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

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

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)

 

Swimming Upstream

It’s been one year since I featured my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s (read Happy Birthday, Dad!), and I’m pleased to report that on the day of his 94th birthday…

smiles.jpg

…he continues his fight against inevitable debility. In fact, it appears that he is more fit than the year before.

Last year, Dad’s sedentary existence and subsequent lack of stamina was draining his psyche and physical condition. It was becoming apparent that the Use-It-or-Lose-It paradigm was taking over, but fortunately, Dad’s vigilance prevailed.

There was no magic pill or panacea to persuade him. Instead, it was his will to keep moving that helped him battle his personal perfect storm–assisted by diet and exercise.

One year ago, I found myself enabling Dad’s Clean-Your-Plate appetite by repeatedly up-sizing his wardrobe to accommodate his ballooning waistline. Unbeknownst to me, the Memory Care staff had endorsed an unwritten and unspoken Snack and Dessert Proclamation:

 If a 90-year-old man wants a cookie, let him eat one.

But Dad would eat two…or more. He was growing sideways effortlessly with reckless abandon. Belts and elastic waistbands had yielded to suspenders. At 5 feet-2 inches, Dad was tipping the scales at 220 pounds, and it was impacting his ability to balance and breathe without wheezing.

And so I returned him to his love of swimming–his preferred sport for fitness. Growing up, I recalled his need to visit the “Y” religiously every Wednesday to swim laps, take a schvitz and a enjoy a rub-down to blow off the steam of life’s hard-boiled expectations.

And while there was no illusion of recapturing the pleasure of Dad’s “Y” Wednesdays or restoring Dad’s forever-lost cognitive functioning, I anticipated his muscle memory might still respond to water therapy.

I was introduced to Patrick, a licensed physical therapist who was willing to accompany Dad into the pool, and work with him twice a week. After a short period of time, the almost-immediate payoff of sounder sleep, noticeable weight loss, and increased energy and awareness supported my vision of Dad swimming every other day, three times a week.



To date, many of Dad’s vital signs continue to improve. His blood pressure has dropped. He eats less and exercises more, which has resulted in 30 pounds of weight loss in 4 months.

Radio Man

Nevertheless, Dad continues to lose ground to his dementia demons. Steady bouts of “nobody home” syndrome are occasionally interrupted by scattered moments of recognition, and immediately replaced by confusion and silence. 

Struggling for the right words almost always results in stuttering followed by resignation. Lingering name-to-face recognition has been replaced by nuanced sweetheart or honey familiarity. Prompting with closed questions works some of the time, but for the most part, Dad has sunk into an eternal state of bliss that many around him find soothing and reassuring. 

Could his passivity be a cover for his acquiescence? Maybe, but I’m not really sure if it makes a difference or even matters.

siblings (4)

Because whether Dad realizes it or not, the victory of survival is always worthy of a celebration.

Becoming My Parents

Hiking along New Jersey State and County Park trails the day after Thanksgiving made a lot of sense to Leah, who orchestrated our first return to New Jersey since moving to St. Augustine five months ago. She promised a whirlwind week and a-half of personal appointments and commitments packed with a variety of doctors, friends and family members, all laced with an emphasis on over-eating.

And so, during the course of our visit, as advertised, our food-centric itinerary always included a meal punctuated by scintillating table conversation on family history and folklore–touching on recipes, obituaries, and kin outcasts, with politics and religion occasionally creeping into the dialogue.

But mostly, everybody seemed to be preoccupied with their health. And God help the person who would innocently ask, “So, how are you feeling?” Because this question would open the floodgates for respondents to freely reassign their HIPAA proxy on the spot so they could casually discuss their current condition down to the last agonizing ache and pain, notwithstanding the severity surrounding their prognosis and course(s) of treatments, always followed by a couple of random doctor-horror stories.

It seemed like everyone had a health-related story to tell–whether it was about themselves or someone they knew–not unlike my parents and their friends, who would gather at holiday occasions to compare notes about their medication intake. It was uncanny that the of crux of nearly all of our relationships was now firmly rooted in our faded glory and eventual demise.

Any outsider, after eavesdropping on any of our sessions of non-stop kvetching might be surprised to learn that we are still breathing and have more than one day to live.

And so, it was predictably refreshing to carve out some time to clear our ears of prescription patter, and find an activity that combined friendship and calorie burning. Of course, our opportunity to hike was completely weather-dependent, considering the prior Nor’easter and the Arctic chill that had settled on the Atlantic states.

Like many Northern transplants to Florida, Leah and I had become preoccupied with weather-watching, so we might bask in the warm glow of knowing that we had finally escaped the unfriendly winters by relocating to St. Augustine. But now that we were back in Jersey, it was time to face the hard cold facts of winter; Ramapo Valley Reservation (NYNJTC_RamapoValleyCountyReservationMap-2017) was 18°F at the Reservation trailhead, and expecting to peak at 23°F by the afternoon.

MacMillan Reservoir was partially frozen and dreary…

lake (2)

with the exception of distant water reflections.

frozen reflection

Trails were camouflaged… 

blue trail (2)

by crispy fallen leaves–densely packed and slippery–despite the assortment of Skittles-colored trail blazes nailed to forest saplings.

cut logs

Brooks were running fast and high…

brook flow1 (3)

making each water-crossing challenging and hazardous.

We continued our four-hour excursion with the winds picking up across Campgaw Mountain.

panorama looking east

And it became clear to me that marching through the New Jersey woodlands was not the best birthday present I could have given myself. The cold had already taken its toll on Arlene’s arthritic fingers. Leah, who had recently succumbed to lower back pain and acute Achilles tendonitis was now complaining about her knees.

My knees were also aching from sliding down one too many slippery slopes. Even Doug, the youngest of all of us by at least eleven years had to admit that his right knee was locking up occasionally. The ladies cut their hike short, taking a quick detour to the parking lot, but Doug and I wore our intrepid hats. We continued to the feature waterfall along the Brookside Trail with few delays or complaints…

waterfall

giving us bragging rights to a 7.5 mile accomplishment,

frosty rocks

and leaving me more than ready for my true birthday present to myself: a one-hour Swedish massage at a local day spa, if only to rub my aches and pains away for another day.

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving Dinner

Beware!…
the Thanksgiving meal that takes days to prepare,
and the ease of slipping into a digestive coma
just from the aroma–
of roasted turkey, the stuffing, the cranberry relish,
and all the assortments designed to embellish.

But the moment our family sits down to feast
the hunger takes over
with no time to savor
the melange of food flavors,
and sooner than later,
there’s none left to eat.

family dinner (2)

Happy Thanksgiving!

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 Ten

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

Menil and I huddled under the blankets for warmth and held each other close. Yet we froze in fear of being discovered like two teenage lovers in the backseat of a Duesenberg automobile. We had heard a loud noise, and instinctively clung to each other in the back of the van, reacting to the present danger with the same heightened awareness as if we were hiding under Ilse Köhler’s kitchen floor. 

An hour earlier, we thought we had found the perfect spot to find some alone time…away from the kinder. But leave it to Berte to pick the same place at the same time as Menil and me. Vey iz mir!1 We lay very still and quiet on our mattress of worsted wool–eavesdropping on Berte’s confession–until I could’t bear another minute of her unhappiness, and thought I would plotz2. It broke my heart hearing Bertie pouring her heart out to Shaina Maidel.

We held our breath as she dragged her feet past the van, and we let out a collective *sigh* the moment we heard the barn doors close behind her.

Gottenyu!3 I don’t think I could have gone any longer,” I confessed to Menil.

“Me either,” he snickered. “That had to be the most uncomfortable half-hour of my life.” He took back his arm and flexed it back and forth, trying to restore some feeling.

