pay the conductor the required fare, you sell your suitcase, the clothes that you have left in it, the shoes you are wearing, your belt, and you step onto the platform of the station in Chicago wearing a shirt and shorts, feet bare, and clutching the piece of paper.
That is me when my Mother, my brother and I stood on the dock in Singapore Harbor after having been evacuated from Surabaya by the English Navy in the beginning of November 1945. Everything was gone; we had nothing. We had come out of the concentration camps under the Japanese left with nothing but our lives.
We did not care. We were alive, embraced by the warm welcome of healthy-looking, rosy-cheeked, energetic people who wanted to help us. Our nightmare was over. Better times were coming.