There are some questions that are so urgent that they have to be asked repeatedly, even though there has never been, nor ever will be an answer. They may be addressed to another person, but it is just as likely that they are spoken aloud to an empty chair when no one else is present. Certain questions have to be articulated, made real and sent off pulsing into the ether. When another person is present they behave as if they were expected to answer and focus their attention on the question, even perhaps, attempt some form of words, knowing all the while that the only proper response is a bewildered shake of the head. There is some ineffable Zen Buddhist koan to which the correct reply is to take off a shoe and place it on one’s head. It’s a response which is as absurd as the question that has no answer, but which also respects the necessity of the question by engaging with it.

Pearl Jacubowicz asked me her question a good half-dozen times during our conversation in her flat in West Hampstead. Sometimes it came out of what she had been saying, sometimes it seemed simply to arrive, a small explosion bracketed by a brief silence, as if the thought perpetually rolled around in her mind and from time to time had to be spoken as a form of release. Each time she paused and looked at me and each time the silence was prolonged while I failed to come up with an answer. Then, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, she would continue with her story.

‘Why am I alive?’ she asked. ‘Why do I deserve to be alive? Can you tell me that?’

The simple answer is that everybody deserves to be alive, though that’s simple indeed and perhaps not even true. But the context of the question is that Pearl, now nearly seventy years of age, lost 65 members of her family during the Nazi catastrophe. All of them: uncles, aunts and cousins, her parents, her eight brothers and sisters, her favourite sister’s five children of whom the oldest was six. In that context, the simple answer merely reiterates the question.

‘Have you read Primo Levi?’ I ask her. ‘He wrote about that. The feelings the survivors were left with.’

‘Yes, yes. Someone gave me a book. I read it over and over. He was a very clever man. He killed himself, you know?’

Primo Levi also could only ask the question. But Pearl’s mother had an answer of sorts.

‘My mother always used to say to me: “If you have years to live, nobody can kill you.” And she was right. I don’t know why I lived when everyone else died. In Belsen I didn’t care any more. I didn’t care if I lived or not, I was all alone, but I didn’t think of dying. I wasn’t sure I was going to live but I just didn’t think I was going to die. There was a girl in the bunk opposite me, she was eating the whole time – she had a friend in the kitchen – while I was starving and had typhus. You know, two days after Sunday the 15th of April, the liberation, she died. And I was alive. What do you make of that?’

Pearl always gives the date whenever she mentions the liberation of Belsen.

Pearl also has an answer of a kind to her question, though she thinks of it as the same answer her mother gave her, which it may not be.

‘Just before the liberation I had a dream: I was crossing the water and got to a place where there were wooden bungalows. I looked through a window and I saw my oldest brother. I said to him: where is everybody? He said, if you go round the corner there are other windows. Behind the green curtains, ask the woman there and she will tell you. I went there and I said to her: “I want to see my parents.” She told me: “You can only see them if you die.” I said: “But I haven’t lived yet.” She looked at a list and said: “You’re right, go back, you’re right at the bottom, you’ve got a long time to live.” When I woke up, I was crying my eyes out.’

She says she dreamed of her mother a lot in the camp, but every time, her mother turned her away. ‘She didn’t want me to be with her.’ Later in England she dreamed of her repeatedly. ‘She was so small. She was smaller than me. I was holding her in my arms and suddenly she fell. She died in my hands.’

Pearl doesn’t mention her father much, though in fact she was closer to him than to her mother. ‘I can’t think about him very well,’ she says. It’s the loss of her mother that she dwells on most, perhaps because the relationship was far from easy. ‘I used to think: if we ever go home, I’ll tell my mother what happened to me. But she went before me, so there was no one to tell.’

When she was little she ran home during a family outing. Her mother, she says, lived for her sons and this used to hurt her. ‘She felt everything was for the boys.’ None of the other sisters seemed to mind, but she did, and that day, when her mother found her back at home, Pearl told her that she’d run away because she loved the boys better. ‘I have ten fingers,’ her mother told her. ‘Whichever I cut, bleeds.’ ‘So what could I say?’ Pearl asks me.

