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2021 Short Story Contest Winner

My Pompeii

by Leah Eichler

“Is Betty Simkovits your maiden name? Do you know a Bayla Simkovits? Her brother was Dovid.”

The text came in via Facebook chat, after I indulgently accepted the stranger’s request to connect. Normally I only lurked on social media, but I felt elated lately, ready to speak to anyone and everyone after finally landing a full-time role as an associate professor of ancient history at the University of Toronto.

“Does your family come from Poland or Germany? My father was already a teenager before the war and went into hiding in the former Czechoslovakia. He died of breast cancer last year. Yes, I know, a man dying of breast cancer. The odds were not in his favor.”

So much information from a stranger. I mulled unfriending this fellow Simkovits, whose current name struck no resemblance.

As if reading my mind, this no-longer Simkovits followed up with an apology:

“Sorry, I know these are a lot of questions. I saw you comment on Alisha’s post and I checked out your profile. It always surprises me to stumble across another Simkovits and I can’t help but wonder if there’s any connection.”

I felt unaccustomed to the personal invasion, but this woman’s persistent inquiry poked at something tender inside me, a bruise I didn’t know existed. I finally replied:

“I understand.”

Perhaps this newly discovered confidence that enveloped me since landing my role at U of T allowed me to open up to this Ellen Smith. My passion to understand everything that happened that day in Pompeii in 79 AD, when their world burned, their people buried and entombed in ash, bordered on fanatical. It was as if I were their last witness.

In five years, I’ve published three books on the subject. When the Pompeii exhibit opened at the Royal Ontario Museum, for which I offered guidance, I took my parents on a private tour. My dad shook his head as we walked around the meticulous body casts of people stuck permanently in time, entire families entombed together, wiped out, while others scattered by the wind. I waited until the end to show him the most sacred cast to me, the lovers, comforting each other during their last moments alive. Their eternal embrace struck a deeply buried pain in my chest that I struggled to pinpoint.

“Why do people want to see that?” my dad announced too loudly as we exited through the gift shop. After my turning 37, he joked that he would trade all my education in for a son-in-law and grandchild. He’d see now. He’d have to.

It’s only recently that I began using my proper last name, Simkovits. My father changed it years ago to Simko. As refugees, his family lived in a crowded tenement in Kensington Market. The noise, the smell of the sardine factory, the rats that scurried underneath the floorboards horrified him. At school, he tried to separate himself from the other new arrivals but his name, that name, kept him back.

“Sim, Simko, Simokvits,” his teachers would stutter, to his horror. His parents pronounced the name “Shim-ko-VITCH” and would correct the odd outsider who meandered into their dry goods store. My dad, however, cowered in shame, willing to accept whatever version of his name came past their lips. As soon as my dad entered high school, he began introducing himself as Harry Simko. He sounded as if he could hail directly from the luxury cottage country the wealthy kids retreated to on weekends, on Lake Simcoe. Harry was now one of them. Hershel Simkovits lived no longer.

For me, Simko always seemed so sterilized, devoid of any meaning or history. Perhaps the historian in me wanted to portray myself accurately and connect me to something greater. Perhaps I wanted to come across as more exotic as I approached my newfound academic status, as someone with gravitas and culture. Not just another white girl, I thought to myself. I had roots.

But those roots remained long buried. My father had no interest in history, in his story or anyone else’s. As a child, my grandparents would regale me with their lives in Humenné, where most of the Jews spoke Hungarian, Slovak, or Yiddish. My grandfather spoke as if he were standing right there in the market square, before the war, watching the horse drawn carriages, the pushcarts selling items from tea to boots. Then, he would take out the old, worn out photos of a brother and sister and cousins on the beach, by a lake, or posing for the camera. My grandfather hung onto the beach pictures like a sacred scroll, his arms wrapped around a tiny girl, who smiled sheepishly at the camera.

My dad would snatch those away, with a “why would you want to see that?” If my grandfather continued with his stories, my dad would get my jacket out of the closest and hand it to me with a quiet statement directed at no one and everyone: “Betty doesn’t need to know of such nonsense. Why weigh her down with stories of people she will never know?”

I believed him, and throughout school Betty Simko carried on as if my family just magically appeared in Toronto, enjoying the freedoms my father kept insisting I should appreciate more. If I criticized the government, the people or even the weather in a passing remark, my father would rebuke me, telling me that Canada is the best country on earth. How can a blade of grass growing through a crack in concrete appreciate anything? I didn’t know any other life. After a while, that weightlessness my father wished for me, only weighed me down more.

I began experimenting with my “real” name as I completed my Masters. I’d introduce myself as Simko and then explain afterwards that it’s really Simkovits, drawing out the “sh” sound and punctuating the name with a hard “tz”, as if to emphasize its foreignness. Betty seemed like a strange preface to such a relic of a word that I secretly worried about how I would ever reconcile the two. By the time I began my PhD at Cambridge, I introduced myself more confidently as Professor Simkovits. The name graced my diploma. My father looked at the framed documents in my home office and scoffed, “why would you do that?”

Then Ellen, Ms. No-longer Simkovits, Smith invaded my digital space on Facebook, conjuring up images of people whose names seemed only fit for a tombstone and yet somehow, I missed them. Bayla. Dovid. The family Simkovits. I knew this stranger felt eager to confess more, the dots in the text box kept appearing and disappearing like a ghost.

As she typed away, I checked out her profile. A psychotherapist. She appears to be in her early 50s, and lives in San Diego. I remember visiting once, on a trip with my ex, Mark, in our last year of undergrad. After touring Berkeley, we decided to rent a car and drive down the coast. Life in San Diego seemed appealingly slow, calm as if the ocean cleansed it of any baggage or history. Mark fell in love with California and when we both were offered the chance to attend Berkeley, he assumed it was a no-brainer. When I accepted the offer from Cambridge instead, he broke things off. Rather, he accused me of passive-aggressively breaking things off and cut all ties. Three years of my life evaporated into smoke. To this day, I don’t know why I made that choice.

“My family comes from Nitra, in Czechoslovakia. My grandfather owned a textiles factory, which was unusual for Jews, but apparently he had a way with people. He was one of the founders of the neolog synagogue in the city. That’s like the reform movement or something, for more assimilated, modern Jews.

It annoyed me that she felt the need to explain things to me. Had she checked out my profile and saw I have a PhD from Cambridge, perhaps …

“Sorry, you probably knew that,” Ms. No-longer Simkovits added. “I’m so used to talking to people who don’t understand where we came from.”

Where we came from. Those words unhinged me slightly. I came from Toronto. I am a Canadian. I came from here. But suddenly, I didn’t.

“My family is from Humenné.”

The words seemed to hang for a moment in the ether. It occurred to me that, in my 38 years, I’ve never uttered that sentence out loud to anyone.

“Your family is from Slovakia? You are the first Simkovits I’ve come across from Slovakia. How far is Humenné from Nitra?”

“I guess we can Google.” I replied, as I opened a second screen. “It’s over eight hours by train. One is in the East, and one is in the West.”


The ellipsis hung in the ether yet again. “That’s far,” said Ms. No-longer Simkovitz. “Probably very hard to traverse before the war.”

“Probably.”

“Let me reach out to my cousin, Chaim. He lives in Jerusalem. He’s spent a lot of time studying our family lineage at Yad Vashem. He’s even made a few trips to Nitra and dug through old archives. Hired a translator and everything.”

“Wow,” was all I could muster, sensing our time together was wrapping up.

“On one trip, he went to the location where my grandfather’s factory used to stand and brought home a brick. He keeps it on the same shelf as his religious books. Says the brick is holy.”

I kept quiet, hoping to politely disengage.

“It was a pleasure to virtually meet you, Betty.”

“Likewise,” I replied, searching out her name again, “Ellen.”

___________________________________

“Did you find out anything about Bayla?”

“Not yet, patience Ellen.”

