The Last Night
By Lili Berger
Translated from Yiddish by Judy Nisenholt
The heavy shadows of night envelop the small shabby room. The little lamp on the writing table, covered in a very dark shade, casts only a pale glow. The paper blind pulled down over the window looks like a sad altar covering. A thick and heavy gloom mingled with apprehension fills the tiny space. Melancholy and angst interweave, turning about in the air in confused zigzags, crawling into the shadows on the walls. They fill up every cramped corner, raising alarms, screaming without sounds, as if hundreds of deadly snakes were laying siege outside, marking off the house, slithering in through the walls, shoving themselves through every crack, hissing through venomous fangs.
The old rusty bed is made but empty. The hard-resting place waits for its stingy bedfellow. The exertion and the exhaustion of the day have not brought him any nearer to sleep. The turmoil in his heart has hunted him down. Alert, a watchman, he sits by the little table, bent over a piece of paper, and guides his pen urgently over the sheet. He covers the white paper with fine dark markings, spilling out memories of times gone by, entrusting to them what he is now living through. Suddenly, his tired head jerks up. The pen falls from his hand. The watchman tears himself from the table, to which he seemed to have been grafted.
Emaciated and wasted, he looks like a sickly, scrawny youth. But above the exhausted, shrunken body, a high and clever brow proudly asserts itself, and beneath it, two deep-set, warm, blue eyes gaze out. His long, lined, stricken face exudes endless pain and goodness, sorrow and love. The old man with the shrunken body stands frozen in place. Only his head moves, slowly and fitfully. His short thick beard trembles at each nod of his head. Two restless, searching eyes look around as if their penetrating glances could seek out the dangers behind the walls and thus avoid them.
The ghetto is sunk in the stillness of night. The silence is like the inheld breath of one in mortal danger hiding behind a wall from a pursuer close by. From time to time, the sound of a volley of arms rips through the calm of night.
The ghetto is wrapped in a thick fog of anguished terror. Over it, hangs a dark, menacing sky. The August air is hot, humid, suffocating, but people lie on their beds and in their hiding places twisted up as if from a mighty frost. Here and there a family has been left behind like a mutilated body from which the limbs have been hacked off. Entire houses have been emptied. Each day since the 22nd of July the ghetto has become even sparser. By six thousand or ten thousand a day.
In the daytime, death roams outside, reveling in the ghetto streets and courtyards; he savagely chases the beggars and the children, raging at anyone who pokes his head out. Death commands, calls out to come to him voluntarily. He promises three kilos of bread and a kilo of marmalade to those who come forward freely.
The ghetto is fenced-in, an enclosed hunting ground. Death has unleashed his hounds; they sniff about, putting their pointy muzzles into every den. Only the heaped Pinkert wagon, flowing with blood, courses about undisturbed. From morning till night, long caravans stretch out to the Umschlagplatz. The German Angel of Death takes his harvest only by day — until six o’clock, according to the practice of the working day.
The ghetto is sunk in dreadful nightly silence, in anxious waiting. In attics and cellars people are lying in restless, nightmarish slumber. Dr. Janusz Korczak doesn’t sleep. During the night Korczak remains vigilant. He writes, takes notes, listens to the menacing silence, tries to find a way to think things through. Around him, above him, and beside him, over two hundred children are sleeping. They believe in him. They trust him completely. They are sleeping the deep slumber of children. The chaos of the ghetto has not yet sunk in. Korczak doesn’t allow dread and panic to settle in his house or allow fear to weigh upon the children’s innocent hearts. They appear calm, his children. What do they have to fear when the Doctor, their constant protector, is with them, fending off all calamities? In this hard, chaotic time, they feel secure in their Doctor. They are still asleep in their little beds.
Janusz Korczak sleeps little at night. Now it seems to him that he hears the children breathing with difficulty. He sees their nightmarish dreams, feels how their eyes are turned to him. They reach out to him; they cling tightly, so very tightly. How can he continue to shelter and protect them? By what means? His throat constricts. He wants to scream, to call out for help, but to whom? To the world? He carries on a debate now, a silent debate. With the world, and with himself as well. With hands crossed behind his back and with a silent monologue on his lips, he slowly paces back and forth, bare feet barely touching the floor.
You are deaf and blind, world. We scream, we cry out to you, and you don’t hear; we are bleeding to death and you don’t see. We can no longer cry; our tears have dried up. We can’t scream anymore with a human voice. We howl like hunted, wounded animals. Under the slaughterer’s knife, we rattle in the throes of death. Doesn’t it reach you? Or maybe you block your ears? Maybe?… World, you are bankrupt! You have sealed your own fate. Your civilization, your high ideals, your… your… everything, entirely bankrupt, and I am bankrupt too, a total bankrupt. I’ve accumulated a lot of capital. I’ve built up the trust of the children, their belief in the good and the beautiful. So many words and concepts: humanity, dignity, knowledge, friendship, brotherly love… How they sting, these words.
Several salvos have cut through the summer ghetto air and interrupted the silent monologue. Korczak remains standing in the middle of the room. He raises his head and, with ears perked, listens closely to the black stillness that has returned. His eyes are as wide as those of a dying man. His searching glance falls on his own shadow as it steals across the wall. He is restless. His shadow moves awkwardly, jumps down, crumples in on itself and grows big again.
Why is his shadow trembling so? Korczak studies it. Then for a while he closes his staring eyes. In place of his shadow, something appears. No, it’s an old acquaintance… It is… it is Laocoön and his sons… Giant serpents slither out from the walls – ocean waves whorl around their bodies, entwining them — biting into their flesh with their poisonous fangs, piercing them until the last drop of life has trickled away. He sees the father’s face distorted in pain, the final, fatal jerking, the death throes of his sons. He tears open his eyes. The apparition is gone. There is only the shadow. His own shadow or Laocoön’s? The Greek priest had two unfortunate children at his side. He himself has over two hundred. He knows what dangers lie in wait for them. He must protect them from the venomous snakes. But how? How? He wrings his hands in a gesture of despair.
What to do to protect them? Ach, the powerlessness, the total powerlessness. There is nothing more terrifying than our powererlessness. What to do? What can we devise? I’ve come up with so many fairy tales and now the mind can’t muster anything. Ach, if one could only come up with a magical story, with some kind of spell to give them magic wings that would take them over the ghetto walls under the veil of night, far away to safer places… If only… If only…
Oy, you old fool. You’re babbling, dreaming of magical tales, even imagining protective wings. Who? And maybe…maybe they won’t dare? Maybe the danger is the fiendish outgrowth of my sick mind? Stefa says that it comes from lack of sleep and exhaustion. Dark thoughts, she says, come from exhaustion. Maybe she’s right. I am like an old broken vessel. Like an old worn out piece of clothing. Everything is torn, everything is fraying. Not one fiber of me is whole. Everything in me is breaking, the old body is falling apart. And the mind? No, the mind isn’t sick. It still understands clearly. Yes, yes, the mind comprehends that behind us is death and before us is death. Death with a thousand faces on all sides. Where to look for rescue for them? How to shield them from…?
An immense sorrow spreads across his thin yellow face. Anguish and pain flood his entire being. His heart pounds as if it were about to smash, to spring out of his chest. Stooped over and hunched, as if his thoughts have made him even smaller and thinner, he takes slow steps to his chair. His eyes are feverish. He lowers himself into the chair as though his legs refuse to support him any longer. He leans both arms on the table and rests his heavy head on them. In his brain an alarm clock goes off, his thoughts are racing, jockeying with one another. His ideas and thoughts break off from the noise in his mind just as, in a storm, branches and leaves are torn from a tree. The old thinker tries to gather his splintered thoughts and compel his mind to think of only one thing. He sets out the silent monologue.
At least to protect them... from fear, from the suffering that terror brings. Maybe I can do this for them, only shield them in this way, help them get through… to shrink the fear, the way we cause physical pain to atrophy. Help them to face the worst… to take it with calm…drive away their angst… to spare them… oy, how the mind races! A storm… maybe I am exaggerating… Stefa says… from exhaustion… exhaustion…We have to leave Monish. In bed, fever… Shlomka’s drawing… such talent… vitamins… I need to obtain, we must have…seriously wasting away… What do they want from me? To think about those on the other side… granted… to get through, get through... save oneself… myself alone? No, never! Help to get past the fear… Stefa says dark thoughts… not possible, they won’t dare… they will… they won’t…
A heavy persistent drowsiness clouds his thoughts and entangles them in dreams. His weary hands can no longer support the weight of his head and it hits the table. The exhausted body trembles. The dream ends abruptly.
The old doctor raises his head, looks around, slowly gets up. With an unsteady hand he turns down the weak light of the carbide lamp and makes his way quietly to bed. The old iron bed gives a slight groan. Korczak straightens his stiff limbs and exhales deeply. The weight pressing on his heart lets up. He feels lighter, as if he has found calmness in his thinking, as if his thoughts have chased off the dangers facing his children.
This time sleep comes quickly. It is a balm for the feeble body and for the strained, suffering mind. In sleep, the pale, grief-stricken face is still paler and anxious. His skin is now thin and transparent. Asleep, he looks as if he is lying unconscious.
Korczak’s sleep is fitful. At every rustle, he struggles as if against cobwebs. The summer night quickly flits away. The dark blind over the window gradually lightens as the dawn breaks. The blue of early morning pushes its way into the bedroom in a thin strip at the edge of the blind. The sleeping man wakes nervously in his bed, gets up suddenly, scans the walls where the poisonous snakes slithered out — no, they came out of the waves, threw themselves on Laocoön and his sons, bit them, choked them, suffocated. The line between dream and waking is so narrow, hardly even perceptible. At one moment the dream takes supremacy, and then soon after, it is the waking reality. His right-hand swipes nervously across his face, as if to drive the nightmarish vision from his imagination. His head falls exhausted on the pillow. His body and mind submit again to the salvation of sleep.
The sun has lifted off the horizon, moving along ever higher into the sky and, to spite the murderers, has sent its golden beams into the ghetto. Dr. Janusz Korczak is still sleeping this morning. His mind has emptied itself of nightmares. His sleep has become sounder, deeper, more solid. Like one famished, his body first swallowed, then devoured, sleep, and relished it. Suddenly the sleeper trembled violently, as if rattled by a strong thunderclap. A savage whistle shriek has cut off his delicious slumber. A beastly roaring has driven him from his bed. Nervously he pulls on his pants. His hands are trembling. He runs to the window and pulls up the dark blind. Light pours into the room. Wild cries break in along with the light: “Juden heraus! Juden heraus! Schnell heraus!” In the silence that follows, a commotion is heard in the house.
Korczak quickly pulls his shoes out from under the bed and begins to put them on. But now the small, low door of the isolation room opens. Three eight-to-ten year old invalids in their nightshirts; their eyes feverish from heat and fear, they fall on Korczak. They cling to him. A little girl hurls questions at him.
“Doctor, what will they do with us? I’m so frightened!”
Korczak strokes her head and coaxes her, “Nothing to be afraid of! You’re a clever girl and you’re acting so silly!”
A second sick girl snuggles into Korczak and asks, “Doctor, where will they take us? Will the Doctor go with us?”
“Yes, yes. I’m going with you. Probably to a village. After all, it’s summer.”
He pulls the children down and chases them off. “Go get dressed. Nothing to be afraid of.”
A sick ten-year-old boy asks quietly, “Doctor, will they take us to a village?”
“I already said. Such big kids and you are behaving like babies. Go get dressed, hurry!”
“Do we have to take everything with us, Doctor? Our books? Our scribblers? Can we take a ball?”
Korczak seems unresponsive. Two nurses are already in the room leading the children away. Korczak pulls his jacket on hastily and gets ready to go out. But now the door opens on the left and Stefania Viltshinska comes in. She is pale but calm. Her voice wavers slightly. Clearly she is straining to keep control of herself. She speaks softly, her voice coming from somewhere far off. She gives him a satchel and helps him to pack his essentials. Korczak explains himself to her:
“I abandon you and still you come to help me. I slept late, and then the children barged in. I had to calm them, I didn’t carry out my proper duties.”
“You always carry out your duties. The children know that you are going with them. Everything is ready, no panic. Everything has been prepared as you wished. We are taking care of the sick children. Their bags are ready. The staff is assisting everyone down to the youngest children. You yourself prepared me so that everything is ready.”
Packing his bag, Korczak asks Stefania to go to the children. He needs no one’s help. Now he is ready and joins the children.
“Are they calm? Not frightened?”
“Yes, calm. Not afraid. They know that you are travelling with them. Your presence gives them assurance.”
“Safe with me. They still believe that I…”
Stefania takes a few steps toward the door. Korczak throws down the towel that he was using to wipe his face with and cries out in a strangled voice:
“Stefa… It is to you… I owe you so much! Forgive me! We won’t be parted now.”
For a moment Stefania looks lovingly at him. Her eyes fill with tears and without a word, she goes out.
Korczak takes his bundle and makes for the door. His way is blocked by an unfamiliar man.
“You are Dr. Janusz Korczak? Dr. Henryk Goldschmitt?”
“I am. But I have no time now. I have to be with the children.”
“Don’t hurry, Doctor. Your children’s home is done for.”
“I know that you know. But you can stay. You are a doctor. You are needed.”
“I’m needed by my children. I’ve no time to waste.”
“It’s been worked out for you to stay right here.”
“My place is with my children.”
“Think about yourself, Dr. Goldschmitt. There’s still time, it’s your last chance.”
Korczak looks at him, tight-lipped, and doesn’t answer. He wants to get away. The stranger takes him by the arm, attempts to persuade him.
“I need to be with my children!” I’ve wasted too much time with you; I need to be with the children!”
Soon after, the stranger hears a cheerful fatherly voice through the open door. Korczak is organizing the children into lines. Holding hands with the youngest and with a song on his lips, he places himself at the front of the procession, shielding his children from the terror.