All That We Lost and Found

Reading Vivian
February 25, 2016
Legacy with a Deadline
February 28, 2016

A historical novel about the Holocaust from the perspective of two young cousins separated during the war: their lives, their losses, but most of all their strength of spirit.

Chapter Eight: Minna

Frankfurt, Germany; November 10th, 1938

 

A dim light shone through the frilly curtains fluttering in a crisp wind when I woke up. Mami always leaves the windows open. It’s good for your health, she tells me even when I wake up with my nose frozen like an icicle and my eyelids barely opening.Mami didn’t say a word when I didn’t finish the awful, lumpy porridge. She was peering out of the window. Her  coffee sat untouched on the table.

“Mami, what are you looking at?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you waiting for someone?” I tried again.

“No,” she said shortly. “I see smoke down the block.”

I sighed. It wasn’t easy being twelve. No one told me much about anything around here.

“Goodbye, Mami.” Uncharacteristically, she didn’t respond. Lately everything she does or doesn’t do just doesn’t reflect her usual self. I suppose  I’ll have to get used to that and just hope that when Papi is back things will get back to normal. I slung my satchel over my shoulder and walked slowly to school. Our principal, Frau Bauer, was standing at the latticed iron gate in front of our school. Her face usually looks like a rubber band, stretched tightly and about to snap. She never smiles. Today she just looked old. Her black hat with the feather that we always laughed at was askew, and her eyes were at half mast. She didn’t even glower at the sight of my sagging lisle stockings.“Go home,” she said dully, to me and the other students milling around.

“School is canceled for today.”

 Nobody asked why.

“Look,” my friend Ilsa whispered. “I see smoke.”

I still didn’t see what a burning building had to do with school being canceled. Mami had also seen smoke this morning.

 “Be careful,” Frau Bauer said wearily. “Go straight home.”

She turned and walked away, her narrow shoulders hunched inside her wool jacket. A few coins jingled temptingly in my pocket and Herr Feidelberg’s bakery required only a slight detour from the customary route that I took to get home. Usually, I walked home through quiet streets lined with elegant residential buildings and an avenue of old trees that created an impressive canopy overhead. But today, I had a free day ahead of me and Frau Bauer’s command was not the kind of thing I felt like paying too much attention to. She hadn’t even explained why school was closed, so why would I take her suggestions seriously? I turned toward the shopping district just few blocks away.

As I got closer to the shops I noticed that my feet were crunching over crystalline shards of glass. Everywhere I looked there was shattered glass. The store windows were punched out of the Jewish stores lining the avenue and there were placards plastered all over the walls that screamed, “Fuhrer! Free us from the Jewish Plague!” “Revenge for vom Rath!”

The familiar blue sign reading Feidelberg’s Bakery, was cracked in two. Cream pies, babka, rolls, and apple strudel were all mixed together with broken glass and overturned shelves.  I looked around in disbelief. That’s when I noticed them. A gang of thugs armed with iron bars and hammers. They pounded with their bars on the shop windows and huge shards of glass fell to the ground, splintering into smithereens with a heartbreaking, tinkling sound. They were coming my way! I started to run, faster and faster, my heart exploding within my chest, my feet crunching over shattered glass, one step ahead of the gang.

White feathers from pillows and quilts that had been hacked apart flew aimlessly in the air. I skidded and almost fell into a sticky puddle of sweet red wine flowing from the entrance to the liquor shop. But I kept on running.

In the building next to me, eight men pushed a mahogany grand piano off a third floor balcony, and it crashed to the ground right behind me, splintering into hundreds of pieces. The fallen piano stopped the gang of hooligans in their tracks. They halted for a moment or two and started shouting hysterically at the looters on the third floor. “You almost killed us, you dummkopf! Why don’t you watch what you’re doing?”

I could barely breathe, but I kept running, my satchel hitting my hip every step of the way. “Just keep going,” I told myself. “Keep going. Don’t slow down, don’t look back. Whatever happens, it’s better not to see it coming.” My apartment building never seemed so welcoming. Each laboring breath that I took gave me the feeling that tiny knives were exploding in my throat.

Mami wasn’t in her usual place in the study. “Mami, Mami,” I yelled.

“Over here,” I heard Mami say faintly. “On the balcony.”

My morning porridge that I’d been holding back all the way home rose up in my throat and exploded onto the balcony when I saw what Mami saw.

Heavy black smoke swirled over the massive Kahal Adas Yeshurun Synagogue on Friedberger Anlage, founded by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. It was built of white limestone with domes stretching to the sky and a proud Star of David, prominently displayed. Flames and smoke twisted and eddied over the domes, with hundreds of people standing around, jeering, laughing and applauding the burning of the synagogue.

Mami was pale and agitated. “I called the police,” she said. “ They laughed at me and made a horrible comment. And when the fire engine arrived, the firemen stood and watched, just like everyone else,  in full uniform, hoses ready. But they didn’t attempt to put out the fire. They’re only concerned with protecting German homes,” Mami said bitterly. She cupped her face in her hands.

“I can’t look,” she said. “The Germany I grew up in is going up in smoke.”

I saw columns of smoke rising from distant burning buildings in other parts of the city. There must be other synagogues on fire. The noise of the crowd cheering rose over the horrible crackle of the flames. I closed my eyes. I could see Papi walking into synagogue, proud and regal in his shiny black top hat. The curved ceiling soared over our heads, with beautiful lamps hanging from it. I saw myself sitting on the polished wooden bench in my beloved synagogue, holding the blue leather siddur Mami bought me for my Bat Mitzvah. Where will we go to pray now?  What was happening to the seforim and the Torahs? They must be burning, burning, red marching up the white, consuming black….

I was shaking but no tears came. They were frozen inside me.  I went inside and collapsed in a heap on our sofa. Mami followed me. We didn’t talk for a long while.  “I was so worried,” she said finally. “I saw the synagogue burning and I didn’t know if you were safely in school.”

I just nodded. I didn’t have the words to tell Mami what I had seen — the shattered glass, the thugs running with sticks and hatchets.  Ladies don’t show their emotions, I thought. Mami locked the doors and windows and drew all the drapes. I spent the rest of the day curled up in bed under my covers, terrified to move. It was nighttime when I finally crawled out of bed.

The air was filled with smoke, red shadows from the smoldering fires throughout the city, running across the walls. I remembered the burning of our synagogue. My heart sank.

Voices came from the kitchen. Was there anybody in the house? I listened intently. It was the wireless, the gruff voice of the German announcer commenting on the day’s events.

“Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed across the German Reich last night on November 9th, and continuing today, November 10th. Jewish businesses are in ruins, as Germans extract their rightful revenge for the murder of vom Rath. But it’s not enough — full retribution still needs to come….”

A click, and the voice was silent.

I crept off to Mami’s bed. I hoped she was there and that I could talk to her. But the bed was empty. I went back to my room, where I lay tossing and turning. Closing my eyes was like turning on a film and replaying the scenes of horror over and over again.

I heard Mami in the living room. Lately her most beloved place is Papi’s armchair next to his desk. She’d sit there, put her head on the desk and close her eyes. I couldn’t tell whether she was sleeping or thinking about the man who used to sit there and write at this desk.

Please, can I fall asleep and wake up when this nightmare will be over?

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