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In the Company of Orphans
by R.H. Slansky

My last name hangs on me like an ill-fitting suit
clatters from my mouth
as if it isn’t mine
a nasal honk sliding
into a timid trailing vowel: Slaaan-skeee
no one has heard it before
so I have to spell it out for them

Oh, says everyone
that’s just how it sounds

My homeroom class is given an assignment
to map out our family trees
I know mine will be boring, average
Polish, probably, that’s how everyone thinks Slansky sounds
Italian, probably, Dad’s from Long Island and we eat too much pasta,
that’s just math

But Slansky is not Polish, it’s Czech
and our name isn’t Slansky, it’s Robitschek
it was changed
by a second or third great-grandfather
in order to avoid a military draft
skewed unevenly toward the recruitment of Jewish men

Lost to the Holocaust,
the European family cannot tell me this story is wrong,
we are all that’s left.
until the granddaughter of my grandfather’s aunt turns up

a toddler at the war’s end
she survived the camps and the Angel of Death
to spend the next sixty years
cursed with a photographic memory
and the belief that she was all that was left

The real story of Slansky is
a second or third great-grandfather was caught married with a child
when the legal limit for Jewish families had already been reached
the family name was stripped from us as punishment

Slansky is a Scarlet letter we still wear
and we are all that’s left

Childhood summer road trips
I pull the White Pages out from under the Gideon’s bible
in the nightstand of every Motel 6 and Super 8
by age 16 I have been to 36 states
and found my name in only one

when my father meets the famous Russian poet
he asks if we’re related to Rudolf

arrested by the Czech government in 1951 along with 13 others
charged with treason,
tortured in prison,
then publicly hanged
Rudolph Slansky was one of 11 who were Jewish
and this is no coincidence

I try and fail to find a connection to Rudolf
but learn that his name
may have also once been something else, that perhaps he
is another orphan star without a galaxy

My father told the poet no
but could have said
and yes

Somehow, in adulthood
Slansky has become my first name,
my only name
people bray it at me with joy: Slaaan-SKEEE!
as if they are grumpy police lieutenants
and I am their rogue detective

they tell me it’s just fun to say
and I smile
having grown into that suit
at last

IMAGE: (Left) Czech politician Rudolf Slánský (1901-1952); (right) author R.H. Slansky outside the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: There was a time in my life where I felt so estranged from the name Slansky that I planned to drop it when I reached legal age and use my middle name — my mother’s maiden name — as my last. Over the course of my life, as I’ve learned more about the family members, both those I couldn’t have known and those I did but didn’t really, I’ve come to love it. Somehow, without any doing on my part, wherever I go, it’s how people address me now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: R. H. Slansky, a six-time 3-Day Novel Contest entrant, two-time short-lister, and 2013 winner, has been featured in the Silver Birch Press ME, IN FICTION series, Geist literary magazine, theotherpress.ca, and the Literary Press Group of Canada’s website All Lit Up. Vancouver-based Anvil Press released her novella, Moss-Haired Girl, the Confessions of a Circus Performer in 2015. Raised in Oregon, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.