The train snaked across the wide Hungarian plains. All was flat. The light beat down vertically. The train was on its way from Transylvania to Auschwitz. The people at the edges could consider themselves lucky. From time to time, they could at least purloin a particle of the world created by JHVH Elohim. But could they, the Jews, still believe in a God? The woman, Frieda, as she had declared herself in her German papers, Frieda Ben Yehuda, bit her lips, which were almost contorted against her marmoreal face. She ground out the syllables between clenched teeth:
“Where are you!”
She tightly clutched her child to her breast. She was thinking of the future, she clutched the child close, lest it be crushed. The past was now abandoned to death. The past had a name: mother. The mother engulfed by death. She gave a start. The frail voice of life broke the chain of her thoughts.
“Mother, I’m hungry.”
Finally, the child received the grandmother’s crust of bread, along with the warm smile of the creature that had given him life and a piece of advice that the woman had acquired as a result of her three-week experience at the brick factory. The least fortunate (what are the meanings of that sinister word?) were sent to the ghetto. They had been sent to the places specially assigned to the Jews. All she, Frieda, had managed to take with her was her coat, which in any case she was required to wear, because on the collar was sewn a yellow star. Apart from that, at random, a few pieces of bread, fruit, sugar cubes, stuffed in the family members’ pockets. Under the German truncheons, the curses, the pressure, your mind could not be clear.
“Here, take this, darling,” came her calm voice. “Try to keep it in your mouth as long as you can and think of a great big onion omelette and sesame-seed cakes”
Those were the child’s favourite things to eat.
Hannya looked at the woman, the little boy, the piece of bread, with tears in her eyes, which she tried to hide. She was hungry too, but she had been told to wait. She did not have a dead grandmother, she did not have the chance to hold that morsel in her mouth for endless hours. She thought it would be better even to give up her share, to let her father have it. She huddled up to him, pressing her fresh cheek to his midriff. She felt safe by his side. Nothing bad could happen to her. So what if she had been savagely snatched from her warm bed? So what if the Germans, looking for whatever it was they were looking for, had smashed the keyboard of the piano on which Hannya so masterfully played Chopin’s waltzes and the Moonlight Sonata she loved so much? So what if she had not been allowed to take her favourite books with her and had been given insults in exchange? In spite of all that, she had her enchanted knapsack with her, she had her father, Mr Moscovici, and she also had a secret all of her own, a realm only she knew about. The realm of Limelfia. She daydreamed about it when things were hard for her. Nothing could happen to her. The whole world was there, beside her. The whole world was beating strongly in the heart up against which she, Hannya, now stood leaning. She listened to her father’s heart beating. She pressed her ear against that heart as hard as she could. She tried to stand on tiptoes, clinging with her small fingers to the coat with the yellow star, so that she could be closer to the inner beats to which she was bound. Nobody could steal them away from her. Nobody had the right to take them away from her. Instead of “I love you,” she clutched the arms of Mr Moscovici with the whole of her being, so that his flesh was imprinted with the marks of Hannya’s fingers.
“Isn’t it true that you can build the world?”
“Hanny, I’m not God.”
“No, you’re Daddy!”
Hannya gently leaned against the two hands that were endowed with the ability to build the world. The hands caressed her. Rocked by the motion of the train, protected by the warmth of Mr Moscovici, the sweet ten-year-old girl fell asleep standing up.
It was a long way to Auschwitz. The Jews told each other the stories of their lives. That was all they had left: the word. Strange words entered their ears, words almost unintelligible, inconceivable, inconsolable. They all knew that man has the breath of life, that he bears the image of the Creator, that he is endowed with nobility, that the world means man. They could not comprehend, they could not credit the things they had heard.
“It’s not madness. It’s beyond the imagination of a man with a sick mind, beyond his capacity to do evil,” Rabbi Matitiahu was heard to whisper.
“That is how things have turned out,” said Mr Ben Yehuda, Levi Ben Yehuda, the husband of Frieda.
