Searching for Closure, Part 3

The Neue Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs, and was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews around town. With its four striking copper cupolas,

Neue Synagogue (2)

it was considered one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time.

women's gallery interior

Twenty-five years later, the synagogue burned at the hands of Nazis on the eve of Kristallnacht, while onlookers could only watch in horror and dismay.

Essen Synagogue (2)
Neue Synagogue burning, Photo Archive Ruhr Museum (photographer unknown)

Fire engines stood guard as a precaution in case adjacent buildings should accidentally catch fire while the synagogue continued to burn.

Although the synagogue’s interior was plundered, vandalized and badly scarred by fire,

burned interior
and intense Allied bombing scored direct hits on the Krupp artillery and munitions factory nearby,

Krupp plant bombed (2)
Repairing Tracks at Krupps Plant, Essen, Germany, 1945. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

the exterior of the synagogue miraculously survived against a backdrop of rubble.

after the bombing (2)

My mother’s family worshipped at the Neue Synagogue from the time her parents settled in Essen in 1919. One of her earliest memories was sitting in the chapel listening to her father chant the Sabbath prayers from the bimah.

By 1988, the synagogue had been restored to its original splendor, and to the world, represented a shining memorial of the German resistance.

Torah Ark (2)

In August, 1999, despite my mother’s solemn vow to never return to Germany, her views were softened by Essen City Council’s olive branch of restitution, and she accepted their invitation to once again visit the synagogue she loved, and reflect on her upbringing.
Twenty years later, Essen City Council officially decreed the Alte Synagogue as a “House of Jewish Culture.”
permanent exhibit.pngFollowing my visit to Bergen-Belsen, I met with Martina Strehlen, the Deputy Head of Research Collections of the Old Synagogue to experience this cultural landmark, the origin of my mother’s Jewish roots, and to review specific archival materials. Martina clearly recalled my mother’s visit 20 years ago, and eagerly shared copies of artifacts she had donated to the research center’s collection.

Grandma Rose
Rose Straws, my grandmother
Mnil admission to Westerbork
Proof of Registration for Menil Strawzinski

Afterwards, I stood in the warm sun for a time and marveled at the significance of the Old Synagogue sharing a courtyard with the Church of Peace.

jewish-and-catholic.jpg

I was nearing the end of my journey, but there was one last deed to fulfill. Before returning my rental car to Amsterdam, I would first stop at the Jewish Cemetery of Diemen, located just outside Amsterdam’s city limits, and search for my grandfather’s grave.

Records indicate that Mnil Strawczynski was cremated on September 5, 1943, and his remains were transferred to Field U–a remote and overgrown plot of closely stacked headstones memorializing the 400 urns from Westerbork Transit Camp during Nazi occupation.

Field U

Walking the cemetary alone against a gray souless sky, I felt a odd closeness to someone I had never met, but had come to know through scattered remnants of research.

cemetary stones

But I was no closer to the closure I was seeking.

cracked and falling

With each stone unturned, a mountain of questions have been unearthed,

damp grass and stones

yet the answers are as obscure as the inscriptions on these markers.

field of stones

Searching for Closure, Part 2

I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow it. I still had to reckon with Germany, and Bergen-Belsen was my first test. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive time, but then again, Google never consulted me about driving on the Autobahn.
I rented a SEAT Leon–a car I knew nothing about–but was assured by the agent that, “SEAT Leon is a useful car to get from point A to point B.”
“Never heard of it before. What kind of car is it…compared to more popular carmakers?” I asked.
“Think of it as a sportier Spanish version of a VW Golf,” he informed.
OK, I thought. That ought to do, and it seemed so appropriate considering how close the concentration camp is to Wolfsburg, home of the VW factory and largest automobile plant in the world.
For a third of the way, I had to watch my speed, before crossing the country border into Germany. But once A1 turned into A 30, I was off to the races.

Ordinarily, 130 kph (81 mph) is the top-posted speed limit on highways, but for many high performance vehicles, that’s akin to standing still. When clear of frequent road repairs, much of the Autobahn carries three lanes of traffic: trucks and turtles in the right lane; quasi-regulation speed in the middle lane; and Mach 1, bat-outta-hell speed in the left lane.
I waited patiently until I reached De Poppe, where I overtook a BMW 3, and throttled the accelerator as I pushed the transmission into top gear. This was life in the fast lane. When the speedometer crossed 170, I set my sights on the next middle-lane creeper, a Fiat 500. My cruising speed topped 190 and flattened.

The Fiat was coming up fast on my right. I checked my mirrors, and suddenly discovered the front end of a Mercedes-AMG GT filling my rearview and flashing its headlights. Seriously?! Within seconds of passing the Fiat?!
I stood my ground–I was committed to passing the Fiat–it was my right! Of course, my tailgater thought the same.
The roadster was so close, I could have been towing him. And now its syncopated horn was blaring. In my fantasy, it probably resembled a Grand Prix pas de deux, but in reality, it was German intimidation.
I sped past the Fiat and quickly crossed back to the middle. The Mercedes effortlessly blew by me doing no less than 240, and in a blink of an eye, my nemesis was beyond my driving horizon. Thereafter, I occasionally found my way back to the rocket lane, but I was content to run, where others were meant to fly.
Nevertheless, I managed to shave a half-hour off my run time as I took my exit. The scenery turned verdant green as I shot down the lonely country lane. Trees were filling in, crops were sprouting, and accents of color from wild flowers popped against a cloudless sky.
I was racing to Bergen-Belsen–not knowing what to expect–but once I sensed the immediacy of my arrival, I purposely down-shifted my anxiety to regain control of my emotions. I sat in the parking lot for a minute with the engine idling, thinking about the history of this place and its connection to my family, and the untold suffering and misery caused to so many others, that I wept. It wasn’t a long cry, but long enough to strengthen my resolve.
I entered the facility, where I met Simone, who sat behind the desk of the documentation center…
Simone at the entrance
and I restated my purpose. She took my grandmother’s name and cross-checked it against the memorial registry. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 people died of starvation, disease, brutality and medical sadism while interned at Bergen-Belsen. When British Allies liberated the camp on April, 15, 1945, they discovered over 60,000 prisoners, most of them sick or dying.
“You are very fortunate. Just before the Liberation, the Nazis destroyed most of their records to hide their crimes. We have records for only half the prisoners held here, but lucky for you, your grandmother’s name is on the list,” she said with excitement.
And then she presented me with twin volumes…
Books of Remembrance
and flagged the most significant page in Volume Two, which caused my heart to race.
list of names (2).jpg
Simone offered a map of the museum, and I got started on my quest.

museum map

My time was limited and I was feeling overwhelmed by the site of so many artifacts–laid out like a trail of evidence–to narrate a place in time when human beings behaved at their worst.

Standing there, I was seeing the truth stripped bare, and this sensation was getting in my way of collecting clues of my family.
exhibit hall
Square window boxes have been dropped into the cement floor, representing the found objects that archealogists have unearthed…


after the camp was incinerated by the Brits to control the spread of typhus.
camp_model
Walls of displays detail the story of the horrors within…
mission.jpg
Because of my correspondence with Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Westerbork on January 12, 1944 with 1,024 other Jews,
When a transport arrives
and was detained at the Star Camp, a subsection of the Exchange Camp…
worden.jpg
crematorium
Because Grandma Rose had value to the Nazis as a seamstress, she was most likely deployed to the SS-owned Weaving Works,
letter and records (2)
letter and records (3)
which forced women to produce items from scrap materials,
weaving-works.jpg
in addition to repairing inmate uniforms.
prisoner uniform
Although living conditions at the Star Camp were considered better than other blocks within Bergen-Belsen…
conditions
the indignity and torture was more than enough to drive many of the prisoners mad.
indignity
Nonetheless, a code of conduct ruled inside the huts, in sharp contrast to the chaos and barbarism that reigned on the outside. Having been relegated to Block 20, Grandma Rose was beholden to Jewish Elder, Joseph Weiss.
code of conduct
In time, as surrounding concentration camps closed, Bergen-Belsen saw a dramatic increase in inmates. Originally intended as a Soviet POW camp for 20,000 prisoners, the camp population swelled beyond imagination and sustainability.
prisoner numbers (3)
By April, 1945, the Third Reich learned that the Allies had broken German defenses from the west and the south as the Soviets were advancing from the east.
in-early-april-1945.jpg
On April 7, 1945, Grandma Rose was among the first to be loaded onto a cattle car initially bound for Thereisenstadt,
Trains to Westerbork (2)
but destined for the gas chambers.
map of death trains route
Of course, none of the transportees knew where they were going or what to expect on the other side of their living hell, except continuing sickness and certain death.
the ride to Farsleben
After six days of unimaginable terror on the rails, Grandma Rose’s train was liberated near the German village of Farsleben on April 15, 1945 by American soldiers from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.

liberation mother and child (2)
Courtesy of the Gross family

Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation, organized the transfer of Grandma Rose and the other 2,500 freed prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops. Grandma Rose weighed 90 pounds when she admitted to the field hospital.
I felt I had reached my capacity for absorbing the inhumanity justified by the Nazis in their quest for the “Final Solution”. I didn’t know if I could process any more of it, but there was one last exhibit inside the Film Tower that was impossible to ignore, no matter how difficult to endure.
Eventually, the museum was cleared at 5pm. As many as 10 other patrons filed through the exit and into their cars, leaving me with another couple to roam the cemetery grounds on a beautiful Spring afternoon.
1940 Bis 1945.jpg
There are no tombstones on the grounds, but there are government memorials…
oblisque.jpg
and government tributes…
Herzog plaque
and personal markers.
personal tributes.jpg
scattered among a cluster of memorial mounds…
Memorial.jpg
where the unknown remains of tens of thousands of victims share a mass grave beneath the berm.