His nervous laughter reminded me of the time he accidentally pinned Dr. Krupp’s hoyzen4 legs together while marking a cuff, and the steel scion nearly broke his neck trying to step off the tailor block.

I jabbed him playfully with my elbow. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it! Your tokhter5 is struggling, and all you can do is laugh!?”

“Of course she’s struggling. We’re all struggling, Rochel! Because none of this makes any sense!” he stated. “This is all my fault. I should have listened to my shvester6 from Pittsburgh in ’35, when she said to me, ‘Menil, it’s not getting any better. You need to get out while you still can!'”

“She begged me to leave, and I wouldn’t have any of it. She could have sponsored all of us in America, and I was an idyot7 not to listen to her.”

I tried to reassure him. “Menil, it’s not your fault. We both agreed to stay here as long as we felt safe.” I hugged him tight so he would know.

“I wanted to believe our life in Essen was a blessing, and we were deserving of it after the way we struggled in Lodz. Gott sei dank!8, we have a successful business, and a beautiful family, and we can raise our girls to honor HaShem’s9 commandments. Even with the meshugenah10 Nazis in Essen, was our life so terrible?”

“Of course not!” I declared. I ran my fingers through his thick sandy hair and kissed him deeply. When I pulled away, I noticed that his smile and his swagger had returned.

“You see! So I was right!…Back then, there was no good reason to leave all of this behind. And for what?–an uncertain future in America?” he questioned.

However, in 1937, anti-Semitism intensified in Essen. Hitler Youths were constantly marching in the streets; more Jews were being beaten and harassed for being Jewish; and more laws were enacted that discriminated against Jewish merchants, doctors, lawyers and teachers. It became obvious to me and the girls that things were getting worse, yet whenever I often brought it up to Menil, he always thought things would eventually return to normal.

I’d tell him he was living “in denial,” but he always answered back with, “I have no immediate plans of moving from Essen or Egypt.”

The final affront for me was on September 27th that year, when Mussolini and Hitler rode down the center of town in his motorcade. Thousands of cheering people lined the street and saluted “Seig Heil”11 and “Heil, Hitler.”12 

Berlin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler

I was standing at the cross walk with Berte and noticed a frail woman in a wheelchair who failed to salute the Führer13 when he passed. That’s when a marching Brownshirt broke ranks and humiliated the old woman, forcing her to raise her arm. And when she couldn’t, he forced her to support her arm with the other arm. And when all strength failed her and her arms collapsed, he beat her and her attendant to the ground with a rubber truncheon while others looked on indifferently.

Maybe that’s when Menil finally came to his senses. We planned and practiced for the eventual day when our mishpocha could start over in the Nederlands. But we missed our one chance to cross the border together when it mattered, and now we’re in the van inside the barn at the farm, waiting to come up with another solution, because the Nazis are becoming more serious with each passing day, and it scares me.

“Max and Ilse have been telling us that people we used to know around our neighborhood are quickly disappearing. Families are being arrested and deported to concentration camps, and all the Jewish-owned shops are now reopening with Swastika flags flying on the outside. I feel like our life here is over…” 

Depression took hold, and grief overcame me. I buried myself in Menil’s arms. “…after all the hard work we put into it,” I sobbed. 

Menil consoled me, stroking my arms and back with his strong and nimble hands. “It’s all going to work out, Rochel. You’ll see. Bertie’s absolutely right. There’s no going back, and there’s no future staying here any longer,” he said with a hint of resignation. “We need to find another way out of Germany, but I’m not so sure we can do it as a family.”


1Woe is me!
2overcome by strong emotion
3Dear God!

4pants
5daughter
6sister
7idiot
8Thank God!
9The Lord
10crazy
11Hail Victory
12Hail, Hitler
13Leader

Uncertainty: Chapter Nine

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

Terboven’s visit to the farm left us shaken, and forced Abba and Eema to think more clearly about our safety, and whether it was still possible to hide from the Nazis without getting caught. While I had my own opinion about the matter and tried many times to express myself, no one seemed remotely interested in what I had to say.

