That Which Can Never Be Lost: Reflections On a Theme
By Henri Bybelezer
1 Why Yiddish, my brethren?
As a child, I expressed myself best in Yiddish, long before I could speak English (my adopted tongue), French (my maternal language, spoken by my father) or Hebrew (learned later in school). Yet for years and years I could not grasp (though kept to myself) why my parents — one French, the other German (each a survivor of the Khurbin) — would send me to a wholly Yiddish school, from inception through Grade Two, leaving me unable to communicate properly with my Gentile and/or secular street-friends and perceptibly unequipped to integrate into local “society.” The language of teaching was strictly Yiddish, in a Bundist curriculum, immersed in that tinge of sadness/depression one sensed intuitively (and compounded with much screaming and a fair dose of corporeal punishment).
By the time I was in Grade Two, my mother realized that her child could not very well engage with the world that had ostensibly left Echad Ha’am behind in the ashes of despair. Accordingly, she wanted to enroll me in the then best Jewish school in the city, wherein every secular study was taught in English, along with a full slate of religious studies taught in Hebrew. As I spoke barely a word of Hebrew, other than a limited vocabulary pulled from Torah and pronounced with Yiddish inflection, there came the inevitable interview with the principal.
I’m sitting across from the principal, my mother next to me, when he asks me to recount the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent. So, I start: “Iz geven amol in gan eyden a shlang vos hot gevolt arimtsedreyin odom un chava” (There was once a snake in the Garden of Eden which wanted to confuse Adam and Eve). The principal immediately interrupted me to insist that I: “dertseil di mayseh in hebreyish” (Tell the story in Hebrew). I tried and tried, desperately, to the point of tears, but the words just were not there. In frustration, I finally asked the man why I could not continue in Yiddish, “di mame-loshen fin yidn” (the mother-tongue of Jews). I will remember his words to my dying day: “Mir hobn zich yetz tzurik gekimen auf unzere stat in eretz yisroel — di eintsegeh shprakh fin modernishe yidn itst is hebreyish” (We have returned to our homeland, Israel. Hebrew is now the only language of contemporary Jewry). My poor mother, shifting uncomfortably in her seat, asked to speak to him alone for two minutes, which was arranged with my leaving the room.
On my return, the principal, himself wiping away tears, asked me to continue the Bible tale, speaking from the heart and with whatever Hebrew I could interject, which I did. “Der shlang hot gefregt fin chava” (The snake asked Eve), etc. Throughout, and to my confusion, the principal went from mewling to bawling, heaving while waving me on with his handkerchief. When I had finished, he turned to my mother and said: “Keep your promise, and I will register your child in September on a trial basis.” I later graduated from his Hebrew high school.
Years later, I asked my mother what she’d said to that principal while I was outside the room. Her answer: “I told him that I would get you intensive Hebrew lessons, five days a week, till the next school year, but that he absolutely had to accept this Yiddish-speaking child, if only for the memory of the one million five hundred thousand Jewish kinder whom he would never have an opportunity to enroll.”
2 What’s in a name?
From her earliest days, the nickname “C-M” had always attached itself to Celine-Marguerite de Bouthillier. Indeed it was the acronym which had become her only appellation, used by all, including her father, with nobody — other than her mother — having the slightest care, nor any palpable concern, regarding such a diminutive. It was cute, succinct, distinct and borne singularly by a blossoming young woman of intelligence and subtle delicacy.
Her mother, a stunning beauty of worldly fabric, was a devout Catholic of well-to-do birth, whose sole mission was to cultivate her daughter’s many attributes and nurture her eclectic, cultural refinement in the finest tradition of French petite noblesse. The best schools, a diversity of tutors, summers spent in Swiss finishing schools, opera, piano, great literature, sports — yes, even embroidery — every possible activity to expand the mind, enhance the physical and succor the spirit. This she provided in the face of an ongoing recalcitrance, progressive restlessness and increasing resentment from C-M.
C-M’s father, a member of the French diplomatic corps, was a proclaimed atheist, firmly, though admittedly, not virulently against all religious myth, fantasy, mysticism and that which he called “sorcery.” If people needed a crutch to cope, so be it. A good, generous and educated man, his Weltanschauung was strictly secular, exulting only in the deities of liberty, fraternity and equality and focused on advancing abroad that which he saw and felt to be the sacred heritage and traditional mission of his adopted country.
The only issue that caused friction, sometimes vehement argument between C-M’s parents, was her religious upbringing. These were heated disputes, which C-M heard repeatedly as she grew up and which caused her no lack of agonizing. Personally, C-M, a European “baby boomer” imbued with the new, forward-looking spirit of her peers, had no interest in the traditional, Trinitarian piety which obsessed — or possessed — her mother, and she chuckled inwardly, though somewhat perplexed at her father’s sporadic admonishment: “Poor girl, if you don’t fall in with your mother’s gods, she may well disown you. But if you ever do succumb to that idolatry, it is I who will disavow you.”
