By Annette Keen* © 2010
“Because my people is shattered, I am shattered.” Jeremiah 9:1
In Auschwitz the passionate young atheist Chaim Landsman once again began to pray. Not the humble prayer of his sheltered childhood, nor the mocking prayer of his liberated adolescence, but the bewildered prayer of the shattered.
He prayed for forgetfulness. And for the most part, God heard his prayer.
When his Russian liberators found him, Chaim was pushing an ash-stiffened broom across the anteroom to the crematorium. They took away his broom and set him free.
In a refugee camp some months later he heard his name ring out, shattering his stillness. “Chaim Landman!” He glanced up fearfully. Charging his way was a vaguely familiar woman. He lowered his head and returned to his food.
“Chaim! She howled again, now looming over him. “Don’t you know me? It’s Malke, your neighbor from home.” Crushed in her mighty grip, Chaim closed his eyes and floated above the din.
“Tell me, Chaim,” she sobbed. “Have we survived?” Chaim leaned further into his food.
All had been taken from Malke, but miraculously, Chaim had been spared. Spared for her, by default. He, who had scandalized his family by abandoning the yeshiva to devote himself to secular studies. Who with fiery speeches and glib editorials roused other young Jews to do the same. In Malka he had roused only love; his message did not interest her. But dull and plain, Malka went unnoticed.
Amid spasms of tears and laughter, she rocked Chaim in her meaty arms. Chaim pulled away and continued to eat. “Eat, Eat Chaim’l, “she crooned, “Food is life.” And in a rasping voice that seared Malka’s heart, Chaim chuckled and intoned into his gruel, “food is life.”
Malka married Chaim and set out to restore him to youthful health and vigor.
Chaim followed where he was led, stooped and shuffling, relentlessly humming a single flat tone that exasperated Malke. He had periods of intense weeping when Malke would cradle him in her arms, like an infant. When the weeping stopped, he sat motionless. If she touched him, he jumped, having forgotten she was there. Having forgotten why he wept. Remembering only the weeping.
Malke took her husband to the great Berlin doctor, Herr Professor Hartherzig. Chaim clung to her arm and followed, humming his mournful hum. He ignored the people brushing past as he ignored the warming sunlight filtering through the ancient trees, as he ignored the burnished paneled walls that darkened the doctor’s waiting room.
He chuckled beneath his monotone hum. He knew the truth of things. Death had draped itself in light and dreamed itself alive. Death’s angels masqueraded as seers and prophets, colluding to create a world that did not know itself to be dead. Chaim knew. For Chaim lived in the true world, which offered not lies but oblivion.
From the examining room Herr Professor emerged pale, leading the vacant-eyed patient back to his wife. Gazing somewhere beyond Malka and Chaim, the doctor said, “Perhaps a neurological malady is developing, perhaps not...” His voice trailed off. Patting his trembling lips with a crisp white handkerchief, the doctor hurried them towards the door. “At any rate, Frau Landsman, it is maybe time for all you people to leave Germany, no?” The door slammed shut. Malka took the advice and emigrated.
She and Chaim turned up in New York City in January 1950. They settled into a tiny attic apartment in a building filled with Jewish refugees. Here Malka found steady work cleaning the halls and landings for Schwartz, a harried little landlord, child of an earlier emigration. Chaim rarely left the apartment, and this suited Schwartz just fine.
Obnoxious all of them, thought Schwartz, and the cleaning woman’s husband the worst of the lot that had taken over his building. They pursued him relentlessly. Their demands were boundless. Just because he knew a few words of Yiddish they expected the world from him. He owed them! A letter needed translating, a trunk was lost, a child was sick, a tooth was enflamed. This one needed a job, that one a loan. Meanwhile the building was in disarray. Stopped up toilets, leaking pipes. And now he smelled gas wafting overhead.
Shattering the early morning peacefulness, he bellowed into the empty stairwell, “I only got two hands, God damn you all!” He bounded up the steps, following the noxious gas smell.
He reached the top floor and pushed past Malka, who was scrubbing the landing.
“Stay, stay Mrs.,” he yelling over his shoulder. “Keep working. I have to check your oven.” Never rising from her knees, she yelled back, “Mein man sits by the window.”
Inside the apartment Chaim sat at the tall narrow window gazing down, oblivious to everything. He didn’t notice the landlord. His long skinny frame seemed frozen in place except for an almost rhythmic tremble in his hands. How it unnerved the landlord to look up from the street and encounter Chaim’s ghostly visage framed in the window.
The stench of gas was intense. “Oy, Oy, Oy,” the landlord shouted, wrenching Chaim’s chair away from the closed window. He crashed it open, then raced around the apartment, snapping up window shades and throwing open windows. As the landlord knelt before the oven relighting the pilot, he heard a reedy voice whisper, “You are here again?” The startled Schwartz twisted towards Chaim. “What? You said something?”
“Again it’s you,” Chaim said, his voice rising. “For you, I’m waiting.”
The landlord jumped to his feet enraged. “It’s Schwartz,” he shouted. “What’s your problem?” He stormed toward Chaim but stunned, he stopped in his tracks. Chaim had roused and was pulling himself up from his chair. Balancing himself on trembling legs, he inched towards the landlord, his head bobbing, face contorted and eyes blazing.
Astonished but still defiant, Schwartz yelled at him. “Don’t get yourself excited.” Chaim stamped forward, a fearsome sight. Even bent and twitching, Chaim stood nearly a foot taller than the landlord. Intimidated, Schwartz backed away.
“You want I should go, I’m going,” he said plaintively, struggling to call up the Yiddish words. “I came only to fix the oven.”
Absurdly, even as he tried to sidle towards the door, the landlord found himself marveling at his recovered Yiddish. How odd, he thought, that he should have retained the detested Jewish jargon. The shame of his youth! That his mother would all her life cling to Yiddish, and to his mortification, insist on speaking Yiddish in public.
These damn refugees brought all the shame back to him, and the Yiddish with it. But he saw that Chaim was way beyond words in any language.
He tried again to calm Chaim, now towering over him and blocking the doorway. In a small voice he began to repeat, “I came only to fix the…..”
“So, again you come to fix,” Chaim said, reverting to the dull monotone of his hellish hum. “You fixed enough!” he intoned. “I told you then. I tell you again. “Back to the pit, bastard!” He lunged at the landlord and grabbed him by the throat.
And then Chaim remembered.
For months in the camp, rumors had circulated about someone who was passing himself off as a messiah. Another Auschwitz madman. Many swore they recognized him. Some claimed he was a Talmudist from Vilna. Others believed he was a Chasid from Mezhirich. Some swore he was an apostate from Czestakova. Others even thought they recognized a defrocked priest from Lublin. No matter. He won many followers, right up to the door of the gas chamber. Eventually, as did they all, he bumped into Chaim.
“I am the Light,” Chaim heard whispered behind him. Turning around, Chaim shuddered to find the man raising his hands to administer a priestly blessing over Chaim’s head.
“You are a lunatic,” Chaim spat out, turning away in disgust.
What mad heresy was he pandering to them? Their fate was sealed. Only their souls were still in play. What swindle was afoot? What did he promise? The final redemption? More likely, the final theft. So Chaim wondered distantly, if he wondered about anything anymore.
Some weeks later the lunatic turned up again, this time at the death chamber, with a broom in hand. Chaim now had an assistant. It was quiet work. Unguarded work. After the furnace had done its work.
From opposite ends of the antechamber the two men began to sweep ash towards a large barrel at the center. At the mouth of the barrel, the man whispered to Chaim. “I preach the truth.”
Revolted, Chaim grabbed him by his shoulders and crushed his face into his neat pile of human ash. “Here is your congregation, you vile deluded shadow.”
The man wept into the ashes. “Why did you forsake me? Why did you abandon me? I am the promise and the hope.” He rose and turned on Chaim, pointing a bony finger. “I’ve come to save you, but you no longer know me.”
“You Imposter! You Liar!” Chaim shrieked, as he grabbed the man by his neck. “You do not know yourself, you crazy deceitful dreamer! I’ve known you all my life. You are the Sin! You are the Sinner. You are the Sinned Against! Save me? You cannot even save yourself.”
“I come to repair a broken world,” the man wept. I come to fix…”
Tightening his grip around the man’s throat, Chaim closed his eyes and answered, “You fixed enough.”
“You fixed enough,” Chaim shouted at the landlord, as his fingers tightened around Schwartz’s throat. It seemed to Chaim that he had been wrestling for a very long time. The strength flowed out of his hands and he was already shrinking back into oblivion when Malke stormed into the apartment and pulled her husband off the stupefied landlord.
After the commotion Schwartz was heard telling the other tenants as they came to hear what had happened to the attic couple, “Yeah, yeah, they took him away. To a nut house in Queens. She threw their few rags together and went with him.” This was the first story he told all his new tenants.
“I don’t rent their apartment out any more,” Schwartz told my father, when we arrived, fresh off the boat from Germany. His latest refugee tenants. “Your family I’ll move into this apartment,” he said, motioning with a jerk of his head to a door opposite. Yet his eyes transfixed to the Landsmans’ permanently sealed apartment as he mumbled, “I can’t even look up to that window without seeing him still sitting there. Looking down on me. Looking down on the whole world. The devil take him!”
Our first day in America began with blessings and ended with lamentations. It was the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, T’ish B’Av. Infamous date of catastrophes across the ages beginning with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The weather was hot and the air in our tiny top floor apartment was stifling as Father chanted from Jeremiah. “Because my people is shattered, I am shattered.”
* Annette Keen is a freelance writer in upstate New York.
from the July 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine