We’re Jewish. Well, most of us in Poland are, and the ones who aren’t aren’t Jews. I’m Alter. My wife, Dalit, is a baker sometimes. Other times, she is a woman and mother.
God gifted us a child while we were late on in our years. We named him Eitan, though we knew he wouldn’t survive the winter. I had heard from my mother that her sister died before she celebrated her 6th birthday. The doctors call it Canavan’s. It must run in my family.
“Alter, my brother!” my neighbor shouted as he burst through the door.
“Gershon! Knock next time.” I shouted at him from the dining room.
“Sorry, so sorry, but we must leave.”
“Leave?” I stood and walked around the corner.
“They’ve come for us.”
I looked over to my wife, who put down her bread knife, wiped her hands on her apron, and glanced to our son. He was in a wheelchair, his legs never learned to walk. He made a burbling noise, and she caressed him with the back of her hand. “We’ll need help carrying him down the stairs.”
“I’ll help,” offered Gershon. “And I’ll get my brother.”
Gershon left us, and I walked back into the kitchen. “We have to go, my dear.”
“I know. I knew this day would come. It’s just like it was twenty years ago.”
“I think it’s different this time.”
She looked up at me and sighed, then coughed a couple times before stopping herself. “Perhaps, you’re right. Perhaps, Germany will succeed. Perhaps, we will have an excuse to finally go to Jerusalem. We may not ever come back."
I let my eyes rest on Eitan. His eyes wouldn’t focus on anything, and his head tilted to one side. He was still robust for a five year old, but it was mostly that he hadn’t a chance to lose his baby fat. “To Jerusalem? He is much too young for a pilgrimage.”
“I want him to see Jerusalem, Alter,” she whispered. “I want him to pray.” She never raised her voice. I think it was because she put so much effort into raising our son. “The Tombs of the Kings of Judah, my husband. He has to see them now.”
Gershon crashed back through the door. “Come, friends. We may be safe in Switzerland.”
“Thank you, Gershon, but we will go to Jerusalem instead,” I said.
He nodded, though his brows were stitched in contemplation, then filled us in on the links of friends he has that have woven a thick tapestry of possible routes while he and his brother lifted my son down the stairs. At the landing, he looked up at me, a question behind his eyes.
“Ask, Gershon. I can tell you wish to say something.”
He swallowed deeply, glanced at Eitan, then at my wife, then met my gaze. “How will you manage?”
“With friends like you, and with the grace of God, we will make it to Palestine.”
In the distance, I heard thunder, or what I thought to be thunder. I was not far off. It was the voice of destruction. Three German jets tore through the air above us, like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and left behind a shaking torrent.
“Alter, it is time we go.”
Gershon and his brother lifted Eitan once more over the threshold, and I pushed him through our narrow streets. Our shtetl in Warsaw was once rich, thriving with mercantile businesses, accounts managers, but now, it was a hovel. My father was the last of the great textiles seller. I could see his curtains, aging and yellow, in the windows of the rooms that were stacked high and loomed over the streets.
We stopped into Bentzion’s shop. “We’ll pack some supplies for the trip here. Ben owes me a favor,” uttered Gershon as he went to the counter.
“Do you think we’ll make it?” Dalit asked through stifling another cough.
"I do. Perhaps there's someone there who can see to your cough," I offered.
"I am fine, Alter. It is just a cold."
I reached out a hand and pat her arm, which she cradled.
“We’ll use Eitan’s chair,” Gershon shouted from the doorway of the store. “He has room for flour and sugar.”
“God will provide the rest,” I hoped.
Eitan’s face stayed focused on the stars. Even in the day time, when the sun peeked through the clouds, his eyes would chart their progress through the sky. Sometimes, his hand would move, and his forefinger would point into the air. He would shudder, and a sound would escape his lips that sounded like pure ecstasy, engagement with the wonder of God. Dalit was convinced that he saw more than we supposed, which is why she was hopeful he would make it to Jerusalem.
“After we board the boat in Romania, we must remain in our quarters until Turkey.”
“How do you know so much, Gershon?” I asked as we waited in line to board the boat.
