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 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 Three

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two


Uncertainty: Chapter Three

I drove the back roads to the farm with the van’s headlights off as a general precaution. Leaders of the Jewish community had informed me earlier in the evening that the Nazis were on high alert–canvassing the roads and making hundreds of arrests across town. The last thing Rochel and I needed was for something to go wrong.

There was no reason to return to the house and the store. It wasn’t safe there anymore, and anything of value had probably been stolen, destroyed or tossed into the street. At least we managed to grab the important things, like our coats and our papers before the pogrom spread through the neighborhood like a virus.

Packed suitcases and my sewing machine from Lodz were already in the back of the van (from our last attempt), hidden under a mattress of worsted wool that my angels were now using as bedding. Glancing back at them, both girls appeared to be fast asleep. It melted my heart.

Whispering, “This is not what we planned, Rochel. This is not how we intended to protect the kinder1.”

“I know, Manny. But it’s too risky to hide them at the farm. In fact, it’s not safe anywhere in Germany, right now. We’ll have a talk with them in the morning.”

_________________________________________________

Eema pulled the barn doors apart in darkness. The van quietly coasted into the open barn, and pulled up beside the Opel. Abba shut off the engine, exited the van, and joined Eema in securing the barn doors with a heavy chain through the handles of both doors.
Eema approached the back of the van and swung open the back doors before Abba could stop her. Whispering, “Rochel, let’s not disturb them. Let the kinder shluffen2 a bissel3.”
Eema nodded. She reached inside for the picnic blanket and spread it across our curled- up bodies, up to our faces.

I tried to stifle it, but I couldn’t help but sneeze. Eva stirred for an instant, but remained asleep.

Gesundheit4!” Eema answered reflexively. She paused for a moment and sniffled, “Lang Lebn5 my beauty,” before turning away.

I watched through the windshield as they slowly walked arm-in-arm to the front of the barn with a familiar closeness, and slipped into darkness.


1children
2sleep
3a small amount
4health/ bless you
5long life

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

Uncertainty: Chapter One

For those just starting out, read the previously published post…Uncertainty: Prologue


Chapter One

Abba and Eema had a plan. They knew one day the Nazis would come for us, and we needed to be prepared when that day should arrive. So on Sundays for the past few months — when the goyim1 were at church — we would practice our escape to Venlo, where Abba kept a small storage room above a shop on Jodenstraat. We pretended to make it look like an innocent outing in the countryside, but it never seemed right to me. I couldn’t pretend how unfair it was that we should lose everything that Abba and Eema had worked so hard to achieve just because we were Jewish.

Ordinarily, Eema packed a lunch, and we’d gather inside the delivery van with our empty suitcases and drive to the farm on the edge of town where Shaina Maidel lived. While I spent a few minutes with my horse, the rest of the family moved merchandise from the van to the trunk of Abba’s Opel. Then we were on the road again. We would drive to Duisburg, and enjoy Eema’s picnic on the grassy hill overlooking the riverbank where the Ruhr flows into the Rhine. We would nosh2 on Eema’s cold chicken leftovers while watching the steamboats navigate the confluence.

Afterwards, we would cross the German border into Venlo–a small Dutch town with a small Jewish district–where Abba thought we would be safe from the Nazis. If Eva and I helped Abba carry his merchandise from the Opel to the second floor storage without complaining, he would buy us something sweet from the Kosher bakery on the ground floor.

Sunday was a good day to cross over. There was less traffic on Sundays, and fewer guards at the border crossing where we’d always have to stop and show our papers. Abba’s and Eema’s papers were different from mine and Eva’s because our nationality was German, and theirs was Polish, so it always took a little bit longer to sort things out at the checkpoint. This was the riskiest time during the trip.

Eva and I knew from Abba and Eema to be extra quiet when we got to the border so as not to attract attention. Sometimes, Eva and I would make a game of it so she wouldn’t be so frightened. We would imagine what the guard looked like standing outside the gate in his underwear, but Abba said we should take it more seriously. Of course he was right, because things didn’t go as planned in what was to be our last practice before the Kristallnacht3 pogrom shattered the night.

On this day our suitcases were packed, and we had more than the usual cargo in the trunk. When we approached the checkpoint gate, we slowly rolled past an older man laying on the ground outside his open car. He was trying to cover up and protect himself from a soldier who was beating him bloody with a rifle stock. With each jab of his rifle the soldier was yelling something obscene. Eva couldn’t help herself. She got upset and started to cry.

“Why are they doing that to the man?” she wailed.

I tried to quiet her by cradling her under the picnic blanket. “You have to keep your voice down, Eva. If you don’t, they’re going to catch us.”

But I couldn’t completely stop her from whimpering. As I peeled away the blanket, I noticed the guard glaring at me through the backseat window as we came to a stop in front of the guardhouse. Abba rolled down his window to present our papers. With every turn of the page, the guard scrutinized our identities against our pictures. When he got to Eva’s papers, he demanded to see her face, still hidden beneath the blanket.

“Show yourself!” he ordered.

Abba tried to explain. “I apologize, officer. She’s not feeling very well. We are on our way to see a doctor in Venlo about her condi…”

“Silence!” the guard interrupted. A loud gunshot rang out behind us near the old man on the ground, and I willed myself to ignore it.

The guard returned his attention to the backseat. “I said show yourself!”

All of which intensified Eva’s crying. She slowly pulled the blanket away from her face to reveal her swollen red eyes filled with tears.

The guard returned to Abba, impatiently tapping our folded papers against his gloved hand. “Juden!?” he expressed more than he asked. The guard already knew the answer to his question, having noticed the “J” on Abba’s passport before the exchange.

“Yes, officer,” confessed Abba, his voice filled with resignation.

Handing back our papers, “You will not be continuing into Nederlands,” he informed. “You will turn around and return to Essen. Do you understand?”

“Yes, officer. Thank you, officer.” Abba accepted our passports, rolled up his window, and u-turned the Opel in the direction of home. I instinctively shielded Eva’s eyes as we drove past the beaten driver who was laying perfectly still in a small pool of blood from a bullet to his head.

Usually, after returning home from Venlo, Eema would prepare dinner while Eva and I would listen to Abba’s critique of our performance during the escape drill. “You can’t be just a little bit right,” he’d say emphatically. “You have to be one hundred percent right, as if your life depended on it!”

And how do you get to one hundred percent?” Eema always quizzed from the kitchen.

“You have to learn from your mistakes,” I would state with assurance.

“Right you are!” asserted Abba. “And what do you think would happen if I always made one hoyzn4 leg longer than the other?”

Now it was Eva’s turn to answer. “We would lose all our customers, Abba, and then we’d end up in the poorhouse with the other beggars.”

It was a scary thought, but not as scary as the encounter with the guard. On that night, Abba didn’t have anything to say at all. He kept to himself, smoking his pipe and reading the paper in his favorite armchair. Eva cautiously approached him and climbed into his lap, forcing him to adjust his newspaper.

“I’m sorry, Abba. I didn’t mean to cry. It’s just that when I saw that man being hit by the soldier, I imagined that he was doing that to you.”

That evening, Abba explained that hatred towards Jews was increasing, and it was just a matter of time before the German soldiers became more aggressive. He was already aware of several instances of Jews being arrested and deported back to Poland. “Your mother and I are very worried about your welfare, so we decided that this time we were leaving Essen for good and going to stay in Nederlands. But I guess it didn’t work out that way.”

Eva locked her long arms around him and held him closely. “That’s okay, Abba. At least we’re all together.”


1non-Jews
2nibble
3“Night of Broken Glass”
4pants

Uncertainty: Prologue

Uncertainty: Prologue

The crash of shattered glass from the haberdashery shop below, and the chorus of discordant shrieks that followed was enough to drive Eva into Berte’s bed. With the covers pulled over their heads, the two sisters — almost four years apart — huddled together in darkness, listening in silence to a din of destruction coming from the street outside their bedroom window.

At once, the printed ponies on the quilt came to life from the flickering light that shone through the fabric that momentarily managed to insulate them from the unknown and the unthinkable, and they delighted in the illusion until Eema barged in and broke the spell.

“Mach schnell1, girls!” she commanded, the urgency quaking in her voice, “Grab a sweater and your dress coats. We have to move quickly. It’s not safe here.”

“Where are we going, Eema2?” asked Berte, peering out from under the blankets, but Eema was already out the door screaming something inaudible to Abba3 down the hall.

“Look Bertie!” Eva was tugging on Berte’s pajamas from behind.

“Not now, Eva! We have to listen to Eema.”

“But Bertie, the shul’s4 on fire!”

They ran to the window looking out from Ribbeckstrasse — their attention drawn to the commotion across the street.

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

Flames were darting through the top floor windows while white smoke billowed from the stone arches surrounding the facade. People gathered to gaze at the spectacle — as if in a trance — but nobody lent a hand to douse the blaze.

The Neue5 Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews in town. The imposing freestanding stone monument with four striking copper cupolas was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs,

Neue Synagogue (2)
Neue Synagogue, Essen (Ruhr Museum)

and considered to be one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time. Built to accommodate 1,400 worshipers, Bertha often kvelled6 at the size of the sanctuary. She marveled at the symmetry of the polished organ pipes above the altar, and how its acoustics would carry her from her seat beside Eema in the women’s gallery to the soaring dome high above her — as distant as the sky — where she could still hear the whispers of the men cloaked in talllit7 who were davening8 on the floor below.

INTERIOR (2)
Neue Synagogue interior, Beth Hatefutsoth Photo Archive

Eema also adored the Neue Synagogue, although she claimed that Piotrkow’s Wielka Synagogue9 outside Lodz easily rivaled its beauty and immensity.

Wielka Synagogue (2)
Great Synagogue, Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland

It was there, at the August Oneg Shabbat10of-the-month social, that Eema first met Abba. The year was 1914, and Menil Strawszinski and Rochel Kolski were teenagers at the time. As the daughter and son of textile workers, their families thought Menil the perfect button to Rochel’s bow, and arranged a meeting for them at the Great Synagogue that night. However, they found themselves in the midst of a regional struggle for Lodz, with Nicholas II and Wilhelm II threatening the peace.

During the Oneg celebration, a gang of Russian Imperial soldiers entered the synagogue under the guise of conducting a mission to uncover the whereabouts of a hidden telephone with a direct link to the German command. Unable to substantiate their claim, the soldiers ransacked the room and roughed up several of the members who dared to interfere with their “investigation”. Menil’s pride was wounded, but most of all, his bruises and bloody nose were a reminder of the capricious violence that surrounded them.

Turmoil in Lodz continued under German occupation from 1915 until the end of the war, when the Polish state was re-established on November 11, 1918 and Poland’s independence was restored. But peace was ephemeral. Soon after, military conflict resumed when Polish armies pushed hard against Ukraine’s eastern borders — intended as a bulwark against future encroachment by the Soviets, who viewed Poland as a pathway to sowing seeds of communism in vulnerable post-war Germany.

On New Year’s Day, 1919, Menil turned 21, and two months later became eligible for compulsory conscription when the Sejm of the Republic of Poland enacted the Provisional Statute on Mandatory Military Service for all male citizens. With anti-Semitism flourishing through the ranks of the armed forces, and an uncertain future awaiting him at the Ukrainian frontline, Menil knew what he had to do. With their parents’ blessings, and a modest nadn11 of a sewing machine and seven bolts of wool fabric from the Kolski’s, Menil and Rochel were married in a quiet ceremony, and boarded a train to Essen, where a second cousin, once removed could offer them a fresh start.

Menil and Rochel’s migration to North Rhine-Westphalia was typical of thousands of other Jewish Poles who fled a fragile and defeated Eastern European landscape, hastened by the political instability and famine created by The Great War and the Russian Revolution.

Breadline in Piotrkow (2)
Breadline in Piotrkow

They arrived in Essen — under an opportunistic umbrella of social acceptance and religious tolerance — eager to capitalize on a climate of post-war possibilities, with hopeful prospects of putting down roots. Living by Jewish tenets of hard work and the value of education, coupled with their Christian neighbors’ encouragement and cooperation, the Jews of Essen seamlessly assimilated into a world of German mercantilism, and became an accepted part of Germany’s middle class.

At first, Menil worked two years for his second cousin as a pattern cutter and a tailor, while Rochel helped with the books and ordered the notions, but their dream was always to open their own retail shop in the city center. Their break came when Moishe Samuels invited Menil to his shop on Ribbeckstrasse to help him cut custom suits for the famed Hirschland family, a leader in Essen’s Jewish community and the world of finance. In fact, it was Isaac Hirschland, the family elder, who originally recommended the location down the road where the Neue Synagoue would subsequently be built.

After two years of working for Moishe and living in a small one-room flat above the store, Menil and Rochel arrived at the crossroads of their future. Moishe Samuels passed away after a prolonged battle with liver cancer, and Menil and Rochel acquired the business from his widow. They expanded into ready-to-wear menswear and boys clothing, with an emphasis on custom tailoring, and became the first in the area to showcase double-breasted jackets as part of their fashion line — all of which guaranteed the store’s success for years to come.

Not that there weren’t setbacks. The rising tide of German nationalism — as a response to communist rhetoric and activity — catapulted the National Socialist German Workers’ Party into power in 1933, resulting in an anti-Semitic city manifesto calling for random arrests of Jewish citizens, Jews to be fired from their jobs (regardless of their prominence), and Jewish-owned businesses to be boycotted.

München, Hitler bei Einweihung
Hitler and NSDAP-Reichsschatzmeisters Franz Xaver Schwarz, Hauptarchiv der NSDAP (Bild 119)

Strawszinski’s Haberdashery survived an initial wave of Nazi attacks on Jewish merchants, but repeated discrimination and Nazi-sponsored decrees took its toll on Menil’s bottom-line. His customer base was slowly shrinking, his supply lines were becoming unreliable, and his shipments were being poached by corrupt officials. There were times when Menil and Rochel felt like giving up, but where could they go? Everything that was theirs was invested in the shop, and now they had a family to consider.

Berte had just turned seven — the year Hitler was elected as Chancellor — and Menil cherished her with all his being. She would pretend to help him around the shop after school — dusting the mannequins, picking up loose pins, and sweeping the floor. She was his shaina maidel12Just last year, she had requested that he buy her a horse for her sixth birthday, and he couldn’t disappoint her. They drove to a local barn on the edge of town, and he let her pick out whichever one she wanted. Of course, Menil had already made the necessary arrangements with the farmer ahead of time, so Berte’s pick was limited, but she had to have the chestnut mare with the white face, and she named her Shaina Maidel.

Eva, on the other hand, was still in diapers at age 3, and clung to Rochel as if her life depended on it. There was no putting her down for fear of a crying storm that would only abate when she was back in Rochel’s arms. Menil and Eva had a different kind of bond. He felt he knew her heart better than anyone, even Eema. Maybe it was because they shared the same birthday. Or maybe it was because she always knew how to grab Abba’s attention when he was unhappy, and cheer him up. But oy13the crying! Gott sei Dank14, Berte could console Eva long enough to allow Eema to light and bless the Shabbos15 candles.

It was 1938. Strawszinski’s Haberdashery had managed to survive, and even boasted a modest 15-year anniversary celebration, but now the store was being looted by a riotous mob, and the shul was burning.

Tears welled up in Eva’s eyes, and her voice quivered. “Why isn’t anybody putting out the fire? And where are we going to pray on Shabbat?”


1hurry up
2mother
3father
4synagogue
5new
6expressed pride
7prayer shawls
8praying
9The Great Synagogue
10Sabbath celebration
11dowry
12pretty girl
13Oh, my!
14fortunately
15Sabbath

 

 

 

 

L’Chaim

A second pass through historic Savannah on our way north left us with a day to cover a small part of the city left unseen from our last visit. Previously, Leah and I had budgeted two days in Savannah–between Thanksgiving and Christmas–as we ever-so-slowly slipped into our winter’s hibernation in Florida. Additionally, our obligation to celebrate Dad’s 93rd birthday in West Palm Beach (Happy Birthday, Dad!) on December 11th didn’t leave us much wriggle room for extra time.

Nevertheless, our first visit was rewarding, with memorable stops to: Bonaventure Cemetery, a fabled 18-century burial ground;

Bacon (2)

the revival of River Street, along the Savannah River;

Georgia Queen (3)

neighboring City Market, an 18th-century open-air marketplace;

unintended consequences (2)

Forsyth Park, with its famous oak-lined pathway…

Forsyth Park

leading to legendary Forsyth Park Fountain;

Forsyth Park Fountain

and finishing at the landmark Gothic-Revival Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, the centerpiece of the historic district.

St. John exterior

But Savannah’s geo-positioning (part of the I-95 corridor) made it an easy transition point for routing our return home, and a welcoming destination for a second helping of Southern hospitality…and of course, we were not disappointed.

“So, we have another day here,” announced Leah. “How would you like to spend it?”

“You’re probably gonna laugh,” I stated seriously, “but just like Charlotte, there’s lots of Jewish heritage in Savannah, and there’s a historic congregation in the historic district we could check out.”

“But it’s Saturday, so there’s no way we’re getting in during the Sabbath,” she forewarned, so the best you could expect is an outside picture of the building.”

“Unless we attend services.” I added. “C’mon, it’ll be spiritually enlightening, and you can pray we made the right choice by relocating to St. Augustine.”

We arrived at Congregation Mikve Israel, walked past a uniformed police officer, and through the anointed doors…

doors

where we were met by welcoming ushers who immediately apologized for the temple’s appearance, and offered us a program outlining Catherine’s Bat Mitzvah. We were twice surprised.

Ordinarily, we would have taken a seat at the back of the temple making it easy to leave at our earliest convenience, but it seems that God had other plans for us.

We crossed a chuppah of scaffolding shrouding one-half of the sanctuary’s neo-Gothic architecture, and placing the back rows of the pews off-limits.

scaffolding

Instead, we took a seat closer to the altar among other congregants, while feeling somewhat out of place.

Bimah and Ark

We opened our siddurim to the selected text announced by Rabbi Haas, and subsequently followed the service to its conclusion, as it was meticulously led from the bimah by Catherine.

Catherine at the ark

While chanting familiar prayers with familiar melodies, I reflected on the original forty-two Sephardim and Ashkenazim who disembarked from the William and Sarah in 1733–having sailed aboard a London vessel bound for Oglethorpe’s fledgling colony in Georgia with their precious Sefer Torah in tow–

1733 Torah (3)
1733 Torah

in search of religious freedom and a fresh start.

1737 Torah
1737 Torah

As we prepared to exit after the last refrain of Adon Olam had echoed through the hall, we were approached by an elder of the congregation who encouraged us to stay behind and enjoy lunch with the other members in celebration of Catherine’s mitzvah.

There was no way of turning down Jack’s invitation. He wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. We feasted on lemon chicken, orzo with roasted vegetables, artisan lettuce with dressing, mixed fruit salad, and challah. The company at our table was as delightful and fulfilling as the meal.

During dessert…

cake

we lamented over a missed opportunity to learn more about Mikve Israel’s storied history, given that tours only occur on weekdays. However, a temple docent–conveniently seated at our table–volunteered to escort us to the second floor for a personal inspection of museum exhibits…

 

Wall of Presidents

GW decree
“… May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land – whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation – still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”

Ford's visit

A Colonial Congregation (2)

Historic Preservation (2)

Building for a Congregation (2)

and museum artifacts…

artifacts1

artifacts2

artifacts3

As serendipitous as this adventure was, I knew as I descended the stairs…

window and stairs

that I was meant to tell the story of Mikve Israel’s descendants: about their unwavering regard for their American Revolutionary roots, their continuing crusade for community; and their unconditional code of acceptance and inclusion.

Leah and I were invited to return and sample real Southern Jewish hospitality the next time we pass through Savannah, and I think that’s an invitation that I can easily accept, regardless of the obstacles.

scaffolding1 (2)