An Unspoken Truth, p.1Jessica Gold
An Unspoken Truth
Published By Jessica Gold
Copyright 2012 Jessica Gold
Smashbooks Edition, License Notes
We marched for nearly an hour through the thick underbrush of the forest. The ground, uneven beneath our feet, caused many of us to stumble and reach out in a sort of dance-like way—limb seeking limb to steady ourselves. We were forcibly thrust into our pre-dawn journey with little warning, and much trepidation. Only when the rays of sun began peeking through the trees, did I realize that I was clutching a swaddled Miriam, and that I was barefoot.
It was late August, a seasonally warm time, but in the early hour, the dew chilled my feet—feet that only yesterday danced at my sister Rutka’s wedding. A beautiful and excited bride, Rutka was two years younger than me. She had met Yaacov at the tender age of five, in our mother’s vegetable garden. An unsuspecting Rutka received a blow to the back of the head from an auspiciously airborne carrot. The seven year old Yaacov, desperate to play the role of knight in shining armour, swooped in to pick her up. Rutka insisted it was the onions that made her cry. Yaacov explained that it was impossible for onions to work their magic while still in the ground—and it was in this moment that a relationship of possibility and protection was forged; a hesitant kiss on the cheek, a covenant, witnessed by rows of turnips and tomatoes.
It was customary to marry in the wedding dress of your mother, an honour that had been mine one year earlier. At fourteen Rutka still had the girlish figure I had lost with the birth of Miriam; only two years older, and we were worlds apart. Rutka’s veil was exquisite, and the one item that would be unique to her today. In time, mother’s wedding dress would be given to Faigie, our younger sister, but Rutka’s veil would always belong to her. The lace crochet was painstakingly looped and looped again to form a crown. Spun silk streamed out of the hindmost part of the crown and cascaded like an uninhibited waterfall down her back. Fine silver thread was embroidered temple to temple chaining a delicate row of daisies across her forehead.
I combed Rutka’s hair, patting down the wisps and coiling her long strands into a bun at the nape of her neck. My sister had such a long and elegant neck, inherited from our father’s side of the family; I couldn’t help but bend down to kiss it.
“Chana,” Rutka turned and grasped my hands. “I am afraid that when I stand my knees will give out. I will look like a little girl when I am meant to be a woman.”
“My dear sister, you and Yaacov were destined by God, and it is he who will lift you up and march with you down the aisle.”
Rutka turned back around and waited for me to fasten her veil. It took thirty-two hand beaded barrettes to circle the crown of her head and safely secure the mass of fabric—each snap breaking our silence and bringing her closer to her envisioned future.
Miriam’s cries punctuated the air. My little darling, fast asleep in the adjacent bassinet, chose this moment to let me know she was hungry—my porcelain doll alive, awake, and alert. Miriam was a spring baby, born after Pesach. Twenty-one hours in labour, exhausted and sweaty, I had joked that she had taken her time to stop and smell the roses on the way out.
She bore no resemblance to me; skin dark when I was fair, deep brown eyes so different from my ice blue, her beginning tufts of charcoal at odds with my blonde curls. The contrast made me love her even more. With each glance I was afforded the blessing of looking upon my husband and child—as it was David who Miriam most resembled.
The chartered plane landed carrying a complement of three-hundred. The passengers were glad to finally arrive at their destination after their sixteen hour flight. The 747 Jumbo Jet’s point of departure was Toronto’s Pearson Airport. By the time its required stops in Montreal and Halifax were made, the travelers were asleep as the metallic beast made its way across the Atlantic. An uncomfortable Ashley fiddled with her seatbelt. She took noticed the ease of her co-passengers, strangers that would soon come together, in mutual bafflement and then later in fervent hope for history to not repeat itself; their ability to slumber on the itchy orange and brown polyester upholstered seats. The plane, a refurbished relic from the 1970’s shook with unnerving turbulence, and Ashley obsessively tightened her lap belt.
Ashley had travelled by plane many times. Her Bubby and Zaidy lived in Vancouver, and she was no stranger to the five hour trip. Every summer since she was four, she had gone to visit her grandparents. At first she traveled with her Mom and Dad, and then with a chaperone appointed by the airline. However, this past summer she was allowed to be her own escort—at sixteen the airline no longer saw her as a child.
Still, Ashley had a feeling of unease. Maybe it was the security questions she was asked at the luggage check. Did she pack it herself? Was she bringing any gifts? Had she been around a firing range or could have possibly been around someone who handled explosives? Post 9/11 these questions were now routine, and Ashley would have thought little of them, but two years before Ashley saw the second airplane hit, an atypical start to her first university class, these questions scared her. Didn’t the security personnel, retired Israeli army officers, know the kind of person Ashley was? Didn’t they know the kind of effort the passengers had invested—the essay, the interview, the psychological assessment, and the coursework? All this preparation, and there was nothing that could really prepare them.
