Remembering Cyla and Simon Wiesenthal on Valentine’s Day

The young married couple, Simon and Cyla Wiesenthal, became separated early in the war. Helped by the underground, she had been taken to various hiding places where she lived under false names. Arrested and deported, he became a prisoner in a sequence of concentration camps. At war’s end, through the grapevine, each learned that the other was dead — Simon by his own hand, Cyla in an apartment building in Warsaw that had been bombed. Once travel was possible, Cyla began the journey home to Lvov, while Simon, newly liberated from Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, decided he would go to Vienna and begin the work of hunting Nazi war criminalsIMG_0449. Soon what would become known as the “iron curtain” would fall between them. They would have remained as widow and widower had fate not intervened through a series of amazing coincidences. When I interviewed Simon in Vienna for my book FIET’S VASE AND OTHER STORIES OF SURVIVAL, EUROPE 1939-1945, they were both in their 90s. Following, an excerpt from FIET’S VASE:

December brought snow and icy rain. The war had been over for seven months and the soft white of fresh snow had covered and made abstract the many remaining reminders of the war. Because of his broken ankle. Simon was in his room when there was a knock at the door. He was thirty-seven years old and still vastly underweight. On his desk lay bundles of papers meant to incriminate those on whom lay guilt. When Weisberg walked into the room alone, his heart must have sunk. But when Weisberg related the saga of the lost address and the three Mrs. Wiesenthals and that he had made a guess and chosen one of these women to bring, Simon insistently asked Weisberg where the woman was. And Weisberg replied that she was waiting downstairs. Simon asked Weisberg to please bring the woman to his room And for a few final seconds, Cyla stood on a chilly white street in Linz while Simon waited in his paper-filled room, to know for sure and with their own eyes if lost love had really been released from the jaws of death.

Excerpt from Part III — “It’s Possible to Lead a Cow Upstairs But Not Down” – The Woman …

The taxi drove along Lexington Avenue to 42nd Street. His mother had always spoken about Justina as an angel. No photo of Justina survived. No photo of anything, even his mother and father’s wedding, had survived World War I. Julia’s descriptions of Justina had varied so much during the years that he could not help but wonder if Claude was like Justina in some way. There was no other way to explain his mother’s attachment since Julia had not made one other friend since coming to live with him, had no desire for friends.

When the taxi stopped, they crossed 42nd Street, stepped over spilled fruit and went inside a penny arcade that was noisy with the sound of electric pinball machines. They passed a row of pokino machines, a line of skee-ball machines, walked to a counter at which a ruby-haired woman wearing a white captain’s hat with a shiny black brim was redeeming coupons won playing skee-ball. She was upset, kept pointing up at a cream and red alarm clock, her skin bright fuchsia.

“I want the alarm clock.”

The attendant behind the counter was breaking down rolls of quarters. He did not look up.

“You don’t have enough coupons for the clock.”

“I do.”

The attendant pointed to a lower shelf that contained large foam dice in several colors – blue, pink, yellow, green – also green plastic back scratchers, tiny brown monkeys at the end of key chains.

“This is your shelf, miss.”

The highest shelf that displayed alarm clocks also held piggy banks, various stuffed animals – stuffed sheep with curly coats of black fur, a row of large silky black and white stuffed panda bears. The attendant took three $20 bills from Andy and handed back a cardboard bucket filled with quarters. Andy went over to the photo booth. Spinning the hard, round, plastic seat counter clockwise to raise it, he instructed Claude.

“Sit on the seat.”

Since her hair was dark with streaks of gray threading through the brown mixed with strands of hunter green, he chose dark on light and pulled back the azure curtain, revealed the white wall.  

“Sit inside.”

She did, straightened her back.

“Look at the small glass window. Hold a pose when the green light goes on. Change it after it turns to red.”

Quarters clanged as they dropped into the machine. A little green light lit, flashed. He spoke in a flat voice.

“Don’t blink!”

“Turn to the right.”

“Look up.”

“Make a face.”

“Make another face.”

He was not sure if she understood English. When she did everything he asked, he gathered that she did and, as his mother had told him, had followed an artist’s orders before. After the light had flashed four times, he stuck his head inside.