They were exhausted from the journey, from standing up, from the torrid heat. Three weeks had passed since they had been taken from their houses. Scorching days and nights. Extensions of time in which the Jews still hoped. They had found out about the things that had happened in Bessarabia and Bukovina, they also knew the position of the Romanian government, they knew the frivolity with which Carol II treated everything. Nevertheless, the Jews still hoped.
The children had fallen asleep leaning against their parents. Now the adults could talk about what was happening to them. The rest of the time, they avoided such discussions.
“They tortured her in the sight of all,” said Benjamin Roth.
To him, the sight of all ought to have been an eyeglass through which art might filter. The man straightened his dirty coat, lifted his head slightly. His sunken eyes were closed. His forehead was broad, his nose long, hooking downward from the middle, his hair black, curling toward the shoulders. Lifting his long fingers above them all, he mimed a piece for piano. He was a musician. To him, the world meant sound. His face flashing, he continued to expound his idea, convinced of what he said.
“The sight of all is plastic in nature. This is how we were endowed. Even the ploughman has a style, he puts art, beauty and order in what he does.”
“Dear Mr Roth, I think you’re right, at least a little bit. There is an art when it comes to suicide and I don’t see why there wouldn’t be an art when it comes to killing! There is an art when it comes to dying. It’s not the same to die in your sleep and to hack your neck with a saw, especially when you’re just twenty-three. There’s an art in holding the tool, and you can shape the finished product, death, however you like.”
“Stop it! Your words are not to the glory of the Creator,” replied Rabbi Matitiahu. “Men do not know His ways!”
Levi Ben Yehuda bit his lips, swallowed his thoughts. Had he not done everything demanded of him? Had he not been a paterfamilias by the will of the Almighty? Had he not kept all the feast days? Had he not cared for widows and orphans? Had he not sung the songs of praise on the holy day? Had not he and his whole household regularly recited the prayers? Where was He Who is without Beginning or End, He Who had promised never to abandon His chosen people? Where was He when the Jewish children had been removed from the schools, when the windows of the Jews’ houses had been smashed, when the gangs of Christian students had repeatedly beaten their Jewish peers, leaving them disfigured? Nobody had come to their aid in 1930, when all the Jewish law students had been beaten with clubs, kicked, punched, when their fellow students had broken their bones. Where was He then? Where was He now? Rebellion coursed through Levi’s whole body. “It needs to be known what awaits them,” he said to himself.
“No, gentlemen!” cried Yehuda. “The memory of those crimes needs to be preserved. The generations to come have a right to the truth. Do you know what is the truth of the Jewish community in Jedwabne? Extermination!”
From his breast he took the letter from his cousin in Poland. He had received it two years ago. It was folded small and he kept it there religiously, where nobody might reach it. His voice trembled. Levi Ben Yehuda was no longer in control of himself. Nevertheless, he read:
“My Dear Levi,
“Try to leave this Europe caught in the claws of death, you and your whole household. In Jedwabne, despair, humiliation and the end lurk at the Jews’ doors and windows and have even entered under our roofs.
“They have begun to march us off the street and force us to clean the Germans’ latrines with our bare hands.
“Do you remember Albert Rosenzweig, who used to make sesame-seed and honey rings and jumbles for the children? Of course you do. Well, know that he is dead. It happened in June, last year. I was on the main street in Jedwabne. I heard cries from afar. I went closer, creeping to avoid the others’ eyes. Before me I saw a distressing sight. Seven Jews, including Albert, stripped naked, holding their hands above their heads, their bodies streaming with blood, were surrounded by Polish civilians armed with clubs. They were beating them savagely, mercilessly. The skull of one of them cracked beneath the blows of a club. A loud, unbearable sound, accompanied by a choking cry. The blood gushed as if from a burst bladder, spattering the Germans, who were watching, as if at the circus, having fun. One of them, I think it was the superior, to judge things now, shouted: Wer hat noh zu fressen? I thought, is this how you quench your thirst, with Jewish blood?
“Another was grinning at the edge and from time to time taking a bite from an apple.
“I hadn’t eaten fruit for a long time. The shops were closed to us Jews. The cruelty is unimaginable. Try to save yourself. They were shouting, ‘Kill them more slowly, let them feel it!’
“In just three days, three thousand three hundred Jews were exterminated. But do the numbers even mean anything? It was first thing in the morning. Gunshots could be heard. A heavy stench of smoke shrouded Jedwabne. Germans and Poles alike were bursting with joy. I understood that something terrible was happening. I went out of the house and hid in the shaft of a well in the German barracks. What had happened? From the houses, they rounded up children, the elderly, the infirm, youngsters, men, women, and took them to the middle of the square. The soldiers forced the men to bring all the copies of the Torah. Imagine a mountain of wisdom in flames. All the while, the old folk were forced to sing the Hava Nagila and dance around the fire. The weakest, who lamented, were shot on the spot. To save themselves, the young sang the song. They uttered the words with great grief. They were singing to their God, a particular God. But in vain. The old folk were mown down by bullets.
“Horror could be read on every face. Were we still human?
“Then they picked out the women with babies, around seventy or eighty in number. They took them to the edge of town, to a barn. They were forced to sing Hineh Lo Yanum all the way. If you could have seen and heard them! Your flesh would have melted from you in pity. They sang with tears streaming down their faces and crying for their husbands, clutching their babies to their breasts. When they reached the barn, they hung two bales of dry straw around the shoulders of each. They went inside.
“Even now, as I write, I can see before my eyes the barn in ashes, still smouldering that evening, I can still hear the cries of the mothers and the cries of the children, the terrifying cries that carried all the way to the well shaft in which I had hidden. The locals, gathered in gangs, were singing traditional Polish songs and dancing. All these things I learned from chief rabbi Manachem Muller. I did not dare climb out of the well until evening.”
Mr Moscovici instinctively clutched his daughter in his arms. Hannya had not been sleeping for quite some time. She was listening.
“The next day, Levi Ben Yehuda continued to read, I woke up at four in the morning and went outside. I went to the same place, in the Germans’ barracks. God forgive me, for He commanded us not to steal, but I stole some German clothes. I hid my head under a German cap. At six in the morning, the Germans rounded up the Jews again in the main square. Do you remember Margot, the daughter of Rabbi Muller, poor woman!
“She refused to pour petrol over a group of forty Jews and set fire to them.
“I am fearful even to tell you what happened. But despite that, I think the memory of what happened should remain.
“A German dragged her by her hair to the middle. They stripped her naked in the sight of all, they tied her to a post, beating her mercilessly. The heat was stifling. They kept her there like that until seven in the evening, without water. The poor woman dared to ask for a drop of water. She could no longer stand it. From the ranks of Jews forced to watch without intervening, because otherwise they would be killed, her mother stepped forward to help her. As you can imagine, she was shot as soon as she took the first step.
“The unimaginable cruelty did not stop there. Taken from the pole, she was laid on the ground, held down by a few Poles, and they cut her throat with a saw. The Germans were shouting, ‘More slowly, let the Judas feel it!’
“Menachem Muller, who had made no move, trusting in the salvation of his daughter, died of grief beside her, crying out to the heavens, ‘Where are you, Elohim!’ Men, women, children, youngsters, old folk, fell on their knees and lamented with a single voice, ‘Where are you, Elohim?’
“I was a coward! But perhaps it was meant to be. I wanted to live. Is that a sin?
“The Germans couldn’t stand it anymore. ‘Ruhe! Ruhe!’ they yelled at the top of their lungs. ‘Elohim, Elohim, where are you, Elohim?’ The desperate lament drowned out the Germans’ voices. In less than a few minutes, the whole square had become an abattoir: flesh and blood. The Germans had got the silence they so wanted. The silence of death fell over the whole of Jedwabne. The Germans took our houses, chattels, animals. I did not go back home. The walls of the buildings were scrawled with the words: Death to Judas!
“Barely escaping from the claws of death, I arrived in Ohio. Here it does not smell of Judas.
“My dear Levi, I think I have described for you the situation in Europe as best I can. Save yourself, you and your household! Other than that, may the Almighty be with you.
“With much love, your cousin,
With trembling hands, he refolded the letter and tucked it in his chest. Many were sobbing softly. But with eyes closed, Rabbi Matitiahu was murmuring verses from the Talmud, verses he had learned by heart.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth