Chapter 22: The Jewish Spark
Wolf spoke to Moses nearly every single day. Moses tried to calm him by stressing that in the previous war, nothing had happened to the Jews living in Austrian or Germany. Moses was more scared of the Russians, as he had already lived through one revolution and barely got out alive.
Wolf called David, who lived near the Russian border, to ask him about the situation there. David told him that Dr. Buhanek had begun to let him treat patients at his dental clinic and had even begun teaching him new techniques. He sounded very pleased and content. He reported that all was quiet and calm and he would at times go to visit Adam at the hospital in Brest-Litovsk.
“All that is left for us to do, is to sit on our backsides and wait for things to happen,” Wolf said to Ida, who seemed worried about the future.
Her neighbor and best friend, Zosia, would come to visit nearly every day at about five o’clock in the afternoon. They would drink tea and nibble on yeast cakes that Zosia had baked and brought along with her.
“My darling Zosia, what will be? What do you hear on the street? What are people saying?” Ida asked curiously.
“Oh, Ida, I cannot and do not want to repeat what I hear on the street. I do not understand all this hate. I cannot fathom why they hate the Jews. Who is fueling this fire that is spreading so rapidly?“Zosia replied.
“Have you heard from your daughter Ewa lately?” Ida asked, trying to change the subject from a topic that made Zosia very uncomfortable.
“Ewa left the house and went to live with some guy whom she met. I have no idea where she met him. All I know is that he is a heavy drinker and does not work at all. I saw signs of physical abuse on her body, but she denies that he beats her. Everything about him is negative. He is one big zero.
While still in school, she met this wonderful young man with whom she fell in love. One day, he just disappeared. He did not leave a letter explaining his actions. Nothing, as if the earth had swallowed him up. Immediately thereafter, the bully Wojtek came on the scene, and they have been together ever since. ”
Zosia took a white handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped her tears.
“The holidays are approaching and considering that we are in mid-December the temperature is still rather mild and pleasant,” Ida said.
She then added, “Perhaps you want to come to us for the holidays, especially as you are alone this year.”
“Oh, Ida, my best friend, I am so grateful to you. I will let you know if I decide to join you. Sometimes I just like to be at home alone, seclude myself and forget, even for an hour everything that is happening around us; the inexplicable hatred and hostile behavior. After all, were we not all created in the same way? And religion, instead of bringing us all closer, is moving us farther away from each other and creating tremendous hatred. Why does it have to be this way?”
The eighteenth of December was the eve of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. That night, the first of the Chanukah candles would be lit. Wolf decided that for the first time in his life he was going to celebrate a traditional Jewish holiday. He invited Isaac Zaidenbaum and his two sons, Adek and Simon, to come over and celebrate with his family. He also invited Stanislaw and Eugenia and her sister Roza, while Ida invited Zosia.
During the afternoon, Wolf prepared the Chanukah menorah exactly as Isaac had instructed him. Ida prepared traditional Chanukah foods; potato pancakes, known as latkes, and deep-fried donuts.
When darkness fell, everyone crowded into the living room and looked at the table where the menorah with its two candles was waiting; one to mark the first day of the eight days of Chanukah while the other one, known as the shamash, was an supporting candle used to light the rest of the candles.
Isaac held the shamash candle and began to recite the first blessing. “Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the candle of Chanukah,”
He then recited the next blessing.“Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.”
Finally he recited the last blessing.” Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, Who has sustained us and provided for us and helped us reach this time.”
All answered, Amen, and he lit the candle.
Everybody sat down around the table and Ida served hot potato pancakes and her homemade donuts filled with jelly. Isaac and his two sons began to sing the traditional Chanukah song, Maoz Tzur, while everybody either sang or hummed along with them.
“Why is Chanukah celebrated,” Zosia asked Ida.
Adek, who immediately noticed Ida’s embarrassment for not knowing the answer, came to her rescue and answered Zosia.
“In 168 B.C.E. the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Greeks and eventually rebuilt by the Maccabees. When they wanted to light the menorah, they found only a small jug of pure, untainted olive oil that was enough to burn for one day. They needed enough oil to last eight days, for that is how long it takes to press new olive oil. Miraculously the small jug of oil lasted for eight days, and to commemorate that miracle we celebrate Chanukah for eight days.”
“How beautiful,” Zosia commented. “In Christianity we also have miracles. It seems that every religion has its miracles,” Zosia continued while eating a hot potato pancake.
“I am so embarrassed by how little I know about Judaism,” Stanislaw said as Eugenia nodded her head in agreement.
“We wanted to be like the Polish, and look where it got us. They are not willing to recognize us as Poles. Ever since they began their economic boycott of us, it is impossible to make a living. They are killing us. Pretty soon they will force us to leave our homeland,” Wolf said in an angry tone mixed with sadness.
“Enough already,” Stanislaw said.“Stop the whining and complaining. Now it’s time to celebrate” And to Ida ”Get your guitar out and start playing something for us.”
Ida took her twelve-string double guitar out of the case, turned to Isaac and said, “Would you like to sing once again the Chanukah song that you sang before?”
Isaac began singing, as Ida began strumming with her thin fingers, trying to catch the rhythm of the music. After Isaac had repeated the melody several times, Ida began accompanying him, with uncanny accuracy. When he stopped singing, she continued playing by herself for several minutes, while everyone hummed the tune, that was etched in their minds, along with her.
One day a letter from Istanbul arrived.
My dear Lilly,
I am really sorry that I have not written to you earlier, but my health is not what it used to be. I am growing weaker by the day and it is becoming more and more difficult for me to go out for long walks.
Rumors of the atrocities that are taking place in Germany have reached us here in Istanbul, and I am very concerned that it will affect the relationship and treatment of the Jews in Poland.
How are you getting along with your acting lessons? I was really excited to hear that you have chosen that career. Perhaps one day you will act in one of the plays that I have written. Wouldn’t that be nice?
How are your parents and brothers? Has David already finished his studies? How is your dachshund, Balbina, the one you spoke so fondly of, doing?
This letter contains many questions and very little about myself. That is because I do not have much to tell. My life is quiet, and aside from my writing and correspondence, my days are long and nights are endless.
What a great time I had when you were here; at least the sweet memories remain in my heart.
Embracing you with great affection,
Lilly then placed the letter on the table, while Grandma Pauline sat in her armchair and listened as Lilly read her the letter aloud.
“What should I write to her? That my dream was shattered, because the school was closed due to the pogroms carried out by Jew-haters? Should I write that my parents are afraid to leave the house? That they are boycotting Jewish businesses? After all she had begged to me to stay with her and said that Turkey welcomes Jews from Europe.”
Paulina looked sadly at her favorite granddaughter and said “Lillinka, you are still young, times will change and even this evil will pass. We have experienced difficult times in the past.”
Lilly placed Balbina on Paulina’s lap and said, “You have it the best, because nobody hates you.” The dog bowed its head as if it understood what was being said.
Adek came to visit Lilly and her family every day, spending many hours there. Wolf tried to teach him the game of bridge, but Adek was not particularly interested. All he wanted was to be in the company of his beloved Lilly.
The economic situation worsened and every day businesses closed. An association was established in town to help the needy. Every day two hundred people would show up to get food or a place to stay. In the run-down area of town there was a wooden structure that once served as a warehouse, which the Jewish carpenters of the town voluntarily renovated. It was converted into a hostel with kitchen and dining room. Most of the donations for the purchase of food, beds and blankets came from the Bund.
In Rynek Square the owners of the stalls stood and advertised their wares in the freezing cold, but there were few buyers. Ida would buy a bit from one vendor and a bit more from another one, just to make them feel good, so that they could go home with a bit of money in their pockets. She would go to the market with her daughter in tow, who would proudly demonstrate her ability to converse in fluent, juicy Yiddish with some of the bearded vendors who had difficulty with the Polish language.