“Wait. It’ll go again”.

He was surprised that a heavy sexual atmosphere was now surrounding her.  


At the sound of more coins, she opened her eyes wide and the light flashed red, each flash an ember of fire. She changed positions before each flash, sniffed, tossed her head like a ram. Not only had she followed directions, she had obviously done quick poses too.

“Don’t blink.”

When the light stopped flashing, he reached his long white hand inside and pulled the curtain behind her head to give an azure background.


Quarters dropped into the machine


The lights went on and off and on four times, four times, four times, four times. Finally he stepped back.

“That’s it.”

Claude mumbled a prayer of petition, stepped out of the booth. She drifted toward the counter, looking up at the stuffed animals, while Andy leaned against the photo machine. He followed her with his eyes, chewed his thumbnail as she looked longingly at the stuffed animals. In ten minutes, black and white photos, four to a strip, began to drop out of the machine one after the other. Because they were still wet, he gripped their edges, lined them up along the glass top of a horse racing machine to dry. Images appeared.


Claude came to look at the strips. Each contained four images of a face that did not always seem like the face of the same person. Once dried, he dropped the strips one by one into a paper bag.  

“May I look?”

He handed the bag to her and walked away. She pulled out the strips, looked at her many faces. None of these faces belonged to a nun. He returned and put a black stuffed sheep into her arms. She wrapped her arms around the sheep’s belly and followed him into the street. While he hailed a checker cab, she rubbed the sheep’s fur.

“Where can I drop you?”

“At St. Patrick’s church.”

He sat on the jump seat, stared at her face. She could pass for Jeanne Moreau’s older sister.

“If you pay me in cash it would be better. I worked one hour.”

“Let’s make it a half day – four hours. I pay one-twenty-five an hour.”

He handed her five dollars. She looked distastefully at his jacket, his dark glasses; his tight black trousers were like a Nazi SS. He had once seemed such an effete boy, but now he was dressed like a Nazi.

“Here, please.”

The taxi stopped, and she got out at the statue of Atlas holding up the world. The taxi drove on. Before returning to the house to change his clothes, he had the taxi driver stop twice – once for pastries and once to pick up the Czech newspaper for his mother.2015-02-13 15.33.31

Excerpt from Part II — “String of Pearls” — THE WOMAN WHO …..



When Claude arrived with her American, Matisse was cutting paper with a long scissors, he was wearing an old gray sweater on top of his old blue and white striped pajamas, had bare feet. The shape of a leg in an arabesque emerged from the heavy paper that had been painted jet black. He was in the wheelchair, his lap covered with a wooly throw that was sprinkled with snippets of black paper. Cuts of black painted paper lay scattered on the floor around the chair.

He shook hands and looked closely at Claude’s man – Roy Foot. What a strange name, a man named after a body part, a man with full, wine-red lips, lime-green eyes carrying paintings strung together with brown rope. Something about him was like a Great Dane. His hair was chrome yellow, had been cropped close to a flat skull.

Roy’s eyes scanned the walls. Pinned on the one that faced the bed were works in progress. Among them two drawings of his future wife wearing a Russian blouse.   In the drawing she was ravishing. Claude looked up at it too. She had no idea she looked like that. She had never thought of her eyes as distrustful before. Gazing at herself, seeing herself through Roy’s eyes, she understood why men wanted to take her to their beds. But did they not see how bad her teeth had become? Roy took in the room, the plants, the knick-knacks. He walked over to the wooden cage belonging to the turtledoves and saw the great drips of yellow-green slime on their wooden perches.

Lydia explained that the household would be leaving Paris shortly to travel south because Matisse must work on designs for the famous chapel that contained St. Veronica’s kerchief with Christ’s face imprinted on it. Lydia asked Claude, “Would you like a glass of eau de Vichy?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“And you?”

“Beer, please.”

Large incomplete drawings for the chapel were pinned on the opposite wall. Matisse had been able to work life scale because the two rooms in Paris corresponded to the interior size of the chapel in Vence. He commented, “I’m not yet sure of what I will design for the window.”

A nurse crossed the room carrying a metallic tray on which various medicines were laid out. Matisse swallowed one after the other. He uttered, “Merci, Denise.”