With the veil securely fastened, Rutka was ready for the badecken—a ceremony born out of intrigue, mishap, and consequence. In the Torah Jacob works for seven years for permission to marry Rachel, but on his wedding day he is tricked into marrying Leah, the older daughter, and because she is veiled Jacob cannot see her face to know different. To avoid this trickery, and be sure that he is marrying the intended bride, Yaacov now watches the veil as it is lowered over Rutka’s face. At this moment I see Yaacov grinning from ear to ear. He has grown up, and is ready to trade in the lettuce lined rows of mud in my mother’s garden for the wedding aisle.
We didn’t quite realize how big a part the shul played in our lives until the first time it was attacked. Over the years we had seen our share of pogroms, but nothing quite like this. Wine bottles, stuffed with rags were lit on fire and then thrown at the building. Rocks smashed the stain glass windows, shattering their beauty and all but erasing their stories, a blow, but still not the vilest atrocity that would be committed that night.
The shul was the heart of our community. In the early morning, men would prey with their tefillin—wearing the handmade boxes of leather to serve as both sign and celebration that God brought forth the children of Israel, out of the bondage of Egypt. In the afternoon, the women would gather in one of the smaller rooms and swap remedies and stories. In one such session the rabbi’s daughter Sephra, told me she had overheard Yaccov and his plan to marry Rutka. In another session Rifka showed me how to prepare an ointment to relive Miriam’s diaper rash, and how to prepare a cabbage- onion-white herring soup that both Sarah and Rachel’s husbands adored. No such session would take place the day after this attack.
In the morning we would wake to find the holiest of relics defiled and strewn about the village. The felonious brutes had ventured into the shul and found the ark, the resting place of our only Torah. They had stripped the scroll of its velvet robes, pocketed its golden adornments, and ripped the sacred parchment into a few dozen pieces. It was what they did next that still puts me at a loss for words. I often feel the tears stinging my eyes and cheeks, and don’t even realize that I had been thinking about that day. Littered among our gardens, our storefronts, and the well at the centre of town, were the remains of headless fish carcasses wrapped in our scroll of Moses, our words of our God. The foul stench lingered in our villag
When the elders held council and put forth a motion to rebuild the shul they decided that the new building would have no stained glass and no clear indication that this was a house of God. The priority was to keep the village safe and still remain in God’s service. The building would blend in with the rest of the village, in an attempt at warding off our attackers. Although this was in the best interests off the community it made me angry. We had done nothing wrong. We were a strong community filled with spirituality and love, and now we were made to act like cowards, like scared little children. Why were we so frightened with God on our side? Was this latest attack merely a test of faith?
Ashley had talked about the importance of this trip since she was eleven. It was around this time that she read her first book about the experiences of World War II. Deep within the pages of Carol Matas’s Daniel’s Story Ashley learned words like ghetto, concentration camp and Nazi. The unbelievable horror of what she was reading, in such opposition to her own life, had an interesting effect on her—leaving her both forlorn and fascinated.
Ashley, and her Canadian co-passangers would join thousands of other Jewish teenagers from around the world in Poland, on The March of The Living, to explore the remnants of the Holocaust, and celebrate life. On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Ashley would participate in a historical death march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in complete silence. The march would lead her through the gas chambers; concrete walls with a dusting of blue powder, directly attributed to the cyanide-based insecticide Zyklone B gas that was used to exterminate prisoners. Dr. Fritz Haber would win the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his Zyklone B gas that would eventually claim the lives of 1.2 million people in concentration camps. As fate would have it, in 1933 Dr. Haber himself would flee Germany because of his own Jewish ancestry.
In the confining, dark space, Ashley would notice the gouged out concrete where desperate fingers scrapped in futility and the shower heads above that alternated between water and gas. She would follow her fellow marchers to view one of the fourteen crematoriums on site. A long building with bricked smoke stacks to excrete the flesh of the dead—a snow like ash that could only be discerned when it met with the ground, its gray hue betraying its secret.
Ashley linked arms with an elderly Holocaust survivor who had been invited on this trip. A body aged, a resolve hardened with time, words often escaped her, and Ashley was unsure if she was supporting the woman or if she was the one being supported. Although this survivor had never been a prisoner at Auschwitz her husband had. It is to this place that her husband’s cattle car had followed the tracks through the main gates; it is here that he was selected for a shower and delousing instead of the gas; it is here that he was stripped of his name and given a nine digit tattoo—his new identification. She stopped when we reached a section of the camp that was labelled Processing Centre.
She looked into Ashley’s eyes, “Adam’s tattoo was on his chest.”
This was surprising to Ashley who had come to recognize the Auschwitz identification tattoos as being strictly on the forearm. The survivor interpreted Ashley’s surprise as a lack of knowledge on the subject and went on, “It was a stamp, not so different from the ones the teachers use to date their pages. Made of metal, it held interchangeable numbers peppered with needles. In one motion the stamp was imprinted on Adam’s chest. While the wound was bleeding, ink was rubbed in to colour the numbers. It wasn’t until a full year later that the Nazi’s changed to a single needle, and switched the location to the forearm. It was the Nazi’s desire for efficiency that made Adams scars and that of countless others visible to the rest of the world. ”
Her voice caught, “Ashley, do you know how many times I traced the numbers with my finger? I thought that I could erase it, but I never could, the ink ran too deep.”
