It Could Have Been Our Town

    February 2011            
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A Little Jewish Town

By Fred Skolnik


In our town the buses begin to run at six a.m. First you see the factory workers leaving for the seven o’clock shift. They are bleary-eyed, often unshaven and not very talkative. They carry their lunches in plastic bags. Later come the office workers, better dressed and always clean-shaven, women too, their faces powdered, some in business suits, and after them the schoolchildren, teenage boys and girls who have to travel to get to school. They are noisy, full of life. If you are fair-minded you will remember that you were young once too, all wrapped up in yourself, bursting with energy and harboring your dreams. They are easy to like if you like yourself. They are the future. The younger children go to school in the neighborhood. By eight o’clock the streets are full of them. They too laugh and shout as though they haven’t a care in the world. Sometimes they are serious too. You know how young children are, how easily hurt, how intent on the things they do. And some are loners, already burdened by themselves. You hope they will grow out of it. You wish them well. You study the faces and see perhaps the faces of your own children there.

Then there is a lull, the streets grow quiet for a time, until the housewives begin to come out. Many are with baby carriages. They shop at the butcher and the grocer and the baker and stop to chat in the street. The young mothers with their babies are generally gay. They gossip and speak of women’s things. These are women whose lives are settled. They are bound to home and family, full of mothers’ concerns. Some are happier than others of course. It is not simple to make one’s way in this world. And yet they derive strength from their motherhood so that whatever their circumstances they are themselves islands of strength in the stormy world, still points gathering in the young, pressing their faces into the warm folds of their sweet-smelling flesh and holding them there with all the love that is in a mother’s heart.

All morning long the buses continue to come by, letting people off, taking people on, as the life of the town unfolds in its leisurely way. Some are off on visits, to shop at the big department stores, to eat out, to keep appointments or even assignations. These are the daily occurrences that go unrecorded in the annals of the town. They are no one’s concern and yet, taken together, the concern of everyone, representing life itself in its perpetual ebb and flow, life in its everydayness. Deliveries are made to the shops, the garbage is collected in noisy trucks, perhaps a pneumatic drill can be heard somewhere in the distance breaking ground at a construction site or a blacksmith’s hammer striking metal, perhaps a woman’s heels can be heard moving briskly on the pavement, arousing in some darkened room a tiny spark of memory and desire. Ours is an ordinary town, made up of all manners of people, no better and no worse than people anywhere. They have their foibles and their virtues, some are generous in spirit, others less so, all of them have known sorrow and joy, hope and despair. You needn’t romanticize them. They have a right to be what they are. I think they are on the whole decent people and as I observe them on this winter day I feel attached to them, I feel a part of them.

By one o’clock the younger children are out of school and the streets fill up again. It is a fixed time of day, when the children come home for lunch, first the younger ones, then the older ones. Some of the mothers have been cooking all morning long. After lunch the children do their lessons and later on go out to play. The streets are given over entirely to the children in the afternoon. There are many of them, thousands really. The younger children are left to their games. The boys play ball in the street and chase each other in circles while the girls skip rope and play at jacks and hopscotch. The older children have their special activities, their clubs and youth movements, bands and choirs, organized sports, hikes, excursions. There is Miss Fried’s drama class. There is Mr. Fruchter’s dance class. And of course there is romance, awkward kisses, exploring hands. As they grow older they are apt to become more serious, concerned, impassioned, these young people. They attend lectures, concerts, plays, demonstrations and convocations, talk earnestly, perhaps even smoke and drink. They are becoming adults now. They have a special aura about them, the aura of unlimited horizons. They are starting their lives.

Towards evening the men begin to return, laborers trudging wearily home with newspapers under their arms, stooped figures coming out of the synagogues, professional men, proud and erect, arriving in their own cars, and also the working women and all the others who have been out in the world. A day has passed, no different from other days. So it has been for centuries, night falling and the darkness descending and families gathered in unto themselves. In this manner a week passes and then another and another. In this way the life of the town goes on. You can see it from within and you can see it from without, for it is the life of many individuals with their hidden, private worlds but it is also the life of these families around warm fires as the rain beats down against the windowpane and the wind howls and the life of the whole town spilling into the streets, bound by a common past and a common destiny. You can see it all at once on special days, the Sabbath, the holidays and other celebrations. There is so much activity as the hour approaches. On the Sabbath the older children come home early to help out in the house. Everything has to be scrubbed and polished, there is so much cooking to do, clothes to be ironed, places to be set. At the last minute too, children are sent running to the stores or to a neighbor for some item that has been overlooked. You know such scenes. When the sun goes down, men take their sons to the synagogue to greet the Sabbath Queen and then come back and recite the benedictions before sitting down to eat. The meal is always festive, the house has a special atmosphere and there is a feeling of deep contentment, greater than at any other time, because the day is blessed, because the day is given to enjoy. Father will discuss the weekly portion and the boys will fidget a bit but must remain alert lest they are asked a question. The girls will perhaps giggle. The Sabbath candles will flicker. The house will fill with song. On the Sabbath day the whole town comes out and after the morning services all the streets are full again. This is the day that replenishes the soul and all the Jews in our town wait for it impatiently. The services are noisy, for everyone must talk amid the fervent prayer. Sometimes the attention wanders, but sometimes the intensity of communion is such that the swaying men seem to be lost in a trance. All dress specially for this special day, the women in all their finery, the men in suits and starched white shirts. Everything is unhurried, people stroll and chat, breathe in the bracing air, think of the meal to come, the long afternoon nap, things both sacred and profane. This is the essence of Jewish life, this Sabbath spirit that renews itself in perpetual affirmation.