Four weeks had passed since Ellen, Ms. No-longer Simkovits, first reached out to me via Facebook from her home office in San Diego, a stone’s throw from the beach. We’d text or FaceTime while she walked her three dogs, cooked dinner, lay in bed. I spent more time talking to her than anyone else in my life. In fact, I don’t remember ever speaking to anyone this much. At one point, I offered to ask my father if he ever heard of Bayla. I regretted it quickly after, knowing that any mention of his Slovak past, of his family’s tragedy, sent him into a fiery rage. I changed the subject quickly, confessing that my first name for her in my head was NLS, Ms. No-longer Simkovits. Ellen laughed but from then on took to signing off her texts with NLS.

“What kind of Jewish name is Betty?” she mocked in return.

“You should talk, Ms. Smith.”

I learned quickly that it was the name handed to her father at Ellis Island post-war. Simkovits was too complicated for those who processed his refugee status, even back then. Especially back then.

Over time, I learned Ellen was divorced, without any children. “Never wanted any, really.” Her husband left her after 13 years and married a younger woman, with whom he had three children. Ellen said it hurt for the first few years but after a while, she grew comfortable with this life-altering change of events.

“Sometimes you don’t really know who you are, and when you figure it out, it can be hard to be anyone else,” she offered, cryptically. “I see it in my practice all the time.”

Ellen enjoyed her life. She worked, but just enough to pay the bills. She had many hobbies, like pottery and yoga. She was a competitive bridge player. I realized how few hobbies I had myself. Other than Pompeii, my interests remained limited.

“Jesus, Betty, you need to get a life. Can academics like you get laid at least?” I saw her throw her head back before her cackle came through in our FaceTime chat. It surprised me to laugh this hard. “Orgasms are good for preventing cancer, you know. And it may be genetic in our family.”

In our family. Somehow, we determined that we were family, but lord knows how. Still, we seemed to have a lot in common. We read the same books, liked the same movies. We both discovered we had type 1 diabetes diagnosed at 11. When my dad announced he was going for his annual physical I asked him to let his doctor know there was a family history of breast cancer. He and my mom stared at me with that puzzled look that I’ve known since I was a child.

“Spare me with your psycho-medical babble, Ellen. How often are you getting laid?”

She shrugged her shoulders and panned out to a table covered in dildos of various sizes. I blushed just looking at them.

“You will never fail to surprise me, NLS. You really are one for the record books.”

___________________________________

Ellen said that in some ways, she has been looking for Bayla all her life. She was her dad’s youngest sister, the baby their mother didn’t expect. A last-minute gift from God, Ellen’s grandmother asserted to everyone who would listen. The family spoiled her, taking her on trips to Prague to hear concerts and watch the master-puppeteers work their magic to Mozart’s famous operas. They employed the best tutors and teachers, and Bayla showed an astonishing talent for the piano. Her parents gifted her one for her 11th birthday, and she would sit there, every night after dinner, imagining that she, too, would play one day at the ornate concert halls in Prague.


“Bayla was a troublemaker, but she had this laugh, my dad would tell me, that was incredible to watch. Her whole body would shake and everyone around her would laugh, too,” Ellen would recount.


"As a kid, I imagined what Bayla would have been like or better yet, whether we would have been friends if we were born at the same time. I’d imagine her in my mirror as a little girl, and if I squinted my eyes just enough, I could see her through the glass, watching me, smiling. On one hand, I resented her; I wanted my dad to love me as much as he did this ghost of a sister. On the other, I thought, if I ever had a daughter, I’d name her Bayla. It sounds silly now, but what can I say,” said Ellen. I could hear her sighing as she walked the dogs, the wind from the ocean cutting out her words.


Bayla stuck with me as I started teaching. On my first day, I shared photos I took of the former residents of Pompeii, buried in their death casts. The pictures, to me, were always somber, as if I were their final caretaker, tending to their graves and recounting their stories. One girl laughed out loud during one photo of a man kneeling near another. “He looks like he’s giving a blow job,” she shouted. The class laughed. Normally, I would have thrown her out but today I thought to myself, ‘how very Bayla of her,’ and continued.


