The Gypsy and the Rabbi’s Wife
In the camp, after night roll call, all the women huddled with the children. It didn’t matter if the children were theirs or not. There were no orphans in the women’s barracks today. No one was talking, and even the babies made no noise. Since the Germans wasted no electricity inside the buildings, it was dark, the only light leaking in from the few perimeter lights and the occasional passing of the search lights from the two guard towers by the front gate.
The light knock on the door made everyone jump, which was almost laughable, thinking about it now — no Nazi soldier would ever knock on the door of a barrack! Someone quickly opened the door and the old gypsy woman, Simza, walked in, followed by a German soldier.
I almost yelled out when I saw the solder, who was very tall, almost as tall as the commandant, which is who I thought he was. Blond, pale in the darkness, when he smiled, his large teeth gleamed with good health.
“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you, I am here to help. I am with you,” said the soldier. I knew him, because he was the guard I had seen leaving some bread inside a doorway one night.
I looked at my mother in confusion. Was the soldier speaking in German or in Yiddish? It is hard to remember, because the two languages were very similar and because I spoke both of them well already at 7 years of age. Gun to my head right now, I could not tell you how he spoke, only that the gypsy pointed to him, smiled, and said, “This is my grandson, Timbo. He will lead. Everyone, when the time comes, try not to look around, just follow Timbo. I will be behind you. You will not see me, but rest assured, I will be there. Now, gather round me, this will take a minute.”
Everyone crowded around Simza, until she had to shoo people back just a bit to create a small circle. Seeing me, she beckoned me over. “I will perform a short ritual, then Timbo will lead everyone out of the barracks. I need you and your mama to go last. Now, be a good boy, and stand over there.”
I obediently stepped over to the tall, blond soldier. It was difficult to think of him being related to the tiny, dark gypsy. I craned my neck up at him, and he looked down at me, reached into his pocket and pulled out a bread bun. I began salivating instantly, but managed to break the bun in half, and sneaked a half to my mother, before stuffing the whole other half into my mouth. I almost choked because I tried to swallow it whole, it was so good. I forced myself to chew, but it was difficult. I looked up at Timbo again, and he bent down and swooped me up, placing me on his shoulders.
Meanwhile, Simza took a thick black candle, a book of matches, something that looked like a thick gold locket with symbols on it. She took off her scarf, placed it on the floor, put the candle and the gold locket next to it, and sat down. She started speaking in a language I didn’t recognize and lit the candle, then opened the locket, taking from it what looked like short gray hairs then closed it. She continued speaking, moving her hands over the candle, like my mother would with the Shabbos candles. The flame flickered higher and higher, and I smelled a terrible smell, as Simza’s voice became quieter and quieter. Then she stopped talking, and the flame was burning high. That’s when I heard the first howl outside, then a scream and the shot from a rifle.
“Now!” she said, turning to Timbo. Timbo swung me down and deposited me gently on the floor. He looked me in face, and said, “David, when we are out of the camp, wait for me. No matter what, wait for me, all right?” I nodded.
Timbo opened the door and stepped out. His rifle was in his hands, and he moved slowly, so everyone could keep up. The women and children followed him, my mother and I in back. I looked behind me and saw Simza pick up the candle and hurl it at the far wall of the barracks. The wall erupted into flames, as if the dry timber was waiting hungrily for the spark to be consumed by it. Simza picked up her shawl and shook it out as if she had all the time in the world. My mother was dragging me along, but when I looked back once more, I saw the room quickly filling with acrid smoke and fire and Simza nowhere in sight.
Our group moved as quickly as we could across the camp, in a blur of voices and shadows. The camp was small, so the barracks were located only about one hundred meters away from the gates. We were only a soccer field away from the gates and freedom. At the same time, we were running through a virtual hell.
We were surrounded by solders running from wolves, hearing shots and screaming, and the growls and snarls of the wolves attacking soldiers. There were bodies on the ground of both men and animals, and wolves were ripping apart flesh and were shot by screaming guards. These were the biggest wolves, easily towering over my small frame and as big as most women. They were dark gray and black, but their eyes were glowing sulfur-yellow and their fangs — their long, long fangs were dripping with blood and saliva.
Simza had warned us that the wolves may attack us too, but we scrambled forward, making it to the gates untouched. Perhaps it was because we were unappetizing, scrawny, dirty and small. Maybe it was because we made no noise, calling no attention to ourselves. Whatever the reason, the next thing I knew, Timbo was sliding the large metal lever to release the mechanism to open the gates.
If the gates made any noise opening, it was impossible to hear among the madness. Above the mayhem, deep within the camp, came the loud, mournful howling that the wind carried across the night. The sound made the hair in the back of my neck stand up, and my teeth chattered. I was sobbing in fear. I may have been only 7 years old, but I have seen enough death to last several lifetimes and I knew the sound of death when I heard it.
Most of the women and children ran as soon as the gates were opened. Timbo turned to me as a large, dark wolf lunged at him and they both tumbled into the darkness outside of the camp. I heard my mama scream, and when I looked at her, I saw that she was shielding me, walking backwards, trying to get me to run. In front on her, standing so close I could smell its putrid breath, was the largest wolf I had ever seen. The wolf had gray fur and a ridge of white down his back.
I knew this was the commandant. There was no doubt about it. Even its eyes weren’t yellow, like the other wolves, but rather silver-white. It advanced slowly. Its top lip was curled back, showing blood-red gums and ivory-colored teeth. Its foul smell was like that of rancid meat, of things long dead but unburied.
My mother stumbled, but quickly righted herself, and when she looked down, she picked up the rifle that tripped her. “David, I need to you to run,” she said in a normal tone of voice. “Run as fast as you can. No matter what happens to me, I want you to keep running. You need to survive, no matter what, for me and for your papa, and for our people. You understand me, my love?”
“Yes, mama,” I said.
“Go,” she said, and I took off.
I heard a shot, then another, and I couldn’t help myself, I stopped to look. Mama’s gun had a little trail of smoke coming from it, but the wolf was still standing, and then, as I was watching, it sprung at her and grabbed her by the throat, and was shaking her like she was a rabbit. I heard screaming and realized that it was me. I was the one screaming.
The wolf let go of my mother and her body flew and landed in a heap. Then it turned its massive head and looked at me. I spun around and started running again.
As I ran, I noticed that the ground began to lighten up, just a bit, and I realized that I was running towards THE TREE, but it was as if my feet were moving on their own accord and I had no control. I never ran so fast in my life. I flew, I pumped my arms and pushed my legs. I didn’t even know why I was running there, what I planned to do once I got there. Could I actually climb it? There were a few lower branches, but they were far from each other.
I knew the wolf was chasing me, but all I could hear was my own panting breath. I turned my head to take a quick look behind me and regretted it. The wolf was just a few feet away. I was almost to the tree, and could feel the wolf upon me. And then . . . something touched my back. It wasn’t much of a touch, more like a brush of a bird’s wing, but it compelled me to trip on one of the roots coming out of the ground, and I sprawled forward, falling flat, skinning my palms and ripping my pants.
I felt the wolf’s body over me, heard it strike the tree, and let out a short, loud yelp. Looking up, I saw the wolf impaled on a low branch. The wolf looked at me, then its feet stretched out in a spasm, and its body went still.
I crawled back a few meters, then stood up, and brushed myself off. I picked up one of the rocks and threw it at the wolf’s body, and it made a dull thud.
I found Timbo near the gates of the camp. He was alive, but bloody and battered after fighting with the wolf. I looked at him and simply asked, “My mama?” And he replied with one word, “Gone,” confirming what I already knew.
Timbo took me with him, and I lived among the gypsies until the end of the war. We traveled in small groups, keeping to the woods.
Timbo never found his grandmother Simza, and I never learned what happened to my mother’s body. Timbo adopted me after the war. When I was a teenager, we both came to America.
I traveled back to Germany again during my college years, when I was studying linguistics. Later, I became a professor of linguistics at the University of Boston. What the gypsy said was true. I got married, have great kids who are now grown up. I have written books on the Holocaust, but they are histories — not my own story. I do travel extensively, and give lectures all over the world.
But, I usually don’t talk about the Wagnerinern Work Camp. These are my memories I choose to chare with very few people.
Now, my friend Ernesto, pour us another drink, please. And let us lift it to all those whose graves are unmarked, all over the world, may their memory be a blessing.
Afterward: As a writer, I wanted to point out that most fairy tales use wolves as bad guys, evil eaters of Little Red Riding Hoods as well as their Grandmothers. I followed that tradition. Personally, I love wolves. I think they are beautiful, intelligent, useful animals, living in complex and extraordinary family groups.