Sometimes, when I’m bored, I imagine that I am working, that my hands are moving swiftly over a pair of trousers for some important person. The fabrics, the threads, are of the finest quality, as they melt into shape beneath my fingers. When the customer comes, I humbly turn over what I consider a miracle of craftsmanship. Then the customer loses all vestiges of self-important dignity. Like a child, he embraces my hands and jumps up and down with joy. “Never have I seen anything the like,” he says, and I am mute with gratification. Tears of pleasure roll down my cheeks.
I am a ghost. And I live at Auschwitz. Don’t worry, I’m not a poltergeist, given to pulling a visitor’s derby over his eyes. I am an observer merely, a silent tour guide. Ghosts really have no power, despite rumors to the contrary. The most I can do is to shake a few branches and set some loose leaves drifting, but I rarely bother. Nor would I whisper in your ear, although there are plenty of visitors who hear voices, usually the Americans, who have such imagination.
But I do watch, constantly. I watch the school groups come. They stand in rows, then stagger from their lines like men who have drank too much whiskey. These days, the young people carry boxes in their pockets. They sneak them out and gaze enraptured; it is as if life has shrunk down to the size of a grasshopper’s coffin.
Even the guide has one she sneaks a look at, as she tries to sustain feeling in her voice when recounting the same horrific story for the ten thousandth time.
I don’t know what is in the box, but it has the power of God, the power to mesmerize. It lights and flickers with its own ghostly magic.
In early days, the visits brought earnestness and tears. But now… Maybe they’re not as jaded as I describe. My wife always called me an exaggerator. Guilty as charged. Especially in the community garden where my cabbages grew “large as a giant’s head,” and my carrots “long as a witch’s nose” and “sweet as honey from the promised land.” Who can blame a man for being proud of his vegetables?
There are still people who come and fall to their knees in anguish, or hold hands to hide the vulnerability of their horror. The yeshiva boys sometimes weep secretly into their sleeves. The girls from a nearby school, wearing plaid skirts, clutch shiny crosses around their necks. And there are those who giggle, from nervousness.
Would you believe that I giggled too, the moment I stepped on the grounds these decades and decades past? They were leading a group of midgets to the building on the left. The doctor would examine them, a man told them in German.
The midgets and the Jews, I thought, what company for each other! And I giggled. What more could I do? I was always one to watch, like a camera, my wife often said. I was a tailor, I’m sure you guessed. I considered myself as fine an artist as any painter or musician with a piece of fabric, and there I exaggerated too. “Fit for a queen,” I would tell a lady. “You look like an English gentleman,” I would tell a young man fitted with his first suit for his bar mitzvah.
The day before we were taken from our apartment, I had just received my first machine. Another tailor had died and a cousin of mine brought it to me in a crate. It was amazing, how fast it was. Within no time at all, I transformed an old coat into a warm dress for my wife.
Miriam was afraid of the machine though; she was very superstitious. But the neighbors all came and surrounded me with wonder. “Maybe, with this,” Mrs. Potok said, “you will be useful enough to be safe.”
“No one is safe anymore,” Nathan Weiss replied. “You think a machine will keep him safe?”
“Listen,” Mrs. Kroeger begged me. “Sew on this star for my son, my Jacov. Only yesterday his friend, from when he was a baby, a Rabbi’s son–if you could imagine–was taken from the street, like a dog, by his neck. He was arrested because his star was pinned instead of sewn. God only knows what they did to him then.”
“Of course,” I told her. “Just watch how this goes. I’ll sew it on tightly before you can take three breaths.”
The neighbors huddled round me like I was a violinist on a stage.
In better days, this would have occasioned a feast: kreplach, matzoh ball soup, herring, challah, maybe a little koogle. We’d have laid out the table, talked and sang. But in those terrible times, the guests dispersed, out of politeness, at suppertime. Miriam skirted around the machine. She chopped an onion she had found on the street.
“Who would have thought,” she said, “that they would turn our star against us.”
“Are you crying, Miriam?” I went to her.
“It’s the onion, it’s the onion.” She waved me away, then turned her back so I couldn’t see her.
Usually, I dreamt of clothes or food, but that night I dreamt of Moses’ first meeting with God. It was just as in the Torah only somewhat condensed. Moses stood in a clearing with his flock. The burning bush called out his name:
“Here I am,” answered Moses.
“I have observed the misery of my people.” God spoke from the bush. “You will lead them from their slavery.”
“But why would the people follow me?” Moses asked. “Who would believe that the Lord has sent me?”
The flame on the bush flickered in my dream. I was almost afraid that it would extinguish.
“Speak to them. Show them. Perform these miracles which shall be thy sign.”
“But I’ve never been eloquent…how will I speak?”
God sounded angry. “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Now go. I will be your mouth, and teach you what to speak.”
“O my Lord,” begged Moses, “please find someone else.”
There was a profound trembling then, as if the earth would split at its seams. The wings of the sky unfolded and rain poured from the heavens.
The next morning they came. They lined us up. They put us all together in a car on a train. We prayed and sang, and talked about the past as if we were at a party. It was suffocating on the train, but none of us wanted to arrive.
When the doors finally opened, it was dark. A single star illuminated the entrance to the camp. The men stood in one line, the women in another. In the space between the two, I held Miriam’s hand. We waited. A sign on the gate said that work would set us free.
In front of our eyes, the midgets were led. “The doctor would examine them,” the soldier spoke to them in German.
It was winter, always winter, it seemed. The midgets wore such thin small coats, and scarves that were poorly knitted. I wanted to make them new clothes. Like little dolls they were, so eager and willing to please those in authority, unbelieving that any harm would come, simply unbelieving.
For years, I had teased Miriam about her namesake. “Why didn’t your parents name you after someone more noble?” I joked. Remember that Miriam was unkind to Moses. She and Aaron said cruel things about his Cushite wife. God descended and reproached Miriam. He punished her with leprosy until her skin was white as snow. But Moses interceded on her behalf. “God, I have forgiven her. Please won’t you?”
It snowed that evening as they led her away. The utterance of her name was like light on my tongue. When Miriam turned to look at me, the guard shoved her with his rifle. All I could do was watch.
Now, yet another snow has come and gone. The tree limbs are black against the pale morning sky. When the grounds are empty, I stave off boredom like a beggar staves off hunger. I don’t complain although, when it’s very cold, the memories flare up painfully, as if to melt the ice. Time comes and goes like a ghost on wings. Time traps and time frees, all according to its will.
But, the air is growing warmer, even as I speak, and thicker, a well-made coat. Soon, today’s visitors will arrive. They touch the walls with their fingertips and try to imagine a time one country could keep such a secret as this place.
I watch. Occasionally, I nod to a familiar hare or crow.
I don’t know if I’ll be here forever, if there is such a thing, or where the others are, but why ask questions that won’t be answered.
Don’t misunderstand; I do not guard this place; ghosts, as I’ve said, have no power.
Can you imagine if they did?
Then, you would see them, en masse, six million or so, marching together on the path before me. Skeletal, they would march, but with purpose nonetheless. What would they be doing? On such a winter day? Where would an army of ghosts be marching?
To set their tables, of course.
The Sabbath comes upon us; the winter light is short. The food must be abundantly prepared, the houses cleaned, the tables set, the boys still rambling must be gathered from their play, and as evening comes upon us, the candles will be lit.
Kelly is the author for numerous books for children, the most recent of which is forthcoming from Kar-Ben Books.