(please be advised of extremely graphic content)

I found solace inside the House of Silence, an outlying metal and glass edifice on the edge of camp, in the midst of a grove of birch trees…
Acute angle blue
where a soaring meditation room offers space for personal reflection,
House of Silence interior
and an altar for hundreds of tokens of healing and prayer.
shrine
Bergen-Belsen is a sad place that offers little redemption beyond the nagging reminder that people have the capacity for immeasurable cruelty toward each other–as if it’s in our DNA–and this is our scar for future reference.Surely, a solemn oath from each of us to “never forget,” brings us one step closer to “never again.”
But this memorial also challenges us to check our speed. We need to slow down and be mindful of the world around us in order to listen closely for the pulse of hatred that still beats among us, lest we drive down this familiar road again, ignoring the vital signs of tolerance, freedom, and understanding.
A “Search for Closure” concludes with Part 3.

Searching for Closure, Part 1

A recent two-week trip abroad was much more than a European romp through a handful of city centers. My mission was ambitious: to gather relevant data on my mother’s ancestry that has thus far proved elusive, and reconnect with family across the Atlantic whom I haven’t seen in nearly 48 years.

My itinerary took me through the highlands of Scotland, to the canals of Holland, to the Rhineland of Germany,

travel route

with travel hubs in Edinburgh,

Sir Walter Scott Monument1 (2)

Amsterdam,

bikes2

and Essen,

Alte shul plaza (2)

before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,

Mont des Arts1

and Paris.

Luxemburg Gardens

Each stop was consequential in my quest to uncover vital research of my mother’s epic escape from Nazi Germany, and the endless road taken to reunite her broken family.

This was not an easy trip, but I could sense that during the planning stage. Yet, preparing myself for the inevitable and predictable emotional turmoil was balanced by the prospect of discovery–knowing that every step was taking me closer to connecting the dots.

Starting in the UK, I then worked my way back in time to The Netherlands, and eventually Germany–where it all began–but it was Amsterdam that proved most pivotal in my discovery and the epicenter of my travels, because it was Amsterdam that first offered safe harbor and hope for two young sisters, who until then, only had each other.

Centraal1

It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.

Jude and the Tree of Life

It so happened that a landmark exhibit of rare photographs at Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Museum coincided with our visit, and immediately became a must-see.

Exhibit cover

A large number of photos were taken by professional photographers, mostly commissioned by German authorities for use as propaganda. In addition, there were also countless amateurs who photographed the persecution and deportation of the Jews. The NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) manages by far the largest photo collection on this theme and conducted extensive research into the visual history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. Countless archives at home and abroad were consulted; this has led to the discovery of many still unknown photos.
The exhibition shows a large and representative overview of the photographic recording of the persecution of the Jews. The images show in a penetrating and confronting way, the consequences of the anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands. They bear witness to the merciless behavior of the German occupiers, the cooperation of the Dutch in the deportations, but also the help to people in hiding and to the daily Jewish life during the occupation. In addition, attention is paid to the post-war reception of the few survivors from the camps and those who returned from hiding.

First greeted with a timeline of events,

timeline

we proceeded through an open-air corridor and into a subdued chamber, where mostly elderly patrons followed a photographic progression of Holland’s involvement in the war, and its impact on the Jewish population:

exhibit intro

Experiencing the exhibit was numbing to my core, but still my senses were on high alert. What were my chances, I wondered, that of the 140,000 remaining Jews in Holland from 1940-1945, I might find a photograph of my grandmother stitching an article of clothing…

sewing room

for the Jewish Council,

Jewish Council

to match up with one of the few yarns she used to tell me when I was so much younger and unappreciative of her travails?

Perhaps, she could be the proper woman in the gray coat with the straight back walking the lane between barracks in Westerbork.

Life in Westerbork

Or might I recognize her in a crowd of 2,500 faces that was awaiting one of three “death trains” to Theresienstadt after the Nazi command realized that the Allies were only days away from liberating Bergen-Belson on April 15, 1945.

Trains to Westerbork (2)

At times, I used my camera as a shield to protect me from the full impact of the horror behind the photographs, thinking that if I could position myself as someone who is solely documenting the documents, than I could better insulate myself from the madness that she and so many others must have experienced.

An interactive Remembrance Wall occupied a room by the Museum foyer, encouraging patrons to search its ever-evolving database for the names and dates of Jewish victims who perished in Holland.

As a tribute to my unknown maternal grandfather Mnil…

Mnil

I entered his name into the query window. He never survived Westerbork, and I had a quiet moment of reflection and gratitude for his courage to save his family before himself.

A two-hour drive to Kamp Westerbork with Jude did nothing to assuage my feelings of emptiness and sadness, but the site was ironically enlightening and beautifully serene.

Once at the memorial museum, we were greeted by a train of suitcases, representing the cycle of detainees that the Dutch pushed through Westerbork over the years,

suitcase-symbolism.jpg

with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.

mural

Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,

Westerbork collage

where he eagerly shared news and theories of our grandfather’s demise and our grandmother’s salvation through a collection of registration documents.

Two miles away, the hallowed grounds of the memorial can be reached on foot or by bus. Mostly empty space and green fields for an array of radio telescopes,

radio telescopes

it nevertheless showcases a collection of iconic relics from the war that survived the Dutch government’s demolition of the camp in the 1960s.

There is a glass enclosure protecting the Commandant’s quarters;

Westerbork under Glass

an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,

Train car

where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;

boarding the train.jpg

a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…

The 102,000 Rocks

and lost their lives;

Bricks.jpg

the remnants of a barrack;

barrack-then and now.jpg

broken barracks

and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.

guard tower.jpg

I drifted from display to display, as if being involuntarily directed like a Ouija board peg–believing that I was somehow being programmed to walk in the footsteps of my grandparents.

Upon return to Amsterdam, Jude and I strolled through the Jewish District, walking past the Portuguese Synagogue, an imposing Baroque structure completed in 1675, where most certainly, our family would have prayed, but sadly, never as a family;

Portuguese Synagogue

and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,

Monument of Gratitude

where a controversial limestone edifice will soon be replaced by Daniel Libeskind’s Shoah Memorial.

From there, we strolled in search of the Burgerweeshius,

Amsterdam Museum

once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…

De-Burgerweeshuiskinderen-voor-mei-1940.-Foto-NIOD (2)
Bertie stands in the back row in front of the tree; Eva sits in the second row, third from the right

and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.

Burgerwiishaus

For one moment, I thought I could hear the faint and familiar sound of children playing in the courtyard–playing tag around the tree, and playing soccer across the herringbone pavers.

Amsterdam had much to offer. Walking through the city, I felt an eerie sense of belonging–not because of the dissonance of grief–past or present–but the resonance of a shared understanding brought about by reconnecting with my cousin, Jude and the revelation that Amsterdam’s secrets have become an open book of acknowledgement and remembrance.

The journey continues with Part 2…

Window Dressing

Peering into shop windows along the streets and canals of Amsterdam…

canal scene

…presents many an oddity that will surely arouse the senses. Although, considering Amsterdam’s predilection and distinction for legal marijuana and prostitution, it would seem unlikely that there could be any room for other surprises.

Yet oddly enough, despite the merchandising overload of everything cannabis,

containers

pot menu

and the city’s penchant for 24-hr flesh peddling,

red light secrets

there is more to Amsterdam than just kink and circumstance.

There are also plenty of museums,

Amsterdam Museum.jpg

and enough al fresco cafés and frites stores to support a cultural and gastronomical battalion.

fast food

Amsterdam is a place for eyes behind your head, because two eyes in front is not enough to sidestep all the oncoming cyclists coming from every direction,

bikers and reefer.jpg

bikes at nite

but also to catch all the head-turning outrageousness of an unrepentant town that still embraces Easter.

20190412_124910.jpg

Amsterdam is a place to relax. Heck, half the population is already stoned, and the pungent waft of weed is a strong reminder to kick back and enjoy the scenery.

canal sitters (2)

park canal.jpg

Amsterdam is a tolerant town, where all kinds of people gather and co-exist without judgement or little reservation. Citizens are proud and expressive, at times aggressive, but mostly helpful–although they smoke entirely too much, and regard the street as their personal ashtray.

Queers

As a laissez-faire society by practice and design, it appears to work. Quite simply, Amsterdam is a libertarian’s delight!

And that leaves plenty of room for rubber duckies and vaginas, and everything between.

think pink

Skullpture Park

Everyday is Halloween at Les Catacombes de Paris. But, it’s not about dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing outlandish make-up. It’s about visiting a subterranean ossuary that radiates miles in all directions beyond the 14th Arrondissement of Paris.