I couldn’t help but daydream of a way for us to go back to the 1930s in Nitra, to the beach, and there find Bayla still laughing, wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit, her young skin dusted with a fine layer of sand, locked in place but very much alive and waiting, just waiting for the right potion to re-animate her. To bring her back to us.


The problem is, no one knows if Bayla died. How Bayla died. Ellen’s dad couldn’t find her after the war. He searched for years, taking out ads in newspapers and consulting various refugee organizations, but nothing ever turned up.


What he did know: Bayla fell in love. She exchanged letters with a boy several years older than her. Bayla felt adamant that this boy was her bashert, her soulmate. Her parents disagreed, arguing that she was not only too young, but that opportunity would arise, when the war was over, to find a more suitable match, which Ellen understood to be a wealthier one. Bayla was their prize, and although the family shed most of the superstitions of the “shtetl” Jews, as Ellen’s grandfather called them, he still believed she was a gift from God, destined in some way for greatness.


“Things were tough for my dad’s family already. The wealth my grandfather accumulated before the war allowed them to pay people off, keep the Hlinka Guard at bay, but they were struggling to hang on to the factory. When news of transports seemed imminent, my grandfather could hold off no longer. He commissioned fake identities, Christian identities, for his immediate family, his wife and three children, and planned to move to another town and wait it out.” Despite the wind, I could still hear her swallow heavily, as if she lived through the war herself.



Half-way through my first semester, my mom asked me to visit. My dad’s trip to the neurologist didn’t go as well as expected as he pointed out new signs of dementia. When the doctor asked my mom if my dad experienced signs of apathy and mood swings, she laughed.


“He’s been like that our entire lives! Now I know why.” How very Bayla, I thought.


I found my dad in front of the television when I arrived, his La-Z-Boy chair reclined to its full extent, his headphones on to drone out the outside world. I stood in front of the television and waved. He smiled, begrudgingly.


Mom and I drank coffee in the kitchen as I went over the list of the doctor’s recommendations.


“We need to keep him active,” my mom whispered, lest my dad sneak up on her, “and make him learn new things.” We both laughed, realizing how impossible those tasks would be.


My dad finally joined us, sitting down in his chair at the head of a table with a thump.


“I guess you guys are talking about me. Well, don’t plan my funeral yet. Doctors are wrong all the time.”


“Dad, don’t be ridiculous. No one is planning anything.”


“Certainly not your wedding?”


“Really Dad? Was that necessary?”


He shrugged, looking slightly contrite. I knew waiting for an apology would be futile.


“Fine, tell me about your ancient dead body class,” he offered. It’s the best I could ask for.


“You know that I’m considered an expert in my field, right?”


He laughed. “Sure, why not. How many people want to be experts on dead bodies from 2000 years ago?”


I decided not to push it and change the subject.


“Hey Dad, did you ever have family in Nitra?”


His nose crinkled as if he smelled something burnt.


“Nitra? Maybe. What do you know about Nitra?”


“Well, I met this woman on Facebook and her last name is, was, Simkovits and we thought…”


“Oh, this nonsense again. Stick to your Italian dead bodies. You need to dig up the Slovak ones, too?”


“This is important, Dad. Don’t you want your memory to be kept alive when you are gone?”


“No, I’d be happy if everyone just forgot about me and moved on.”


“Well then good thing you were lucky enough to get dementia. In a few years, you can forget about you, too.”


This was our standoff, when we both went too far. This is usually when my mom said we are both too much alike, too stubborn, like all Simkovits but this time, she walked out of the room, saying, “I don’t have the energy for this, anymore. You two Simkovits work it out on your own.”


My dad sliced some dark rye bread and removed some kolbasz wrapped in paper from the fridge. The smell of the cured meat that lasted for ages always disgusted me growing up but now I wondered, did the taste take him back to his youth, to Humenné? Did he eat to remember when the rest of his body willed him to forget?


Out of nowhere, he began speaking, as if our conversation never ended in his mind.


“Your grandfather left some books. I gave away most but there are a few left. Maybe you want them?” I followed my father into my parents’ bedroom and in his closet, I found several books, written in German. Anne Frank I recognized right away. Then. Tolstoy. Anna Karenina.


“Your grandfather always wanted you to remember things for him. He was also always worried about forgetting. But you know what I learned growing up with him? It’s not the remembering that’s hard. It’s the forgetting. He would have been proud of you,” he said, and I knew it was the biggest compliment from my father that I was ever going to get.



As December approached, I grew comfortable with my new role and received some good reviews on my performance. The dean dangled the idea of taking a select group of fourth year students to Italy, to study in Pompeii firsthand. Ellen and I also grew closer. I jokingly called her my BFF, as if we were in high school. I felt such gratitude to find someone who got me at this stage in my life, when I worried making friends was a habit I’d outgrown. I called her after the faculty Christmas party, knowing she’d still be up.


“Meet any cute guys, Ms. Simkovits,” was how she picked up the phone.


“Sure, I said. I met the perfect guy if I want to talk about Hatsheput the rest of my life. Three drinks in and it still never got interesting. God, is that what I sound like?”


“Yup,” she replied too cheerily.


“Thanks.” I mumbled about hanging up and mulled re-downloading a dating app when Ellen interrupted.


“Stop being moody. You need sunshine. Why don’t you come visit me?”


The thought of seeing Ellen in real life scared me. We got along so well. What if, in person, things weren’t the same? I’m not sure I could stomach losing her at this point.


“Come on, chicken. What else are you going to do? The best part about being single without kids is you can do whatever you like whenever you like. Fuck, you and I should probably even plan a trip to Slovakia, take some of your history and researching skills and finally put them to good use.”


“Now you are beginning to sound like my dad.”


Three weeks later, I found myself on a flight to San Diego. I hadn’t even landed yet but part of me knew this was only the first step for Ellen and me; our next trip would be to Slovakia, where somehow, we would find evidence of Bayla, our shared pillar of salt and stone. Ellen told me that her grandfather’s plans to go into “open hiding” as a Christian family was deep in preparation when Bayla disappeared. For the first few hours, they feared the worst, that she was picked up by the Hlinka Guard, kidnapped, raped, left for dead. Her grandfather exhausted all his connections trying to find her when they noticed that some clothes went missing from her closet. She left a note, but it fell behind her dresser, so they only discovered it days later.


“I went to go live with my heart’s heart. Don’t be cross. I can’t live my life pretending to be someone else. He has a plan to hide in the mountains. I’ll be safe. He knows them like the back of his hand. I promise, when this is all over, we will have a proper wedding. I love you more than anything, your Bayla.”


Ellen’s grandparents were frantic. Her father made plans to track her down, force her back, but it was just too dangerous. Eventually, they were forced into open hiding without her.


“Only my father survived the war,” Ellen told me.


“He said, in some ways, his parents died the day Bayla left, the day they were forced to become other people, with only two children rather than three. Neighbors ratted them out and they were deported to Majdanek. My father and his brother were sent to live in separate homes with sympathetic families who carried on the charade that they were Christian. His brother Dovid died of scarlet fever he was told. The family he stayed with had other children and left him in a barn when he came down with it. My father wasn’t sure how hard they tried to save him.”


Ellen tells the story as if she has heard it a million times, and I imagine she has. Her father ended up in the United States, first arriving at Ellis Island and then migrating out West. He married, had Ellen, and they enjoyed a good life. “Still, to the day he died, he believed that somehow, somewhere, he would find Bayla.”


I leaned my head against the plane window and thought about all the death I sorted through during my academic life. Hundreds of people killed in moments by volcanic ash. I never focused on any one person who escaped, who lived to tell the story, lived their life with the love of their life. Until I met Ellen, it never occurred to me how much I yearned for a story of survival.


When the taxi pulled up at Ellen’s quaint little cottage house that I knew so well from our video chats, I found the door open and let myself in. It smelled familiar, like the old books and recently extinguished candles I remembered as a child.


“Welcome to San Diego, Ms. Simkovits.” I heard her as she hurried down the stairs. “Your room awaits.”


Ellen seemed tinier in real life but so familiar, as if we were fraternal twins separated at birth. I hugged her and tried not to cry. Within the hour, we were on the beach, with the three dogs, walking and talking like sisters. Despite the wind, the sun warmed my cold, Toronto bones while spending time with Ellen thawed something much deeper, frozen much longer.


The time zone difference began to kick in early in the evening. I relaxed on the sofa with a cumulative two hundred pounds of dog while Ellen prepared dinner.


“Can I help,” I offered half-heartedly, not sure I could make it to 10 p.m.


“Nope,” she insisted, uncorking a bottle of wine and pouring two glasses. “Your job is to relax. Drink your wine. That’s an order from your older, but much wiser Ms. Simkovits.”


“You mean “Not Ms. Simkovits.”


“Pish-tosh.”


I took a sip. Then another.


“Wait, I forgot, I thought you would be interested in some of my grandfather’s books. Let me get them.” I had every intention of gifting them to Ellen if she liked them. We both loved Anna Karenina as teens. I brought down the bag and emptied the contents gently on the kitchen counter. As dinner simmered, we sipped wine and I carefully gave her one book at a time to examine, leaving Tolstoy, the prized possession, for last.


“This one has Ellen written all over it. I hope you like it.”


Ellen touched it carefully. “Wow, I wish I could read more than a few words in German. This edition must be a hundred years old. Your grandfather must have been quite the man. He took really good care of it.” She flipped it open. “It has an inscription.”


“I noticed that.”


“It says, “To my heart’s heart.” I can’t read the signature. Did your grandmother gift it to him?”


“No, she didn’t speak any German.”


Ellen flipped through the pages and out of the tome flew an old photograph. My heart jumped for a moment as I picked it up. I knew the photo from when I was little, and my grandfather tried to tell me about his family. This one was taken with cousins, at a beach. The one where he laughed and held a girl by her small waist.


Ellen snatched the photo out of my hand and stared at it.


“Hey,” I said. “Easy.”


She stormed into her office. When Ellen returned, she slammed a photo album on the table and muttered to herself as she quickly flipped the pages.


“There,” she yelled. I felt confused by her emotions, the jet-lag and wine threatened to knock me down. But I found my second wind when I saw it. Two teenagers at the beach holding hands with others in the background. It was my grandfather. He looked like my dad did, when he was younger.


“How is that possible …” I began but Ellen shook her head.


“You are missing the point here. This, this is Bayla. These are both Bayla. Your grandfather was in love with Bayla.”


I processed the information quickly in my mind. It wasn’t unusual in that era to marry your cousin, but Bayla’s parents wanted more for her, they wanted her out of shtetl life. She ran away to be with my grandfather. I struggled to remember the snippets of my grandfather’s stories, to find out if Bayla made it to Humenné, if they hid out in the forest, how she died. Did my grandmother know her, too? I’d ask my father when I returned home, demand he tell me. I’ll insist he reveal something before he forgets everything. I sat down, exhausted, suddenly a girl of six again, sitting on my grandfather’s lap as he tried to tell me, to show me, what life was like for him before being turned to ash. His Pompeii was now my Pompeii.


And then I remembered: He’d flip the photos, until the one with the girl, and then the talk about the market square, the shoe sellers, the pushcarts selling tea, would evolve into a whisper, about how the love you feel as a child burns hot like lava, leaving marks that never heal. Then he would hug me tight and call me a name that as a child I thought was only an endearment, a relic from his world. He would say: “you are my heart’s heart, Bayla. Never forget it."


Copyright © 2021 by Leah Eichler.




About the Author

Leah Eichler launched her writing career as a journalist working for the Jerusalem Report. Her success in the Middle East led to a fifteen-year career in journalism, in which she interviewed the famous and infamous alike, including Salman Rushdie, Henry Morgentaler and the Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. Eichler spent seven years as a weekly, national business columnist for the Globe and Mail. She lives in Toronto with her partner, Isac, and two children, Lilith and Azriel. Her fiction can be found in The Jewish Literary Journal. She recently completed her first novel, The Never Ending.




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