The old man sat up in his chair and leaned forward, extending his hand toward me. I took the matches that were on the stained coffee table in front of him to light his cigarette. His eyes were still bright, despite his age – he had to be at least 85 years old, if not older. He chewed on the cigarette a bit; I could tell his mind was searching through the volumes of memories that his life must have been.
“It was January of 1945 when our division arrived at the gates of Auschwitz,” he began. “The place was deserted, we had heard that only about 5,000 were left behind – all others either murdered or forced to march towards the West, a certain death. We saw several barracks filled with children, hundreds of them…. cold, starving and just so exhausted…. We knew that many of them had been survivors of medical experiments by the Nazi doctors. Let me tell you – we had seen it all and witnessed everything imaginable, but this was simply too much to bear…”
He put his hand over his face and rubbed his eyes, then took another long drag of the cigarette, holding in the smoke. “We set up a food station,” he continued, “just something quick; simply wanted to do whatever we could for them, give them something, anything…. The kids all lined up, waiting for their turn to get the food; their faces restrained and emotionless. I noticed this one boy towards the end of the line, patiently waiting with the others; for some reason we made eye contact… I walked toward him and since I didn’t know what language he could understand, I decided to just hug him…”
“At first there was no reaction, but then he carefully hugged me back, tears swelling up in his eyes …. Suddenly, many of the kids that were in the food line started walking over to us, forming another line – waiting to get a hug. They gave up on a chance to eat, just to get a hug! All the soldiers in our group dropped whatever they were doing and began hugging the kids, one by one, all of them, as many as they could….”
His fingers were thick and clumsy with the cigarette; the ash fell off onto the rug – I could see it wasn’t the first time. “I never thought a hug could have such an effect on anyone, especially on a kid,“ he said quietly. “I know it helped him that day, helped him survive, but it helped me even more; the world is in one crazy hurry all the time, everyone always running someplace, always so alone… a simple hug can mean the world to someone, someone you may not even know…”
The old man slumped back in his chair, cigarette still alive in his hand. He looked somewhere past me, somewhere in the open space outside his little New York apartment. I wondered how often he sat there and looked through his windows, waiting on his loved ones that may or may not show up. As I got up to leave, I leaned in and gave him a quick hug; somehow it seemed easy.