“That, my brother, is a story for another time.”
We settled in to our rooms on the bottom of the boat. I had never been on one before, and couldn’t get the rhythm of the water under my feet. I decided to go abovedecks at dusk to see if the horizon would help. I took Eitan with me to see the stars. He seemed to have a permanent layer of sweat coating his brow. His pulse was rapid and unpredictable. He must not have liked the water as much as I did.
“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” I heard a gruff voice pattern out disdain over the night air.
I turned to a ruddy-faced, blond-haired child of a man. “I am, friend.”
He squinted his eyes at me. “That your child?”
“He is. His name is Eitan.”
“Worthless.” He spit on the deck in front of me. “The whole lot of you, worthless.”
I inhaled deeply, and he laughed.
“Should toss him overboard.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Perhaps, I’ll do it for you!” He rushed at me, lifting his elbow and catching my jaw. I was knocked to the ground, and I saw flecks of gold and blue dance before me. He bent over and grabbed Eitan around the waist. He must not have noticed Eitan’s restraints, because he was jerked back down to the chair.
“Leave my son alone!” shouted my wife from the open doorway on the deck. She ran at him as fast as her legs would carry her. He stood up and opened his arms. She reached out, bent low, and ran straight into him, taking him over the railing, and her tumbling down after. She caught my eyes as she plunged into the cold depths, and she showed me confidence in death. She showed me peace.
“Dalit!” I yelled. “Dalit! No!” I stood up, shakily, and used the railing to help me. “Help! Help! My wife is in the water!”
There was a whistle, and two men in crisp uniforms pounded toward me. I pointed, but I knew she was already gone. The sun was down, the lights from the stars were not enough to even splash on the captain’s windows. A bright light was focused on the water for what felt like hours. That was all they were willing to do for a Jew. A light. A few shouts. A whistle. But Dalit was gone. We were alone.
I cannot remember how long I had stood at the railing, staring off into the blackness. The road to Jerusalem was covered in oil, and I let the ship's rocking hypnotize me. I did not hear Eitan as Gershon wheeled his body back into our room belowdecks. I was paying attention to the pure solitude of the night air. I wasn't listening to the threats from the German's friends, or the shushes from the ship's crew. I stared straight into the water, allowing the realization of Dalit's death wash me over.
Gershon sat me down in my room, Eitan beside. I did not remember getting to my bed.
“We will make it to Jerusalem,” he affirmed.
I caught his eyes, then refocused on the floor. “I wouldn’t know if Eitan knows his mother is gone forever.”
He flashed a glance at Eitan. “I don’t know.”
“She wants him to see Jerusalem. Before he dies too.” Eitan’s breathing came in ragged strips.
I put my head in my hands and let myself cry. Gershon stayed by my side until the ship hit the shore.
Turkey granted us safe passage through to Palestine though the British just halted a ship from allowing Jews into Palestine a month prior. They were allowing most Jews free passage. Palestine was not as welcoming, saying they were close to the number of Jews they would allow in. Strange that, since my fathers’ fathers’ were born here, in Israel. I was here for the Tomb of the Kings of Judah, however, not to feel unwelcome.
I wheeled my son to the Tomb of Simeon the Just. There were several dozen Sephardim and a few Ashkenazi among us. We bowed our heads, rocked, and said our prayers that we would say during Lag b’Omer. Eitan burbled along with us, and no heads turned. I stood close to him and reached out my hand to squeeze his arm.
He shuddered then stopped. A wet breath squeezed from his mouth. Then, he breathed once more, wheezing and drooling through the gentle breeze.
I wondered if he had any hopes, any dreams, any desires on which to propel himself from his chair, onto the ground, and up and out into the world. I wondered if he ever wanted to dance. If he ever wanted to paint. Perhaps he wanted to learn to play the clarinet or the English horn.
Looking down at him, I hoped he was able to rest in peace now. I know I would.
I very rarely write historical fictions. This one had struck me hard, being of Polish Jew heritage myself. I felt I had to write a story about the struggles the Ashkenazi faced getting out of Poland before, during, and after the Nazi occupation. I hope you enjoy.