December 21 at the Bielecki home, Peekskill, New York...
“Aw, do we hafta?” Ben whined as his mother ushered him and his sibs into the living room. The old man sat in the corner in a worn armchair; a relic of a day gone by and out of place with all the new furniture that filled the rest of the room. Ben was in the middle of the latest version of World of Warcraft and he hit ‘save,' knowing it was an argument he would never win. His gaze lingered on his avatar before he signed off.
“Yes, you HAFTA,” Naomi Bielecki said in a whiny imitation of her older son. At nearly eighteen, Ben might be ready to take on college life next year, but he still was a member of the family. And while Ben was reluctant, both Rachel and David, the Bielecki twins, were eager. Even at fifteen they remained odd amongst their own peers. While Rachel’s girlfriends seemed completely enamored with music and makeup, Rachel was wrapped up in math and science. She would be the twenty-first century Marie Curie, she had told her parents. It was almost a sure bet that she’d be accepted in an accelerated program at Cal Tech or MIT.
David was always reading; everything he could get his hands on, but mostly history. If Rachel was the next Marie Curie, David would likely be the next Wil Durant or, better still, Elie Weisel. If his father had his way, David would follow in his and Ben’s footsteps. Stanford…on a football scholarship, but David?
“Yeah, Sure!” David. Stanford…maybe, but a walk on for Men’s Chess or Trivial Pursuit.
“Gather around, okay?” Jacob Bielecki wasn’t what most folks would recall as their idea of a Jewish grandfather. For one, he was raised with a Polish name; the family name was Blumenfeld, but living in post-war Poland, nearly every Jewish family he knew had adopted a Polish family name; easier to fit in, his father would tell him. But the family never lost its heritage; Jacob’s father and mother made sure of that. So even in the twenty-first century, oral tradition meant something more than just a story at holiday time.
“Holiday? Choliday?” Jacob would joke with Aaron. “It’s sacred and special, and not just because I said so or even if you heard it in Schul! It’s important to you because it happened and it was a blessing.
Judy sat down next to the twins and smiled at Jacob; at seven, she was the baby of the family, and she was still happy to hear stories and tales even in the day and age of Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. He nodded his head and smiled.
“You know the tale of Judah? They call him Maccabeus…sort of Latin, but we know him as Ham Makabi… Sledgehammer…. That’s what he was in a way. Very brave leader of the revolt against the Selucids… Antiochus…they named the city of Antioch in Syria. Well, you know the story? The temple was desecrated, and the only oil that they had to light the menorah was only enough for a day, but when they burned it, it lasted eight days. A testimony to His faithfulness! So they proclaimed that it should be celebrated as a festival of lights, right?” The children nodded while Ben strained to look past his father Aaron to the football game playing on the TV in the den; the game might prove to be a welcome distraction.
“Pay attention. At least be respectful!” Naomi Bielecki said to her son as she closed door to the den. Ben faced his father and tilted his head and half-grinned. Aaron had heard the story a million times and he would rather watch the game as well. He shrugged his shoulders in answer to his son’s expression. The young man turned back to face his grandfather and frowned, wishing he was somewhere else. Jacob smiled at the boy and nodded his head.
“Now when your great grandfather was a younger man, he and his family lived in what is now Poland, but it was called Prussia by the Germans and of course it was part of what they took back and forth for centuries. We usually got stuck in the middle, like we were watching a football game.” Aaron’s ears pricked up at the word ‘football,’ but then he realized that his father was referring to a soccer match.
“In Europe today, you might get in the way of a celebration, and maybe bumped into. Back then, we were more than just spectators sitting between the two sides. Many of us were…. Some of them hated us so much that we.” The old man choked up at the word ‘us.’ He wasn’t even born when the horror took place, but it spilled over in the lives of his family members as so many of his older cousins and his uncles and aunts perished. He fought back against the annual assault of tears and grief, struggling to remember the end of the fight rather than the beginning.
“Your great-grandfather Dov fought against the Nazis with the Russian Army for a time, but he was killed in Stalingrad. His daughter…my mother… also fought against them, but in the days when we still could and did fight in Warsaw.” He sighed.
“Like Judah the Hammer she was; or even a tiger. Only one of a few women who escaped the ghetto one day in April in 1943…Passover of all times for the Germans to kill? Like Yom Kippur in ’73, yes? She was disguised so she wouldn’t be hurt… even so she was shot…. But she survived!” Judy gasped and Jacob leaned close to her and touched her cheek.
“You look like her. So pretty!” He sighed once again.
“She wandered away and was lost. For eight days with a wound. When she was found, the wound had not healed, but she was still alive… The family that found her saved her. But she wasn’t able to have children. She… “ Jacob bit his lip.
“She and Elter-Zeyteh Aaron adopted you?” David remarked; ever the attentive one to detail, he continued
“She met him …they knew each other from before the Ghetto. He was a rich and she was poor and their parents would never approve and she found him and fell in love all over again and got married, right?”
“That’s very good, David.”
“And they fought against the Germans until the war ended and then they adopted you and Aunt Judith and moved to Poughkeepsie and they raised you and you got married to Bubbe Miriam and then Daddy and Aunt Deborah came along? Daddy was named for Elter-Zaydeh Aaron since he had died, right?” Judy smiled.
“Seven years old and such a memory!” Yes, that’s right.”
“His faithfulness! Right? What does it say about His steadfast love?" Naomi called from the kitchen doorway.
“His mercies never come to an end…Great is His faithfulness!”
The words were familiar, but they came from an unfamiliar source. Ben looked at his grandfather and smiled. The old man looked back and winked at him; an exchange that only the two of them could appreciate. Because of something the boy had learned and treasured.
* * * * *
Some months before at Jacob's home...
"That's almost all of it, Zaydeh Jacob," Ben said as he walked into the house. His grandfather looked around at the empty living room and sighed. He and Miriam had raised two children and helped with four grandchildren as well. His friends had begged him to move to Florida to a retirement community, but he was still active; both with his painting and with his grandchildren, so he bought a town home in town; close enough to visit but far enough away to remember to call, he would remind himself.
"I'm giving that secretary to your mother; would you take the papers and put them in that file box over there?" He pointed in the corner to the tall desk and hutch.
"I gotta go take a leak, Benny. You and your dad can handle that, right?" He pointed once again to the corner and nodded once before walking down the hall. Ben began removing the papers and placing them into the box. As he emptied the last drawer a piece of paper fell out. It was old and wrinkled and yellow, but it was folded; hiding whatever had been written. Ben noticed the ink had stained thru the paper and he could make out a few hand-written letters at the top. He opened it up; it was a letter...a letter from his great-grandmother Esther to his grandfather. He went to close it and add it to the papers in the box, but something urged him to read; almost as if the letter was mean for him.
He walked slowly to the hallway and stood. He could hear his grandfather singing, so he opened the letter once again and began to read.
My Dear Jacob…
I am sorry that you read this, since it is given to you upon the event of my passing. You and your sister Judith are my heart after my dear Aaron, may his name be written in the book of Life. I am more sorry since I never told you everything about me and your father. Please forgive me? But now I must say what needs to be said. It is up to you to forgive or not, dear son.
When I was little…about ten, I met a boy. His name was Aaron Blumenfeld. Yes. Your father Aaron. He was a very good boy who was kind to everybody. When I was teased by other children, he stuck up for me and protected me. You know like the stories you and Judith love to read about knights and damsels and dragons? He was a knight, and maybe just a little, the other children were like dragons. He and his family moved away, and I thought I’d never see him again.
Well...years later we ended up in Warsaw...and then what should have been a home became a ghetto. It was around Passover of all times. After the Germans broke through the wall and started the killing, my mother was afraid for me. I was only fifteen and she feared for my life. Somehow Uncle Herschel was able to sneak me out…it was almost a whirlwind running through attics and then on rooftops and somehow out of the city. But as I ran away I was shot. The Walesa family…they found me and nursed me to health.
Months later, men came to the farm. They were Russian …only a few… most of their men had been killed, but a handful survived. They just wanted some food and did not hurt us. And I saw him. Your father was with them. I prayed by all that was holy that he would not remember me, but he saw me and he did. Please forgive me, my sweet boy? I love you and I would do nothing to hurt you if I could, but this may hurt you more than anything.
“It is good to see you alive!” He said to me as if we had never parted. As if there was nothing between us. But there was. At least I thought so. Mama Walesa had done what she could to help me, but the damage was too much to fix. The person he knew when we were children had ceased to exist.
“Don’t be scared, little one. I am the same Aaron Blumenfeld who knew you then, no matter who or what you may be now. I haven’t stopped thinking about you since we parted those many years ago.” He told me as he held my hand. I wasn’t the same child he knew, but it didn’t matter.
“Don’t be scared,” he said to me. Those big kind eyes that gave me strength when I was small and weak and helpless still made me feel strong and alive. Dear Jacob… Please forgive me! I cannot help how you feel, and I know you have every right to hate me. Your father loved me when I was little. He was fourteen; Aaron Blumenfeld, son of a business man. And I was ten; Asher Bucholz, son of a farmer. It was forbidden from every direction, and never to be. But G_d in his mercy made other arrangements.
Momma Walesa did what she could, and what she did was just the right thing. Asher Bucholz had become Esther Walesa and Esther Walesa, thank G_d, became Esther Blumenfeld. I know you have every right to be angry and hate me, but please find it in your heart to forgive me. I love you and your sister more than my own life. I pray you still love me.
Ben stared at the paper and noticed that the writing had been blurred a bit in spots on the letter. He realized even as tears came to his own eyes that the blurs must have been caused by Jacob's tears. But what had the letter wrought? Were they angry tears? Sad tears? The question was answered when he heard a footfall from behind and a soft laugh.
"She was something, Momma was." He said it almost flatly and Ben didn't get any sense of what his grandfather felt until the old man placed his hand softly on the boy's shoulder.
"It didn't matter," he said as he choked back a sob. Shaking his head, he took the letter from the boy and stared at it as well.
"If I had been given a million dollars it still would never be worth as much as one kiss from her. I wish she had known that it was okay. It's so hard to go through life pretending, you know, Benjamin?" The old man placed his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Your own Momma told me something that you need help with, Benny. Maybe your old Zaydeh can help you, yes?" The boy looked into his grandfather's eyes and saw something that he longed for; something that the old man offered freely...faith.
"And so, on December Twenty-first in Nineteen Forty Three...the first day of Chanukah, your Bubbe Esther and Zaydeh Aaron married. A miracle of Chanukah, and still a miracle today, danken Gott!" Rachel and David looked at each other and stood from the floor and quickly hugged Jacob. Judy clapped her hands and began to cry, but they were lovely, happy tears. Naomi put her hand to her mouth and began to shake, and even Aaron...his grandfather's namesake, was weeping. Ben stood in the corner and sighed. Naomi walked over to her father-in-law and gave him a quick hug before speaking.
"Poppa? It's their anniversary! That was the most beautiful story I have ever heard." She struggled to compose herself but she continued to cry. The old man hugged her and whispered in her ear.
"It's time, kinderlekh." He laughed, even as his own tears stained his gray corduroy shirt. Naomi's eyes widened anxiously but the old man's smile diffused her fear.
"David? Rachael? Judy?" He called clearly. The three quickly walked up to him; almost reporting for duty.
"Would you three go to my car? Here are the keys." He made a point of handing them to Judy in confidence even if it was a small task.
"There are some packages in the trunk for you and your Momma and Poppa, okay? And there's some Ginger Ale and some seltzer on the front seat. Bring everything in and give me and your Momma and Poppa and Benny some time, okay?" The three nodded and were out the door.
Naomi walked over to her husband and grabbed his arm affectionately. He smiled and she kissed his cheek.
"Aaron? Would you come with me? I have something to tell you, alright?" She rubbed his arm and he tilted his head; puzzled. She looked into his eyes and he noticed they were still tearful.
"We need to talk, okay?" She pointed to Jacob; he and Ben were standing by the armchair in the corner. He nodded but the look on his face indicated both that he had no clue and that he was almost afraid of what that clue might be. They walked into the kitchen, leaving the Jacob and Benjamin alone.
"It's time, okay?" Jacob touched his grandchild's arm and smiled. The boy nodded nervously and began to cry.
"It's going to be okay. I promise." Jacob said and took Ben by the hand, patting it softly.
"So? What say we go in the kitchen and have some nice brisket and maybe your parents can meet you for the first time, okay?" The boy nodded again and the old man winked and laughed.
"Okay, so do you prefer Deborah or will Debbie be okay?"
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” Lamentations 3:21 - 24
Thanks to all who have helped with reminders and information regarding the culture of the Eastern European Jewish families.
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