A Haven from Fear
By Hillary Hoffman-Peak
As I jammed my hands into the dark soil, the image hit me so hard, I almost tumbled backward. A woman, no more than twenty, with raven black hair crouched in a ditch with a tow-haired girl on either side of her. One hand clamped over each mouth, carefully, so as not so suffocate them, but hard enough that she was certain they would not be able to cry out.
In front of them, trees, needles cover the floor of the forest and beyond the trees, less than ten yards from where she crouches with the girls, two men pace. She can see the black boots stamping the needles into the ground, over and over again. Four bodies dig into the earthtwo men with shovels and a woman and girl with their hands. Tears stream silently down the woman's face.
"She looks so old," Esther thought incredulously. "Do I look like that? I must. For I see my fear reflected in her."
Little by little dirt was moved such that a hole began to form where the four of them were digging. Cramps in her legs made her bite the inside of her cheek. She couldn't afford to move. The needles were dry, and they were too close. She mustn't take the chance that they would hear her shoes. Besides, her feet had to be on the earth. It took too long to get up if she sat down. If she had to run, she'd better start from a crouch. It was the only possibility of actually getting away if they caught her.
The baby squirmed, and Esther pulled Mina tighter to her body, never letting go of her mouth. She hated that the children would see it, but there was no help for it. She couldn't move them for fear of being heard, and she couldn't cover their eyes for fear they would cry out. No, they'd have to see.
"Get up!" The soldier screamed, pushing each of them with the nose of his rifle.
"On your knees!" The other screamed, shoving with the butt.
Dropping down to their knees, Esther could see them shaking. She couldn't stop the tears that ran down her face. No hand to brush them away with, they dropped like rain onto the ground in front of her. Man, woman, child, grandfather, each on their knees in front of the grave. They took each other's hands, but there was no time for a kiss or a hug goodbye before the shots rang out, and the bodies dropped into the open grave in front of them.
Esther felt Salia bite down on her finger. The child was clearly desperately trying to keep from screaming. Esther tried to reassure her, even as the blood oozed from the bite. "That is not us." Esther vowed. "We will make it. We are going to America."
* * *
I felt the plane begin its descent. "Eight hours in a plane won't make you live any longer, but it sure as hell feels longer," I murmured to myself. Rubbing my aching temples with my thumb and middle finger of my left hand, "This journey feels like it's gone on forever," I thought. Seemed like such an easy idea when my cousin Samuel suggested it. "Let's go to Poland and plant a tree!" He'd convinced all of us at my Aunt Salia's funeral that it would be far more meaningful to plant a tree in Poland or Russia or wherever it was that we were from exactly rather than Israel.
"Of course!" We'd all said. Twenty of us had been at the funeral noshing. I'd been more of a grandchild than a niece. My father, Aunt Salia's brother, had remarried and had a second family, so even though I was a first cousin, I was the same age as the grandchildren. Now, four of us were on the flight from JFK to Warsaw--me, my cousin Samuel, his daughter, Rebecca, and our other cousin, Joshua.
The plane taxied to a stop, and I found myself jostling for position to grab my bag from the overhead and get a place in line to exit the stale-aired passenger chamber we'd be in for the last nine hours. "I need a shower," I stated flatly to Rebecca over my shoulder.
She nodded her agreement, "Emmie, we ALL need a shower, and a rest in a bed and breakfast. Then I guess we can get out the map and figure out exactly where we're headed."
I ran my hand through my dirty, disheveled hair, hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and tried to maneuver through the aisle to the doorway. After what seemed like another nine hours, I emerged onto the jet way. Joshua came up beside me and took my elbow.
"How you doin' Cousin Emily?"
"Tired, hungry and feeling like I haven't showered in weeks, you?"
"Same," he said with a grin, "but we're here now! We can get the car, get the luggage and head over to the hotel. At least you insisted on staying in the city one day to get over the jetlag. I don't think I could have physically continued."
"Told you," I flipped my hair over my shoulder, "'No, no, why waste the money on a hotel?' Isn't that what you said?"
"So I was wrong," he shrugged. "At least you didn't agree."
I sighed, "True. Do you have any idea how far it is to Tarnopol?"
Joshua shook his head. "When we came, I was a teenager. I didn't want to be here. My mother wasn't sure she wanted to be here. My dad was so excited. He still remembers his childhood in Russia, you know."