Her parents quarrelled incessantly, about business and money, and, it seems, about her mother’s disappointment. ‘She used to tell me never to get married unless I really loved a man. Not to be like her.’ It made Pearl unhappy, running between the two arguing parents, trying to be the peacemaker of the family. She was 18 when her family were taken away and she began a journey from the Budapest ghetto to a labour camp, and then to Dachau where Doctor Mengele (‘a blonde giant, so handsome’) selected the younger women who would march to Belsen, leaving the older ones behind. One night during that march, another handsome man in a leather coat came to the place where they were resting and took all the young children away. Pearl supposed the children were killed until a few months ago, when she saw a documentary on television about Raoul Wallenberg and recognised him as the man in the leather coat. ‘I screamed when I saw a picture of him. Those children were saved. They were sent all over the world. Some of them spoke on the programme.’

Pearl details her experience willingly, knowing herself to be a witness to a monstrous piece of history (‘I was in the same barracks as Anne Frank. Of course, I didn’t know who she was then. There were just some Dutch girls. They cried all the time.’) Watching the VJ Day commemorations brought it back. ‘I saw those old men, Japanese prisoners of war, and I thought: you shouldn’t forget. Nobody should forget. I have to talk about it. Sometimes it has to come out.’

But talking about it is not personally therapeutic for Pearl. Recently she lost her best friend, Barney, who she had known for 25 years. They had a loving relationship, though she refused to marry him, and would never consider having children in case they might one day have to go through what she experienced. Barney’s stroke brought all the other losses back, and someone suggested she see a therapist. She went for 12 weeks. ‘Barney was still alive when I started going. The therapist said to me: “Do you want bereavement counselling?” “Already?” I said. “He’s not dead yet.” ’

At home, alone after Barney’s death, ‘I shed tears, you wouldn’t believe it.’ She has to attend hospitals, she tells me, because her eyes are dry. ‘I ask them, “How can I shed tears when my eyes are dry?” but they tell me it has nothing to do with it.’ She speaks of being lonely, of never having had time for friends because she was always busy with work. She has one woman friend, but is reluctant to ring her up when she’s feeling like company or to talk about how much she misses Barney. ‘I wouldn’t want her to think I’m running after her.’

What Pearl has to say about the conditions and treatment in the camps will be familiar to anyone who has read survivor accounts and seen the grim newsreels taken by the shattered Allied troops when they arrived. What is so disturbing about hearing the facts from Pearl at first hand is not the details, which are dreadful and necessary repetitions of what is already known, but the familiar way she uses certain words which most of us utter carefully, as if they were our tribal fetishes, because they contain unspeakable and unimaginable meanings. Pearl pronounces ‘Dachau’ and ‘Belsen’ with no more emphasis in her sentences than we would if we were talking about a university we had once attended, or a district we lived in when we first left home. At one point she describes, to elaborate some event, the barracks she was in. ‘The bunks were that wide.’ She waves her hand to indicate the distance between the window beside my chair and the sofa on which she sits. ‘The passage between them was about the width of this table,’ she says, touching her fingertips on a coffee table between us. For Pearl, Belsen is a real place with a memorised landscape, one that she can relate to her present surroundings, not a generalised geography of horror. ‘Are you cold?’ she asks me, noticing during the wave of her hand that a breeze is coming in through the open window. I’m not, but she gets up and closes the window anyway in case I’m just being polite.

She makes me coffee. ‘I only drink fresh coffee,’ she says smiling, and seems to wait for me to join her in some joke.

Pearl, like everyone else, was weak and sick when liberation came, but she noticed one day that the German guards had white cloth around their sleeves and she remembered how her brothers used to play soldiers as children and that when they lost whatever war they were fighting they wore white armbands. She said to the other women in her barracks: ‘You know what? I think it’s over, the guards have got white armbands on.’ Naturally, they didn’t believe her.

