Just thought I’d re-post these two stories for the Holocaust Remembrance day.
These are both about the same character, I’m just putting them in the order I wrote them.
The night outside the camp was so dark one could almost imagine that the outside world didn’t exist. The searchlight would sweep its never resting glare over the cold, cement barracks and the helmeted men at the corner guard huts would follow its gaze, just as tireless.
I tore my gaze away from the window and took a deep breath; an unsuccessful attempt to calm myself. A wrinkled old hand rested on my shoulder and I jumped. Turning, I saw that it was Rabbi Levine: the oldest and undisputedly the wisest man in camp. The rabbi smiled,
“Are you ready, Moshe?” I relaxed a little, took a deep breath and nodded.
I had heard the prayers before at other Bar Mitzvahs and knew quite a few bits of the prayers. Good thing, too, since they had to be whispered.
Rabbi Levine did the calling up to the Torah, even though there was none and I closed my eyes for a second, imagining that I was holding one.
“Now the Tefillin, Moshe.” I opened my eyes in surprise,
“You have Tefillin?” I blurted. The Rabbi held a finger to his lips, his eyes crinkling at the corners with a smile. He held out the precious black boxes with their leather cord.
Stunned, I took them and slowly inserted my arm into the loop.
“Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and commanded us to place the tefillin.”
The leather was wrinkled and soft as I put it on, winding it carefully around my arm, then moving on to my forehead.
I swallowed hard and blinked, surprised at actually being able to have real Tefillin for my Bar Mitzvah.
“Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and commanded us regarding the mitzvah of tefillin.”
A few more prayers were said and I unwrapped the Tefillin as people started filtering out of the barrack, anxious to be back where they should be and not be caught at this defiant act of Judaism.
I finished the unbinding of the Tefillin and handed them reverently over to the Rabbi. He beamed again and pushed them back at me.
“They are yours, Moshe. I will not need them for much longer anyway.”
“But, Rabbi! You told me yourself these were handed down for generations in your family! You said you would pass them to your son . . .”
“My son was shot yesterday, Moshe.” My breath caught on the knot that settled in my stomach.
“Rabbi . . . I didn’t know. I-I’m so sorry.”
“Moshe, do your parents live?”
“No, Rabbi. They died when I was eight.”
“And your last name?”
“Moshe, I ask one thing in return for these Tefillin: That you carry with them my family name. That you will become, for this foolish old man, Moshe Levine.”
“Rabbi,” I stood up taller, “it would be my honor.”
He hugged me to himself, then shooed me towards the door. I was about to go out, when he suddenly stopped me again.
“I have one last thing for you, Moshe, my son.” He handed me a small white something, smiled, and then shoved me out the door.
Back in my own barracks, I saw what it was. A document of my acceptation into the Jewish community, written on a square of toilet paper: the only paper we had access to.
The next day, Rabbi Levine was shot.
“Grandpa?” Little Eli swung his feet back and forth as he sat on the tall wooden chair opposite my desk, “Why do you have toilet paper framed on your wall?”
I lowered my glasses and looked at him, a smile quirking the corner of you mouth.
“That, my son, is the most important document I ever received in my life. The paper it is on is not important. The man who gave it was, and I keep it to honor him, and the family name.”
Beyond The Line
Just one step over the line. It’ll all be over.
The thought had crossed my mind more times than I’d care to admit. It was almost as if the Nazis had given us the line as a way out for those who couldn’t take it any longer. Though the mitvah to live had kept mostly everyone from crossing, a few, jews only by heritage and not with the faith in God, had crossed. All had been shot down without so much as a blink of the Nazi’s cold, blue eyes.
No one even knew when they might be killed in some brutal way, crossing the line would at least be a predictable death . . .
I sat on the gravelly dirt, thinking that as I stared into the forest beyond.
What I wouldn’t give just to be able to climb a tree, to breath fresh air and feel grass . . .
I sighed, hopelessness weighing heavy in my chest, and glanced up at the guard tower. He watched me suspiciously from under the rim of his helmet and fingered his gun. I looked back down at the ground and fingered a few pebbles for a moment, then began flicking a few over the line. The guard’s eyes followed every one.
After a couple more, I stopped, sighed again and curled my legs to my chest.
Will I even ever get out of this wretched place? I thought. The evil thought crossed my mind once again and I quickly shook it away.
I looked and a girl of about ten was standing behind me. I nodded and tried to smile. She sat down next to me and we both stared beyond the fence together.
“My name’s Tikvah. What’s yours?” Her cheery little voice sounded out of place in the camp.
We were both still for a little, then Tikvah put her hands behind her head and went on her back. I looked over at her.
“What are you doing?”
She smiled at me. “It’s a pretty day. I’m looking at the clouds.”
I couldn’t imagine having the peace of mind to look at the clouds here.
“Well, the soldiers can’t take away the sky from us, can they? I’m enjoying the what I still have. Someday, when we’re all out of here, the sky will still be there, too.”
The peace in her voice confused me. And the hope. “When”? Not “if”?
“Exactly how long have you been here?” I asked. She had to have just come.
“Ten months. My parents died last month.”
She had it as bad as I did.
“How can you be so . . . so happy? And so sure that you’ll get out?”
Tikvah turned her head to look at me.
“Anything that happens is God’s will for me. And I will get out of here; you will too. We’ll either get out there . . .” she pointed to the gate, “ . . .or go up there.” Nodded towards the sky. “Either would be great. The best I can do is just trust God while we’re here.”
I lay back with Tikvah and looked up at the sky. She smiled over at me.
“You know, you’re the first person who’s actually looked at the sky with me.”
I smiled back at her, “My pleasure.”
We lay there for a while, finding shapes that reminded us of our former lives and loved ones, then we heard the shout for evening role call. Both of us leapt up, but the dread I usually felt wasn’t there anymore. Tikvah turned to me.
“Thanks for the company, Moshe.”
I looked up at the sky, turning pink with the sunset and felt a new lightness in my chest.
“Thanks for the hope, Tikvah.”