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A Prayer to Memory MAG
Germany, November, 1938
I had been Jewish the first eleven years of my life, but it wasn't until the night of November 9, 1938, that I prayed to God and meant every word with all of my heart. That night goes by many names: Crystal Night, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. It was the night so many Jews' lives were forever altered. That night when so many things and people were lost was the first time I truly felt my faith.
Of course, I had noticed the hatred for my people growing in the past few years. I had seen the signs in restaurants forbidding Jews to enter. I had seen my friends' fathers sitting at home, jobless. But this had all simply happened around me. It had never affected me. It existed and I existed but we had never met. At least not until that night.
My mother shook me awake deep in the night. The darkness was so thick I could not see her face, only hear her shaking voice.
“Elsie, get up. Now. Come, we have to hide.” It was the panic in her voice that made me rise. I had never heard my mother scared. She had always been my calm center, her cool blond hair and ocean blue eyes soothing my temper. This was only the first of many changes to everything I had previously known that would occur in the next few months.
I heard shouting and glass breaking in the distance, then screams.
We scurried down the stairs, the wood cold on my bare feet. I felt my blood surging through every part of my body. There was no sleepiness in me anymore. I felt the rush I got when I was playing tag with my friends and I knew the tagger was at my back, that I was just out of reach, only this time I didn't know what would happen if I were tagged.
My father and brother were huddled in our small dining room in the rear of our home when my mother and I reached them.
My family was split in appearance. My mother and brother could still walk the streets without being harassed. They had pale skin, pale hair, pale eyes. My father and I were the enemy. We were dark-skinned, and our hair and eyes were chocolate. I had always felt closer to my father because of that. He understood what it was like to be labeled “Jew” because of your appearance. He made me proud of my strong nose and my curls.
The noise was growing closer, although I didn't know from which direction. Fear engulfed me. I couldn't move. I was paralyzed with the fear that came from not knowing what would happen to us. Would I live through the night? Would the Nazis come and take us away?
“Brigitte,” my father whispered to my mother, “when this is over you have to promise you and the children will run. Go to your sister's in Holland. It's safe there.”
“What?” Tears filled my mother's clear eyes, and her voice shook worse than ever. “No, I won't listen to such nonsense. I won't hear you speak like that.” My father put his arms around her and kissed her forehead. I had never seen them like this, like lovers, not parents.
“You have to be brave, my love.”
Those were the last words I ever heard my father speak.
I heard the glass window in the front of our house break. Waves of fear flooded my senses. I couldn't move or think; I was just fear. Then our door flew off its hinges and there were voices in the house. My mother began to sob quietly. My brother sat frozen with fear like me.
Two men came into the room, their heavy boots shaking our china and my bones. One was young, nineteen or twenty. His face was not handsome, it was just a face, illuminated by his flashlight, that I would never forget. His eyes met mine, blue connected with brown, and he winked as though he knew some secret only we shared. The other man was tall and fat, lumbering in like a bear stuffed with too much food.
The bear-man reached for my father's arm. “Let's go,” he said gruffly. My father rose, stumbling over the tangle of our legs.
“No!” my mother screamed, reaching for his clothes. “Why can't you just leave us in peace! Take our china, our money, take anything! Please, please, leave my husband!” She was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Shut up!” the older man ordered. My mother began to crawl forward on her knees, still begging. “I said quiet!” His face was red with anger. He slapped her across the face, and she shrunk back, holding her cheek.
“Come,” the younger man said. “They're not worth it.” And the men who stole my father, my dark comrade, left us. And I prayed.
By the time the sun crawled over the horizon the next morning, my mother, my brother, and I had left our home. Within days, Germany was behind us.
• • •
Holland, May 1940
The day the news came that the Nazis had invaded Holland was a blow not only to my family but to every Jew who had come here seeking a safe haven. For a year we had lived in the safety of my aunt's Amsterdam home. Every day I prayed that my father would somehow find us and come home safe, but I knew in my heart that I would never see him again.
As soon as we heard the news that the Nazis were coming, my mother and aunt began making plans to escape. We knew we had to get out quickly or be trapped.
The day we left, Nazi soldiers were beginning to enter the city. First there was a trickle, then a stream. After we left, the dams broke and they came in a flood, destroying Jewish lives as they went.
That day I was sitting, as I often did, on the small stoop in front of our house. I would dream dreams I didn't believe would come true and watch the people walk past. Only today no one was doing errands or visiting friends.
As I sat, a group of German soldiers came marching down the street. I watched them approach, they were a mass of men dressed alike. Some were thinner, others fatter, but to me they all meant the same thing.
As they came closer, one of the faces stood out. It was a face I would never forget. I saw it in my nightmares, illuminated by a flashlight, leaving with my father. Fear grabbed my heart, making it beat so fast that I was surprised my chest didn't leap with each beat.
I sat frozen, watching him come nearer and nearer. He will just march past, I told myself. It has been over a year. He won't know me. He isn't even looking this way. I prayed that this would be true. However, as his group marched past, he turned and looked straight at me with the same blue eyes that were burned into my memory. The screams of my mother and the other women who lost their husbands that night echoed in my ears.
He won't recognize me, he won't, he can't. I couldn't look away; his icy eyes froze me in place. And then, just as he had that night a year earlier, he winked at me, as though he was still keeping that secret. Then he looked straight ahead and walked on.
The blood pumped in my ears. I thought I might faint. He knows, I thought. He will tell someone we are Jews. They will come for us before we escape. He knows. God help us.
At that moment, my mother, aunt, and brother stepped out of the house, each holding a small suitcase filled with only our dearest possessions.
“Elsie, it's time. We have to leave now or we may never get out,” my mother said as I stood up.
“I know, Mother. I'm ready.”
• • •
New York City, 2007
The escape from Holland was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Most Jews didn't make it, but we were lucky.
We never saw my father again. I know now that he most likely died in a concentration camp. Every day we remained in Europe, I feared that the young soldier would find us. But he never did. I don't know if he told anyone about me, but I never saw those eyes again.
I'm an old woman now. The war and its atrocities are deep in my past, but they live on in me. Not a day goes by that I don't remember my father and how he loved me. And every day I pray for the courage he instilled in me and that he had the night he was taken away.