Chester Aaron’s stories have appeared in two issues of MANOA: Enduring War: Stories of What We’ve Learned and Almost Heaven: On the Human and Divine. The following is his first published writing. He served in the U.S. Army’s Armored Infantry Division in Europe from 1943 to 1946 and participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Later in 1946, he enrolled at UCLA. “In the Palm of my Hand” draws on his war experience and was published in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s newspaper, on page 4 of the Sept. 26, 1946, edition. Serena Enger, a friend of Aaron’s who is a librarian, asked him for a copy of his first published writing, but he had forgotten this piece and was unable to help her. Undaunted, she used her skills and tools as a librarian and found the article on microfilm. She retyped it and emailed it to Aaron on Sept. 26, 2012, sixty-six years to the day of its publication. It does not express or represent a reconciliation but reminds us of the constant need for personal reckonings with history.
I held within my hand yesterday, all the agonies and pleasures, all the heartaches and joys, all the miseries and contentments, as is possible for one being to possess. All of the emotions ever felt, ever attained by man were here – here in the palm of my hand. For today I held in this hand a small bar of soap made of the bones and flesh of men, women and children – victims of the Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen.
Forever, I believe, I shall remember the greasy sensation as my hand clutched that bar, and as I smelled it the bitter and pungent aroma increased tenfold when I realized that I was breathing into my nostrils the marrow of our civilization. A civilization just as surely dead and just as surely vanished as are the bodies of these peoples.
What man, what woman, what child, gave of their life so that this small bar of taunting shame might be flaunted before our eyes? This gray by-product of a civilized era. An era in which man advanced so rapidly in all fields, excepting the field of human relations.
As that bar rested in my palm I noticed a dark gray splotch in the middle of the top, darker gray than the bar itself. That, perhaps, is the face of Hans Friedlow who whistled as he climbed the mountain trails in the cold mornings and who used to wonder at the edelweiss blooming on the slopes of his beautiful Bavarian Alps. Or perhaps it is the sun-darkened back of David Meyerberg, skilled surgeon, who used to lie on the beaches of the Chiemsee on warm August Sundays, watching his curly haired children frolic in the sands. Or perhaps it is the children themselves. A child would not make too large an impression in all the agonies laid here to view.
There was a piece chipped from the upper corner. Perhaps that is the throat and chest of Hildegarde Brenner who enthralled audiences throughout Europe with her ringing soprano voice, who was happiest when singing or strolling beneath the swaying trees on the Unter Den Linden. And if it is her throat and chest or if it is any part of her, then she must be content, because she is as she was in life, withdrawn from the rest of the flock.
That choking odor – it could not be the scent of the gorgeous Martina who held breathless the audiences of Berlin and of Vienna and of Paris as she acted in the plays of the continent. Could it be lovely Martina who now emits this odor? She who possessed the most varied collection of perfumes in Europe? Could it be she who lies there within that gray block and reeks late our throat?
Here within this block lies the hopes and fears of a multitude of beings. They who died because they wished to live. Within this block rests that farce, named humanity, called decency, called love. Behold within my hand the utter fantasies of war.
The whippings, the starvations, the freezings, the smotherings, the miseries of separations and the screaming of farewells, the fearful knowledge of coming crematories. The extreme end to which a body can go and then go no further.
You who scream hate, and discrimination, feel this block, press this bar into your palm and attempt to forget the pangs of hunger and thirst and cold and torture. Close your eyes and close your nostrils.
But the Lord will not permit the closing of your conscience. The potency of this bar of soap, the thoughts within, careen from one wall of thought to the other. It hammers at your soul, beats at your senses, throbs with the race of blood in your temple. “Remember me!” it screams. And remember, I shall. Long after that soap dwindles to invisibility, I shall remember the feeling as it lay in the palm of my hand and as I gazed at it. I did not see the soap. I saw in its stead, dangling arms and legs and heads of those who gave. I held the blood and the flesh of countless numbers. What feelings, what emotions, what memories laid there within my grasp?