Helen Maryles Shankman
At around two in the morning, my mother shook me awake. The Messiah was coming. There was no doubt about it, he’d been spotted ten miles outside of Wlodawa. At this rate, he would be here by morning. Get up, get up. We had to pack.
She left me to dress. It was a cold November night, gale force winds rattling the roof tiles and chimney pots. Reluctant to surrender the warmth of my bed, I shut my eyes tight and snuggled down into the covers to consider this information.
It wasn’t as if there hadn’t been signs. Strange lights in the sky, unusual weather. A dybbuk had taken possession of the tailor’s wife. An actual Golem had saved the lives of two-hundred and fifty people being led off to slaughter. A whole battalion of Deutschen, wiped out by mysterious forest creatures. The news was on everyone’s lips. We were in the throes of an epic showdown between good and evil. Messianic times, for sure.
Downstairs, I heard the sound of my mother’s voice, hurried, anxious. There would be time for exhilaration later. Now, she had to make certain that everyone would have enough food and clothing for the long journey to Eretz Yisroel, the Promised Land.
It was then that I heard it, a tread as light as a cat’s footfall. The rustling of cloth, the faintest of sighs. The end of my bed depressed, just a bit.
“Get off of my bed, Temma,” I said loudly. My sister liked to sneak in when she could. When I was little, I allowed her under the blankets with me, but I was twelve now, almost a man. There was no answer. Annoyed, I stuck my head out from the covers.
A stranger was sitting there, in a long white gown tied with a rope around the waist. Over it, he wore a long robe woven with stripes. On his feet, sandals.
“Hey, kid. Do you mind if I stay here for a minute?” he said. He had long brown hair that he wore parted in the middle, and a small neat beard. “It’s been a long night.”
“How do I know you’re the real Messiah?” I demanded. “There have been a lot of imposters, you know. I’ll have to ask you a few questions.”
His features had an incandescent beauty to them, like paintings of Yoshka that I’d seen in school. “Fire away,” he said, shifting his staff from one hand to the other.
One by one, he shot down the enquiries on my list. Yes, he was descended from the house of David. Yes, we would still have to keep Shabbos and kosher, he couldn’t do anything about that. No, he couldn’t raise the dead. Neither would he fly or walk on water. To my vast disappointment, there would be no miracles, no thunderclaps or lightning, no Leviathan feast, heavenly shofar blasts or voice of God, no giddy ride to the Promised Land on the wings of eagles. He had come to Wlodawa on a donkey. Downstairs, I could hear my mother shouting for me.
“I’d better get dressed,” I said. “She’s getting really mad.”
“Don’t bother,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere. I quit.”
I stared at him, aghast. “What?” I said, confused. “Maybe you don’t know what’s going on around here. Do you know how long we’ve been waiting for you? If you don’t get us out of here, the Deutschen will kill every last Jew in Europe.”
“I know,” he said tiredly, putting his head in his hands. “Don’t you think I know? Why do you think I’m here?”
I sat back in my bed. “But you’re the Messiah,” I said. “The rabbis said you were going to rescue us.” I am ashamed to report that my voice quavered.
“Not exactly,” he muttered.
Downstairs, I could hear my mother and sisters in the kitchen, chattering to each other like birds. “What do you mean?” His tone of voice made me uneasy.
“You’re a good little yeshiva bocher,” he said bitterly. “You know all the rabbinical debates. Will the Messiah come on a white donkey? Or after every Jew keeps Shabbos for one week? Will he come in an era of peace? Or will he come during a time of great upheaval, the battle of Gog U Magog, half the world at war with the other half?” He spread his long, delicate fingers across his forehead. “I’m the Messiah, all right,” he admitted wearily. “I’m here to herald the birth of the Kingdom of Israel. But it’s to be born in blood and fire.”
I drew the covers up to my nose. Suddenly, I was seized with a panicked trembling, a shivering I could not control.
“You know the story of Abraham and Isaac.” He didn’t seem to be talking to me anymore. “God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son...and willingly, Abraham picked up the knife. Only at the last minute did He stay his hand, and direct him towards a ram whose horns were stuck in a thornbush.”
The Messiah turned his gaze towards me. In my unlit room, his eyes were dark hollows. “The Jews of Europe are the ram,” he explained. “Only afterwards, when all the bodies have been counted, will there be a Promised Land, the Temple rebuilt, the end of war, peace on earth.”
“But–” my throat was dry, it was hard to swallow. “The rabbis promised–the wings of eagles–”
“The rabbis...” The Messiah made an impatient gesture, of anger, of despair. “The rabbis will be the first to die.” He slid off the bed, got to his feet. With determination, he said, “I’ve made up my mind. I won’t be a party to this any more.”
Suddenly, he twitched his head to one side, knotted his brows. “Did you hear that?” he demanded. I had heard, perhaps, the sound of chimes. “He says he doesn’t accept my resignation. No!” he shouted to the air. “I’ve made my decision!”
I thought about this for a minute. “All right,” I said. “Let’s go tell my mother.”
My Mama listened to the Messiah’s story, nodding with grim determination. We’ll just see about that, she said, and sent us to talk to the Rabbi.
My father listened to the Messiah’s complaints, stroking his beard and nodding. He recited his story with resigned reluctance, as if he had tired of his burden, and wished only to be rid of it. At the end, my father shrugged.
“Well, then that is our fate,” he said. “If this is our role in the Redemption, then we must go to it with glad hearts.”
“That’s what the rabbis say in every town,” said the Messiah. “Just before the soldiers turn their machine guns on them.”
“Will you stay with us till the end?” my father asked, undeterred. “To bring us comfort in our last days?”
The Messiah looked incredulous. “Didn’t you hear a word I said?” With that, he threw his staff onto the floor and stalked furiously out of our house.
There remained the indisputable evidence of the donkey. We put it in the shed, where it shared a stall with the chickens. It seemed grateful for the company.
The next time I saw the Messiah, it was two weeks later. He was leaning on a shovel and smoking a cigarette. Lucky for him, he had been assigned to dig ditches in the frozen November earth with one of Falkenberg’s crews. By now, he had traded in his robe for ordinary workman’s clothes.
“You’re still here?” he greeted me.
I stopped, leveled what I hoped was a superior glare at him. “You deserted your post,” I said sternly, with all the self-righteousness a twelve-year-old boy can muster. “A good leader never deserts his men.”
The drainage ditch abutted the empty army camp, where we had watched ten thousand Russian prisoners-of-war slowly starve to death in the winter of 1940. He blew a stream of smoke out of the side of his mouth. “What’s your name?”
“Usher Zelig,” I told him.
He rolled my name around in his mouth with the taste of the smoke, blew it into the air over his head. “Well, Usher Zelig. You’re a nice kid. I like you. Go home and tell your family to hide in the woods. There, they might have a chance.”
“My father will never desert his congregation,” I said defensively. “Not like some people I know.”
The Messiah grinned, pushed his cap back on his head. I could see he had cut his hair. “You know any girls?” he asked.
“Just my sisters,” I said with distaste.
“Any of them pretty?”
I considered them. Eight years old, Suri was all skinny arms and legs, more irritating than any girl had a right to be. Mushka was five, chubby, not old enough to be horrible yet. At seventeen, Temma thought she was all grown up, but she still liked to get in bed with me on cold nights.
“They’re all annoying and stupid. But Temmie’s not so bad to look at.”
“Hey!” hollered the guard. “You there, Jewish pig! I’m warning you! Stop talking to that kid before I blow both your heads off!”
He nodded at the guard, threw his cigarette butt down onto the cold earth. “Tell your mother. I’m coming for dinner Friday night.”
True to his word, the Messiah showed up after shul that Shabbos. Somewhere, he had found a jacket. He had also shaved his beard. When he laid eyes on my big sister Temma, his eyes widened, and his breath came a little quicker.
“What should I call you?” she asked demurely.
“Call him nothing,” said my mother.
“You can call me Shua,” he said gently. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, he had beautiful eyes, wide and almond-shaped. His breath smelled of oranges and cinnamon.
At dinner, he was polite, almost deferential. My father asked him to make the kiddush, and he did so, in a voice that rang with such sweet celestial beauty that the clocks stopped ticking so that they could hear it.
Over the challah, Temma and the Messiah exchanged a few heated glances. My father quizzed me on what I had learned in cheder that week. I recounted the story of the matriarch Rebecca, pregnant with the twins Jacob and Esau, the scholar and the hunter. I also explained the medrash, the one where the angel tells her that she is carrying two nations within her womb, and how they would struggle against each other until the end of time. I was trying to impress the Messiah with the scope of my knowledge, but I don’t think he heard a word I said.
“Where are you staying?” my father asked.
He named a family known to us. The husband was a gambler, the woman augmented their income with gifts from male admirers. We kept quiet, so as not to embarrass him. “You know,” he said to my sister. “I’m not sure how to get there from here.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Temma offered. My mother stared at her, stupefied. So did I. But my father smiled a sad little smile, scratched under his beard, and gave them a little wave of blessing. Then they left. They didn’t even wait for tea.
Mama made a great clattering din as she attacked the dishes, scouring them clean, stacking them furiously in the cupboard. My father made a tactical retreat to the labyrinth of his studies, then to the labyrinth of dreams, to escape her wrath. At ten o’clock, when Temmie wasn’t home yet, I was man of the house.
“Find her,” my mother said evenly, but I could see that she was trying not to reveal her real fears. It was already past curfew. “But please, Usher. For Rabboyna Shel Oylam’s sake. Be careful.”
I put my coat on, went out into the night. Pellets of dry snow assailed my ankles. On cold nights, I felt safe. The Deutschen had those big long coats, but they didn’t seem to be all that warm. Maybe the weather was different in Germany.
I hadn’t gone very far when I spotted them. There was a grassy lane that ran between some of the streets, the houses joined by arches overhead. By daylight, it was pretty. By night, it was dark, private. They were leaning against one of the houses. I recognized Temma by her sweep of glossy hair. Quickly, I hid myself behind the nearest arch. Despite the racket being drummed up by the pounding of my heart, I resolved to spy on them.
The Messiah was standing very close to her. I wondered why her coat would be open on a night as cold as this. The fingers of one hand curved around my sister’s waist, while with the other, he explored the pillow of her upper lip. In disbelief, I watched as she turned her face up to him, like a sunflower seeking the sun. After a moment’s hesitation, he bent his head to kiss her. I had to turn away, for on his face was the purest expression of awe.
Two weeks later, it was our turn.
With the enthusiastic application of clubs and whips and guns, we were encouraged along the streets to the Market Square. A Selektion was going on, led by SS Gruber, Rohlfe, Hackendahl and Haas. Falkenberg and Reinhart were there too, their workers stowed safely away behind them.
This was bad; we were being steered towards Haas, who had a reputation as a cold-blooded killer. Today, though, he seemed preoccupied. He kept wiping his eyes with a big white handkerchief. Perhaps he had a cold. At any rate, he barely glanced at us. Together with seven hundred other Jews, we were hustled at a smart run into the Odeon Cinema.
There’s something I didn’t tell you about my mother, something I probably should have mentioned earlier. One of her legs was a little shorter than the other, the only remaining trace of the polio she had encountered as a child. It gave a slight rolling pitch to her gait that I found charming; she always reminded me of a ship, falling and rising through heavy seas.
But now, she couldn’t keep up with the crowd; as we ran, she lagged further and further behind. I wanted to keep her company, but I was afraid she would yell at me. A guard fell into step with her, screamed that she should run faster. I could see that she was really trying; sweat was beading over her brow. The guard, a tall, corpulent gorilla, kicked her to the ground.
The last time I ever saw my mother, she was lying on the cobblestones in front of the Odeon Cinema.
The last time I ever saw my mother, an SS man was bending over her.
The last time I ever saw my mother, she had the slender barrel of a pistol pointed at the back of her head.
The last time I ever saw my mother…
Inside the theater, we claimed a section of the floor. Before us, onstage, velvet curtains the color of wine displayed the masks of comedy and tragedy. Above us, tiny white light bulbs twinkled in a peacock blue stucco sky.
We sat slumped there for the rest of the day. From time to time, the pop of gunfire would filter in from the street, making some of the women screech like birds. The world outside already seemed separate from us, like a scene from a movie that was playing in another theater.
I was cold, I was hungry. An officer came in and announced that we were being transported somewhere further East, where there would be food and lodging upon our arrival. People nowadays are surprised that we believed this.
“Wouldn’t this be a good time for Moshiach to come?” asked Mushka plaintively. My father pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers and began to cry.
I don’t know what day it was, or what time, when I awoke with Temma’s fingers over my mouth. It was dark, the Deutschen in their infinite wisdom had shut off the lights. The phony stars sparkled away in the faraway ceiling; perhaps they were controlled by a different switch. I struggled, trying to push her off of me. I had been dreaming, and in my dream, my mother was waking me up for school.
Suddenly, the Messiah was bending over me. He was chewing gum. “Hey, kid,” he said. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Gradually, as my eyes grew used to the dark, I saw Suri yawning and rubbing her eyes, Mushka asleep in my father’s lap. He was propped up against the stage, staring at nothing, like a dead man. When he saw Shua, he revived a little. “The Messiah,” he whispered ecstatically. “He has come for us after all.”
“It’s just Shua,” he whispered back. “Shua has come to rescue you, and he’s not taking you to the Promised Land, he’s taking you to the forest. Are you coming or not?”
My father stared at him, then covered his eyes with his hand and began to recite the Viduy, the traditional words of confession before dying.
