I sit alone at a table in the far corner of the crowded room, easily ignored by the people around me. I can still picture my wife, sitting in the chair across from me, complimenting the soup that I sip on now, which had always seemed a little bland to me. Ever since her passing, I have been left alone, spending my days sitting in her favorite spot and thinking of the times that came before.
I hear him first, rather than see him. His shoes stomped loudly into the old folk’s home and, even though there was only one pair of feet, his footsteps sounded like a bull participating in a wild stampede. People turned to glare at him as he walked past. I did not look up.
“What has upset you, my boy?” I ask in my hoarse, aging voice, keeping my eyes glued to the lukewarm soup.
“Mother and Father won’t let me join the school’s soccer team. They offered me the goalie position.” My grandson, Matthew, whines. “They say it will take away from my studies. I’m already top of the class, and I would never forget to practice our religion! They don’t care about me at all! I hate them! I wish they both would die!”
The collective gasps that echo across the room tell me that Matthew has spoken too loudly. Slowly I raise my eyes to look at him. Matthew’s dark blue eyes are moist with frustrated tears, and his thin ten year old frame shakes ever so slightly with anger. He runs a hand through his disheveled black hair and he’s panting slightly, as if his rant has left him breathless. He looks, very simply, like a little boy, one in the midst of a tantrum.
I stare at him for a long moment. I don’t really believe that Matthew meant what he said, and I don’t doubt that they were said in the heat of the moment. Still, his words strike a blow in my frail heart, and I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to block out the hurtful and regretful memories, and I decide that it is time Matthew heard my tale. “Come here, boy,” I say as I open my eyes again, peering at my grandson as I pat the seat beside me. “Let me tell you a story.”
Matthew sits down and looks at me expectantly. I study his face, as if looking for a sign that Matthew is old enough, brave enough, even, to hear the truth. I need to know that he can handle it.
“I was born in 1932, boy, in the small town of Poznan, Poland. You do know where Poland is, right?” Matthew nods excitedly as I begin. “I lived in a little house in a poor community with my mama and papa, in a house we shared with two other families. I was the only child, so I had my own room. It was small, and the roof was ripped up and torn in a section near the foot of my bed. You could always see the stars when you looked up. You could always see the Star of David. In that house, you were never truly alone.” I smile at the memory. “But peace never lasts for too long. It was 1939 when Poland was attacked.”
“Attacked?” Matthew asks, interrupting me. “Attacked by whom, Grandfather?”
“The Nazis, my boy. For this was the time of the Holocaust, the first major attack on an area heavily populated with Jews. I was only little when it happened; a few years younger than you, in fact.” I don’t tell Matthew that I was only seven when the Nazis attacked. He doesn’t need to know that.
“For years the Nazis had campaigned against us, spreading their propaganda of lies against us. They hated us, the Nazis did, and their hatred spread like wildfire, uncontainable and contagious to those who were easily swayed. They were the reason so many Jews ended up on the streets, the reason why so many of our businesses were shut down. There had been violence before, more or less concealed by the shadows, but the night they attacked Poland...well, there was never really anything quite like it. The Nazis bashed and burned our homes, destroyed businesses, took lives; they destroyed our synagogues without a second thought. Everywhere the Nazis went they reaped and sowed destruction.
“I remember fighting with my parents, earlier on the day that our street was bombed. I was always fighting with my parents then. Our street was one of the first bombed; I still remember how the houses burst into a cobweb of flames. Several Jewish families from our street survived, and my family and I ran with them. It was a mad escape, a desperately mad one, and my legs were sore and my feet were bruised and the cramps were so painful that they stole my breath away, but we didn’t stop, not once. Even when night had fallen and I assumed we would pause to rest we kept running. I didn’t understand, at the time, that if we stopped running we would all die. I hated my parents then, and all the other families. I, too, wished death upon them.”
I lower my eyes then, ashamed, even though it had happened all those years ago. “We had it lucky, those first few days. The Nazis were not fully organized; the number of check points was fairly little. The Star of David was always with us, always. During the night it shone, bright and clear, high over our heads, and even when the moon was gone and the sun came out to play, the Star of David was with me. It was like I could sense its presence.” I look at Matthew, his face a mixture of awe and surprise. I smile thinly. I bet not many grandparents can capture their grandchildren’s attention the way I can.
“Matthew, are you sure you want me to continue?” I ask him. I know how sad the story becomes. I relive it, every single night, in my dreams.
Matthew nods enthusiastically. “Please, Grandfather.”
“All right, calm down. Now, as I was saying, there were seven families in the beginning, twenty of us in all, including myself. Four died from natural causes- heat, exhaustion, and dehydration. Six were shot down from afar on the fourth day. On the eighth day we were resting, about to take refuge in what we had assumed was a broken down, abandoned house. None of us knew it was a trap, which the Nazis were inside, waiting for us. The remaining adults left, including my parents, left four of the children and myself in a ditch not too far away while they went to investigate.