"Really?" I was surprised. "Wasn't he small when they came over?"
"Eleven or twelve. Old enough to remember."
"Strange that your mother and dad would come from basically the same areathe Polish/Russian border, but would never have had the chance to meet but for going to America."
"I know. That's true of Sam's parents, too. God rest Aunt Salia's soul."
"Amen." I responded reverently. "Where was Uncle Max from?"
"I'm not certain, you'll have to ask Sam."
Customs took ages, asking us questions, studying passports and faceslooking for what, I couldn't guess. "No one looks good after traveling all night," I wanted to say, "cut us some slack." But instead I stood there in a clutch with Samuel, Rebecca and Joshua waiting for approval. Eventually, we were all squashed in the European "midsize" looking for signs we couldn't read to places we didn't know. Three wrong turns and some questionable driving choices later, we opened the door and tumbled out onto the hotel's doorway.
We obtained keys to the two rooms we'd procured for the night and wearily trekked up to the third floor with our bags, since they were "old world" and didn't have an elevator.
"Go ahead," Rebecca said as we opened the room, "I know you're dying for a shower, and I'd just as soon take a nap first."
The hot water felt glorious as I stood under the spray trying to unknot my neck from sleeping sitting up in the plane. "What will we find here?" I allowed myself to wonder for the first time. I knew snippets of the pastmy two aunts had been born here before going to America. Then my father and uncle had been born in America. No one really talked about it. I only knew that Tarnopol had been burned by the Nazis in World War II and three of my dad's four grandparents had been taken in a cattle car to a concentration camp where they had all perished.
After the shower, I felt awake and more hungry than tired. Trying not to wake Rebecca, I pulled jeans, boots and a chocolate cowl-neck sweater from my bag. I towel-dried my hair and secured it with a scarf. Swiping on mascara and lipstick, I glanced in the mirror. "At least I look like a human now," I thought as I slipped out the doorway and went in search of some food. I found my cousins sitting at a small table in the café with a map spread over the table so that they had to balance their coffee cups on their knees.
As I approached, they each got up and in turn gave me a kiss on the cheek.
"Don't you look smashing!" Samuel said as he signaled the waitress for a menu and coffee for me.
"Doesn't she always look smashing?" Joshua responded.
"Thank you both so much, but I did see myself prior to the hot shower and it might have been smashing, but in a different way. Have you found it?"
"Yes, I think so," Samuel said and he turned the map slightly toward me and pointed to an area about two hours northeast of where we were.
"Are you ready?" I asked him, concerned. After all, it was his mother who had passed.
"Is anyone ever really ready?" he responded.
We sat in companionable silence for some time, sipping coffee and munching on hard rolls with butter.
"Oh!" Samuel exclaimed suddenly, almost causing me to drop my cup. "I nearly forgot. I have something for you. Since you were the only one with any interest about family history, Emily, my mother told me to give these to you." Pulling two worn volumes from his shoulder bag, Samuel unceremoniously plopped them in my lap.
I sat my coffee cup on the table and opened the first one carefully. I wasn't certain if the binding was still intact. The graceful handwriting of my aunt met my gaze, "Salia's Journal." No date, no indication of when she'd been writing in it.
"Thank you," I stuttered, uncertain what to say. "Are you sure . . ." I began.
Sam stopped me with a stern look, "You knew my mother. If Salia said these were yours, they're yours." He said it firmly with finality. I leaned forward and gave him a peck on the cheek. "I'll treasure them."
I saw Rebecca coming around the corner into the café. "Did you get a rest?"
"Yes, now if I get something to eat, I'll be ready to take on the world."
"You know, I think I'll go take a nap." I said, really wanting to open the journal and read a bit in private.
"You should," they all chorused, and so I left them alone. Bounding up the two flights, my exhaustion had been totally replaced with excitement. She was right, I was very interested in family history. My heart was pounding with excitement, as I turned on the lamp at my bedside, kicked off my boots and pulled the covers up. I opened the first page again and ran my finger over the writing. Then, I turned the page.
I've never been able to get the image of those bodies falling into the open grave out of my mind.
"I should think not," I said aloud to the empty room. "I don't think I'll ever get it out of mine, and I only read about it."
I closed her journal and laid it to the side. Although profoundly moved and a little disturbed by the images my aunt had brought to life in the journal, I didn't think I could bear anymore right now. So, I opened the other worn volume.
To my dearest niece Emily,
When you open this, I will be gone. Jews don't really talk about Heaven or what is beyond this life, but I look forward to being reunited with my parents. You never knew them, and so, I have made this book for you. By transcribing my mother's letters, I hope that you will have a chance to know her. I know you've heard stories about her, but I believe that what she tells of her own life will be more illuminating for you and give you a chance to become familiar with her in a way that none of her children ever had; for I never saw these letters while she was living. My uncle, her brother, gave them to me at her funeral. What I would have given to have had them before! There's nothing I had in life I wouldn't have gladly given up to have had one talk with her about what she wrote in them.
So, I give them to you, my darling, in hopes that you can know her and understand your father and family more by reading them.
* * *
Adolf lay in bed with the sheet pulled up to his chin staring at the ceiling. "Today's the day," he thought, "I can't believe it is finally here. Dear God, what am I going to do?"
Bam, bam, bam. His door shook a bit. "Adolf! Get up!" His mother shouted. "How can you sleep today of all days?"
"You thought I was sleeping," he mumbled under his breath. "There was no sleeping in this bed last night."
"You need to take a bath, Adolf! It's your wedding day! You wouldn't want to show up to your own wedding without a bath!" He heard her shuffle away.
"A bath?" he murmured to himself, "she's worried that I take a bath?" He shook his head. That was, in his estimation, the lowest of the list of worries associated with today. A wife! That was something to worry about. A woman he'd never met, never seen.
OK, so he's snuck over to Gzimalou to try to get a glimpse of his bride-to-be. He thought he'd seen her at the backdoor of their house scattering a bit of feed for the chickens. But, of course, he couldn't be certain it was her. She might have sisters. Also, he'd had to hide in the woods behind the house, so it was some distance to the door. It could have been her motheror he could have had the wrong house entirely. His stomach lurched.
"I must do this," he said to himself. "You can do this Adolf!" he said more savagely. "Don't dishonor your father by fainting at your wedding! Oh God, I'm going to be sick," was his last thought as he retched into the grass below his window.
* * *
Dawn was sneaking up on the field as Esther took out her paper to begin her letter to her favorite brother, David, in America.
So, the day has come. I'm a little afraid, but a bit excited too. Mostly, I'm angry. I can't believe I have no choice in this, my own marriage! Mother and Father are so old fashioned!
What do I do, David, if he thinks I will do only what he tells me to do?
She gripped the sheet in her hand. "Obedience does not mean without question," she said softly but fiercely.
Slowly, she swung her feet over the side of the bed and searched for her shoes with her toes, trying not to touch the cold, bare floor. Quietly, she crept from her bed to the kitchen where she began the process of warming water for a bath. There on the table was the creamy white lace her mother had used to finish her wedding gownprobably working into the wee hours of the night, Esther imagined her sitting there with needle and thread with the candle burning low.
"Well, there can be no help for it." Esther shrugged as she poured the water into the tub and went to warm more. "I must get married and a barrel maker is as good a catch as any."
* * *
The day dragged on for Adolf. It only gave him a chance to worry. "What if she thinks I am hideous? What if she doesn't want to marry me?"
His mother caught sight of his face. "It's going to be fine." she whispered, touching his cheek. "These things work out. Look at your father and Iwe met on our wedding day! Her parents toodon't worry so much. Oy!"
Adolf swayed a bit feeling a wave of nausea wash over him. It was all well and good to say it was fine, but his stomach had other ideas. He sat at the old scarred kitchen table and held a cup of coffee to warm himselfeven though it was June and probably 70 degrees already. It seemed chilly to him.
* * *
Esther sat still in a straight wooden chair while her hair was pulled from her scalp, braided, flowers and a veil placed in their proper places. Her brothers stood in the doorway watching, although her mother had shooed them away twice already, the last time with a broom. The broom had shushed them though, and there were no more catcalls or wolf-whistles to contend with.
