It was the Rebbe’s custom to wake early Sunday and Wednesday and walk several kilometers west while his small village was still deep in slumber. He would come to the edge of the forest and, leaving the dirt road, with a peasant’s field on his right, make his way over a rise until the road was no longer visible. He would turn east and wait for the sun to appear before beginning his morning prayers.
He prayed with fervor, unaware of passing time. Gradually the forest critters accustomed to the singsong of his chant, would mill around the holy man, adding their chatter to his prayers. A red fox would stand off to the side, listening carefully until the Rebbe paused to sing Psalm 150, and then he would yip twice and, after the final verse was repeated, howl happily before scampering back into the forest.
~ * ~
One day a peddler by the name of Illya came to the Rebbe’s village. He was strong and had “golden hands,” meaning that he could fix most things, and since many things were broken he was invited to stay. A small shack was vacant on the edge of the village and that was where he lived.
His talents soon became known to the local peasants and he was kept busy dawn to dust. Only on Saturday was he able to come to services which were held in the Rebbe’s modest home. The Rebbe noticed how he prayed, often with his eyes closed, dancing in place, and invited him to lead the preliminary service on the Sabbath.
Illya would come early and sit hunched over two rows back from the Rebbe’s chair. When the Rebbe came in from his study, he would stop, put his hand on Illya’s shoulder and whisper in his ear. Illya would stand and wait for the Rebbe to be seated before going to the lectern in the middle of the room. He would begin with the morning blessings and by the time he got to the psalms he would be swaying back and forth, waving his hands as if conducting the Heavenly Choir. Between verses he would often clap and prance about the lectern. When he finished the preliminary service another congregant would take over, Illya returning to his seat, exhausted.
The Rebbe was smiling and his congregants were happy. Years passed by almost unnoticed. It seemed as if Illya’s voice was failing and he was becoming more and more distracted. The Rebbe noticed that worshipers were coming later on Saturday, arriving sometimes only a few minutes before Illya finished the preliminary service. Finally the president of the congregation approached the Rebbe and explained the obvious: Illya’s davening was no longer uplifting and he often skipped verses unknowingly.
The Rebbe stroked his beard. “Yes, I see. What’s to be done? What’s to be done?”
On Sunday when he went to the field to pray, he knocked on Illya’s door and invited him to come along. And again on Wednesday. At first the animals shied away but soon they realized that Illya’s voice was not unlike theirs and the red fox began to nuzzle Illya’s hand whenever it came to a rest.
The next time they went to the field together the Rebbe explained, “Dearest Illya, I think we’ve found more members for your Heavenly Choir. And since I’m getting too old to walk this far I think you should pray here on Shabbos.” The Rebbe realized that the Heavenly Choir was using Illya to voice their sorrow for all those who would fall victim on the fields in the coming years.
The fox rubbed against the Rebbe’s leg, whispering that Illya’s prayers, with all the loud claps and hoarse shouts, were not pleasing. The Rebbe reached down and scratched behind his ears.
The Rebbe came one more time, bringing a bone saved from the Sabbath’s cholent [a Jewish Sabbath dish.] When he finished saying Psalm 150, he gave it to the fox, whispering in his ear, “Generations from now, your descendent will be frightened by even louder noises but will not be afraid and will know what to do.” When he stood up, he repeated the last verse again, “All souls will praise God, Hallelujah.” The fox lowered his head and slunk back into the forest with his bone. The Rebbe finished his prayers keeping in mind the verse from the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single life is as if he saved the whole world. (Sanhedrin 37a).” He nodded and said to the gentle breeze wafting over his shoulder, “And the life needn’t be Jewish!”
~ * ~
The forest was there two hundred years later and peasants still farmed the fertile fields west of Kharkov. Only a few hearthstones remained from Illya’s shack; the Jews who survived the Holocaust never returned. Another war was being fought. A few families from a nearby village decided to leave. Later in the afternoon they packed a few belongings and important papers and started walking to the forest, hoping to escape under the cover of darkness. They were told a group of loyal Ukrainian soldiers were camped deep inside the woods.
As they came to the edge of the forest a company of Russian soldiers hiding just inside the trees, jumped out, surprising them. The soldiers each held a rifle in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. For a moment it appeared as if they couldn’t decide whether to fire their weapons or throw the bottles at the refugees. The sergeant in charge looked at his empty bottle, threw it into the ditch, and began firing. The others did the same. When the smoke cleared, and with it, their heads the air was still and there was no sign of life.
The sergeant complained, “They shouldn’t have surprised us. But we better report this directly. Meanwhile, one of you throw this old pistol on top of the heap.”
They then marched back to the village where their main force was bivouacked on a farm.
A fox came out of the forest and cautiously made his way to the pile of corpses. There was some movement under one of the bodies. Grabbing a corner of a coat in his jaws, he pulled the body to one side. A small girl of about three struggled out from under her mother’s corpse. The fox moved closer and she, mistaking him for a dog, patted his head while rubbing the tears from her eyes. He yipped and ran back and forth towards the forest.
Finally the fox, remembering the story passed on from litter to litter, got behind her and pushed her along the edge of the field to where the Rebbe had stood and prayed years before. He gave two short yips and pushed the girl into the forest, hiding her in his den.
Cautiously he ventured back to the road, and, sniffing around the corpses, managed to find a sandwich which he brought back to the den. The little girl was asleep under a blanket of leaves.
In the middle of the night the fox was awakened by the sounds of heavy equipment. He ventured back to the road, watching from behind a tree as a backhoe moved the bodies into the ditch and covered them with a layer of dirt.
The next morning he pushed the sandwich into the little girl’s hand and then led her through the forest to the band of partisans. The following morning he returned to the edge of the forest where the Rebbe had prayed, mournfully howling at the passing clouds.
Gerhart Franck languished in the DP camp after the war for nearly two years. Hopes that anyone in his extended family had survived the Holocaust dried up like his tears – day by day. Numb, he let the refugee office process an immigration application for the United States. He took no comfort when they promised there’d be others like him on the journey. He nodded when they said they’d modify his name to Gerald Frank on the application. “This way you’ll already sound like an American. You’ll see – within a month everyone will be calling you Gerry.”
The only comfort he had while he waited was from a Negro Serviceman who held his withered hand and let him cry, telling him, “It’s all right. Both our people have a long history we can cry about.” And then one day the GI said, “They’re sending me home. Still be a couple of months before I get out. You come to New York, be sure to look me up.”
The GI pressed a piece of paper in Gerhart’s hand, leaned forward to give him a hug and then decided against it, worried that even the gentlest squeeze would powder his bones.
None of this made sense to Gerhart and he was unable to close his fingers around the paper. It dropped to the ground and was used later by a teenage boy to roll a cigarette.
The refugee office sent David to meet the boat. He waited patiently as the bedraggled line of refugees were funneled down the gangplank. He was holding a large sign with GERALD FRANK printed in large block letters, hoping that Mr. Frank would see his name and wave, since he had been told that someone would be waiting for him when he disembarked in New York City. Fortunately immigration officers had been informed; David had worked with them before. There was a note clipped to Gerald’s name on their list informing them that David from the United Refugee Committee would be waiting for Mr. Frank. David was responsible for bringing him to his host family.
Mr. Frank was nearly the last person to be processed. He never looked up at the people waiting. David was brought into a room where the immigration officer gave him a folder with the refugee’s documentation. “Just follow the instructions and there’ll be no problem. Welcome to America, Mr. Frank, and good luck.”
David greeted him with a few words in Yiddish, asking if the small battered suitcase was all that he had.
Mr. Frank looked confused and asked, “Fur wus? For what? Am I going to be married? Better they find for me a shroud.”
David said they would be going to his host’s home now and that everyone was anxiously waiting for him. “The Sterns are a nice old couple. They can speak Yiddish and can hardly wait to meet you. The neighborhood’s nice and several synagogues are nearby. Well, you’ll see for yourself.”
Gerald stared out the car window. He had never seen so many different people before and so many Negroes. An image of a dark- skinned GI holding his hand flashed through his mind and he sighed. I’ll never be able to find him. He closed his eyes and didn’t open them until the car stopped in front of a six-story apartment building.
“We’re here, Mr. Frank. Come, I’ll carry your valise and introduce you to the Sterns. You’ll like them.”
The Sterns lived on the fourth floor. They must have been looking out the window since, when David and Gerald emerged from the elevator, they were standing in the door of their apartment waving their hands in encouragement.
