Avrom Berkovitz the farmer was a dairy man with two cows, a field almost big enough for them to graze in, a garden whose fertile earth yielded vegetables for a pot of soup every Friday night and potatoes the rest of the week, and a three-room hovel, luxurious by Chippetchivitcher standards, that provided shelter for himself, his wife Dora, and their three children, Haneleh, Moishe, and the baby Binyomin.
Avrom Berkovitz the baker was a widower who lived in the room above the bakery. His only daughter, Leah, eighteen and not yet married, looked after him and tended the ovens when Avrom went out to deliver bread and cakes to the Polish barons in the surrounding province.
Avrom Berkovitz the rabbinic student had a curious craving for freshly-baked bread that coincided exactly with the baker's delivery schedule and brought him, as if by wizardry, to the bakery whenever Leah was there alone. Avrom, recently returned from Warsaw, had studied under the great Schnitzler Rebbe and was now apprenticed to Chippetchivitcher's own Reb Levi-Yitzchok Gemishtlentzler, of which there was but one in the village.
And then there was Avrom Berkovitz the butcher, God help us! He was a complainer. If it wasn't one thing, it was another. One week the weather was so cold, it was a curse from heaven, the next you'd think the Almighty was trying to roast us in Hell before we even had the good graces to die. He complained about the primitive breeding methods of the local sheep herders, or the so-and-so who never paid his debts. Let's just say he talked, and he didn't heed the admonition against loshn horaeh, the evil tongue. Not Avrom. If anyone disagreed with his crazy political ideas, he was "as stupid as that fool, Mayer Bobchik," the melamed for whom he had nothing but disdain. There were three Mayer Bobchiks at the time.
Avrom Berkovitz the butcher was a burly man with a black pelt that rose from his hairline just above his wooly black eyebrows, crept over the crown of his head, and descended down the back of his neck, disappearing into his shirt where it spawned offspring down his back, like mushrooms growing in a dank cellar. Hairy knuckles and thick fleshy fingers wrapped a firm grip around his butcher's knife, which he wielded with both speed and exactness. He was a good butcher, and if you wanted meat in Chippetchivitcher, you went to Avrom Berkovitz.
Avrom Berkovitz the butcher fancied himself a Socialist, and therefore enlightened beyond his fellow Chipetchivitcher citizens, by virtue of the fact that he had acquired Jewish Labor Bund newspapers from Lazer Baer the iceman, who traveled weekly to the big city and grabbed up as many old newspapers and books as he could bring back home to sell. There were at that time a record seven Lazer Baers in Chippetchivitcher, the youngest of whom was only two years old, and therefore innocent of political opinion. Lazer Baer the ice-man was the one ear Avrom could count on to listen to his political theories and prognostications, for although Lazar Baer was illiterate, he traveled, and he heard things. And he knew how to keep a customer.
Avrom Berkovitz the butcher saw it as his personal obligation to foment dissent in the village about this government tax and that government restriction. "You'll see," he would say to anyone who came into the butcher shop to buy a Shabbes chicken or a tender gedempte brot, "they'll confiscate your property, they'll rob you blind, and then, to give themselves a little fun, they'll rape your daughters!" No one wanted to hear it.
"Leave us alone, Avrom Berkovitz!" But he didn't let up.
"They're coming!" he warned Mayer Bobchik one early spring day when the melamed had come into the butcher shop for chicken rivers and shmaltz, "We have to do something before it's too late!"
"And what do you propose, you're such a khokhom?" Mayer Bobchik retorted. "Write a letter to the Polish governor? 'Dear Mister governor, would you kindly see fit in your great wisdom to please tell Mr. Hitler to stay out of our business and leave Poland to the Poles?'"
There was no help for it. Germany had invaded Poland, taken over the big dries and factories, imposed new laws restricting what Jews could do, where they could go. Avrom Berkovitz the butcher knew, because he had read the Bundist newspapers. But news traveled slowly to the sleepy little village of Chippetchivitcher. Despite the German occupation, day to day life went on much as it had for the past one hundred years. Until one day.
It was only a few days before Passover. Lazer Baer the iceman was making one of his twice-weekly trips to buy ice at the port in Gdansk, where he'd struck up a friendship over the years with the icehouse foreman.
The burly Pole frowned and looked away when he saw Lazar Baer approaching in his wagon. "What is it, Jan Witkowski? Why do you frown?"
