I am an old man, but I remember well when I was agile in mind and body. How quickly I became bent and haggard, the bloom of my youth tarnished and grayed, hope gaunt, faith faded.
It was the first day of Passover.
Had the day been chosen randomly? Or was it a twisted strategy of the enemy to mock our celebration of freedom and deliverance, of exiles released into liberty and new life?
Miraculously, we’d managed to smuggle wine and matzah into the ghetto. It looked peculiar, arranged on a snowy cloth, a corner of the broken-legged table supported by a crate. Jadzia lit the candles, used already and grimy.
“Blessed art thou, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us with your commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light...” She whispered the blessing, and before she shielded her face, her eyes reflected the flames, twin fires of desire and despair. My own heart flared in fervent anticipation.
I sipped the wine, and its sweet fruitiness plummeted me into a chasm of memories and sensations. Other Passovers, with my mother lighting the candles and my father’s face furrowed as he intoned the Kadesh. The bright taste of parsley, the honeyed delight of charoseth, the bite of horseradish. Lacy curtains breathed in the fragrance of apple blossoms, layered in frothy drifts on the newly mown grass.
But everything was gone. The apple trees, the billowing curtains, even Mother and Father, all burned up, if the terrible stories we heard are true.
I was jerked from my reminiscing by a thundering crash. Our hiding place rumbled, broken glass and chips of concrete pelted us as we dived for safety away from the rag-stuffed window.
“So. It begins,” murmured Eliasz.
Or, perhaps, it ends, I thought.
We were a remnant. A remnant of a remnant. Crammed into the Warsaw ghetto, like rats in cages, walled up in a small space and then reduced systematically, thousands by thousands. And, why? Because we were a problem that should disappear. Confined, because we may become subversive, contaminate them with disease, or form a black market. For what? A few darkening menorahs or tattered prayer shawls?
“It is time,” said Josek decisively. “Time to fight.”
He led the way out of our dank refuge, carefully dodging ragged boards and fragmented bricks. Another bang reverberated, hailing dust and splinters onto our shoulders.
The indigo twilight could not conceal the hellish scene. Previously damaged buildings had collapsed, and flames licked the heaps of stone and brick. Staccato gunfire and brilliant bursts of light shattered the descending darkness. So much blood, blooming like red poppies on the rough, bullet-plowed ground. I was accustomed to death, but the smell of burning flesh assaulted me afresh, like the taste of maror, the bitter herb. Sorrow and anguish, a piercing knife, a caustic cup.
We battled with our smuggled weapons - a few rifles and pistols, a handful of machine guns. Each morning, the spring breeze carried promise and expectation. By afternoon, the air was heavy with ash and the pungent odor of burning gasoline, rotting bodies.
I called on the King of the Universe. Ve-haKodesh, Baruch Hu, matziyanu mi-yadam. “But the Holy One, praised be He, delivers us from their hands.”
We hid in sewers and deep passageways while the fires raged and consumed. Finally, there was nothing left to burn.
We were herded like cattle onto stifling railroad cars. Holding my head high, I remembered the motto of the resistance. All are ready to die as human beings. The enemy could treat us as dirty, dumb animals, but we are not. We are the Chosen.
Maybe it was my eyes held aloft, my refusing to be intimidated, or the youthful breadth of my shoulders, but I was spared. Not released from the torturous task of carting my brothers and sisters to the ovens, and not free to disregard their skeletal bodies and hollowed eyes. I touched each one reverently and said Kaddish. “...He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us...”
Perhaps, there’s a chance for peace before I die.
But, I am nineteen years old.
I am already an old man.
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