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Listen To The Flames: As Told To Rayzel Reich By Her Grandmother, Mrs. Jenna Reich

Reich-122311-flames

Miss Ida is our beloved teacher.

Her brown hair is piled softly on her head.

Her dress is of course old and worn, and she must not be very young, but to us, she is beautiful. She is not religious, but she is always kind, and she is always fair. We sit in class, all ten of us, and we marvel at this special person who stands in front of us.

Our teacher.

“Tonight, class,” Miss Ida says, “It will be the holiday of Chanukah. “Regardless of what we are or are not able to do, it is still Chanukah, and we will be celebrating in our hearts.”

Miss Ida walks along our row of chairs. Her shoes are old, but they make a sharp click against the floor.

“For your homework tonight, you will be writing a composition in honor of the holiday. It can be on whatever topic you would like, as long as it is about Chanukah.”

Miss Ida pauses in her walk.

All the children are still. I know that some of them are worried about what they will write. Some of them are already thinking of ideas.

I don’t know what I will write, but I am not worried.

There is always much in my heart to say.

It is night.

Tattu has lit one flame for the first night of Chanuka. It flickers quietly in its small cup of oil.

I sit at the small table with a pencil and paper. I will write about Chanukah. I will write what is in my heart.

The next morning I say goodbye to Mammu and Leibish before I leave. Leibish has a rebbe who comes to the house. I feel sorry for him. Miss Ida is a much better teacher. But Leibish at least doesn’t have to worry about being caught. He is safe, inside the house. There is nothing dangerous about sitting with one old Jewish man.

Stepping out the door right now is dangerous. I look both ways before I close the door behind me. There are only a few Jewish people on the cold street. The air is sharp, tells me to move, fast. I hold my bundle close to me and hurry down the road.

The brown paper rubs roughly against my coat. I’ve wrapped my geography book in butcher’s paper. I hope it will look like groceries. Or papers. Or anything but books. Books are death.

Books for Jewish children are death.

Jewish children must not learn.

Not even geography.

I like geography. I’ve never learned about Antarctica before. Ant-arc-ti-ca. Like Miss Ida says it. It is even colder there then Poland, Miss Ida says.

But there people are free. If there would be people there.

Tattu thinks that here in Wielitzka it is safer then in the Krakow Ghetto. Tattu doesn’t like ghettos. Neither do I. Here we are free. There are so many things we cannot do, but at least we are not trapped like caged beasts. At least I can walk down this cold street… without any barbed wires keeping me in.

There are far fewer Jews here then in the Ghetto. Many of them are like us, strangers that have run away from other towns. We are all strangers, thrown together for today… or a month, or a year… I never know, one never knows…. there are rumors, always rumors, and tomorrow is a gray cloud.

But today I can walk the stones of this street, briskly, in the sharp cold, and I can go to Miss Ida, and learn with the other children… today.

I am at the street before Miss Ida’s house. I look both ways down the road to make sure that there are no other children coming before I go to the door. We all have our own time to come, so that we will not be seen coming in together. Stragglers can put us in danger. Put Miss Ida in danger.

Miss Ida herself comes to the door.

“Good morning, Yenya,” she says.

It is so nice to have a real teacher. Miss Ida speaks exactly as a teacher should speak. She has been a schoolteacher all her life. Even though she had to leave Krakow, just as we did, she decided to set up school here for us children. Miss Ida is brave. I sit down next to Ruchke. The other boys and girls are all here already, sitting in our row of chairs.

We have no tables or desks. That would be too dangerous, even if we could have them. I slip my brown-paper-wrapped book under my chair and hold my paper and pencil in my lap.

Miss Ida brushes softly into the room and stands in front of our row of chairs.

“Good morning, class,” she says. “Today we are going to read the essays you have written last night.”

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