“I still remember the way my blood froze when I heard my mother’s scream, splitting the earth in two. We watched in horror as the Nazis dragged our parents outside, beating them all the way. They spoke in German to one another, the Nazis did, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The other children and I stayed frozen, glued to our hiding place in the ditch, our bodies pressed against the earth, tethered to one another’s will to stay hidden and our own suffocating fear. We watched as they dragged two of the men, both fitter, more muscular men, into the back of their van and locked them in the trunk. Then they turned and shot the others.”
Matthew just looks at me, shock and some other indescribable pity on his face. “You mean... you mean they killed them? They killed your parents?”
“Aye, my boy. My mother and father and the others who had been left behind. The Nazis shot them and discarded their bodies like trash, kicking and spitting on the corpses before driving away. I watched it happen.” I close my eyes and sigh, leaning back in the chair as if sinking into it, but I keep my hands firmly gripped on the arms. I feel lightheaded, like I always do when I think about that day. I don’t tell Matthew how the deaths were anything but merciful, how the Nazis shot our people first in each legs, then the arms, then the chest and, if the person was still alive and hadn’t bleed out yet, they were shot in the head. I don’t tell him about how loudly the bullets echoed that day, how the sound of them still rouses me from my nightmares. I don’t tell him about the way my mother looked at me, how our eyes met one last time over that long distance. I don’t tell him about the way my mother’s body crumpled to the ground like a rag doll or how the Nazis took the most time with my father, not being merciful enough to shoot him in the head, but watching him as he bled. I don’t tell him how the blood splattered to the ground, gratifying the earth in a pool of red.
“None of us moved until we were certain the Nazis had gone, and then we stood together, as one, in unspoken agreement, and climbed out of the ditch. Three of the children headed to the dead bodies, kneeling beside them, crying. One of the kids stared out into the distance, in the direction that the Nazis had gone- his father had been taken to a slave camp. I didn’t move. I didn’t see the point of going to my parent’s side. I already knew they were dead; confirming the fact would do nothing more than torture me. I refused to stand over their bodies and say a goodbye that they would never hear because they were already gone, refused for their blood to lap over my feet in waves. I cried then, but I did not weep like the others. I was too scared that if I started to cry I would lose myself forever, lose the will to live. So I did the only thing I could think of doing.” I lower my voice to a bitter whisper. “I ran.”
My fingers rummage under my shirt until I find a long chain, and I pull it out to reveal the pendant- the Star of David. Even after all these years, the silver on the chain had not faded, and it still glistened like the rising sun. “I prayed to the Star of David every single night. My father had given this to me when I turned five- I’ve had it ever since. I never once stopped praying. I prayed that I would survive, that I would live a life worth living, for my parent’s sake. I prayed that I would make them proud and that the wisdom of our God would save me. You see, my boy, I was breaking. Breaking, but not broken.
“I ran for days; I lost track of the number. I hid as best as I could, in alleyways and trash bags and sewers during the day, moving as fast as my feet would carry me. All I had was hope, or rather all I had was an illusion that called itself hope, and my faith, which crumbled just a little more with every passing day. I didn’t even realize I had passed the border into Lithuania until I was found by a pair of sympathetic peace officers who brought me to the hospital.”
I can’t help it then; I grin. “All the enemy lands surrounding Poland and I happened to flee to the only country who didn’t request the right to spill my people’s blood. Mari Jampole, Lithuania... that place saved my life, Matthew. But while Lithuania saved my life, the Star of David- our faith- saved me from myself.”
“What happened to the other children, Grandfather?” Matthew asks. I had almost forgotten he was there, experiencing the horror with me through my words, my memories. “Did they live?”
“Only one other survived. The others died off on their own. The other survivor, a sweet lady, died five years back. We were good friends.” I pause, remembering her playing bingo with my wife and I, so long ago. Those were better times. “I am the last of our little party. You see, Matthew, how lucky you are? I wished death upon my parents and just day’s later death came for them. I had to grow up with the knowledge that they were gone, forever stolen from me, and that it was my own foolish wish that had caught up to them. Promise me that you will never wish harm upon others, Matthew, no matter how angry or upset you may be. You’ll surely regret it.”
“I promise.” Matthew mumbles. Matthew stares at me for a long moment, mouth hanging open. Slowly he got to his feet and hugged me. His back began to move and his breaths became ragged and I could tell he was crying. When he pulled away and looked into my face, I saw the tears of sadness, the tears of understanding, and it makes my old soul lift. “Thank you, Grandfather.” He whispers. “For telling me this.” I close my eyes, and when I open them, Matthew is gone.
I smile at the place where Matthew had stood. He is young. He will learn to appreciate both what he has and what he doesn’t. He will grow into himself, into a young man filled with knowledge and love and life. And, even though at times he will be upset and it will seem that he is breaking, he will never be broken.