By Melissa Grunow



“Wear your heart on your skin in this life.”
― Sylvia Plath
, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams


The springtime Mississippi air was making my hair frizz and my bangs curl, and I looked younger—felt younger—than anyone else in the dance club. I was nineteen; Lisa was twenty-four, and it was spring break for both of us on the cusp of Mardi Gras 2000. We were dressed in matching backless shirts and short skirts that we had bought together that afternoon in anticipation of our night out.

Lisa’s outfit showed off her man-in-the-moon tattoo on her shoulder blade and the compliments led to revealing her zodiac signs—Leo surrounding Cancer—tattoo on her lower back that was slightly covered by the ambivalent fabric flitting her skin with each movement. I hung back and watched her soak in the attention from southern men, her hair straight and looking redder than mine under the deceptive club lights, even though she was actually blonde.

An old man with six fingers total saws lugubrious anthems of loss and love on a zither with a caved-in box and crooked plectrum. His only lyric: ¿por qué? repeated over and over like incantation. He sits on an old barber’s chair perched against a crumbling wall along one of the Zócalo walkways. He has breadcrumbs in his moustache, and the graffiti behind his sombrero’d head, reads, in Spanish: Fuck Your Mother. We drop a few sweaty coins into the empty yogurt dish at his feet. His eyes drop like bats feeding.

Vendors flash their wares. Leather wallets with big silver snaps. Purses of all sorts of hides bearing the ecstatic faces of the toothy gods, handbags made of tortoise shell and obsidian. Earrings of snail shells, snakeskin belts. Something about this commerce stirs in us a sly uneasiness, but admiration. This is a market without middleman, and the directness of it—the chance to place the pesos for a turtle purse into the durable hands of the man who, just last week, ripped the small wriggling body from the shell—is chilling, as it is alluring.

Like somnambulists, we zombify the market, wide-eyed and stiff-legged, not saying a word or looking at each other, Mexico City the only reaction shot we need. I want to know everything Louisa is thinking, if thoughts of Chicago evaporating like tea steam rush her with their thin whistle, if she is only in the moment or already forcing upon it reflection from some unknowable, but probable future. I want to know, but stare straight ahead until she speaks.

“I’d really like an agua fresca.

Her voice is like the hand that pulls me from the bottom of the pool, where I lost myself gathering pennies to the point of drowning; the same penchant for blind engrossment that caused me as a child to piss myself while watching Sesame Street. I suck air. It’s filthy and wonderful. All sewage and roasting corn.

“We have to find the kind that’s all fruit, or mixed with milk,” I say, “the ones mixed with water can hurt us.”

“It’s so tempting though,” she whines, gesturing to a stand mixing prickly pear drinks, cantaloupe, coconut, tamarind.

“Those are the water ones, baby,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t want to get sick.” And immediately I hate playing the role of reason, of lack of surrender, but I’ve been struck with parasites many times before; once, years ago in Mérida, Yucatán, when I couldn’t help but eat a guyaba berry rolled in chile powder, handed to me by a cloaked 100-year-old Mayan woman sitting streetside on a blue plastic crate. I paid for such surrender with high fever and higher intestinal duress for weeks, cut with no sleep and freezing cold sweats. It was only later that I found out that, in Taíno mythology, that the guyaba was typically reserved for opías, or the walking dead, who would parade the Ceiba forests and make of the berry the edible centerpiece for their night-feasts, taking the form of pale navel-less humans, or bats. In fact, according to the legend, the ruler of these dead bore the name of Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of Sweet Delight. The nectar of the berry was often used as the base of a black body paint used to evoke the nature of death in various rituals and rites. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

“Oh, I know,” Louisa croons as we pass the fruit drink stands, “but they look so good.”

Restraint, especially when it comes to ingestibles, when we’re traveling has thankfully never been our strong suit as a couple. But pass the stands we do. Soon, as if antidote, we’re looking to buy a knife from a short middle-aged man in a tank-top, serpentine scar tattoos adorning both of his shoulders, moustache guyaba berry-death paint-dark, straw sombrero ripped open at the top, exposing his wet knotted hair. Surely we need something sharp with which to excise our agua fresca loss. We make this transaction wordlessly. The scarred man shows us various knives—thick-bladed, thin-bladed, switch-bladed, stone. Bright knives inlayed with jewels, knives used and stained with old blood and rust. When we shake our heads, he retrieves a new one from its slumber on his crowded blanket. He is barefoot and his foot-tops bear old puncture wounds.

After seven failed attempts, he retrieves a stunning obsidian knife with an Aztec design carved handle of green onyx. It is ancient-looking and beautiful, fresh from some painful sacrifice—agua fresca or otherwise. This is the one. The eyeballs convince us; carved into the handle, they bug-out at us, hypnotic enough for Louisa, continuing our opera of silence, to grab my unscarred shoulder. The man sees this, nods, and immediately wraps the knife in bubble-wrap and scotch tape. We pay him the 150 pesos (about twelve bucks) without bargaining, he touches our scalps as if blessing us, his tepid hands the texture of hessian, and we move on to the section of city on the other side of the Zócalo, where we have not yet been. Stone knife safely sheathed in packing material, we stroll the streets, teeming with life and neighborhood, dollies overloaded with wares of all kinds—carpets, jugs, cow heads, clothing—small cars honking, open flatbeds rattling, bicycles swerving, barely navigating the madness of street stand and pedestrian. We think of that man and his zither, can’t decide whether everything or nothing we see answers his endless question of Why? We barely navigate this madness ourselves, oblivious to the rules, the imbroglio of smell and sound, looking for anything alive to eat.

This month over at my fiction column here at TNB, I decided to have my focus for August be about Jewish authors in the name of the upcoming High Holy Days. I had a stack of books I thought I’d go through but found, of course, that list was a bit too ambitious. I find myself trying to do too many things, always saying yes, never saying no to anyone or anything. My therapist is always telling me that I’m like a pretzel, always ready to twist myself into any shape necessary to accommodate others. While I’ll always disagree that I’m not that flexible, I know she’s almost always right. That’s the trouble when one person knows you better than you know yourself.  I hate being a foregone conclusion, so this was my attempt to prove my therapist wrong by setting some limits and reviewing books I’d already made time to read.  If they happened to be Jewish authors, well then, so be it. (Tod Goldberg, you know you’d be at the top of my list of authors to pimp out if you weren’t already so good at it yourself, just sayin’.)

Pierre Berg spent 18 months as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp, and wrote down his story not long after his escape. In his first-ever interview, Pierre gives his unromantic view of survival, tells how he makes use of the serial number tattooed on his arm, and hopes to find a publisher for his memoir, SCHEISSHAUS LUCK: THE REMEMBRANCES OF A FRENCH TEEN IN AUSCHWITZ. Here’s the opening to his book:

If you’re seeking a Holocaust survivor’s memoir with a profound philosophical or poetic statement on the reasons six million Jews and many millions of other unlucky souls were slaughtered and why a person like myself survived the Nazi camps, you’ve opened the wrong book. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reason why or if I even believed there is a reason I’m still alive. As far as I’m concerned it was all shithouse luck, which is to say – inelegantly – that I kept landing on the right side of the randomness of life.

Describe the town you grew up in, and what your life was like before the Nazis occupied France. What had your attention, what did you dream of becoming, what did you cherish, what did you worry about?

I grew up in Nice, which is on the Mediterranean coast. At that time it was the fourth largest city in France. I was going to school and doing as much fishing as I could in my spare time. I was 14 when the war started, so I’d have to say girls and politics occupied most of my attention at that time. It was hard to think about any long-term, future goals when Hitler was causing such confusion in Europe and the French government was so unstable. At that time I entertained the thought of going into the Navy so I could see all the French colonies.

What did I cherish? Like a typical teenager, the neighborhood girls.

What did I worry about? As 1939 approached I worried more and more about the possibility of a war in France.

Pierre Berg, one year after WWII

Most of us are familiar with the yellow triangles Jews were forced to wear on their clothes. Why did you wear a red triangle? And how did you end up at Auschwitz?

A red triangle was for political prisoners, basically anybody who wasn’t a Nazi. When I was picked up in 1943, the Gestapo and collaborating millice were at times almost randomly picking up people to use them as slave labor for the Nazi war effort. I was picked up because I stopped to visit a school friend whose house was being raided by the Gestapo. Somehow they had found out that he had a shortwave radio, which he and I used to entertain our school friends. I knocked on the door and found a Luger in my face.

I was going to be sent from a camp in Paris, Drancy, to another camp in France, but I made the mistake of asking for the return of my confiscated money. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Gestapo were occupying my parents’ house and cleaning it out.

Tell me what was happening to your parents at the time.

My father had leukemia and a couple of weeks before I was arrested my mother escorted him to a hospital in the French Alps. When they arrived back in Nice the Gestapo officers were living in our house. My mother said they were walking up our street and could see an officer in the window, so they stayed with friends and relatives until the Allied troops pushed the Germans out of France. When I arrived home almost every piece of furniture, paintings, and family heirlooms were gone. The Nazis had even found a box of my mother’s jewelry that I had buried in our backyard.

It was my Dad’s leukemia that brought us to the United States. He had heard that there was a doctor in Los Angeles that was using the fall-out from hydrogen bombs on cancer patients. It was an experimental treatment and it more or less quickened my father’s death.

Is there a person or an image or a sound or smell from your time at Auschwitz that you can share with me?

The way you phrased this question, asking if there was a smell from my time in Auschwitz made me remember something that isn’t in my memoir. I was on a work detail digging trenches and laying pipes at the massive IG Farben chemical plant. A co-worker went to use the toilet, which was an open ditch with a plank over it that you would perch yourself on. The plank broke and he was floundering in a stinking, gooey pool of human waste. He couldn’t climb out and we were trying to pull him up with our shovels when a SS guard came over. He asked why we weren’t working and we pointed to our comrade down below, who was clinging to one of the shovels. The guard said, “He’s too messy. He’s not worth cleaning.” He then shot him and chased us back to work. Witnessing SS guards shooting prisoners was a common occurrence in my 18 months of captivity.

Tell me about your tattoo. Do you remember who gave it to you and the context of getting tattooed? What was your feeling then, and what is it now, to carry that mark?

This is from my memoir:

“At the first table, a son of a Warsaw haberdasher sewed the number, 172649, onto my jacket and pants. I sat down at the next table where a German prisoner wrote my name and serial number on a card. From the corner of my eye, I watched alarmed as the man next to me got tattooed. The bleeding numbers were taking up his whole forearm. The German processing me grabbed my left arm, dipped his pen into his white, porcelain inkstand and attacked my forearm with fast, little jabs. I clenched my teeth, but the physical pain was less than the stinging realization that the numbers 172649 meant I was now officially property of the Third Reich.

“Will this ever come off?”

He shook his head. “It’s permanent.”

Considering that I’m stuck with my tattoo, I put it to practical use. I’ve used it as a PIN number and I play the lottery with it. Matter of fact I need to walk down to the liquor store and buy a ticket this afternoon. I won’t allow myself to look at it as a negative.

How does a healthy teenager stay sane in the midst of such horror? Did you vacate emotionally? Did you create some kind of meaning in your days there? Did you hold to anything specific from the past or the future to get you through?

On a daily basis I disassociated myself from what was happening around me. I did not allow myself to dwell on the cruelty that I witnessed, and that was a constant, minute-to-minute struggle. There are certain events that are fresh in my mind… No, really it is people’s faces that are vibrant in my mind’s eye as if I had seen them a half hour ago.

I would self-hypnotize myself to think I was standing on the warm shoreline of Nice while I was ankle deep in icy sludge. There was one person I did think about a lot and hoped to see again when I was free. While in the camp in Paris I met and fell for a 16 year old red head, Stella. We were both transported to Auschwitz and my memories of our times together helped keep my morale up.

Do you know what happened to Stella?

Susan, I don’t know how to answer that without giving away the ending of my memoir. Hmmm…

While I was in Wustrow I stayed with a German ex-Communist truck driver, who the Red Army made the mayor of the town. Because I could speak four languages, he asked me to be his police officer. Wustrow was getting an influx of displaced people, the majority of them former concentration camp prisoners, who came to our one room city hall seeking help. Most wanted information on how to get home, but there were many women who came to report being raped by Red Army soldiers (There were also many Germen women in and around Wustrow who were coming in to report being raped, too). I always asked the former female prisoners if they ever came across a young French woman with red hair.

One day a group of displaced women were gathered in the center of Wustrow. By the striped pajamas a couple of them were wearing I knew they had been in Auschwitz. I asked if they had known of a girl named Stella. One of them said that they had left a handful of sick women at an abandoned farm and thought that one of them was French and named Stella. I went to the farm, which was in reality a hunting lodge. I found six bodies in a chicken coop. One of them could have been Stella, she had red hair, but I’ll never be 100% sure.

I’m not sure how to word this question but I desperately want to know if you sang while you were there, or if you created any sort of art or anything at all.

I didn’t sing this song, put I did hum it in Auschwitz. I don’t remember the title of the song, but I can give you a verse of it in French: “Terre enfin libre ou nous pouvons reviver aimer, aimer” – “Place where we are free to live and love, love.”

We were singing this song when we left France for Auschwitz.

I had my friend, Kevin Dolgin, track down and translate the song for me. Here is a link to an MP3 of it. It’s called, “Le Chant des Marais.”

In the portion of the memoir you sent me, you said that the false identification papers you gave up when you were captured made it impossible for your parents to trace you. Did you see your parents again? And if so, what did they believe happened to you when you had gone missing for over a year?

Even if I had handed the Gestapo my true papers there would have been no way for my parents to trace me to Auschwitz. The Nazis kept detailed records, but it was for their own benefit. For everyone else it was a secret. Neighbors informed my parents that I had been picked up, but they had no idea where I was or what I was going through until I returned home. For those 18 months They had no idea if I was alive or dead.

How strange was it to try to return to a normal life? Where do store that trauma?

I spent 6 weeks in Wustrow, Germany at the end of the war recovering so I could have enough strength to walk to the American lines, which were on the other side of the Elbe River (about 300 miles). Then I had to take a train to Paris and was in a military hospital for 5 weeks before I took a train home. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had time to adapt to my newfound freedom before I arrived back home. The only thing I found difficult to adapt to was school. I just couldn’t concentrate and maybe that was because of trauma. I have to admit I never gave it much thought.

This photo comes from the Holocaust Museum.

Tell me the meaning of “Scheisshaus Luck” and how you chose it for the title of your memoir.

Scheisshaus Luck translates to shithouse luck, which means a lucky coincidence, and it was lucky coincidences that kept me alive for those 18 months. While I was working with Brian he commented one day that I always joked that it was shithouse luck that I survived, and he thought it would make a good title for my memoir. I agreed.

You and Brian have chosen to tell your story as close to the point of view as you journaled it as a teenager. Talk to me about that decision, and why your insights all these years later were not a part of this memoir.

At 83, I don’t feel I have any new or fresh insight on the Holocaust; on why it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. Seemingly we haven’t learned a thing and there have been so many books published and monuments built. Genocide has continued to happen constantly on this planet since the end of WWII.

I wrote my original remembrances two years after the war and Brian and I decided that we didn’t want to give a history lesson and that placing the reader in my 18 year old shoes would have more impact then listening to an old fart pontificate. In my original remembrances, which I wrote when I arrived in Los Angeles with my family, I left out many events to spare my Mother who was typing my hand written pages. I wanted to spare her, censoring myself in a way I guess.

Given what you’ve lived through, have you any thoughts on what is happening in the world today? Any wisdom or opinion you’d like to share?

Like I said before, sadly we haven’t learned a thing. People still will follow dictators. I don’t want to sound completely negative because the response of my friends on MySpace gives me hope that maybe some day as a human race we will wake up.

Tell me about your life now. What are you passionate about? What do love? What hurts you? What do you want to give or receive in this half of your life?

I usher at a couple of theaters here in Los Angeles and that keeps me busy and happy. You meet a lot of different people that way and I get a lot of cigarette breaks (I’ve been smoking since I was 10 years old).

What do I love? I love my girlfriend of 35 years. What hurts me? Neo-Nazis and skinheads who say the Holocaust never happened.

At my age, I’m running out of time but I’d like to see peace on earth, or at least see more of us treating one another with kindness. And I’d like to see my memoir published.

Thanks for being here, my friend.


You can visit Pierre on MySpace. Thanks for stopping by!


Postscript: Pierre has now published his book, SCHEISSHAUS LUCK. Please check it out!

I stopped breathing the day I read this:

In a perfect world, you could fuck people without giving them a piece of your heart. And every glittering kiss and every touch of flesh is another shard of heart you’ll never see again.

— from ‘Bitter Grounds’ / Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman.

Damn. I still can’t breathe when I think about that.

My generation (‘X’), the daughters of Modern Feminism, were told that casual sex and the ability to make love ‘like a man’ was possible.

Can we really touch each other without consequence?

I can’t.

In the spirit of sisterly solidarity, I gave it the old college try but I could never truly muster the ability to separate physical love from emotional.

Every touch means something to me. 

A moment. A connection.  A possibility.

Even something as seemingly insignificant as a handshake holds the potential to change my life.

Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims will not touch a woman other than their wife because the sharing of flesh is such a holy act.

I find myself deeply bound to the people I touch; even more so to the people who touch me.

A touch starts with a spark of contact; a white-hot tingle, a chilling flush. If it’s momentary, it can be a sudden quake that hatches a thousand chrysalises and if it lingers, a flood of giggles mix with a warm cup of the most delicious chocolate and I am suddenly safe, content, home.

Volumes are spoken in the silence of shared pressure, duration and intensity.

Someone’s touch transcends corporeal contact and cuts me deeper than I can comprehend.

When a touch is relinquished, I am left scarred by indelible fingerprints.

Sometimes, I’m afraid to touch people, in anticipation of the inevitable tattoo. I shy away, hesitant to take on a new mark.

I wonder if I’m running out of room.

And in turn, I wonder how much more I’m willing to give away. How many shards do I have left? If our heart is the strongest muscle in the body, how is it that it is so easily shattered?

Then again… from broken things, beauty is possible.

A Harley biker with some naked chick riding shotgun, running over a unicorn.

A wizard perched atop a bloodshot eyeball, rolling a pair of dice across a panther’s back.

Princess Leia from Star Wars, her thighs wrapped seductively around a giant corndog.

Anything with a marijuana leaf.