(Excerpt from a novel)
By Yehiel Grenimann
Eva and Yanosh followed Rivka, their host, into a large hall. It looked like it might once have been a warehouse or factory building. Five long trestle tables arranged into a kind of semi-circle filled about half the space. The tables were covered with white tablecloths, in the centre of which there was a vase of sorts – an empty soda bottle, specially painted for the occasion – containing a flower or two, which caught the eye. Most of the flowers were roses, red and yellow ones. There were also blue flowers, whose name Yanosh didn't remember. Eva named them blue butterflies but he guessed she had just invented that.
There was a poster hanging over the head table. It read: "From Slavery to Freedom" in Yiddish, flanked by two big Zionist flags in blue and white, with a large Star of David in the center. Some smaller American flags had been hung beside them. Around the walls were sheets of paper with slogans in Yiddish and Hebrew. Artistic talent was evident in the illustrations that accompanied them, depicting imaginary scenes of ancient and modern agriculture in the Land of Israel.
"It`s beautiful, Rivka!" Eva exclaimed. "Must have been a lot of work to prepare all of this."
"It was a zhus to be involved in planning and preparing this year`s seder," replied Rivka. "We had a wonderful committee, who worked hard taking care of all the details. I only hope the participants are as appreciative as you are. We Jews are not easy people at the best of times, as it says: am kashei oref. We are quick to criticize, and find it easy to find fault, as you know. I am just sad that Bronya, may her memory be blessed, didn’t live to see the result of all her work. We all miss her."
"Yes, we know, Rivka, we know," said Yanosh.
"I am sorry," said Eva, touching Rivka’s arm to express her sympathy. Rivka dried her eyes as they continued talking.
As they spoke and walked by the tables, people began to arrive through the entrances at either end of the hall. There were women who, like Eva, were pregnant. Some small children came in, following their parents into the room, rowdy and excited. A group of American soldiers arrived, led by an officer, who handed out white skullcaps to each of them as they filed in. One of them began to give out chocolates to the children and was soon surrounded by most of the youngsters in the room, elbowing their way closer for the sweet delicacy.
Suddenly an irate bearded older man jumped up to stop the distribution of chocolates, yelling:
"Khometz! Khometz! Tor nisht essen! Kinder! Es iz nisht kosher!" – “Don’t eat them, they’re not kosher for Pesach.”
"No, you can't do that!" a burly Zionist official called out as he intervened, grabbing the man`s shoulders, trying to protect the stunned soldier from the man's flailing hands.
Some of the chocolates, falling to the floor, were swooped up by eager hands, accompanied by the wails of the deprived victim.
The soldier protested: "They are kosher chocolates, and were given out by the Joint Distribution Committee yesterday."
He showed the man the wrapper. Yanosh could see Hebrew writing. A modicum of decorum was restored, faces were wiped of chocolate smears and children seated, some on soldiers' laps.
The room began to fill with excited babble as more and more people entered. Smells of cooked foods (onions, potatoes, chicken schmaltz) merged with human smells , hit their nostrils as they crossed the hall. Arms and legs moved around the tables in a scramble for good spots to sit with friends or family members, some tripping. They dodged them as they made their way.
Yanosh was surprised to see that there were family groups, young couples with small children. Here and there an older person came into the room, supported by younger family members. There was even a group of identical twins, four pairs of them.
"Look Rivka, twins," Eva exclaimed, pointing at the corner table where these dazed children had located themselves.
"Mengele's twins, Eva. Have you not heard of his 'experiments' at Auschwitz?"
Eva nodded, sadly remembering what she had heard about the sufferings of these children.
Yanosh was relieved that the subject was not pursued further. He didn't want Eva's seder, which she had awaited with such excitement, spoiled by the atrocity stories of this S.S. doctor's experiments. He remembered the horror he had felt when first told of Mengele's evil work.
They sat down at a corner table, Rivka beside them, Yanosh at the corner. Rivka leaned the chair on her other side onto the table. She then turned her long graceful neck this way and that, looking around the room.
