The Gypsy and the Rabbi’s Wife

Fairy Tale. Part 4

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Barracks of a concentration camp (commons.wikipedia.org)

The Nazis rounded us up quickly enough. The few who tried to run were gunned down. My mother and I were packing a small suitcase when one soldier barged into our little house and threw us out. It was November of 1944. We were shoved onto the backs of transport trucks with canvas covers — the entire village fit into two trucks. We traveled for days, and stopped only to be fed and to have our soil buckets emptied. The first night, young Feivish, who wasn’t just the dairyman of our village but also doubled as the cantor for our synagogue, sang the kaddish. It was the prayer for the dead, for us.

We arrived at Wagnerinern Work Camp, located at the very heart of Germany, and the women were separated from the men. The difference from the other extermination camps was that the women were allowed to keep their children with them. We were told it was to improve the moral of the workers, but in truth, this camp was one of the smallest ones, since most of the actual work was to be done outside of the confines of the barracks and the fences. However, the landscape was marred by the large twisted dead tree in the field of barren ground.

In a short time, we have given up all hope. Life had become a repetitive, terrifying monotony of trying to survive the cold of winter and the brutality of guards. One day, when I could have sworn that Mama and I were alone in the barracks, an old gypsy woman appeared right next to us. We didn’t hear the creaking of the door, or of the floorboards. It’s as if the old woman appeared out of thin air, and perhaps she did, because there was just a slight breeze, and then the air smelled like something sweet and old, a smell of old books and candy. No, not candy. Much later in life, when I first smelled cloves, I remembered the old gypsy so intensely, I doubled over as if punched. She smelled like old paper and cloves. But that was deep underneath all the other smells in the camp, and the only reason I could smell it at all was because I was starving, so my sense of smell was heightened.

Everything had an intense, peculiar smell to it, the rotting mildewed wood of the barracks, the sour stench of our thin, wasting bodies, the molding clothing we wore, the brown, clinging mud, the Germans’ starched uniforms. I could even smell the oil from their guns, and the smell of gray-blue metal. I used to smell the tips of my fingers as I tried to fall asleep, a thin, gruel-like odor. I named that smell milky dust, like the milky dust of the ground that encircled a weird tree near the camp — the old, dead tree that most of the German soldiers wouldn’t look at, and even their dogs shied away from. That milky dust of the ground near the tree never seemed to rise in the wind, yet found its way into everything, the food we ate, our water, and between our teeth. It was madness, putting this camp so close to the dead ground of what we simply called THE TREE, but like attracts like. The only one who seemed to like the tree was the commandant of the camp, who appeared mesmerized by it. He would stand near it for hours, lost in thought. That commandant, that monster in charge, was the one who killed my father. He was the tallest man in the camp, with flat, lifeless eyes, and gray hair that looked incompatible on his youthful face. And, perhaps unsurprisingly at all, he smelled like that dust.

I remember how the smell mingled with my sweat. How could I be freezing all the time, yet sweat? My sweat was that of fear, constant, never-ending fear, my every thought, that invaded my dreams, even more than hunger. I was so exhausted by this continual fear, that when the gypsy appeared next to us, I didn’t even have enough energy to jump in surprise. If it was one of the Nazi’s with a gun and he would have shot me, I would have been glad for a release from that constant fear.

“Gavra, may I have a word with you?” asked the gypsy in perfect Yiddish. I had met several gypsies, people who traveled with caravans near our village and traded with us, but had never met one who spoke Yiddish before. I looked at my mama, who looked shocked as well. She recovered quickly and pointed to a nearby lower bunk bed.

“Please, sit,” she told the old woman. “How did you know my name? I don’t think we’ve met before.”

“My name is Simza, and I am here to help,” said the woman. “I am very old. I know a great many things, but we don’t have time right now. I have chosen to help your family.”

“Why me?” mama asked.

“You were the wife of a rabbi, you are a wise and learned woman. And because your son is one of ours. You have always known this as well. It is the very end of our road. You must listen carefully. The Germans want to grow food. That is their whole reason for starting this camp. But the commandant has chosen this cursed land, evil land. Nothing will grow here, not this month, not in the spring, not in the summer, not ever. You know this because you know the ground, you are the daughter of farmers. You knew this was a place of death, the moment you saw the ground and you saw the tree.”

Mama kept on nodding, and didn’t even try to wipe the tears that were rolling down her gaunt cheeks. The old woman reached out and gently wiped one of them. That’s when I noticed that she wasn’t wearing the standard uniform of the camps but rather a black dress and a black shawl, with dark red flowers embroidered throughout it.

“Being here, it’s easy to forget that God exists. So much evil, as casual as breathing. How can these guards beat us, torture us, rape us, and kill us. Like we are not human to them, like our children do not breathe, like we do not bleed. It is these guards who are like vicious animals. As far as I am concerned, all of them are wolves, they just don’t look like it.

The gypsy, Simza, sat for a moment, and said, “I know a curse. It is true, these men are wolves, and I can turn half of the guards into wolves. Big, mean, bad wolves. The problem is, I cannot control the wolves. They will turn on the other guards. That will be good. But they will also turn on the prisoners. And I will need your help.”

“You are so young Gavra. And I am asking so much of you.” Simza looked at me and smiled, her face crinkling into a million wrinkles and I smiled back, for what felt like the first time in years. Then she looked back at Mama, who seemed in a daze, and leaned a little closer to her.

Mama brought her hands to her face and rubbed vigorously. When she spoke, it wasn’t to Simza or to me, “Turn them into wolves, and while there is tumult, let us try to get our children out of here. Let’s use this to our advantage. If we are dead anyway in this place of death, then let’s become real ghosts.”

Simza took my mother’s hands into hers. “Of course, Gavra. But not tonight. Tomorrow night I will come again. You will talk to the other mothers in this side of the camp, and the children will be ready. There is one of the guards, he is with us, he is one of us,” she said, motioning to herself and to me. “I will introduce you, he will help us. But first, I will have a word with David.”

The old woman patted a place near her, and I obediently sat down. She leaned in.

“You will watch history and you will write it down, so that others will learn from it. You will be happy, and have a large family, and die a very, very old man, surrounded by much love and respect. You will never forget any of this, and it will be a blessing and a curse. No unnecessary worries will bother you and your sleep shall be untroubled. You will know true love, good health, peace and you will travel far and wide.”

Simza took my head with both of her gnarled hands, leaned in and kissed my forehead. With that kiss all the fear I have felt for the past three months had lifted, and I took a breath as if it was the very first breath of my life.

“Go outside, little one, make sure no one comes, I must talk to your mother,” the old gypsy said, and touched my chest with her palm. It wasn’t much of a touch, like a brush of a bird’s wing, but it compelled me to move.

There was something about the tiny old woman, something powerful. She had wrinkled skin, bony fingers and even a crooked walking stick. And yet her eyes were merry, her voice light as young woman’s. She was a contradiction, an enigma, and I immediately trusted her with my life, and I didn’t know why.

Written by

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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