I drove the back roads to the farm with the van’s headlights off as a general precaution. Leaders of the Jewish community had informed me earlier in the evening that the Nazis were on high alert–canvassing the roads and making hundreds of arrests across town. The last thing Rochel and I needed was for something to go wrong.
There was no reason to return to the house and the store. It wasn’t safe there anymore, and anything of value had probably been stolen, destroyed or tossed into the street. At least we managed to grab the important things, like our coats and our papers before the pogrom spread through the neighborhood like a virus.
Packed suitcases and my sewing machine from Lodz were already in the back of the van (from our last attempt), hidden under a mattress of worsted wool that my angels were now using as bedding. Glancing back at them, both girls appeared to be fast asleep. It melted my heart.
Whispering, “This is not what we planned, Rochel. This is not how we intended to protect the kinder1.”
“I know, Manny. But it’s too risky to hide them at the farm. In fact, it’s not safe anywhere in Germany, right now. We’ll have a talk with them in the morning.”
Eema pulled the barn doors apart in darkness. The van quietly coasted into the open barn, and pulled up beside the Opel. Abba shut off the engine, exited the van, and joined Eema in securing the barn doors with a heavy chain through the handles of both doors. Eema approached the back of the van and swung open the back doors before Abba could stop her. Whispering, “Rochel, let’s not disturb them. Let the kindershluffen2 a bissel3.” Eema nodded. She reached inside for the picnic blanket and spread it across our curled- up bodies, up to our faces.
I tried to stifle it, but I couldn’t help but sneeze. Eva stirred for an instant, but remained asleep.
“Gesundheit4!” Eema answered reflexively. She paused for a moment and sniffled, “Lang Lebn5 my beauty,” before turning away.
I watched through the windshield as they slowly walked arm-in-arm to the front of the barn with a familiar closeness, and slipped into darkness.
1children 2sleep 3a small amount 4health/ bless you 5long life
“It’s not practice anymore,” I reminded Eva. “Remember, we need to be 100 percent!”
“I know, Bertie!”
I held her hand firmly as we wove through the growing crowd surrounding the synagogue entrance. Abba and Eema led the way, clearing a path for us, and we followed close behind.
We crossed over to the other side of the shul as a squad of brown-shirted hooligans kicked open the temple doors carrying armloads of siddurim1 that they dropped on the steps in a heap and splashed with some kind of liquid. Abba and Eema paused to watch, and we took to their sides. The Storm Troopers were followed by another man in a black shirt who held a torch aloft and lit the books on fire. A Gestapo officer in a long black coat was close behind with sacred Torah scrolls stacked to his chin.
“These are the words of Satan, and they will burn in hell just like each and every one of you Jewish scum!” he shouted. When he flung them into the fire, the gathering seemed to collectively recoil in horror from the sight of something so unholy–the text of untold generations of prayers withering in a funeral pyre of desecration.
The flames leapt high into the cool air, carrying ashen remnants past our faces and beyond, drifting above the rooftops to a heavenly resting place. People were sobbing all around us. Abba was having a whispered conversation with a local Zionist leader while Eema was clutching Abba’s arm and wiping her eyes with Abba’s handkerchief. Eva had buried her face in my coat. I knew that I hated the Nazis for what they were doing to our mishpucha2.
Abba and Eema had a plan. They knew one day the Nazis would come for us, and we needed to be prepared when that day should arrive. So on Sundays for the past few months — when the goyim1 were at church — we would practice our escape to Venlo, where Abba kept a small storage room above a shop on Jodenstraat. We pretended to make it look like an innocent outing in the countryside, but it never seemed right to me. I couldn’t pretend how unfair it was that we should lose everything that Abba and Eema had worked so hard to achieve just because we were Jewish.
Ordinarily, Eema packed a lunch, and we’d gather inside the delivery van with our empty suitcases and drive to the farm on the edge of town where Shaina Maidel lived. While I spent a few minutes with my horse, the rest of the family moved merchandise from the van to the trunk of Abba’s Opel. Then we were on the road again. We would drive to Duisburg, and enjoy Eema’s picnic on the grassy hill overlooking the riverbank where the Ruhr flows into the Rhine. We would nosh2 on Eema’s cold chicken leftovers while watching the steamboats navigate the confluence.
Afterwards, we would cross the German border into Venlo–a small Dutch town with a small Jewish district–where Abba thought we would be safe from the Nazis. If Eva and I helped Abba carry his merchandise from the Opel to the second floor storage without complaining, he would buy us something sweet from the Kosher bakery on the ground floor.
