The dead are supernatural: so my Zeyde appears and reappears in my mind, in these typing fingers. Who can understand that in the Spring of 1939 you were vibrantly alive? As now you are alive for me. Will you come to me every Spring from now on? I feel that you are more alive than any of us.
I grew up with you, with your photo in a frame hung on the wall opposite the dining table. Chasidic fedora, dark greatcoat. Where were you looking with your gleaming eyes? You had dreams in your head? Thoughts on Talmud? Plans for your family?
Tarnow, Poland,1939: following the German occupation of the city, on September 8, the harassment of the Jews begins. The Germans order the establishment of a Judenrat, a Jewish Council to transmit orders and regulations to the Jewish community, for example, enforcement of special taxation on the community and providing workers for forced labor.
Did they force you into the Judenrat? Or did they hear your soft voice, and deem you unfit for bossing other Jews around? Why would you need to be loud? No doubt you convened with God on every matter of importance. You were respected by the townspeople in part because you worked tirelessly for the chevrah kedishe of Tarnow – a volunteer position considered a great mitzvah that involved preparing Jews who died for burial.
I look at the hollowmen we have become in this pandemic, each retreating into her little corner, her little mousehole. I look for someone to look up to, there are many, but because I never met you, Zeyde, you seem like a god, for staying to the End instead of fleeing you are etched in my consciousness these many weeks, surfacing and resurfacing. You never left the town that was to be a mammoth Jewish graveyard. What could you have lost by trying to escape? Did God tell you you were needed to bury all those many whom the Germans butchered? Did He reveal that your children would have a better chance of escaping without you? Did you plan to join them as you promised?
Your image burns through the decades, through the small glass framed photo. My family and I ate dinner every night opposite your image, at the French Provincial dining table. The intensity in your eyes! You wanted to live, whatever it was that made you stay. Why not go with my Mother to join her sister? I don’t know the answer, but I can tell what I imagine, and feel about that last meeting. I think you had a great soul, and you are here to tell me that I can grow a great soul like yours.
I feel you approaching, what does it mean? Last time I sat down to write, maybe a week ago, you were very far away. I tried to conjure you by enticing myself to write: first using pen on Tibetan hand made paper, then typing on a backlit screen, another time first cleaning my glasses very well with dishsoap and lukewarm water. Me, with my writing materials. Now I write in earnest, and you lie in some mass grave – if there is something charnal left of you at all. How dare they take you, and pile you on top of all the others they dared take. You were 40 something, so handsome, regal in your humility! “My Father always stood tall and straight,” my Mother said of you. So intensely alive. And the next moment, dirt.
Wake up, Zeyde! Will you sit beside me?
Forget my death, you tell me. Remember that I am inscribed in the book of life, you say. OK, so let’s say you are here with me now, why not speak up? If you were alive, says my daughter Sarah, you would miss me, I’m your granddaughter whom you never met! Perhaps neither of us has made peace with the absence of the other, so here I am, calling to you. Where do my cries end up?
Tonight, the Toronto sky is an ethereal milky blue. And you’re here to teach me – what?
Is it your faith in God? If you were here, you and I, we could converse, debate about God. I could look into a face which shone with faith, and from everything my Mother told me, who walked with God.
As I write, I feel God beside me inside me. A gentle glow, a slowness to anger, an inching toward a better version of myself. See, Zeyde, just writing about you is a little like being with you.
My Mum always spoke of reuniting with you, did it happen? I mean, after she passed?
Because you two never reunited in this world as you promised.
I’ll tell another story then. Let me imagine how you were, at least in one moment, Spring 1939, your wife having passed away four years earlier, of what I know not.
My mother gave me to understand that you were a holy man. What would you make of a granddaughter who intermarried, who did not appreciate our heritage as you did?
I am walking backwards, back to Tarnow to the house where you lived. Me, the ghost, you the middle-aged father of four girls, all of whom have made a life outside Tarnow – except for Mala, my mother. You with a dry goods store. Your life of study, that was primary. And what ensued was your life of piety, charity, preparing the dead for burial: cleaning them, praying for them as they awaited burial, never leaving the body unattended until it was interred.
I see you now, leaving your store. Dressed in your white Keitel, you have made yourself an angel for your visit to the home of the dead. You open the door, this time it is the home of the shnader, the tailor Reuven, the late day seeping into the earth, the shnader’s little family standing by his remains, wishing they could fly out the window, their eyes on the window. And you come in like a ray of light.
There are two others waiting outside Reuven’s house. You and they gently lift his remains onto a gurney, it is night, that is only respectful, and under the cold eye of the moon, you all take him into a back room of the shteibel, the house-cum-shul where the Tarnow faithful go to pray and study and debate halacha, Jewish law.
Under the moon, I hear your voice for the first time, not unlike my mother’s – saying a prayer of pious intent. You take Reuven’s hand, you wash it gently as is the custom. Each time you have prepared a Jewish body for burial, you have glimpsed the other world. Were you in this world when you washed him? Here is his hand, here is yours. Reuven’s hand that cut and sewed your wedding suit, Zeyde, that created the dress for your bride. And Zeyde, here you are, preparing Reuven to hold God’s hand. And you see his almost smile, the one he greeted you with when you saw each other in shul, on the street, in his shop, in the shteibel.
The mouth, the sensitive lips have become wood. Where is his smile now, already with God? Your own lips are sore, pursed, by the time you finish preparing him to meet God. It may be His will to take Reuven, but so young! 36! Dead at the age of twice life! How does a person accept it!
I am here in the shteibel but not here, opening a door which I have never seen. I kiss the mezuzah hanging on the door frame, I am here to learn, and I feel as if I have learned everything from the way you attend to Reuven, as if this act is the one and only in the world that counts.
It is too much to continue to look at your face, your dedication to the task at hand. Look at the walls of the shteibel instead, they are peeling, the pictures of former rebs of Tarnow hang here and there, everything so unfinished. Everything already in a state of decay, from the chipped water pitcher to the dusty unpainted shelves holding the holy books to the small stone fireplace in the middle of one wall, the ashes, the fire, the blackened stones around it, the long rough-hewn tables smell of wet wood, camphor, bread, sweat. Unfinished unvarnished veinous unpainted walnut tables and book shelves and chairs. In the quiet room, I can hear the scraping sound of so many scholars pushing back their chairs, up for a drink of water, back to the table, to endless hours of study.
I pass through the walls to stand under the walnut tree outside, where the other plants have withered, and wait.
You are finished washing and dressing the father of three who is now a memory, and another pious Jew has come to take your place, and stay with Reuven, to watch over his soul until the appointed time of interment. You wash your hands as he enters, and your eyes see nothing, you acknowledge one another with the briefest flutter of the eye, you, Moishe Izche Merril, and the one other living Jew here. Moishe, I see you go home; I follow your heavy steps: You opening your door. You washing your hands three times after being with the dead. The weather is mild, yet you breathe into your hands that look like wood, you tap your boots once twice thrice.
You knock on your own door, shake your head, your shoulders heave a little, your head bows a little, you pause before entering Life again.
I look at your hands, I see mine, the prominent bones, the whiteness above the knuckle. You turn the wooden knob and enter, and my mother, just 15, would have noticed your hands first: red, overwashed. My mother, 15, slight, pale. She would know where you have been, and hence know better than to run and hug you. My mother looks at her Father, and knows he needs to be alone now, and she tells him she is going for a walk, “See you soon, Tate. You hear the ketzele in the courtyard? May I bring him a little milk? We won’t let him wither and get sick, right Tate?”
Moishe nods, he is far away. He sits heavily at the kitchen table, looking out into the night, seeing nothing. How was his handling of the corpse? His prayers? Did Reuven hear them on the way to Gan Eyden, to heaven? Did Moishe’s prayers please God, was it acceptable the way he Moishe washed Reuven’s remains? In some world, did Reuven know how he Moishe respected him as a father, a husband, a friend? It was too hard that Reuven should go and leave his young family, through typhus, through no fault of his own. What, is the world a better place for want of a good tailor? for want of such a good man?
In Krakow, there is a Reb who maintains that something bad is coming, even while the little Jews of Tarnow do their utmost to live lives that mean something, lives about creating a better world, through action, through prayer.
Moishe looks into the prayer book at random, and falls upon Exodus:
God set upon you taskmasters….
Life here in Tarnow was not easy to begin with! Any store in Tarnow is not easy to manage. Life here is hardscrabble, more accounts owing than paid. But now! With the Germans here!
He wishes not to think of the German robots that patrol the streets. He hold his face in his hands. He closes his eyes, and reframes the thought: God is testing us… it will be alright… so many pious men here!
He runs his hand over the entirety of his face. A beautiful, holy face, and I am here to see it! He looks at his dry red hands and says It will be alright; he prays It will be alright.
It must be alright.
Marsha Eines is a child of Holocaust survivors. She is a mother of two exemplary young women. When not dreaming of writing, she is a freelance journalist, and writer/lover of fiction and creative non-fiction, and poetry.