Tree of Life
By Davida Kay Slobody
Deborah Kagen Slavin attentively listened as her husband announced his big news, “A European assignment”, he said, “…wonderful opportunity for us to travel, for Andy to experience bilingual education, magnificent museums…” Deborah smiled and nodded along with him until he revealed the city: Berlin.
At first she thought he was joking. “live in Germany?’, she said. “Have you lost your mind? Live where people ignored freight cars filled with family cargo passing through their city? Live amongst people who shunned spires spewing smoke from human remains?” He was not joking.
She was surrounded by Die Mauer, The Wall, living deep within East Germany. Berlin was an exercise in tolerance for Deborah, a daily challenge of her preconceived notions about the city’s horrible history. “I’ll cope with the past, take the best the city has to offer,” she told her husband, “but I will never forget that Germans abandoned friends and neighbors who were doomed because, like us, they were Jews.”
Hanukkah, the Slavin’s first holiday in Berlin, was fast approaching. They were not usually sentimental about such things, but this holiday in this city Deborah intended to follow every Jewish tradition, beginning with buying a menorah.
It was a mean, windy December day. Deborah shivered while waiting for bus number twenty-nine to take her to KaDaWe, Berlin’s premier department store. A nearby doorway offered relief from the arctic air. She put her back to the wind and casually inspected the store’s showcase window. It was a jumble of items, jewelry, odd dishes, discarded lamps, books, and in the far right corner behind a dust covered bust of Queen Nefretiti, a Hanukkah menorah. The bus pulled up and departed as Deborah entered the store.
It was a relief to be inside. She shed her gloves, but quickly replaced them; instead of warm and cozy, it was as cold as it was on the street. She looked around the dreary, dimly lit small store. The air was heavy with the smell of old paper and leather. The only bright spot was a ray of afternoon sun light filtering through the showcase window. Dust darted in like an arrow pointing at a target before settling on the Hanukkah menorah. “That’s bizarre”, she thought, “it’s beckoning me closer.”
After several minutes the shopkeeper appeared. He greeted her with “Guten Tag. How may I help you?” His voice was icy, flat, and low. His appearance was abrupt; close cropped grey hair, military posture, bland blue eyes surrounded by thin wire framed glasses.
Undaunted by his cool manner, Deborah held up her ever present German-English dictionary for him to see, indicating her slim knowledge of German, and returned his greeting with fragile but cheerful German. “Good day to you too. I am interested in something you have in the front window”, she said as she walked toward the window. She got as close to the menorah as clutter allowed. Pointing to it she asked, “Wie vielle kostet das? - how much does it cost?” She ached to touch it.
She took off her gloves and reached for the menorah. As she was about to grasp it the shopkeeper startled her with a harsh command.
“Do not touch that. It is not for sale!”
No need to shout, mein Herr,” she said.
“Please excuse me, meine Dame”, he said in a less threatening voice.
“I meant to say I can not sell it because it does not belong to me”.
“I --- I understand, she said. “It’s here on consignment?”
“Yes. That is correct.”
“I need a menorah, mein Herr. Will you please ask the owner how much he wants for it”.
“I must telephone him, but I am positive he will not agree to sell it.”
“We don’t know that yet, do we”, Deborah said with a half smile.
“To satisfy you, meine Frau, he stiffly said, I will call him from my living quarters in the back of the shop”.
“Thank you, mein Herr. I will wait here.”
Once he was out of sight, Deborah defiantly grabbed the menorah. Her finger tips tingled from being gloveless in the frosty room. By the same token, she expected the brass menorah to be cold. She clutched it with both hands because it was large and heavy .
“It’s warm! It feels like it was standing near an open fire.”
She put it down, stared at it while she unbuttoned her coat. The frosty room was mysteriously warm. She heard children giggling. Excited and nervous, she looked out the window at the sidewalk in front of the store - not a child in sight. Again she lifted the menorah, more giggling, soft singing and warmth. Heart racing she thought “It’s the menorah. There’s something special about.” When she heard footsteps approaching she carefully placed it back where it was when the shopkeeper left to telephone the owner.
“Just as I said: it is not for sale.”
“What a pity. Isn’t there any way you could persuade the owner to sell?”
Muttering to herself, but loud enough for him to hear she said, “I really want that menorah.”
The shopkeeper looked at Deborah for what seemed a long time.
“Is something wrong, mein Herr?”
“Nein, nein, meine Dame. On the contrary, at last, everything is as it should be. You called it a menorah, not a candleabra when you first came into the shop and again now.”
“You are Jewish”, he emphatically said.
“Is that a problem for you?”, she snapped.
“No. You misunderstand”, he said with an unexpected mellow touch in his voice.
“It pleases me that you are Jewish. We can perhaps come to an agreement about the menorah.”
His eyes, at first as cold as frostbite, softened, then thawed. A quieter, kinder man stood before Deborah.
“Then the menorah is yours?”, she asked..
“No. I do not own it. One could say….. I am it’s guardian.”
He thought for a moment, then continued “Perhaps it is better to say I have been waiting for someone to claim it, someone Jewish who will carry on for me.”
“This menorah is special, isn’t it?”
He cleared his throat, apologized for making her uncomfortable.
“This is difficult for me. I want you to know how I became it’s guardian. Can we make a new start? Please, will you join me for a cup of tea?”
Before she answered he continued, “Frau… I do not know your name, nor do you know mine. I am Helmut Hell.”
He extended his hand and motioned to sit at a small table cluttered with china cups resting on odd saucers.
Curious, but uneasy, she walked toward the table and extended her hand to his waiting hand. “I am Deborah Slavin, Herr Hell. Yes I will join you for tea.”
She sat at the table gazing at the crooked menorah while she waited for him to return with the tea. .
“If only you could talk, what tale would you tell?”, she quietly asked the menorah.
In a short time he reappeared carrying a tray filled with clean cups, tea pot and cookies.
“I saw you holding the menorah, witnessed it’s effect on you,” he said as he placed the tea and cookies on the table. He sat with her, poured the steaming tea and continued, “You think you found the menorah. The truth is it found you. You heard the singing, felt the warmth. It chose you.” As the two warmed their hands on the cups he began his story.
“This menorah is special. It belonged to Lotte Fischer, a dear, dear family friend and neighbor. Our families celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and Hanukkah together. Then the bad times came. Late one night I overheard Papa talking to Herr Fischer, ‘Max, leave Germany while you still can. My friend , it is not safe here anymore. Take your family, leave.’ Herr Fischer would not hear of it. I was only nine years old but I remember his words. ‘Fritz, I am first a German. Germans do not harm other Germans’. He was so wrong.”
“It was during Hanukkah when the police came banging and kicking at the Fischer’s door. Only hours before Frau Fischer guided our hands as Lotte and I lit three candles on the menorah. ‘We call the menorah a Tree of Light,’ she said. ‘It symbolizes our struggle during a time of oppression. It was a time, not unlike today, when Jews fought for religious freedom You children, who shine as brightly as Hanukkah lights, are our hope for the future. By understanding the differences between us you light the way to a time when understanding replaces prejudice, when people live peacefully side-by-side. This is a holiday of hope.”
Later that night a commotion in the hallway jolted us awake. I cried out for mother. ‘Be quiet little one, there is nothing we can do. They have come for the Fischer’s’, she whispered in my ear.
We could only listen to their torment. ‘Out, out,’ they shouted. ‘You Jews must leave, now! Take only one suitcase each. Hurry, faster, out, out, out!’ Lottie sobbed; so did I.
The next morning silence greeted us as we passed by their wide opened apartment door. I peeked in; only bits and pieces of the Fischer’s remained: broken glass, smashed furniture, photos strewn about.
‘Pray for our friends,’ Papa said. ‘Only God can help them now.’
‘But Papa, Should I pray to the Christian God or the Jewish God?’
‘Pray to both of them, my son. Pray for all of us that we may endure the impending darkness’.
Because I was a child I did not understand his prediction. Time revealed the truth. Time terrorized us all.
Papa started down the stairs, turned back to me and said, ‘Do not go in there. The police will be back.’ Mama went into our apartment to prepare breakfast. Alone in the hall, impetuous and curious, I dashed into the apartment. Every room held a memory of Lotte. Lying on the dining room floor was the Fischer’s menorah. I quickly snatched it, ran out of the apartment and scurried down the stairs to the basement, all the time thinking ‘what to do with it?’
I went to our storage area, a cubicle with a dirt floor where we kept our skis in summer, bicycles in winter. A dusty old trunk occupied the darkest corner. Frantically I pulled it aside, grabbed a nearby camp shovel and dug a hole large enough and deep enough to hold the menorah. I placed it in the hole, covered it with dirt, pulled the trunk back into place and promised Lotte I would never forget her or her family. Then I went back upstairs, out the front door, across the street to the bakery, bought our morning rolls as usual, returned to our apartment, gave mother our breakfast rolls and sobbed for my little Lotte. No one ever knew of the menorah except me.
After the war we came back to Berlin. To our great surprise our building still stood, damaged but livable. Down in the basement, permanently hidden under the dirt, the menorah survived.
Twenty years ago I opened this second hand shop. That is when I put the menorah on display. Frau Fischer called it a ‘tree of light’, I call it ‘Lotte’s Tree of Life’. It glows with her warmth and laughter. It was never for sale.
Frau Slavin you are the first customer who feels the warmth, hears the children. Lottie’s past lies with me. Will you take responsibility for her future? Will you be the next guardian for their menorah, tell Lottie’s story so she lives through the menorah ?”
Unable to speak, she nodded her head. Deborah stood to leave. They walked together to the door. She stepped out onto the darkened street, turned to Herr Hell and said, “Auf Wiedersehen”. Their eyes met as he touched the menorah one last time.
from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine