top of page

Burn the Air

     One of my colleagues asked me if I could help his 64-year-old mother stop smoking. "I don't know what to do," he said. "She's tried to quit for years but nobody could help. Not even with hypnosis."

     Dr. Lenski was one of the new faculty, a pediatric pulmonologist. We had quickly formed an alliance when he asked me for help with some of his "frequent flyers" in the emergency department: adolescent smokers with asthma. My experience as a clinical psychologist and his as a lung specialist fit together easily.

     I didn't want to refuse to see his mother. In fact, I was flattered by his confidence in me, and I secretly wished I was a hero who could help everyone. But I wasn't enthusiastic to see her after his comment that nobody had been able to help her. A few days later, in spite of my doubts, someone made an appointment, and Marta Lenski came to see me. I smelled the sharp aroma of tobacco immediately when we met.

     "Doctor," she said, "Thanks for seeing me. I never found anybody who can help."

     I was already pessimistic and irritated by the anticipation that we'd waste our time. But I was curious, so I asked her to tell me about herself. She was born in Poland and arrived as a refugee in New York with her older sister in 1947 at the age of 27. She married the following year. She and her husband had two children. My colleague Greg was born in 1948. Her husband died a year ago of a heart attack.

     She described a happy childhood in her family's country house in Poland until 1940 when they were sent to a ghetto in Warsaw. At this point, I could sense her hesitation. As violence and war spread across the country, her engineering studies at the university and a promise of marriage vanished. One day, her parents and two younger brothers were marched away with others from the ghetto, and she never saw or heard from them again. She and her sister stayed behind for a few months in their small room.

     Her story jumped to her son Greg and his wife, who recently had their first baby. But I had to admit that I was still stuck in the awful events she had just summarized so briefly. A family history and childhood wrapped up like that was in itself so awful I was speechless.

    "I want so much to help with the baby, but Greg and Vickie said I should stop smoking first. I know they're right. I always smoke outside on the patio, but I know my hair and clothes and even my room in the house smell very strong. I can't smell it, but they can."

     At the end of this first meeting, she asked me, "Doctor, do you think I can quit?"
    "To be honest, I'm uncertain." She seemed dismayed. "Really? Oh, I was hoping so much you could help."
    "I'm willing to try."
    "All the other doctors I saw were optimistic at first, then they became discouraged, I guess. I think my habit is too strong."
    "That's why I'm uncertain. I'd like to be more confident, but some things are so difficult. Maybe impossible."
    "Yah. I know. That's me."

     A few days after this appointment, Greg told me his mother was more withdrawn than usual. "I never know what's on her mind," he said. "She was a good mother. But she's always been a puzzle. She never, ever talks about herself. When Dad was alive, he told us that she lost her family and she was in a camp at some point, but she never told him any details. When her sister and my Dad passed away in the last two years, we worried because she never showed much emotion. She just looked sad and said she'd miss them."

     We met weekly several times, gradually talking about these losses of her husband and sister, guilt that she was alive but they weren't, and her fear that her life would be a waste.

     One day at her appointment Mrs. Lenski said, "I'm still smoking."
     "I can tell."
     "Oh yes, the smell, right?"
     "I'm sorry it's so difficult for you."
     "It is. I've been fighting all my life."
     "Fighting what?"

     I wasn't expecting what she did next. "You see this?" She pulled up her left sleeve. I saw numbers tattooed on her forearm.

     "What camp were you in??I tried to appear calm and matter of fact, but I was ready to retreat. I had stumbled up against something too big for me."

     "Auschwitz. Me and my sister. Every day, we knew we could die. But they gave us a job. The guards made us drag bodies into a pit. These were people who died at night. There was disease and starvation everywhere. The guards could have done it, but they made us do it. And some days we had to take shovels into the women's toilets and pick up the—the dirt from the floor."

     "The feces?"

     "Yah. It was everywhere. Many people had diarrhea. They left us alone when we started doing these jobs. But we never knew when it would be our turn to die of disease, or they'd kill us, or send us somewhere to another camp."

    "Were you together in the same camp all the time?"

    "We were lucky. We spent the whole time, my sister and I, together. And when they liberated Auschwitz at the end, we stayed together all the way to America. Then we both got married. She moved to Minnesota, me and my husband came here to San Antonio for his work."

     "Did you stay close?"
     She sat silent until I asked, "What's going through your mind?"
     She shook her head, as if to dismiss something. "Oh nothing. Just about my sister."
    "There was a picture in your mind?"
     She nodded her head.
    "Can you describe what you saw?"
    "It's too much." But after a moment, she closed her eyes and spoke. "We're looking for paper, my sister and me. We're looking for paper to smoke. We have to smoke, to burn the air."
   "Burn the air?"

    She opened her eyes. "The air was so bad." She shook her head. "You can't imagine. The air was so bad, my sister said to me, 'We have to burn something, we have to make smoke to clean us out, so the air can't go inside and kill us.'The wind blew paper scraps around. One day, I found an old newspaper a guard left on the ground. We hid it and every day we tore off a strip. We rolled it up tight, then lit it from the camp stove and took it outside."

     "You smoked the rolled-up newspaper?"
     "It kept us from dying."
     "You burned up the bad air."
     "Poison air. So much evil and suffering you can't find words. And it made us forget our hunger. We ate smoke instead of food."

     "When you were finally liberated from the camp did you keep on smoking?"

     "The soldiers had cigarettes. They gave some to us, and we smoked one every day. It kept the memories of the camp from going inside and destroying us. And reminded us, Don't give up. Now I still smoke. This makes no sense, doctor. It's so strong I can't chase it away, this feeling. You know? I have to smoke, or...I don't know what."

     "To stay alive? To not give up?"
     "Yah, I remember. We held the heat of our little cigarette in our hands, my sister and me. On those winter days it was the only life we could get. That's why I can't quit. It would mean I gave up."

     Her words were a glimpse into such despair and determination I couldn't imagine any words that could tell that story. But for the first time, because of her determination, I wanted to help.

     "Do you still need to burn the air?"

     She thought about this and seemed intrigued. "I don't think so. No more bad smells anymore. Now I'm the one who smells bad. That's why I need to change. For my granddaughter. She's six months old now."
     "What's her name?"
     "Elena Marta. Elena Marta Lenski."
     "Named after you."
     "Yah. Doctor, please don't tell Greg or his wife. They don't know any of this."
     "You mean about your family and your life in the camp? Our conversations are confidential. But what would happen if they knew?"

     "They'd be so upset. Life has been tough, but my husband and me had lots of good years. Now I just want to enjoy my family as much as I can until my time comes. I'm happy for Greg and Vickie. They have a good life, and I don't want to spoil it. And I don't want pity from anyone."

     "I understand."
     She nodded. "Thank you, doctor."
     "Something to think about for next time is the difference between pity and connection when we share our pain."
     We were out of time but she sat silent, not ready to leave. "I know we have to end. But first, I have to say something."
I waited.
    "I never thought this until now. For years I've been asking for help to stop, but I really didn't want to. I didn't know that before."
   "It's a tough challenge."
   "Yah. I understand what you meant now. I was impossible."

     I noticed now that her face and voice stayed with me when I was home. And I remembered as teenagers, my brother and I picked chamomile around our house in Canada, dried the leaves, and made cigarettes. The connection we shared, our prayers, anxieties, all burned in the smoldering leaves and ascended in our smoke. In our hands we held what we had no words for: warmth and connection.

     When we met the following week, Mrs. Lenski began to speak as soon as she sat down. "I been thinking about this every day. I realize many times I asked for help, but really, I wasn?t ready to stop."

     Her energy seemed renewed. I felt affection for her wrinkled face that was ten years older than her age, her grey hair, her simple clothing. For the first time, I thought maybe she could succeed.

     "You've had your reasons to keep smoking. At Auschwitz you and your sister focused every second on how to avoid death."
    "We—" She covered her mouth with one hand and closed her eyes.
     I waited.
     She shook her head and waved her hand, trying to chase something away. "Forget it. It's nothing."
     For a brief moment, I saw tears in her eyes that she blinked away. She said, "You're waiting for me to tell you, aren't you?"
     "If you want to."

     She looked down at her hands, cupped as if to hold something. "A guard made my sister kneel in the mud because he saw her pick up a scrap of paper. He told me to leave, but I only walked a little away, to the corner of the barracks. I was afraid he was going to shoot her. But then he turned and came over to me and told me to lie face down. He stood there, his boot just in front of my face. Then I thought he'll shoot both me and my sister. But another guard called him, and he left."

     I realized that while she and her family were living all these experiences, I was a child safe and far away in Canada, untouched by any of this. I had no idea what to say because I felt numb with guilt. All the documentaries and articles I had ever seen of the Holocaust had described a tragic event in history, but this was different. Somehow her presence in the office made me a witness. Her tattooed arm and her memories caught me in such a tangle, my mind went blank.

    She leaned toward me. "Are you okay?"
    "Yes. Thanks for asking." I was sure I'd failed her. "I followed you into that place with the newspaper cigarette, the dead, the excrement, and the mud. I confess I was lost."
     "Thank you," she whispered.
     "I'm grateful for you sharing these stories. They don't make me feel pity. Just pain and admiration for what you endured."
     "Now I have to ask myself am I really going to die if I stop smoking."

     "You mean no more burning the air?"
     She smiled.
     "You may need to reconsider and share these stories with Greg and Vickie. They're stories of what you lost, how you suffered, and how you survived. It doesn't mean they'll pity you. I believe  they'll appreciate you more than ever and feel more connected with you."
     "I never thought of that."
     "When the day comes that you and I die, our smoke and our stories will die with us—unless..."
     She nodded her head. "You know, I been thinking the same thing. Our stories will die with us, unless we've told them."
     "When you were a prisoner, your voice was imprisoned too. But now you have words, and you can use them."

     "Yah," she whispered. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. Then we breathed together.
     The next day, Mrs. Lenski left a message on my phone that she wanted to cancel our appointments for the next two weeks because of Passover. Then she added, "Also, I have some work to do."

     "I have to tell you about Mom," Greg said when I saw him the following week. "I know you can't discuss her, but just listen. Saturday morning she washed all her clothes and bedding. She stayed in her room for a long time. When I checked on her, she said I'm fine don't worry, and I saw she was writing. I never saw her write anything before except little cards, but this looked like a big project, so I asked her what she was writing. She sat back in her chair and said, 'I'm writing my story.'

     "The next day was warm so she sat outside on the patio with her notebooks. Vickie discovered her cigarettes and ashtray in the trash. But outside, she asked Vickie if she could borrow some of our incense. To burn out in the yard. We said sure, because we enjoy it. Unbelievable."

     "Wonderful," I said. "You're right, I can't discuss what we talk about, because she's my patient. But thanks for telling me. I'm thrilled."

     He smiled and squeezed my arm. "One more thing. I don't know why she does this, but she keeps a little roll of paper like one of those homemade cigarettes on the table beside where she's working. No tobacco. Just a tight little roll of newspaper."

published in Snapdragon Journal, Fall 2020

Samuel LeBaron worked as a clinical psychologist until he entered medical school. After graduation from a family medicine residency, he joined the faculty of Stanford School of medicine, where he was both a medical educator and clinician. He has recently immersed himself in creative fiction and non-fiction.

bottom of page