So, C-M, baptized with her father’s dissent by absence, went through the motions for her insistent mother. She genuflected at appropriate times in church, confessed to sins she had not committed, mouthed her Our Fathers and Hail Marys to popular tunes dancing in her mind and resisted, as best permitted, any other sanctification of that which she seemed never capable of accepting as iconic, let alone divine. That is not to say, however, that she did not yearn for spiritual fulfillment.
With C-M’s majority, the shackles were lifted. No more catechism, no more constraints, no longer the obligation of dutiful obedience. Flight into liberty, fancy and independence — a time to seek and to find her essential self and chart that individual course hitherto strangled by convention. As hers alone was now the choice of heavenly or hellish, years of indolence followed — a romping and frolicking in what many might characterize as the depths of depravity. Her parents were devastated, her mother saying more rosaries than mandated for all the saints combined, and her father collapsing into that particular despondency that alone generates profound insight and acknowledgement of true direction.
Even after a number of years spent searching the globe to satisfy a desperate need for a cultural affinity, some firm philosophical ground, an ideological framework not built on quicksand, a spiritual crucible in which to meld her inner self — something, anything to show the path, alight the soul and set the heart ablaze — C-M still remained a magnificent yet empty vessel. So much for scholarship, refinement and culture. These sated no appetite other than a lust to imbibe further at the trough of hedonistic materialism and amounted to afflictions to be paraded in silent anguish rather than attributes sourcing spirituality. She felt doomed to remain mere form over substance.
Then, one fateful evening, word came to C-M that her parents had been killed in a plane crash on their return flight from Dakar to Paris. During the week’s wait for the return of their bodies, C-M had the obligatory meetings with the priest and prefect, the accountants and lawyers, all in preparation for the funeral and her succession. Quite customary and regular, save that upon her leaving the lawyer, he had given her a hand-written note provided by her father for just such an eventuality. It read simply: “Search our attic to find both my legacy to you and your real inheritance, perhaps your sought-after link to peace of mind and fulfillment.”
C-M promptly returned to her parents’ home, to the attic and searched. She recognized some old furniture, a few paintings and various bric-a-brac from her youth and from her family’s many moves. In the corner, however, lay a chest she had never seen, which she approached and opened with some trepidation. From the trunk she pulled a strange hat, which, when she stroked it ,seemed to caress her fingers. Even more curious were the little black boxes with immensely long leather straps, a beautiful shawl emblazoned with a blue more royal than she had ever imagined possible and a black satin coat that seemed to shimmer when it caught the light. And then an envelope containing a note from her father, again hand-written, clearly tear-stained, which sent fire through her veins:
My story is irrelevant, my beloved C-M, as your journey may now be only just beginning. The document I have attached is yours by right in more ways than one. God willing, may it provide the clear path you have been seeking to a truth that finally grants you contentment.
The attached paper was a birth certificate upon which was inscribed the name Chaya Mushka Rosenthal.
3 Y’varekh’kha Hashem
It was Yom Kippur in a small shtetl some miles from Cracow a number of years following the Khurbin. The few straggling remnants of a once proud, flourishing and almost wholly Jewish village had gathered for services in a shelter assembled from the rubble of the homes of the deported. This, in a habitual yet merely rote fashion, devoid of vibrancy and laden with despair, in the memory of all those departed at whose side this splinter of a community could no longer beseech its Maker.
When it came time to recite the priestly blessing, Reb Shaya, the lone surviving kohen, where once there had been fourteen, ascended to the holy ark to bless the paltry minyan hunched before him. The rabbi signaled to proceed, but at the cry of “Kohanim,” when no chant was forthcoming in response to that sacred injunction, he asked, “Reb Shaya, vos trefts ich mit ir? Meh darft duchenin” (Reb Shaya, what’s wrong with you? We have to recite the priestly blessing). The only answer was, “Ich veyst nisht fervus ober nach eyzeh roha hagezeyrah, siz mir gekimpt a shlikhis tsu vartn auf a brocheh fin himel un auf a vichtigeh tshuveh, tfileh un tzedokeh” (I can’t explain it but, in the aftermath of such a Decree of Destruction, I’ve been enjoined to await upon a blessing from heaven for a genuine “return, prayer and charity”).
Minutes passed like hours as the puzzled congregants stood aimlessly in anticipation of the continued service. Then there was rustling in the back of the room, which quickly turned into animated dismay. A young man had suddenly appeared in the shul, clearly a Gentile, secularly dressed, clean-shaven and speaking only Polish. The assembly, fully on its guard against any such intrusion on a Jewish gathering, let alone on the Day of Atonement, made it amply clear to the youth that this was not his place and demanded that he leave immediately.
