Iowa Writes

JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN
The Miracle of Volodsk (Part 3)


        After Miriam closed the door, Shimeon reached for a book to look up some ideas on what to say this Yom Kippur in the second year of war between Russia and Germany.  After all, in his understanding of Jewish history there were many Yom Kippurs disturbed by outside wars, and yet Jews always gathered on this most holy of days to ask G-d for His Forgiveness and Deliverance.  Tonight, the Rebbe thought, should be no different.
        After finishing their dinner early that afternoon before the Fast began at sundown, Rebbe Shimeon retired to the sanctuary to prepare for the evening service.  The sun was slowly sinking and marking the hours before most Jews would assemble for prayers on the Eve of Yom Kippur.  Shadows raced against the eastern wall and cut across the benches on the lower floor.  The golden orange rays slipped away as the shamus entered from a side door to light the candles and unlock the Gates of Prayer, as the massive front doors were affectionately called.
        Just as the sun sank to its slumbers in the west wrapped by a cloak of dusk, Jews began to file in the shul.  There were men in black and white tallit, women with dark blue kosinkalas, or head coverings, and children of both sexes scrubbed and dressed in their best.  Cantor Issachar Shteynman began to chant as Rebbe Shimeon stood before the Ark.  His young rebbes in training including his three sons sat at the rebbe's 'tisch,' or table, dressed in their religious finery.  A hush descended from the upper floor to the lower floor as everyone paid rapt attention to the arrival of Yom Kippur Eve.
        Unbeknownst to any mortal in the Synagogue of Volodsk, a visitor made his way to the top of the Ark, and carefully folded his dark wings as he settled down to watch the services.
        The Angel of Death, Sammael.

        After Miriam closed the door, Shimeon reached for a book to look up some ideas on what to say this Yom Kippur in the second year of war between Russia and Germany.  After all, in his understanding of Jewish history there were many Yom Kippurs disturbed by outside wars, and yet Jews always gathered on this most holy of days to ask G-d for His Forgiveness and Deliverance.  Tonight, the Rebbe thought, should be no different.
        After finishing their dinner early that afternoon before the Fast began at sundown, Rebbe Shimeon retired to the sanctuary to prepare for the evening service.  The sun was slowly sinking and marking the hours before most Jews would assemble for prayers on the Eve of Yom Kippur.  Shadows raced against the eastern wall and cut across the benches on the lower floor.  The golden orange rays slipped away as the shamus entered from a side door to light the candles and unlock the Gates of Prayer, as the massive front doors were affectionately called.
        Just as the sun sank to its slumbers in the west wrapped by a cloak of dusk, Jews began to file in the shul.  There were men in black and white tallit, women with dark blue kosinkalas, or head coverings, and children of both sexes scrubbed and dressed in their best.  Cantor Issachar Shteynman began to chant as Rebbe Shimeon stood before the Ark.  His young rebbes in training including his three sons sat at the rebbe's 'tisch,' or table, dressed in their religious finery.  A hush descended from the upper floor to the lower floor as everyone paid rapt attention to the arrival of Yom Kippur Eve.
        Unbeknownst to any mortal in the Synagogue of Volodsk, a visitor made his way to the top of the Ark, and carefully folded his dark wings as he settled down to watch the services.
        The Angel of Death, Sammael.
        While Cantor Shteynman finished his song, Rebbe Shimeon looked over the great synagogue filled with the Jews he knew and loved before speaking.  Rebbetsin Miriam sitting on the second floor in the first row felt her heart squeeze with dread at what her husband might announce sometime during the prayer services.
        As the Rebbe of Volodsk began his portion, distant sounds like thunder could be heard coming through the ancient wooden walls.  In minutes they grew louder and louder despite the fact that the evening skies were clear and the first stars shone brightly, coldly in the firmament.  A detachment of SS from Einsatzgruppen D arrived on motorcycles and Lorries upon the throaty roar of Hitler himself.
        Men closest to the windows peered out to see dark figures moving from their machines and surrounding the shul.  Rebbe Shimeon raised his hands in a gesture for everyone to be silent, calm and careful.  Miriam turned around and put a finger on her lips in silent imitation.  Some of the younger children began to fidget and stare at their mothers or grandmothers with wide eyes.  The older ones looked at each other and whispered until shushed by their elders.
        As Shimeon made his way to the Gates of Prayer, a series of sharp knocks were heard throughout the silent shul.  No one moved.  No one breathed.
        Sammael stirred quietly and watched intently.
        Upon opening the Gates of Prayer, Shimeon saw Death in a black uniform wearing a silver skull and cross bones on his field cap standing before him.
        "Rabbi, perchance do you speak German?"
        "I do.  What do you want?"
        The SS officer was pleasantly surprised at the responding fluency and flawless pronunciation.  He expected some bastardized version the Jews called 'Yiddish'--which in Germany was pejoratively called 'Juedisch.'  We are here to clear the area of Jews.  However, an exception can be made for you and your people, if a ransom is paid before the sun rises on your Yom Kippur day," the reply came.
        "We have to discuss your demand among ourselves," Rebbe Shimeon quietly whispered.
        "Of course.  We are civilized gentlemen, are we not, you and I?"
        Shimeon saw the pale face and glittering greyish eyes of a killer before him.  The SS leader saw a Jew who represented everything he loathed.
        Both men knew the outcome.
        No matter what the Jews did or paid, the Germans would spare no one and nothing from destruction.  People asked accusingly among themselves: "'Why is this happening?'  'What have we done to make such Atonement necessary?'  'Did not G-d deliver the Hebrews from death at the hands of the Egyptian hosts by the Red Sea?'  'Will He not do so now, of all times?"'  No one knew the answers, nor could Rebbe Shimeon offer any at that moment.  The world of Jewish Volodsk hushed then.
        Sammael remained motionless upon his perch.
        After the initial discourse ended and the Gates of Prayer were closed, Micah Raskolnik rose to his feet and loudly demanded to know what the exchange on the shul porch was about.  "Rebbe," he shouted.  "What do these people want from us?  What did you tell him?"
        Rebbe Shimeon looked at his questioner, and tried to assure him diplomatically.  "Micah, please.  The officer wants only a 'ransom' for our safety."  Miriam bit her finger to stifle a scream.  Other Jews began to clamor, or make their opinions known, while their Rebbe and the Volodsk's leading macher continued their conversation amidst the hub bub around them.
        Hannah Kameneva, a close friend of Ruth the Midwife's poked at Miriam for attention."  "Nu?," she asked.  "Rebbetsin.  What do you think will happen now?"  Miriam responded with, "I don't know, but give the Rebbe time to figure things out.  It is in the hands of Hashem--one way or the other."  Shmuel, the oldest of their sons, turned to his brother Azrael and whispered, "Poppa needs a miracle," and to wit Shlomo responded in grave tones, "We all do."
        Raskolnik again rose to the occasion with a new tack.  "Can we drive these bandits away?"  Chaim Lefkowitz scoffed at this suggestion.  "Micah" he taunted.  "Since when have you ever driven off a bandit?  These fellows, from what I can see from the window, can drive us off!"  Raskolnik missed the point that how could Lefkowitz see anything from the window outside in complete darkness.  Especially since Lefkowitz was nearly 80 and going blind!  Several leading men joined Shimeon on the bimah to make a 'council of war' and decide how best to survive this night.
        Sammael knew their hour would strike at dawn.
        Rebbe Shimeon held his hands up in supplication.  Once the tumult began to die down, he waited for a minute and said, "Gentlemen.  I will go out and ask the officer how much ransom he wants to leave us alone.  Perhaps he and his people really are bandits, and they will be satisfied with payment."  In his heart Rebbe Shimeon knew this was nonsense.  But to deprive the men and their families in shul of any shred of hope was a sin, particularly on this Eve of Yom Kippur.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

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JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN

Joseph Richard Goldman has taught modern European history at the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas.  He is now writing two novels.  He has participated in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival since 2014.




The Miracle of Volodsk will appear on the Daily Palette in four parts.  If you missed Part 1 and Part 2, you can find them here and here.

This page was first displayed
on May 05, 2016

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