Wednesday, April 17, 2013
It was late Shabbat afternoon, that magic moment between dusk and darkness. The visitors had gone. The baby was already sleeping. Soon the lights would go on. My father and my brother would be home from Shul. There would be a call for the Havdalah candle, wine and spices, and the workweek would begin.
But for the moment it was Shabbat--Shabbat peace, Shabbat stillness. I curled up next to my mother on the living room couch, and begged, "Tell me a story. Tell me about myself when I was little."
And my mother began:
You were born in a very difficult time, a sad and bitter time for our family, for the Jewish people. Wicked Hitler was on the march across Europe. Like Haman before him, he had sworn to destroy us, to kill every Jewish man, woman and child who lived on the face of the earth.
Hitler's armies had not yet reached Hungary. He had not yet arrived in our town. We had heard terrible stories, things we didn't believe, couldn't believe. But I was young, not much more than a girl, and I had just been blessed with my first baby. Forgetting all our troubles, I waited eagerly for the nurse to bring my baby to me. I sat in the large hospital bed, and watched the nurses bring the other women their babies.
Finally, a nurse came walking toward my bed, holding a small bundle wrapped in a flannel blanket. What a beautiful baby you were: Your eyes were big and blue in your small rosy face. Someone had tied a matching blue ribbon into your fuzz of brown hair.
"Oh, give her to me!" I cried. "Please, let me hold her!" But the nurse, a heavy-set woman with small, hard eyes, did not smile.
"Take her," she said shortly, dumping you roughly at the end of the bed. "I don't know why we have to bother with these Jewish brats." I must have gasped, because she looked straight at me and repeated. "These Jewish brats. They are a waste of time and money. Hitler will take care of all of you before the year is out."
I couldn't answer her. I just held you tight in my arms and cried and cried.
"There, honey, don't let that old witch upset you." It was the woman in the bed next to mine. She was a rosy-cheeked farmer's wife with graying hair. "Come on, let's have a look at your baby. Oh my, oh my; isn't she cute. What a pity..."
Suddenly, she sat straight up in her bed, and spoke to me with great earnestness, "Listen to me, listen to me, Mrs. ...."
"Mrs. Rosenberg," I supplied.
"Listen, Mrs. Rosenberg. Let me have her." Her heavy face was flushed with excitement. "Let me take her. Why should she die, the innocent babe? I swear to you, I will care for her as if she was my own. I never had children, you know. Give her to me."
I stared at her in amazement. "What do you mean? What are you saying? How can I give her to you? She is ours. She is a Jewish child and we will raise her, G-d willing, as a Jewish child."
"You won't raise her." The friendliness was gone from her face. "That poor babe, she hasn't got a chance. There won't be any Jewish kids left when Hitler gets here."
"Don't be so sure," I answered uncertainly. "Don't be so sure. This is not the first time they have tried to destroy us." And suddenly I remembered. I remembered that it was Purim that day.
Purim was your birthday. It was a sign, I thought, a sign from Heaven, that my baby was born on the very day that Haman met his downfall. It was the day that was transformed from darkness to a great light. I was suddenly filled with courage and confidence. "In every generation they have risen up against us to destroy us, and G-d has always saved us from their hands. And He will again. He will again!"
My neighbor continued to reason with me, but I was no longer listening. I was thinking about my baby's name.
Your father came to visit me that afternoon. How good it was to see him, his megillah tucked under one arm, a bag of kosher food in his hand! My first words to him were, "Avrom, I know what our baby's name will be. She will be Esther, Esther Malka."
Your father nodded. "Esther. Esther Malka. A beautiful name, a good name." Gently he stroked your little head. "G-d will surely help."
And that is how you got your name. To us your parents, to our relatives, to all the people who knew you, your name held a special meaning. It meant hope. It meant faith. "Ah, Esther'ke. Esther Malka," people would say, smiling down at you. "A beautiful name, a good name." And then they would sigh, "G-d will help. G-d must help."
Indeed, we needed G-d's help desperately in those days. Hitler's armies entered Hungary. By the time you were two years old, we were forced to leave our homes, and we were living in the ghetto. What is a ghetto? It was a kind of prison. There was a section of the city that was surrounded by walls and guarded by Nazi soldiers. Young men like your father were marched out at the point of a gun to work for the Nazis. Otherwise no Jew was allowed to leave the ghetto walls. And inside those walls we lived, crowded together, many families in one apartment. We lived with cold, hunger and fear. Many became sick and died. Others were taken away by the Nazis and never heard from again.
That is how you lived and grew in the ghetto. You were a pale, thin little girl with wide, anxious blue eyes. There were so many things you could not understand.
And then it was Purim, your third birthday. Your father and I were determined that this one day you would have a taste of Purim joy, that you would laugh, have some fun. We planned it all carefully. That morning before your father left with the workers, I sewed a pair of gold earrings inside his jacket. He would trade these with the farmers for flour, sugar, and dried fruit. We would have hamantashen. After he had left, I found a torn lace curtain. It became your gown. From cardboard and old wrapping paper, I fashioned a crown. Your costume was ready. When the men returned from work, people gathered in our house to hear your father read the megillah. How little it takes to make a child happy! You wore your costume like a queen. I had let your hair loose and brushed it until it shone. Your eyes sparkled under your crown. Your cheeks were flushed with excitement. In your happiness, you were the center of attention. People smiled, and cried. They were remembering other Purims in better times. Every time your father read the name Esther HaMalkah ("Esther the Queen") the other children smiled at you. You stood very proud, very serious. The megillah was your story. That night, as I tucked you into bed, rosy and happy, stuffed with hamantashen, you murmured sleepily, "I'm lucky I am Esther."
But that was the last happy day I can remember in the ghetto. Things got worse and worse. Every few days now, German soldiers rounded up terrified Jews and forced them into cattle cars. They never returned. Finally, the day came when we realized that we had to send you away. The plan was to smuggle you out of the ghetto, and send you far away to the countryside, to one of the little villages so poor and small that it was forgotten, even by the Germans. There you would live with a peasant family until the war was over. For a sum of money, the last we had, they might agree to take in a Jewish child, and ask no questions.
When you woke up that morning, I had all your clothing packed in a large satchel. The young man who was going to take you was already waiting, sitting patiently in the corner. As I dressed you hastily, I tried to explain. I told you that the young man was a friend. He would take you to a place where there were no soldiers and no guns, where you could eat all the potatoes and bread you wanted.
You asked, "Are you and Tati coming with me?"
I told you we were not. Then I gripped you by the shoulders and spoke to you very sternly. "Remember one thing. You are not called Esther anymore. Your name is Eva. Say it again. Eva. No matter who asks you and when they ask you. Nobody must know you are a Jewish child. Do you understand?"
You were only three years old, and you didn't understand. You burst into loud sobs. "You won't come with me. Tati won't come with me. And I can't even have my name."
I tried to think of words that would comfort you. But none came to me. Besides, I was afraid that if I spoke, I would be crying along with you.
Then I heard the young man speak. "Come here, Ester'ke." His voice was calm and friendly. "Come, I want to tell you a secret." You stopped crying, and regarded him curiously. Tall and blond, dressed in the rough clothing of a peasant, he looked like a gentile. But he spoke to you in Yiddish, and his eyes were Jewish eyes, kind and sad. "You're not leaving your Tati, your Mommy, or your name. Not really. You will keep them all with you, here." And he pointed at your heart. "And at night, when you are alone, in bed, you will say the Shema and you will think of them, your mother, your father and your Jewish name. But you won't tell anyone. It will be your secret. And one day, your mother and father will come and get you, and bring you home again."
"And you, do you have a secret?" you asked him. He nodded. "Yes, I do, Es... I mean Eva. Yes I do." You left me then, holding tight to the hands of your new friend. Your face was smudged with tears. But you went quietly, won over by a sucking candy and a new doll.
For many, many months, we did not hear from you. Towards the end of the war, roads and bridges had been bombed, and we were cut off from the countryside. Somehow, through many miracles, we survived, your father and I. Many, many Jews, millions of Jews, did not. Then, the war was over. The wicked Nazis were destroyed. Like all the Jews who survived we tried to put our life together again. Our one thought was to find you.
We set out for the village where we had sent you. We walked ten miles by foot. The railroads were down and there were no trains. And as we walked, we prayed. We prayed that we would find you safe. We knew that many villagers had driven out the Jewish children that they had agreed to shelter. Others had handed them over to the Nazis. We also knew that there were villagers who had grown to love the children in their care and did not want to give them back to their parents. And the children themselves were often too small to remember that they had Jewish parents.
Torn between fear and hope, we made our way down the dirt road that led through the village. We decided that we would not tell you all at once that we were your parents. It might frighten you. We would make friends with you, slowly. We would win you over. Gradually, you would remember.
Suddenly, we caught sight of a child, a small, sunburned girl with matted brown hair and bare feet. She was playing in the dirt in front of a house. Our hearts leaped. It was you. "Little girl," your father called in a trembling voice, "come here."
You came over and stared at us with wide, wary blue eyes. You stood there with your thumb in your mouth. How can I describe how I felt? My heart sang with gratitude to G-d because we had found you, healthy, alive. But there was no welcome, no recognition in your eyes. You had forgotten us completely. Suddenly, you turned and ran into the house. "Ma," you called to someone inside. "There are people here, funny people. They're outside."
A small woman in a black kerchief came out. She was holding you tightly by the hand. Her face was blank, stony. She looked us up and down, our pale faces, our dusty city clothing.
Suddenly, I was frightened. She was holding you so tightly, as if you belonged to her. I remembered the woman in the hospital who had said, "Give her to me." I forgot all our plans. I forgot that we had decided to tell you slowly, gradually.
"Ester'ke," I burst out. "Esther Malka. It's Mommy and Tati! Don't you remember us?"
You froze. You stared at me, without moving. Suddenly, your face changed. You seemed to awaken from a dream. Recognition flared in your eyes. With a little cry, you tore your hands away from the woman who held you, and you were in our arms.
It had grown quite dark while my mother was talking. She stirred, glanced at the clock on the wall, Shabbat was over. But I wanted to prolong the moment, to make it last a little longer.
"How come," I asked, "How come I forgot everything--you and Tati and being a Jewish girl--and remembered only one little thing, my name?"
My mother rose to take out the spices, the Havdalah candle and the wine cup. "I guess," she said, "I guess because a name, a Jewish name, is not a little thing after all."