"What are you doing?" Yanosh asked.
"I'm looking to see if a friend has arrived."
"Someone from the organizing committee?"
"No, it's someone special, a friend of Bronya's, may she rest in peace, a man who participated in resistance actions during the war: a partisan hero. I'm sure he will be here soon. We also have a special guest this evening, one of the leaders of the yishuv. He’ll be sitting at the head table together with Rabbi Adler and Colonel Cohen."
"Sounds like this is an important event."
"It's the first Jewish public event here in Waldenberg since 1935 – you could call it an historic occasion, I suppose."
Yanosh watched as the table filled. Some of the people were still wearing the striped pajama-like clothes of the concentration camps – a year after the end of the war. Most were better dressed than that but, with few exceptions, they seemed to be wearing ill-fitting clothes or strange combinations of colours. Yanosh noticed a woman sitting at one of the tables in what looked like a once fine evening gown of white satin or silk, with a broad blue sash across the front of it. Her shoes and the yellow shawl she had around her shoulders were incongruous. The shoes were heavy, black army boots; the shawl tattered and much-repaired.
Could that old shawl be a remnant of a former life, which had been destroyed during the war? he wondered.
Rivka rose. She turned to her new friends from Berlin, saying: “I must go to greet our special guests now, but I will be back soon. I will introduce you to the great man in person, when he joins us here."
Yanosh watched the woman`s graceful movement as she left the room. She might have been a ballet dancer, he thought, but she's much too tall.
Eva said: "Yanosh, look. They have prepared a special haggadah for the participants."
She picked up a small, illustrated booklet and started to leaf through it.
"This is not a traditional service," she commented.
"Look at this illustration," she said a moment later, holding it up to show Yanosh.
Yanosh looked at the black and white image on the page. It was at first a blur, until he straightened his glasses and managed to focus. He grabbed Eva's hand to steady it, and looked again. He saw a drawing of what must have been meant to look like a concentration camp: a barbed wire fence, little skeleton-like figures in prison garb, big Nazi guards with exaggerated swastika armbands, a dead prisoner hanging from a gallows, and, in the far corner, a chimney bellowing smoke. The word avdut headed the page. Above that, in Yiddish, there was a line, barely perceptible, which Yanosh didn't understand.
"It's a pretty good drawing…"
"I said the illustrator is pretty skilled."
"But, Yanshuk, do you understand what it says here in the corner?"
"No, Eva. You know I don't read Yiddish very well, especially not handwriting."
"He's written 'No one hears!' It's a bitter joke, a play on the verse in the Exodus story, which reads: 'Ve'hu shama et tza'akatam.'"
"A clever artist… He`s right. There was no one to hear their prayers."
Eva whispered; "Yanosh, don`t speak so loudly. This is a seder, you might offend people. It’s a religious occasion, a celebration of freedom…sha!"
"What kind of freedom, Eva? Millions murdered, the survivors destitute and neglected refugees, many of them still behind barbed wire, like those who live here, like those the British have imprisoned in Cyprus. You expect them to feel grateful to the Deity?"
"Maybe you are right, but there are religious people here. Now is not the time to be saying such things…"
"What? Not state the truth…"
Just then they saw Rivka returning from one of the two entrances. She was accompanied by a group of well-dressed people. The babble all around them stopped. People began to rise as Rivka`s little group approached the table.
All eyes focused on a short, stocky man, walking beside Rivka. He looked very familiar, bald, apart from two curly tufts of disheveled white hair on the sides with a round, suntanned face, bicycle-spoke wrinkles around the corners of the eyes. His eyes twinkled mischievously. Where had he seen this man before? His memory failed him at first. Eva whispered to him:
"Yanosh, do you not recognize him?"
"Not sure… maybe…"
"It's Bar Giora, the Zionist leader, the one making all the problems for the British! I had heard he was visiting the refugee camps this week. That's him…I've seen him in the newspapers."