Sunday was a good day to cross over. There was less traffic on Sundays, and fewer guards at the border crossing where we’d always have to stop and show our papers. Abba’s and Eema’s papers were different from mine and Eva’s because our nationality was German, and theirs was Polish, so it always took a little bit longer to sort things out at the checkpoint. This was the riskiest time during the trip.
Eva and I knew from Abba and Eema to be extra quiet when we got to the border so as not to attract attention. Sometimes, Eva and I would make a game of it so she wouldn’t be so frightened. We would imagine what the guard looked like standing outside the gate in his underwear, but Abba said we should take it more seriously. Of course he was right, because things didn’t go as planned in what was to be our last practice before the Kristallnacht3 pogrom shattered the night.
On this day our suitcases were packed, and we had more than the usual cargo in the trunk. When we approached the checkpoint gate, we slowly rolled past an older man laying on the ground outside his open car. He was trying to cover up and protect himself from a soldier who was beating him bloody with a rifle stock. With each jab of his rifle the soldier was yelling something obscene. Eva couldn’t help herself. She got upset and started to cry.
“Why are they doing that to the man?” she wailed.
I tried to quiet her by cradling her under the picnic blanket. “You have to keep your voice down, Eva. If you don’t, they’re going to catch us.”
But I couldn’t completely stop her from whimpering. As I peeled away the blanket, I noticed the guard glaring at me through the backseat window as we came to a stop in front of the guardhouse. Abba rolled down his window to present our papers. With every turn of the page, the guard scrutinized our identities against our pictures. When he got to Eva’s papers, he demanded to see her face, still hidden beneath the blanket.
“Show yourself!” he ordered.
Abba tried to explain. “I apologize, officer. She’s not feeling very well. We are on our way to see a doctor in Venlo about her condi…”
“Silence!” the guard interrupted. A loud gunshot rang out behind us near the old man on the ground, and I willed myself to ignore it.
The guard returned his attention to the backseat. “I said show yourself!”
All of which intensified Eva’s crying. She slowly pulled the blanket away from her face to reveal her swollen red eyes filled with tears.
The guard returned to Abba, impatiently tapping our folded papers against his gloved hand. “Juden!?” he expressed more than he asked. The guard already knew the answer to his question, having noticed the “J” on Abba’s passport before the exchange.
“Yes, officer,” confessed Abba, his voice filled with resignation.
Handing back our papers, “You will not be continuing into Nederlands,” he informed. “You will turn around and return to Essen. Do you understand?”
“Yes, officer. Thank you, officer.” Abba accepted our passports, rolled up his window, and u-turned the Opel in the direction of home. I instinctively shielded Eva’s eyes as we drove past the beaten driver who was laying perfectly still in a small pool of blood from a bullet to his head.
Usually, after returning home from Venlo, Eema would prepare dinner while Eva and I would listen to Abba’s critique of our performance during the escape drill. “You can’t be just a little bit right,” he’d say emphatically. “You have to be one hundred percent right, as if your life depended on it!”
And how do you get to one hundred percent?” Eema always quizzed from the kitchen.
“You have to learn from your mistakes,” I would state with assurance.
“Right you are!” asserted Abba. “And what do you think would happen if I always made one hoyzn4 leg longer than the other?”
Now it was Eva’s turn to answer. “We would lose all our customers, Abba, and then we’d end up in the poorhouse with the other beggars.”
It was a scary thought, but not as scary as the encounter with the guard. On that night, Abba didn’t have anything to say at all. He kept to himself, smoking his pipe and reading the paper in his favorite armchair. Eva cautiously approached him and climbed into his lap, forcing him to adjust his newspaper.
“I’m sorry, Abba. I didn’t mean to cry. It’s just that when I saw that man being hit by the soldier, I imagined that he was doing that to you.”
That evening, Abba explained that hatred towards Jews was increasing, and it was just a matter of time before the German soldiers became more aggressive. He was already aware of several instances of Jews being arrested and deported back to Poland. “Your mother and I are very worried about your welfare, so we decided that this time we were leaving Essen for good and going to stay in Nederlands. But I guess it didn’t work out that way.”
Eva locked her long arms around him and held him closely. “That’s okay, Abba. At least we’re all together.”
Henry Flagler’s Hotel Alcazar opened its doors in 1888 to fête the upper crust who rode his rails to St. Augustine to escape the harsh northeastern winters.
Designed in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, the hotel was an elegant getaway that boasted every convenience and amenity for its guests, including the world’s largest swimming pool at 120 feet long by 50 feet wide, and depths ranging from 3 feet to 12 feet.
