When our cousin Irene invited me to visit her I was very excited. I had never been to California, and since she lived near the Mexican border, she promised to take me to Tijuana. How could I resist such a tempting offer? On the way to the airport I didn’t feel too well, but it never occurred to me to go back. The flight seemed to take forever, my back was killing me and all I wanted to do was lie down in the aisle. Now I was certain that I had caught the flu – not a very auspicious beginning for a holiday!

Irene was wonderful. She took me home, prepared a hot bath for me and put me to bed. She is a remarkable woman, full of energy (maybe because she drinks a lot of coffee). She keeps no medicine in the house, not even an Aspirin, but for me she went out of her way to get whatever I needed. She cooked special dishes to tempt my appetite, and was such a devoted nurse that after three days of being pampered, I felt I had to drag myself out of bed just to show her my appreciation. I did feel much better so we were able to travel around. After visiting beautiful spots like La Jolla, Old Town and various sights around San Diego, I was ready to cross the border into Mexico.

Irene had warned me not to expect too much&xlash;we were only going for a day trip to Tijuana&xlash;but for me that was enough. The name alone sounded romantic, and the idea of being in Mexico was exciting. We wondered around, had lunch in the Ceasar’s Palace, a hotel that prides itself on creating the original Ceasar salad. After lunch we decided to head back and we joined the line at the border crossing. On the way into Mexico nobody had stopped us, but now we had to present our passports. When my turn came and I gave my Israeli passport to a border policeman, he studied it with great interest and asked: “I see you are an Israeli born in Austria. May I ask where you spent the years during World War II?” I gazed at him in astonishment, I couldn’t understand what he was getting at, but answered him reluctantly: “in German concentration camps”. Then he surprised me even more, he wanted to know whether I had a number on my arm. I nodded my head and when he asked to see it, I pulled up my sleeve and showed it to him. Behind me stood a young man who looked at the number and said to me: “Bless you”. Till then I hadn’t even noticed him. Suddenly I became aware of the long line that stretched behind me and of people staring at me. I was utterly confused. For a moment the past came rushing back and I felt a flash of deep anxiety, as if I was trapped and was not allowed to leave, but then my passport was returned to me and Irene and I walked slowly away.

We hadn’t gone far, when the policeman came running after us. He begged my forgiveness for having caused me such obvious distress. Nothing had been further from his mind, and he felt he owed me an explanation. Apparently, he had grown up with stories his Father had told him about the liberation of a German concentration camp. His father had been a young soldier in the American Army and had found the sights that greeted him in the camp unforgettable. It had a profound effect on the son, and I was the first person he had met who had been there and who had a number tattooed on her arm, and he was very grateful to me for letting him see it. Both of us were very moved by the encounter and we parted with genuine warm feelings toward each other.

Lucy Mandelstam October 2000