"Really. For a moment I thought it was Bora. They do look similar, don't they?"
"I suppose so, but Bora is younger, and he is taller than that. Bar Giora isn't more than five feet, at the most! Rivka towers over him."
"Shh… they are coming closer…"
Rivka came over to them and they were introduced.
"Mr. Bar Giora, these are my friends – Yanosh and Eva Kaminski…"
"Nice to meet you!"
The man's grip was powerful, as he squeezed Yanosh`s hand. He looked nothing like Bora from close-up. He was much older, his face craggy and deeply wrinkled whilst Bora's face was smooth and youthful.
Rivka escorted him to the head table where he sat down between the bearded, black-hatted Rabbi Adler and the American officer. Colonel Sam Cohen was a redheaded man with a long, pointed nose and beady blue eyes. He was wearing a white yarmulke on the side of his head, and was dressed in a well-pressed dress uniform with gold buttons, the silver eagle insignia at his collar and gold epaulettes on the shoulders. He was the senior American Jewish officer in the area but looked nervous and out of place, shaking his head, like a cornered raven in a room of angry cats.
When the old yishuv leader finally sat down, so did all the other participants. The rabbi passed him a black yarmulke, which he carefully placed on the plate in front of him, not on his head. The rabbi frowned, but said nothing. Around the room people muttered their comments. Some looked shocked, others approving, even delighted at his defiance of religion. Yanosh thought he could appreciate this man.
Rivka soon rejoined them, a little breathless with excitement. The chair besides her was still empty and waiting for its occupant. She saw that Yanosh was looking at the empty space.
"He will come soon, don't worry."
"I'm not worried, Rivka, but you seem to be," commented Yanosh.
Eva poked him under the table.
"Yanosh!" she whispered.
"It’s a great honour to have Mr. Bar Giora here with us this evening," said Rivka.
"He is one of the leading figures in the Palestinian Jewish community today, isn't he?" asked Eva.
"Yes, but not very respectful of Jewish tradition, I think," commented Yanosh.
"I didn't think you were so concerned about such things."
"Well, I am wearing a yarmulke, unlike him!"
Rivka smiled. Eva frowned.
The yarmulke felt like it was burning a hole into Yanosh`s head. He was jealous of the old Zionist leader who appeared to be so free of religious convention.
Rabbi Adler picked up a silver goblet and stood up, holding it unsteadily, spilling wine over its sides as he did so. He gently balanced it on the palm of his tobacco-stained right hand, and spoke to the crowd:
"Ladies and gentlemen, please fill your cups for the first blessing over the wine," he said.
He was swaying, as he waited for their response, eyes closed in concentration.
Suddenly chaos broke out. People stood, chairs screeched, their hands reached out for bottles of wine to fill their cups, and those of family members. A bottle of wine crashed to the floor; a number of cups were knocked over, spilling their contents onto the tables.
The rabbi stood swaying, seemingly oblivious to it all.
It was Bar Giora who soon restored order. His booming, bass voice surprised Yanosh. Such a small man with such a big voice!
"Haverim, haverim! A little quiet, please. We celebrate the festival of freedom this evening! Tonight our people all over the world, and especially our chalutzim in Eretz Yisroel, are telling the story of our exodus from Egyptian bondage. It would be a terrible shande if we do not do so here tonight. Let us fill our cups and give our full attention to the proceedings. Rabbi, please continue."
The broken glass was soon picked up, tables were wiped down, plates straightened, children scolded.
Rabbi Adler opened his eyes, stared at Bar Giora for a moment, blinking at his bare, bald head and then continued with the blessing over the wine:
"Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei pri hagafen." And continued with the blessing for the festival:
"Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehecheyanu, v'kimanu, v'higiyanu lazman hazeh."
"Blessed are You, Our Lord, King of the Universe, who has kept us, and sustained us and brought us to this day!"
The rabbi slowly took a sip of wine, eyes closed. He opened them and looked around the room at the people there: the motley crowd of camp survivors, returnees from the Soviet captivity, those who had come out of hiding, the few resistance fighters, the cripples, the children, Mengele's twins, the sprinkling of American soldiers, the visitors from the land of Israel. The room had grown silent, in expectation, anticipation, but words failed him. He wiped the tears from his eyes, and said:
"Please be seated again, and enjoy your first cup of wine tonight, the first of the four our sages have commanded us to drink as free Jews."
His voice was strained, the word "free" barely audible as he spoke.
The enchantment of the moment ended, the near-riot was renewed. More wine was spilled, another bottle broke, children cried, people began eating of the matzoh and other foods on the table, others told them off for their offensive, sacrilegious behavior, telling them to wait for the rabbi. The hum of a few whispered voices turned into a buzz of talking, chairs squeaked and tables creaked, hands waved, people changed places in search of illusive community, or to escape annoying neighbours.
Yanosh had poured wine into Eva's and Rivka's cups, as well as his own, and now sat between them sipping the red, sweet drink with pleasure. A man entered the room as they sat down, drinking. He strode over to their table. Yanosh sat there, his cup held half-way up to his mouth, frozen in mid-movement. There was no mistaking him. It was Yosef Borowski.
Rivka lit up the moment she saw him.
"My friend Bora is here at last!" she cried out in delight, and rose to meet him, and invite him to join them. Her cheeks were flushed red as she greeted him.
"We invite the children up to the head table now to sing the ma nishtana," announced the red-headed colonel, in as loud and authoritative a voice as he could summon. Rabbi Adler’s coal-black eyes glowed, burning, under his bushy, white eyebrows.
Bar Giora stood up, smiling broadly, stepped back and walked around to the front of the table. He opened short, muscular arms wide, and in a warm, deep voice called out to the children: "Kum, kinder, kum aher, tayere yidishe meydelakh un yingelakh!"
And children did begin to get up from around the tables to join the old man in front of everyone. Some were pushed out by adults, others rushed forward of their own accord. Some came up holding hands, supporting each other, as they walked straight ahead, avoiding the eyes watching them.
Within a minute or two, seven children stood there with Bar Giora. Two were blond kindergarten-age boys, wearing German-style knickerbockers and long white socks. A blond, rosy-cheeked girl, who looked perhaps 12, her puberty budding with the first appearance of small breasts, just visible under her white blouse, stood next to the twins, blushing. The four other children stood behind them, huddled in their oversized rags of adult clothes, half-smiling, half-crying. Dark heads of hair and black eyes in thin pale faces turned to stare up at the legendary Zionist leader. Bar Giora`s round, tanned, old face beamed above them with pleasure.
The room filled with the sad-sweet voices of these children, accompanied by some of the adults. As they sang the beloved old tune, many sitting there found themselves wiping away tears. Yanosh and Eva listened and remembered their own families with whom they had sat at the seder table before the war, remembering the moment the youngest had been cued to sing this song. All of them were gone, torn away forever. It was only after the song's rendition was completed that Rivka and Bora rejoined them at their table, both drying their red eyes.
"Eva and Yanosh, I would like you to meet …" Rivka began to say.
"Bora! How are you? I haven't seen you in so long…not since the day before yesterday," Yanosh said, laughing as he proffered his hand to his friend.
"Gut yontef, Yanosh, gut yontef, Eva."
Eva smiled, bowing slightly.
"You know each other?" Rivka asked, surprised.
"Yes," answered Bora, "the Kaminskis lived near me in Berlin. We have known each other for some time now. We met in Poland, in Silesia."
"Please be seated, and talk more quietly!"
The American officer at the head table glared at them, looking annoyed.
"You are disturbing everyone with your loud conversation."
They sat down.
The rabbi was leading the ritual reading of the haggadah.
"Avadim hayinu lefaro b'mitzrayim, atah b'nei chorin," he read/chanted.
Rabbi Adler was chanting aloud in the Hebrew, then translating into Yiddish: "We had been slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, now we are free."
He swayed to and fro, as he read the passages, translating them in the same high-pitched Talmudic singsong. One hairy hand was entwined in his thick, graying beard; the other was resting on the page. Yanosh was impressed with his intensity. It frightened him a little.
"That's not what we have here in our haggadah," he said to Rivkah.
"No, you’re right. The rabbi is reading from a traditional text. He would not appreciate the haggadah we gave out."
"Isn't that dishonest?" asked Eva, surprised.
"That's the religious for you! Always hiding from the truth, or being protected from it by others," Yanosh commented.
"No, I don't think it is dishonest. I am happy to give Rabbi Adler a copy of what we prepared some other time, but I don't want to upset him this evening. We really appreciate his willingness to lead our seder tonight. I am sure it is not easy being here with such an irreligious crowd."
Yanosh looked around the room, appreciating the truth of Rivka`s statement. Rabbi Adler is faced with a difficult task, he thought. Rivka is probably right that he is making a sacrifice being here with us tonight.
Some people were chanting along with the rabbi, others were sitting in stony silence. Many were talking with their neighbours, ignoring the proceedings. Most were eating and drinking, apart from the white-yarmulked American soldiers and one or two pious old people. Everyone at the head table, on the other hand, seemed to be fascinated with the swaying rabbi.
Rivka, too, was absorbed in the rabbi's chant, singing along quietly to herself, next to Bora, who had taken out a small notebook filled with Yiddish handwriting, which he was reading to himself.
"This is like a circus."
"Yanosh, please…don't start again!"
"But, Eva, you can see that most people here aren't really interested in what the rabbi is doing. They are just waiting to get more to eat. They've finished almost everything on the tables. If there wasn't more food to come, I think most of them would just get up and leave. They are so crude and primitive!"
"Yanosh, you must be more understanding. Consider what they have been through these past seven years."
"Eva, I understand what you are saying, but even so I would have expected better behaviour tonight. It is, as you said, a very important ritual meal – the basis of Jewish identity, a reaffirmation of the covenant, and so on…"
"Look at Rivka!" Eva whispered to him.
"And look at Bar Giora now," she added, lifting her eyes in that direction.
Yanosh looked over to see that Bar Giora had now placed the black yarmulke on his head, that he was also swaying to and fro, and chanting. For Yanosh himself the yarmulke still felt like molten lead, heavy and burning. He took it off, placing it next to his plate as Bar Giora had done before. He felt relieved. No one had noticed. No one said anything--yet. Eva was now talking to Rivka, no longer looking his way at all.
He had expected something else - more religiosity and decorum, not this noisy, marketplace scene. He didn't understand why the old Zionist leader and Eva and her friend Rivka seemed enraptured. His friend, Bora, who was a welcome guest here, was as uninterested in the proceedings as any of the most apathetic or bored participants. He just sat there reading his notes, adding penciled comments or corrections here and there, sometimes singing a tune or eating a little matzoh, or chrein, then going back to his papers.
"Yanosh… why did you take off the yarmulke? Come on...Even Bar Giora is now wearing one. Don't embarrass us in front of our friends."
"I am not comfortable wearing it, Eva. It indicates belief in God. I can't do that…"
Bora looked up from his papers and laughed at the little tiff his friends were having.
Rivka remained silent, but looked at him with understanding. She squeezed Eva's arm. Eva let the issue drop, rather than make a scene, but Bora then placed a cap on his head.
"A sign of respect," he explained, "not a statement of faith. I recommend you do the same, Yanosh, at least for your wife's sake."
Rivka and Eva smiled at Bora in appreciation, as Yanosh reluctantly donned the black yarmulke again.
The rabbi was now talkingabout the four sons mentioned in the haggadah, explaining how they were construed from different verses from the Torah. There were verses for the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who did not know what to ask. This all was new to him, but only of moderate interest.
"We are all here, this evening," he said, "the wise, the wicked, the fools, and the silent ones, the remnant of the Jewish masses of Europe, to celebrate Pesach, our festival of freedom, according to our Holy Torah. Many of you know that the last and some of the worst camps in Germany were liberated at Pesach time last year, and that since then we have been involved in a desperate struggle for our national freedom. We must rise up out of the ashes and insist on our return to Eretz Yisroel. With ribbono shel olam’s help, we will succeed. Nothing will stop us!"
He had raised his voice, and was almost screaming, when he suddenly stopped and looked with fiery eyes out at the crowd.
The hall fell into shocked silence. Until that moment Rabbi Adler had gently conducted the Pesach seder as he might have in any religious Jewish home at any time since the days of the ancient sages, with no reference to current events or recent history. The effect was electric.
Yanosh was stunned. He found himself standing with everyone else, applauding enthusiastically. He looked around the room. Everyone was indeed standing, even the American Jewish soldiers, the twins, the cripples and his socialist wife. They were all, at least for that moment, farbrente Zionists - nationalist fanatics.
What am I doing? Yanosh asked himself, surprised at his own behaviour. I don't want to go to Palestine, he reminded himself.
He stopped applauding, and sat down. Soon others were sitting too, but the majority stood there for some time, chanting Zionist slogans: "Never Again!" "Bevin is a murderer!" "Am Yisrael chai!" "Let My People Go!"
It was frightening. It reminded him of the Polish fascists, the communist youth groups and their political rallies in Poland before and after the war. He hated the phenomenon then and it disturbed him to see it amongst the Jews now.
After the tumult died down, Rabbi Adler spoke up again. He had calmed himself and was speaking in his normal alto tone. The shriek was gone, but not the urgency and pain:
"Our return to the Eretz Yisroel is our most important mitzvah today. To migrate to America or any of the British colonies far away is to choose to continue our exile, or, even worse, to end our existence as a separate people, God's people. Those working to open the gates of the land to us, to overcome the British treachery in preventing our return, are doing God's work. They are to be blessed for their holy work."
"One such a person is our guest tonight, Mr. Dov Bar Giora, a leader of the yishuv, who has devoted himself to saving the remnant of European Jewry by breaking the British blockade through so-called 'illegal' immigration. Another is our friend Yosef Borowski, a hero of Jewish resistance in Lithuania, whom we all know for his tireless efforts in the bricha and his help for his fellow Jews here in the German refugee camps. I invite them each to say a few words to us, before we continue with the haggadah, and then begin our much-awaited meal."
Silence reigned in what had been a noisy hall as Bar Giora rose to speak.
Bora got up to join him at the head table in response to his invitation. They hugged and turned to the participants, smiling, arm-in-arm. Colonel Cohen watched them like an angry owl, barely hiding his scowl. Then Bar Giora began to speak, his bass voice booming out into the room's furthest corners:
"Haverim and haverot, during these six terrible years of war, we never forgot you for a single day. We have been working to build up our land so that you may come there to live as decent human beings among your own people and where you will never fear again. It is time for you to come home, to join us in Eretz Yisroel. You will need much courage and determination to do that.
The British have decided to prevent the return of more than a paltry few survivors with immigration certificates; the rest they expect to resettle in the countries of Europe. They want to appease their Arab friends, whose oil they need. After the years of Hitlerite genocide, the silence of the rest of the world as millions of our people were murdered, and the continuing antisemitism in Europe since the war ended, this makes it clear to all of us that a Jew cannot trust the goyim. That is why, despite all you have been through these past years, despite the temptation to migrate to other more comfortable places, you must choose to come home to Eretz Yisroel. You need us to feel free and fully human again. We need you to become a majority in our own land, to declare our independence at last in our own Jewish state. Together we will succeed. Chazak, chazak v'nitchazek!"
At first there was silence; stillness.
Then, shouts of support. Applause. Slogan-chanting. Colonel Cohen`s beady blue eyes showing his discomfort. Bar Giora standing there waiting, lifted his arms to appeal for quiet, then beckoned to Bora to come forward. The man strode up to the table, smiling his thin smile, his dark eyes giving no clue to his emotion.
