A lovely summer sunday, a family picnic winding down. An elderly neighbor arrives late and is introduced all around. He sits quietly among us until asked about the obvious but unidentifiable accent. German maybe? Hungarian? "Romanian," he answers, "but I barely speak it anymore." We ask more about how and when he had come to America. Nobody mentions the crude, blue number tattooed on his arm.
Irwin grew up in the Romanian countryside, he tells us. Romania then, at least. And then Hungary and then Romania again. His father disappeared when he was in his early teens, a resistor carried off early in the war. Irwin was 15 when he and the rest of his family - brother, mother, two sisters - were deported and eventually taken to the prison camp at Auschwitz. There, the boys were immediately assigned to a work camp. They never saw the rest of the family again. "Did you know what had happened to them?" I ask him. "They were gone. What more did I need to know?"
A year of grueling work and near-starvation and still the brothers remained alive and together. And then, tattered and bones, they were summarily rounded up with the rest and set on the road to Dachau. The death march, they called it. Impossible conditions; relentless pace; no food. "You didn't keep up, you were shot," Irwin says matter-of-factly. He's obviously told this story before. Little did they know the allies were approaching and the war would end soon. "There were rumors," Irwin says, "about the Americans. But we said, how could they be coming? They are all the way across an ocean!"
Irwin and his brother managed to stay together and alive through the march and into the chaos that followed liberation. Suddenly free, they moved in packs through the countryside, scavenging for clothes ("to replace the prison rags," he said, moving both hands up and down his chest to show the stripes). They stole food from farm houses that had been suddenly abandoned by families on the run, dinner still on the table. They watched others die from trying to eat too much too quickly. After all of the deprivation, food was poison unless you took it slow. After several months of slow recuperation sleeping in barnyards and fields, the brothers made their way to a DP (displaced persons) camp for children, and conveniently rearranged their birthdays to qualify for shelter. "My older brother became the younger, and I moved my birthday just the months I needed to get in."
And then family in America materialized. The brothers were sent to join them in New York, a miserable sea voyage whose details Irwin seems more comfortable embellishing than the march across Germany that nearly killed him.
Irwin's life in America began with schooling at Cornell and then the University of Minnesota, where he become a psychologist and settled down. His brother, until he retired, was a nuclear engineer at Stanford where he was instrumental in the STARK Spectroscopy program. They remain close, and Irwin, at least, will be traveling back this summer to Germany for a reunion of the ever-dwindling group of Auschwitz survivors. And then on to see, one more time, his village in Romania.
I had asked, before Irwin began his stories, if I might take his portrait... just a nice elderly gentleman eating a brownie in the shade. "Sure," he said. "I'm used to having my picture taken." Then he began to talk, and the world dropped away.