A long, long time ago, Mr. Slepinsky was my neighbor. I used to awake in the middle of the night to his screaming, and would run next door, terrified that he might wake up and think I was one of them. I would hurry and turn on the light, and quickly wrap a warm wash cloth around his sweaty forehead to calm him. Sometimes he cried, other times he would scream at me in a language I wished I didn’t know. Other people in the neighborhood were afraid of Mr. Slepinsky. They thought he was crazy – some even thought that he had gotten out of prison, but I had learned early on never to make assumptions: people can be wonderful, despite their battered shells. Looking back, I think I was the only friend the old man had. I never saw another car at his place, or any visitors stop by. In the five years he lived next to me, I never once saw another person knock on his door. Most of the neighborhood shunned away from him.
One cold Winter day I was out getting my mail, and I heard a crash. Mr. Slepinsk had slipped on his icy driveway. He had lost his footing, and had landed square on his back – the wind knocked completely out of him. That was how I met him. I went over to give him a hand – and although he glared at me through steely eyes, I knew in my heart that he was grateful.
From that day forward, I went over to my neighbor’s house daily. I would bring him the mail, cook him dinner occasionally, and clean his house while he would tell me stories of how he had been punished. He told me of his hatred towards them, and how they had maimed him for life. One day he lifted up his shirt to show me the mark that caused him so much grief: a swastika tattoo spread across his wrinkled chest – faded from years of neglect. The tattoo was so large, it nearly covered his entire torso. The ink had faded to a medium shade of gray, but it clearly was done with more emphasis than I could imagine. Mr. Slepinsky told me that he was a victim of the Holocaust. Sometimes while reliving the stories, he would start screaming in German – and I would pretend not to understand. Generally he would scream phrases consistent with torture, but occasionally throughout his ranting, he would mumble “Sieg Heil,” or Hail Victory – a term used by the Nazi’s throughout the War. I imagined he had heard the phrase so many times that i t was his subconscious reminding him of the terrible atrocities committed against his Jewish brethren.
I was making dinner for him one night during the Christmas season – Hannukah for Mr. Slepinsky, and he began his usual diatribe. He complained of his days of torture, and gave me a graphic representation that I shuddered when imagining. I asked him if he had any oregano – I was making lasagna, and wanted him to enjoy my homemade recipe, but I had forgotten it next door. He said that he did, and came over to the cupboard next to the stove where I was cooking. I’ll never forget what I saw next. Mr. Slepisnky was wearing a white tank top – with a light jacket draped over him. As he reached his frail arm above me to get the spice, I noticed a small scar on the inside of his left underarm. Old tattoo ink remained around the scar – and I was horrified by what it meant. For the next few weeks I would continue to visit Mr. Slepinsky, but in the back of my mind, the sinister memory burned.
My final visit came one night 13 years ago. He invited me for dinner to tell me about his life prior to the mark. He began lamenting about his wife and four children. Nostalgic memories poured from his heart, about the beautiful life they lived, and the warm Sunday dinners they shared. He told me about growing up in Germany, and the friends he once had. He rattled on about his mother and father, and the care they provided for their family. His father had two jobs and worked tirelessly to provide for little Joseph. He began to cry as he told me how his family had been taken from him. While tears rolled down my face, without thinking, I blurted out: “Es tut mir leid," the German phrase for “I’m sorry.” Mr. Slepinsky jumped out of his chair -seething inside. I have never seen such hatred from a person. He tore across the table in less time than it took me to realize what I had done. He shouted at me to get out of his house and never come back.
Two weeks later he moved, and for the next 12 years I wondered what had become of the bitter man. I prayed that he had met someone else to take care of him, and that he had somehow forgiven the young boy who lived next door so many years ago: a boy who himself had lost his grandfather many years ago the same War fighting against the Americans. Then last week, I stumbled across this headline, and knew that the man I wished I could have saved would have known the secret that I discovered:
Waffen-SS Survivor Shoots Himself in Chest, Carves
“I’m Sorry” Into Swastika Tattoo; Identified as Jewish Traitor