"Many of you already know my friend, Yossef Borowski, a former partisan commander in the Naroch forests of White Russia, activist of the bricha and a partner in the current activities of the Zionist movement here in this accursed country. His message is crucial and relevant to all of us today in our struggle for our own country's independence and for the future of the Jewish people. Mr. Borowski, please…"
Bora stepped forward to speak, pulled out his notes from his jacket pocket, cleared his throat, and waited. After a while the crowd understood. They responded to his patient presence and were quiet.
"My dear friends, I want to wish you all a wonderful Pesach holiday! As we have just read in the haggadah this year we are still not free here in Germany, but next year we will be free again. We will only be bnei chorin if we stand up for our rights. As we read at the end of the service every Pesach..."
Someone in the crowd loudly completed his statement: "l'shana haba'ah biy'rushalayim! "
Many cries of support were heard in the hall:
"Next year in Jerusalem! Next year in Jerusalem!"
Then some people started to sing the words to a Hassidic tune, others joining the lilt until their fervor was stopped by Bar Giora`s deep voice asking for quiet again:
"Silence! Our guest has the floor now! Let us hear what he has to say."
Bora waited a moment, then spoke again:
"During the four years I spent fighting the Nazis in the forests of Byelorussia, there was one dream which kept me going, a hope which accompanied our efforts for the bricha over the past two years. The hope to again be free as a Jew, to live amongst my own people.
The time has come to realize that dream, to stop only hoping, to stop waiting for the Messiah to come and save us from our sufferings in exile, to end the 2000 year old exile before the exile finishes us off."
Silence. Then shouts of support. Applause. Bora started to walk back to his seat again, folding his papers and putting them back in his coat pocket. Suddenly three shots were heard by all, fired from outside. The three explosions followed in quick succession, with the whistle of bullets flying past Bora`s head as he ducked behind the nearest table. The sound of tearing wood on the far side of the hall… the smell of gunpowder and then …silence again.
Screams. People dived to the ground. Bora pulled out a gun,opened fire in the direction of the shots, and then began running forward towards the source ofthe shooting. Yanosh was stunned and also impressed with his friend's quick reflex. It was the opposite of his. He had grabbed Eva and moved to cover as fast as he could, under a table from where he continued watching what was happening.
Sirens soon sounded. Running bootsteps. The hall was full of American soldiers, who rushed in from both sides of the hall looking for the assassin. A couple of them jumped Bora and were pinning him to the ground.
Yanosh and Eva got up from under the table to see Bora being led away by a couple of soldiers. They had confiscated his weapon. Bora had been handcuffed. They were soon out of sight, but Bora`s voice could be heard yelling: "Am Yisroel chai!"
They heard him repeat it a number of times. Then he was gone.
The tall American colonel stood in the centre of the room calling for quiet. After a while he managed to get something of a lull in the excited chatter of the shocked crowd. Bar Giora was inspecting the far wall, examining the three bullet holes, accompanied by some of the curious children. Colonel Cohen glared back at his guest from Palestine, and then began to speak:
"Please, ladies and gentlemen, we must restore calm here. I understand that the gunfire, the apparent assassination attempt is very upsetting, but we are all, unfortunately, well-acquainted with violence and hate, especially at Pesach time. We must not let this incident disturb us. We must remember that tonight is seder night. As we Americans say: ‘the show must go on’! Please return to your seats and we shallcontinue our reading of the haggadah, enjoy our meal and celebrate our freedom. The American forces here will take care of our security. They have orders to protect religious freedom here in Germany and they will do so to the best of their ability. Please be seated once more! It is yontev…"
People returned to their seats. Some just continued sitting on the ground, looking dazed. Others had gathered at the far wall to inspect the bullet holes. One old woman was laughing strangely, hysterically. A frightened couple were still huddled under a table. Yanosh, Eva and Rivka watched as Bar Giora came up to speak to the American officer when he had finished speaking. They could hear every word of the ensuing conversation:
"Colonel Cohen, I would like to have a word with you."