The pool was constructed as the centerpiece of the hotel casino annex that also featured a workout room, therapeutic baths, a steamroom, and bowling lanes. An artesian well fed a constant flow of fresh sulphur water to the pool to sustain moderate temperatures and assure clarity. The roof featured louvered glass panes that opened for ventilation.
The hotel was shuttered in 1932, and laid dormant until Otto C. Lightner purchased the building in 1947 to showcase his extensive Victorian Era arts collection.
Today, the Lightner Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the pool is home to Café Alcazar, a subterranean eatery serving lunch off the deep end.
The moment I entered the room, I felt I was in the middle of a Downton Abbey episode. It was easy to imagine a tony troop of aristocrats parading in their top hats and arm length evening gloves.
After surveying the room, I had a notion to create an Escheresque puzzle that could tease the viewer into questioning whether the following composition is a mirror image of itself, or a pool reflection, or both.
Or is it just a deception?
There are subtle clues in plain sight that may aid in deciphering the composition. The proof is in the putting.
The crash of shattered glass from the haberdashery shop below, and the chorus of discordant shrieks that followed was enough to drive Eva into Berte’s bed. With the covers pulled over their heads, the two sisters — almost four years apart — huddled together in darkness, listening in silence to a din of destruction coming from the street outside their bedroom window.
At once, the printed ponies on the quilt came to life from the flickering light that shone through the fabric that momentarily managed to insulate them from the unknown and the unthinkable, and they delighted in the illusion until Eema barged in and broke the spell.
“Mach schnell1, girls!” she commanded, the urgency quaking in her voice, “Grab a sweater and your dress coats. We have to move quickly. It’s not safe here.”
“Where are we going, Eema2?” asked Berte, peering out from under the blankets, but Eema was already out the door screaming something inaudible to Abba3 down the hall.
“Look Bertie!” Eva was tugging on Berte’s pajamas from behind.
“Not now, Eva! We have to listen to Eema.”
“But Bertie, the shul’s4 on fire!”
They ran to the window looking out from Ribbeckstrasse — their attention drawn to the commotion across the street.
Flames were darting through the top floor windows while white smoke billowed from the stone arches surrounding the facade. People gathered to gaze at the spectacle — as if in a trance — but nobody lent a hand to douse the blaze.
The Neue5 Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews in town. The imposing freestanding stone monument with four striking copper cupolas was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs,
and considered to be one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time. Built to accommodate 1,400 worshipers, Bertha often kvelled6 at the size of the sanctuary. She marveled at the symmetry of the polished organ pipes above the altar, and how its acoustics would carry her from her seat beside Eema in the women’s gallery to the soaring dome high above her — as distant as the sky — where she could still hear the whispers of the men cloaked in talllit7 who were davening8 on the floor below.
Eema also adored the Neue Synagogue, although she claimed that Piotrkow’s Wielka Synagogue9 outside Lodz easily rivaled its beauty and immensity.
It was there, at the August Oneg Shabbat10–of-the-month social, that Eema first met Abba. The year was 1914, and Menil Strawszinski and Rochel Kolski were teenagers at the time. As the daughter and son of textile workers, their families thought Menil the perfect button to Rochel’s bow, and arranged a meeting for them at the Great Synagogue that night. However, they found themselves in the midst of a regional struggle for Lodz, with Nicholas II and Wilhelm II threatening the peace.
During the Oneg celebration, a gang of Russian Imperial soldiers entered the synagogue under the guise of conducting a mission to uncover the whereabouts of a hidden telephone with a direct link to the German command. Unable to substantiate their claim, the soldiers ransacked the room and roughed up several of the members who dared to interfere with their “investigation”. Menil’s pride was wounded, but most of all, his bruises and bloody nose were a reminder of the capricious violence that surrounded them.
Turmoil in Lodz continued under German occupation from 1915 until the end of the war, when the Polish state was re-established on November 11, 1918 and Poland’s independence was restored. But peace was ephemeral. Soon after, military conflict resumed when Polish armies pushed hard against Ukraine’s eastern borders — intended as a bulwark against future encroachment by the Soviets, who viewed Poland as a pathway to sowing seeds of communism in vulnerable post-war Germany.
On New Year’s Day, 1919, Menil turned 21, and two months later became eligible for compulsory conscription when the Sejm of the Republic of Poland enacted the Provisional Statute on Mandatory Military Service for all male citizens. With anti-Semitism flourishing through the ranks of the armed forces, and an uncertain future awaiting him at the Ukrainian frontline, Menil knew what he had to do. With their parents’ blessings, and a modest nadn11 of a sewing machine and seven bolts of wool fabric from the Kolski’s, Menil and Rochel were married in a quiet ceremony, and boarded a train to Essen, where a second cousin, once removed could offer them a fresh start.