He took Mushka from my father’s arms. In the dark, we crawled on our bellies like snakes, slithering into the blackness of the orchestra pit. Under the stage, a door opened onto a wide, low-ceilinged room, the control center of theatrical artifice, where various painted scrims, drapes and scenery were operated by ropes and pulleys stationed along the walls. With perfect faith, we followed the Messiah through the innards of the movie palace, brushing up against ghostly props and costume racks, past posters for movies that were already fading from collective memory. At the terminus of a warren of dingy corridors, we reached our destination, a cement block staircase ascending to a pair of metal doors. The cellar opened up out of the earth, delivering us into a weed-choked lot.
The moon seemed to be on our side; it didn’t put in an appearance until we were already in the woods, and then only to peek at us from behind a heavy veil of clouds. That was the first miracle.
We walked through deserted streets and alleyways, past houses with shutters closed tight against any knowledge of good or evil. We walked across frozen fields to the battlement of trees at the town’s edge. We walked through the Earl’s forests, towering trunks of spruce and ash. We walked and walked and walked. We didn’t stop until we reached what looked like the remains of a small town at the very heart of the Parczew woods. I saw cold firepits with pots still inside them, laundry lines, shelters made from pine boughs. There was more, a smell, a rank unholy odor, like gasoline and burning tires and something else I won’t name...over there, just beyond my field of vision, there was a pallet of felled logs, no, it was a slag heap, no, a stack of coal, a mound of ashes, was it, could it be, no, it wasn’t, it wasn’t possible, who could do such a thing...
“Halte!” came the command, always shouted, never spoken. “Stillgestanden!”
Slowly, we raised our hands in the air. Five German soldiers were advancing towards us, already sighting down their barrels. The moon glinted off the silver lightning slashes on their uniforms.
“Looking for your friends?” said one of them, a comedian. “You just missed them. Perhaps you’ll find them in the next world.”
I grabbed Suri’s hand. “Don’t look,” I said fervently. “Shut your eyes. Say the Shema. Soon we’ll be together in shamayim.”
Only baby Mushka was unafraid, staring at the soldiers with her thumb in her mouth. The comedian didn’t like that. “You,” he said to me, gesturing with his gun. “Make her stop looking at me.”
“Mushka,” I said. My tongue was clumsy, stiff. “Come here.”
But she dug in her heels as only a little girl can, entranced by the play of moonlight on the soldiers’ pips and collar tabs.
“Now!” he brayed. Frightened, she screwed up her face and began to wail.
One of the soldiers seemed uneasy, shifting his rifle from one shoulder to the other. “Shhh,” he said, almost apologetically. “Please. It’s all right, tell her it’s going to be all right. Shhh....”
His voice faltered, then broke. The way he spoke German, it was a language like any other, not a set of barked instructions. He was very young, this soldier. Perhaps he was scared, too. Perhaps, when he signed up for the elite Waffen SS, he didn’t know that shooting children would be one of his primary duties.
Our imminent martyrdom was interrupted by the Messiah. “I’m going to do it,” he said with determination, to no one in particular. “You just watch.” Maybe he didn’t like the answer he got, because his next words were, “Oh, yeah? Just go ahead and stop me.”
With his hands up in the air, he addressed the young soldier. “You, German boy,” he said calmly. “I’m giving you a chance. Run. Run like hell.”
The soldier wavered, then lowered his gun.
“What are you doing, Pagel?” snapped the leader. “I’m going to report you.”
But the boy’s gaze was fixed on the Messiah. He took a few unsteady steps backwards, turned, and bolted off. Cursing through clenched teeth, the leader wheeled around and leveled his sights at a place between the young soldier’s shoulders.
It was at this point that the Messiah levitated into the air over our heads.
The SS men looked up, their mouths slacked open in amazement. For a moment he remained there, serenely floating. Then he started to glow like a lightbulb. One by one, each of his fine features was clearly illuminated, as if he were made of frosted glass. Before my eyes, he seemed to spin like a top, rotating faster and faster, rising slowly to the level of the highest branches. I could hear a weird humming noise, like the sound of a hundred billion bees.
I hit the ground, pulling Suri and Mushka down with me. There was a deafening crack, like the heavens had split open, and then something rushed over me, a shockwave of wind and heat and energy, lifting the hairs all over my body to electric attention. The earth trembled. I knew I was screaming, but I couldn’t hear it. The trees disappeared in a flash of brilliant white light.
Years later, I would read about it in the scientific journals that cover such things, the strange astronomical occurrence that came to be referred to as “The Parczew Event.” This is what is known. In the pre-dawn hours of November 19, 1942, the fiery splendor of a thousand suns lit the sky. The subsequent blast knocked down a hundred thousand trees in the forest just west of Wlodawa, forming a pattern of tight concentric circles that fanned out over a square kilometer. The energy of the impact has been compared to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
Three farmers gave separate accounts of seeing a meteor streak through the sky. A timber poacher came forth to report a blue-white phosphorescence hovering at the level of the treetops. But the nearest eyewitness was a young German soldier who happened to be in the forest that night. Somehow, he had become detached from his unit. I’ve seen actual footage of the interview, filmed in jerky black and white. The boy shivers uncontrollably, wrapped in a blanket. His hair and eyebrows are singed off. When prodded to tell his story, he jabbers of an avenging angel hurling lightning bolts from the sky. Scientists dismiss his testimony as the product of a frail psyche, broken by the atrocities he’d been made to commit.
After it was all over, we hoisted ourselves to our feet, brushed ourselves off. Together, we gazed around in wonder at the altered landscape.
We were at the epicenter of a shallow bowl, surrounded by the stripped corpses of burning trees. Of the squad of German soldiers, there was not so much as a brass belt buckle. “I thought you couldn’t do miracles,” I accused him, as he floated gently back down to earth.
“No, I said I wouldn’t.” he replied sulkily, as his feet touched the ground. “Not in the service of the Redemption, anyway. This is completely different.” He clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Come on, kid, let’s get out of here. In a couple of hours, this place will be crawling with Deutschen.”
Eventually we caught up with the Partizans. Eventually, the Messiah would lead us to the Foehrenwald DP Camp, near Munich. Eventually, he would marry my big sister Temma. Eventually, we would follow him onto a ship bound for Palestine.
In 1948, upon reviewing the photographs and the concentration camp log entries, after the arduous, incalculable calculations that added up to six million sacrificial Isaacs, the children of Israel were allowed to return to the Promised Land. By then, the world had already moved on to the next war. Peace continued to elude us, and the Nations still refused to agree on a God who might love all His children equally. All things the Messiah was supposed to solve before his death from a bullet that passed through his body during the lost battle for Jerusalem.
Years later, I tried to research him, the man who became our Messiah. He must have come from somewhere; after all, in our religion, the rabbis say there is a man capable of being the Savior in each generation. In 1975, I found my answer on the terrace of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I was there to promote my new book, The Orphan’s Messiah. As I read aloud, someone in the audience interpolated an excited “Oh!”
Afterwards, we sat at a table that overlooked the crenellated walls of the Old City. She lived in Australia now, she was visiting Israel for a bar mitzvah. She wore many rings, and her hair was a shade of blonde not normally associated with the majority of our people. Around us, diplomats and politicians murmured, constructing secret deals in many languages over cigarettes and Turkish coffee.
His name was Yehoshua Tzedek, she told me. He had begun life as a promising student at the celebrated Slabodka yeshiva. In an escalating cascade of tragedy, both parents died, the money dried up, and the yeshiva bocher turned to a life of crime in nearby Vilna. He whored, he thieved, he trafficked in luxury goods on the black market. There was even a whiff of bigamy. When he sold watered-down gasoline to the Soviets, he earned three years in one of Stalin’s prisons.
Then the Germans came. One Shabbos in 1941, right after the Torah reading, the notorious gangster Shua Tzedek entered the Great Synagogue through the main entrance, mounted the steps to the ark and announced to the astonished assembly that angels had directed him to abandon his criminal ways, shed his modern clothes, mount a donkey and ride to Jerusalem.
Alas, it was a time when men, on all sides, lost their battles for sanity. Until she heard my story, the blond woman from Australia remembered my Messiah as one of them.
I thanked her and paid for her drink. On my way out, I passed through the lobby, stopping for a moment to contemplate the signatures of former guests Golda Meir, Willi Brandt, Elie Wiesel, Lech Walesa, Gunter Grass. Waiting for my car beneath a wall of purple bougainvillea, I smoked a cigarette and thought about what she’d said.
Could it be true? Was my Messiah nothing more than an inspired lunatic, the miracle that saved us, a run-of-the-mill meteorite? Were my memories real, or just the imaginary byproduct of a child’s desperate wish for salvation?
There were many Messiahs in those years, coming from nowhere to emerge as heroes for a brief and terrifying time, vanishing afterwards into the banality of everyday existence. If an ordinary man can be tapped to be the Messiah, a man as flawed and as human as Shua Tzedek, then perhaps any one of us is capable of bringing about the Redemption.
There are days that I have trouble believing in a merciful God. But about the Messiah, I have no doubt. I know what I saw. Sixty years ago, he got as far as Wlodawa. At this rate, he will be here soon.