"Go ahead, Mr. Bar Giora. I am listening."
"Release the man your soldiers have just arrested."
"You mean Borowski?"
"Yes, Yosef Borowski. As a fellow Jew I am sure you are aware of the importance of a former partisan commander to the survivor community. It is a matter of morale. They see him as a hero, a defender of their rights."
"I understand all that, Mr. Bar Giora. I am well acquainted with Borowski, or Bora, as they call him. He has been something of a troublemaker here in the past. A little time to cool off his passions would do him good, perhaps even keep him alive a little longer. A live hero might be more useful to his fellow Jews than a dead one, don't you think Mr. Bar Giora?"
"I think he can take care of himself. It is Passover. If you release him quickly you will win over a lot of people here tonight."
"I will consider what you have said, sir, but there has just been a shooting incident, which must be investigated, and Borowski was, I think, the target of an assassination attempt, apart from himself brandishing and using an unauthorized weapon. It is Pesach and we should go on with the seder, sir. The people here seem to respect and listen to you. I would appreciate your help restoring order so we can get on with the proceedings."
As they spoke people were leaving the room. Rabbi Adler, visibly upset, appealed to them to stay but many continued fleeing the scene, having overcome their initial shock. The laughing woman left. Then the shivering couple and a small crowd of children, holding hands. Bar Giora and the colonel saw what was happening and joined the rabbi in his efforts, leaving their conversation unfinished.
"Yidn, wait! Stay! You mustn't leave! We have a seder to finish." Bar Giora begged them, but to no avail.
The rabbi stood there in tears, as the American officer gently placed his hand on his shoulder:
"I am sorry, rabbi," he said.
It was Rivka who then spoke up.
"Come," she said to the assembled remaining few, "let us get on with the seder and not let these events distract us. Be brave! Let's do so in Bronya's memory. She would have expected no less, I am sure."
Her rallying call had some impact on some of her friends. They soon found themselves sitting around the same table, ready to continue. Yanosh was surprised at her resolve and even more surprised at Eva's response. She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the table as well.
Rabbi Adler, wiping his eyes, turned to those sitting with him at the table now:
"Our people's story has been one of the she'erit haplita who continued our journey of faith through history despite the massive odds against us. Looking at you here with me now at this table I know we shall prevail. You are that faithful remnant."
Yanosh fought off a powerful feeling of belonging, reminding himself that this was only a religious ceremony, but did not quite succeed in feeling totally alienated. Something still stirred inside.
The rabbi restarted the service, leading them in chanting the blessing over the maror, or bitter herbs, joined by the deep gruff voice of Bar Giora, the sweet tunefulness of Rivka and Eva, and a determined-looking Colonel Cohen's high-pitched tenor. Others soon joined, even some of the soldiers, but Yanosh continued sitting there in silence. He could still smell the burnt gunpowder.
Yanosh looked over at Eva, saw her shining eyes, then looked down at her belly which was beginning to show. There was a growing baby inside. He thought of their future as a family, the world into which they were bringing this new life.
They were now singing, "Next year in Jerusalem!"
Should we go to Palestine after all? he asked himself, or have we had enough of this? More struggle and tears, or safety for our child?
Copyright © Yehiel Grenimann 2011
This excerpt is from his novel-in-progress, A Time To Be Born.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, the eldest child of two Polish Holocaust survivors, is Director of Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization he has also served as Treasurer and Chairperson. After completing his MA in Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University's Institute for Contemporary Jewry, he spent ten years in Holocaust education and was Director of the Ot Ve’Ed Institute in Jerusalem, where he focused on teaching teenagers, young adults and educators about Jewish resistance during World War II. Since receiving his rabbinical ordination from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in 1991, he has worked as a rabbi and educator in the Masorti movement. Over the past 30 years he has been active in Peace Now, Netivot Shalom, and other peace-oriented groups. A long-time Jerusalem resident, he is married to Deborah Grenimann and is the father of four adult children.