Taking 130 steps into the bowels of time…

spiral (2)

…and following a long and winding stoney path…

stoney foot path

…through weeping ceilings heavy with humidity,

arches

and sobering humility,

cavern turn

one reaches an imposing gateway, warning: STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH!

Empire of Death (2).jpg

Beyond the entrance exists a daunting surreality that 6 million human remains reside here, integrated into the walls of 8000 year-old limestone tunnels once quarried to build Paris into one of Europe’s brightest beacons–bringing an eerie normalization to the horror and beauty of this place, for the skulls and bones are often arranged in an unnatural state of decoration.

heart of skulls

With Parisian cemeteries overflowing their boundaries, Louis XV and Louis XVI crusaded for a ban on future burials within city limits when the insufferable stench of rotting corpses began overwhelming the community. But the Church pushed back, citing that the dominion of God’s holy spirits should never be disturbed.

Charnier_at_Saints_Innocents_Cemetery

However, in 1780, a rush of Spring rain caused a wall to collapse between a house cellar and the Holy Innocents Cemetery, causing the unsanitary contents of its burial pit to flood the house.

Skullpture (2)

Thereafter, all Parisian cemeteries were exhumed,

skull wave

and the bones were transferred into the catacombs–

skull de sac

a practice that continued until 1859.

St. Nicholas Des Champs

Yet, it’s the skullpture, first imagined by Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries during 1810 that resonates most among the catacomb’s 300,000 visitors each year.

skeletal tower

Although there is a bone to pick: roving security discourages tourists from touching sacred ruins or leaving graffiti behind,

skull cross

while a final bag check at the conclusion of the one-hour tour prevents tourists from poaching remnants.

embedded skulls

But if souvenirs are a must (and who doesn’t enjoy a small memento of their visit), the gift shop at the museum exit does a brisk business–

painted skulls (2)

bringing renewed life to the term “head shop”.

terminator heads.jpg

High on a Hill

High up on Hill Street overlooking Glasgow’s valley…

Glasgow skyline composite (2)stands a proper and prominent synagogue, as if telling all concerned, that the Jews of Glasgow are here to stay, and equally deserving of a splendid house of worship to celebrate Shabbat and festivals that can easily compete with a host of surrounding Anglican and Roman churches.

The Garnethill Synagogue is Scotland’s oldest, built between 1879 and 1881 with flourishes of Romanesque Revival on the outside,

shul exterior1

and Byzantine Revival architecture on the inside…

shul lobby (2)

leading to a grand sanctuary…

bimah and ark

once defined by an Orthodox tradition of seating women upstairs, apart from men who prayed downstairs.

Garnethill Synagogue panorama

But that edict has changed at Garnethill Synagogue for a different reason: there’s simply not enough of a remaining congregation to fill the seats. Men and women are now reunited downstairs, but (thank God) still segregated by sitting on opposite sides, gaining entry through separate doors.

Harvey Kaplan delights in telling me the story of Jewish immigration to Scotland.

Harvey

For the past 11 years, Harvey has actively advocated for the past. He leads the charge as the director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, an adjunct to the Garnethill Synagogue, working to make Scottish Jewish heritage relevant to a shrinking Scottish Jewish community that now favors bigger Jewish population centers in Manchester and London.

His vision will soon reach fruition thanks to a grant and remodel to be finished by 2020.

SJAC lobby

I had contacted Harvey earlier in anticipation of my efforts to research of my mother’s journey as a girl through Britain during the Holocaust.

After a tour of the sanctuary, we got down to business. Harvey’s mission to preserve the nation’s Jewish identity became clearer to me as I reflected on my drive to Haddington and Polton earlier in the day.

Before my appointment, I first stopped at Whittingehame House–

Whittingehame House (3)

–one-time residence of Lord Balfour, Prime Minister, statesman,

Whit from the side

and architect of the monumental Balfour Declaration, which granted homesteading rights to Jews in Palestine after Middle Eastern maps were redrawn following WW1.

In the wake of Jewish children seeking refuge in Britain to escape the Nazi scourge, Lord Balfour’s nephew and heir, Viscount Traprain, offered his home and its extensive grounds, surrounded by twisted yew trees,

yew tree.jpg

as a farm school from 1939 to 1941 for teenaged refugees interested in making Aliyah to an Israeli kibbutz in the near future.

Sheep Meadow.jpg

I became aware of the change to the estate when I noticed an online ad (https://www.onthemarket.com/details/3579306) detailing a ground floor, 4-bedroom flat with an asking price of £1,850,000. But still, I had to see it for myself.

sign.jpg

Unfortunately, nobody was home. Perhaps, I should have made an appointment with the realtor.
Whit rear
From Haddington, I traveled to Polton, a community near Lasswade in Midlothian, in search of the Polton Farm School, the successor to Whittingehame Farm School, when Whittingehame closed its doors in September 1941.
The trip became more challenging after Google maps rejected my request, and left me hanging. I drove through several country hamlets looking for a sign (from God), and found the clue I was looking for by the side of the road.
Polton Inn
I spoke to the lassie tending bar at the Polton Inn, who admitted to being a born and bred townie who knew a wee bit of history about the area. As I spun my story, she perked up.
“You absolutely must go next door and speak to the gentleman of the house. Certainly, he would know better than anyone what became of the school, ’cause I know for certain there was a school there back in the day, for I believe the farm you’re speaking of is on the other side of our wall,” she said.
Polton Inn wall
I loved listening to her brogue, and wished I could perfect that lilting tone. “You mean I was that close?” I wondered.
“Will you come back and tell us what he said?” she asked.
If there was any doubt, the gates said it all.
Polton Farm
Unfortunately, the farmer turned me away, informing me that all the property was split up in the 1960s to make room for development. There was nothing more than that.
Harvey didn’t have very much on Polton House either, but he’s optimistic. Somewhere, he surmises, there’s an attic somewhere in Scotland filled with a treasure trove of documents and photographs that’s waiting to be discovered by the descendants of early refugees, immigrants, and freedom seekers who willed a way to make a life for themselves and their families.
And when that should happen (and it does happen), Harvey will be there with his troupe of volunteers to dutifully catalog it all in order to preserve Scotland’s Jewish identity while there is still something left to preserve.
When we parted ways, I returned to the Glasgow overview,
glasgow spires
and I realized that the sky’s the limit.

The Other Side of Cozumel, Part Dos

You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.

My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.

Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:

Holbox to the North …

Holbox tour

Holbox beach

Chaccoben to the South…

Chaccoben temple @ Costa Maya

and Tulum in between…

The Castle ruin

Tulum coastline

But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.

Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.

We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…

San Miguel stained glass (3)

that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,

San Miguel (2)

to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.

As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.

We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…

reggae beach bar

for views of the ocean,

rasta's beach club chairs1

some old-time religion,

jamaican jesus

and window shopping…

rasta's

for Mayan medalians.

masks and medalions

Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…

cozumel map

until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…

wild beach

colorful palapas,

banos (2)

backdoor boutique

and a population of lazy iguanas.

iguana king

blue iguana

iguana (2)

The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…

north zone sunset

where high above the rooflines,

door to the rooftop

I was just in time for the evening floor show.

sunset (2)

 

 

Colorful Cozumel

A display of vivid Christmas colors continues to shine brightly throughout Isla Cozumel during its holiday aftermath. But wait a Mexican minute! 

centro ornaments (2)

The holdover decorations from Christmas past are not an exception to the rule, 

holly decoration (3)

because Cozumel’s sun-drenched colors are omnipresent and everlasting, no matter what time of year,

centro square

or time of day.

carousel and clock tower

Consider the remnants of Mexico’s sacred Day of the Dead celebration that still prevail around town,

coca-cola calaca

with calacas (skeletons)…

floral bug

engaging tourists and shoppers at every turn along Avenue Rafael E. Melgar (named after one-time appointed governor of Quintana Roo)…

i scream

…with whimsical retail marketing, 

snorkel calaca

and characteristic Mayan flourishes.

tattoo calaca

Holidays aside, Cozumel colors are as transparent as the azure waters that lure destination divers,

diver' fountain (2)

or apparent as the tropical breezes that sweep through lush palms,

tropic seas (2)

and adamant as cruise ship passengers,

carnival cruiser

who return religiously…

san miguel stained glass (2)

san miguel parish

chabad

ark.jpg

to experience the culture,

villa dolores

coral mural

mayan culture mural

the hospitality,

dive shop

and the cuisine:

casa denis exterior

Culinary cognoscenti have been enjoying authentic Yucatan fare at Casa Denis since 1945.

casa denis placemat

Three generations of the Angulo family have been serving locals and international travellers alike…

casa denis kitchen

with a mi casa es tu casa sensibility,

casa denis interior

using fresh ingredients at reasonable prices.

casa denis dinner

Yet for all the expected colors surrounding this island gem…

seaweed, sand and chaises at sunset

some things are best expressed in black and white!

overfishing mural
Overfishing by Jack Fox (South Africa)

The Angry Inch

On September 5, my grandnephew Ari unwittingly followed Abraham’s footsteps and entered into a covenant with God by sacrificing his foreskin to join the Tribe. He was only eight-days-old at the time, but had he been asked and able to answer, I’m certain he would have opted out.