Adam rarely took off his shirt, but on the occasion that he would, and his grandchildren would see the tattoo, and ask of its origin, Adam would tell them that it was his phone number in case he forgot it. It never occurred to the children that it was nine digits instead of seven.
The inside of our shul was more extraordinary than I could have imagined. During the two years it took to rebuild, services were held at our home, and at the homes of other community members. The men would take turns guarding our new Torah in a makeshift ark that the carpenter and his apprentice built. The new ark was placed on the wall of the sanctuary in the direction of Jerusalem. Two terra-cotta coloured columns supported twenty feet of intricate hand carved wood, positioned in three distinct tiers, each more elaborate than the next. The woodwork melted into the hand-painted wall behind, a seamless and magnificent effect, as the painted curtains extended the reach of the ark. A velvet curtain hung in between the columns, shielding the once guarded Torah and restoring it to its rightful resting place.
The bimah was now located in the centre of the shul. From this pulpit the Torah would be read, and the congregation would surround the arch lined platform. Painted vines enhanced with gold leaf danced up the columns and embraced the archways. Hanging in the middle of the bimah and scattered throughout the shul were cast iron chandeliers of considerable weight and size. In the old shul a winch was used to lower the chandeliers and refit them with candles for services, meetings and prayer groups. I enjoyed helping to light the candles, thanking God for the gift of light, but our new shul had electric chandeliers. It was a big point of contention, but after much debate by elders and townspeople, modernization won out, and now our shul could comfortably be used all hours of the day.
Rutka entered the sanctuary, and I had to remind myself to breathe. Looking down at Miriam in my arms, I couldn’t help but wonder whom she would marry, what her veil would look like. Enamored with the new man-made light, Miriam looked up at the ceiling and quietly cooed. My sister looked beautiful—nervous, but beautiful. She made her way down the aisle, knees strong despite her earlier concerns and up on to the bimah.
Yaacov was already there waiting for her. The Rabbi blessed the couple and they both drank from the goblet of wine. Rutka circled Yaacov seven times. The rabbi asked Yaacov for the rings to begin the inspection. The band must be one solid piece of metal. There could be no cracks in the ring, because there could be no cracks in the marriage. When the Rabbi was satisfied, he gave the ring back to Yaacov. Yaacov gently placed the ring on my sister’s finger and said, “Hare at mekudeshet li betaba' at zo k'dat Moshe v' Yisrael, with this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife in accordance with the religious teachings of Moses and the people Israel.” My sister blushed. It was now her turn. She takes the ring, places it on his finger and says, “Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.” The breaking of the glass is the final tradition before the act of unity is complete. It is to commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. For me though, the breaking of the glass is more than that, it’s to honour the destruction and rebuilding of our Holy Temple, our shul.
Yaacov concentration is quickly replaced with elation as he stomps on the glass and it breaks. “Mazel Tov!”
Back on the bus, traveling to their next destination, Ashley had time to think. To Ashley it seemed that there were two types of Holocaust survivors: ones who felt the need to talk about their experiences and others who just couldn’t—Ashley’s Bubby and Zaidy were the latter. As part of a grade eleven family genealogy project, Ashley had attempted to pry information out of her grandparents. Ashley’s latest effort had proven to be her most successful one yet. She found out that her grandmother had been born in Poland, two days outside of Warsaw. She had lived in a family home, built by her father, with her two other sisters and her mother. Ashley’s grandfather was from Lithuania, and was part of a substantially larger family. Ashley needed to add to the piece of paper for her family tree to accommodate all twelve brother and sisters. Ashley hadn’t the courage to ask her grandparents the question most on her mind. Ha
She had been working on her family tree for nearly a week, when she gathered up the nerve to ask her grandparents more. She wanted to know their story—how they had come to be in Vancouver of all places. She knew this would be one of her last opportunities of the summer to ask her grandparents about their painful past, and she couldn’t bare to wait another year, so after dinner that night, when the table was cleared and all the dishes were clean, she began the intriguing and equally dreaded conversation.
After an uncomfortable silence, Ashley’s grandfather began, “It is not that I don’t want to tell you, but you are expecting a story, and I don’t have one.”
Ashley looked at her grandfather with uncertainty.
He went on, “It comes in bursts. I see a pot in a store and it makes me think of the bowl I used to eat out of, collect rain water in from a leak in the barracks and relieve myself in when we were unable to leave our beds. I could tell you the things I remember, but they might not make sense to you.”
Ashley said nothing and listened. She listened through the tears, listened through the anger and listened through the guilt. Ashley’s Bubby said nothing.
My feet were now burning. Dry needles and acorns fallen from pines pierced through the tough skin of my feet, and my wounds made contact with the dark soil. The forest of my childhood was menacing. At the encouragement of our captors’ guns, our pace quickened. Miriam was now fully awake and screaming. Rutka and Yaacov were a few paces beside me, but I had lost David in the chaos. Other villagers were pressing up hard against my back. People whom I had loved and worshiped with side by side, all my life, were now clawing at my back to get ahead of me, desperate to outrun the guns.
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