Happy week after Thanksgiving and Eight Days of Chanukah for those who celebrate the holidays. I thought I'd post some book excerpts that reflect the spirt of those holidays, including new beginnings and freedom from oppression, particularly religious oppression.
In this excerpt from The Fires of Lilliput, Shosha Mordechai and her family have fled the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto -- destroyed by Nazi commander Jurgen Stroop -- for the suburb of Praga across the Wisla river. Though their travails are far from over, their new surroundings are a peaceful -- and for Shosha, bittersweet -- respite. SHOSHA STOOD AT AN open door watching steam rise from a white clawfoot tub. Water—warm water and this much of it.
She had not seen this much water in over two years and it was all hers. The steam from the tub looked like it was rising from a cloud. She closed the door and slipped off her robe. She tried not to look at her body, but she saw her face in the mirror.
She turned away—she had not looked in a mirror for months and when she caught herself touching her cheeks or mouth she would stop and lower her hands. She placed her foot in the tub then pulled it out. She put her hand down and felt the water.
She put her foot back in. She watched it penetrate the surface and descend until it touched bottom. She put in her other foot. With both feet touching the white metal bottom, she brought herself around and bent down to sit, but it was hot and she stood instead.
She stood and looked at her feet in the water and watched the steam rise around her. She brought her arms up to cover her ribs. She clasped her hands under her chin. She stared, down at her feet and the water. She closed her eyes. The rising steam warmed her and she felt sleep.
THE MORDECHAI’S “NEW” HOME, off Targowa Street in Praga, had two stories, three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bath, and a cramped sitting area off the front door.
It was in a “good” neighborhood, close to the Wilenska Railway Directorate, near the park, zoo, and shops. When they first stepped across the threshold, Shosha sighed. Plaster lay crumbled on the floor; paint peeled from the walls; rust ran from the taps; and an acrid odor of fuel and fire lingered.
Rebekah was more sanguine as she went from room to room.
“We can fix this up. I’m sure Madame Krushenski’s sons will help.”
“You’re in no shape to be renovating an old house,” Shosha told her mother.
“But I will be,” Rebekah said. “And so will you.”
They rented the home with an option to buy it and with time, they started work—on themselves and the building.
Both women gained weight. The walls gained plaster. The color returned to Rebekah’s face. Shosha’s bones receded and coloring returned to her cheeks.
They painted the walls, inside and out. They painted rouge on their lips, laughed, and wiped it off. They brought things together.
Shosha looked better outside but felt worse inside. She took no pleasure in eating, a luxury long denied her. She ate so she would live to see her father. She worked on the house to please her mother. She slept more than usual. She thought about Jakub.
THE HOUSE LIGHTS DIMMED and a spotlight shown on the stage, a small round center for a few musicians, a piano, and a chanteuse.
The rabbi walked through the audience and up two steps and took a microphone from a slender silver pole.
“I would like to present,” the rabbi said, “the sweetest voice in all Warsaw, our own Marja Ajzensztadt, ‘the Nightingale.’”
Terrific applause lifted the little bird above the smoke and she sang and that is all anyone would remember about the evening.
Yes, Dr. Jerczek bowed and walked to the stage to tell people what he thought of them and goodbye.
Yes, he said he would always remember their support and the great efforts they undertook—especially the rabbi—to secure his passage and the passages of the children out of Poland and out of the war.
And yes, he was revered here as something of a saint in minor vestments.
But the voice of this woman, this sweet, sweet voice, with its force and its purity and all the force that purity can exert in such a ruined and decimated place—this was a sound of beauty, this voice, this was the sound of truth.
Photos: Marja (Maria) Ajzensztadt, aka The Nightingale, "the sweetest voice in all Warsaw," 1922-42. She perished after deportation to Treblinka from the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. Her story continues in the next excerpt.
Rooftop snipers watch as SS men deport Marja (Maria) Ajzensztadt, the Nightingale, age 20, and others at the Umschlagplatz, the railway gateway to prison and death camps.
CHRISTIEN AND MOSZE WATCHED Brandt drag the woman from the line, kick her, and pull her to her knees.
Other soldiers grabbed an old man from the line who stood straight and had a short, groomed beard.
The snipers were too far to hear much. They watched the noisy drama until they heard a faint but continuous chirp. They saw soldiers blowing whistles. A group of women in grubby uniforms took to the platform and started stripping each person in line.
“Werterfassung,” Antek said. A special stripping team.
“Crazy bitch,” Mosze said.
Christien nodded. “Hard to get a shot.”
The woman on her knees turned and Mosze saw her face. “It’s the Nightingale,” he said. “She has her hands out.”
“She’s begging,” Christien said.
“She sings like that.”
“She’s not singing—don’t be a fool.”
“She’s begging and crying.”
“You can’t tell,” Mosze said. “You can’t see tears, can you?”
“I can tell from her face,” Christien said.
Photo: Deportation at the Umschlagplatz, ca 1940-42
If you've read The Fires of Lilliput, you've met Jakub Chelzak, the Polish Catholic farmer who helps Shosha Mordechai and other Jewish resisters, in the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto and later, in the Melinka death camp.
Jakub is loosely based on two Franciscan Catholic priests, Maximilian Kolbe and Anicet Koplinski.
The Vatican elevated Fr. Maximilian Kolbe to St. Maximilian Kolbe, in part for his heroic deeds during the Holocaust. This brief but fascinating video tells Kolbe's story, and how he modeled humanity at its best.
"When the Gestapo came for him, he could have escaped. He chose not to." -- Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, OFM, Auschwitz prisoner #16670