This story is part of the story collection ‘No Stars in the Sky,‘ which came out in May, and is published by House of Anansi Press.
by Martha Batiz
I was about to ask Mother to stop packing so we could take a walk before sunset — I knew how much she enjoyed Ottawa’s crisp air in the spring — when she turned silent and her face darkened. She had hummed most of the afternoon away as we went through Grandfather’s belongings, deciding which items we would keep and which we would donated or throw away. Humming was what she did when she was upset and trying to fight back tears, something her father had taught her when she was a little girl. “Don’t give anyone power over you by showing weakness,” he had said. “Always show strength, even at the worst of times.” These words had gotten him through the war. And so she hummed, which made me think of her as two people in one: a grown-up who, from time to time, did what was necessary to calm down the fussy, scared, sad, or angry baby that lived inside her. A baby that was never allowed to cry.
“Are you okay?” Her sudden silence made it seem like the room was shrouded by a veil. There were boxes, clothes, shoes, books, and magazineseverywhere. We had started a donation pile by the window, a keeping pile on the couch, and a garbage pile next to the front door of the apartment. Grandfather’s medals were resting next to Mother’s purse. We had already removed the pictures from the walls without dusting the tops of the frames, and assigned them to appropriate piles. The discolouration of the empty spaces where they had hung made me think of Grandfather — like his framed photographs and paintings, he was no longer there, but he had left such a clear mark that even in his absence he was present. It didn’t feel right to be there, going through his belongings, opening drawers that he would have never allowed me to open. I would have much preferred to go back to Toronto after the funeral instead of staying behind to help settle his affairs, but Mother needed my company and support, and I felt obliged to be there. Her relationship with her father had not always been the best, and doing this alone would have been terribly painful for her. So there I was, watching her lose herself in an open book she held in her hands. From its pages she extracted a yellowed card, which she examined before handing it to me to read.
Lager Westerbork. Ausweiskarte
Name: Reyes Hagenaar
Vorname: Maryka Antonia
“I don’t understand.” I stretched out my arm to give her back the card. “What is this?”
“An identity card.”
That much I had been able to infer, but Grandfather’s name was not on it..
“Who does it belong to?”
“A woman he met at Westerbork.”
Of course I had heard the story of Grandfather’s regiment liberating the transit camp where the Nazis held Dutch Jews until they were ready to be deported to the East. He wasn’t fond of talking about what he had seen during his days as a soldier, but he was proud of his part in helping over eight hundred prisoners who were still at Kamp Westerbork on April 12, 1945, when the Canadian forces arrived. Anne Frank herself had been at Westerbork until the previous September, and when Grandfather presented me with her diary the day I turned thirteen, he wrote inside that he wished they had arrived at the camp earlier and been able to save her. Until his death, Grandfather marked each April 12th by going to church and lighting a candle. Before passing away, he made Mother promise she would continue the tradition for him.
“There were over eight hundred prisoners at Westerbork. What was special about this one that he kept her identity card?” I asked. Mother was now holding a pressed flower in her hand. “And why did he never talk about her?”
“He did.” She placed the flower back between the pages of the book and passed it to me. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda. I had never seen the book in Grandfather’s house before. I always assumed he wasn’t the kind of man who liked poetry.
“He did?” I was genuinely intrigued. “Who was she?”
“Take a look at the flower.”
I obliged. It was discoloured, but I could tell it had once been purple.
“What kind of flower is it?” I don’t know why I brought it close to my nose; if it had ever had any scent, it had evidently lost it long ago.
“It’s a mallow.”
I shrugged, still not grasping what she was trying to say.
“That’s our name!” I was trying to put two and two together, but nothing made sense. “Can you please explain?”
Mother nodded and asked me to sit by her side. She explained that Maryka was one of the first prisoners Grandfather met after entering the camp, one of the first to come walking out of the barracks, slowly, in fear. The Nazis had fled, but the prisoners left behind were afraid they would return, so they hid when they heard tanks approaching. The Canadian soldiers arrived at what appeared, at first glance, to be an empty, silent place. But little by little, as the minutes went by, people started coming out of their hiding spots in the barracks and approaching their liberators.
After the initial commotion, help was offered to those who needed immediate assistance. Maryka had been working at the camp’s infirmary and was able to explain what life at Westerbork had been like. Originally built as a refugee centre for Jews fleeing persecution in Germany, Westerbork had remained under Dutch management until 1942, when it became an SS-controlled transit camp. Jews who turned themselves in or were captured in the Netherlands were sent to Westerbork, where every Tuesday, cattle-wagon trains filled with prisoners were sent to extermination camps like Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Bergen-Belsen. Because Auschwitz had been liberated earlier that year, and word had travelled fast about the atrocities uncovered by the Russians, Grandfather was surprised when Maryka informed him that Westerbork had had a cabaret, an orchestra that gave weekly concerts, and even a school. Prisoners were allowed to wear civilian clothes as long as their yellow star of David was visible.
At Westerbrok, in spite of heavy surveillance and regular deportations, inmates experienced better conditions than those at most other camps. Maryka wore a coat that looked big on her, but her hair was combed and, even under the circumstances, it was evident she was an attractive woman. She was not Jewish, but a Dutch citizen born in Java.
I asked Mother to pause for a moment.
“Java? Why would anyone leave Java in the middle of World War II and move to the Netherlands?”
“She told Father that her husband was Chilean. She arrived in the Netherlands with him.”
A Chilean in the company of a Javanese in Nazi-occupied territory. The story was getting more interesting by the minute. I couldn’t believe no one had told me any of this before.
“Maryka accepted the bar of chocolate Father offered her, and by the end of the night . . .” I could sense that Mother was uncomfortable. Grandfather was not married to Grandmother at the time, but they were engaged. “They got cozy enough with each other for Maryka to share her entire story with him.”
“And he told it to you?”
“No. I overheard it during his fights with Mother. It came up again and again. Mother was very jealous of Maryka because when Father was drunk, he always said that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met.”
“But she must have been twenty years older than him!”
“I know. Such an age difference was unusual at the time.”
“Grandmother was so good-looking. It’s hard to imagine her being jealous of a woman twice her age. Especially of someone Grandfather met as a soldier.”
Had this Maryka been the reason my grandparents slept in separate rooms? The reason Mother had no siblings? I didn’t have the courage to ask. Grandfather had mellowed by the time I was born, but I knew enough about the resentment, the yelling, the violence that Mother had dealt with growing up.
A bank employee in Java at the time she met her husband, Maryka had left the comforts of home and everything she knew to follow him to South America. Living in Santiago and Buenos Aires, she learned Spanish while he spent the evenings drinking. Maryka thought that a child might make him change his ways. She was pregnant when they moved to Madrid, where her husband worked for the Chilean government and pursued some writing projects. Maryka gave birth to a daughter, who was soon diagnosed with hydrocephalus.
“In his writing, her husband called the child ‘a perfectly ridiculous being, a kind of semicolon, a three-kilo vampire.’” Mother gave a bitter smile and paused. “He actually wrote that down.”
I shook my head in disbelief. I was aware that in years past little consideration had been given to children born with abnormalities, but comparing a little girl’s large head and scrawny body to a semicolon seemed unusually cruel, especially for a father.
“And then he abandoned them both, right at the start of the war.”
Now the relationship made more sense to me. Grandfather had also been abandoned as a child. His mother had raised him alone. No wonder he felt such empathy for Maryka and her daughter.
Leaving your family at any point in time seemed devastating and unacceptable to me, but doing so at the start of a war was unforgivable. Mother went on to explain that Maryka’s husband had promised to send money but never did. Maryka was forced to leave her daughter in the care of a generous couple she met through church; it was impossible to work and tend to the child’s needs at the same time. She was able to visit her only once a month because the train fare from The Hague to Gouda was a great expense.
“And she wasn’t there when the girl died.” Mother’s eyes were aimed at the floor. I didn’t know what to say. It was certainly a very sad story. “Maryka sent her husband a telegram informing him of their child’s death. She received no answer. She asked him to help her leave Europe and join him wherever he happened to be living. Still no answer. She was on a train to Gouda to tend her daughter’s grave when she was arrested and brought to the camp.”
“Perhaps Maryka’s husband didn’t answer because he was dead.”
“That’s what your grandfather thought. But she insisted on sending him another message. And guess who was chosen as the messenger.”
“He told me that she addressed her husband as ‘My dear Pig.’”
“You get the idea. So your grandfather mailed her letter, putting his own name and address on the envelope because Maryka thought her husband wouldn’t open it if her name was on it.”
“Did he receive an answer? Did he stay in touch with Maryka?”
“No and no. His regiment had to continue fighting. Besides, he was engaged and she was married. When the war ended he came home, married your grandmother, and put everything that had happened in Europe behind him. Or at least he tried to.”
I knew what she meant. Mother had told me about the nightmares that used to make Grandfather wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, especially when she was a little girl.
“Well, thanks for sharing this piece of family history with me, I guess.” I was about to stand up and continue packing, but Mother held me back.
“I’m not done.”
I tilted my head. Not done? I had already heard enough. It was getting late and we had work to finish.
“When I was born, your grandfather wanted to name me Maryka, but your grandmother refused.”
“Understandable.” I was beginning to lose my patience.
“So he named me Malva instead. Like Maryka’s daughter. Except your grandmother didn’t know that until after the fact. She never forgave him for it.”
My eyes opened wide. Years before, Mother had told me an entirely different story when I had asked about our name.
“Malva was the name of Pablo Neruda’s daughter.” She handed me the copy of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. “You should keep this.”
It took me a moment to absorb what I’d just heard.
“Maryka was Pablo Neruda’s wife?”
Mother rolled her eyes.
“The first of three, yes.”
I leafed through the book in wonder. Perhaps Grandfather had placed Maryka’s identity card and a mallow flower between the pages of the first English edition of Neruda’s book as his own little way of helping her. His own little way of putting a broken family back together.
I placed the book at the top of the keeping pile and looked out the window. “It’s almost nighttime, Mother. I need some fresh air.” I stretched out my arm, hoping she would take my hand. “Are you still up for a walk? I’d like to see the tulips.”
Featured in Latinos Magazine among the Top Ten Most Successful Mexicans in Canada, and named also one of the Top Ten Most Influential Hispanic-Canadians, Martha Bátiz was born and raised in Mexico City, but has been living in Toronto since 2003. Her articles, chronicles, reviews and short stories have appeared in diverse newspapers and magazines not only in her homeland, but also in Spain, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Peru, Ireland, England, the United States and Canada.
Martha has penned two short-story collections in Spanish: A todos los voy a matar (I’m Going To Kill Them All, Castillo Press, Mexico, 2000), and De tránsito (In Transit, Terranova Editores, Puerto Rico, 2014). Her award-winning novella Boca de lobo was originally published in Spanish both in the Dominican Republic and in Mexico (in 2007 and 2008, respectively), and released in its first English translation as The Wolf’s Mouth (Exile Editions, 2009). In 2018 it appeared in its French version as La Gueule du Loup (Lugar Común Editorial), and in a new English edition under the title Damiana’s Reprieve (Exile Editions). Boca de lobo is also available through Audible as an Audiobook in Spanish since 2021.
Editor of the anthology Desde el norte: Narrativa canadiense contemporánea (UAM, 2015), Martha is also part of the editorial committee of the successful books Historias de Toronto and Historias de Montreal (Lugar Común, 2016 and 2019, respectively). She holds a PhD in Latin American Literature and is an ATA-certified literary translator. Besides being the founder and instructor of the Creative Writing in Spanish course currently offered by the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, she is a part-time professor at three universities in the GTA where she teaches Spanish language and literature as well as translation.
Martha is also the author of two short-story collections in English, the first one titled Plaza Requiem: Stories at the Edge of Ordinary Lives (Exile Editions, 2017), winner of the 2018 International Latino Book Award in the category of “Best Popular Fiction: English.” The second and most recent is No Stars in the Sky, published by House of Anansi Press in May 2022.