He examined each of Roy’s paintings. After scrutinizing the final painting, he wheeled his chair over to the table, took pen in hand and scribbled a letter of recommendation on a sheet of off-white paper.

“Eh bien.”

He folded the letter in thirds, slid it into an envelope. Roy’s lime-green eyes leaked glee. Matisse said, “I think you might find it helpful to go to the Louvre and study the Egyptian antiquities.”

At that moment, Matisse’s face went deathly white. Shutting his eyes, he whispered “I’ll be myself in a moment or two.”

After a while he opened his eyes.

“I’ve got much work to do.”

Relieved that he had not died during his visit, Roy asked, “How do you make yourself work if you’re so ill, Monsieur?

“Nothing interferes with my work. I don’t have much time left and there’s more to do. I dearly hope your wife will not forget me in her prayers. Perhaps it is she who has been keeping me alive. Do you have another question?”

“How many colors did you use on your pallet when you paint?”

“Never more than 12 but I can’t really paint anymore because of my health.

“Do you make much use of black?”

“Yes … I use it to cool the blue.”







Excerpt: The Woman Who …..

Following, a short excerpt from Part I – “Pearls Melt in Vinegar” — THE WOMAN WHO BROUGHT MATISSE BACK FROM THE DEAD:


He finished drinking café au lait while Sister Paule poured additional doses of glassy-gold fluid into a metal spoon. She noticed the bread thick with butter left uneaten on a plate decorated with gold geese. She looked to see if her hands were clean, decided they were. He sat surrounded by pillows. The housekeeper was dusting. He said, “I can’t imagine that rat poison tastes any more unpleasant.”

He swung his feet onto the floor. When he tried to stand up, she reached out to assist him.

“Are you suffering, Monsieur?”

“Cramps. But so what, the pain will ease once I shuffle around the room a few times. If this is the price of living on borrowed time, I’m happy to pay in full.”

And this he did while the housekeeper turned down his white-on-white bedcovers for airing. His sheets had daisies embroidered with sand-colored thread. Sister Paule washed him and serviced his intimate needs. He appreciated quickness in these matters. She laced the stiff corset he was forced to wear, helped him dress and suggested he add something under his shirt to keep the chill from his kidneys. He picked an undershirt, one that was apple green. The pressed shirt he had chosen to wear that day was bright pink. She who had spent most of her life in black and white and gray was so was surprised to see colors like these. His trousers were burnt brown wool and it pained him to bend to ease them on. She held up the beige jacket that had been hanging on the back of a chair so that he could slip his arms into its sleeves. Where did one find clothing in such colors? The fabrics were soft to the touch, the colors were like she imagined God might have used in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness in the Book of Exodus.

“Your shoes and socks! I will help you …”

He shrugged and shuffled away on bare feet. Through the course of the morning she moved freely through the apartment bringing medicines at the allotted times, checking his pulse, his temperature, adding numbers to his chart, washing and rewashing her hands in between. He drank café au lait with a small blond woman who smoked one cigarette while lighting another from the end of the first. Sister Paule wondered if this was his daughter until the blond woman was introduced as Madam Lydia.

A charcoal-gray cat brushed against his calves, back and forth many times. He did not mind. He smoked a forbidden cigar during the brief time he was able to stand up among bright green cactuses and blood-orange jungle-like plants in pots arranged on the open balcony, bracing himself with a hand on the railing. Nothing of the city could be seen because the rooftops were shrouded in fog. Sister Paule came up behind him, looked out too. His eau de cologne was appealing. He quietly laughed, “We live above the fogs.”

With great difficulty he walked to the aviary, told her to follow, picked up and held a white turtledove on two fingers to show her and brought the subdued bird to his lips. If it had been anyone else she would have shaken a finger and reminded him that birds were carriers of vermin and germs, but since he was not long for the world, why reprimand? And, dirty as her hands often got, who was she to shake her finger?

