You knew this day would come. The lexicon of your people has been changing. First you were different, then you were unwelcome, and now you are illegal. It is illegal to be you. It’s strange to think that someone could put a label as harsh as that on your existence. What you do each day isn’t illegal: you wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, make dinner, spend time with your children. All across the country, people just like you are doing these same things. No, it’s the person you are that is illegal. The language you speak, the way that you dress, your religious beliefs.
You adjust your hair, looking into the glassy mirror that your grandmother gave you and your husband on your wedding day. She hasn’t been alive for years—the first of your family to succumb to the fate of the Jews in Austria. They came for her in the dead of night, because your grandfather was a prominent politician before the country fell. They couldn’t get to him, so they took her instead. She died within days, they say. She suffered greatly, they didn’t say.
Pack your clothes, pack your children’s clothes, repack the bags because you can’t take all of them with you. Put the oldest and most important family heirloom in between sweaters and jackets and underwear, tucked between things that you hope the authorities won’t look through. The one you choose to take is your set of Shabbat candlesticks. Your great-grandmother gave them to your parents when they first married. On Friday afternoons, when you came home from school, it was your job to polish the silver candlesticks until you could see your reflection clearly in its smooth curves and sharp edges. Now, tracing your finger from the cup at the top to the flat, velvet bottom, you feel residue of polishing crème, and black streaks run across your fingertips. It smells like your mother’s challah baking in the oven and cholent cooking on the stovetop.
You wrap the candlesticks in your bulkiest sweater and wonder whether they will make the trip safely. You’ve heard stories. People are stopped at borders or turned away at ports. Nothing is certain these days.
Otto stands by the door, hands running anxiously through his hair as he watches you pack. He did that on your first date, too. Your parents had known each other for years, neighbors in the shtetl. They shared cooking supplies, ingredients, and meals. When you turned sixteen, you and Otto went on your first date, chaperoned by his father. The discussion felt the same as the ones over Shabbat dinners and Saturday lunches, and when Otto asked if he could see you again, you said yes.
The muscles in your stomach tensed when Otto asked you to marry him. It was a normal feeling, you knew, but still you were only seventeen and you didn’t know what to expect. On your wedding night, he kissed you as you walked through the doorway of your new home, pushing you against the wall. You felt the door shake as he pressed himself against you and pulled you close. Flush crept up your cheeks as he moved his hands across your body, and when he led you into the bedroom, you felt the texture of the quilt against your bare skin. He dragged his hands across your breasts, catching your nipples as he kissed you.
You haven’t kissed in weeks. Not since the miscarriage. Not since the proclamation that all Jews were to be moved to labor camps across the country. Not since the SS marched through the streets of the town, cursing at anyone with olive skin and curly hair. Not since the war.
Now he stands, running his hands through his hair like he ran them over your body, and you want nothing more than to go back to the bedroom and press yourselves against the quilt. Instead, you roll and reroll the candlesticks in the sweater and wonder how you can distract the guards if they try to take it from you.
Otto sits down next to your daughters. He pulls the youngest one onto his knee and tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. You imagine him weaving a tale of travels to a distant land, where the earth is green and the hills roll smoothly as far as the eye can see. Your daughters smile and laugh, but you think you hear Marta, your oldest, ask how long you’ll be gone for, and you know that Otto doesn’t want to answer that question. You’ll be gone for months, if the war ends quickly, but the newspapers say that it is just beginning, and that in some places, like the Ostmark, it hasn’t truly begun.
At the train station, you meet your brother, sister, and cousin. They, too, have packed their lives into one suitcase per person. Space, the authorities told you, was limited.
You could have fled. You and Otto talked about it over dinner every night for a week.
“What about my parents?” Otto asked.
“How will we travel with the children?” you asked.
“Will you give birth on the run?” Otto asked.
You repeated this conversation night after night, picking through the details and possibilities like pruning a garden.
When the bleeding started, you had already decided to go to the labor camp.
“We will stay together,” you said.
“It will be safer than running,” Otto said.
Both of you pretended to believe this.
We say “Never Again!” but it is happening right now at the southern border of the US, In the churches of Sri Lanka, and the Mosques of New Zealand. The hue and cry of the Christians were deafening after the killings in Oz. But where were the fatwas of imams across the world against ISIS in Sri Lanka? Clearly Islam condones their actions. So long as one picks a side and supports the bombing and killing of innocents this will continue. We are all illegals if we allow race, religion, or economics to harm a minority. This story worked because it makes you angry. Think globally and act locally to defeat malignant thinking. We are at our core human. All else doesn’t matter.
I can’t stop thinking about this story. Ariel Goldenthal is a brilliant writer.
Well done, Ariel. With a lack of character description or name, it becomes a narrative for any Jewish woman in the holocaust.
Brilliant story of lives forever changed in a flash, a moment in time. I gasped at “picking through the details and possibilities like pruning a garden.” Fear shot through my throat. It shut me up. No verbal decision was made.
Chilling, yet even worse it still rings true – very scary!
This is such an important story; it speaks to our past, present, and future. Thank you, Ariel.
Wow that was beautifully written. Great job Ari!