Menil and Rochel’s migration to North Rhine-Westphalia was typical of thousands of other Jewish Poles who fled a fragile and defeated Eastern European landscape, hastened by the political instability and famine created by The Great War and the Russian Revolution.
They arrived in Essen — under an opportunistic umbrella of social acceptance and religious tolerance — eager to capitalize on a climate of post-war possibilities, with hopeful prospects of putting down roots. Living by Jewish tenets of hard work and the value of education, coupled with their Christian neighbors’ encouragement and cooperation, the Jews of Essen seamlessly assimilated into a world of German mercantilism, and became an accepted part of Germany’s middle class.
At first, Menil worked two years for his second cousin as a pattern cutter and a tailor, while Rochel helped with the books and ordered the notions, but their dream was always to open their own retail shop in the city center. Their break came when Moishe Samuels invited Menil to his shop on Ribbeckstrasse to help him cut custom suits for the famed Hirschland family, a leader in Essen’s Jewish community and the world of finance. In fact, it was Isaac Hirschland, the family elder, who originally recommended the location down the road where the Neue Synagoue would subsequently be built.
After two years of working for Moishe and living in a small one-room flat above the store, Menil and Rochel arrived at the crossroads of their future. Moishe Samuels passed away after a prolonged battle with liver cancer, and Menil and Rochel acquired the business from his widow. They expanded into ready-to-wear menswear and boys clothing, with an emphasis on custom tailoring, and became the first in the area to showcase double-breasted jackets as part of their fashion line — all of which guaranteed the store’s success for years to come.
Not that there weren’t setbacks. The rising tide of German nationalism — as a response to communist rhetoric and activity — catapulted the National Socialist German Workers’ Party into power in 1933, resulting in an anti-Semitic city manifesto calling for random arrests of Jewish citizens, Jews to be fired from their jobs (regardless of their prominence), and Jewish-owned businesses to be boycotted.
Strawszinski’s Haberdashery survived an initial wave of Nazi attacks on Jewish merchants, but repeated discrimination and Nazi-sponsored decrees took its toll on Menil’s bottom-line. His customer base was slowly shrinking, his supply lines were becoming unreliable, and his shipments were being poached by corrupt officials. There were times when Menil and Rochel felt like giving up, but where could they go? Everything that was theirs was invested in the shop, and now they had a family to consider.
Berte had just turned seven — the year Hitler was elected as Chancellor — and Menil cherished her with all his being. She would pretend to help him around the shop after school — dusting the mannequins, picking up loose pins, and sweeping the floor. She was his shaina maidel12. Just last year, she had requested that he buy her a horse for her sixth birthday, and he couldn’t disappoint her. They drove to a local barn on the edge of town, and he let her pick out whichever one she wanted. Of course, Menil had already made the necessary arrangements with the farmer ahead of time, so Berte’s pick was limited, but she had to have the chestnut mare with the white face, and she named her Shaina Maidel.
Eva, on the other hand, was still in diapers at age 3, and clung to Rochel as if her life depended on it. There was no putting her down for fear of a crying storm that would only abate when she was back in Rochel’s arms. Menil and Eva had a different kind of bond. He felt he knew her heart better than anyone, even Eema. Maybe it was because they shared the same birthday. Or maybe it was because she always knew how to grab Abba’s attention when he was unhappy, and cheer him up. But oy13, the crying! Gott sei Dank14, Berte could console Eva long enough to allow Eema to light and bless the Shabbos15 candles.
It was 1938. Strawszinski’s Haberdashery had managed to survive, and even boasted a modest 15-year anniversary celebration, but now the store was being looted by a riotous mob, and the shul was burning.
Tears welled up in Eva’s eyes, and her voice quivered. “Why isn’t anybody putting out the fire? And where are we going to pray on Shabbat?”
1hurry up 2mother 3father 4synagogue 5new 6expressed pride 7prayer shawls 8praying 9The Great Synagogue 10Sabbath celebration 11dowry 12pretty girl 13Oh, my! 14fortunately 15Sabbath
Taking nothing away from Comic Con, the assembly of tailgaters along Florida Route-401 at Port Canaveral was probably one of the largest collection of early morning geeks ever recorded. It was a carnival atmosphere, with fellow space cadets gathered from around the world to witness one of science’s greatest guilty pleasures–a space launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
But this was to be no ordinary launch. This time around, the payload carried atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket has been 60 years in the making, named for Eugene N. Parker, a pioneer astrophysicist who predicted the existence of solar winds in a 1958 paper presented to an editorial panel who flatly rejected his claim.
Four years later, NASA’s Venus probe (Mariner 2) measured interplanetary energy particles that eventually vindicated Dr. Parker’s belief.
The Parker project was conceived for NASA by engineers at John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in 2005, later amounting to costs running $1.5 billion in order to investigate the nature of our star, and gain an up-close understanding of solar winds.
Originally, Leah and I were on the fence about whether we should make the 2-hour trek from St. Augustine for the launch last night. After all, we’d been burned earlier in the year when we attempted to catch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lift-off (T Minus 3 Days and Holding) during January’s Florida freeze-out.
But this time around, it was personal. Leah’s family had traveled to Florida’s Space Coast from Albuquerque last week (Tourist Attractions) with the intention of watching the Parker Solar Probe launch, only to be disappointed when the on-again-off-again mission was scrubbed for the third time on August 4, when a loose piece of foam was discovered inside the fairing. Daniel’s family was to be NASA’s guests to acknowledge SolAero’s design and fabrication of the probe’s photovoltaic assembly. Leah and I were to be tag-alongs.
Although we had no official invitation for this morning’s event, Leah and I were still determined to bear witness as a tribute to Daniel’s work. We departed at 11:30 pm, and made easy time on I-95S, cruising down the interstate to an uncertain destination. NASA had delivered a 65-minute window for the 3:33 a.m. launch, so we would pad our arrival time in anticipation of getting situated.
We knew we had arrived when we discovered a cluttered roadside collection of vehicles illegally parked along a shoreline clearing with an ersatz view of the gantry in the far distance.
The eight miles separating us from the rocket would be as close as we could get, since access to the base was restricted and blockaded by a fleet of sheriff cars.
After a couple of runs up and down the strip, I wedged the F-150 into a narrow gap of parked cars, barely touching the inside road line, but nevertheless legitimate enough to get a pass from the deputy.
I found a vacancy among the scores of tripods already populating the tall grass beside the rocky beach, and staked my claim–although I felt totally inadequate and out-classed–while surrounded by all the super-duper telephoto lenses, and suffering from an acute case of optics envy.
In preparation of the big moment, amateurs and pros alike fussed and fawned over their equipment, changing batteries, polishing lenses, accessorizing camera bodies with autodrives and cable releases, and participating in riveting discussions on ISO vs. aperture vs. shutter speed.
Yet nothing could compare to the mobile telescope for astrophotography that occupied the largest footprint of our makeshift parking lot.
Even its imaging display seemed more complicated than it had to be.
While it was impossible to compete with all the big boys and their toys, I took a practice shot after setting up, although I knew the lighting would never compare to the day for night exposure once the rocket thrusters lit up the sky.
Zoomed to the max at 600mm, the ISO set at 200, the aperture set at ƒ/8, and a 1 second exposure, my Lumix FZ300 captured this shot of the gantry 8 miles away.
I reckon that if the atmospheric conditions had been less humid, the image would have been crisper-looking.
There was nothing more to do except wait…
The 3:48 am goal had come and passed without results.
The revised launch time was pushed to 3:53 a.m. The countdown resumed at T-minus-four, and again–for some unknown reason–the launch was suspended while engineers determined the fate of the rocket.
When NASA calculated to green-light the launch at 4:28 a.m., the buzz around us was that this would finally be the moment. Nobody would dare admit aloud or to themselves that this was just another dress rehearsal.
We mostly waited in silence for the next half-hour. The sound of jumping fish in the darkness was a pleasant distraction from the drone of distant internet reporting from a fan’s elaborate sound system.
And then the moment all of us dreaded…with under one minute before the serious countdown:
“Hold, hold, hold!” announced an engineer from Launch 37 Command Center.
The rocket’s helium pressure system had tripped an alarm, taking the launch back to T-minus-four. The 65-minute launch window was quickly closing with ten minutes left, leaving insufficient time to troubleshoot the red flag and light this candle.
The mission was aborted and a collective sigh crossed the highway.
Leah and I drove back home with the sun rising over Matanzas River as we approached St. Augustine. My sole consolation was knowing that besides driving roundtrip for a still picture of a rocket strapped to a gantry in the distance, all I had to do was unmount my camera and fold up my tripod, while somebody else had to wrap up and tow away that enormous mobile telescope.
We slept until noon.
Flight officials determined that in 24 hours they would try all over again.
And when that happens, it will be without us. Instead, I’ll be watching NASA’s live stream of the launch at 3:31 a.m. from my armchair:
…if I can keep my eyes open.
P.S. The Parker Solar probe successfully launched on time: