My late mother loved the New York Times crossword and she loved reading mysteries. Born in Poland, she said the puzzle helped her perfect her English; she never explained the specific appeal of crime novels, but she was a huge fan of Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Frances and Richard Lockridge, and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I read almost all the mystery library books she brought home; they were always better than the books assigned in school. On my own, I discovered the comic mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. While my mother enjoyed a good joke and had an Imogene Coca kind of laugh, those books weren't serious enough for her.
It wasn't until after my mother died in 1999 that I discovered profound and unsettling mysteries in her own life that I'm still trying to unravel. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She lost her family, her home, her freedom -- and would have lost her life if the war had lasted any longer than it did. She spoke about those war years sparingly, and when she did, I was too young or too overwhelmed to ask the right questions that would have yielded more information.
Going through her things after the funeral, I found something shocking in her closet. My mother had kept the concentration camp uniform she was wearing when she was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. You've probably seen "dresses" like these in movies and documentaries: thin, crudely sewn, it was gray with purplish stripes (though the colors may have changed over the decades). My father told me she'd washed it after the war, but he couldn't say why she had kept this reminder of her horrible brutalization and the nightmare of seeing her world ground to dust.
I knew the names of the camps my mother had been in and contacted one via email but nobody could find records for her. This was troubling, since I knew that despite bombings and German attempts to destroy files, records existed for many camps. And then I tried again, this time using the number on her uniform.
A world of mysteries opened up to me. For at least part of the war, my mother, Helena Klaczko, was listed in several Nazi records as Lidja Garbel. How do I know this Garbel and my mother were the same woman? Because the insanely detailed prisoner card for my mother at Buchenwald lists her parents' name, her street address in Poland, her education and her birth date. All the information matches what I know to be fact. Whatever her name, the woman with that number on her camp dress was the woman listed on the card and indisputably my mother.
But why did she have another name? The mystery deepened when I discovered that in a transport from one camp to another, there was a woman whose number was right before my mother's and whose last name was also Garbel. So somehow, for some reason, my mother took this other woman's last name as hers. But why? And why Lidja? Was it possible there had been an actual Lidja Garbel whose name my mother had assumed for some reason? The sister of this Frida Garbel?
My father had no idea what the answers were or what any of it could mean. And when I told him that this same Buchenwald prisoner card said my mother was married to a Mikhail Garbel, whereabouts "unknown," he scoffed. "People said all kinds of things during the war."
I had written a handful of Nick Hoffman mysteries by this point, and even been reviewed in the New York Times my mother revered. Sadly, my mother never got to read any of them because she was so sick when they started coming. But nothing in any of them matched these real-life mysteries whose solutions I have pursued in many directions, without answer. Sometimes I wonder if there really was a Mikhail Garbel or even a Lidja Garbel, if both were completely invented. Sometimes I think, what if my mother was married before she met my father? Sometimes I think, "There's a book in this, if only I can find it." And I wonder if my mother read mysteries not just as a fan, but as someone who had turned her own life into something mysterious.