Kalonymous runs out of the home of Esther and Emanuel Rothstein when he thinks he has broken a house rule by asking to stay in the library.
* * *
Kalonymous was no stranger to running for his life, and this day was no different. He ran as fast as he could, aware that the months spent at the Rothsteins in Chevron had slowed him down. He chastised himself for getting comfortable, for feeling safe. He knew what happened if he let his guard down. It had already happened once. Why had he believed it wouldn’t happen again?
* * *
The day Fisch came home with his face so white it looked like it had been painted over, the little world they had all built together began to unravel. Kalonymous, chopping wood outside the hut, saw him first, stumbling his way down the path. Kalonymous thought at first that he’d never seen Fisch so pale.
Kalonymous ran towards him and was even more alarmed when Fisch fell against him. Kalonymous threw one of Fisch’s arms over his shoulder and half-dragged him back into the house.
Berl was at first annoyed. “Fisch, I am afraid to say what I think you’ve been up to.”
Kalonymous was shaking his head. “No, he’s not drunk. This is something else.”
Berl looked more closely and suddenly saw what Kalonymous was talking about. “Fisch?” he said, his voice much softer. “What happened?”
But Fisch couldn’t even speak. Berl poured some fresh well-water into a mug and held it up to his brother’s lips. “Drink,” he ordered. Fisch sat still as a stone until Berl grabbed his chin and forced him to open his mouth. “I said drink.”
Fisch complied, finally, but still remained quiet. The three brothers plus Berl stood around the chair, encircling Fisch as though they were protecting him from some unseen enemy.
“Mr. Fisch?” said Dovid’l finally, edging closer than the others dared. “Are you all right?”
As if the day couldn’t get any stranger, the normally jovial Fisch burst into sobs. “I — I saw something!”
Berl understood immediately that whatever his brother had seen should not be discussed in front of the boys. “Kalonymous,” he said, turning to the oldest brother. “Can you take Dovid’l and Hershel and go pick some berries? I want to make more jam.”
Kalonymous rolled his eyes. “It’s almost dark out. I doubt we’ll be able to find anything.”
Berl turned around. “Please, Kalonymous. Something’s happened to my brother. I must speak to him privately.”
If anyone could understand the need to protect a brother, it was Kalonymous. He quietly gathered his brothers and lured them outside with the promise of a good game he’d made up. As they left, Berl sat down next to his brother and put Fisch’s cold hand inside his own.
“What is it, brother?” he asked, uncharacteristically gentle. “Get it out.”
Fisch roused then, as though from a dream. “I can’t believe my eyes. My eyes saw it but my brain won’t let it in.”
“What was it? What did you see?”
“I was out on an odd job, as you know,” said Fisch. “The fellow had me pulling nails from a huge pile of wood. It was dumb work, but you know I never mind. I’m never bored.”
“Go on,” said Berl.
“The pile was stacked up behind a large barn, a bit of a distance into a nearby wood. I was standing there minding my own business when suddenly I heard shouts.”
“Okay,” said Berl. “That’s not so strange.”
“Wait!” Fisch began to wail. “Wait! Let me finish. Something, my gut, told me to hide, so I ducked down behind the wood pile, low enough so I wouldn’t be seen, but high enough that I could watch what was happening. First I see a few soldiers, then behind them a long line of people.”
“Which people?” asked Berl.
“Regular people, just like us. Yidden. There are soldiers walking alongside the line, and dogs, too. I had no idea what was happening. The soldiers threw some shovels at what I guess now were the prisoners and told them to start digging. They stood there and didn’t move, so one of the soldiers picked up a rifle. I hid my face but I heard the shot!” Fisch bent over, holding his head between his hands. “Berl, what happened next…”
“It’s okay,” Berl soothed. “You don’t need to say. I understand.” He stood up and poured Fisch a glass of schnapps. “Drink this,” he urged.
“I thought you said…”
“Well, this is an exception. Drink, then sleep, then we’ll talk.”
After helping Fisch to bed, Berl poured himself a glass of schnapps as well. He had, of course, already heard about the roving bands of Einsatzgruppen rounding up Jews, forcing them to dig their own graves, then shooting them at point-blank range. He hadn’t dared mention what he knew to Fisch, always vigilant to protect his younger brother from bad news, but secretly he’d worried. Because they kept themselves outside of society they assumed themselves to be immune to its ills, but this new murderous rampage seemed to cross all boundaries. Now that Fisch knew it for himself, it seemed much more real..
To be continued . . .