"I can't sell you ice no more, Lazar Baer," the man shrugged. Was this a joke? Lazar Baer smiled nervously.
"What are you talking, you can't sell me ice? Twenty years we've been doing business!"
Witkowski's skin went ashen. "They'll kill me if I sell to Jews."
Lazar Baer's blood froze in his veins. He stared, incredulous at his friend. His voice was a whisper. "But the holiday! My village needs ice; I need money to live!"
"Go away my friend, get out of the city." Jan hunched close to the wagon and lowered his voice. "They're rounding up Jews and making a ghetto. Some say they're deporting Jews and anyone who does business with them to labor camps, and who knows what else." He looked nervously over his shoulder. "I can't talk to you no more." Again, Witkowski turned to walk away.
"Then Avrom Berkovitz was right!" Lazar Baer muttered under his breath.
"What?" The foreman cocked his head toward Lazar. "Who's this Berkovitz?"
"Avrom Berkovitz," Lazar Baer said. "He's been trying to get us all to listen, to organize, before it's too late. No one believed him. What are we going to do? I have a family!"
"Avrom Berkovitz, you say?" Witkowski considered. Lazar Baer had given him something. There was money for anyone who turned in dissidents. "Look, drive your wagon around the back, I'll sell you the ice just this once more, but it'll cost you. I have a family, too!" Lazar Baer coaxed his horse into a trot and drove around back of the huge wooden icehouse. The two men loaded the blocks of ice quickly into the wagon, then covered them with a tarp.
"How much?" Lazar Baer asked, retrieving a wallet from his coat pocket.
"Seventy-five zloties." Jan transferred his gaze to the ships docked in the harbor.
Lazar's jaw dropped. "That's twice what I been paying!" "It's a risk. They could kill me. Take it or leave it." The men's eyes met. Lazar Baer the iceman emptied his wallet and handed him the money, then turned and climbed onto the wagon, snapped the reins, and drove out onto the harbor road. He looked back one last time to see his former friend disappearing into the icehouse, but he failed to notice the silhouette of a military hat slipping into the shadows behind him.
Lazar Baer's ice wagon lurched onto the rutted road to Chippetchivitcher. His head ached. His thoughts bumped and bounced with every jolt and jostle of the wheels, clanking together with the sound of shifting ice blocks in the wagon bed behind him. Now he had ice, but next week? All he could think was to get back to Chippetchivitcher. Urging him faster and faster was the voice of Avrom Berkovitz. "It's only a matter of time. We must do something before it's too late!"
The fields dissolved in a blur as wagon and master flew headlong into the forest. Thick trees knotted their gnarly arms. The road twisted and turned with the contorting branches until Lazar Baer, lost in his thoughts, lost track of where he was. The trees grew thicker and the road narrowed until twigs jutted their pointed fingers into him, pricking his skin. Lazar Baer took one turn and another until the thicket of trees became impenetrable. He looked up and saw only the closing web of branches. What now? How would he survive? These were his thoughts as he coaxed his horse to turn the cart around between the jutting branches and retrace the path he had taken until they could find their way out of the forest.
Sure enough, he had missed an overgrown cart track. Perhaps it would lead to the main road. Branches scraped horse and driver as the rickety wheels bumped and tumbled in fits and starts over the rough terrain, but it wasn't too long before Lazar Baer saw an opening through the trees. Relieved, he snapped the reins and urged his mare on more quickly, and even she seemed to understand that they were no longer lost.
Just then he heard the faint sputter and growl of a motor coughing its way toward him. Relief filled Lazar Baer's heart as he drew closer to the road. An unfamiliar machine lurched past him, so close its wheels dusted him with a spray of dirt. The military truck ground its gears, blindly determined to get where it was going. Lazar Baer watched the Nazi emblem on the back of the truck disappear in a cloud of exhaust. When the truck was well out of sight, he returned to his wagon, clucked his tongue at his horse, and entered the road, wary beyond fear that something not good, not good at all, lay ahead.
Avrom Berkovitz the butcher, God help us, turned his shop inside out, polishing the steel blades of his Passover knives until you could see your reflection, sanding his butcher block until no trace of blood or fat remained, sweeping until you could eat off the floor it was so clean, scrubbing every hook and handle until they shone, so that everything should be perfect when the Rebbe came with his candle and his feather to inspect the shop for any trace of chometz. Following Lazar Baer the shochet, Avrom set out to procure an additional supply of lamb and duck, and to make sure there were enough lamb shanks for every Passover table in the village.
Mayer Bobchik the sheepherder was waiting when the butcher drove his wagon up to the farm at the edge of the valley. "Nu, Bobchik? Vos macht a yid?" the butcher's voice bellowed over the fence and across the paddock.
"I can't complain," the old man sighed, removing his cap and wiping his forehead with his kerchief. "And I don't expect I want to hear you complain, either, if you know what I mean." He tilted his head toward the butcher, then winked. The sheepherder was more tolerant of Avrom Berkovitz's diatribes than his nephew, the melamed, but like everyone else, he was busy getting ready for Passover and didn't have the patience to listen to the butcher spewing more of his political rant.
"Well, you better listen, because trouble is coming!" Avrom said, climbing down.
'Ya, ya, always trouble, but meanwhile, I have ten lambs waiting for you. Let's get busy." He led the butcher to the ice barn where he kept the freshly-slaughtered meat well-salted.
"There's a group in Warsaw organizing," the butcher continued as the two loaded the trussed meat onto his wagon. "We could get weapons from them."
"Guns? What would a Jew do with guns? Shoot his foot off, maybe?"
"Or shoot a Nazi before he shoots you!"
"You're crazy, Berkovitz. Do you see any Nazis here?"
"All the same, I'll feel a lot safer with a gun under my pillow at night."
"Suit yourself!. Meantime, chag someyach! Have a good Peysach." He'd humor Berkovitz. After all, what was the harm? It was only talk.
Avrom Berkovitch the baker hoisted a sack of chometz into his wagon. He was a wiry little man with keen eyes that never missed a detail and pointy eyebrows that pricked his high forehead and a receding hairline. Strands of graying hair curled around his ears and escaped randomly from his cap. If he hurried, which Avrom Berkovitz the baker always did, it would take him thirty minutes to drive across the valley to the convent where the holy sisters maintained a beehive of industry in prayer and penance. Every year before Passover, the sisters would "buy" Avrom's remaining wheat and grain, and gratefully accept stray loaves of bread, buns, cakes, and biscuits that had remained on the bakery shelves at the end of the last business day before Passover.
"One groshen!" Sister Basha plucked the coin out from the tiny purse she concealed inside the voluminous folds of her habit and dropped it into the baker's outstretched hand. Her wrinkled face broke into a smile that spoke beyond words as Avrom Berkovitz transferred the satchel of barley into her plump arms.
"A pleasure to do business with you, Sister."
"God's business is always a pleasure," she replied. "Won't you stay for a cup of tea before you make the trip back to the village?" Avrom hesitated. Sister Basha never failed to extend the invitation to tea each week when he made his regular delivery of bread and baked goods to the convent. Each week he reserved a portion of loaves for distribution among the poor, leaving half with the Rebbe at the beys medrish, and bringing the other half to Sister Basha, because since when did Jews have a monopoly on hunger? He knew Sister Basha would see to it that needy mouths were fed.
It had been over eighteen years since his beloved Tsipi had died giving birth to Leah, and Avrom had to admit he found a certain comfort in Sister Basha's lively conversation and understanding eyes. He followed her short round figure into the kitchen and sat at the worn oak table in the center of the room while she bustled about. "I really shouldn't, you know," he sighed, sinking into the cradling arms of the wooden chair. "I left Leah alone in the shop with all of the scrubbing for Peysach."
"Let her scrub!" Sister Basha said. "She's young. It won't hurt her, and the tea will fortify you for the matzeh-baking." The sister's eyes sparkled as she gave the baker a coy shrug. Avrom couldn't help but observe to himself how fetching she must have been as a young woman. But he quickly banished such thoughts as impure. She was a gentile, and a nun at that! All the same, her friendship had eased his loneliness all these years, and he knew she felt the same. What harm, after all? It was only tea.
Avrom Berkovitz the rabbinic student's stomach growled right on schedule. He looked up from his Talmudic tractate, his head spinning with details pertaining to the laws of Passover. Most days, he could ignore hunger and return to his studies, but not today. Not since Reb Levi-Yitzchok Gemishtlentzler had informed him that they had received an invitation from the baker for the first Seder. Since then, it was all he could do to keep his mind on the Talmud. But even the Talmud teaches us that we must sustain our physical needs as well as those of the soul. He stretched his lanky legs and took in a deep breath, unfolding the full six feet of his youthful frame from the study table. "If the body speaks, I must listen," he said, his gaunt features brightening.
Exactly what Avrom Berkovitz the rabbinic student heard his body say was this: "Take me to the bakery!" And so, obedient student of his body that he was, Avrom Berkovitz obeyed.
The bakery lay a mere ten-minute walk from the house of study, but Avrom flew there in half the time, his long black coat flapping in the brisk spring air, his feet fitting across the dirt road leading into the village center, his heart racing, his stomach growling.
One tap of his knuckle on the bakery window produced a tornado of twirling fabric and long hair inside as Leah rushed to welcome him. A smile bigger than his entire face plowed smooth the furrowed brow and filled his hollow cheeks with the fullness and blush of ripe peaches. Leah stood in the doorway, a mirror of smiles, unfastening her work apron from around her narrow waist.
"Papa isn't here," she said, a hint of anticipation on her breath. Avrom was about to respond that he hadn't come to see the baker when a growl erupted from his stomach. Leah had to laugh. Mortified, Avrom was speechless.
"You must be hungry, Avrom," she said, stifling a giggle. "But I don't have any bakery goods for you today." Avrom had failed to take into account that, unlike during Purim when a tasty homentasch had awaited him, and unlike erev Shabbes, when there were always kichel or mandlin to sample, today, in the midst of the transition to Peysadih, there would be no baking at the bakery. His stomach let out a small roar in protest.
"Well, I didn't expect, that is, I had hoped, rather what I mean to say is ..." He clutched his forehead and rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I came to thank you and to tell you that the rebbe Levi-Yitzchok Gemishtentzler and I accept your father's gracious invitation to join you at your Seder table." He let out a sigh of relief. "I won't keep you from your preparations." He hesitated, then inched a step away from the door, watching her face, her eyes, her magnificent brown eyes, her long black hair trailing across her shoulders from under a scarf cinched at the back of her delicate neck, her rosebud lips curled just enough at the corners to give her the look of perpetual amusement. For what did he watch? A sign.
Leah smiled. "You don't have to go." Jubilation flooded his veins. Whatever not having to go meant, it was enough just to stand there a moment more and look at her. "Come inside. There's soup on the stove upstairs, if you'd like some." She turned with the quickness of a sprite, her skirt swishing behind her, and headed toward the stairs at the back of the bakery. Avrom remained in the doorway, not sure what to do. It would be improper to enter the privacy of her home without a chaperone. Leah looked back at him. "It's all right. Papa won't mind." Another growl escaped from Avrom's stomach, this time in unmistakable assent. "Better listen to your stomach!" Avrom chuckled in spite of himself and followed her up the stairs. What was the harm? After all, it was only soup.
Avrom Berkovitz the dairyman groaned under the weight of the last milk can. That made ten he had to deliver to his regular customers that day, more than usual with the holiday coming. He loaded up his wagon with extra canisters of cream and bricks of butter wrapped in paper, packed them in ice, and pulled his heavy torso onto the buckboard seat.
"Avrom!" His wife Dora stood in the doorway of the house, her beautiful auburn hair all but concealed inside a kerchief. "You won't forget?"
"I won't forget already!" he sang back to her. She smiled. Dora knew when Avrom needed a gentle nudge to do something, which he had a way of conveniently forgetting until it was too late. Avrom was no beggar, and certainly not one to ask anyone for a favor, least of all the Baron von Mitzki, but this was important. When it came to children, you swallowed your pride and you asked.
As he drove out the matchstick fence that surrounded their tumble-down farm, horse and master both slumped tired shoulders and sighed. The horse's head hung low and swayed side to side under the strain as he trudged along the familiar route. Avrom Berkovitz's sky-blue eyes peered up from under his cap. "What heaven has in store for me today, who knows!" It was a hard life, but then, whose life is easy? Things could be worse. He had his health. Although barely forty, he had the stooped posture and tired gate of a man twice his age. Flecks of gray peppered his bushy beard, and small furrows had begun to sculpt a permanent landscape of worry on his face.
He had seen the bicycle propped against the stone wall outside von Mitzki's estate for the past several weeks. A junk heap of increasing proportions had accumulated around it, with household items and toys belonging to the Baron's now-grown children. Sure enough, leaning against the wall was the same bicycle, rusting but usable and not too big for eight-year-old Moishe, who was old enough to ride a bike on his own little journeys. Of course, the dairyman would never help himself to such discards without first asking, but still, the Baron was an imposing man, and even though he was a good customer and paid his bills on time, he was not overly fond of Jews.
Normally, Avrom Berkovitz the dairyman would leave the milk on the steps by the kitchen door and go on his way, but he had promised Dora. And what's more, little Moishe deserved a bicycle of his own. He hoisted the two milk cans onto his back and proceeded to the front door.
"I already paid you. What do you want?" Baron von Mitzki, standing a full head taller than Berkovitz, lanced the dairyman between the eyes with a chiseled scowl.
"Yes, of course, but," Avrom hesitated. He shrank into himself and cringed at the meekness his body automatically assumed next to the Polish aristocrat. "I couldn't help but notice a collection of items outside your wall ..."
"So there is." His tone signaled the promise of dismissal.
"And among those items a bicycle ..." his chin prompting the obvious.
"A bicycle, yes." The Baron sighed deeply and folded his arms across his chest.
"A rusted, old bicycle, which, it appears, is perhaps no longer of use to you?"
"Yes. It is no longer of use." The Baron was not simpleminded. It would have been too easy for him to offer up the whole lot of junk and be done with it, but no. He derived pleasure in seeing the poor Jew squirm. Let them squirm and niggle and whine to get their way, with their antiquated style of dressing and their arrogance.
"And I thought, perhaps," Avrom stammered, "as the bicycle is no longer of use to you, I could relieve your wall of it." There. It was out. He exhaled audibly.
"Relieve my wall?" The Baron burst out laughing. "Just don't relieve yourself on my wall! Ha ha! You amuse me, Berkovitz. Relieve my wall! Ha ha ha! No. But I'll sell it to you for ten zlotties."
"I don't have ten zlotties," the farmer replied.
One ebony eyebrow arched quizzically. "Then you are out of luck." A dark smile curled his lips. "Oh, and leave the milk cans at the kitchen door." The great carved door to the Baron's palace put an abrupt end to the conversation. Avrom sighed. He hoisted the milk cans onto his back. His boots felt like lead as he trudged around the Baron's garden toward the kitchen door at the back of the house, but then a thought intervened. How could he allow himself to be so obsequious? He set the milk cans down, quickly retraced his steps back to the wagon, and retrieved a vat of cream. As good as ten zlotties. This he left at the Baron's back door together with the milk, then drove his wagon out the Baron's gate. When he came to the junk heap, he pulled on the reins. He hesitated. Avrom Berkovitz considered himself an honest man. He never cheated his customers. He'd never stolen a thing in his life, but this wasn't stealing. After all, the bike wasn't worth ten zlotties, and he normally charged five for the cream. It was as good as money. Better.
The road from Gdansk rounded a grassy field and climbed a promontory where the Convent of the Holy Sisters overlooked the valley and the village of Chippetchivitcher beyond. Sister Basha was in the garden when she heard the loud sputter of a motorcar in the distance. Looking down the road she saw a German military truck making its way toward the convent. She prayed the truck would continue on past the convent, but it turned off the road and through the gate, coming to a stop in front of the nun. Two German soldiers stepped out of the truck. "Heil Hitler!" they shouted, giving a salute. Sister Basha's eyes froze open in fear. The older of the two wore an impressive military hat and a jacket with gold braid on the shoulder and rows of medals and ribbons on the breast pocket. The handle of a pistol protruded from a black leather holster hung at one hip, with a billyclub at the other.
She spoke in Polish. "Yes? What is it you want?"
"Which way to Chippetchivitcher?" they managed to say in broken Polish.
"It's not far, just follow the road across the valley," she replied, hurrying them on their way. Whatever business they had, better it should be there and not here.
They began to leave, but the more senior officer stopped and turned back to her. "Do you happen to know where we would find Avrom Berkovitz?"
Sister Basha's breath caught in her throat. "Avrom Berkovitz?"
"Yes. Do you know him?"
"Which one?" she said, praying that God would plant an idea in her head.
The two Germans looked askance at each other, eye-brows raised in suspicion. "How many of them are there?" the younger soldier asked.
"I don't know," she said. "At least four, but what would you want with a poor baker?" She clapped her hand over her mouth, but too late.
"Baker you say?" the senior officer pounced on her mistake.
"No! I don't know. Baker, Tailor, Candlestick Maker. Who knows? There are so many."
