Wanderer (fiction)

It was my usual Sunday afternoon visit to my grandfather. He sat by the window of the cluttered, faded West Rogers Park apartment, looking out over the park as a cloud of dust and noise blew toward us from the softball game. I picked up my glass of iced tea from the stack of Yiddish magazines between us, and crunched an ice cube as he said, “Malkeleh, how would you like a free trip to New Jersey next month?”

To keep from swallowing it, I spat the ice cube back into the glass and stared at him. “That’s certainly the strangest offer I’ve had in a long time.”

He handed me a leaflet, English on one side, Yiddish on the other. “Meeting of Holocaust survivors,” it said. “July 3-8.” So much for my Fourth of July weekend in the Indiana Dunes. “Free, you said?” It had taken a while for the magic word to make its way from hearing to consciousness.

“Free, Malkeleh. My doctor and your grandmother won’t let me out of Chicago any more–some nonsense about my heart the doctor keeps saying. So if I can’t go, at least you can. Maybe get a story for that socialist rag you edit. Or even to sell to a real magazine.” He was always trying to bait me into a political argument.

Today it was too hot to rise to the bait. Besides, he was right–a story from a Holocaust survivors’ convention probably could be free-lanced for some fairly decent money. To hell with the Dunes. They’d still be there on Labor Day. “All right, Grandpa, I’ll go.”

He grinned broadly. “Wonderful. Here are your tickets and registration.” I stared down, dumbfounded, at the envelope he handed me. “I knew you wouldn’t turn down a free shot at a story.”

I sighed. Sometimes Grandpa was too much for me. “Now, look, Malkeleh,” he went on. “There’s one thing I need you to do when you get there. It shouldn’t take much time, and then you can do whatever you want. But promise me you’ll do this. There could also be another story in it. Okay?”

I nodded, resigned, and took out my notebook. He went on, “At all these conventions, they have a bulletin board or something, where people can try to find other people they knew in the camps or before, or at least find out what happened to them. There is someone I want you to find, a man by the name of Heschel Josefson. He may also go by the name of Tolya Baumann. I knew him in Auschwitz in ’44. Probably he isn’t even alive now–he was an old man then. If he is still alive, that would go a long way to prove what he told me then. But anyway, somebody else may remember him, and I would want to know that too. Somebody may know where he is now, if he is still alive. I want to know anything you can find out about him, anything.”

“And if I do see him?”

“Then tell him who you are, remind him that I met him in Auschwitz in ’44, in the carpentry section. He may not remember me. If he does, ask him whether the story he told me then was true. If he doesn’t,” he thought a moment,” Well, you are supposed to be a journalist. Interview him. Get everything out of him that you can. Everything.”

“But what am I supposed to be looking for? What did he tell you in Auschwitz in ’44?”

He shook his head, firmly. “If he will tell you, fine. If I tell you, you will think it is only an old man’s craziness. The whole point of sending you–the reason I would have gone myself if I could–was to find out if it is. You must hear it from him or not at all. If you do find him, and if he tells you, I want you to promise you will call me and tell me, whenever it is, day or night, right away. All right?”

I had ready visions of how Grandma would respond to a 2 AM call. “Only if you promise Grandma will let me talk to you whenever I call, day or night.”

He nodded firmly. “For this, even your grandmother will bend a little. I will see to it.”

I got up and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Grandpa. If I do get a story out of this, I’ll give you credit somewhere, I promise.”

And that was how, a month later, I found myself walking into a reception hall at a small Catholic college (of all places) in southern New Jersey, to don a name tag that said, in English “My name is Molly Berman” and in Yiddish “Mein name ist Malkah Berman.” At the front of each room were a clock, a crucifix, and a No Smoking sign. It became readily apparent that no one at this gathering would pay any attention to any of them. As soon as I dumped my bag in my assigned room, I went to what these people called the Communication Center, to post a notice, in Yiddish and English, for Heschel Josefson, aka Tolya Baumann, last seen in the carpentry section of Auschwitz in 1944, or anyone who knew him. Then I stopped at a desk full of bright lights and whirring disks, where a motherly-looking woman was typing things into a computer, and gave her the same information. There was a bit more whirring, and then she looked up from the screen. “He’s not registered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. We expect a lot of walk-in registrations at the last minute. If he does come in, your message will be waiting for him.”

The program, as it turned out, was divided into three parts–some general speakers, mostly historians of various kinds, and two sets of workshops, one for survivors and one for the children and grandchildren of survivors. I marked off the things most likely to generate a good story on all three lists–I could use my press credentials to get into the survivors’ workshops if necessary.

My first marked item was a speech by a historian on revisionist views of the Holocaust–recent reinterpretations, included purported “debunkings”–from outside the Jewish community. He went through the usual stuff about Arthur Butz and the Canadian lawsuit, and the Neo-Nazis. “The other set of interesting revisionist developments is religious,” he went on. “A whole body of fundamentalist Christian thinking is starting to emerge, to the effect that, oh yes, we are perfectly willing to grant that the Holocaust happened, but what really matters is why it happened. And why it happened, my friends, according to these people, is that we continue to adhere to our foolishly obstinate rejection of their messiah. It used to be enough for just one of us to be condemned to eternal wandering. Then it was all of us, to live as a conquered, despised, and scattered people. Now the stakes have gone up again–six millions dead for theological wrong-headedness. Including, of course, large numbers of baptized Christians of Jewish extraction, at least one of whom is now a candidate for canonization by the Roman Catholic church, which should cast some doubt on the logic of this neo-fundamentalist argument. They are very vague about the next eschatological escalation, but no doubt it could involve exploding a nuclear device in Israel.

“There was a comedian a few years ago, whose name I do not remember. His routine also is fairly dim in my mind now, except that it was based on the thesis that, sometimes when you think all the people in your life are characters in the movie in your head, you discover you have wandered into someone else’s movie, with disastrous results. These neo-fundamentalists have cast us in their movie, without bothering to ask us first. What frightens me is that we may be called upon to do our own stunts!”

I spent the next day going to lectures and panels, and in between, interviewing some delightful women who gave me recipes and household hints from the old country. That evening, on my way back to my room, I saw a note on the bulletin board, neatly folded with my name on the outside. Inside, in neatly printed Yiddish, it said, “If you want to talk to Heschel Josefson, meet me at dinner by the soup kettle. If you want to talk to me afterward, bring a bottle of slivovitz. Not Israeli.” I spent the next half hour finding out from the lady at the computer where to find slivovitz and what kind to buy if not what she called the Israeli rotgut. I picked up a bottle of the highly recommended Czech version (apparently the problem was that the really decent plum brandy had come from Yugoslavia until the recent unpleasantnesses had ruined the business) and waited at the soup kettle. I was about to give up, when a leathery old man with very little hair stopped, looked down at the bottle, and said, “Good, the Czechs make the only decent stuff these days. I am Heschel Josefson. Or I was in 1944. Today, I call myself Emmanuel Bauman. “

“Malkah Berman. Hillel Berman’s granddaughter. He wants to know if you remember him from Auschwitz in 1944.”

He did. We talked about the camps, how he had survived and escaped, how my grandfather had done the same. We had dinner, and then went up to his room with the bottle and a couple of glasses purloined from the cafeteria. He sat back on the bed with his drink. I sat in a chair by his desk, nursing one glass of the remarkably powerful brandy through the whole evening, while he finished the rest of the bottle.

He spoke mostly in Yiddish, a very Germanic, almost courtly version of the language, and every now and then slipped into Hebrew, or English, and then back again. I will not try to reproduce it.

“I remember telling your grandfather a part of this story. We never had time to finish the conversation. If he wants to know the rest of it, now that there is time, I will be glad to oblige. Yes, you may turn on the tape recorder if you wish.

“This is now 1992. I was in Auschwitz in 1944. I was in London in 1962. I was in Kishinev in 1905, and then moved to Berlin. I moved to Vienna in 1925. I was in various places in Russia and Poland during the 19th century. I do not grow older. I do not get sick, thank heaven. I do not sleep very much. This gives me a great deal of time to read.”

I was skeptical, but willing to keep listening. “How do you make a living?” I asked. “Or are you retired?”

He chuckled briefly. “To get a pension, one has to have documents. For a while during the 1940s, I was a competent forger, but I prefer not to forge my own documents. I need very little to live on, and I can earn it doing odd jobs. I am still a sofer—I can write Torah scrolls and mezuzahs and ketubahs. I can do carpentry, but only small things, no heavy lifting. I make a few dollars these days as shammes—in English I think they say sexton—of a shul. I come in every morning to open the shul, clean up after services, things like that.

“Do you want to know where I have been for the last two thousand years, or where it all started?”

The last two thousand years. Was I in the middle of a Mel Brooks routine? Well, Grandpa had paid my way here to listen to this story. I was prepared to listen. “Where did you leave off when you were telling my grandfather? Do you remember?”

He filled his glass again. “I think I was working my way backward, and I had gotten as far as the Chmielniczki pogroms. Do you wish me to continue that way, or begin at the beginning?”

“Begin at the beginning, I think. If we have time, we can fill in the gaps later.”

“Very well, then. I was born in Nazareth. Back then, it was the back country. People there were poor, uneducated, the Romans were sucking the life out of the place. My father was a working man, a carpenter. My brothers were fishermen, except for my oldest brother Yakov, who also worked in the shop. We learned to read the Torah, learned our father’s trade, went to the synagogue to pray and study. And every now and then, we’d get to hear the rabbis arguing with each other, talking about how ordinary people could live by the Torah. We got to hear arguments between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. I was fascinated. I became—what do they call it now? —a groupie. Whenever I could get away from the shop, I went around with the rabbis from Bet Hillel. My father was not happy about it. Said it was bad for business. But my mother and my wife accepted it. Some of my friends and cousins and brothers starting going around with me, too. I wasn’t the only one like that, of course. In those days, a lot of young men were hanging out with the rabbis. It was the only way people as poor as we were could see beyond the poverty and the work and the struggle.

“When I was 30, my father died. My brother Yakov took over the shop and took care of our mother. For the first time, I felt free to do what I had worked for all my life, to be a rabbi, a preacher. I had what you would call a shtick, a routine. I told stories. Some of them were funny, some of them were kind of pointed. A lot of them were about people we all knew. That got people interested. Then they would listen to the d’var torah—connecting torah to people’s real lives. Mostly I followed Bet Hillel. Hillel always seemed like more of a mensch, he understood how hard life could be for poor people and he didn’t want to make it any harder.

“The first couple of years, I stayed in the back country, just walking around from place to place. My friends and a lot of my cousins and brothers came with me. My mother and my wife and some of the other women we knew traveled with us a lot of the time too, once they realized it was the only way they would ever get to see their menfolk. It wasn’t easy, but living at home was hard too. We felt as if we were doing something that mattered, not just trying to stay alive another day.

“The third year, we decided to go to Jerusalem. Going for the big time, you know?”

“’If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere’?” I sang softly.

“Exactly. Like coming off the road and going to Broadway. We went up at Succot—you know, the harvest festival in the fall, when everyone was commanded to go to Jerusalem if they could. It was exciting, noisy, crowded, for us greenhorns it was a little frightening. You know what they do now in shul at succot—everybody marching around waving branches and singing ‘Hoshia-na’? Back then, they did it in the streets. For a week, the city was one big parade. When we first came into the city, a couple of my younger cousins—just kids, never been away from home before—thought all the celebrating was to welcome us to the city. We teased them about that for a long time.

“We had a place to stay. Nothing fancy, but one of the men who sometimes came to learn with us had a place in the city and didn’t use it much. And then I started teaching on the Temple steps. A lot of rabbis did that, and people who had the time just came around and learned from whoever was there. Kind of like Washington Square, or Hyde Park or the Agora, you know? We got some tough audiences, but it was exciting. Sometimes somebody from Bet Shammai, or one of the priestly clique, or even somebody who wasn’t Jewish at all, would come around and heckle, or ask trick questions to try to make the rabbi look stupid. It was a great free show for the locals. The Romans didn’t like it, but mostly they left it alone, because closing it down would just have left a lot of angry young men walking around with nothing to do.

“Most of the time, my friends and I managed to stay out of trouble, for the first couple of months. Then things started getting tense. I got into a fight with a money-changer.” He stopped, thought a minute. “This needs explanation. People went into the Temple mostly to make sacrifices, and mostly they didn’t bring their own animals to sacrifice, because they were coming from a distance, and the animal could die on the way, or anyway get sick and skinny and ugly, and you wouldn’t want to sacrifice something like that. So instead you’d sell your animal—or whatever you sold for a living—and bring the money to Jerusalem. But the money was Roman money. It had Caesar’s image on it—” he spat, decorously, “And that made it treyf. You couldn’t bring it into the Temple. You had to either buy your animal outside, from the dealers there, or exchange your Roman money for Temple money and take that inside to buy an animal. Sometimes you got a better deal buying the animal outside, sometimes it was cheaper inside. But always, you got cheated. The moneychangers and the livestock dealers both overcharged because they knew people couldn’t go anywhere else. Like popcorn at a movie, you know?

“Anyway, this time, I saw an old woman going up the steps. She had a couple of pigeons in a cage. They looked pretty mangy, but they were obviously all she could afford, and she had brought them at least halfway across town. And one of those gonifs got in her way and tried to tell her she couldn’t bring her own birds in, she had to sell her birds and then buy Temple birds—and of course, lose money on both ends of the deal. Anyway, she had every right to bring her own birds; the guy was just being a schmuck. And this went on for a while. In those days I was young and hotheaded and strong and stupid. Finally I couldn’t stop myself, I just grabbed the gonif and threw him down the steps. That started a brawl between my friends and the priestly gonifs—couple of black eyes, my brother Yehuda’s nose got broken, and this friend of ours–his name was Shimon but we called him Rocky, a big dumb guy—knocked a couple of Temple guards unconscious. Oy, we were young and stupid then!

“After that, the Romans started watching us. Then some heckler, who I still think might have been a provocateur from the priests, showed me a Roman coin and asked if it was permitted to pay tribute to Caesar. I couldn’t even figure out who this schmuck was being paid by—I could say ‘yes’ and start a riot, or say ‘no’ and get arrested. So I just stared at the coin until finally the answer came to me. I asked him, ‘whose face is on this coin?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ the heckler said. ‘Well, you can’t use it in the Temple, right? So you can’t use it to pay one of those gonifs in the Temple, but you can use it to pay the gonifs in the Presidium. Or you can quit using cash at all—go off the books and let the gonifs make their money off somebody else.’ I think, after that, I was a marked man.

“Pesach was coming up, and the soldiers were everywhere. Three or four men couldn’t walk down the street together without being followed, or stopped, or searched. They called us things—the words they used, a lady shouldn’t hear, and our women had to hear it all the time. They grabbed at the women, roughed up the men for no reason, just to make sure we knew who was the boss. They want to prevent a riot during the holiday, they said. What did they expect, treating us like that?

“I think some Roman spy maybe infiltrated my chevra. I will never know for sure. We got together on the first night of Pesach, for the meal. It wasn’t quite like the seders today, but it was a big, important meal. We were nervous. I think we all had a feeling something bad might happen. We drank a lot of wine, and sang until late at night. When we went outside, we decided to walk for a while to clear our heads. My little brother Yehuda went down the street the other way from the rest of us, to take care of our tzedakah. There was a beggar down there that we always took care of when we could. On the way, Yehuda told Rocky later, he heard a couple of priestly thugs talking about the Romans arresting me.

“He ran back to warn me, but he was scared to death he might be too late. When he finally caught up with us, he shouted ‘Yoshi, Yoshi, thank heaven you’re still safe,’ and hugged me, from relief. And the Romans, who had been following us, moved in and arrested me. I think they couldn’t tell which one of us was me until then. Probably they thought we all looked like. Most of us probably did look alike, we were all related. But Yehuda blamed himself. By the time I came back, he was dead. They found him in a field with his guts cut open. We never found out how it happened, but I think if he hadn’t blamed himself, he would have been more careful.” He sighed.

“The soldiers were a brutal bunch with a nasty sense of humor. They took me back to the guardhouse first, and beat me up pretty badly. Then they whipped me. That was pretty much standard procedure, really bad. Then one of the officers came in and said, ‘Hey, guys, you know what this—‘ I won’t use the word, Malkeleh—‘you know what he’s here for? He says he’s a king, that’s what.”

“Did you really say that?” I asked.

He shook his head, disgusted. “No, of course not. I said the Holy Blessed One was our king, our only king. And once I said the Holy Blessed One who is our king is also our father, so that makes us royalty too, and we should never let the Romans make us feel like garbage. But they took that to mean I was claiming to be a king. So they got an old dead branch of leaves, tied it into a circle and put it on my head, threw a rag around my shoulders, and put a broom in my hands, and took turns bowing down and saying ‘All hail, your majesty.’ When they got tired of that, they started a really rough game of blindman’s buff. That went on until I was brought in for what they called a trial. It wasn’t what people today would call due process. Some man I’d never seen before said I claimed that Caesar wasn’t our king, that I was a king. Which was more or less true, even though I had tried to stay out of politics because my mother worried so much. Well, she was right. They gave me the usual sentence, crucifixion, and dragged me out.

“Let me tell you about crucifixion. It was a horrible way to die. It was very public, very visibly horrible. That was why the Romans used it, to make an impression that could last a couple of generations and keep the locals terrorized and quiet. They crucified people in very public places. Sometimes, you couldn’t go out for a walk in any city without seeing somebody nailed up. They crucified a lot of people. Men and women and sometimes even children. There was no single way to do it. They just used whatever was handy and did whatever they felt like doing, as long as it involved hanging somebody up on something, causing a lot of pain, and eventually killing him. They were great improvisers, the Romans.” He spat again.

“I was already weak and in a lot of pain. I was at the same time resigned to dying and very frightened of dying this particular way. I was praying like I had never prayed before. I knew that I wasn’t any better or more worthy or more important than any of the hundreds of other Jews who had been crucified for the Sanctification of the Name. So mostly I prayed for my friends and my brothers and cousins, and my wife and my mother, that they would be safe once I was gone, and that they could go on without me. I prayed for all of us—the Jewish people—that we would be delivered from the Romans someday. And, knowing what my rabbis had taught, I tried to pray the Romans, and the priestly gonifs, would repent and stop oppressing us.

“The particular way they crucified me was they nailed my feet to the post and then tied my arms to the cross-piece, which was on a level with my head. So if I didn’t stand up to my full height, I couldn’t breathe. But standing hurt, because of the nails.

“Usually, if they thought you weren’t dying fast enough to finish up before the end of their shift, they’d come along a couple of hours later and break your legs so you couldn’t stand, and then you’d suffocate. But I never got to that point. My mother, who was a very resourceful woman, knew some of the women in the Chevra Kadishah, the charitable society that tried to help prisoners. One of the things they did was come by the crucifixions when the soldiers weren’t paying much attention, and give the prisoners a special drink, from a sponge on a stick. The drink had some kind of anesthetic in it. What it was, I don’t know, maybe an opiate. The prisoner would lose consciousness, or at least not feel much pain. My mother knew some people with money—some of them learned with me—and she got enough together to get the women to give me an extra strong dose. I don’t know if they meant it to kill me, which would have been a real mitzvah, or just to make me look dead. They must have bribed the soldiers to look the other way, and the next thing the Romans knew, I was apparently dead. To make sure, they jabbed a spear into my side. It must have caught on a rib, because it did not bleed, so they figured that dead men do not bleed, so I must be dead, and they took me down.

“Another one of my mother’s rich friends had his own private mausoleum, in a garden behind his house, in a very exclusive part of the city. They took me there—they told me all this later, I do not remember any of it. The next thing I remember was lying on a stone shelf in a quiet cool dark place, and my wife sitting beside me, dripping water into my mouth.

“I stayed there for three days. By that time, the festival was pretty much over and the soldiers had gone back to their garrisons. I was smuggled back to Nazareth in a wagon full of carpets, and spent the next few weeks getting my strength back.

“After that, I lived a very quiet life. I went back to the carpentry shop, went to synagogue every week, but never taught again. My mother died, and then my wife. We never had any children. She had miscarriages and stillbirths, one after another. I think from what I have read since then it may have been an RH factor incompatibility. I couldn’t persuade her to stop trying, even though I told her again and again that she was worth more to me than ten sons. The last stillbirth killed her.” He wiped his eyes.

“The Romans got more and more oppressive. Finally we were at war again. Some of the people who had followed me were living in Jerusalem, but I had a very bad feeling and I sent them a message to leave. Some of them did. The city was besieged and sacked, and the Temple—“ he stopped, took a deep breath, then went on, “You know that part of the story. I was in Nazareth, but we heard as soon as it happened. I wanted to die. We all did, even people who had never seen the Temple. Just knowing it was there had meant we were still living in God’s world, only now it was gone, and where did that mean we were? I was seventy years old then, and ready to die.

“That was when I had the dream. I think it was a dream. It might have been a vision, maybe a hallucination. All I know is that I saw myself in the carpentry shop, but not as it was now, the way it had been when my father was alive and working there. I could smell the wood dust and hear the saw and see the sun coming in the window and feel its heat. Then the sun got brighter and brighter, until all I could see was the light. I heard a voice. First it sounded like my father, but then it became deeper and more intense until it made everything vibrate around me and swallowed me up. It said, ‘What you see now, happening to your people, is only the beginning. Because of you, your people will be hunted and exiled and murdered again and again, for as long as the damage you have done persists.’ I was completely farblondget, confused. ‘What damage have I done?’ I said. And then I saw myself, standing in front of a crowd years and years before, and I was telling them, as I had told them then, ‘I and the Father are one. Who sees me sees the Father.’ What I meant was, I am a human being made in the image of the Holy Blessed One. My face—and yours, and every other human face—is all we can ever see of the Holy Blessed One, and it is all we need to see.

“Then I was seeing a whole sequence of visions. People bowing down to pictures and statues of a young crucified man and praying. Jews being tortured and murdered and synagogues being burnt, and always on the banners of those doing the burning and torturing the picture of this same crucified man. And I realized that it was meant to be my picture.

“The voice said, ‘Until your people are free from the danger and the damage you have brought upon them, you will live and see the consequences of your own actions.’

“I was about seventy then. I have never grown any older since then. I have never been ill. I am quite sure that if an anvil fell on my head, or my bed burned while I slept in it, I would die. But otherwise, I am cursed to live a very long time.”

“And to wander?” I asked. “When did the vision say that?”

“It did not need to say that, Malkeleh. The wandering goes with the long life. If I stay in one place more than about twenty years, without aging or dying, people get suspicious. Being burned at the stake would kill me, too. So I move on, and change my name. I have used maybe ten or twelve different names. For a while I called myself Ahasuerus, but nobody could spell it. But yes, the wandering is a curse, because it has always taken me to wherever Jews are being tormented and murdered in a particular generation. Some generations, things are peaceful everywhere, and I can live out my twenty years quietly. But I know that if any horror is happening to our people, I will be there to witness it. For a while I tried to second-guess the curse, to move to a place where Jews were living in honor and safety. ”

“Like Spain in the 14th century?”

“Exactly. Or Germany after Kishinev. That was how I came to be in the camps where I met your grandfather. I do remember him. He was a tough young man with a good heart. I hope he is well now.”

“If he were well, he would be here instead of me. But he is comfortable, and I will tell him you remember. I think he did not want to die wondering.”

“Do you intend to publish this story, now that you have it? And if you do, will it be a news story?” He smiled, mischievously,

I shook my head. “You know better than that, Mr. Josefson. If this finds its way into print, it will be fiction or perhaps even fantasy, like all the other stories about you.” The bottle was empty. “How close are you to moving on again?”

“Probably another year or two. I have no idea what name I will use, or where I will go this time, or how I will make a place for myself there. Would you like me to get in touch with you when I decide?”

At first, like any writer about to lose an interesting source, I was about to say yes. Then I stopped and thought about it. My skin began to crawl. “No, Mr. Josefson, no thank you. But it has been a pleasure and an honor to talk to you. Good night.” I picked up the bottle and the glasses and took them back to the kitchen. On my way back to my own room, to call my grandfather, I passed the bulletin board, where a notice of tomorrow’s lectures was posted. One of them was titled, “Where will the next Auschwitz be?”

Jane Grey

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