Ursula Martens agrees to meet a Holocaust survivor. I feel like her fairy godmother. I will play village matchmaker and find her one.
I’m playing divine intervention, forcing chance encounters. Get a Hitler Youth leader and a Holocaust survivor in the same room and film it? It’s totally absurd. What’s my business meddling with the Holocaust?
Jane Ulman, who writes survivor testimonies for the Journal, recommends Erika Jacoby. “She is very interested in the project,” Ulman says after speaking with Jacoby. I don’t reach out. I second-guess the whole situation. It’s too forced and manicured. Ulman reaches out again a week later with the same message: Erika wants to meet Ursula.
I learned about the Holocaust in middle school, through PowerPoint tutorials and assemblies with audio-visual presentations. Every year, a different survivor was invited to speak; each answered questions from the students and revealed the number tattooed to their arms. This was my Holocaust education.
Years later, I backpacked through Europe, spending part of the time in Berlin. “This is the location of Hitler’s bunker,” a tour guide said, stopping at an empty parking lot. There was no plaque, no sign to mark the spot. A seafoam green hatchback was parked there. This is what I remember.
I’m fascinated by memory, how someone can remember specific details of events long ago. Martens remembers the way a floral lampshade filtered light into her family’s living room, the night the radio announced Hitler was chancellor. Jacoby remembers the gleam of Dr. Josef Mengele’s boots, how shiny and bright they were, as she was sorted into a line at Auschwitz on the day of her arrival.
There is no logical reason why these women would ever meet. They do not have the same circle of friends. They do not live in the same area of Los Angeles. There is nothing connecting these two people, except maybe for me.
At 88 years old, Martens is a property manager for apartment buildings. This is how I know her. She manages the building where my parents live. She operates out of her house in Baldwin Hills and drives a 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer bearing several bumper stickers, including those that say, “War Is STILL Not The Answer” and “Yes. I Voted Obama.” She climbs ladders, has a bob, and watches a lot of CNN. She retains a faint German accent but even that would not suggest a past life as a Hitler Youth leader.
And then there’s Jacoby, a retired social worker. She was born in Hungary and now lives in North Hollywood with her husband, Uzi, and two caretakers. She exercises every morning and gets around with a walker or a cane. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
When I first meet Jacoby to discuss meeting Martens, she has cousins visiting from out of town. One of them isn’t happy with the idea. “I don’t get it,” he says, while I’m setting up equipment, but Jacoby already has made up her mind.
The two women agree to meet the following week. They do not talk on the phone. They do not correspond beforehand. There is no fancy algorithm behind this concept. Jacoby invites Martens to her house. Martens accepts. I am the “middleman.”
Jacoby has visited Auschwitz three times since the war. “I went to feel anger,” she said. For her entire life, Jacoby has been searching for a vent, a way to express her rage. It’s been bottled up for so long, she doesn’t know how to release it. “My theory is I’m still too scared to express anger.” This is part of the reason why she agreed to meet Martens.
“I like to challenge myself,” she said, “and this is a challenge.”
“I’m a little bit leery about how she feels about me,” Jacoby says, a week before meeting Martens. “I want to be able to meet her and say, ‘I met her and she’s a human being.’ ”
It happens on a Wednesday morning when Martens arrives at Jacoby’s house. The first thing Martens sees is a plaque that reads in Hebrew, “Blessed be those who enter.”
“Is that Hebrew?” she asks before ringing the doorbell.
As planned, a film crew is there to capture the moment — two videographers, three cameras, three lights and two microphones. I want them to feel comfortable. Martens will maneuver around wires, cords and cables, a whole maze of equipment to get to Jacoby, sitting tall on the couch, propped by a pillow.
And so they met.