Uncertainty: Chapter Five
The first time I met Max Köhler, he came to the shop for two funeral suits–one for himself and one for his father, who was planting seedlings on his property at the time a heavy storm suddenly swept through the area and caused a big tree to crash down on him. He was being buried the next day in Heisinger cemetery, so the suits had to be rushed. Although Max was short on gelt1 at the time, we worked out an equitable arrangement that made my Shaina Maidel very happy on her seventh birthday.
Our friendship deepened over the years that followed, and we never hesitated to help each other or ask the other for help when it mattered. Yet I could not think of asking Max and Ilsa to risk their lives for us when the Nazis intensified their crusade against the Jews…but then, I didn’t have to. Max and Ilsa insisted on helping, and volunteered to shepherd us through our personal nightmare.
Of course, it so happens that Max comes from a long line of earth shepherds who have tilled the same twenty hectares of forest for generations. According to Max, his sliver of land was originally bestowed by a knight from the house of Broich to an ancestral squire who had saved his knight’s life in battle. Max has continued in his father’s mold, living in a 200 year-old stone farmhouse amidst a field of shrubs and trees he’s raised for commercial landscapers and residential gardeners.
Once the great reservoir was completed in ‘33, families throughout Westphalia would traditionally day-trip to the farm before Christmas, scouting here and there for their special fir tree in the forest and chop it down. Then they were off to explore the nearby castle, Schloss Shellenberg2, and finish the day with a boat ride on the Baldeneysee3.
Likewise, the farm became our escape from city life most every Sunday, but because of the Köhlers, it also became our salvation…although, the thought of Tannenbaums4 filling out in the fields was giving us shpilkes5.
The first Shabbos at the farm was a true celebration. Gott sei danke!6, we were all together and we were safe. We davened; we sang; we danced; and we passed around a bottle of shnaps7. But as we got closer to Christmas, it was impossible to know how long our luck would last. On those days we lived in fear, wondering if the Nazis would arrive one day and separate our family, while the goyim were enjoying the fresh smell of pine on their axes.
Those were the days we had to be extra careful, considering the steady flow of traffic to the area. Those were the days we went deeper into hiding. Those were the days we prayed the hardest…but not on Hanukkah! Hanukkah, was different.
Living underneath the farmhouse kitchen was never easy, but we never complained. On days when the farm was open, the four of us hunkered into a crawl space and we kept very still. Bare bulbs hung from the center floor beam, lighting a path to the end of the wall, where a hanging sheet concealed a tall metal milk can meant for doing our business. Mattresses lined the dirt floor on one side of the beam, while the other side of the floor was used for storage and seating. Usually, Eva would draw and I would read, while Abba and Eema stitched special linings into our winter coats spread across the mattresses.
We studied in silence—under the kitchen floor—until we got the “all clear” signal from Onkel Max and Tante Ilse. We listened for three taps on the floor, after which Eva and I would race to remove the false floor under the kitchen sink cabinet and collect hugs from Onkel and Tante on the other side.
We lived without contact from the outside world—except for whatever news Onkel Max or Tante Ilse brought us whenever one of them returned from town. They would alternate, going every other day for supplies, so one of them was always around should there ever be an unexpected delivery or a visitor to the farm.
“What was it like in town today?” we’d ask, the moment we emerged from hiding.
We hung on every word. One day we learned about a boy on a bike who was hit by a tram while crossing the tracks. There was also news of the grand re-opening of Karstadt Department Store after the looting. On another day, we heard that Hirshland Bank was taken over by the Nazis. And we couldn’t believe that the Nazis were taxing Jewish people for the destruction of Jewish property on what was now being called Kristallnacht.
On December 10, Onkel Max came back from town with a surprise package for us, but he wouldn’t say what it was—only that it was special and it was dirty. Eva and I took turns guessing the contents of the sack, but Onkel Max was shtum8. Eema accepted the sack and disappeared with Abba. They soon reappeared carrying a blackened hanukkiah9 with candles in all eight branches, including the shamash10.
“Yippee! It’s Hanukkah!” gasped Eva.
“But it’s only the first night, and all the candles are staged,” I objected.
“Nevermind!” We are mazldik11 and brukh12 to celebrate when so many others have nothing but tsoris13,” Eema defended.
“Tonight we celebrate for all eight days, and for all the Jews who are unable,” Abba informed.
“Can I help light the candles, Abba?” Eva asked eagerly.
“Absolut14!” agreed Eema. “Tonight, all of us light all the candles.
Eema set the candelabra on the kitchen table, and lit the shamash, holding it as she recited, “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’had’lik neir shel Chanukah. Amein15.”
“Amein,” we responded, collectively.
“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam she’asah nisim la’avoteinu bayamim haheim baziman hazeh. Amein16.”
“Amein,” we answered.
“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam shehecheyanu v’kiyimanu v’higi’anu laz’man hazeh. Amein17.”
“Amein!” we shouted.
Eema handed the shamash to Eva with instructions, “Start on the left side, mein lib. Tsvey18 leyts19, and pass the shamash to Berte.”
Eva lit two candles and passed the shamash to me. Eema instructed, “Tsvey leyts, and pass the shamash to Abba.
I did as Eema asked, and the shamash rotated from Abba to Tante Ilse to Onkel Max and back to Eema, with each one taking a turn until the hanukkiah was aglow.
Afterwards, I helped Eema and Ilse in the kitchen, and we enjoyed a delicious holiday meal of brisket, tzimmes20 and latkes21. We ate by the light of the menorah, and for one shining moment everything in the world seemed normal, until a knock on the front door.
3largest of six Ruhr resevoirs
15Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who made us holy through Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights. Amen
16Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in those ancient days at this season. Amen
17Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season. Amen
20Jewish stew of sweetened vegetables