Mr. Stern cleared his throat. “Nu, Baruch haBah [blessed are those that come].”
Gerald’s eyes were glassy. David whispered, “It must have been a difficult crossing.” The Sterns pretended not to notice. Mrs. Stern chirped, “Shmuli will show you your room while I’ll put the chinik [kettle] on. A minute. We can sit in the kitchen, catch up like old friends.”
The men walked down the hall to the back room and put Gerald’s valise on the bed. A minute later they were in the kitchen. Mr. Stern pulled back a chair. “Kum zits – come sit, a cup of coffee and some mandelbrot, Rosie makes special.”
Mrs. Stern turned from the stove, “I watch; it never boils. But I have fresh coffee beans, from Mr. Milano – Italian roast – a minute, a little noise.”
Gerald stiffened and stammered, “No, no! No coffee beans.” They were an empty segulah, a charm that never worked. He had dropped the last coffee bean in the harbor as he got off the boat. Then, hesitantly, he continued as if he were talking to himself, “Tea, please. Please, tea.”
At the beginning of November 1938, Gerhart Franck put the picture of his father in his WWI uniform along with his Iron Cross on an easel in the storefront window. When he closed in the evening, he would draw the curtains behind them. Franck & Sons, Clothiers had been in the same location in Bonn since 1905. He reassured his wife, “Sabina, we have nothing to fear. The Iron Cross is in the window; they will see we’re also part of the Reich. Besides, this is the birthplace of Beethoven and here people don’t behave like barbarians.”
Nine days later, Jewish businesses and homes were vandalized and destroyed throughout Germany. The Iron Cross did not protect Franck & Sons. The large Bonn Synagogue on the banks of the Rhine was burnt to the ground.
Gerhart remembered the verse but couldn’t laugh of the irony of how one day, or the moment when someone broke the store window and set fire to the curtain with the Iron Cross felt like a thousand years. He wanted to cry since surely the destruction of their synagogue was a thousand times worse. Is a thousand times a thousand an eon? He bit his lips, perhaps God had indeed blinked. He worried that the worst was yet to come but kept his council to himself not wanting to alarm his wife and children. As if to prevent that from happening again, he tried not to blink. His eyes dried and sewing became difficult. “Machts nicht,” he told his wife, “it doesn’t make much of a difference since most of my customers are upper-class Germans who are now boycotting Jewish businesses.” The days were passing like years and his hair, before black and wavey, turned grey and brittle.
Gerhart and his family were trapped in Germany and, in 1941, were sent to a confiscated Benedictine monastery in Endenich to await deportation east. He had saved a handful of coffee beans in the heavy winter coat that never left his shoulders. Before they were separated, gave two beans each to his wife and children, saying, “These will protect you. One is from me and the other is from God. You needn’t worry.”
Gerhart survived Auschwitz. His skills as a tailor were appreciated by the officers. He remained in a DP camp in Western Germany for eighteen months. At first, he had hoped for news about his family and then he waited for completion of the paperwork that would permit him to immigrate to the United States. He now had only one coffee bean, having given the other to a Gypsy in his barracks scheduled for the “showers.”
The transport ship departed from Hannover. On the crossing, he looked at the number tattooed on his arm a dozen times a day. Was Sabina’s the number before or after his? And did his two children share a single number since they weren’t even ten? He asked the other DPs but they just smiled and walked away. He was weak. The sea air refused to give him an appetite.
Gerhart stayed below when the boat sailed into New York Harbor. One small valise contained all his possessions. When it was time to disembark, he carried it in his left hand, his right hand clenching a coffee bean. As he crossed from the ship to the dock, he dropped the bean into the water, not caring if this was the one from God.
looked down and followed the bean as it mixed with the garbage blown
against the hull of the transport. For Him, the moment was an
Once in a land far away where many things were magical there lived a mother and her little boy. They were poor but the mother did her best to make sure they always had enough to eat. If she found they were out of bread or milk or even peanut butter she would sigh and tell the little boy they would have to go to the small grocery store two blocks away.
“It’s a magical store and many shelves are empty, not like the big store in town where you can find everything. But here, if the little old grocer were to wave his hands, things would appear on those empty shelves, things that you can’t even begin to imagine. Those magical things would be too expensive for us to buy but the milk and eggs and other items on the shelves are not so magical and cost only a few pennies more than in the big store in town. I’m saving my pennies and nickels. It’s your college fund. We have to be careful not to buy too many things there, just what we really need.”
When the little boy was a baby, his mother would push him in a tiny carriage with rusty wheels that squeaked. When he got a little bigger, she sat him in his big brother’s red wagon and pulled him along as if they were pioneers in a wagon train. Nevertheless, when he was five his mother said, “Tommy, you are big enough to walk to the grocery store and even help carry the milk home.”
Once the little boy asked his mother, “Why is it dark in the here? I can’t find my favorite cereal.’ “Shh, Tommy, it’s so people looking in the window from the street won’t be able to see how Mr. Klien does his magic tricks.”
And then one day the little boy noticed that the grocer was missing the three middle fingers on his right hand. A month later, his mother told him to wait at the counter with Mr. Klien, “I forgot the eggs in the back cooler.” He built up the courage and asked in a whisper, “Mr. Klien, what happened to your three fingers?”
Mr. Klien smiled sadly and said, “Oh, those are magical fingers; don’t be afraid; I can bring them back if I need to. See...” and he held up his left hand, middle fingers folded down and continued, “I can pass my hand over them and they come back. I leave them where they are since they always seem to get into trouble.” He drew his right hand up over the fingers and from where the little boy was standing, the middle fingers on his left hand appeared to unfurl as if by magic.
The little boy smiled. He wished the magical grocer would be his best friend.
At the front of the store, right where you came in was an enormous barrel. Very strange and strong smells rose from the holes in the wooden top. He asked his mother, “What’s in that big barrel?”
She answered, “Pickles.”
The next time they came into the store, the little boy stopped his mother in front of the barrel and asked, “Ma, what’s a pickle?”
The grocer appeared from out of the shadows as if by magic and answered, “A cucumber that’s been swimming in brine a magical amount of time. He lifted off the wooden cover and pulled a magical green thing from deep within the barrel with a pair of tongs. “I’ll cut this in fours, one each for you, your mother, myself, and my wife. Come with me to the counter where I have a knife.”
The little boy squeezed his chest against the counter and watched while the grocer cut the pickle in half and in half again. The little boy thought the slice looked a lot like a tiny slice of green watermelon that they ate in the summer on special occasions like birthdays or the Fourth of July. He thanked Mr. Klien, took a small bite out of the end...and then a bigger bite, and finally managed to push the rest of the pickle into his mouth. It was bubbly like seltzer water and had the taste of onions and garlic. The little boy decided he liked pickles.
One warm morning when the little boy was not so little but was still called a little boy, his mother sent him to the grocer’s by himself. “Tommy, soon you won’t be a little boy but even little boys can help when their mothers have migraines. You’re big enough to go to the grocer’s by yourself and buy a quart of milk. Be a sweet heart and give Mr. Klien this magic paper.” She gave him a slip of paper folded in half.
The magic bell inside the front door rang when he came in. He stopped in front of the pickle barrel. It really was dark and he forgot if he should turn right or left. He was staring left and right when Mr. Klien came to his rescue. Tommy gave him the note.
“Ah, I think my magical little boy deserves a magical pickle all for himself. Since you’re big enough to shop by yourself I think you’re big enough to pick out your own pickle.”
Mr. Klien removed the tongs from the hook behind the barrel and reached over to give them to Tommy. The tattoo on his arm was exposed and Tommy pulled back, scared by the numbers. Mr. Klien saw the little boy’s eyes lock onto the numbers and tried to allay his fears.
“These are magical numbers, Tommy. In that magical land where I lived before, there was a big safe, a vault, like they have in large banks. They put all our precious memories and happiness in there and when I saw them close the door, I wrote down the numbers of the combination. Someday I may go back to that magical land and bring everything back here. That’s why the shelves are empty, just in case...”
The little boy wasn’t sure what Mr. Klien meant and said, “Oh.” And when Mr. Klien gave him the tongs, he smiled and fished a pickle out from the top of the barrel. “Thank you, Mr. Klien.”
When Tommy got home, he put the milk in the refrigerator. When his mother got up, she thanked him. “Tommy, you’re no longer a little boy.”
Tommy smiled and stood on his toes to kiss his mother on her cheek. “I’ll still be your sweet heart though, won’t I?”
“Yes, yes. That will never change.”