Issue No. 19 • Spring 2018
Although I never came close enough to the fire to be scorched, the radiation has penetrated my psyche and Nazi boots trampled my dreams, and Loreleis and Lily Marlenes sing under the lanterns of my past.
I recall my childhood in Paris in the late 1930s. Small and puny and dressed in the name FRANKENSTEIN, a joke to spiteful children of my age, I was the subject to laughter and derision, and a deep loneliness sucked me in, a loneliness from which I have never come out. It was the time of the “Crosses of Fire”, surging fascism with its inevitable anti-Semitic credentials. It was then that I found out that I was a Jew. On the note-books I brought home from school, scribbled in children’s handwriting, the words “DEATH TO JEWS” and “HANG THEM ALL” made me first aware of a religious background I had inherited and had not taken to mind.
Unthinking children, with no way to vent the bitterness that was invested in them by their authoritarian parents, ran through the streets like wild dogs chasing the Jewish lamb into a corner and biting its legs. Since there were only a few of us in each neighborhood I ran the streets alone, fleeing from the horde of misguided children and seeking refuge where none existed.
And in the distance I could hear the sound of those heavy boots marching in cadence and crushing the grapes in its path until the juice, the color of blood, splattered the streets, and the sidewalks, and the gray walls of the houses of Paris. And in the quiet that followed, a long hand, with bony fingers, reached into every corner of the French night to pluck out the Jewish flies and send them off to Auschwitz. Some had sensed the impending doom and fled from the field of disaster, and some lay so quiet and still that the hand did not see them, but most were caught in the web and carted away to their deaths in the ovens of the devil.
I was one of those who escaped the carnage. I found myself alive and well, living in New York, fifteen years of age, not quite understanding what had happened and yet branded by an everlasting loneliness which still lives in the marrow of my bones.
It was not until a few years later that I first became aware of the magnitude of the slaughter that had taken place and something inside of me rebelled. Some Jews, whose faith had never been stoic, seemed confirmed in their doubt by the question they raised on their theistic flag pole: “Where was God when six million of his chosen people were slaughtered like lambs?” And every fiber of my being revolted against this simplistic attitude. There were no outbreaks in those camps, few attempts to resist the fate that they succumbed to, no interference with the events that led them to their unnatural end, and I could not help but wonder why.
And there I was in the grips of my adolescence, angry and proud, and promising myself to let no one scratch the surface of my moral fiber, reaching deep within myself for the gleaming sword of justice with which to do battle in the name of righteousness. And I entered the field of law charging on a white stallion, like a gladiator in the arena, like St. George and the dragon, like Don Quixote and the windmills. And for nearly twenty years I rammed my spear into the belly of the monster and he was barely scratched. But I was tired and weary. My body was scarred and my spirit was bleeding and I had to tend to myself.
So I took off my sword and gave away my horse and retreated to the woods. There I sat under a tree, meditating on the state of my being. I dug my fingers into the rich black soil and planted the seeds of my discontent. The seasons changed and when spring came around I saw that my seeds had given birth to beauty and realized how blind I had been. How everything is perfect. How there is no such thing as right or wrong, there is only that which is. How there is an order in the order of things and everything is in that order. And I folded my hands and let out a resounding “OM” which came out of the depths of my soul and surrounded me with a total sense of well-being.
And then . . . I had this dream:
Over the gate the sign read “AUSCHWITZ”. The ground was cold under our feet as we stood naked, all in a row, waiting to be taken to the showers. That’s how they did it you know, only sometimes it was a shower, and sometimes it was gas that came out of the shower heads. And the ones that followed loaded the corpses on wheelbarrows and took them to the ovens for cremation.
And there we were, shivering in the cold, following and followed by naked bodies whose flesh had fallen off from malnutrition, and the dreadful shower house some distance ahead. And I saw these two Hassidic Jews in front of me praying in Hebrew with undiminished faith. And I saw these two Jews in back of me grasping a last hope and saying: “Maybe it will be really a shower. After all, it’s a shower once in a while. Who says it will not be a shower today?” And I saw myself in the midst of them, walking quietly with resignation, my hands folded in front of me and the words echoing in my mind: “Everything is perfect. There is no such thing as right or wrong. There is only that which is. There is an order in the order of things and everything is in that order.”
Everything? EVERYTHING? And the words exploded inside my head and I let out a resounding scream. “NO! NO! Not everything. Not this. I must stand. I must fight. I must resist. Give me back my sword. There are millions of us and only a few hundred of them and if we have to die we will die our own deaths, and not theirs.
And the night faded and swept my dream away. And with the morning that followed there descended upon me a great confusion, a conflict within me between that in which I am a crusader, and that in which . . . I am a priest.