I think they would have come from the other end of the street. You would have heard first the steady shuffle of their feet, and then the stamping of their boots. You would not have been sure at first what it was, straining your ears to catch the sound. It would come as though from a great distance, faint at first but growing stronger all the time, so that you could not pretend for long that your ears deceived you or that it would go away. Then you would begin to hear the shouts, the shouts and the cries. They would be all over now, in all the streets, streets that were so quiet just a moment ago, hundreds of them, with guns and dogs, pounding on the doors and shouting angrily, Raus! Raus! Sie verdammten Juden!” The Jews would start coming out into the street, cowed and confused. So many Jews torn away from the family meal, from quiet conversations, from intimate acts. So many children torn away from their games. And then a terrible thing would happen. A German would seize an infant from his mother’s arms and smash his head against the wall and throw the body into the street. The mother would scream and try to run to the child and the German would shoot her. Shots would be heard all around now. Jews who resisted or tried to run away or were too slow would be shot in the street. Residents of the old age home and patients in the hospital would be shot in their beds. The Jews would be shot and beaten in every street now and a low, steady whimpering sound, a primitive sound of animal terror would rise from the procession of half-running, half stumbling Jews. They would run past the last houses of the town and past the Jewish cemetery and into the forest, all of them now, whole families with their children, young men, young women, people you knew, Miss Fried and Mr. Fruchter and the grocer and the butcher and the baker too. They would stumble past the trees and through the underbrush and hear the dogs barking and the shots ringing out and after five or ten or fifteen minutes they would be told to stop and they would be told to take off their clothes in the freezing winter cold. They would be addressed by a German officer who explained how the clothes should be stacked--underclothes in one pile, the women’s dresses neatly folded in another, men’s trousers in another, “und so weiter.” His voice would be businesslike and almost reassuring. The long ditch would have been dug the day before. The firing squads would be made up of Germans and the auxiliaries or local police. And then, after what seemed like an eternity, making the German officer in charge impatient to the point that he could no longer contain himself and began shouting at everyone, the executions would begin. The men would be shot in groups of ten. Some prayed, some held hands. The women were first raped behind a hill. It was the auxiliaries and the local police who raped the women. The Germans did not approve of this sort of thing, standing off to the side smoking and chatting in small groups while a photographer jumped around like a little monkey taking pictures of everyone. The need to indulge these Latvian or Lithuanian or Ukrainian auxiliaries sometimes went against the grain but for the most part the Germans were good-natured about it, even making jokes, and would not think of denying them their little pleasures unless it interfered with business. But the auxiliaries were drinking and starting to become boisterous and the German officers were starting to get impatient again. Nothing was moving. You’d execute ten of them and have to wait a quarter of an hour for the next group. The women and young girls being raped behind the hill would drift back in no order. Dazed and bleeding, they walked in small groups with their arms folded over their breasts, huddled together against the cold or the shame. The German officer in charge of the executions would have liked to see the Jews shot with a certain regularity: ten men, ten women, und so weiter. But the rapes are taking too long and there are not enough women to fill the ranks. Some are being shot behind the hill after they are raped. Some are being held longer than others. The officer in charge of the executions tells his lieutenant to keep the women to the side until he has ten together. But there is still great confusion as the women are sometimes sent in too soon and interfere with the previous execution. The shooting goes on and on. The hour grows late. They have been killing Jews for five hours now and they are not nearly done. They have killed the factory workers and the office workers and the housewives and the teachers and the rabbis and the young and the old. They have had to shoot many who are still alive in the ditch with their pistols. No one is really following orders. Women have been told to hold their infants up when they stand before the firing squad. The executioners have been told to aim for the head, two shooting at each victim. Instead there is chaos. Everyone does whatever he pleases, no one can get the Jews to form a straight line at the edge of the ditch, and there is that pervasive lowing sound, as from cattle in a slaughterhouse, a terrified whimpering and moaning and weeping as it finally dawns on the Jews that they are going to be killed. The women had believed they would be allowed to dress again after they were raped, everyone had pretended not to understand the meaning of the machinegun and rifle fire. Now everyone understands. Everyone can smell the blood and hear the anguished cries of the dying. “Schnell machen! Schnell machen!” the German officer keeps screaming. Everyone seems exhausted, both the victims and the executioners. The winter sun is going down. It is getting colder by the minute. The last women to be raped behind the hill are finally pushed shivering toward the ditch by the drunken auxiliaries, who can hardly stand on their feet. The last rounds of gunfire are heard. The bodies are piled five and six deep in the ditch. The German officer in charge of the executions looks at his watch. It is time to wrap things up and start thinking about writing his report.

When the auxiliaries and local police get back with their carts full of booty a big meal awaits them, juicy sausages and of course plenty more schnapps. They are in a good mood. They talk for hours about shooting the Jews and raping the women. They have to be carried to bed by their wives and children.

It is said that thousands of Jews were killed that day. It may have been in Rezekne or Viesite or Tartu or Jelgava. In Kolno, in Lomzha, in Pernu, in Sambor. In Brzezany. In Buczacz. In Dubno. In Glembokie. It may have been in any of these towns, or it might have been in ours.

Fred Skolnik is the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. His stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Underground Voices, and his novel 'The Other Shore' will be published in 2011 (Aqueous Books).


from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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