by Mimi Schwartz (Princeton, NJ)
November, 8, 1938 : Some villagers smelled smoke wafting through the windows. Someone heard Mrs. Lowenstein shouting, “Our synagogue is burning. Please, help!” But the street in this little Black Forest village remained silent. Only one voice was heard, a man man shouting: Stay inside and shut the curtains! And people did as they were told. The fire brigade (including two Jews who used to belong before Nazi times) went to put out the fire, but strangers in brown shirts on a truck aimed rifles at them and said, “No!” Only when the house next to the synagogue was in danger did these men—“hoodlums from Sulz!” as the villagers called them later—give the command to use the water hoses to quell the fire on this night, Kristallnacht.
The next day everyone knew that the heart of the Jewish community in this tiny village had been destroyed. The synagogue’s beautiful interior was ruined: the dark wooden benches for 500, the delicate candelabras hanging over the center aisle, the carved wooden balustrade leading to the women’s section, and the ark for the Torah with its sacred scrolls. All was lost, people thought. And with it, the optimism of those who believed their Christian neighbors who said that “the crazy house painter from Austria will disappear and things will be as before!” Not so, not so. Jews now knew without a doubt that they must leave 300 years of history if they still could—and the fact that everyone in this village of 1,200 had gotten along before Hitler didn’t matter.
One night, a few months later, a young Jewish couple heard a knock on their door. They were frightened. And even more frightened when they opened the door, and there was the local policeman. “Don’t be afraid!” he said softly. “I won’t hurt you. I have something to give for you.”
The wife backed away, but the husband said, “What is it?”
This policeman, it turns out, had seen the Torah scrolls lying in the street on Kristallnacht and thought it was not right—a holy book, treated so badly. So he took it home, a heavy thing, and dug it deep into his garden. When he heard that the young couple, a few houses from his, was packing to leave, he hoped they might take the Torah with them.
The wife suspected a trick, but the husband thought, This man is a good man, a decent man I’ve known all my life! He told him yes, bring the Torah. The next night, another knock, and there was the policeman carrying the sacred scrolls like a giant baby wrapped in a blanket. A day later this Torah, hidden in a rolled-up living room carpet, was placed in a huge crate that the couple was shipping by boat to Haifa .
I saw this Torah in Israel, north of Acco near the Mediterranean Sea. It is in a Memorial Room built by those, including the young couple, who escaped the village in time and started again, this time farming avocados and melons instead of trading cattle as before. On the wall beside the Torah are the names of eighty-seven village Jews who didn’t make it, weren’t rescued by anyone, and so were murdered in Riga, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz. I bowed my head to honor them, and when I looked up in outrage and sadness, I saw the rescued Torah. Its edges were soiled and slightly charred, and there was a knife gash; but its Five Books of Moses, saved by one policeman, was open for all to read as before.
I still wonder how many it would take, like this policeman, to rescue hope from the fires of hate.
Mimi Schwartz’s latest book is Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village, from which this essay was adapted. Other recent books include Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Six of her essays have been Notables in Best American Essays. She is Professor Emerita of Richard Stockton College in New Jersey and her short work has appeared in Agni, The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Calyx, The New York Times, Tikkun, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Florida Review, Brevity, Writer’s Digest, and Jewish Week, among others.
This essay originally appeared in several Jewish newspapers and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.