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.