"So many, but you know one of them is a baker?" Sister Basha backed away, ice in her eyes. The younger of the two leaned down and pushed his clean-shaven face directly in front of hers. He was hardly more than a boy. "You know we can arrest you for withholding information." The smell of stale cigarettes formed a gaseous cloud between them.
Sister Basha retreated from the odor and picked up her trowel. "Good day, gentlemen."
The truck made its way down into the valley and stopped at the first farm it came to, which happened to be the farm of Mayer Bobchik the sheepherder. Bobchik was driving sheep into the corral when the truck pulled up next to the fence. The driver rolled down his window and stuck his head out. "Do you know Avrom Berkovitz?"
"Which one?" the farmer asked.
"Any one! All of them!" demanded the officer, getting out of the truck.
"And what if I did? What do you want with him?"
"That's our business. Now where can we find the scoundrel?"
"Oh, that one! No, I don't know Avrom Berkovitz the scoundrel."
"Don't get cute with us!" The senior officer pulled a club from a holster around his waist and struck the farmer across the shoulder. Mayer Bobchik crumpled in pain. "Now do you know him?"
"All right, it's the butcher. He has a shop in town. Just please don't hurt me!"
Baron von Mitzki's estate lay midway between the convent and the town. The officers presented themselves at the Baron's imposing door. "Heil Hitler!" The Baron didn't return their salutation but instead planted his polished boots across the span of the threshold, clenched his fists at his hips, and looked down his pointed nose at them. No German soldier would gain entry to his palace. "We're looking for Avrom Berkovitz."
Von Mitzki's face softened. "The dairyman?"
The soldiers looked perplexed. "Dairyman? Baker? Butcher? Which one is the rabble-rouser?"
"I can tell you about the dairyman. If he's a rabble-rouser, it wouldn't surprise me. He's a thief anyway. Isn't that enough?"
"Just tell us where he is!"
"His farm is just past the village. It's the one with the matchstick fence and the hole in the roof."
The first thing Lazar Baer saw when his wagon entered the village was the German military truck, fuming and hissing in front of the butcher shop like an irritable rhinoceros. Two soldiers burst from the shop, one with his hand firmly gripped around the hairy neck of Avrom Berkovitz. The butcher's eyes bulged black and wild as if to leap from their sockets, his thick eyebrows arched like meat hooks across his forehead. As the officer shoved him into the back seat of the truck, Lazar Baer saw that his hands were bound behind him. Lazar Baer felt his heart quiver and his hands tremble, barely able to keep hold of the reins. "Halt!" The younger officer stormed the wagon with pistol drawn. A rehearsed malevolence darkened his fair complexion. "Where are the others?"
"Which others?" Lazer Baer's voice whispered from his throat.
"What is it with you Jews? Always playing the wise guy! You think we're stupid? Berkovitz! Where are the other Berkovitzes?"
"Truly I don't know. I'm just making my deliveries. Search my wagon."
"We'll see." The junior officer made deliberate strides to the back of the rickety wagon, sprang onto the wagon bed and ripped back the tarp. "Ice!" He kicked a block out of his way and watched it smash and splatter onto the road. "Let's not waste any more time talking with this numbskull." Just for good measure, the officer dug his boot into another block of ice and kicked it off the wagon, then catapulted himself over the side and got into the truck with his superior. "Let's follow him," the senior officer ordered. "See where he goes. Then we'll see to the baker." Lazar Baer headed straight for the shul.
Leah's hands sank thick into the dough, squeezed and kneeded and rolled and pounded until it was flat as flat, and Avrom scooped, scraped, sloughed it up off the wood table onto his flat oven spatula. Quick as quick into the oven--no more than eighteen minutes. "More, more, Leah, hurry!" And Leah's fingers mixed the meal and water, plunged the fingers deep into its cool thickness, mixed and squeezed until another mound of dough congealed between her hands. Avrom Berkovitz the baker opened the oven door to retrieve the fresh-baked matzeh and stacked it next to the oven. "Quick, Leah, more!"
"I'm working as fast as I can, Papa! The matzeh has it's own time." And just as Avrom scraped another flat page of dough onto his spatula, the sound and roar of a motor raced up the rutted road to town, squeeled shut in front of the baker's shop, slammed doors. Strong boots stomp-stomped up the boarded steps in front, burst through the bakery door. "Avrom Berkovitz?"