After breakfast he inched his way through the apartment half-bending despite the pain it caused, retrieving things that had been discarded in the various trash bins. It seemed that he enjoyed collecting all manners of discards like she did. Of course there was no one to stop him from hoarding whatever he liked. Madam Lydia prepared the workroom. At 9:30 he sat on the side of the cushion-filled Empire bed in his studio. His bare feet were placed side-by-side flat on the floor. He smoked a second cigar. The screams and whistles of his birds in their cages were ear-splitting. Sensing that he was suffering, Sister Paule administered a dose of pain medication.

A visitor arrived at 9:45. As Sister Paule greedily ate bread, butter and salty cheese, she got a glimpse of a dark-haired, foreign looking girl. The cook told her, “She is his model. These days he uses film extras.”  

Sister Paule saw the girl remove her clothes and saw Matisse begin a drawing using charcoal. His face and the girl’s entirely naked body were very close. The girl’s hair-covered private part was directly in his line of vision so that he could easily have looked inside if the girl widened the space between her thighs. If she got any closer, Sister Paule could easily have looked as well. In all her life, she had never seen a naked woman in a state of shame-free repose.

Later, when the day had cooled, Sister Paule brought a blanket for his lap, also his pills. He was sitting on a chair, his easel facing the window. The gray Angora cat had curled up against a bolt of golden fabric, fast asleep; Matisse’s coloring had gone from pinkish to biscuit-colored. The model was gone and the assistant was standing on a ladder pinning a drawing to the wall. Matisse was complaining that he needed canvas and pigments, but the assistant reminded him, “There’s a war going on, nothing can be found anymore.”

Sister Paule watched him wrap the blanket she had brought around his shoulders, heard him say, “It’s prostate cancer Rouault has. Pin that a little higher, Madam Lydia.”

THE WOMAN WHO BROUGHT MATISSE … – a favorite with Book Clubs



1. Matisse in old age

2. Note from Matisse to Claude, the model whose life story is told in THE WOMAN WHO BROUGHT MATISSE BACK FROM THE DEAD

3. Claude in old age

THE WOMAN WHO BROUGHT MATISSE BACK FROM THE DEAD has become a popular choice with Book Clubs. I shouldn’t be surprised since it’s tasty, sexy, atmospheric, evokes wartime and postwar France, New York in the 60, an insiders look into the art world from Matisse through Warhol. etc. One Book Club upstate New York invited me to their dinner meeting held at a popular B & B — The Arbor — in High Falls* (*!) and while I was being stuffed with delights smothered with fragrant herbs right from the owner’s garden, the club’s members were also digging their spoons into my book by way of desert — questioning, quibbling, challenging me, sympathizing, dissecting, stirring up my prose. It was lots of fun, a perfect book for this sort of occasion. No, I’m not surprised, just delighted that this unusual story is being invited into the homes of these stewards of literature.

Thanks to all the Book Clubs who have and will honor Claude, Matisse, Lydia, John, Alice, Andy and me this way.

Available on Amazon:


On James Joyce’s birthday, remembering a loyal father

Clairvoyant Kindle Cover2015-02-02 08.47.41Joyce’s birthday was always a family event. Following, a short excerpt from newly reissued (TMI Press) CLAIRVOYANT available now as a kindle or book, including a New Author’s Note. Despite being diagnosed as schizophrenic, Lucia’s father saw her as a genius like himself.

Like a jewel I showed new and incompatible sides, which were breaking off from each other, but diamonds are diamonds.

I watched a girl dressed in my clothes throw a chair at Mother’s italics on the day of Father’s fiftieth birthday on 2 February 1932.

I saw a girl dressed like me become engaged to Alex Ponisovsky at a big party at Drouand’s restaurant then go to the home of Lucie and Paul Leon on the rue Casimir Périer and stretch herself out on the sofa. I lay this way, taking doses of Veronal and phosphate of lime in a catatonic pose, isolated and paralyzed with the weight of so much clairvoyance, while Father blamed Paul Léon for encouraging this engagement.

A girl dressed like me was seized by a vision at the Gare du Nord.

Another girl dressed like me while staying with Mother’s closest friend Mary Colum slept with her nightdress pinned to that of Mrs. Colum.

Giorgio tricked me and got me to get into a taxi, which took me to a maison de santé . This time in L’Hay-les-Roses where the doctor, Dr. G. Maillard, labeled my feverish clairvoyance ”hebephrenia.”

