Latest update: April 26th, 2013
The following short story is fictitious, but the situation of Jewish children during the Holocaust being raised by gentile families or in Catholic convents and orphanages is not. While some were re-united with family members who survived the death camps – many were not, and remain lost both physically and religiously. This story is in memory of all the lost children. May they be reunited with their families with the coming of Moshiach.
The Doll’s Tale
Nine-year-old Ruchi was not at all upset when her brother and cousins nicknamed her “Ricki.” She liked the sound of it and it certainly suited her – had it been up to her, she would have been a boy. Boys had more fun and never had to wear dresses and other girly clothes. Her brother Dovi got to wear pants, giving him the freedom to hang upside down on the monkey bars in the park, and to turn cartwheels – while she was prohibited from doing such fun things – because hanging upside down while wearing a skirt was not tznuisdik. After all, she wasn’t three anymore!
And then there was the matter of the ridiculous gifts she got on her birthday or from out of town guests. Dovi would always get a fun toy like a truck, while she, without fail, would be given a useless doll with a smile plastered on its plastic face. Ruchi’s only consolation was that forthwith, the dolls would become perfect targets for Dovi’s water guns or darts. Often they would play “barber” delighting at the pale, pink head that would surface, the outcome of the doll’s “haircut.”
Yet Ruchi was to gain a deeper appreciation for these plastic entities than she would ever had imagined.
The 180-degree change in her attitude took place when she and her family traveled to Israel for the bar mitzvah of the grandson of Bubbi’s older half-sister, Malka. Malka was a rare entity, a child survivor of the Holocaust. She had been born in Poland – unlike Bubbi, who had been born in Israel several years after the war had ended.
Sadly, Malka had passed away three years earlier, at the young age of 65, just months after her and Bubbi’s father. Malka had had a massive stroke, brought on, it was said, by her extreme distress upon losing her father.
Erev Shabbos, Ruchi watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the bar mitzvah boy’s mother lit the candles, hugging a very ragged, ripped up cloth doll. After her tefillah, she kissed it, as did her children.
“What was that all about,” she asked her 11-year-old cousin, Chana, as they lay in their beds that evening. “Why did your mom do that – is that a family minhag? It’s weird!”
It was then Chana told her the story that would forever change Ruchi’s view on dolls.
It was 1942, in Nazi-occupied Poland, and their great-grandfather, Shimon, was beside himself. It was only a matter of days before he, his wife and daughter would be taken out of the c transported to the camps. A former employee of Shimon’s dry-goods store, a Polish girl who appreciated her kind and generous boss, had sent word that her aunt, a highly-placed nun at the convent on the outskirts of town, would hide his child.
Shimon was torn between his desperate desire to save his child’s life, and the horrible thought of placing her in this completely foreign environment.
Two days before a mass deportation, Shimon surrendered his three year old, blond haired daughter, Malka, into the waiting arms of a nun. He and his wife had left her crying inconsolably, fiercely clutching a Raggedy Ann doll – a gift from a relative in America and her constant companion.
Three years later, a gaunt and battered Shimon returned to his town, alone; his beloved wife Zisel had starved to death. While he was incarcerated in Auschwitz, thoughts of finding his little Malka were what kept him alive.
Shimon had been hearing horror stories of Polish families that had been entrusted with Jewish children deliberately disappearing with them. Sometimes, even if the child was found, he, or she, refused to leave the only home he knew, denying any connection with the walking scarecrows who showed up claiming to be kin. The child would make the sign of the cross to protect himself from the sickly looking vagabonds who belonged to the people who had killed the beloved savior.
With intense trepidation and dread, Shimon approached the Mother Superior of the convent where his daughter had been taken. While sympathetic, she insisted there were no Jewish children there, only Christian orphans. Shimon pleaded to see the girls who were Malka’s age. To his extreme shock and relief, the nun agreed to his request.
A group of about 10 little girls, similarly dressed in their convent smocks stood warily in their room, eyeing the Jew with wide-eyed horror. They had never seen a Christ-killer up close.
One by one he peered into their faces, softly calling each Malkala.
But for over three years – half her lifetime, Malka had been Marusha. No one reacted to his words. The Mother Superior, who had accompanied him, insisted he leave. A distraught and panicky Shimon begged for one more look and quickly ran up and down the row of beds. Suddenly he stopped, stunned. A ragged, stitched up doll that had obviously been held quite frequently, lay on the floor beside one bed, partially covered by a blanket. A white-faced Shimon scooped up the doll and faced its equally white faced owner, who had stepped forward to grab it back.
The look of terror in the little girl’s eyes sickened him, but he resolutely turned to the startled nun. “My wife,” he said, his voice cracking, “opened the back of the doll, removed the stuffing and inserted a photo of us. Please, open it so there will be no question as to a photo being planted.”
The Mother Superior ripped the doll’s back seam and pulled out a folded, crumbled photo that showed, despite its cracks, a healthier version of the man in the room, beaming at a pretty, smiling, toddler sandwiched between him and a woman – her mother.
The little girls gave out a collective gasp, crossing themselves as they quickly moved away from the girl who had been their companion for so long. “You’re a dirty Jew,” they hissed as Malka/Marusha stood miserable and isolated, her world and her sense of self demolished – for the second time in her young life.
Such a shame, the nun thought to herself, Marusha was such an intelligent, obedient child. She no doubt would have taken her vows one day. The nun had only allowed the Jew in because she knew he would be obstinate, as his entire people were – but was certain he would be unable to prove his claim. Tricky bunch, those Jews!
Malka left the convent as she entered it – screaming hysterically; torn from everything she had known.
Knowing that she had no memory of her previous life, and realizing she found him alien and repulsive, Shimon had tied a rope between their waists, terrified she would run away and he would lose her – again.
It would take many weeks before she stopped crying; several months before she would talk; and almost a year before she would look at him – and call him Tatty.
It would take, however, several years before Marusha stopped crossing herself – and became Malkala again.
Eventually, Shimon and Malka made their way to Israel, where Malka joined other emotionally traumatized child survivors in the long process of healing. Shimon eventually remarried. His second daughter was Ruchi’s grandmother.
“That is why Ema kisses the doll when she lights Shabbat candles,” Chana explained to her spellbound cousin. “Because her Ema, Savta Malka, always did. Savta would say that she was benching licht in Eretz Yisrael – instead of lighting church candles in Poland – because of the doll. It is only right that it partake in the mitzvah with me.”
Upon her return to America, Ruchi’s dolls remained whole and intact.
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