The baker gasped at the sight of the military cap, the epaulettes, the lethal crisscross on his collar. His body yanked in the direction of the voice that carved his name out of the hot oven air in front of him. "Yes? What do you want?"
"Come with us now."
"But not now! The matzehs. Eighteen minutes or they're spoiled. Eighteen minutes!"
The soldier pointed a pistol at his nose. 'You'll come!" His voice was a saw on the air, and the soldier grabbed Avrom Berkovitz the baker by the arm.
"Papa, No!" Leah screamed and clung to his apron, but the soldier ripped her hand away and shoved Avrom out the door.
"The matzehs, Leah! Get the matzehs! Eighteen minutes!" were the last words he uttered before the door slammed shut on his world, cut him off from the daughter, the bakery, the matzeh, the ovens. Leah watched the soldier push her father into the back of the truck next to two other men. Her breath clenched in her chest. Seated next to Avrom Berkovitz the butchet, God help us, was the unmistakable profile of Avrom Berkovitz the rabbinic student. "No!" her voice tore through the walls, but the motorcar revved and sputtered and roared out of town in search of a ram-shackle farmhouse with a hole in the roof.
Moishe watched the truck drive out the rutted road with his father and Avrom Berkovitz the Baker, Avrom Berkovitz the rabbinic student, and Avrom Berkovitz the butcher. God help us. He jumped on his new bicycle, wobbled and swerved past the matchstick fence and rounded the gate. His mother Dora, in tears, called after him, "Moishe, come back!" But there was no stopping the boy. He pedaled with all his might until he caught sight of the truck slowing down at the edge of the forest. There he hid in the trees.
The Nazi officers lined up all four Avrom Berkovitzes and marched them into the forest. "Which one of you is Avrom Berkovitz, the enemy of the State?" The four remained silent. "One of you is stirring up trouble. Confess now and let the others go free, or you'll all get what's coming to you!" Again, no one spoke. Finally, Avrom Berkovitz the butcher stepped forward.
"I am the one," he said, "I am the enemy of the state. I read the newspapers."
Avrom Berkovitz the baker interrupted him. "No," the older man said, "I am the enemy of the state. I had a cup of tea."
Avrom Berkovitz the rabbinic student said, "Take me. I ate soup."
But Avrom Berkovitz the dairyman fell to his knees and wept. "I am the only criminal here. I took a bicycle!"
Moishe lay crouched in the underbrush, his face to the ground, and listened. Nothing. Then BANG! It cracked the sky in two. Birds tore out of the trees screeching. Then silence. The forest held its breath. Moishe looked up and up, into the trees, so high. He imagined himself flying silently into their branches reaching his arms with their limbs. How would the world look from that high up? BANG! Moishe's body hung on its echo. He looked up at the sky. A million tiny twigs clattered in the breeze. They formed an unfathomable web at the top of the forest. Can trees pray to God? Is that what they're doing with their twisted arms and fingers? BANG! This time a longer pause. Save one, he said to the trees. Just one. BANG! His little body lurched off the ground and his heart plunged from as high as the tallest branch where it had taken refuge. And it was as if he and all the trees crashed to the ground. Out of the silence, the sound of ignition cranking the engine, a cough, a sputter, a roar and grinding of tires. The truck emerged from the woods, found the road and rasped away. Moishe felt the million twigs knitting his trembling body back together. He crept out from his hiding place, clambered onto his bike and pedaled back to the village, barely able to feel his numb feet on the pedals or keep his shaking hands on the handlebars. Moishe the witness. The only witness.
Shabbes--the Jewish Sabbath
Khokhom--learned scholar; a wise man
Chometz--foods forbidden during Passover
"Nu Bobchik ? Vos macht a yid?"--colloquial greeting, literally, So? How's a Jew doing?
Chag someyach--(Heb.) greeting: a joyous holiday
Beys medrish--Jewish house of study
Kichel--light cinnamon cookie
Peysachdik--kosher for Passover
Seder--the festive Passover meal during which the story of the Exodus from Egypt is told.
Kaddish--the mourner's prayer
LYNN SHAPIRO teaches fiction writing at Columbia College, Chicago. She is also a playwright and director. Together with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, she has created seven musical theater productions adapted from Yiddish folklore, two of which were produced by CBS TV (Emmy nominated). Ms. Shapiro also writes regularly for Dance Magazine.