Nobody Knows Me
By Evelyn Apte
It was the story stored in her soul that only she and her beloved husband Ray were allowed to see. She ultimately gave me a glimpse, but only when it was too late.
Her married name was Alice Brown and we all did know that name. The earlier name—-Alice Isaacs is the one that hid its possessor until she came to the US in 1947. Then her name was changed to Alice Irving and that was how we knew her.
Alice was a cousin, sort of, who came into my life shortly after her arrival from Europe, from a DP camp. She came to live with her sister Gertrude, Tutti, and her then brother-in-law Peter in Portland, Oregon. Peter was a second cousin of my mothers and we were all a part of the German Jewish refugee group living in Portland.
Being roughly the same age we were quickly brought together and formed a friendship of sorts-one that left out the most relevant parts of her coming of age. It probably included too much of my adolescent concerns and too little of hers. She was 21 and I was 17.
Alice was beautiful with a heart shaped face with eyes that seemed to reflect the sadness of her soul. Alice grew up in Amsterdam where the family had relocated with the rise of Nazism in Germany. They actually lived on the same street as Ann Frank. She had survived up to 2 years in a concentration camp; Bergen Belsen. Following her being freed at the end of the war she was taken to a Displaced Persons Camp. It was there that it was discovered that she had a sister in Portland and arrangements were made for them to be reunited. Several people, including my father signed affidavits to assume responsibility for her care if needed.
We went to Lewis and Clark College together for one semester, both Freshman. I transferred to Reed college that fall. Alice stayed on to graduate and then continued on to get a teaching credential. That first semester she met Ray Brown, a fellow student, and fell in love. I think it took some time for him to reciprocate, but she won out. They married and forged a lasting relationship until his death 50 years on. I think he was perfect for her. Tall and good looking, intelligent and caring. He carried none of the burden or baggage of her past. Even his name, Brown, was not something that was remotely evocative of those horrific years. They were both teachers and shared a good life. They traveled a great deal during the summers, always alone, but together.
We had a distant but friendly relationship for the ensuing years. So when I heard that Ray had passed away I telephoned Alice. She was inconsolable; in a deep depression. She also had problems with her back. I called a few times and although she seemed pleased to hear from me I realized that she did not really wish for contact. She complained about neighbors wanting to be of help. She remained locked into her melancholy and I respected it.
About 5 years later I heard that Alice was very ill and in a nursing home in Arizona I decided to call her again. She was bedridden, with multiple physical complaints. She sounded depressed, hopeless and alone. She spoke of one friend, a former student, who managed her affairs for her and was present for her. The one bright spot.
Alice appeared to welcome my overture and we decide to have a telephone contact every week or so.
This commitment presented a quandary for me. What to say when most topics were taboo? Somehow we managed. We spoke about her health, which was improving slowly. She, actually, with physical therapy, began to get up and regain some use of her legs. The cup was never half full but she was pleased when she could use a walker and also when her therapist took her out for lunch to celebrate.
We spoke of her nephews Ron and David, who were in charge of her affairs. Her complaints as to how they were careless in the way they treated her belongings.
Her house was sold and her belongings destroyed. Whatever the reality was…… this represented the destruction of the happiest time in her life and she was helpless in the process.
We spoke of my family and she was always eager to hear family news. She was guarded, and I was careful, but our conversations continued.
She said she wanted to live!
Last, spring, without warning, her nursing home closed and she was moved to another one. She spoke approvingly of the new place. It had more space and privacy.
While I believe that the new place was physically better, how did this transition affect her?
I can only speculate about what another person is feeling but things began to change.
One eventful day last spring, I told Alice about the fact that I would be going back to Berlin to the Jewish Museum to do workshops with students about my experiences as a child in Germany. She knew of this as I had been going there previously and we had spoken of it. This time it was different. She said, as she had previously said, she would never go there.
Suddenly she spoke of seeing her mother taken out of the hospital where she was a patient. The SS or Gestapo were removing all the patients and taking them away. She broke off that part of the conversation and never alluded to it again. As a matter of fact the tenor of our conversations changed. We spoke less frequently.
Around August her name showed up on my cell phone. I returned the call only to receive an impersonal message. No response. I called again. Then once again there was her name on my phone. This happened about 4 times. I left messages on her voice mail.
Finally I left a message saying that I knew she had been calling and that I would keep trying to reach her.
In the meanwhile I called Ron. The news was not good. Alice had suddenly stopped eating and speaking. She was simply lying in her bed without verbal communication.
A few weeks later I learned that she had died.
It seems that her death has opened the door to a flood. Letters and photographs have been found. People are concerned.
Photographs she had ordered in Amsterdam in 1943 were sent to her nephews in Seattle after being traced to them after all these years. Why had they been taken? Why were they not collected? Was it then that Alice was picked up by the Gestapo and transported to Bergen Belsen? It seems that in dea
th she became known more than in life.
As her nephew David said looking at the papers on his desk:
Alice, Alice, Alice—-its all about Alice.