Last Tuesday, while Flora and I were eating breakfast, a woman whom I hadn’t met joined us. Dressed in a plaid wool jacket, an emerald green scarf, and silk turtleneck, she had a regal demeanor, though she was confined to a wheelchair. Her nursing aid maneuvered her slowly to the table. As the woman approached, she looked into my eyes and smiled, an easy and warm smile. It was hard to guess her age. I asked her name – Florence, she said. She spoke with a thick accent.
“You know, I’ve met the Pope,” she added, unbidden.
“Really?” I was a little dubious about her statement. Many people at the assisted living residence experienced memory loss, confusion or dementia. But she seemed certain. Her aid nodded in agreement.
Then, I began to wonder about her religious background. Because I’m of Russian Jewish descent, with many Slavic relatives, I recognized her manner of speaking: she had an Eastern European inflection. And, she looked Jewish, I thought. Or, could it be that, having met the Pope, she was Catholic? I didn’t ask.
“Yes,” she continued. “I met him outside my house in Krakow, Poland. I speak Polish and the Pope at that time was Polish. So he could talk with me. It’s good to know different languages,” she added as an afterthought. “It opens you up to the world.”
“That’s extraordinary, Florence,” I remarked.
“I will never forget that experience,” she said.
“When did you come to the United States?” I wondered.
“That was in the late 1940’s. After the war.”
I pondered more intently, is she Jewish? Could she have been in the Holocaust? Did the woman I was casually speaking to at breakfast suffer that fate? So few Polish Jews survived. I didn’t want to probe.
At that moment, unexpectedly, she took her right hand and slowly rolled up the grey wool sleeve of her jacket. There beneath the layers of clothing, a line of small blue-black numbers was tattooed into her forearm. I gasped. She had been in the concentration camps. She’d experienced that horror. And she lived with those memories, and those numbers, year after year, decade after decade, to now.
“I was fifteen years old,” Florence continued, “When the Nazis took all the Jews from Krakow and put us in a camp.” I stared at her arm, spellbound. “They had a very good system,” she reflected with cool objectivity. But, her words had gravity: she spoke from the depths of her own unimaginable experience. Florence paused for a moment and added, “My only sin was to be born Jewish.”
The waitress came to our table, “Florence, I know you enjoy oatmeal. I’m sorry, we have no oatmeal today. Do you want fruit salad?” “No,” Florence said, “But thank you, anyway. I’ll have a muffin.” The waitress left. Under her breath, Florence added, “My stomach is very delicate.” She moved her hand to her abdomen. “I was in Auschwitz.”
“You know,” Florence returned to her cherished memory, “I met the Pope outside my house in Krakow.” At that moment, I realized that she’d encountered him after the war, after she miraculously survived the Holocaust.
“I didn't want to take his time," she continued. "After all, I was Jewish. I was not Catholic and there were many people there to see him." But, the Pope said these words to me, ‘My child, we are all children of God.' And then he added, 'Go in peace, my child. Go home, in safety,’” Florence hesitated. She could hardly speak. Tears flowed down her cheeks. “I’ll always remember those words," she repeated, "‘My child, go in peace.’”