(Editor’s note: In 2010, journalist Kris Mamula wrote for the Chronicle the story of Albert Goltz, a Holocaust survivor and longtime Pittsburgh resident, who had rarely recounted his past to anyone, including his family. Now in failing health, Goltz has left Pittsburgh to live with his daughter, prompting Mamula to write this essay.)
Even ailing and blind in one eye and sometimes needing reminding that she’s four years older, Frieda wants to help.
She helped save her little brother when the two of them were interred more than a half-century ago at Stutthof, the Nazis’ first concentration camp outside Germany. Frieda was assigned to clean the dining hall for German soldiers, where she hid food scraps to share with her 14-year-old brother, Albert Goltz. Albert would sometimes sneak away from the camp to beg food from farmers to share with his big sister.
Now, Albert needs help.
A month ago, he found out he has a lung tumor and Frieda wants to help, even though the both of them are in their 80s, she in Israel and he in Pittsburgh. Albert smiles when he tells me about his sister wanting to help, the same wry mirth that brightens his face whether he’s telling me his Orthodox neighbor calls him goy or in recalling the handouts he took from German soldiers who shared their lunches while stoking a crematorium.
I would like to help Albert, too.
I met Albert about four years ago while we waited mornings, along with others, for the Jewish Community Center fitness center to open. In winter, I would stamp my feet and curse the cold. Albert would smile and shrug.
I would recommend a car mechanic to him, a dentist. He would pick up new bus schedules for me on his daily bus trips to the Carnegie Library, Downtown, turn on the best shower at the locker room so the water was warm when I got there.
One year, he gave me a jar of gefilite fish. He was eager to know how I liked it. I hardly had the heart to tell him I couldn’t eat it.
Once he joined my family for Thanksgiving and I made the mistake of waiting too long to serve supper. In moments that became increasingly tense, Albert drew blood from his soft pink fingertip, tenderized by decades of pinpricks, marking his blood sugar, anxious about the falling numbers.
But some mornings we had breakfast at his house, where Albert, the eager host, toasted bagels, boiled water for instant decaf coffee and brought out the fancy cups. Under a fluorescent ceiling glow, we sat on folding metal chairs and talked about where to get the freshest vegetables.
Then there was that hot summer day when I did lawn work in the afternoon sun, ignoring the heat warnings. But by the time I got home, I was exhausted and a little disoriented.
I called Albert, worried about him in the heat, but he was fine. I told him about my day in the sun.
“You’re working too hard, you overdid it,” he said in a low, understanding voice. “Sometimes I overdo it, too.”
Albert was deeply torn about chemotherapy. The pills arrived in the mail and quickly robbed his strength and appetite. Ten days later, I stopped at his house and he motioned me to the kitchen, where we sat under the fluorescent light. He told me he stopped taking the drugs. He was drawn, his skin dusky.
“You’ve thought this over,” I said, a question.
“Yes,” he said.
I went home and blended yogurt with bananas, ground flax seed, almond butter and a splash of maple syrup into a milkshake that I took to Albert. I told him he had to eat.
“Too sweet,” was all he said.
I was sure I knew what he needed, and yet I felt like his sister Frieda, on the other side of the planet, wanting somehow to help, but powerless to do much. I wondered if I weren’t somehow reliving my years as a paramedic, dashing through dark homes in the middle of the night, calling out, “ambulance, ambulance!”
Sometimes I wonder if the rescuer ever retired.
And I was hounded by doubt. Doctors gave brandy to Abraham Lincoln in the minutes after he was shot, and took it as a good sign that he swallowed some. What was I really doing for Albert?
What I really wanted was a waiver from all the rules. I wanted a world where no one ever gets sick. I wanted to see Albert at the fitness center early mornings, where I could stamp my feet and curse the cold while Albert smiled; where we could feast on toasted bagels, whole-wheat cereal and instant decaf at his kitchen table and talk about where to buy the best cucumbers.
I was grasping at what had already slipped through my fingers.
Weak from the chemotherapy, he asked me to take down his laundry from clothes lines strung in the basement near a boiler.
“Don’t bother folding anything; just put everything in the basket,” he called down the steps as I balled each pair of socks, carefully folded underwear and towels.
Meanwhile, Albert’s daughter, Miriam Cohen, was frantic. Did her father need home care? Assisted living? Why the sudden decline after starting the chemotherapy? Why couldn’t she reach his doctor? How would he be safe in his home?
She desperately wanted Albert to come to live with her family in Maryland. Albert resisted mightily. He didn’t want to leave his house.
I remade the yogurt milkshake, omitting everything that was sweet. Albert drank it without complaint. I made another for him. Finally, after several days, Albert relented and decided to move in with his daughter and her family.
Saturday, Dec. 10, cold and sunny, was moving day. I helped Albert’s daughter carry some things to her car. The Wal Mart suspenders Albert wore to hold up his new jeans were twisted. He worried that his sugar level was up.
Intent, he gave me a box cutter, then counted out a dozen or so straight-edge razors into an envelope. “You can use these,” he said. I wondered how.
He also gave me six bottles of laundry detergent, saying he said he wouldn’t need it at his daughter’s house. “I got them on sale,” he said. That smile again.
I reminded his daughter about the modified milkshake recipe. Albert will need it to keep his strength, I said. We sat in the living room, surrounded by stacks of boxes.
In a few minutes, Albert would close the door behind him at the Sherrod Street house he’d called home for 52 years.
Albert stood, and so did I. It was time. I shook his hand, trying not to grip too tightly his tender fingers.
“Good friend,” was all he said.
Good friend, Albert.
(Kris Mamula is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Business Times and a frequent contributor to the Chronicle.)