A Prayer for Gershon Levin
By M. K. Moulton
"Yisgadol v'yiskadash shmai raba
B'olmo deev'ro chir'usai...."
The burial was at the far edge of the cemetery. A remote and desolate corner away from other graves. Under a leaden sky with no trees to soften the starkness of the place, nor shrubs to fill the emptiness.
Suicide is a defilement of God's creation. For in the image of God made He man. The mourners' Kaddish ,the relentlessly optimistic affirmation of life, is forbidden at the burial of a suicide. No hope for such a one in the sanctification of the Name. No place in His kingdom or in the House of Israel.
"....u'vchayai d'chol bais Yisroel,
ba' agolah u'vzman koriv
She said it quietly, without a book, without the rabbi's help.
The rabbi, restrained by Jewish law, remained silent. Facing her across the open grave with the wooden coffin between them, he waited for her to finish. Could he stop her? The situation as it stood was bad enough.
"You know he's not a suicide." She had ground the words between her teeth at him and he could only shake his head.
The police had decided.
She knew: It can only be decided by a rabbi. And the rabbi had found no grounds to contradict the Medical Examiner's report. Gershon Levin was condemned: A suicide.
The remains of Gershon Levin had been carried from the hearse and placed without honor in the earth with only the three of them in attendance, hunched against the gray chill of early morning, to see the act performed.
A dismal, bitter end for Gershon Levin. Should the rabbi risk an argument with her and more recriminations at the moment of interment? He waited while she finished.
"Oseh shalom bimeromav
Hu ya' aseh shalom
alenu v'al Kol Yisroel
"Amen," the man beside her had murmured at the end, and the coffin had been lowered, and she had stood and waited, refusing to turn away from it until it was covered with the earth. One last forbidden honor to the dead, by Jewish law a willful murderer of God's most sanctified creation. Defier of God's prerogative and power.
Afterward, when Armand Holly, uneasy in the unfamiliar yarmulka, had waited to take her home, she shook her head and had gone away alone.
He went back to his apartment. Upstairs, past Gershon Levin's door. The emptiness echoing behind him.
The day before, when Armand Holly had returned from his sabbatical year off-campus, he had expected to spend his remaining leave-time writing up his notes and dawdling. And bridging the gap that she insisted was unbridgeable.
He had not expected to spend the morning after his first day back in the guilty silence of the cemetery. Or to stand beside her while she defied the rabbi at the graveside. Or to finally face the fact that the chasm was unbridgeable.
When the police had knocked on Holly's door the night before and ushered him down the stairs and into the apartment below and wanted to know how well he had known his neighbor, he thought he would answer their questions and that would be the end of it.
"Did he seem to you like the sort of man who would take his own life?"
It was no time for philosophical answers. "I don't know."
"You spent time with him," the police inspector prompted.
The inspector had been talking to Mrs. Morgan. Across the hall.
"...and ate dinner together pretty often. What did you and the old man talk about?"
It didn't feel right to be sitting on Mr. Levin's sofa, talking about Mr. Levin. Holly looked up at the inspector. "How did it happen?"
"Cyanide. We found the capsule near the body." The inspector sat directly in front of Holly on a chair pulled close to the couch. "He ever mention cyanide to you?"
Holly leaned back carefully.
The inspector caught the flick. "Come on, professor. When did he talk about cyanide to you?"
"A couple of times." Holly dug in his pocket for a cigarette. Upstairs on his desk. Trying to stop. Trying to cut down. Don't carry them. You won't smoke so much. "They used cyanide. In the camps."
Holly looked more carefully at the other man's face. Could a man be old enough to be a detective inspector and not know about the camps?
The inspector was waiting for an answer.
"The concentration camps. The Nazi extermination camps in World War Two." He wondered if he had to explain what they were.
"Mr. Levin's family. Parents, sisters, brothers...Everyone. They were killed in the concentration camps. Gassed. They used cyanide. Except for Mr. Levin and one of his brothers."
"Where's the brother now?"
"He lives in Israel."
The inspector wrote it in his notebook.
Holly sat still. He wanted a cigarette. He wanted to leave. To go upstairs. Not tell any more about an old man who liked scrambled eggs and Mozart. Not listen to them deciding that Gershon Levin killed himself.
