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A Rose for Rebecca Bernstein
No part of me enjoyed what I was forced to do, all of those years, day-in-day-out as if I was punching a time-clock at some factory job. And I am sure that anyone you would now ask would answer in the same way. I could go further, and say that I did not know exactly what I did, and where the endless train of filthy people were going. It would be a lie. Nobody ever told me, that much is true. But unless I was inordinately stupid, there was no way to ignore the reality before me.
These people were going to die.
Do you know the story of Pilate and Christ? Pilate stared down at the sack of skin and bone and dignity before him and said "Let be done with him what his people would wish be done with him." And so they dragged away Our Lord and hung him like a bloody banner against the darkening sky.
I am certain that, somewhere in the story, there is an unnamed and unimportant centurion who took Christ by the arm, and led him, burdened with the weight of the cross, up to Calvary. The centurion may have been stone-faced, but he may have been moved by human pity. And if moved by human pity, he could not have acted upon it, because a force of will so much greater than his own was being cast upon him. And so he whipped.
And so did I.
They were scared and cowed, crowding and milling around one another in a great profusion of human misery. My eyes were coldly, carefully dispassionate. I had adopted a habit of not looking more than was absolutely necessary, not into their faces, and especially not into their eyes. It caused me too much trouble. I will not claim to have been kept awake many nights prior to that day, though I had been kept awake some. To me, it was rote. My horror and fear had been long since been pounded out.
I looked up once, and my eyes were caught abruptly by a young woman's face. It was a face I knew so well that, for a moment, I imagined that I was hallucinating. I had not seen those dark, sparkling eyes in years.
When I was a boy, I returned from school by the fastest way, as boys tend to do. The fastest way for me turned out to be a street of shops run by Jews, though this was not so well-marked as it would later become. I often passed the window of a florist's, and once, out of mere curiosity, I peeked inside. A girl, of about my age, was standing with her back to the window, arranging chrysanthemums. When she turned about, I saw that she was petite, but pretty, with wide dark eyes.
After this day I made it my habit to look, briefly, at the young Jewess who was always surrounded by brightly-coloured blossoms.
Having spent five weeks gathering the courage to approach her, I finally entered the shop. What did I know then of Germans and Jews? I was sixteen. So was she, as it turned out. There were whispers, and there was slander, of course. But this could not turn me from her, and I could not see the likeness of a rat in her even features.
I asked for a single rose.
What for? was her reply.
My reply was a small, embarrassed smile. I slid a mark across the counter, and when she held out the single rose to me I made sure to touch her hand briefly with mine. Did she draw back? Did she blush? I am still unsure. To me, it was electric.
Can I have a card?
Oh! Yes, of course. Red, or blue?
What would you like best?
I think blue.
I took the card from her outstretched fingers and smiled at her once more.
What's your name?
She smiled at me, an honest smile that was brighter than any flower in the world.
Rebecca. This is my father's flower shop.
I tied the card to the rose's stem, and then, as she turned away to continue fighting against the daffodils, I left the rose behind me on the counter. The bell pinged loudly as I swung the door open and stepped out into the street. Overcome by a powerful rush of exhilaration, I could have danced. I had touched her hand. She had blushed. She had smiled at me.
On the little blue card, I had written simply "A rose for Rebecca Bernstein."
That was not the last time I saw her – no, we enjoyed at most two months of brushing hands in the street, and talking about anything and everything we wished, and stealing kisses behind massive sprays of magnolias and orchids. Eventually, her father found us. Needless to say, he was displeased. Displeased is, perhaps, too weak a word to describe his reaction.
We were more careful, then, and fancied ourselves Romeo and Juliet, because we were young and stupid and the so-called Rome had not risen again so high as the Third Reich. The ending we imagined for ourselves was always happy. Maybe the world was changing. Maybe the change would make our intended future possible. But the Third Reich rose, and we were ripped apart by the winds of a much darker change, as young lovers tend to be.
The ghost of her face often haunted my dreams, in those lonely years. It does so still.
My heart cried out profoundly. It was remarkable, the force of emotion within me. I feared, for a moment, that I had cried out loud in the train station. I wanted so desperately to thrash through the mob and reach her, to take her forcefully from this dreadful place, to wipe the grime and dirt from her beloved face, from the matted curls of her hair.
Coward! Centurion! Move your legs. Let not the Jew unrightfully die.
Pilate's eyes upon my back stilled me. I moved only in the beating of my heart, which seemed to weigh as much as a great stone being laid upon my chest. The weight of or shared oppression rooted my feet.
She was herded into the train, head high. Her dark eyes sparkled with defiance, and fear, and I knew she would have fought if she thought it would have done any good.
The train pulled away, slowly at first, bearing her from me, parting us forever. I wept into myself, tore at my heart and my skin and ripped the filthy uniform from my body. I had only one blessing, but for it I hated myself fiercely.
Her eyes had met mine. Yes, she looked at me, right at me, but her eyes slid over my face like oil over water. She did not see the boy that still lived somewhere deep inside of me; he was buried. She would have hated me for doing this, for allowing this to happen.
At least she would never see the instrument of misery I had become.