Fritz Lieberman did not appear to be extraordinary. He seldom smiled, laughed rarely; he was almost morose with his unfathomable eyes, hidden by an unruly twist of hair falling over his brow.
We greeted each other every morning, in precisely the same predictable way, he on his way to the workroom, hazy with lint and the whirr of knives slicing through layers of fabric, and I en route to my janitors’ room, a tiny closet congested with brooms, pails, and the odor of soap.
“Good morning, Eli.” He usually spoke first, softly.
“Good morning, Fritz,” I'd reply contritely, for truth be known, I felt nearly apologetic for being there, although usually my tasks kept me anonymous behind curtains of steam and flurries of dust.
“How is Ryvka,” he’d inquire.
“Quite well.” Ryvka grew thicker, the child within her thriving, as if eager to burst the confines of Ryvka’s rounded and taut skin. I lived in fear and joy, for in spite of my elation, there felt little promise in the darkening and dreadful days. What calamity awaited this child?
We visited during our lunch break, quiet bursts of friendly banter between bites of hard bread and cold tea. I knew about his farmer father, his ill mother, his soldier brother. In turn, he knew about Ryvka, the arm I broke when I was eleven, and my craving for apples.
And always, between us, was the yellow star, the dreaded and beloved symbol of my faith. Like a glittering jewel, a gilded sunbeam, the star hovered over my heart, a shining flame of pride and fear.
There were Jews everywhere, now, just as Hitler said there were. Hundreds walked the street, visible, obvious, their stars blazing, marking them. How many more cowered behind locked doors, ashamed and afraid?
We’d been so identified before, by yellow armbands, sashes, and be-ribboned hats, but, these were not ancient times; such decrees were barbaric and primitive, showing condemning judgment and intolerance. The yellow emblem never bode well in times past; it could not be any different now. I could not rid my belly of a gnawing ache, a pulsating sourness rising like a bitter, bilious tide.
However, I did not disobey. I must be proud of the yellow star.
“Have you plans for Channukah?” Fritz asked during break one day, wiping crumbs from his chin.
“No,” I answer despondently, for there was no money for gifts, candles, or dumplings. Maybe, there would be a few spare marks so Ryvka could buy some withered potatoes to make golden fried latkes, but I didn’t hope for much. Everything was expensive or unavailable.
We’d still offer our thanksgiving to G-d, blessed is He, for preserving us and bringing us to another season of celebration, even with the little we had. Prayer, song, and our love for each other. And the anticipation of the arrival of little Jakob or Sarah.
Fritz shared his plans for Christmas. A little time with his family around a candle-lit tree, if he could manage the train fare, if the trains were not commandeered for military transport, if it did not snow, if the factory allowed time off. If, if, if...
If only the black knot of apprehensiveness beneath the yellow star would dissolve.
Yet, the dark hardness was a shadowy premonition. It did not surprise me when, finally one day, soldiers barged into the factory, crashing like thunder, punctuating the air with lightning gunfire.
It would be mere moments before the soldiers found us in our secluded corner in the basement. We heard shattering glass, running footsteps, and low moans following their path above us.
Fritz stared at me.
Before I knew what he was doing, he yanked the thread that loosely held the yellow star to my overalls. With trembling fingers, he pulled tailor’s pins from his cuff and stabbed them through the star and onto his own chest.
“You cannot do this thing,” I implored, appalled and ashamed at my hope.
“You have a wife and a new baby to see.”
The sound from my lips was like that of a wounded animal, a laboured, guttural groan. Fritz stood to face the jabbing guns and grabbing arms, and he stumbled, almost eagerly into their embrace.
I croaked out a final cry, and Fritz turned to me, and the peace reflected in his eyes quieted my protest.
Then he was gone.
The dark knot unravelled.
The flame of the star still burned, hot and sweet, in my heart.
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