She looked around the solid farmhouse with its whitewashed walls. They had faded to a soft butter color, and the room had a faint glow. The hearth was to one side with a large fireplace. As she glanced around, she could see her mother's cooking utensils, pots and pans; all the things that made this home. Tonight, she would leave this home forever--the familiar walls, chairs, pots and pans to become a memory. Wedding gifts of pots, pans, goose-stuffed pillows and comforter would accompany this day. They would be hersand hisshe accepted grudgingly, to start a new home, a new life.
* * *
The day was never-ending for Adolf. He wished for evening, yet dreaded it coming. Then, all it once, it was time to go. His mother straightened his collar and brushed her hand across his hair; he was too tall for her to reach the top of his head to bless him. Adolf watched as her eyes filled with tears, and she looked down and away.
"My son!" she exclaimed, "a grown man. How can that be? Oy! I never thought I would be so old and so blessed to see the day my son would marry and bring me grandchildren!"
His father touched the top of his head in blessing. Then shook his hand like a grown man. "Mazel tov! There is no greater day than this, other than the day your child is born." His father smacked him on the back. "Don't look so worried! What is there to worry about? Eh? This is a day of blessing!"
"Let's go, let's go," his mother was fairly dancing with excitement. "We don't want our son to be late to his own wedding!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming! Do you need to push? We're all coming. No one is going to be late!"
His parents' banter comforted him. Surely he to would argue with his wife as she shushed him and pushed him as his mother did to his father. He looked up to heaven with an earnest hope"Let her be a bit of a nudzh." He turned back for one last glance at his home. Now, everything was different. He would live in a different house, even though it was here on his family's land, a stone's throw from his parent's home. It wasn't his home anymore.
Adolf could hear the wedding before he even saw it. Everyone in Tarnopol had turned out. Everyone loved a wedding"Such joy!" His aunt had exclaimed. "Such anticipation!" his uncle had responded with a wink. "Such promise!" the old matchmaker had shouted, clasping her hands and swaying a little.
His mother took his right arm and his father his left as they stepped over the threshold. The white of the canopy stood out from the dark front, almost glowing. He felt that the music had reached an almost fever pitch by the time they made it to the front to stand under it.
Numb, his feet felt numb. The feeling grew and marched up his legs. Had his parents not been holding him up, Adolf was certain he would have collapsed in a heap on the stone floor. "Joy, promise, anticipation? No," thought Adolf, "just fearterror actually." Numbness proceeded into his chest. "What if my heart stops beating? Perhaps the wedding would just continue on." A small groan of panic escaped his lips.
"Shush!" his mother exclaimed, stepping just a bit onto his foot.
"At least there is some feeling down there," Adolf thought right before everything he knew was wiped clean.
His bride was walking down the aisle with her parents, silently weeping on either side. She was taller than he'd realized that day watching her from the woods. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face beneath her veil. She smiled at him, timidly from under the gauzy material. Then, she began to walk around him. He hardly heard the chanting from the cantor. Once, twice, three times. Four, five, six and the final circle.
In an instant, he was sipping wine, breaking the glass with a hard stomp from his heel and a cheer of "Mazel tov!"
"So, this is my husband," Esther tried to take in the broad shoulders, soft lips and bright brown eyes without raising her eyes too much under the veil. Hating to admit it, she liked the look of him. His eyes were kind, and frightened. His face looked like she felt. Perhaps it would not be so bad after all.
Chairs rising into the air, grabbing the handkerchief and whirling, whirling, whirling. Wine, challah and more wine. The entire reception was a blur.
Suddenly, they were alone, staring at one another.
"Hello," Adolf said softly, finding his voice.
"Hello," Esther's voice was barely above a whisper, her eyes cast down on the rough floor.
Adolf wrung his hands. "What do I say? Should I touch her? That's seems so awkward." He cleared his throat. "Sit," he pulled out a stool from the corner and beckoned her to it. He perched on the edge of the bed.
Carefully, Esther positioned herself on the stool and glanced up at him. "He looks so nervous!" she thought, surprised that he didn't know any more than she did what to do. Beads of perspiration stood out on his high forehead. One formed into an actual drop and slid down the side of his face next to his ear. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he leaned forward a bit, "So, tell me, Esther," he paused feeling the weight of his new wife's name on his tongue, "about yourself."
Quizzically, she looked up and stared at him. "Pardon?" it never occurred to her that he would have any interest in her at all.
This seemed to undo him. "I'm sorry, I just thought . . ." he faltered. "It would be nice to know something about you."
For the first time all day, Esther felt light, the weight on her shoulders lessened some, and she actually smiled at him.
"My name is Esther Fandler. My father is a farmer, and my mother bakes the best bread in all of Austria-Hungary. You met two of my three brothers at the wedding."
Adolf nodded then.
"What about you?" she inquired.
"My father and uncle are barrel-makers. I learned the trade from them. I had two sisters. They both died as babies."
"I'm sorry." She acknowledged the loss. "So, he's their only child." She realized. How different his life must have been from hers! Her brothers always teasing, rough-housing, filling the house with their fun and laughter. "Your house must have been very quiet," she remarked.
"I guess it was. It was my home. I didn't know anything else."
The silence that followed was companionable rather than the dread silence that had filled the small room a few moments earlier.
"Do you like to do anything?" he asked, trying to draw her out a little.
"I like to read."
He smiled, that was good. He was glad that her parents had not neglected to educate her.
On a whim, she switched from Yiddish to Russian, "And you?"
He broke into a wide grin. "I also like to read." He responded in Russian.
This delighted Esther. "Let's see what he really knows." She asked him rapid fire questions, switching from one language to anotherCzech, Polish, German.
He answered just as quickly in each language. Switching from one to another with the same ease she had.
"At least," he thought happily, "she is bright. And maybe, just maybe, we can be friends."
She was really smiling now, enjoying herself. "He's nice," she thought, surprised that the anxiety that had hounded her night and day from the time she had found out it was time to be married had disappeared.
Taking her hand, Adolf kissed it gallantly. "Would you rather I sleep on the floor?" he asked sheepishly, obviously embarrassed by the idea of the intimacy they were supposed to share on their wedding night.
She shook her head no, not trusting herself to speak.
A small whoosh, and the candle plunged the room into darkness. They undressed on opposite sides of the bed with their backs to each other. Adolf glanced over his should once, feeling that he was invading her privacy, but the temptation was too great. Her back was soft in the sliver of moonlight that came through the shutters. Quickly, he turned away.
Jumping under the covers at precisely the same moment, their heads bumped together with a crack. "Ouch!" Esther gave a little yelp. "Oof!" Adolf replied. But the tension was broken, they laughed. Gently, he slid his arm under her neck and drew her to him. As softly as he could, he kissed her forehead. "Goodnight wife," was all he could think to say.
"Goodnight," she whispered back in the darkness.
She glanced again to make certain he was sleeping.
You were greatly missed. I could hardly imagine myself getting married without you there. But it happened. I am a married woman now. His name is Adolf. He seems nice enough. He speaks many languages, so at least he's not stupid. His sisters died as babies, so he was an only child! Can you imagine? When he told me, I was sad for him. The house would have been so lonely without you all. I think it might be OK. At least he's not an ogre! Write soon. I miss you.
Your loving sister, Esther
Life is, well, life. I milk the cows, feed the chickens and gather eggs. At least Adolf does the demanding things like chopping wood, fixing the wheel on the wagon, etc. etc. The chores are never ending!
The most exciting part of my day is food, making eggs, bread and milk for breakfast or finding sugar, nuts or raisins to make mandle brot cookies. Adolf loves sweeties. It is a good thing we don't have lots of them, he'd be big as a house. He is rather sweet, David. He's so pleased when his favorite cheese is in his lunch or when I've sent a special treat. He never leaves without giving me a kiss on the cheek.
My days are mostly the same, baking bread, making cheese, washing the clothes. I've become Mama!
So, I have news for you. Lately, I've been a bit queasy, the smell of breakfast or the tiniest bit of sour in the milk. The bread always tastes stale. I thought I was crazy, but it turns out I'm going to have a baby!
Adolf has been very kind. He seems to think I might break at any moment. He's been getting up extra early to do the chores for me. Who knew such a small thing could bring such joy?
She too was tender toward Adolf. "After all," she thought, "he participated in this miracle too."