Leah and I travelled to a Scarsdale, NY temple for the event, where we were greeted by Bubbe Debbie, Tante Ava, and most importantly, Ari, dicked out in Bubbe’s crocheted yarmulke creation. Presently locked in a blissful sleep, Ari had little clue of his near-future fate.

greeters

All guests were expected at 11:00 am sharp, but slow arrivals dictated a slower start, which was a good thing for Tante Marilyn–who like cock-work–arrived during the overture, and ran to the restroom with a change of clothes over her arm.  

“There’s no time for that,” I called out as she sprinted by.

“Nevermind,” she answered, and she was gone.

Inside the sanctuary, Ava stood steadfast as Ari’s chaperone, cradling him on a pillow that would hopefully cushion the inevitable blow.

Ava and Ari

Despite outsiders’ cries of trauma and mutilation, the notion of circumcision has stood the test of time for four thousand years, and the ceremony of brit milah, or bris marks the ritual of welcoming the newborn male into a society that connects all Jews through thousands of generations–from Abraham to the great-grandfather…

Great grandfather

to the grandfather…

Yohays

to the father…

David2

to the son.

Ari

Ari’s mohel (rhymes with recoil), who was hired for his steady hand (and because he only works for tips), stood resolute and cocksure before the congregation,

mohel blessing

as if to reassure Ari’s anxious Mommie,

fighting back tears

that he was more than a cut above the rest.

However, after the recitation of several requisite readings,

blessings.jpg

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy command­ments, and hast given us the command con­cerning circumcision.

and blessings,

reciting the prayer

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father.

I concluded the mohel was a touch long-winded, although I never considered asking him to cut it short. 

Finally, it was showtime. The sandek–in this case, Zayde Craig,

preparation (2)

the maternal grandfather–was called upon to hold Ari’s legs, while the mohel got a grip of Ari’s equipment.

before (2)
edited to conceal

Once the clamp was affixed and the ceremonial anesthetic (Manischewitz wine) was orally introduced,

clamp1

a flick of the wrist…

clamp

left little doubt… 

after (2)
edited to conceal

that Ari was in good hands. The mohel was a consummate professional who handled himself in the long run without getting the sack.

Afterwards, the parents exhaled, although mouth-to-mouth was necessary.

Yohay kiss

In fact, grandparents, and especially Ari felt the whole affair was sensational–even though he was all petered out and it was clear that he wasn’t all there.

Schein kiss (2)

 

Uncertainty: Chapter Sixteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Sixteen

Frohe Weihnachten, Oberpräsident,” echoed Max, with a doff of his cap.

“And a Merry Christmas to you as well, Herr und Frau Köhler,” greeted Terboven, while keeping his horse on pace with the wagon as it rolled toward the Bahnhof entrance. “And what business brings you to town on such a fine morning?”

“I’m surprised you need to ask, Herr Terboven!” I asserted. “One only needs to look at this magnificent Tannenbaum on the platz as an answer to your question.”

Aha1! he exclaimed. “I have to agree with you. I too am drawn to it. It fills me with a great sense of Stoltz2 whenever I gaze upon it. In fact, it transcends its simple purpose of being a tree among trees in a forest that few would ever notice, let alone appreciate. But out here, on the platz, it becomes a sacred symbol to our Fatherland. This splendid tree personifies the strength and perfection that is Germany, and stands as a testament to the powerful bond that exists between the citizens of Germany and their love of Führer. Heil, Hitler!”

I sensed Terboven waiting for the requisite “Heil, Hitler” response, but he was met with uncomfortable indifference.

“Wouldn’t you agree, Herr Köhler?” he asked, looking miffed and wanting more than a tacit understanding. Max pulled the reins on Shaina Maidel and slowed the wagon to a full stop. Terboven circled around the wagon, and pulled his horse up beside Max.

“Forgive me, meine Oberpräsident, for having a wandering mind, but when I look upon this mighty tree, all I can see is eighty years of slow and steady growth cut down in fifteen minuten3 by your men. If I close my eyes, I am left to imagine the tree still standing in the feld. But in reality, there is a gap in the landscape that matches the hole in my heart from the sadness I feel.”

Ja, but it is a noble sacrifice for the Reich, Herr Köhler. Is it not?” baited Terboven.

“It is, Herr Terboven,” I interjected, “and I have brought my beautiful nieces–who happen to be hiding in the back of the wagon–to show them the beauty that Gott has created, and the precious gift their Onkel has given to the town.

Max turned in his seat to roust the girls under their blanket. “Are you ready for your surprise, meine darlings?” he called out.

Berte and Eva slowly revealed themselves–lifting the blanket from their huddled mass–and carefully pulled themselves up to face the Tannenbaum directly.

“There it is, girls! What do you think?” Max asked, grinning.

Onkel Max, it’s so beautiful,” gushed Berte, to the edge of exaggeration.

Wunderbar, Onkel Max! It’s the most beautiful tree I think I’ve ever seen,” Eva overstated.

Bitte, can we get a closer look, Tante Ilse?” begged Berte.

“Can we?” chimed Eva.

“Where are your manners, children?” I scolded. “How do you address this fine officer?”

Frohe Weihnachten, sir,” curtsied Berte.

Frohe Weihnachten,” mimicked Eva, clinging to Berte.

Heil, Hitler,” chirped Terboven, with a tip of his hat.

I signaled my approval. “Much better, girls,” I lauded.

“Now climb down from there,” I advised, “and be very careful not to catch a nail with your fancy new Christmas outfits.”

_________________________

My heart was racing. With everybody watching, I approached Shaina Maidel, wanting to say goodbye without arousing suspicion, but I couldn’t find the right words.

“Thank you for taking me to the Bahnhof,” I whispered.

Hauptbahnhof postcard (3)

I gently stroked her muzzle and looked into her deep brown eyes. She nuzzled against my shoulder in response, and nudged the paper sack in my hand.

“I know what you want,” I predicted. I opened the sack and withdrew an apple for her to see. “Is this what you want?” I teased.

Shaina Maidel tossed her head and whinnied. I took a bite and offered her the rest. The apple was gone in a flash, but she was back to nibble at my palm.

“You’re welcome,” I offered, and walked back to Tante Ilse. A wave goodbye to Onkel Max…

“I will wait for you on the south side of the station,” he announced,

…and the three of us walked to the Bahnhof, arm-in-arm. Gott sei Dank, our backs were turned, because I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.

_________________________

“Ride with me, Herr Köhler. I will escort you to the other side,” I offered.

Essen-Hauptbahnhof_von_Süden_um_1920 (3)

It was better for the horses to be on the other side of the Bahnhof and away from the pedestrians and automobiles that were constantly in motion on the north side. Besides, there was something that was bothering me about Max Köhler’s attitude and answers that demanded more time to assess. Perhaps, a few more questions were in order to satisfy my curiosity.

“It’s really unnecessary, Oberpräsident. There’s no need to go out of your way. I believe I’ve already taken up too much of your time,” he indicated.

Unsinn5!” I replied. “It’s no trouble, I assure you. Besides, I have an hour of time to kill before my wife and daughter return from the holiday performance under Ihre Tannenbaum6.”

“Very well…if you must,” remarked Herr Köhler.

_________________________

Children of all ages and levels of anxiety were being processed alphabetically at a long table inside the terminal staffed by Kindertransport agents. I directed Berte and Eva to the P-Q-R-S line, where a volunteer was waiting and eager to assist us.

“Family name, bitte,” she requested.

“Strawczynski, S-T-R-A-W-C-Z-Y-N-S-K-I,”provided Berte.

“Given names?” she asked.

“I’m Berte, and this is my shvester, Eva,” reported Berte.

The agent sorted through stacks of name cards with hanging string, conveniently organized in boxes under the table, until she came across the two designated for Berte and Eva.

“Are you the girl’s mother?” she asked, pursuant to releasing the name cards.

Nein. I’m the Tante,” I lied.

“Do you have travel papers for the kinder?” she inquired.

_________________________

While in transit to the south side, I attempted to manuever around a menacing squad of Hitler Youth–intentionally crossing in front of Shaina Maidel with designs on annoying her–but the moment they spotted Terboven, their behavior was beyond reproach. They quickly filed past the wagon and aligned in a perfect row with arms extended in a synchronized salute. “SIEG HEIL!”

“What a nuisance,” I spoke under my breath.

Terboven dutifully returned the salute. “What wonderful kinder we have in the service of the Reich,” he boasted to me.

“May I see your papers, Herr Köhler?…Just a formality,” explained Terboven.

“If you must,” I accepted without objection.

I rummaged inside my coat pocket until they were available, and handed them over. After a cursory examination, Terboven held them up to the light, and returned them intact.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” I asked, innocently. My response was intended as a rhetorical question, but I think it may have come across sarcastically.

“I see you have no children, Herr Köhler. Why don’t you tell me about Frau Köhler, bitte,” he directed. “And tell me when you discovered she was a Jüdin!”

