A Passing Confusion
I turn my head in the direction of the
harsh voice shouting in a foreign language and see a German soldier
waving a rifle from left to right to let us know we were all
being threatened. An officer in a peaked cap leaned against the black
motorcycle they had been riding until they stopped next to us.
I awoke from the dream in a cold sweat;
but it wasn’t just a dream. It was a real incident and it comes back to
me at night. Maybe writing about it will bring relief.
A few strips of light entered through
cracks in the canvas. During the day I tried to keep my eyes closed,
believing that if I did not look at the light I would not be seen and
they would not discover us.
Deciding that the way down the mountain
was clear, we shouldered our packs. There was no food left in them and
they were light, but we were weak and hungry and had difficulty in
carrying them. We were unsteady on our legs from the moment we set out.
Our muscles were depleted by the long period of near immobility and we
had to cling to branches with every step we took.
I, the youngest, enjoyed the change. It
is true that every step I took was accompanied by sharp pain from
infected frostbite, or maybe because my shoes were now too small
for me. My sister and I were not included in the adults’ deliberations.
We had no idea where we were going and why we had left the hiding place
that had proved “safe” – after all, the Germans had not discovered us
Like my father, I have an upturned nose.
The rest of the family have the characteristic Jewish nose. When we
encountered soldiers and were asked what we were doing in the forest,
it was my father who answered. At your service, Commander!” he said to
the oldest among them, entering the character of the Good Soldier
Schweik. He was an accomplished story teller. As a rule, it was a
pleasure to listen to him. Even exhausted and afraid as he was, knowing
that our lives were in danger, he assumed a light-hearted, friendly
manner, with a story for the soldiers.
“Commander,” he said. “The thing that
happened, happened like this...” and he explained at length and in
detail that we were on our way home from work in a factory that
produced nails for horseshoes. He explained to the officer that because
of the war, the factory where he and his brother worked was moved to
Potok, a town some kilometers from our home in Ruzomberok. He did not
forget to go into detail concerning the number of kilometers between
our house and the factory before it was moved, compared to the number
of kilometers between our home and the present location of the factory
in Potok. Nor did he forget to go into detail about the condition of
the roads and the need for cart horses owing to the pressure on the
railways. He described himself and his brother as veteran skilled
workers in the only factory for horseshoe nails in the whole of
Slovakia. “And here you can see for yourself, Commander,” said my
father, “how we are forced to go home on foot after exhausting shifts,
just because all the horses have been taken into the army...” at this
point the officer interrupted him with a roar, both hands covering his
ears. Although the shout scared me, I could hardly stop myself from
laughing at the sight of the soldier with his hands over his ears.
The story was based on a few facts and
many improvisations, but one look at us was enough for the soldier to
see the truth. The fact that father spoke German was also a cause to
suspect that we were actually dirty Jews, since it was unlikely that a
simple worker would know the language. Father and his brother had
special work permits allowing them to work in the factory commandeered
by the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Father showed the papers to
the soldier. It had saved us from a number of raids in the past, but
had since expired following new orders related to the Final Solution
for the annihilation of the Jews of Slovakia. The document was not
worth the paper on which it was written.
“Hosen herunter!” shouted the officer. “Pants down!” Again the shameful order.
What a disgrace! Did my father have to
undress in public? My strong, proud father had to lower his trousers
and display his private parts to the soldiers? A shocking humiliation.
I was so embarrassed, I pinched my sister.
Then Father spoke to the soldiers in a
calm, quiet voice. He admitted that we were Jews and whispered
something I could not hear.
The German was not annoyed; he took a
deep breath and even seemed pleased that the matter was ending in a
reasonable, relatively decent way. To my immense relief, Father was not
told again to lower his trousers.
As we walked away, I heard my parents
blessing our good luck. “If they were bloodthirsty, they could have
shot us,” they said, “like the SS, or the Slovakian National Guard.”
The Slovakian National Guard knew that
the escaping Jews hid money and jewelry on their bodies and lay in wait
to murder, strip and rob them. How lucky we were to have fallen
into the hands of the German Wehrmacht soldiers and not those robbers.
I believed him. I was so terrified that I
burst into tears and said I couldn’t walk. Actually, I had lost all
will to struggle against the pain and fear. My sister also began to
cry. We were all exhausted. None of the four adults was able to offer
us any support.
I believed my uncle, after all, he was a
grown up and he knew! We were going to be slaughtered. And I knew what
slaughter was. During the Easter holidays, when we visited
Grandmother in the village where my mother was born, I heard the
shrieks of the pigs. Once, following the sound of the awful screams, I
even peeked into the neighbours’ yard. A horrible sight! Quantities of
blood! And now my blood would be spilled in the churchyard where they
were going to slaughter us.
As we dragged ourselves along the path, I started wailing that I could not go on.
His negative, pessimistic nature would
eventually lead to his death beside my father in the concentration camp
when they were sent to Sachsenhausen. He refused to listen to my
father’s encouraging words and committed suicide by throwing himself
onto the electrified fence. My resourceful father, in the midst of all
his suffering, exchanged shirts with the corpse of a political prisoner
and stayed alive.
Nevertheless, even he, the optimistic
one, was helpless in the face of the terrifying prospect and my mother
was actually the one who proved to be alert and resourceful. She
stepped off the path, turned her back to us and withdrew a gold brooch
from her corset. In my mind, the action remains as magical as
Alladin rubbing the lamp.
Apparently, she had noticed an
approaching horse and cart. She waved the driver to the side of the
road and exchanged a few words with him, after which we were permitted
to climb onto the cart loaded with wonderfully fragrant hay.
It quickly emerged that this church was no slaughterhouse!
We were taken inside and I think we were asked to enroll on the lists the Germans had in their hands, but I’m not sure.
“It can’t possibly have disappeared,” I said to the taxi driver, determined not to give up.
I had remembered it for sixty one years. The church was real, from the days of the bunker, the hunger, the fear.
What confusion, although the directions
from the priest of the Pravoslavic church were clear: “To reach the
Catholic church, you must go left and then straight up to the fence.
From there you’ll see the cross on the church.”
I was aware of an inner voice warning me
that it would be better for me to remember the church as a place that
warmed both heart and belly with the flow of hot milk.
I recognized nothing. The place looked abandoned. The gateway that I remembered was gone.
I came across a little house in the yard
and knocked on the door a few times. It was opened by a faded, bent old
man, perhaps a priest, a survivor of World War Two who had slaved from
morning to night in a Communist government project, but Jesus had
waited and watched over him. He tried to smile at me, but it was a
bitter smile. No, he was not prepared to open the church for me.
“It hasn’t been renovated yet. What’s there to see in that ruin?”
He tried all sorts of evasive
tricks, but I persisted. I had to go in and sit on the second last
bench, to look at the colored windows from the inside, to look at the
crucifix. In the end, a twenty dollar bill softened his resistance.
He turned the key in the lock, pushed and
pulled and grew red in the face, until the door opened with a grating
sound. I had already come to an agreement with him to be allowed to sit
alone once I was inside.
He was right: gloom and shadows. The
windows had long since lost their transparency. I recoiled at the sight
of the dust and grime. The stench thickened the air. Spider webs
filled every possible corner... I looked at the bench I remembered with
longing, wanting to stroke it with my fingertips. Instead of the shine
of the wood, I encountered worms stretching towards me from its many
The structure with its cruciform interior
was all that remained undamaged. Gone were the windows that had so
impressed me; some broken and replaced with panes of ordinary glass
with only parts of the original vitrages in place. It was impossible
for me to sit in my old place. I turned. The priest was gone and I fled
from the worms and disappointment.
I am sure I received hugs and kisses from
the whole family before the war, after all, I was the smallest. But
they were all forgotten. In the last two years of fear and anxiety, my
parents were unable to pamper, console or promise me better days. They
were themselves barely able to function, mustering all their strength
to survive, to keep silent lest we be discovered.
And behold, against all expectations of
the evil about to befall us, an anonymous soldier seated me on his
knee, undeterred by the filth and the lice crawling in my hair, gently
stroked me and ordered; “Bringen sie warmes milch fur das kind!!”
A German soldier hugged me and ordered
“warm milk for the little girl!” For me? Warm milk!? Unbelievable. It
was hard to remember the last time I had warm milk to drink. It tasted
However, illusion is sometimes an interim
of sanity. There were quite a number of Jews in the church who were as
happy as if they were celebrating a holiday when they found one another
and knew that they were among the living. The atmosphere was calm and
someone saw to it that we had warm food. Later, with the help of money
she produced from her treasury, my mother managed to buy some food from
I was happy. First of all, they did not
slaughter us and we were not sent to the slaughterhouse, as my uncle
threatened when we left the hiding place and were caught by the German
patrol. A church is not a slaughterhouse! What’s more, the hug
from the German soldier was comforting and we had a soaring roof over
our heads to protect us against rain and snow, all of which even
without taking into account the beautiful painting of the Madonna and
I was happier and more satisfied than I
had been for a long time. Everything had played into my hands. In the
evening, they moved us into a barn full of fragrant hay that was as
warm and reassuring as the German soldier’s smile. I was tempted to
think that life was beautiful and everything looked wonderful...
I was unaware at the time that the church
had served as a temporary holding place for Jews rounded up before
being sent to the Sered concentration camp.
I told him.
When I stopped talking he looked at me
with infinite sadness. Then he went to an old table and took a postcard
from the drawer. It was a faded sepia photograph of the church in those
days, with the village in the background. “Now I understand,” he said,
giving me the postcard.
©Translation from the original Hebrew: Riva Rubin
Please visit the "poetry" and "personal reflections" pages to read Vera Meisels' poetry, personal and other stories.