Pearl spent two and a half years in Belsen after the liberation. The British turned it into a Displaced Persons’ camp for those who, like Pearl, had no family anywhere in the world and therefore no other place to go. The ex-internees had to be sponsored to emigrate to England or the US (where Pearl dreamed of living), but though she thought there were some distant relatives somewhere in Cleveland, Ohio, she had no names. Belsen, the DP camp, was not so bad when the British were in charge. But Pearl is not very romantic about her liberators. When a German was murdered, the British exercised their sense of justice by locking all the inmates in their barracks until they found out who had committed the crime. The camp survivors rebelled, broke down the doors and demonstrated in front of the British, angry at being treated in this way. ‘They were holding guns at us,’ Pearl remembers. ‘They were standing there with their guns pointed at us. Can you believe it?’ It turned out to be a non-Jewish Pole who had done the killing. The soldiers held dances every night and took the young women out. Best of all were the Italian prisoners of war, when they arrived. They serenaded the girls and one day, while looking into a shop window, she saw an Italian passing by with a huge rat on a lead. ‘He was walking so proudly, as if he had some wonderful pedigree dog. That’s the first time I laughed. They helped us to survive, they gave us a lot of life, the Italians.’

Marriages were made and children born in Belsen after the liberation while the survivors waited for somewhere to go and begin their lives. But food was short, and became shorter once the British left the camp to the Polish Army to administer. ‘There was food coming in,’ says Pearl with a shrug. ‘But we didn’t see much of it after the British left.’

Finally, one of the girls who had left got a Jewish family in Birmingham to sponsor Pearl to come to England for a year as their domestic servant. She left Belsen on 21 September 1947. ‘I came out of Belsen and went into a kitchen. It hit me so hard.’ Mrs Short would put a spoonful of food on the plate and ask: ‘Is that enough?’ ‘I was too embarrassed to ask for more, so I always said yes. She could have said, help yourself, but she always asked: “Is that enough?” ’ Pearl made up her mind that if she ever had a home she was ‘going to put everything on the table’. When no one was around, she ate packaged soups Mrs Short got from America to fill herself up. One day she mentioned that the biscuits she had for her tea were dry. ‘Did you have it better in the camp?’ asked Mrs Short’s mother. This is why Pearl stops and smiles when she tells me she only drinks fresh coffee. When my coffee arrives, there’s also a plate piled with fancy Belgian biscuits and a slab of dark Dutch chocolate, and I’m exhorted to eat. Even then, I’m not allowed to leave until she has successfully pushed a full packet of biscuits and another bar of chocolate into my bag.

After six months there was the offer of work in another family in London through contacts she had made in the Hungarian Club. She hadn’t fulfilled her contract with Mrs Short, but she went to the authorities and told them that if they didn’t let her go to London she wanted to go back to Belsen. They gave her the necessary papers. She spent eight years caring for three small children whose mother was ‘in an asylum’. Their father was the love of Pearl’s life, but when his wife had an operation that returned her to the outside world, Pearl clearly couldn’t stay. Though she kept in touch with the children until they were grown up, their father did not want to continue a relationship of any kind. Some years later she phoned him. ‘This is Pearl,’ she said. ‘Pearl who?’ he answered. ‘I know many Pearls.’ She didn’t call again. After leaving the family she got a job in Waitrose, in the basement of John Barnes in Finchley Road. She worked there for 31 years on the check-out, and they were, Pearl says, unhappiness notwithstanding, ‘the best years of my life’.

This is how I met her. She had the longest queues, but still people lined up to have their goods taken by Pearl. She chatted, was never brisk or bad-tempered and didn’t mind your fractious toddler whining with boredom. It’s the only time in my life when I’ve actually chosen to stand in a longer queue than necessary. It was a slow business, because everyone paused for conversation. People told her their troubles (‘If you knew what I know about so many people’) or swapped recipes, or got tips on what was best and cheapest in Waitrose that week, but still it seemed worth the wait. She had to retire three years ago and badly misses her old life.

Pearl, in her brown Waitrose uniform, made friends with everyone over the check-out, but it was friendship on her terms, with a barrier between her and others. She enjoyed the talking and loved all the kids, but the limits were set, as she set them with Barney. ‘Even when he was ill, I would stay with him most of the night, but I always came back to my own flat to sleep.’ She could see Barney’s window from her flat and would check to see his light was out before she went to sleep. She still looks across at the window, though the house has been sold now. ‘It’s just a habit,’ she says. Sometimes, looking out of her window during the summer afternoons, now that she is no longer working, she sees Bernard Kops in his garden with his children and grandchildren. He also knows Pearl, and when she meets him in the street, she tells him: ‘You’ve got such a wonderful family. So close-knit, so loving. I love to watch you.’

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