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.
“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.”
There is a rustle as boys and girls take papers from under their chairs.
I look down at the paper in my hand. It is a white piece of paper; a white piece full of words. A white piece of my heart.
“Yenya,” Miss Ida says, and I see her look at me, “will you please read your composition?”
I stand, holding my paper.
The classroom is quiet.
It is a dark, cold, night, the eighth night of Chanukah. Inside there is warmth, and light. There is a glowing light shining from the silver menorah on the small table. The eight flames of the menorah burn straight and high, slowly drinking up their oil. All is silent. Then there is a quiet breath, one that you almost cannot hear.
“Have you heard?” The Eastern flame whispers to his neighbor, “Have you heard what is happening?”
There is a moment of silence. The flames move just a little bit.
The Eastern flame speaks again. “The Germans are coming further and further into every town in Poland. They push more people from more villages into every ghetto, and the ghettos are made smaller and smaller.”
The flame nearest him flickers and says in a whisper, “And that is not worst of all.”
The flame shivers, then stands still. “Rumors….” it whispers, “rumors”.
None speak for a moment, and then the Western Flame says, “No, not worst of all. The people of those ghettos never live for long. They are rounded up, one group at a time, and put on trucks and sent to The East.”
“The East?” the fifth flame speaks. “They are not sent to live in The East. They are sent to die in The East. The postcards coming from there are false. They are killed, slowly or quickly, and none shall return.”
It is silent again, as if others want to answer but don’t.
“They are gassed,” the Seventh Flame says. “They are crowded into rooms and forced to breathe poison. They scream but nobody hears them. The poison kills them and then they die, all of them. No one can survive that.”
“And those who live?” the Third Flame asks. “Those who still live in The East are not better off. They are beaten, and made to work like horses and donkeys, until they collapse. They have little food and water, sometimes no shoes, no warm clothes…. grown men cry, if they have the strength.”
“And us?” the Fourth Flame quivers and turns to answer his neighbor. “Are we better off? We have shoes, yes, and houses, yes, and some food. But those in the ghetto? They are also cold, and they are also hungry, and they are also frightened. They are packed into small rooms. They die of sickness. What of them? What of us? What will be?”
The Sixth Flame speaks solemnly. “No one will help us. The Poles hate us. Other countries do not love us, and it is almost impossible to get out. Jews cannot work, cannot do what they want, cannot go where they want. Jews will be caught and pushed further into ghettos, then taken away to be shot or gassed. That is what is happening; that is clear to anyone who looks and sees.”
The flames tremble and burn straight, higher and higher.
Finally the Eastern Flame bursts out, “Brothers, how can we remain silent? How can we burn silently when our people are dying, being killed off one by one until none shall be left? How can we accept this, to stand straight and still when there is no hope and all is so black?!”
The flames jump in the air, twisting wildly as if to leap from their cups. They shiver, and shake, and turn, and twist, but they cannot escape. It is still silent, without anyone answering their call.
I look up from the paper at Miss Ida. She is standing still, as if she, too, does not know what to answer.
Miss Ida always knows what to say.
There is a long pause, and no one in the class moves.
“You may sit down, Yenya,” Miss Ida says. I slide into my chair, and realize I am shaking, just a tiny bit. I take a deep breath.
Miss Ida is still standing in her place, looking at me.
“Yenya,” she says again. “That was a good essay. But these are things we do not write. Now I want you to rip it up.”
There is no more to say, but the silence continues, as if it is filled with words she doesn’t say.
These are things we do not write.
These are things we do not say. These are things we are not supposed to know. These are things the Germans wish to do to us, wish us to be ignorant of – wish to round us up like unsuspecting lambs for slaughter, like dumb oxen who don’t know better. To know is to be in danger; we are not permitted to know.
Are we, then, not even permitted to think? Are we supposed to not even really know, to pretend to ourselves that we are ignorant? No, that cannot be. And once I know, it is too much. That knowledge lies heavy inside me, deadens me when I am awake, cries within me when I sleep. It lives, it breathes, it sends breaths of fear shivering up my throat, squeezes my heart in light, fast, beats of fright.
Am I to hold this thing inside me, then, to freeze before its strength or to lose myself in its terror?
I had to rip up the paper. I sat there, in my seat, and held it in my hands. I tore it down the middle. Then I put the two halves together and tore them again through their narrow waist. I walked to the fireplace and put the pieces gently in.
I will remain silent, and I will be as strong as I can, and I will fight the thing within me.
But I will know.
I can see the fireplace now, the few small pieces of wood burning, the small tongues of flame.
The white, ragged squares are put down gently.
Smoke comes around the white sides. The edges blacken, then grow flames that jump around them. Small flames, gently licking, consuming.
I don’t see my papers burning. I see other flames, dancing flames, flames that speak in silence.
Our people are being lost… gassed… burned… How can we remain silent? Brothers, brothers, we must protest!
Those flames will live, safe inside me.
I will know.
One day… if…
If I live…
Then I will tell the world that I know.
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