“To them–even though I was twelve-and-a-half–I was considered little more than a child who should be seen and not heard, which was quite a departure from the way it used to be when everything was normal.”

“‘Bertie, your Mutti and I have some important business to discuss. Could you maybe give us a bissel time alone?'” was usually Abba’s way of telling me to get lost.

“So I took my complaint to Eva, and told her that Abba and Eema were plotting our future without us, and we should have a say in it. But she wanted no part of it. All Eva wanted to do was dress her doll for tea and draw pictures of a stick family standing beside a tree in front of a house on a hill with smoke coming out the chimney.”

Abba and Eema’s dismissal, and Eva’s indifference left me feeling lonely, and I longed for my friends at home.

“I wonder what became of Toni Ehrlich and the Greenberg girls. We used to be inseparable–probably because all of us came from similar family backgrounds, and each of my friends’ parents had a similar business on Abba’s side of the street. Everyday after school, Toni and Sully Greenberg and I would walk to the other Academy down the street and wait for Rosa Greenberg and Eva’s class to dismiss.”

“Once we were all together, the five of us would walk to the Jewish business district where we dropped our books at the shop, and depending on the day of the week, we would continue to Talmud Torah1 on Monday, or gymnastics on Tuesday, or piano lessons on Wednesday.”

“But Thursdays were different. That was my alone time with Abba, when he would accompany me to ballet class, and watch me dance. On the way home, we often stopped at the music store so Abba could select an opera or symphony record to bring home and play on the phonograph, with me trying to sound it out on the piano.”

“Friday afternoons were always spent at home with Eema. Once Eva and I arrived at the haberdashery, the three of us would climb the flight of stairs at the back of the shop to our kitchen to prepare for Shabbos. Eema and I cooked together, while Eva set the table with special plates from the antique hutch in the dining room. Then we waited for Abba to close the shop at sundown so we could light the Shabbos candles together.”

“Shabbos dinner always started with chicken soup–sometimes with lokshen2 or kreplach3–followed by a roasted chicken or beef brisket served with potato kugel4. After dinner, we sat around the table listening to the radio, while Eema served her homemade babka5 for dessert. I can still remember listening to a broadcast of Otto Klemperer conducting the Italian Symphony, and Abba feeling so proud that Maestro and Mendelssohn were both Jewish.”

“However, after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, and the Nazis took over, the music of Mendelssohn, Mahler and Meyerbeer was forbidden in Germany, and replaced by Wagner and lots of anti-Semitic propaganda. Abba became so furious that one day he ripped the plug from the radio out of the wall, and stored the radio in the closet for good. We never listened to radio again, even though the Nazis taxed us every month to cover the cost of their programs.”

“From then on, we would mostly talk at the dinner table about anything, but mostly about culture and Torah, since Abba was such a frum6 man who came from an Orthodox upbringing. In fact, Abba knew the prayers so well that many times the rabbi would call upon him to lead the service and read from the Torah during Shabbos. And even though Eema and Eva had to sit upstairs with the other women–apart from the men–I got to sit downstairs in the front row and watch Abba daven on the bimah7.”

“But now, everything is upside down and twisted all around. When we first arrived at the farm, everything felt like an adventure–like being on vacation. We would hike in the woods, and scout the area for oyster mushrooms, and play hide and seek. But after a month of hiding, it’s not as much fun anymore. We don’t go to shul anymore; We don’t visit the library anymore; we don’t listen to music anymore; I don’t have my friends anymore; and WE DON’T TALK TO EACH OTHER ANYMORE!”

I must have startled Shaina Maidel with my outburst. She reared her head as I was tying the last of her braids. Or maybe she was just agreeing with me.

I stroked her ears and she immediately calmed down. 

“I don’t mean you, girl. You’re my friend, and I can always talk to you. You’re the only one who seems to listen to me.”

The light was fading in the barn, and I could feel the temperature dropping. I placed the heavy red blanket with black trim over her back, and gave her a big hug before passing the van and closing the barn doors behind me.


1Hebrew school
2noodles

3small dumplings
4soufflé
5sweet Polish coffee cake
6pious
7raised area around the Ark, where the Torah is stored

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

Uncertainty: Chapter Four

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


Uncertainty: Chapter Four

We awoke to news of Essen from Maxwell and Ilse Köhler, our country hosts who had gone to town to acquire some of the supplies Rochel and I would need for our stay at the farm. It was to be our temporary hiding place until the Gestapo’s deportation campaign subsided, and when we figured it would be safe to cross into Nederlands.

The Köhlers reported that last night’s pogrom had spilled into the morning, affecting every Jewish community across the Reich. The Gestapo was responsible for torching more than 1000 shuls throughout Germany and Austria, destroying thousands of Jewish homes and thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, arresting more than 30,000 Jews who were expedited to Nazi concentration camps, and inciting riots that left nearly 100 Jews dead in their homes and streets.

Even now, the Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, 28 kilometers north of us is still burning.

Polish Jews in particular were being heavily targeted by the Nazis as retribution for the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris days earlier by a Jewish teenager from Hannover whose parents had recently been deported back to Poland.

We all sat down to Ilse’s hearty breakfast of fresh-baked Bauernbrot1, marmalade, egg omelet with Gouda cheese, and chopped herring. We mostly ate in silence, using our meal as a last defense against discussing last night’s disturbing details. “There is to be no talking with your mouth full at the dinner table!” was a rule the girls were very familiar with, and with all of us still in shock, there was no fear of this rule being broken now. But a conversation about our future was undeniable and inescapable, and Berte and Eva were deserving of emmes2.

Then just as I was about to confess…

_________________________________________

Abba, do you have something you want to tell us?” Berte perceptively interrupted.

“There is,” Abba announced. “First of all, I want to apologize. Mutti3 and I are so sorry that your lives have been turned upside down.”

“It’s not your fault, Abba,” expressed Eva. “It’s those damn Nazis.”

“Eva! Don’t make me get the soap!” warned Eema.

“Sorry, Eema,” Eva quickly surrendered.

“You know your Tatti4 and I only want what’s best for you,” conceded Eema.

“That’s right,” Abba continued, “so Mutti and I have come to some bitter truths about our situation…and that means we will no longer be returning to our house. Your Tante5 Ilse and Onkel6 Max went by Ribbeckstrasse this morning to have a look around, and they discovered that there was nothing left of our home or the shop. So really, we have nothing to go back to.”

“But where will we go?” Eva was fighting back tears. “Are we going to the poorhouse?”

“They’re just things, my dear. I will miss them, and it is a big loss for our family, but we are lucky to be alive and be together, Gott Will7!” Eema looked up, trying to make a connection with God, but I was doubtful of an answer.

“And what about school? And what about Shabbat, which is coming tomorrow?” I interjected. I wanted everyone to know how clever I was.

“Ah gezunt ahf dein kup8,” gushed Eema.

Abba proceeded with straight talk. “For now, this is your home. We’re going to be living here with Tante Ilsa and Onkel Max for a bissel. But with some very strict rules, 100 percent,” he affirmed.

“Let me explain,” Eema interrupted–but now extremely sincere. “Your Tatti and I need to remind you that this is a secret that no one must ever know about…for any reason. Our lives depend on this. Farshteyn9?”

“Yes, Eema,” agreed Eva.

“Yes, Eema,” I agreed, and then I thanked Tante Ilse and Onkel Max for letting us stay in their house. But then I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. I had to know. I had to ask

Abba, “Does that mean I get to see Shaina Maidel every day?”

Abba grinned back, “Whever you want, my shaina maidel.”

Abba stood, clasped both hands together to form a broadcast scoop, and brought them to his lips in a grand gesture to capture everyone’s attention. “Ladies and gentleman…May I please have your attention…I have an important announcement to make…From now on…we are officially in hiding.”

After the laughter died, he paused and looked as serious as the time I fell from Shaina Maidel the first time I rode her. “And no one is to know that we are here,” he continued. Everything that we need while we are here, Tante Ilse and Onkel Max will provide for us.”

“But that’s not fair! How come Tante Ilse and Onkel Max get to go out, but we can’t?” Eva started up.

“Your Tante and Onkel are grown-ups, and they are not going to do anything that will jeopardize our well-being,” declared Eema.

“But aren’t they going to be in big trouble if they’re not hiding with us?” Eva continued.

Abba walked around the table to where Eva was sitting. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, and leaned into her ear. “Nobody’s going to get in trouble if you follow the rules, 100 percent.”

“But what if Tante and Onkel get caught in town? Then who’s going to take care of us?” she persisted.

Abba’s mood changed, and I knew for certain that Eva’s relentless curiosity had finally gotten to him, and he would explode. He straightened up and playfully formed his large hands around Eva’s neck, pretending to strangle her.

Oy gevalt10! Too many what ifs! Genug11 with the questions, Eva,” Abba geshrign12.

Eva played along. She vigorously wagged her head to and fro to imitate being choked to death. She slowly closed her eyes and abruptly went limp. Then she ever-so-slowly rolled out her tongue. We gave her a standing ovation.

Tante Ilse reached across the table and grabbed Eva’s hand. “Don’t worry your pretty head about anything. Nobody’s going to hurt us, or hurt your family. Ich verspreche13.”


1German farmer’s bread
2truth
3mommy
4daddy
5aunt
6uncle
7God willing
8blessing on your head
9understand
10Enough already!
11enough
12shrieked
13I promise

 

Uncertainty: Chapter Two

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One


Uncertainty: Chapter Two

“It’s not practice anymore,” I reminded Eva. “Remember, we need to be 100 percent!”

“I know, Bertie!”

I held her hand firmly as we wove through the growing crowd surrounding the synagogue entrance. Abba and Eema led the way, clearing a path for us, and we followed close behind.

We crossed over to the other side of the shul as a squad of brown-shirted hooligans kicked open the temple doors carrying armloads of siddurim1 that they dropped on the steps in a heap and splashed with some kind of liquid. Abba and Eema paused to watch, and we took to their sides. The Storm Troopers were followed by another man in a black shirt who held a torch aloft and lit the books on fire. A Gestapo officer in a long black coat was close behind with sacred Torah scrolls stacked to his chin.

“These are the words of Satan, and they will burn in hell just like each and every one of you Jewish scum!” he shouted. When he flung them into the fire, the gathering seemed to collectively recoil in horror from the sight of something so unholy–the text of untold generations of prayers withering in a funeral pyre of desecration.

The flames leapt high into the cool air, carrying ashen remnants past our faces and beyond, drifting above the rooftops to a heavenly resting place. People were sobbing all around us. Abba was having a whispered conversation with a local Zionist leader while Eema was clutching Abba’s arm and wiping her eyes with Abba’s handkerchief. Eva had buried her face in my coat. I knew that I hated the Nazis for what they were doing to our mishpucha2.


1Jewish prayer books
2family

Manny

On our recent travels through Southeast Florida, I had occasion to visit with my brother Ron, whose wife, Natalie had given birth to their son, Benyamin Emmanuel Uriel nearly nine months earlier. Having been on the road for just as long, our paths had yet to cross, until now.

The name was a mouthful.

“The kid will definitely need to grow up being a speller,” I thought, although according to Ron, he’s already achieved Einstein status. Apparently, Emmanuel is meant to honor the memory of our mother’s father, while Uriel honors the memory of Natalie’s father.

“So what am I supposed to call him?” I needed to know.

Ron responded,” Natalie doesn’t like the nicknames: Ben, Benny, or Benjy. So I think we’re just going to have to call him Manny!”

Okay.

As a new uncle, I eagerly anticipated my meeting with Manny, wondering how he would acclimate to new faces. But first, I had to spoil him with a new toy to also celebrate the eighth night of Hanukkah.

A quick trip to Walmart proved worthy of the challenge. We discovered a learning toy with literally all the bells and whistles.

The playset mounted onto a rolling cart with a two-tiered volume control–loud and louder.

The moment I picked it up, the toy activated with a rendition of Old McDonald Had a Farm, causing me to sing along on the way to the cashier.

“Natalie’s gonna hate you for this,” announced Leah.

“She needn’t worry. This is a toy for toddlers,” I jested.

We arrived at Ron and Natalie’s house in Aventura, Florida just as Ron was arriving home from work. As I grabbed the toy from the back seat of the truck, I inadvertently initiated Mary Had a Little Lamb without any way of shutting it off. We walked through the garage to the house, arousing three barking dogs and a quiet bunny.

“I told you that toy was a bad idea,” scoffed Leah.

“Maybe you should leave the toy in the garage for now,” advised Ron, “because I think Manny might be sleeping upstairs, and Natalie wouldn’t approve if he woke up before his naptime was over.”

We waited downstairs in silence for nearly thirty minutes, while listening to muffled, upstairs conversation between Natalie and Svetlana, her sister visiting from Atlanta. Eventually, Ron emerged down the staircase with Manny clinging to his neck, followed by Natalie and her family.

“Can I hold him?” I asked with outstretched arms.

Instantly, Manny leaned towards me, accepting my cue, and I was hooked. I presented his present, now crooning about the Farmer in the Dell, and soon nothing else mattered to him. The phone receiver that hung from the playset became the perfect drum tool to bash the toy into oblivion, with banging so loud, we could no longer hear the singing.

The toy was a “hit”.

“Don’t worry. He’ll figure the rest of it out in no time,” I predicted, “and it’s supposed to stimulate his intellectual growth.”

“I think he likes noisy toys,” Ron interjected.

I looked at Leah and smiled. My official act as an uncle had been confirmed.

Here’s to you Manny…and many years of joy and songs to follow.

Manny

 

Some Like It Hot

Down on Avery Island–in the thick of Cajun country, just up some from the Atchafalaya Delta–is a place where mosquitoes explode if they bite you. At least, that’s what they tell you on the company tour.

tabasco museum.jpg

It’s where the McIlhenney family has been making Tabasco Sauce the same way since 1868.

early years.jpg

It’s an interesting process that has much in common with fine wine or Kentucky bourbon, but doesn’t require an ID to buy it or try it. Although, some common sense should dictate how much you pour to invigorate your étouffée or gumbo.

The sauce begins with a special strain of tabasco pepper seed that sprouts in a greenhouse nursery before it’s transplanted into rich and fertile alluvial soil.

pepper plant.jpg

A graduated color stick determines the precise shade of the ripened red pepper before it’s properly picked by Peter, and crushed into a mash mixed with salt mined from the family property.

salt mine.jpg

Company coopers prepare and sanitize 60-gallon white oak barrels reinforced with forged iron bands…

barrels.jpg

where the mash is stored and sealed with crusted salt, and left to age for up to three years for the traditional heat, and between eight and ten years for the “reserve” collection. It was dizzying, just standing by the storage shed to take a photograph and inhaling the pungent aroma of fermenting peppers.

wall to wall barrels.jpg

When the mash is “ready”, it’s sent to the production floor free of peel and seeds. then combined with pure white vinegar, and monitored for three weeks before quality control personnel determine that it’s ready for the bottling plant.

add vinegar.jpg

Automation will carry out the packaging under watchful eyes at a rate of approximately 220,000 bottles per day to keep up with world-wide demand,

bottling1.jpg

and a very demanding clientele.

queen crest.jpg

It’s been 150 years since Edmund McIlhenny poured his potent pepper sauce into recycled cologne bottles, but the five generations that followed have been loyal to the original recipe, and have grown accustomed to the savory taste of success.