A story dealing with a ten year old Brooklyn boy's first direct contact with the Holocaust

            January 2014    
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The Countess

By Michael Boloker

Rabbi Heller had come to my grandparents' apartment on Thursday after I had been dismissed from school. It was a rainy afternoon preventing me from going outside to play. Ours was a small two bedroom flat over a butcher shop on Avenue M and because of the war and its shortages, my mother and I shared one of the bedrooms. My father was away in the Army fighting the war against Hitler. Just the name made everyone in my family cringe. At the movies we booed when the newsreel showed the little man with the funny moustache and the twist of hair over his forehead. "Heil, Hitler," we imitated when playing. I only knew the rabbi from Saturday services. He was a grim man, gray bearded and slouched, and chanted the prayers in a crackling, pleading voice. I understood none of it but my grandfather sat with me and fed me sucking candies as a bribe to be still for the two hour ritual.

I heard them talking in the kitchen while I, a shy ten year old athletic boy, listened to the radio in the living room. I heard some arguing, some discussion and then my grandmother. "She will stay until you can find a place. We are crowded as it is and my daughter needs her rest. She works hard, my Bernice."

"She should live and be well," the rabbi responded. "The countess is from Rostock, like you. You will be blessed, Libby."

"We don't need blessing, Rabbi, we need meat and sugar. Blessings don't feed the family." There was a pause as I strained to hear. "She and Herr Von Krebs ignored what was happening. There are no countesses in America. And now.well, you know what happened. We were smart to leave when we did."

"Nu? Here. Take these." I heard some papers being handled. "We must help her. You especially from your town."

My grandfather had said nothing.

"This will help. I will do my best. We will see if she speaks with us." My grandmother had a loud, strong voice. She cooked and cleaned and took care of us during those hard days of the 1943 winter.

There was a period of silence before the rabbi spoke again. "So, Jacob, you are working?"

"There is little gasoline, Rabbi. We have to be careful. The government gives us some for transporting soldiers to Fort Hamilton, but it is hard. The drivers are older and the cars are in bad shape. It is tough to make a living."

"Well, the news from over there is not good, but things will turn soon, God willing. She will be here on Monday. The woman has suffered. She lost everything."

"And the others? They lost too, no?"

"He above will judge that. Ah, I must be on my way. I will telephone you with the final plans." Chairs scraped the linoleum floor and footsteps traced the three adults moving into the living room. The rabbi noticed me. "You are being a good boy, Meyer? You are studying?"

I felt myself blush, anxious to answer correctly. I nodded, eyes downturned. After all, he was the rabbi.

"Good, Meyer. Good." He turned to my grandparents. "Shalom," he uttered and headed down the stairs until we heard the front door open and close.

At dinner that night we sat at the round dining room table and I listened to the news about this countess. The Von Krebs had been the most wealthy for over a century. Rostock was a university town but when the Nazis had taken power the laws weakened their hold on their commercial holdings and like the other Jews they were destined for deportation. I listened to how most were herded into a ghetto before being shipped off to the East. I kept hearing "Auschwitz" but really didn't understand. In school my friends whispered about death camps and people being forced to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothes. It was far away to me, but some of my friends had family still in Europe and there were deep concerns about them. Luckily, my grandparents had the foresight to leave Rostock ten years earlier. My grandfather's brother Willy had been the first to come to America and he had sent money over to pay for transportation across the sea, first to Copenhagen and thence by ship to New York.

My mother asked a lot of questions. I listened. "And what do you owe this woman?"

"The rabbi has asked for this favor. He paid us with ration books. It will help." My grandfather was direct.

"And for how long?"

"Maybe a week. Maybe more. Who knows?"

"And where do we sleep, Papa? It is bad enough the four of us here. Now another?"

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from the January 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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