Taken aback and fearing for his safety, he stammered feebly that he did not know why he was here, but he needed to see and to give a letter and some gold to the “priest”. The Rabbi pointed him to Reb Shaya, to whom the youth explained that he had recently been released from the convent orphanage in Cracow, at which time the Mother Superior told him that his parents had been killed with the partisans. She’d given him this letter, as instructed by those who’d brought the child to her at the beginning of the war. He now handed it to Reb Shaya along with a nugget of gold. Upon reading the letter, the old man uttered a fearsome cry and fainted away. It read:
My dearest and only son:
When I ran off and married your father, I was cut off completely from my family and community under edict of kherem (excommunication). Yet when the Nazis invaded our soil, your grandfather was able to have delivered to me, his only and still-cherished daughter, the large gold cross which you were instructed to wear from the moment I sheltered you in the convent. Your grandfather's instructions were explicit: you were never to take this cross off your neck until you were safely and peacefully on your own. Now as you read this letter, I implore you to break open the cross, preserve its contents, melt down the gold for charity and return to my village on the very next Jewish Day of Atonement. Seek out whatever “priest” survives in that community. Thereby, finally find your way back home.
Your loving mother,
On the parchment which the youngster had carried with him constantly was transcribed Birkat Hakohanim, the Priestly Blessing— all that one solitary Yid could do to preserve the grandson he had never known.
4 Korbin Peysakh
It was the night of the first Seder, 1918. The Russian countryside was in flames. The Revolution, now a year old, had left tens of thousands dead and many more homeless and marauding aimlessly from village to village. The fury of the struggle between Reds and Whites, coupled with the countless, destitute soldiers now discharged at the end of a ghastly war, plagued a land steeped in blood.
In one isolated shtetl, the remaining family of Reb Binyomin, a wife and four surviving children, sat down to their Seder in fear and trepidation. Upheavals were never charitable to Jews, and the anticipation of a pogrom hung heavy in the air. This was a family of Hasidim already ravaged by events: the eldest son, Mendel, previously abducted into the Tzar’s army and killed during the Great War; a youngest son dead from disease; a daughter brutally raped, beaten and left to die by a gang of Gentiles. But given his unflinching faith in the divine destiny charted for each, it was the fate of Reb Binyomin’s second son that cut somewhat more deeply, in a profoundly unforgiving way.
Menashe had always displayed a split personality. He was the brightest of the children, the most gifted scholar of the lot, the most incisive and questioning of the siblings and a prodigy, capable at the youngest age of discussion with the rabbis. Yet he was consistently of the School of Shammai rather than that of Hillel, a dissenter whose path was unclear. Would Menashe finally conform to the fold by settling known and holy ground as had half his biblical namesake, or would he seek inspiration in foreign mythologies, pastures outside the confines of that which had otherwise been promised?
Menashe had eventually chosen distance, abandoning his family and village for the sensations and stimuli of the city. His head inflated with every contemporary “ism” of his day that sought disciples: socialism, communism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, humanism. His Judaism and any modicum of compassionate pacifism had paled in the face of the swirling social currents swelling the ranks of the hungry and spiritually vulnerable. Now a senior, regional Bolshevik leader, his mission focused strictly on revolutionary fervor and doctrinal purity, targeting all who opposed the rising Red tide. This was in keeping with the ideological perspective and concomitant orders emanating, alas, from the many Jewish leaders of the Revolution based in St. Petersburg. Still there could be no earthly accounting for that which remained, yet untapped, in the divine soul of a Jew.
That Seder night a pogrom was planned by the local Bolsheviks in their misguided belief that the Jews were in collusion with the invading Whites. In a preparatory meeting, Menashe exhorted his vile cohorts to deflect the pending slaughter from his family’s village but to no avail. His henchmen knew well that their leader was Jewish. They made it clear to him that his active participation alongside them — nay, his very leadership — was the test of his commitment to the cause and proof of his having truly discarded any vestigial remnants of a broken faith. Failing compliance, so asserted his drunken underlings, his fate would be that deserved by any “dirty Jew.” So this is where his pursuit of false prophets had led him.
As the brutes gathered to begin their sweep of the Jewish section of the town, Menashe chose to secretly warn his family of the plan. After a loving and tearful reunion and sitting at the Seder table for the first time in years, Menashe, basking in the warmth and comforting melodies and candle-light of his youth, noticed that the Seder plate contained all the familiar ingredients save one. Upon asking his father why the plate held no shank bone, he was told that, unfortunately, after multiple raids of the village over many months by both Reds and Whites, there had remained no animals for the ritual slaughterer: no flocks, no cattle, no fowl. Nothing! When leaving his family that night, Menashe warned them that, upon hearing the whistling of the Jew-baiters signaling each other, they were to hide in the cellar and not come out until noon the next day.
Through an excruciating night of gunfire, shouts and screams, the family huddled in terror, awaiting their fate as sacrificial lambs at the hands of the rampaging haters, a destiny, thank God, that was not to be theirs. The following afternoon, the family of Reb Binyomin walked out into the sunlit day to notice that not just the lintel, but the whole frame of their doorway had been smeared with blood. The murderers had deemed the deed completed in that home and had passed over the house to continue their slaughter elsewhere.
In the still-uncovered pit just outside the village lay the murdered dozens of the village’s Jews, among them the bloodied body of Menashe. The sole mark distinguishing his body from that of his brethren was that both his wrists were slashed.