Something terrible has happenedanother pogrom, in Rarsa. Oh David! It's so close! The baby isn't due for three more months. I'm so afraid for Mama and Papa, the baby, Adolf, Fischle and Geoff. They were supposed to be over! They told us it was all over! I'm so angry. Do you remember hiding in the cellar? The Cossacks on their horses riding through the farm. They destroyed everythingthe crops, the animals. Oh God, I can still smell the blood. Mama was so quiet. The tears were streaming down her face, but she never made a sound. I still see her in my dreams sometimes, with those tears, pooling on her chin and dropping hard onto the ground and her apron. She had her hand over my mouth to be certain I was quiet and would stay that way. I remember watching her knuckles turn white and then grey as she gripped her apron. I thought that was all behind us!
Esther stopped writing. Closing her eyes, she was home, a little girl creeping down the loft stairs for one more cookie. She had known that her father was different after the pogrom that had destroyed the farm, but she had not understood it. That night, her mother's voice was gentle but firm coming from their bedroom, silently, she'd tiptoed closer until she could make out the words, "Stop! I won't have you beating yourself up over this. We need you alivewhat good are you to us a dead hero? Do you think you could have made any difference? Made them stop killing our cows? No! They would have burned our home, killed your sons and raped your daughter! No good could come of that folly! Be proud that you lived! That your sons lived! That your daughter wasn't soiled! They didn't burn everything! Be grateful and NEVER let me see you be ashamed again."
The next morning, her father was his old self. Laughing with her brothers in the morning over breakfast, kissing her head and her mother's cheeksit was gone. The horror was over. Now, it was back. What would Adolf do? What about her baby? She'd heard of soldiers that cut the babies from their mother's wombs. Clutching her ever-expanding belly, Esther wept.
* * *
Adolf sat dumbly on the stool in the barrel-making warehouse. Pogromthere was no worse word. Five years, it had been five years since he'd last heard it. Five years was long enough to believe it was over; that there could be a safe place in the world for him, for Esther, for the baby-yet-to-be. He had almost forgotten"No, that's not true," Adolf realized, "I'd never forget. I had grown complacent. Life continues, no matter what tragedies we know."
Had Uncle Baruch really been gone five years? It seemed impossible. Pogrom, all the loss, the fear, the sadness and anger washed over him and he was there. "Thunder," he'd said out loud to no one in particular. Uncle Baruch had looked up and his face turned ashen. "Hurry, Adolf!" He'd exclaimed, jumping up and rushing over to the new barrels, the ones with nothing in them. "Push with me!" They'd pushed a barrel over to the ones they were storing for Hiram, filled with wheat and barley. Adolf had known it was urgent. His fear tasted like metal in his mouth. Another barrel pushed toward the grain and stacked. "Up!" His uncle had commanded, making a sort of step with his hands and hoisting Adolf up to the second level of barrels. "Get in!" Adolf had done as he was told. Just as the lid had come down on the top of his barrel, the doors make a sickening crack as the wood was splintered by the butt of a rifle.
"You!" The soldier had yelled. Adolf could see nothing, but the sounds haunted him still. A different crackthe one a scull makes when it is crunched by the butt of a rifle. The groan of agony as a man is beaten ruthlessly. The ping of a shot as it takes the life of the man you loved as dearly as a father. Roughly, he wiped the tears with the back of his trembling hand. Could it really be happening again? What barrel could he hide Esther and the baby in?
Numbly, he walked home, afraid of what he might find. He wanted to hurry, but if it was badwell, if it was bad, it could wait. Adolf didn't let himself believe that it might be alright until he saw the smoke swirling out of their chimney. His feet, which had plodded so heavily, began to pick up speed and broke into a run, of their own accord, it seemed to him. Flinging open the door, he gathered Esther into his arms and kissed her fiercely.
She stared at him. "You're alive! God be praised!" His face was nothing but a silly, grin from ear to ear. Esther smiled back, "You're late!" She chided gently, laughing, but inside she was as relieved as Adolf had openly expressed. Those moments after when he usually appeared at the door and had notwell, they had been excruciating hours of waiting. A look passed between them. There was no need to say the word out loud.
"You heard," was all she said. A sharp nod in affirmation. "I saw your mother." Another nod. Then, "I'll leave the shop early tomorrow, we can make it to your parents by sundown and celebrate with them." Relief flooded through her. "He understands!" She was joyous. Not that Esther had expected anything lessevery Jew understood, but she was grateful that he knew her need to be sure they were alive and well, and more grateful still that he would try and fill that need for her.
Adolf arrived earlier than she'd expected. He plunked down on a chair at the kitchen table as she finished her preparations. As he reached for a cookie, she swatted his hand. "They're not for you," she snapped, a little more sharply than she'd intended. He looked hurt.
Sighing, she handed him a cookie, then began putting everything into a basket. When she finished, he took the basket and extended his arm, "Shall we go?" Taking his arm, she felt the spring leap into her step. Adolf helped her into the wagon, then climbed up himself.
"The food smells wonderful," he commented, hoping to please her.
"Thank you husband," she replied cordially, secretly very pleased, but careful not to give him too much encouragement.
They sat in companionable silence listening to the clip clop of the horses' hooves as they made their way the three miles to Gzimalou. Esther's excitement was palpable. "I've been such as idiot!" Adolf thought as he watched her. "I should have taken her home weeks ago!" He had genuinely forgotten that Tarnopol wasn't her home, that his parents were not her parents. "Of course!" he scolded himself, "she would want to share the pregnancy with her own mother!"
"You know," Adolf ventured tentatively, "Gzimalou is not so far a distance, we should try to come once a monthor maybe every three weeks, if it would not be too much for you?" glancing at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Do you mean it?" she demanded so stridently, that he drew up on the reins bringing the wagon to an abrupt halt.
"Of course," he responded, bewildered.
Esther threw her arms around him kissing each cheek in turn and ended on his mouth.
Adolf nodded, his ears burning around their tips, embarrassed and pleased. "Perhaps my parents are right about this marriage thing after all." With a flick of his wrist, he started the horses moving again.
A sound behind them made Adolf turn. "I think it's them," Esther croaked beside him in a voice just above a whisper. Frantically, Adolf took in the scene around them, flat farmland, but about one hundred meters ahead, trees. The a crack that sounded like thunder and felt like a thousand bees against the flank of the horse, Adolf whipped the horses into a gallop, his only concern was Esther and the unborn baby. Within those trees was the only hope he had.
Hurtling toward the trees, Adolf tried to plan an escape, a diversionanything to get Esther to safety. He turned to her, "can you find your way home from here?" She stared at him. "Can you?!" he yelled, fighting the urge to slap her across the face. She nodded, unable to form the words. "Listen to me! I'm going to stop for a second, you have to jump down and go to your parents! I'll meet you there. Hide until they pass! Do you understand?"
Esther nodded dumbly. Her tongue was so dry; it stuck to the roof of her mouth, making it impossible to form words. Moments later, they were in the trees. The wagon stopped, and Adolf gave her a push out. "Hide!" he hissed as he slapped the whip down onto the horses again, taking off in a frenzy, leaving only dust behind him.
Pulling up her skirts, Esther ran into the trees, not daring to look behind her. She could hear the soldiers coming. Their horses sounding like rushing water over rocks. To her left, Esther could just make out a dip in the earth. "Please God, don't let it be too deep!" she prayed harder than she'd ever done before. Veering left, she came to the dip. It was, as she had suspected, a trapa hole covered so that an animal would fall in and break it's leg. But this one wasn't finished. It wasn't deep enough, an animal might fall, but it wouldn't break a leg. It would simply climb out. Esther slid in on her belly, pulling the branches over her. She hoped it was deep enough to hide her in its depth.
The sound of the dried leaves as hard boots crushed them to dust caused Esther to hold her breath. "Could he see her?" she wondered, tightening her lids. She preferred not to see. The boots came closer, closer. She was sure they were upon her and the branches would be lifted back. Then, abruptly, the boots turned and began to move away. Esther let out her breath, lying on the cool ground long after the sounds had completely died away.
Eventually, Esther looked up from under the branches, scanning the forest for any sign of the Cossacks or Adolf. Nothing in any direction that she could see. Slowly, she came up to her knees, still searching for some unseen evil. When she had convinced herself that the evil had gone for the day, she stood up, brushed the dirt and leaves from her bodice and skirts. Looking around, she was able to get her bearings and begin walking toward her family's farm.
It was dark and chilly by the time Esther opened the door to her parent's home.
"Esther!" her father and mother exclaimed in unison. "My God, what has happened to you? Where is Adolf?" The questions from everyone tumbled over each other, the Shabbat table forgotten. Esther was momentarily confused. "I'm sorry, we were going to surprise you," she whispered.
"Get her a chair, some wine and bread!" her mother snapped at her brother. "Be quick." Her brother, Fischle, looked befuddled, but another glance from his mother had him hopping to his assignment. Esther sank into the chair gratefully and took a sip of wine. Nibbling the bread with trembling hands, she recounted the story to her parents and brothers.
The room was silent, the ticking of the clock and the crackling of the fire sounded like rifle shots in the stillness of the room. "Pogrom," her mother breathed, touching her daughters swollen belly. "Why now?
The joy that had brought her here was swept away. The food sat on the table uneaten and unwanted.
"Esther," her father spoke slowly, quietly, "go to bed. There's nothing we can do tonight." She nodded but did not move. Her limbs simply unable to cooperate. She listened to the clock mirroring the beating of her heart. Hours disappeared.
Tap, tap, tap. "Had anyone else heard that?" she looked around wildly, hoping she wasn't imagining things. Tap, tap, tap.
They heard it. Her brothers jumped up, one on either side of the door as the third opened it a crack. "It is Adolf!" a whisper in the darkness. "Let me in, please!" The door opened a crack more and Adolf fell through searching the room. When he spied Esther, he ran to her, grabbing her shoulders. "Are you alright? Is the baby alright?" he demanded.
"Yes, yes!" she assured him, trying to sooth him with her words. "We're fine."
He wrapped his arms around her tightly.
She struggled out of his grasp. "What happened? Where is the wagon? Where are the horses?"
Adolf hung his head. "Lost. I jumped from the wagon before they overtook me. I climbed up a tree while they searched for me. When they could not find me, they burned the wagon and gutted the horses. There was nothing I could do. I returned to the place I left you. I searched for you until it was dark. When I couldn't find you, I hoped . . ." he stopped, gulping for air, "I hoped that was a good sign. I began walking toward Gzimalou, staying as hidden as I could in the trees, looking for you all the way."
"Don't worry about the horses and wagonbetter for you to be safe, for our child to have a father, than for you to be dead and have lost the horses and wagon as well, for they would have destroyed them no matter what."
Esther saw her mother's approving look out of the corner of her eye. Now she understoodthere was no worldly possession, not even food, which would replace your husband.
"Come husband, let's go to bed. It is late, and I am weary. We survived. That is all that mattersand that the baby would be born healthy."
Adolf nodded dully, but under his breath, he made a promise, "I will find a better life for us, a safe life for our child."
How I wish you were here! I shouldn't wish it because at least you are safe in America. But I could use your smile. I don't think I will ever smile again. Adolf left this morning to come to America. After the business was destroyed, we went to live with Mama and Papa for a while. Adolf was afraid they would come back while he was out trying to do repairs and things at other farms and businesses, and I would be alone. He was almost hysterical with worry.
I don't think I've ever known such fear or such sadness. The first few weeks were pleasant. It was so nice to be home again! Mama's bread baking in the morning, the first smell when I opened my eyes. Salia sitting on Papa's lap while he told her stories of sprites living in the forest. I believed we would be happy again. I allowed myself to hope that we were safe at last.
The contractions started in the middle of the night. Fischle went to get the midwife. He wouldn't let Adolf goperhaps he had a premonition of what was coming. I don't know. The sky was just starting to get light when we heard itthe hoof beats of the Cossacks coming straight for us. Even though the baby's head was crowning, I got out of the bed, and I struggled underneath the frame. Mama got underneath it too to hold my hand. The midwife had the courage of a lion and pushed her way in as well. Adolf and Papa covered us with every blanket in the house. They made it a fortress. The floor was no longer visible because the sheets and blankets were so draped. Then, they went outside to draw the soldiers away. I thought Mama and I would both be widows, if we weren't dead.
And so I pushed, as the soldiers crashed through the fence. I pushed as Fischle jumped into the saddle again. I pushed, as he led them away from Papa, from Adolf, from me. And I pushed as the spur on his boot caught on the stirrup and somehow, he fell. We don't know if the horse was spooked or if he turned too much in an effort to see the soldiers behind him. I don't suppose it matters, but the spur kept him from falling all the way to the earth. Instead, he was pulled along on that horse, as it fled. He could not free himself. He was trampled to death by his own horse just as I gave birth to another baby girl. I am naming her Minnie, after our baby brother, who was such a minnow as a little boy.
from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine