by Keone Michaels
Tue Feb 21st, 2006 at 01:54:26 PM EST
Work Shall Make You Free
a story and a picture by Keone Michaels
Lisa Unter was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz death camp. Wizened, hunched, arthritic and at the very end of her long life she settled on Kauai.
When I first met her she was 80 something. She had bright red petulant full lips and an old gray liver spotted complexion. Her clothes and presentation were an odd mixture of Salvation army chic and Liberty House's best duds. The overall effect was of a young Judy Garland transformed by age and hard circumstances into a mad toad lady from a tea party in some pirated and colorized tropical version of The Wizard of Oz.
She like some other prison camp survivors received a monthly stipend from the German government. "Blood money" I instantly thought and almost rudely blurted out to her when she told me about it. "For my life," for my "fahdders und mutters soul", she muttered to me. It was her "wages" from the work she did in the camp I also imagined I heard her whisper in German.
Anyway, in the end, where the money came from didn't seem to bother her and with it, on the island, she rented a nice home and regularly purchased art from local artists which put her on the A list for lots of openings and parties and such. Lisa was quite a social butterfly. She and I met and mindlessly chatted about the art world many times at these functions.
Not that there weren't a few little bumps along the way. One year she was brought before Judge Akau for shop-lifting some fancy underwear from Liberty House. I don't remember the legal resolution, but at the time the incident provided quite a few giggles at gatherings and meetings of the "art" crowd on the island. Lisa certainly didn't lose any sleep over it and and I'm told that the judge went back to his chambers afterward and "laughed his ass off." At the time I was the president of Kauai Society of Artists and privy to all the best gossip.
Those days, in my function as president I attended lots of openings and parties. One lazy sunny summer afternoon, the last time I saw her, Lisa asked me to come to a "high tea" celebrating some artwork she had recently completed that was on display on the walls at her home. Instead of buying art she declared in her still thick German accent "I am creating it!"
After we viewed the artwork, we were seated in the dappled shade of her nice screened in outdoor lanai. Lisa had the good sense to rent a nice house on "manager's row," the line of houses leading up the hill in Lihue to the plantation manager's residence. In the old plantation days the theory went that the closer you were to the manager's house the more important you were. Her house wasn't all the way up the hill, but it wasn't at the bottom either. It turned out this pleasant but hot day that I was the only male with a group of ladies. Seven or eight of us all told.
Oh! I forgot! Lisa's artwork was a surprise. Lisa had peeled roadkill from the highway consisting mostly of dried up dead toads and rodents and pasted these dead animals to the walls and floor forming a loose winding visual path up and down the walls from her front entry way down the hall around the corner to her bedroom. Some pieces she had painted, some were just varnished and others looked as if she had plucked them directly from the road. Somehow they were not at all threatening . And there was no smell because all these dead animals were dried up and dessicated just like her. This was Lisa's artwork.
No one knew quite how to take this "show", was it serious or a joke? After giddily inspecting the "artwork" we moved in a noisy clutch back across the house and took seats on her shady enclosed lanai and with the tea she served scones and pastries and we sat and chatted. I remember while one of the haole (white skinned) ladies was fleshing out the old gossip about the wartime imported WW2 haole prostitutes marrying the local Japanese on the West--Side I wondered why someone had built a wall directly blocking the prevailing tradwinds? Even though it was shaded, it made the space hot, humid and uncomfortable during the day. I imagined a sun burned haole plantation middle manager coming home in the cool evenings to fuss over his delicate orchid blossoms in the protected windless lanai. Now it was Lisa's tearoom.
This was the only time I ever heard her talk of the concentration camp. She showed us the tattoo on her forearm. She explained that Auschwitz was the only camp that actually tattooed the prisoners because of the sheer amount of bodies that needed to be sorted out at the close of each business day. Apparently, it was much easier to haul each body out by it's forearm and read off the number from the naked arm than sort through a pile of tags or clothes for a body count. The numbers were arranged in series of 20,000, you know A00001 to A20000, then the series started over at B00001 and so forth. Such organized killing, so oddly appropriately German I remember thinking. She told us how her mother and father were taken and gassed. She told us how she was young and pretty and that it saved her and she broadly hinted how the German soldiers used her. She became very alive and very animated and even coquettish during the telling.
At some point I got up and made my way to the other side of the house to go to the bathroom. I did my business and as I emerged from the small room, Lisa was suddenly there, invading my body space and squeezing me into her bedroom doorway. She was talking, babbling, in free form mix of English and German and she muttered something about the camp and that I reminded her of someone who ( I thought I heard the German word for lover, but my sensibilities recoiled in horror from the very idea of it.) was from those days and how he used to like "these" and with that verbal remark and a physical flourish she pulled her sweater over her head revealing her naked and unfettered sagging old breasts. She awkwardly tried to embrace me but to my relief was stopped at that instant by one of the ladies who came to go to the bathroom and perhaps not by accident to my rescue. She hugged and scolded Lisa like a child and we laughed as she put her sweater back on. We all then went back to the Lanai and the tea and pastries.
After some more mundane chatter, we did the usual air kiss kiss as we departed and few months later Lisa died.