_________________________

“Oh meine Gott! What are you doing here?” I couldn’t believe my eyes, I was so ecstatic. I surrounded Toni Ehrlich and Sully Greenberg with both arms. All of us came together for a group hug, but found the hanging  name cards to be an annoyance around our necks.

“You have no idea how much I missed you!” I sighed.

I sensed Eva was feeling left out of our close circle, until she spotted Sully’s shvester, Rosa in the background, and the two of them enjoyed their own special reunion.

“Where have you been?,” asked Toni. “Sully and I were so worried about you.

“It’s true,” sounded Sully. “It’s as if you and your mishpucha disappeared.”

“We did,” Eva broadcasted, still locked in Rosa’s embrace. “We were in hiding.”

“Eva! You  promised Eema that you’d never tell!” I admonished.

“But these are our friends, Bertie, and I’ll bet that we’re all traveling to Holland together,” she predicted, which spurred all of our friends to nod in agreement.

“Don’t you see, Bertie? This is Abba’s final surprise!”

_________________________

I spotted Tante immediately from her red beret, but I wasn’t sure if she could see me. She was weaving through the crowd on the platform like a ballet dancer, gracefully dodging the grown-ups who were frantically searching the long line of railcar windows for a final glimpse of the other half of their heart. We exchanged a wave when our eyes finally locked, and her face quickly changed from sad to glad.

I followed Rosa Greenberg to car number three, where the seven and eight-year-olds were sitting. At first, I thought it unfair to be sitting with the younger children, since I was almost nine, but after Bertie and I were sorted by age, and separated at boarding, I was delighted to sit with my friend, Rosa.

We found seats together by the window facing the platform, where I could see Tante standing with scattered groups of moms and dads united in their grief, and fighting to grapple with sending their children off to an uncertain future. I could also see Onkel Max in the distance. He was standing on the wagon, wildly gesturing to the officer on the horse who appeared to be pointing a gun at Shaina Maidel.

_________________________

“What are you doing? What do you want?” I implored.

Terboven’s weapon was drawn, and pointed directly at Shaina Maidel.

“I want the truth…” insisted Terboven. “…but all I get is Lügen8!

As Terboven’s anger was building, his volume increased. “I ask about Deine Frau9, and you lie. I ask about the kinder, and you lie. I ask about your allegiance to the Reich, and you lie! Lies, LIES, and more LIES! WHEN DO I GET THE TRUTH!”

“But I’ve been telling you the truth,” I cried.

_________________________

Gotteniu10! Onkel Max is in trouble,” I blurted. The steam whistle blared and the railcar lurched forward. I never heard the shot, but Shaina Maidel crashed to the ground, tipping the wagon and throwing Onkel Max off-balance, and flying through the air.

I remember screaming, but I don’t remember anything after that…

…until I woke up in Holland…

…without my coat.

The End of Part One



Part Two: Holland


1Of course!
2I see!
3pride
4minutes
5Nonsense
6your fir tree
7Jewess
8lies
9your wife

10Oh God!

Uncertainty: Chapter Fifteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Fifteen

The towering Tannenbaum on the snow-dusted platz was a magnificent specimen to behold. The balsam fir rose twenty-five meters to the heavens and stretched fifteen meters across the plaza to form a perfectly proportioned arrow. All its weighty boughs pointed upwards, carrying full and fluffy branches, making it a remarkable holiday centerpiece for the city plaza from any angle–especially the approach to the Hauptbahnhof. However, the Tannenbaum, despite its natural beauty, was infected with garish red lights and glistening Nazi ornaments from bottom to top,

Nazi ornaments

and crowned with a giant Germanic sun wheel–transforming the setting into a propaganda postcard.

Tragically, the accompanying nativity scene of baby Jesus and the Magi was replaced by a winter solstice display of heather, hay and holly, with candles arranged in the shape of a giant swastika. Boys from Hitler Youth and girls from the League formed an outside circle around the tree, serenading family, friends, and bystanders with their harmonious rendition of Exalted Night of the Clear Stars. It was a disgrace.

There was a time as a young boy, when my favorite holiday of the year was the day before Christmas. Papa always waited until the day before Christmas to cut down a tree of our own, because “the customer always comes first!” he would say. On the day before Christmas, I would wake early and wait for Papa to walk with me into the wald, although I was usually one step behind him, struggling to carry an axe as tall as me.

We would cross the empty patches of forest together in search of the perfect tree that would satisfy Mama–not too big, and not too small. If I came upon a tree that I liked, I would drop the axe and run to it. “Is this the one, Papa?” I’d ask. At which point, Papa would indicate his answer with either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”

I figured Papa to be a very particular man, because most of my early choices were often rejected. But he taught me what to look for when selecting the perfect Tannenbaum. Papa would eventually approve my pick of tree, and always gave me the first whack at it with his axe–although in the beginning, I hardly ever made a dent in the bark.

When we got the tree home, the house would smell just like a Bäckerei1, because Mama was usually in the middle of baking her special Bethmännchen2. But she always stopped whatever she was doing at the time to evaluate our selection and deliver her ruling, even though she always awarded Papa with a “thumbs up.”

Once Papa secured the tree, he could retire to his chair by the fire for a snooze, while I sipped hot cocoa and glazed the cookie tips with shokolade–deliberately managing to get my fingers as dirty as possible, just so I could lick them clean. Then it was time to string garlands of popcorn and cranberries together until my fingers were sore from being pricked so often.

An hour before dinner, Papa was usually awake, which gave our family plenty of time to trim the tree. When the last ornament was hung and the final garland was draped across the tree, it was my job–sitting astride Papa’s shoulders–to place the Star of Bethlehem atop the tree.

After enjoying Mama’s amazing Christmas dinner of roasted squabs stuffed with apples, dates and sausage, and served with giant helpings of sweet red cabbage and spaetzle3, we would attend Christmas Eve vigil at St. Lambertus, where I was an altar boy, and sang carols in the choir. And when we returned from church, Mama would serve her Christmas Stollen4 with spiced cider for dessert, and I would open presents.

But today it’s completely different–to the point where I no longer crave the need for a family tree–realizing that the sanctity and meaning of Christmas has been replaced by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. Collectively, the Aryan nation has effectively and systematically stripped Christ from Christmas. For Christ’s sake, they even rewrote the words to my favorite and most sacred Christmas hymn:

Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Only the Chancellor steadfast in fight,
Watches o’er Deutschland by day and by night,
Guiding our nation aright.
Guiding our nation aright.

“That fir may have come from one of Papa’s earliest seedlings,” I lamented to Ilse.

“If he only knew what the Nazis have done to his finest tree, he would roll over in his grave,” answered Ilse.

Heil, Hitler!” I heard from behind.

Riding horseback and approaching on my right was Oberpräsident Terboven, astride a stunning black gelding with an oversized swastika button on its bridle.

Ilse greeted him with a cautious nod. “Frohe Weihnachten5, Herr Terboven!”


1bakery
2marzipan cookies
3dumplings
4traditional fruitcake
5Merry Christmas

Uncertainty: Chapter Fourteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Fourteen

The wagon wheels traced two perfect lines in the snow as we rolled along the country road. Once the flurries had stopped, and the wind had died down, the crisp air had lost its bite, and riding in the back of the wagon with Eva became more enjoyable. Nevertheless, I was ever so grateful for the double clothes under my coat.

I thought for a minute about what Abba and Eema had sewn behind the buttons of our coats, and massaged one of them through my mittens, but felt nothing out of the ordinary, which made me wonder if anything was even there.

“How’s everyone doing back there,” Onkel Max called out.

Alles gut1,” I answered back.

“I have to pishn2, Onkel Max,” shouted Eva.

“Really Pony? We haven’t been on the road for more than fifteen minutes,” I asserted.

“But the ride is bumpy and my insides are nervous, Bertie.”

“Is it an emergency?” I asked.

“That’s a silly question,” she shot back.

“We have to stop for a minute, Onkel Max,” I yelled.

Perfekt3!” he responded. I detected the resignation in his voice.

If anybody had passed us on the road, they would have noticed a middle-aged woman standing beside a horse and wagon, holding Shaina Maidel’s red blanket in stretched out arms. But on the other side of the blanket there was Eva and me, creating two yellow circles in the snow. 

All things considered, we were back on the road in no time at all, and with plenty of time before our 10:00 a.m. departure, provided we didn’t have to stop again for Eva.

“We are approaching the town road, so it’s time to cover up,” instructed Onkel Max.

I pulled the red blanket over our bodies which magically made us invisible to the rest of the world. Occasionally, a burst of sunlight would bounce around inside our igloo world, washing Eva’s face with streaks of red light, and then she’d turn invisible again.

“Are you nervous, Bertie?” asked Eva.

“About what, Pony?” I considered.

“About taking care of me,” she answered. I thought I saw a glint of her sly smile.

“Should I be?” I was getting nervous.

“Well, Abba thinks I’m a handful,” she boasted.

“For me, it all depends on what’s inside your hand,” I suggested. “For instance, if your hand is filled with dirt and worms, then I guess I’m a bissel nervous. But if your hand is filled with shokolad4 and raisins, then there’s nothing to be nervous about.”

“What if my hand was filled with shokolad worms?”

“That’s a silly example. Who doesn’t like shokolad worms?”

Eva cracked up and so did I. I think that being outdoors for the first time in a month probably made us a bit giddy.

“I can hear you from out here,” shouted Tante Ilse. “You will need to keep your voices down since we’re approaching der platzin eine Minute6.

“Okay, Tante Ilse!” shouted Eva.

I shook her leg to get her attention. “Remember. You’re a handful of shokolad.”

“And now it’s all melted and gooey,” she claimed, and mimed a hand smear on my coat.

“Not another word!” I hissed with an edge.

“Okay. I’ll stop.” she said abruptly.

After another flash of light under the blanket, I caught a flash of Eva zipping her lips.


1All good, just fine
2pee
3perfect

4chocolate
5square
6one minute

Uncertainty: Chapter Thirteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve


Uncertainty: Chapter Thirteen

On this white and wintery Christmas morning, Eema helped us dress for our journey by layering two of everything under our dress coats, including underwear. Eema was very specific about what to take with us. “No suitcases,” she cautioned. “It’s got to look like a day trip.”

We could each carry a small rucksack, but only if everything inside was approved by Eema. I packed a nightshirt, some toiletries, my new hairbrush, and Abba’s siddur. Eva also packed a nightshirt and toiletries, but inside her bag was a copy of “Emil and the Detectives,” and a new sketchbook with a fancy box of color pencils that Tante Ilse and Onkel Max gave her for her birthday.

“Be mindful of your coats, girls, because they are special,” warned Eema. “Your Papa and I sewed something very valuable into the lining behind every button in case of an emergency. So make sure you are wearing them at all times until you get past the Nazis.”

Abba continued the appeal, now looking directly at me. “And when you arrive in Holland, and finally meet the authorities in charge of your welfare, you will offer them two of the buttons to help pay for your living expenses. Farshteyn1?”

Farshtanen2!” I announced, and Eva saluted.

Gutt3! Now come give your Papa a hug until next time,” invited Abba, with opens arms.

Eva was drawn in like a powerful magnet. “But aren’t you taking us to the Bahnhof?” Eva asked during her embrace.

Abba kneeled to Eva’s level. “Sadly, there’s no room in the wagon for Mutti and me, so Onkel Max and Tante Ilse will ride in the front; you will hide in the back with Berte; and Shaina Maidel will carry the wagon to Hauptbahnhof,” outlined Abba.

“But who is going to take care of us?” asked Eva.

I was wondering the same thing, but I was too hesitant to ask.

“A representative from the Red Cross or a Jewish Services volunteer is certain to meet you in Arnhem when you arrive at the Bahnhof,” he asserted with confidence.

“But how will we ever find you in Holland?” she persisted.

Oy gevalt! So many questions again! You’re such a nudnik5! Leave that to us. We will find you…I promise, one hundred percent. Now say goodbye to your Mamelah4.”

Eva pecked at Abba’s cheek. “I love you, and thank you for all of my early birthday surprises” she said with a squeeze.

“I love you too, my Pony,” sighed Abba.

“Look at my girls…so sheyne6 and so grown up,” gushed Eema, her hands clutching Abba’s handkerchief tightly to her chest. She was an open vessel for Eva’s embrace after Abba released her from his bear hug.

Then it was my turn to say goodbye. I didn’t think it was going to be so hard, but it was.

“I’m going to miss you more than you will ever know,” he whispered in my arms.

“Me too, Tatti,” I whispered, fighting back tears.

We lingered in our embrace. “I know it’s not fair what I’m asking, but I’m depending on you to protect your shvester,” he requested.

“I will, Abba. I promise, one hundred percent!”


1Understand?
2Understood!
3Good
4Mother dear
5pest

6pretty

Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve

Uncertainty: Chapter 11


Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve

I gently guided Eva into the kitchen. “Promise to keep your eyes closed tight until I tell you,” I warned.

“Oh, Bertie! Can’t I peak just a little bit?” she contemplated.

“Absolutely not! And ruin your…”

“!!! SURPRISE !!!” in our loudest voices.

______________________________

I opened my eyes and I couldn’t believe it! Everyone was standing around, and there was a birthday cake in the middle of the kitchen table for me.

“Make a wish!” everyone yelled out together.

I closed my eyes and immediately wished for the Nazis to go away and leave us alone. The ten candles were no match for my powerful lungs. I wound up, and took in a deep breath, and blew so hard across the cake that a couple of the candles fell over and melted some of the chocolate icing.

“!!! APPLAUSE !!!”

“It was a pretty good performance, so perhaps that will help make my wish come true,” I told myself.

My family broke out in song, with an enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday, which Bertie turned into an audition for the Berlin State Opera.

“This is amazing,” I announced, “but it’s not really my birthday. It’s not for another week.”

“That’s true, Pony…,” answered Berte.

(Sometimes Bertie called me Pony, after Emil’s little cousin, because when I was little, Abba and Eema often took turns reading “Emil and the Detectives” to me.)

“…but everybody here agreed to celebrate your birthday early,” she finished, and then she turned to Abba for guidance.

“But why, Abba? We always celebrate our birthday together!” I asked.

He stepped up to me, took my hands in his and crouched down to meet my eyes.

“Were you suprised?” he asked, and I answered with a nod.

Fantastish1! And I have an even bigger surprise for you tomorrow. Do you want to open your presents now?” he coached.

“Menil! Is that all you have to say to Eva?” teased Eema.

“But I promised not to give away the big surprise until tomorrow.” pleaded Abba. 

“Is there something you can tell her without giving away the surprise?” bargained Eema.

“Please Abba. Give me one clue, like Emil and the Detectives.” I begged.

Okay. But you can’t ask for more clues. Agreed?” he brokered, and we did a pinky swear on it.

“So, here’s your clue,” he continued, “You and Bertie are going on a special adventure tomorrow, and to prepare for your adventure, your mother and I have some special gifts for both of you. Would you like to see your presents now?”

I wrapped my arms around his neck to thank him, but then I remembered, “Abba, you never answered my question,” I told him in his ear.

“And what question was that, meyn lib2?” he wondered.

“Why are we celebrating my birthday one week early?” I wanted to know.

“No, siree! We did a pinky swear. Not another word from me,” he said abruptly.

Eema squatted behind Abba to meet my eyes. “Your Tattiand I believe it’s not safe in Germany anymore, so we made arrangements for you and Berte to take the train to Arnhem in the morning while it’s still possible.”

“Is it because of what happened on Hanukkah?” I guessed.

“Ah gezunt ahf dein kup4I’m so proud of you.” praised Eema, and she kissed the top of my head.

I tried to smile, but I could feel the tears building up inside me, and then I heard my voice quivering, “Why can’t all of us go together?”

“We already tried that, Pony. Remember?” she Bertie prompted.

I composed myself. If I was turning nine, then I needed to act like a grown-up. “What kind of arrangements, Eema?” I sniffled.

“There goes the surprise,” lamented Abba.

Eema pretend-cried to get my attention. She reached between Abba and me, and pulled a handkerchief out of his breast pocket to pretend-dab her eyes, and then she dabbed mine. That put a smile back on my face.

Tante Ilse took over the conversation. “Your Mama und Papa discovered something important called the Kindertransport5. It’s an organization that is rescuing Jewish children trapped in Germany–like you and Berte–and taking them to England for safety. But in order to participate, the parents must surrender their kinder, and also understand that legal adoption is possible in England.”

“Is that what we’re doing, Eema?” Bertie asked.

Eema slowly got to her feet by leaning on Abba for support. “I believe your Tante is right as usual–with one important exception…” Eema expressed.

“Which is?…” Bertie interjected.

“You have to promise me first!” insisted Eema.

“Promise what, Eema?” I asked, drawing the attention back to me. After all, this was supposed to be my party.

Eema’s mood suddenly turned serious.

She turned to Bertie, firmly stating, “Promise me…under no condition are you to ever separate from your sister. Do you hear me?”

“I promise,” Bertie pledged like a girl scout.

And then she turned to me, firmly stating, “Promise me…that you will listen to your shvester at all times, and you will stick to her like glue. Do you hear me?”

I gave Eema the same salute as Bertie.

Abba pulled himself up using Eema’s arm for leverage. “B’ezrat HaShem6, all of us will soon reunite in Holland,” he sighed. When he got to his feet, he lightened the mood again. “Can we open presents, now?” he called out. “And no more surprises for the day!?”


1Fantastic!
2my love
3father
4A blessing on your head
5Children transport
6God willing

Uncertainty: Chapter Eleven

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five
Uncertainty: Chapter Six
Uncertainty: Chapter Seven
Uncertainty: Chapter Eight
Uncertainty: Chapter Nine
Uncertainty: Chapter Ten


Uncertainty: Chapter Eleven

“My name is Menil, and I am a simple man, one hundred percent. There is not much to my story with the exception of three evident truths…”

“For one, I am neither German or Polish. I am ‘stateless’.”

“I earned this elusive title nearly twenty years ago after crossing into Germany to avoid conscription in the Polish Army. My decision was guided by my faith in Hashem, and grounded in my need to escape further anti-Semitic prosecution. Consequently, I forfeited my Polish citizenship, and automatically became a political refugee. While it was difficult starting out with so little in a new country with Rochel, my bride, it never deterred me from achieving my dream of building a prosperous business and raising a beautiful family. With Rochel by my side, we were unstoppable…until the Nazis decidedly interfered with our plans.”

“Another thing about me…I am neither a resident or a citizen. I am considered an ‘undesirable’ and ‘enemy of the state’.”

“I’m told by the Third Reich that my very existence is a direct threat to the government, and Hitler’s notion of Aryan perfection–along with anyone else who happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness, a homosexual, a gypsy, or a mental patient. As an ‘enemy of the state,’ I must surrender everything that I have ever worked for, and I am to be treated as a common criminal. And what are my choices for committing racial treason? Either I hide underground like a rat or face the likelihood of prison…or worse.”

“Lastly, I am no longer a tailor or a businessman. I am just a humble Jew, meyn Got.”

“When the Nazis see me, that is all they can see. After the Reichstag1 enacted the Nuremberg Laws on September 15, 1935, I became a stranger in a strange land. The Nazis could no longer see me as a man of substance or purpose. All they see is a Jew, nothing more: someone who is defined by the heritage of his parents and his parents’ parents; someone who is worthy of only ridicule and hate; and someone who is an age-old scapegoat for Hitler’s propaganda machine.”

“And what’s my take on all that I am? I ask because by looking at me, no one could ever predict these details about me. I certainly don’t appear ‘stateless’. My German is impeccable; I once owned property in the center of town; and I had the respect of the business community and the congregants who davened with me in shul.”

“No one would ever confuse me for an ‘enemy of the state’. I’m not an activist like some of the Zionists I know. I never go to meetings, and I don’t protest in the streets or sign petitions with my real name.”

“Most interestingly, I don’t particularly look Jewish. At least I don’t think so. My pale skin, green eyes, moderate nose and thinning hair makes me more likely to be mistaken for a goy. Berte, too. Her looks definitely come from my side of the family. Her blond hair and blue eyes alone have made her the envy of every Aryan parent. Eva, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. Her alluring looks come from Rochel’s side: black hair and dark mysterious eyes–the kind that draw you in.”

“Rochel has always hocked2 me that I’ve been living in denial, but there is no denying these three facts about me, one hundred percent. And regardless of how I present to the world, the Nazis have managed to remind me of ‘what’ I am on a daily basis. Of course, one needn’t look any further than my identity papers.”

“Passports are curious things. As an official travel document, it reveals our personal information: name, birthdate, country of origin, and a photograph of our likeness. To the average yutz3 or shmo4, a passport is a certified registration of identity and nationality for the primary purpose of international travel, but to a Jew, it’s meaningless and a curse. So there can be no confusion, all Jewish passports have been stamped with an identifying “J” in red letters.”

German Passport (2)

“In August ’38, the Reichstag passed the “Executive Order on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names,” which now requires Jewish men and women bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin to adopt additional names: “Israel” for men and “Sara” for women. So now, I’m officially Menil “Israel” Strawczynski. How do you like that?!”

“Naturally, all of this nonsense is beside the point, because leaving Germany by normal means of passport and visa issuance is nearly impossible following the horror of Kristallnacht. Already, most countries around the world no longer want Jewish immigrants or refugees inside their borders–which they’ve made very clear by tightening entry regulations and keeping the numbers down for people like us.”

I shrugged. “Unfortunately, it’s much too late in the day for Rochel or me to formally cross the border to Venlo, but that doesn’t mean we can’t send the kinder ahead of us…We just have to figure out a way we can all reunite on the other side.”

Shaina Maidel whinnied and shook her head. She nudged my shoulder.

“I apologize. I don’t mean to kvetch5, but you’re such a good listener!”

I picked myself up from the bale beside the stall opening, and brushed the hay from my tush6. I grabbed the lantern and an apple to feed her from a nearby bushel basket.

“You’ve been very helpful,” I offered with the treat, and she snatched it from my palm.

“Now I understand why Bertie loves you so much. Good Night, Shaina Maidel.”


1Parliament of the Third Reich
2nagged
3fool
4jerk
5complain

6buttocks

Uncertainty: Chapter Eight

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five
Uncertainty: Chapter Six
Uncertainty: Chapter Seven


Uncertainty: Chapter 8

Gottenyu!1 Hearing Ilse screaming at Terboven gave me chills, and I could feel the anger welling up inside me. But what could I do? I felt so powerless! Sitting in the finsternish, I fantasized of fifty ways of killing that farzeenish2 for what he’s done to us…but that’s not what the Torah teaches. All that I knew at that moment was I had to protect my family, and so I suffered in silence.

Truthfully, I was also paralyzed with fear, since I never had much of a taste for fighting…although there was the time I tried to defend Rochel’s honor when I first met her, and ended up with a broken nose for my troubles. But all things considered, I left Lodz to become a tailor instead of a soldier, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Danken Got!3, I have a loving froy4 and tsvey sheyn tekhter5 who bring me naches6. I tightened my embrace around Eva and Rochel, and held them close to me for strength. But Ilse was on her own. And so I prayed to Almighty that he might watch over her, and that she’d be able to take care of herself.

Thankfully, from what I overheard, Ilse managed to ward off Terboven’s initial advances…this time. But then again, Ilse is a capable woman with chutzpah7, and I’ve seen what she could do with an axe.

____________________________________

“What’s in your hand, Frau Köhler?” asked Terboven. He was beckoning with his fingers, trying to lure me closer with his gestures.

“All I have is this,” I said, indicating the menorah just beyond his reach. “It’s nothing but a Kerzenhalter.

Bring es her8! Zeig es mir9!” he ordered, and I complied with his demand.

He examined it closely and sneered. His mood turned surly. “Do you know the purpose of this?” he barked.

It was a stupid question. Of course I knew what it was, but that wasn’t any of his business. I turned away to pour my Tee.

Natürlich!” I said. “Isn’t it for holding candles?” I sassed. “Now, if you’ll kindly hand it back, I can replace the candles while there’s still some light left.”

I could feel him eyeing me suspiciously. “You’re sure you don’t know?…Or are you lying?” he insinuated.

I turned to face him, and folded my arms for emphasis. “What exactly is the nature of your interrogation, Oberpräsident?” I asked indignantly.

“Is it because I’m in possession of ein Kerzenhalter?  Sag mir10, bitte. What is the punishment these days for possessing ein Kerzenhalter?” I mocked.

“You refer to this as ein Kerzenhalter, but in reality, Frau Köhler, it’s much more than that,” he expressed, returning the menorah to the table. He uncorked the bottle of schnaps and took a long swig.

I feigned intrigue. “Really!? Well it looks like ein Kerzenhalter to me, and nothing more,” I contradicted. I gathered nine fresh candles and my tee, and moved to a seat at the table across from Terboven.

I spread the candles out, and lined them up in an orderly fashion as he spoke. “What you fail to comprehend,” he lectured, “is it’s relative importance to a particular pesky race of people. For this is no ordinary Kerzenhalter on your table, Frau Köhler. Das ist ein Jüdische Kandelaber11 known as a menorah.” 

Raising his voice, “And what is most disturbing about this Kerzenhalter, is that you are lighting it on the first night of Chanukka…just like a Jude!”

“DO YOU DENY IT?!” he charged. He took another long swig of schnaps.

I pulled the menorah close to me–looking it over with an air of nonchalance–and lit the leading candle in my pile from a vanishing flame that danced around the rim.

“And this Judischer Feiertag12 that you refer to as Chanukka…” I rolled the candle bottom under the flame until the wax softened, and fixed it atop the drippings. “…Enlighten me, bitte.”

I continued the candle replacement as Terboven explained, “Their Feiertag–which lasts for acht Tage und Nachte13–is a reminder of some miracle that they claim happened thousands of years ago when the Juden took back Jerusalem and rededicated their temple. Each night the Jude adds a new candle to the menorah until all the candles are lit on the Achte Nacht14.”

“So why are there places for nine candles, if their Feiertag lasts for eight days?” I wondered aloud.

“How should I know? Do I look like a Jew?” he exploded.

I broke out in laughter. I couldn’t help myself. It must have appeared insulting to him that I would be laughing when he was being serious, but he must have finally recognized the absurdity of his remark, and before too long he was laughing as well.

Fighting back my amusement, I managed to compose myself. I apologize for laughing, Herr Terhoven. I mean no disrespect, but your question is so ridiculous and ironic. You defend yourself while accusing me of the same crime. It’s a bit funny, don’t you agree?”

Sehr gut15, Frau Kohler, Sehr gut,” he chuckled. Terhoven took another long drink, and swiped at his mouth with his handkerchief.

“But to your point, Oberpräsident…if I was celebrating the first night of Chanukka…like the Juden…then why have I lit all eight candles on the first night?

“Aha16! You make a valid point, Frau Kühler. I can see that you are much more than a farmer’s wife. But one last question, bitte...” Now slurring his words,” How did you come by this menorah?

“Mein Ehemann found it in a trash heap, and brought it home as a gift. The Juden’s loss is our gain!

L’Chaim17!” Terboven toasted, and finished the bottle.


1Dear God!
2monster
3Thanks to God!
4wife
5two beautiful daughters
6special joy
7moxie
8Bring it here!
9Show me!
10Tell me
11Jewish candelabraewish holiday
12Jewish holiday
13eight days and nights
14eighth night
15very good
16I see!
17To Life!

Uncertainty: Chapter Seven

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five
Uncertainty: Chapter Six


Uncertainty: Chapter Seven

We should have been celebrating the Festival of Lights, but I was frozen in finsternish and fear, except for a dim, narrow beam of light that penetrated a thin space between the planks above our heads. From where I sat, I could nearly make out the shadowy forms of Abba and Eema stretched across the mattresses with Eva huddled between them.

They seemed so still and at shalom1. I so wanted to join them—to be snug in their arms while we waited for the world to return to normal—but I dared not move. I sat motionless next to the light switch, wishing I hadn’t volunteered to be so brave and responsible, and now, so far from my mishpucha.

Tante Ilse stood directly above me washing dishes–the plates and utensils clinking clanking against the sink, followed by the hypnotic rhythm of  running water whooshing through the drain pipe near my ear. But none of it could drown out the sound of my anxious heart.

I wanted to sing and dance and play dreidel2, but we were trapped beneath the kitchen with no clear connection, and no way of knowing how long before the “all clear.”

When the front door shut and footsteps clogged across the creaky floor in my direction, I thought the danger had passed…until I heard his voice and gasped.

Guten Abend, Frau Köhler,” said the Voice.

Guten Abend, Oberpräsident,” replied Tante.

He crossed the crack in the floor and extinguished all light from above.

_____________________________________

“To what do we owe this unexpected visit?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder as I finished up the last of das Geschirr3.

“Nothing of grave importance. I was in need of a Tannenbaum for the Bahnhof,” Terboven replied, “and dein Ehemannhas graciously offered to provide one, heute Abend.5” In fact, he’s in the wald with my men jetzt6, picking out the tree that we will dedicate tomorrow with ReichsführerHimmler by my side,” he proudly proclaimed.

I shut the faucet and wiped my hands on the dish towel (also intended for decorating the kitchen, and most importantly, disguising the opening under the sink). I made certain to properly rearrange the towel when I was finished with it.

Na sicher8. It’s just that I was never made aware of the appointment, and it is on the late side” I said.

“No appointment, Frau Kohler. I was in the area. I trust this is not too much of an inconvenience, but the Reich is very grateful for your cooperation,” he condescended, while seating himself at the dining table, close by the blackened menorah, it’s flickering candles burning through the last inch.

I was shaking on the inside. How could I have forgotten to replace it? I pulled myself together, pretending that nothing was awry. Calmly, I asked, “Can I put on the Kessel9 for you? Perhaps offer you some Kaffee10or Tee?”

He dabbed his nose with his hankie. “Very kind of you. Perhaps something stronger…if you have it. And you will join me, Ja11?”

I carefully weighed every move and gesture…mine and his. I needed to operate like a reliable German machine. First I grabbed the Teekessel from the stove and filled it at the tap. “Nein danke12, I’m fine with Tee,” I answered.  Second, I lit the back burner, and placed the Teekessel on the flame. Next I removed my mother’s golden candelabra from a shelf above the stove, and placed it on the opposite counter. Then I returned for the hidden bottle of schnaps, but it was just beyond my reach. 

I felt Terboven leaning into me from behind, pressing his rigid body against mine. I could feel his breath against my neck and I froze in fear.

“Allow me to assist you, Frau Kõhler,” he hummed. His right arm slid up the length of my right arm, and lingered on my outstretched fingers. I could feel his left hand spreading across my hip for balance, but I sensed that the Oberpräsident had bolder intentions. He lingered behind me for a moment longer than eternity, and I felt myself going limp.

That’s when the the Teekessel began to schrei13…and revive me…and energize me. I straightened my body and composed myself, and I yelled over the Kessel schrei, so Terboven could hear me. “HERR TERBOVEN,” I demanded, “RELEASE ME AT ONCE!

The Oberpräsident hesitated, but eventually retreated, taking one step back. I lifted the Kessel off the fire to silence the shreiend, but I never stopped screaming. “I AM A MARRIED WOMAN HOLDING A KESSEL FILLED WITH BOILING WASSER14, and I would hate to see you accidentally scalded, mein Oberpräsident.”

He carefully backed away and returned to his seat–his hand choking the neck of the schnaps.

We were at a reset.

Kommen sei15, Sitzen16!” he invited, tapping the chair beside him. “Keep me company, while Ihre Mann arbeitet17.”

I took a breath to consider. “Einen Moment18Oberpräsident! I casually reached around him and snatched the menorah from the table. “But first allow me to replace the candles in the Kerzenhalter19 before they burn out.”

Halt20!” Terboven commanded. “Nicht so schnell21!”


1peace
2spinning top
3the kitchenware
4your husband
5tonight
6presently
7Leader of the Secret Intelligence and Gestapo
8Of course
9kettle
10coffee
11Yes
12No thank you
13scream
14water
15Come
16Sit
17your husband works
18candleholder
19One moment!
20Stop!
21Not so fast!

Uncertainty: Chapter Six

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five


Uncertainty: Chapter Six

Rochel and I jumped at the sound of the knock on the door, always aware of the present danger of being discovered by the authorities. Despite devising an escape plan in case of an emergency–such as now–and practicing our safety drill several times to perfection, we knew that should the time come, our lives depended on making no mistakes. We always knew we had to perform at 100 percent.

Nur eine minute1!” shouted Max.

Berte and Eva went first. They scurried through the cabinet door and down the hole in the floor as quietly as possible. Rochel and Ilse cleared the extra telers2, gopls3 and mesers4 from the table, and handed everything down to the kinder, while I frantically checked around the kitchen for anything out of the ordinary.

The rap on the door intensified.

Ich komme5,” Max reaffirmed.

Rochel and I awkwardly scrambled under the kitchen sink into the finsternish6, while Ilsa secured the floorboards from above, and replaced the basket on top as camouflage.

Nit ein vort!”7 I whispered, and tapped three times on the boards to signal the “all clear.”

_____________________________________

With everything secure, I opened the door to find two soldiers holding flashlights and standing at attention beside a high-ranking uniformed officer in a long black coat who easily fit Menil’s description of the Torah burner.

Guten Abend, meine Herren8. How can I help you?” I inquired.

“May we come in, Herr Köhler?” asked the Officer. He was carrying a handkerchief in his hand, and wiped his nose.

“Of course.” I stepped aside, and allowed the party to cross the threshold before shutting the door.

“My name is Oberpräsident9 Josef Terboven, and I’ve come for a favor. I realize it’s past the time of your operating hours, but I’ve been quite busy handling a sensitive Jüdisch10 problem in town, so I must apologize for the inconvenience. However, I’m reminded by my staff that the Christmas holiday is nearly upon us, and we’ve yet to dress a Tannenbaum for the Hauptbahnhof 11 square…which brings me to my point for being here at this late hour. With your permission, of course, I’d very much like to procure your best tree to display at our office,” he stated.

Wunderbar12! It would be my honor, Oberpräsident,” I feigned enthusiastically. “I’d be delighted to select the perfect tree for you, and deliver it personally, morgen früh13.”

“That is totally unnecessary, Herr Köhler. I wouldn’t think of troubling you any further. Besides, my men will see to it tonight, so you needn’t bother yourself about it in the least,” stated President Terboven, emphatically. “In fact, I insist!”

“In that case, perhaps I can assist by escorting you and your men through the feld14,” I replied cautiously, “to show you the very best selection, mein Oberpräsident.”

“I accept!” he nodded, “and appreciate the offer, Herr Köhler. But you’ll excuse me if I don’t accompany you, for I would much prefer to stay out of the weather. You see, I’m nursing a nasty cold at the moment,” he indicated, and dabbed his nose with his handkerchief.

I couldn’t help but notice the “SH” branding on the cloth–realizing that it must have come from Menil’s shop.

President Terboven turned to his recruits, “Bring me a tree that is worthy of the Reich, and see to it that Herr Kohler is treated with proper respect,” he barked.

Jawohl15!” responded both soldiers in unison with a sharp salute.

“In the meantime, perhaps I can persuade Frau16 Köhler for a tasse17 of heisser Tee18 while everyone is off in the woods.”

Natürlich!19, Oberpräsident,” I acknowledged. Yet I could feel the bile rising in my throat as I offered, “Mein Haus ist dein Haus20.”


1Just a minute!
2plates
3forks
4knives
5I’m coming!
6darkness
7Not one word!
8Good Evening, gentlemen
9Senior President
9Jewish
10senior president
11Central Station
12Wonderful!
13tomorrow morning
14field
15Yessir
16Mrs.
17cup
18hot tea
19Of course!
20My house is your house

Uncertainty: Chapter Five

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four


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.


1money
2Shellenberg Castle
3largest of six Ruhr resevoirs
4fir trees
5anxiety
6Thank God!
7liquor
8silence
9Hanukkah candelabra
10helper
11lucky
12blessed
13trouble
14absolutely
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
18two
19lights
20Jewish stew of sweetened vegetables
21potato pancakes