Knowing better, Father was convinced that soon all others would come to realize the voices being spoken by girls dressed like me were other people’s voices trying to be heard, not my own. He blamed everyone for instigating my state and all men especially who had betrayed me. Mother particularly blamed Mr. Beckett.

Hat’s off to a loyal and loving albeit helpless father.


Buy book from Amazon here

(continued) 70 years after Auschwitz – Zahava Bromberg

During the time when I was researching stories that had affected me in some heightened way during my 20 years of Holocaust and World War II writing  for inclusion in Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, Europe 1939-1945, I attended an exhibition of mostly sepia photographs curated in Warsaw titled “And I still See Their Faces” (“I Ciagle Widze Ich Twarze“). It was a rare gathering of rescued photographs related to the obliterated world of Polish-Jews. One tiny photo, the size and shape of a guitar pick, stopped me in my tracks. I then spent   IMG_0835.JPGmonths hoping against hope that I could locate that owner of this photograph. And, providing me with one of those indelible moments a researching-writer can occasionally experience, it happened. Through the Foundation in Warsaw (I can still hardly believe it) I was able to locate the photo’s owner and learned that she was still living. Through more twists and turns we got into contact and she agreed to an interview. Here’s a bit of her story taken from my recently reissued book Fiet’s Vase:

(Zahava Bromberg’s) ... voice was soft,  lightly accented, filled with emotion. She continued describing her wartime experience: ‘I was taken to Auschwitz with my older sister in October of 1944. Everyone was ordered to strip naked and discard his or her possessions. It was absolutely forbidden to keep anything personal.’ Against regulations, she had taken a photo of her mother on the journey with her. ‘I couldn’t bear to part with it. They would have put a bullet through my head if they found it. I tore off the image of my mother’s face and put it under my foot, where it stuck, undetected. We were told to run. We had to pass the selection with Mengele, left or right. That would change one’s destiny.’

          Where did the courage to risk her life to preserve the memory of her mother come from? I asked her. ‘From instinct,’ she reponds quickly, then continues telling her story. ‘Next we were ordered to the showers to be washed. So that the photograph wouldn’t get wet in the shower, I managed to cover it and put it in my mouth. I kept it there, hidden. It remained relatively undamaged.’ Of course they would have killed her if they’d discovered the preserved memory – one small photo of her mother’s face torn out of a larger snapshot – hidden on her person.

          ‘I was very weak after the Death March from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in January 1945. At the gates of Bergen-Belsen, I threw out my blanket. It felt so heavy I couldn’t carry it anymore. There we didn’t work. We all slept on the floor in lines. To our luck, we were in the line close to the window – that was the best. The worse thing was to get rid of the lice. They were eating us away. Next to me were sitting a lot of Hungarian women. No matter what we talked about, it always ended in talk about food. There I had a dream that my father told me,”Hang on. It’s not going to last long.” One day someone came and said that there are no guards and the gates are open. When I went out, I saw people digging and we found sweet potatoes. We saw that the British were taking the Germans and capturing them. I took a stone to throw at a German soldier but I couldn’t because the stone was too heavy for me to hold.

          ‘The British soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen gave us cans of meat. Being so young, I didn’t know that after long starvation I shouldn’t eat the can all at once, I ate it all and became sick and vomited and couldn’t eat anything. I was hospitalized, I weighed twenty-six kilos only. Suddenly we had mattresses and showers to get rid of all the lice…

          Was the threat of death worth the preservation of this photo of your mother? I asked. Zahava answers unequivocally, ‘I simply couldn’t bear to be totally cut off from my family. I needed some small tie to them. I kept the photo of my mother’s face either stuck to my foot, in my shoe, or in my mouth, for the entire time.’ It was with her still when the camp was liberated at last – and is to this day.

The writing life isn’t always meant for the faint-of-heart. Remembering Zahava, re-experiencing the various interviews with Auschwitz survivors for my books, seeing the photographs of those attending the 70th anniversary events in Poland, realizing that the curtain on this saga has almost fallen, I find that this subject matter gets more, not less, dispiriting with the passing of time, though that seems impossible.