The decision was manifest in the facts as they presented themselves. The inspector was doing his best not to seem perfunctory.
"Professor Holly." Calling him back from Gershon Levin's life. And death. "How did the brothers get along?"
Holly came back slowly. "Get along?"
"How did they feel about each other?"
He shook his head. "I don't know," and was startled. "You said it was suicide."
"I didn't say it was anything. We'll have the lab reports tonight." He was pushing his chair back, getting up, putting his little notebook in his pocket. "They don't embalm, you know. The Jews. They want to bury him tomorrow." The inspector was half-way to the door, heading for the bedroom. Over his shoulder: "You can go back to your own apartment now. And don't worry about it. With a background like that." He nodded. "It probably was suicide."
Two days later Gershon Levin's brother was sitting in Holly's living room. "My brother didn't kill himself." Uri Levin sat stiffly in the wicker chair. The straight back helped him. Two day's grizzled stubble and the exhaustion of a fourteen hour flight stained his face. "Gershon was a religious man. To take one's own life...." He shook his head. "He would never do it."
Watching, Holly was surprised again at how different they were. Old Mr. Levin downstairs, frail and bent, with the stillness of a cornered rabbit. A skinned rabbit listening to Mozart. And this squat, sturdy, rough-skinned man with a wide mouth and those remarkable blue eyes. His eyes were almost perfect triangles. Like the eyes cut in a pumpkin.
"Tomorrow we'll go to the authorities. And in the meantime," Levin stood up gingerly. "You've got the key? We'll go downstairs."
They went downstairs. Holly didn't want to. He didn't want to see anyone else looking in old Mr. Levin's cupboards and reading his personal papers.
The brother didn't look in cupboards or drawers or read the old man's papers or touch anything. He hurried past the Mezuzah tacked at a slant in Mr. Levin's doorway and stood in the middle of the living room.
The brother hadn't stopped to kiss the Mezuzah as the old man had always done. He hadn't seemed to notice it. Holly had noticed it. Every time he entered the apartment or left it. The miniature silver scroll encasing the Sh'ma. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." Always fastened on the doorposts of Jewish homes. Some Jewish homes. An important part of Jewish Law, the old man had explained to him.
Not important to the brother. He had hurried past the Mezuzah into the living room. Holly watched him standing motionless in the middle of the room He thought he saw him sniff, started to explain that cyanide was odorless, remembered that Uri Levin knew, and stayed near the door, waiting.
Levin took his time. He went from room to room, stood, head cocked, eyes closed and opening slowly, and finally went to the bedroom.
Holly wondered if he should go with him. To do what? Hold his hand? Old Mr. Levin's younger brother didn't seem to be the sort of man who needed to have his hand held.
When he came out of the bedroom, he marched down the hallway, through the living room, and upstairs to Holly's apartment. "My brother did not take his own life."
Holly sat in the flowered chair.
Levin seated himself carefully on the couch. "He wouldn't do it. And definitely not with cyanide." He kept his eyes on Holly's face. "I know all about the guilt-of-the-survivors theory, Professor Holly, and maybe for some...." He shrugged. "But not Gershon. Not my brother."
"The coroner's verdict...."
"Never mind the coroner's verdict. We were together the whole time in the camps. My brother wouldn't kill himself."
For the first time Holly saw emotion on Uri Levin's face. It mottled the toughened skin.
"He didn't kill himself. My brother, Gershon Levin, was murdered."
Gershon Levin was twenty-seven years old when he stood in the line with the others at the first camp. Men, women, children, old, young, everyone naked, shivering in the cold. Blows fell on them: 'Make the lines straight!' Ludicrous without clothes to make the lines straight. Breasts wobbling, penises dangling, fat bobbling in behinds. It was the first camp. They still had fat. And hair on their heads and chests and in the private place no longer private.
Gershon was ashamed to see his father naked. He didn't look at the lines of women being shaved. Other prisoners, privileged ones, did the shaving, scraping the razor on the heads and between the legs, leaving blood on the white flesh underneath. Third position: Raise your arms. For the men also the chests.
The hair was collected in bags for mattress stuffing.
From the deportation center, three days in trucks. Standing like cattle with canvas over them shutting out the light and the sky but not the cold.
Shorn and starving they waited for food. Line up again. Pass in front of the German officer. He sat at a table, one arm resting on it. His wrist flicked left or right as each one passed before him.
They stumbled, bewildered, directed to other lines by blows, kicks and always obscenities. How had they come here from their shops, their classrooms, their tidy kitchens and music lessons?
The wrist, a barely perceptible movement, sent his father and mother to the right. He started to follow. A blow on the side of the head sent him to the other line.
All old people and the children to the left. An orderly line. Later he learned it was the selection line.
Impossible to believe it: Ten to twenty thousand were gassed here every day.
A younger brother died on the frozen ground under Nazi boots. Was it possible one could see one's younger brother stamped and kicked, see the marks rise on the naked flesh and the blood spurt, eyes roll, mouth gape, legs splay, arms flop like a doll thrown on a garbage heap? And wonder why they did it?
The sister was sent to a different camp, sterilized, used by the troops and later died. The strong went in sealed box cars to forced labor. Gershon met Uri in the box car.
Holly was average height. Uri Levin was a little shorter and broader. Rotund, but the roundness wasn't fat.
In the pool, Levin dog-paddled placidly, keeping his head out of the water, but he matched Holly lap for lap, grinning.
"It's wonderful! A university with an indoor pool! Of course, in Israel, all the universities have pools."
Pressing his side stroke for form, Holly grinned back at him. They were the same age within a year. Across the water between them: "How much older was your brother?"
"Twelve years. A lot more, really. He took care of me. They sent us to forced labor because we were stronger than the others. When I got sick, he shared his food with me. I should stay strong. Then they wouldn't kill me."
Holly was suddenly uncomfortable. He glanced around. Everyone was busy swimming.,
Levin watched him. "It embarrasses you? To speak casually about such a thing?"
Holly nodded, got a nose full and, coughing, went under. When he came up, blinking glistening droplets, Levin was still beside him. The water, reflected in his eyes, made them bluer. Like sapphires. "It's necessary to talk about it. To believe that it happened. My brother talked about it, didn't he?"
Levin nodded. "Yes. That's how you knew about the cyanide. He talked to make it real. Not to forget. He talked a lot to you. Not just supper once in awhile." Levin's eyes, across the water between them, were sharp on Holly's face. "Tell me, Armand, what did you think about my brother?"
Holly was surprised. "I liked him."
"You'll excuse me, but it's not an answer. There was too much of Gershon to like it all. And anyway: like. What does it mean, like? "
Holly turned over and floated on his back. Brittle winter sunshine made crystal patterns above him on the ceiling tiles.
"You liked his mind...?"
Holly watched the light bouncing on the ceiling and listened to the water. Lapping at his ears, it filled his head with echoes of Gershon Levin.
"...you liked his soul?"
O Lord, what is man, that Thou hast regard for him?
Man is like a breath, his days are as a fleeting shadow.
"...was not an easy man to like."
Yea, Thou hast made man in Thine image...
"He was always stubborn."
...to resist evil and to strive for righteousness...
"For Gershon the easy way was never good enough."
...and for the coming of Thy kingdom.
"So tell me, Armand. What did you like about my brother?"
"I liked his scrambled eggs!" Holly flipped over on his face and plowed the water to the other end of the pool.
Later, in the locker room, Levin grinned at him, the wide pumpkin mouth showed all his teeth. "Tell me, Armand. You think a man like Gershon would take his own life?"
Uri Levin did not think so. He had pounded on the police inspector's desk. He had explained loudly to the medical examiner. He had threatened to take the issue to the newspapers. And he had not made a dent on the authorities.
They nodded compassionately. They showed him the coroner's report. They said they understood his feelings...
"You don't understand nothing! My brother wouldn't kill himself!"
...and told him to come back if he had proof.
Holly took him to the pool to calm him down.
They arrived at the labor camp numb with hunger and exhaustion. The gate of the camp was a one-story wooden structure with a tower and a clock and a searchlight. And a sign over the gate: Arbeit macht frei [Labor makes free].
They worked eleven hour shifts in the Bunawerke factory belonging to I.G. Farben. Farben paid the SS six Reichmarks per day per laborer. The SS spent slightly more than one half of one Reichmark per day on prisoner maintenance including food. The average life span of a forced laborer was nine months. Including the on-site commercial pillaging of the corpse, the total income to the SS for each prisoner averaged 1,631 Reichmarks. This did not include later industrial use of the corpses for fertilizer, soap or other purposes.
The refuse from the labor camps was shipped to the crematoria.
In the transport, dead eyes stared at him. He fought the rigid arms and legs for space to breathe.
When the transport doors were opened and the bodies were unloaded, Gershon and Uri were still alive. Soon they would be fertilizer.
They crawled away from the heap of tangled bodies. A careless guard sent them staggering into the wrong line, and then to huddle in a dark place with other skeletons.
Without discussion they had agreed that Levin would move into Holly's spare room. It was not squeamishness that kept Levin from staying in his brother's apartment. It was his insistence that nothing there must be disturbed.
"It will give us something," Levin had said, prowling the rooms.
"The police examined it."
"To hell with the police! The police were looking for proof of suicide. So that's what they found. And nothing else." He was prowling again, opening drawers a crack, peering in, touching only what was necessary. "Tell me about my brother. How did he live?"
"How...?" Holly started to explain that he didn't know anything about the old man's finances.
"Did he have friends? Did they come here?" Levin turned to face him, waiting.
"Oh. Friends." Leaning in the doorway, Holly grinned. "You should ask Mrs. Morgan."
"I'm asking you."
Their eyes met across the room. Levin's finger, hooked under a drawer-pull, waited. He watched Holly's face.
"He had friends. I think they used to meet for coffee sometimes."
"He said they were too old. They couldn't take the stairs. Two flights."
"You never saw them -- anyone, come here? To this apartment?"
Holly felt the bright blue eyes sharpen on his face, searching. A smile started at the corners of Levin's mouth. Holly shook his head, deciding. "No. No one came here." And left Pearl out of it.
The tip of Levin's finger, protruding from the drawer-pull, was scarlet. He was pushing it hard against the edge. Then he shrugged and closed the drawer.
Standing in the old man's apartment, it was hard to believe that he was dead. Everything looked the same. The police hadn't spent much time there. And Uri Levin, examining the place, hardly disturbed the dust.
Not intending to say anything else, Holly heard himself explaining: "I didn't pay much attention. We had supper together sometimes...." And apologizing: "I didn't notice...."
"You couldn't help noticing." Levin turned away, inspecting again through narrowed eyes. "This is an old building, Armand. Since I've stayed with you I noticed. When a doorbell rings for an apartment on this side of the building, you can hear it. Basement apartment very faint. First floor louder." Levin turned away from the cupboard door he was studying. Facing Holly: "When my brother's doorbell rang on the second floor, it would have been loud enough to hear in your apartment. You would have noticed. So tell me, Armand, who rang his bell? Who sat and talked with him?"
"I don't know!" He was suddenly angry, tired of the questions and tired of Uri Levin. "I didn't keep track of him! What do you think I was, his keeper?"
"Precisely, Armand. In the Biblical sense, you were my brother's keeper. You and only you are familiar with Gershon's daily habits." Levin returned to his scrutiny of the cupboard. Over his shoulder: "So tell me, did the postman ring Gershon's doorbell every day?"
"A lot of mail for a reclusive old man. What did he get, Armand, fan mail?"
"Newspapers. He got a lot of newspapers. He clipped them."
Levin nodded. "A file cabinet full of clippings."
Holly knew. Standing in the doorway, watching the old man scrambling eggs or slicing bread, and listening to the knife sawing through a crusty loaf and to Gershon Levin telling him: On the West Side, in the aldermanic election last week, they got sixteen per cent of the votes, the Nazi Party..... Or: So now they're legal, Armand, the Nazi Party in America. The Supreme Court made them legal.
Blinking, Holly came back slowly to a younger, rounder, rougher Levin, standing in the old man's kitchen, watching him.
"He told you what was in the newspapers? What he clipped?"
"News stories. What was happening."
"Nothing else? He didn't put it together for you?"
"Put it together?" Holly frowned, trying to understand.
Levin became abruptly brisk. "So tell me. Besides the postman, you never heard the doorbell ring?"
"No." He heard when Pearl came and sat with Mr. Levin. He knew they talked together in Yiddish, relieved of the obligation to speak English as a courtesy to him.
"No. The doorbell never rang." Squinting to see Levin's face across the room, he understood: One time, four days ago, the doorbell must have rung. Not the mailman. Someone else. A visitor. An unusual occurrence. If it wasn't Pearl or the mailman. The doorbell rang and the old man had released the locks and opened the door. And let someone into his apartment. And they had sat and talked. And then Gershon Levin's guest had murdered him? With cyanide? "It doesn't make sense! Your brother was careful ..."
"Careful? You mean frightened?"
Holly shook his head. "I don't know. Careful." They were standing in the kitchen. Holly's eyes traveled from Levin's face to the back door. A dead-lock and a burglar-proof chain. There were similar locks on the front door. Holly had seen Levin examining them. "He didn't open his door unless he knew who it was."
"So he must have known the person who rang his bell that morning. And trusted him enough to let him in."
"And that's the person who over-powered him? And forced him to inhale cyanide?" Holly patted his shirt pocket and remembered he didn't carry cigarettes in his pocket any more. "It doesn't make sense."
Levin shrugged and returned to his examination of the cupboard.
Despite himself, Holly argued: "There were no signs of struggle. Not in any of the rooms. Not even on the..."
Levin nodded. "Not even any bruises on the body. In other words, it couldn't have happened." Levin was finished with the cupboard. He turned to peer through the curtained window at the back porch. "Except that it did happen. Not suicide. Murder. Tell me, Armand, when the police came, did they have to break the burglar-chain?"
"The dead-bolt wasn't locked either from the inside?"
"No. Just the outside lock. The police got the key from the janitor."
"Don't you think that's strange?" Levin crossed the room and headed for the front door. "Come on. We'll go see the only other person Gershon mentioned to me in his letters."
The other person was on his way home from the synagogue. Hurrying. Anxious to get away from there. Too wretched to walk with the studied dignity appropriate to his age.
Shoulders hunched against the autumn chill, Teitlebaum scuttled away from the place that had always been a haven to him. And away from the other old men whose lives had been part of the fabric of his own. He couldn't stand their questions.
They wanted him to reassure them. Teitlebaum understood it. He felt what they felt. He could not help them.
They were confused. Uncertain what to do. Not to participate in rites of mourning for Gershon Levin left them sodden with bereavement.
"There is no family. Without onenim, can we sit shiva? For a suicide, it's forbidden."
"There is a brother...."
"In Israel." They shook their heads and shrugged and whispered back and forth between the pews.
"The rabbi knows the Law...."
"The rabbi said...."
They all knew what the rabbi said: There was no way to find anything but intentional suicide in the case of Gershon Levin's death.
In desperation, they pestered Teitlebaum.
"How could Gershon do it? A pious man, to commit a sacrilege?"
At first, Teitlebaum wouldn't talk to them. "Liv me alone!" And when they persisted: "Vhat do you vant from me? I should tell you Gershon didn't do it? You like that answer better?"
They didn't like it better. It was worse. They shut their mouths and left Teitlebaum alone with it.
Alone was no better than when they nagged him. Alone he paced the floor. Alone he jumped when he heard the doorbell ring.
At home, alone, like Gershon, when...."
"So let them in, already!" He unlocked the door and flung it open.
"Mr. Teitlebaum...?" Uri Levin introduced himself and Holly.
"Gershon's brodder. You couldn't get here for the funeral?"
Standing just inside the door, Holly decided that Jacob Teitlebaum probably wasn't any older than the old man downstairs had been. The difference was that this man was frightened.
Holly watched while Uri Levin urged him gently. "Who were his other friends? You must have known them."
Holly could hardly see him. The entry hall was dim. The old man shrunk away from them, pressing himself against the wall, shaking his head.
"What did you talk about over coffee? My brother was fond of you. He trusted you."
No use. The man shriveled before their eyes.
"Tell me one other person, Mr. Teitlebaum. Someone else who knew him."
"I don't know anythingk about your brodder! Liv me alone!"
Levin didn't leave him alone. He kept at him: "Help us, Mr. Teitlebaum, you're the only one who can." And: "You must know who else he trusted." And: "It's for your own protection. You know he didn't kill himself."
"Ged oudda here!" He screamed the words at them. "You haf no right!"
Holly reached behind him for the doorknob.
Levin blocked him, eyes like magnets on the old man's face. "Tell us who...."
"I kent! I don't know!" He covered his face with his hands. "I'm tellingk you. I don't know. I don't know nuddingk. Liv me alone...."
They left him in his foyer and heard him all the way down the stairs. Outside, Holly turned to Levin: "Who gave you the right to do that to an old man!" His voice was shaking. He dug in his pocket for a cigarette, found an old crumpled packet, fumbled with the match and finally Levin took his elbow, steered him to the car and slid behind the wheel.
Holly slumped on the seat beside him.
"No one can give the right, Armand, to do that to anyone. And I didn't like doing it, if that helps you."
"I'm not the one who needs any help!"
Levin accepted Holly's anger without comment and held out his hand for the car key.
Holly gave it to him and kept his mouth shut. The terror he had just witnessed, the ominous death of the old man downstairs, the nightmare image of someone grabbing, holding him down, holding a cyanide capsule....and the exhausting presence of the tireless man from Israel who was almost unaccountably his house guest....Holly closed his eyes and let the seat hold him. With his duties at the university reduced to transforming his sabbatical notes into lectures, he had been looking forward to a pleasurable lassitude. He opened his eyes and turned his head to see the man seated beside him. Levin was hunched over the wheel, steering with both hands, intent on the traffic. He was going the wrong way, not toward home. He didn't look confused. He looked like he knew where he was going.
Watching the street signs, Holly figured it out. To Skokie? Why to Skokie?
He knew why. A suburb bordering the city. Population: Seventy thousand. More than half Jewish. Approximately seven thousand survivors of the camps. The local Nazi Party had the place in an uproar, marching with flags and armbands. Swastikas. And signs: HITLER TRIED TO SAVE GERMANY. And: PROTECT AMERICA FROM FOREIGN BANKERS. An orderly demonstration. Just marching. Day after day for nineteen days until the residents started throwing rocks. And blocking the streets. And were reinforced by the Militant Jewish Defense League. The police moved in to stop the violence.
"I don't need to go to Skokie."
"You need to."
"I know what's going on there."
"You saw it on TV?"
Holly slammed his mouth shut. He had seen it on TV. Sitting in his living room, sipping his coffee. Like the war in Viet Nam. Between commercials.
The Nazis' nightly marches had turned into a nightly riot. Backed by a high court injunction barring anyone from interfering with the constitutional right of free speech, members of the American Nazi Party showed up every evening. Same place, same time. Same signs and armbands and brown uniforms and high black boots.
Holly didn't want to see it.
He heard it before he saw it.
Levin rolled the window down. The noise came in with the evening breeze. Like static. High-pitched and unintelligible. When they turned the corner, he saw them.
"We'll leave the car here."
Up ahead, police lined the curbs, holding the people back, keeping them off the mall where twenty-five men in brown uniforms and arm bands and high black boots marched silently back and forth along a thirty foot stretch of public grass. A few feet away a scattering of old people thrust their arms, bare in the chilly night, between the shoulders of the police. Fists clenched or fingers splayed. Weeping. Screaming. Showing numbers tattooed on flesh, still livid after fifty years.
The brown-shirted men didn't look at them. Eyes front. Keep in step. A tight smile here and there.
Behind the old ones, younger men and women. Silent, staring, a few reaching out to comfort a weeping relative.
Uri Levin and Holly strolled along the sidewalk toward the crowd, were stopped, searched for weapons and told to state their business.
Holly studied the policeman's face. An officer with neutral written all over him.
Levin kept his mouth shut.
"If you don't live in this neighborhood...!" The policeman had to shout to make himself heard.
Holly shouted back at him: "Do they live in this neighborhood?" He waved his arm toward the men in the brown uniforms marching on the grass.
"They've got a court order!"
"Since when does an American citizen need permission to walk on a public sidewalk!" Holly hadn't intended to say anything. He hadn't intended to shout at anyone. He was being drawn into it. When arguing with a policeman, make it good or get out of there. He narrowed his eyes and scrutinized the man's face. "What's your badge number! Let's see your ID card!" He knew better than to reach into his pocket for a pencil and paper. A threatening act. He should have had them in his hand.
The policeman had seen it before. Liberals. Raise hell if you say Boo! to them. Police brutality. He let them pass.
Strolling, Levin murmured, close to Holly's ear: "A Plus, Armand. You handled it like an Israeli."
"Shut up, Uri."
Levin grinned and took his arm. No more conversation. It was impossible above the noise.
In the late 1940s, and early '50s, Holly had seen anti-Communist mobs. He'd seen a man, dragged over the hood of a car, get his back broken. Not on TV. In the late 1950s and early '60s, he had seen segregationist mobs bashing nuns. And states' rights mobs with tire chains and ax handles beating college kids spending a summer on civil rights. Not on TV. And in the sixties he had seen assorted mobs dumping file cabinets out of windows and throwing professors down the stairs in the name of academic freedom. Also not on TV. On television he'd watched a mob storming the Pentagon for peace, and another mob rampaging down Michigan Boulevard over-turning cars in the name of The People who ran from them in terror and mostly were of the opinion that they should all be lined up and shot.
What Holly was seeing here was not a mob. Not yet. Not while some still thought they were shaming their tormentors with their tattoos and their scars. Not while others were still comforting the elderly and the distraught.
This wouldn't become a mob until the naive ones went home. The ones who stayed didn't have scars and tattoos. They had signs tacked to two-by-fours. And riot helmets. They shouted epithets and led the singing of Hatikvah and what Holly guessed were ghetto resistance songs. He was wondering how the Jewish Defense League had gotten past the police guards stationed at both ends of the block when the first missile of the evening flew. A rock. It missed, bounced harmlessly near a polished boot which didn't miss a beat, and was followed by others. They didn't all miss. The police moved in, shoving people back away from the curb, grabbing arms and picket signs.
Levin dragged Holly into a doorway. "Watch the Nazis."
Holly watched them. Exactly one-half of them -- every second man in the line -- broke ranks and waded in. They had short black clubs. Rubber truncheons. They ignored the police and the helmeted JDL and went for the bare-headed residents. The members of the Jewish Defense League turned their picket signs upside down and used them on the Nazis. The police swung at everyone.
Not exactly a neutral observer, Holly had to admit that the police used their clubs without prejudice. Everybody got it. Any head that bobbed into range. Since there were more Jews than anyone else, more of them got hit.
Some turned and ran when the fighting started. Of the ones who stayed, many later staggered bleeding across the tidy lawns tripping over toys left out after dark. About half of them stayed, wild-eyed, screaming, using their fists or just standing, weeping helplessly.
Holly saw the nightmare on their faces: The police are protecting the Nazis...
Between seven and eight hundred people were crammed into the chamber at a time. The gas was fed in through the shower heads. Terrible shrieks could be heard as those inside suffocated and their lungs burst.
...here! In the United States of America! It can't happen....
When the doors were opened, the contorted and tangled bodies were separated with axes. Rings and gold teeth were removed. They were piled for inspection and taken out to be burned.
...here in the United States of America, the police are protecting the Nazis.
"Armand...." Levin's hand on his arm brought him back from the nightmare eyes and tattooed arms and swinging clubs. "You saw enough?"
They cut across a lawn and circled the block.
In the car, Holly lit a cigarette. Bitter. Stale. Levin reached over, took the pack and helped himself.
"They still don't believe it."
Holly peered at him in the dim light.
"They can't believe that all the screaming and crying and showing their tattoos, wouldn't save them." He turned to look at Holly. "I had to come here to see it. To believe it. They still didn't learn." He jabbed his cigarette into the ash tray.
They drove home in silence. Upstairs Levin went to the kitchen, to the wooden cabinet where Holly kept his liquor. Holly got the glasses.
Pouring, Levin waited to find Holly's eyes. "You're still not convinced?"
"That there is an American Nazi Party in Chicago?"
"That they're here, anybody could see!" Levin blinked and lowered his voice. "That they're different from ordinary hoodlums and that they killed my brother. You're not convinced."
They sat down, the bottle and glasses on the table between them.
"Are you convinced, Armand?"
"No." Levin nodded. "You can't be convinced they killed him unless you're convinced also what they really are." He peered across the table at Holly. "Gershon never talked to you about it? What he understood about the Nazis."
The old man had tried: The Allies made it easy for themselves and called it only genocide. Holly didn't want to hear it. Finally the old man had given up. They listened to Mozart and ate scrambled eggs.
Levin nodded again. "Gershon understood. He saw it in the camps. The difference between what the Nazis tried to do and the kind of crimes that criminals commit." The blue eyes were sharp on Holly's face. "They killed him, Armand, of that I'm positive. But they don't kill just to kill. The death of Gershon Levin or six million deaths...." Squinting in the unshaded light, Levin kept his eyes on Holly's face.
Holly sat perfectly still. The ceiling light glared down on them The kitchen was too bright. They sat at the narrow table near the window like actors on a stage. He wanted to reach across and pull down the window shade.
"You think it couldn't happen, that the Nazis killed him?"
By the time a man is fifty-two years old, he has stopped thinking that anything couldn't happen. But: "Why?"
"The 'why' I didn't figure out yet. A lot of things I didn't figure out yet. But tell me, Armand, you object to finding out?"
"But it's a job for the police. Or the FBI. Not for...." Holly closed his mouth and admitted: Not for a worn out university professor whose feelings are hurt because a Jewish woman can't forget he's not a Jew.
He looked up from his glass and met Levin's eyes watching him. "It's not a job for a couple of amateurs."
Levin's face was steady but Holly caught the flicker of amusement. He felt the jolt and felt the rush of anger. "You're...! You didn't come here from a kibbutz!"
"I didn't? Why not?"
"I don't know why not!" Holly frowned, remembering the expert scrutiny of the old man's apartment. "You're an agent, not his brother."
"So who are you! And what are you doing here!"
Levin didn't look surprised. Watching, Holly decided he'd probably been waiting for him to figure it out.
"Most of what I told you is true. We were in forced labor together. I was sick. He shared his food with me. So they wouldn't kill me. All of that is true. We became brothers. Brothers with different parents in the same grave. Buried with all the others. The rest of it...." He shrugged. "Most of it is true. The important things, I didn't lie about. I didn't have to. What I didn't tell you is the feeling I had from Gershon's letters...."
Holly saw the stubby fingers tremble, saw Levin clasp his hands together, place them on the table, squeezing. Saw the knuckles whiten under ruddy skin.
"...that Gershon was reminding me of what I wanted not to remember any more." Levin met Holly's eyes across the table. "You too, Armand. Like me. You also don't want to remember it. The stink of evil. They filled the camps with it. When you liberated Auschwitz..."
Holly kept his face steady.
"...you thought it was so much death that made you sick. It wasn't six million deaths that made you sick. The human mind can't comprehend six million deaths. Six deaths are more terrible. It made you sick, what you felt at Auschwitz, because what your brain refused to know, your soul understood. You knew it, Armand..."
Holly didn't want to know. He didn't want to remember flesh hanging in folds from brittle bones and empty sagging breasts. They were still alive. Drop a crumb or a cigarette butt on the ground and they'll swarm like cockroaches, the captive camp commander had told him with disgust. Worse than animals....
"...what you understood at Auschwitz..."
Holly wanted to get up from the table and walk away from Uri Levin.
"...and the sickness afterward, wasn't from crimes committed by hoodlums. The viciousness, the brutality of the hoodlums was there. The depravity, the perversion was there. And also something else was there. What made you sick, Armand, was the return to the abyss. You recognized it. What Gershon called the attempted murder of the Creator. That's what made you sick at Auschwitz and afterward. Am I right?"
Holly didn't answer.
Watching, Levin understood. He gave Holly time, leaned back in his chair and gently, as though speaking to a child: "Alright. We won't talk about the past. We'll talk about now. Yes, Armand?"
"Alright. I don't know yet why they murdered Gershon. But I can't turn my back on it. It's an obligation." He was speaking softly now. "Shechinah is what Gershon called it: The presence of God in His Creation. The day that Jews turn away from it, on that day, we're finished. And believe me, Armand, on that day the world is finished too."
- - - -
Muriel Moulton taught at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the Francis W. Parker School and the University of Illinois, Chicago Campus and in Israel at the University of Haifa, as well as worked as a journalist. Her poems and stories have appeared in FICTION, NEW YORK STORIES, LONDON MAGAZINE, THE HARVARD REVIEW, ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, VOICES ISRAEL, THE CHARITON REVIEW, CALYX and other magazines and journals. Published by ww.rabidpress.com
from the May 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine