As told to Rayzel Reich by Efraim Reich
It is not right, that a son should shave a father.
I hold the shaver carefully, very carefully. I am terrified of making a wrong move.
Father holds very still.
I start on the left side of the face, where the skin is pale and healthy- looking. I feel confident. Slowly I slide down, smooth skin sliding away where the hair falls off.
And then I see the naked cheek, and I bite my tongue, and close my mouth quickly, to hide it, for there is enough pain in Father’s eyes to sear the heavens, and I do not need to add to it by showing mine.
Smooth skin on Father’s cheek.
It has never, never, shown before. Not since he was a boy, before hair grew on his chin.
But now I do not have the luxury of feeling that pain anymore. Because I am done the left cheek, and I need to decide where to move next. I take a deep breath, and bite my lip, and decide to move down.
I can’t look at the right cheek. Not yet. I’ll do the bottom first.
Slowly, slowly, I slide down the left side of Father’s face. Part of my mind is saying, Father’s face, Father’s face, what are you doing to Father’s face?! But most of me is tuning it out, shutting it down, needing to focus, carefully, on every move, every strand of hair.
The skin on Father’s chin is pink, red, white, and brown. It screams pain. I want to close my eyes. I don’t want to think of the pain of the blade sliding over that sensitive, damaged, skin. But I swallow, and shut it out. Because I need to do it. As painlessly as possible.
Slowly, smoothly, continuously. I see every strand of hair that passes under the blade. Grey hair. White hair. Black hair.
And tiny bits of… burned hair.
Move the shaver. Just move the shaver.
Father holds still. I do not dare look at his eyes. Only once I feel him shudder, as I slide over a patch of raw, pink, skin. Every muscle in my body tenses, rigid, as I hold tight, desperate not to hurt. It passes. I wait a moment, to give him breath, and then I move on. I know that I must finish.
And still, I do not look at his eyes.
Yesterday was Taanis Esther . A “nidcheh,” pushed back to Thursday. Most do not fast in these times. Father does. It is hard to imagine fasting when every day there is never enough… a taanis must be such a long day…
Stop it. Stop thinking.
My hand has stopped, for I have finished the chin. I am loathe to move on. Get on with it, get on with it, just do it. I pause, for I must pause, and then I force myself to look at the right side of the face.
And I close my eyes inside me, even as I keep my eyes open, for I cannot cause Father more pain by closing my eyes, but I must close my eyes somewhere, for it is terrible to look at.
And so I close my eyes inside me, and all I see is gray.
The gray shawl that Father wears, covering this cheek. Covering his chin, too, and the other cheek, and his head. At first we had thought it looked strange, I remember. Like a Bedouin. But now it no longer brings a sense of strangeness. I am used to this image. Father, swathed in this shawl, this gray scarf with the black woolen threads running through it. In the summer it was harder to take the sight. Just the sight of Father in that wool on those hot, hot, days made me uncomfortable. I felt like itching, squirming for him. How did he do it? Outside, where the sun was hottest. That’s when he wore it.
So I see the scarf, gray and black threads.
But you need to shave. You have a job to do, my mind says. And my closed eyes blink inside me, and open inside me, for they must see the cheek to shave. And deep inside me, I take a steadying breath, and I know I look cool, calm and collected, as Froyim does, and I lower the blade, and I start to move. Slowly, smoothly, and gently, ever so gently.
The skin is painful to look at.
Raw- pink, and deeper pink, almost red. How can I touch this? I can’t, I can’t- the pain, the pain! Slowly, slowly, and I feel, rather then see, the almost invisible shudder that runs through Father’s body. My face is blank, but my heart is contracted, paining for him. Hair by hair, hair by hair. Focus on the color, just on the colors. White. And white. And gray. And gray. And black. And- black, brown, grizzled, lifeless - burned.
And I can silence the thought no longer, for here, in front of my eyes- can’t look away, must continue, must look at it –
Is skin, hideously burned, brown and black and red and cracked –
And it screams, flaming up in memory –
“Hurry up!” The officer barks in German. Father quickens his stride and marches down the hallway. Ahead there is an open door.
“In there!” the officer shouts again.
Father quickly enters, blinking in the light. He feels naked, exposed, with his head and peyos and beard uncovered. For the past year he has managed to hide the religious growths. But now he has been caught, the scarf snatched off. They have not found the knife hidden in his clothing, do not know that he was on his way to illegally slaughter a Jew’s chicken. But they found his beard. The feel of German air on his cheeks is frightening.
Several German policemen stand around the room. There are a number of other Jews, looking as nervous and uneasy as he feels. They know they are caught. They know they are in trouble. They only do not know exactly what will happen to them.
At the desk is Shtender, the chief officer of the unit. He stands and speaks harshly. “Under German law of occupation, Jews may not gather for prayer. Jews, you have disobeyed the law.” He nods curtly to some of the younger officers.
In a heartbeat, they attack, rubber truncheons drawn and pounding. I see the flash of swastikas on armbands, rising and descending. There are shouts, and cries, as they descend on the Jews. It is a fearful power; muscular figures, stiff brown uniforms, and those shiny, blackest boots, machines of lithe power, seemingly infinite power, towering over their prey. It is odd, for the Jews are not all small men. And yet they look insignificant, powerless, nothing in face of the beaters.
That is what it is. There are the strong, and there are the weak.
The lines are drawn.
And then my mind stops wandering, for there- here- is Father- and they are beating him too. He is silent, but I scream for him, scream inside me, for they are beating him- Father! On the head, and shoulders, and back- he is trying to protect himself with his arms- Father! He is not a young man- I am tensed, coiled, stop, stop, Father! And it goes on – and I am holding my breath, heart pounding crashing in my ears- I cannot close my eyes to the image – and then it is over.
Close your eyes, do not go further -
The Jews are gasping, some climbing to their feet slowly, some groaning, some holding themselves in pain. They look terrified.
“Jew!” It is Father he calls.
Father comes close to him, as he must. I see Father’s eyes. They are… Father’s eyes, as they always are; deep, and thoughtful, and strong. But… behind all that… I cannot see it, but I know it-
The terrible fear.
Snap!snap!snap! It is so quick, that ignition of the cigarette lighter. So quick, the motion of the arm. So quick, at Father’s beard-
So quick, that the flame grows, licking up the gray, now licking his chin, now licking his cheeks-
I stare in horror, horror – Fatheeeer! Noooooooo! Tight, tight, tight, for there is nothing I can do, as it sears across my mind –
And Father is screaming, screams that tear my heart open- his face is burning – YOU DOGS- PUT IT OUT PUT IT OUT, SOMEONE PUT IT OUT!!
And he is standing there, the German, just standing there.
Just standing there!
And finally, finally, he takes a bucket of water and throws it across Father’s face.
Father stands there, dripping, holding his face in agony. His ruin of a beard is almost completely gone. Tufts stand out in spots; in some spots it is burned nearly clear off.
But I barely see the hair. It is the skin I see, horribly burned, pink, and pinker, and almost red, and brown, and black.
And Father’s eyes, opening, Father’s disciplined, wise, deep, eyes, searing of agony.
I hold my breath to hold myself together, for I am screaming apart from the pain.
“You will report to this office tomorrow at noon, with your face shaved cleanly.” The officer is speaking, a curt bark.
I let it fade from my mind. Now it has passed, and I can leave it be. I need my full mind, to focus my hand carefully, oh so carefully, on the ruined skin beneath the blade.
For it must be shaved, smooth and clean, before Father goes to report at noon.
My job is done.
I am still tight, holding myself tight in concentrated focus. I know that when I let go, I will be more exhausted then after a day’s hard labor.
And now, only now, do I look up, and see Father’s eyes, and Father’s face… do I see Father.
He is clean-shaven. It is terrible to look at. But I do not look at the face, cannot look at the face, for I am, must, look, at, in, Father’s eyes.
He looks at me, those deep hazel eyes, and I see agony, and I see sorrow.
And I do not know how much is agony of the searing pain of flames still burning…
And how much is sorrow, that he no longer wears the face of a Yid.
I stand at the piano in our living room, caught by the faces and figures covering its lid. Wedding pictures; dazzling brides and handsome grooms. Family pictures, beaming faces leaping out of frames. My eyes move from frame to frame, capturing the beauty of each before moving on.
Zeida Chezkele and Babba Malya Raizel. I stop, as I have to stop.
And I stare at my great-grandfather.
It’s mesmerizing, somehow, this picture. I feel like I can stare at it all day. Like when I hold a perfectly formed, ripe, peach in my hand, gazing at its shades of blush and rose and sunshine. Like when I hold a perfectly formed rose, trying to devour the incredible depths of black swallowed within the velvet crimson. Like when I hold my year-old baby sister, eyes traveling in wonder at the perfection of the fair skin, blue eyes, golden curls.
There is something about Zeida that holds my eyes, and does not let them go.
The face is advanced in years, and the long beard and side-curls are white. There are wrinkles on the forehead.
But oh, how beautiful is his face.
I stare, and I stare, trying to connect to those deep, seeing, eyes, to the wisdom and depth within that face.
And all I can think, murmurs sliding in a circle through my mind- is, hadras panim… hadras panim… hadras panim..
It is a gift I have not seen gracing many faces. It sits on Zeida like a crown.
Now I know that it came dearly. And I wonder… if the shine that radiates from that crown does not come, in part, from flames that burned that night on Zeida’s beautiful face.
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