70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz

70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz

On the day the Soviet Army entered Auschwitz-Berkenau (27 January 1945) according to one of several survivors I interviewed many years later, he thought he saw dirty white furry wolves or bears approaching the camp through the snow. When these creatures got closer, he realized they were actually Russian soldiers wearing white fur hats and jackets to protect themselves from the bitter cold. This was the army that liberated him and the camp. In the weeks before, over 60,000 of the remaining prisoners had been forced onto Death Marches and were long gone either frozen in the middle of nowhere or arrived at other camps, so the Russian’s found perhaps 7,000 barely living humans, male and female. They also found mountains of shoes, eye-glasses, clothes, over 7/7 tons of human hair in storage. For what, they had no idea. They also had no idea that what they were seeing barely a fragment of the million plus (Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners, homosexuals, and mostly Jews from across Europe) who were murdered there.  As this 70th anniversary is marked by the very, very few still alive, I mark it too by recalling some of these survivors whom I interviewed in harrowing depth for several of my Holocaust-related books especially Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, Europe 1939-1945 just reissued by TMI Press — Zahava Bromberg, Joseph Bau, Jules Schelvis, Rena Kornreeich, Rudolf Verba, Leo Bretholz, and more.




(To find on Amazon :

Padric concludes

Padric concludes

             Following is the conclusion to the taped interview with Padric McGarry made in New York City in 1977 also a stock photo of Veronica Lake from the 40s, a prototype, like Dorothy Lamour or Lauren Bacall whom Padric resembled when I first knew him in that long-ago time. Padric, birth to death, coming soon in The Potato Eater.

“Another I remember vividly, a red neck from Alabama, had an 11 inch prick. There was a bouquet of flowers, a battleship and three little pigs tattooed on the head. I loved to trick with him, get it hard just to look at the gallery of tattoos. My longest encounter? Well, in federal prison, the elite country club, I could put up a blanket in front of my cell and we could get buck naked and go to bed, and have, gee, a half hour. That’s like 10 hours out here.

Often, if men don’t come in gay, time erodes their heterosexual resistance to what they’ve been trained to believe is abnormality. The love hunger begins, they get tired of beating their meat. Without sex and love the soul shrivels. Their will to live says, ‘Alright, if I’ve got to suck a prick or get fucked to feel some peace, okay okay.’ Many can’t ever get over the experience of prison sexuality when they get out. In my case, after I got out for good, I was unpassionate for the longest time because of the deadly habit in prison of sex under tension.”


Why Padric? Why gay life in the 40s, 50s, 60s? Why such licentious prose?

When I met Padric McGarry in 1976 he looked like a tall, henna-haired Dorothy Lamore from long-ago Hollywood; shoulder length, thick hair, winged shoulder blades, poised with a straight back. His alert, hazel eyes didn’t miss a thing that went on around him. He described himself as “flaming, not nelly with a skinny, fruit body.” We met in New York when he was fifty-one years old. I last heard from him in 1982 and shortly afterwards received a letter from a bereft friend describing a massive heart attack in San Diego, California that had killed him.

Padric had asked me to write his biography but he died before we could assemble ample materials. Time stole me away, other writings were undertaken while thoughts of his life were no longer at the front of my mind. Twenty years passed; ten books were published. I crisscrossed the country and world; matured and became less restless.

When I recently came up for air, thoughts of Padric returned so I searched for our papers and tapes. I found them buried inside a cardboard carton, stored for more than twenty years. The rubber bands had stiffened. They disintegrated and stuck to batched pages and to plastic cassette cases when I lifted them from the carton and more gently pealed.

My novella [The Potato Eater] under construction will be based on what sparse materials were gathered long ago; taped interviews, an outline of a fictionalized sketch drafted with a friend named Spencer that Padric had given me as a springboard, fragments of remembered conversation and events, a few letters and my own imagination. At all times it will reflect his mind-set – camp, sex-obsessed, graphic in the gay language of his (now historic) time.IMG_0806

Padric’s story will be expanded, textured, fictioned and molded into a sculpture made of bell metal in the shape of a tall, slim man of Irish-American descent who was born out of wedlock in 1925 in the Bronx, who didn’t want his experience as a gay man in a straight world way before Stonewall to be forgotten.

Stay tuned.