E
Apr/May 2003 fiction

Purimspiel

by Barbara Cohen-Kligerman


 

As soon as he heard he was being discharged from the hospital, Zalman went to David's bedside to tell him the news. He was being sent to a displaced person's camp, some sort of collection center for the human detritus found in the concentration camp after its liberation.

The boy absorbed the news impassively, no emotion stirring in the cold ashes of what had once been his heart. But some remnant of civility told him he must do something to thank Zalman. The man had helped him out of bed when he was too weak to stand by himself and had walked with him every day—at first a few halting steps, and later all the way to the far end of the ward.

David took stock and found he had only one thing that was of any worth to Zalman: his memories of Jozef. The youngest of Zalman's three brothers—and the last of them to die—Jozef had been interned in Block C with David. Mention of his name never failed to spark a light in Zalman's sallow, sunken face.

As a gesture of gratitude, then, David decided to write down something he remembered about Jozef. The boy managed to get a few sheets of paper from one of the nurses and immediately set to work.

 

The religious men in the camp kept track of the days, David wrote.

They always knew when it was a holiday or Rosh Hodesh. One day they told us that in three days it was going to be Purim, and they were going to take turns telling the megillah. They didn't have a scroll to read from, but they had already read the megillah so many times they knew it without the book. Anyone who wanted to listen could come to the back end of the block where they always stood when they prayed.

It was very dangerous to have any religious object or to be caught saying a prayer. You would be shot immediately, or even more likely, humiliated and tortured, then shot. A lot of the other prisoners didn't like the Hasidim because they were worried that if they ever got caught, all of us would be punished or even killed. These people said it wasn't worth the risk to have everyone sitting around listening to the story of Esther; the first time we made a din at the mention of Haman's name, the guards would come running and that would be the end of us.

Anyhow, they went on, there was no point in listening to the megillah. Before the war they had prayed and observed the Sabbath and followed the dietary laws. But what good had it done them? Their wives and children were murdered, their homes were destroyed, and they had been starved and beaten. So why should we risk our lives to sanctify God's name when God had turned His back on us? They were angry about this Purim celebration, and they wanted to stop it, so they threatened to tell the kapo.

But some of the others argued that this was Purim; it wasn't such a serious holiday—it was supposed to be fun. They said it would be good for us to have something to take our minds away from the terrible things around us and our hopeless situation. Even if you were a complete atheist you could enjoy sitting with your fellow creatures and hearing a story about Jews triumphing over their oppressors. If you could forget for a few minutes where you were and what your fate was going to be, why not hear the story? Whoever wanted to listen should be allowed to.

For the next two days they argued back and forth every spare minute when we weren't working or sleeping, getting angrier and angrier. The argument was really about whether we should listen to the megillah or not, because you couldn't stop the Hasidim. They would rather die than skip saying a prayer, so they didn't care if someone informed on them. They were going to pray no matter what, and they were going to observe their traditions however they could, despite what happened around them.

Everyone got dragged into the argument, even men who didn't care about anything else and men who hardly ever talked started taking sides. The ones who wanted to hear the megillah threatened to retaliate against the ones who said they were going to inform if we went ahead with the Purim observance. In two days our fellow prisoners, whom we ate with and slept in the same beds with, had become our enemies as much as the Germans were.

Jozef was one of the few who hadn't yet come out on one side or the other, but he wasn't making a lot of jokes about it, either, and that was unusual for him. He was always the one who made us laugh. We didn't hear from Jozef until the night before the night of Purim. By then people were feeling even more tense than usual, and the ones who were against the festival were afraid that some of the ones who wanted to go ahead with it were going to murder them while they slept.

That evening Jozef started playing on the edge of his bunk. He stood behind it and stuck his arms up like two puppets. One arm had a long rag around it, and on top were some wood shavings and a piece of silver paper from a chocolate bar, like hair and a crown. He must have gotten those things from the trash can in the office where he worked. The other arm had two black eyes and an upper lip drawn on the side of his first finger. The lower lip was drawn on his thumb, so he could move his thumb and finger like the puppet was talking. The other hand had a face drawn on the thumb and first finger, too.

"Oy, Mordechai, Mordechaiiii," the hand with the hair and crown wailed. He could do a very good imitation of a woman's voice, so everyone got interested, and right away people were already laughing. "Veh iz mir, Mordechai," he continued, "such tsouris we have."

"What is it, Estherleh?" the other hand answered. "Tell me, my darling, is it Haman? Is he plotting against the Jews?"

"Haman?" the Esther hand shrieked. "Who said anything about Haman? Haman's taking the day off. He's at the tavern drinking schnapps and rolling his eyes at some little tsatskehle. The Jews are going to kill each other."

"Esther, how can that be? What are you saying?"

"I'm telling you, Mordechai, if the Almighty wanted to save the Jews, He would have appointed Haman to destroy them, knowing that eventually he would bungle it, and the Jews would escape. Instead, He wants to chastise the Jews. They've strayed so far that they can't even recognize His face anymore when they look at each other. That's why the Holy One has given them a great simcha—a joyous holiday—so they can argue about celebrating it until they're so angry that they come to blows. God knows our enemies can do no worse to us than we do to ourselves."

The block was silent when Jozef finished. People went to bed without speaking.

The next morning we woke up like normal, and for the first time since we had heard about Purim no one mentioned it. In the evening, when the Hasidim began telling the story of Queen Esther, one by one, then in twos and threes, the prisoners crept near to hear it. The religious men recited the megillah in a whisper while the other prisoners took turns keeping a lookout in case the guards should be coming. Even Haman's name was whispered, and instead of noisemakers, his name was blotted out with our normal sounds—some cleared their throats or coughed and some blew their noses or shuffled their feet.

And that was how Jozef helped celebrate Purim.

 

When Zalman came to say goodby, David handed him the sheets of paper. "I wrote down something I remembered about Jozef," the boy said, "so you could save it."

Zalman carefully folded the sheets into his shirt pocket. He reminded David that he, too, would be well enough to leave soon, and his promise to look for the boy in the DP camp was like the breath that reignites a dying ember.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece