Well, it's that time of year again, time to post my entry to the Holocaust Center Arts and Writing Competition. This years theme: "Righteous Gentiles - When Light Pierced Darkness - Challenges, Choices and Outcomes." Longwinded, but fairly simple. Not as morbid as last year's, anyway. I'm not happy with this at all, even less than my entry for last year.
Tell me what you think?
My dearest daughter,
You know as well as I what happened in that war, to the Jews and others. The rest of us survived the war in body, but our spirits and souls were beaten. Living under the Nazis, even if I wasn't being targeted, was perhaps the hardest task God has ever given me. They have continued to overshadow my life, long past their time, until I fear it might be too late for my tale to have meaning anymore. What follows is the account of two amazing, courageous, wonderful people, who are not able to tell their own story. They have been lost without recognition, forgotten without a whisper. They hid two Jews for nearly a year and a half before they were discovered, and this is their story.
Herr and Frau Gutreich lived on the third floor of our apartment building, under the attic. We lived on the second floor, and the Muellers lived below us. The Gutreichs were an elderly couple, in their late sixties. Frau Gutreich suffered intermittent bouts of gout and Herr Gutreich had bad arthritis, yet they were still quietly active in the community, helping out and being generally good people. The war began. Most families didn't like the way things were, but only a few didn't like the way things were going, my family one of them. Genocide is atrocious, no matter who is the victim. There were few Jews in our town, only a few families, and they were persecuted, driven to poverty, hated. We – my parents, that is – were at a loss. How were we supposed to help people with nothing left for ourselves? Life was hard enough, without the extra burden.
I tell you this with eyes opened by time and maturity; at the time I was ten years old, and couldn't see what it all meant.
The Gutreichs had more conviction than we. Three months after the war started, Herr Gutreich came to our door, begging in a hoarse whisper for security and aid. I remember the texture of his stubbled gray beard in the half-light of the hall more than anything, the way it made his strong square face haggard and determined. The elderly couple had decided, after much soul-searching, that our Jews were innocent of all charges brought against them, and undeserving of their inevitable fate. Therefore, the pair had chosen a young couple, barely a year wed, to be the recipients of their effort – simply because Hannah and Zachary Stein were only two, had no children, and, above all, were quiet by nature. The Gutreichs knew they were very forward and risking everything, but their kind souls could not bear the pain they saw in this young couple, the pain they were destined to go through. They knew what was at risk – lives, home, jobs, family. A week later, Hannah and Zachary Stein were installed in the back room of the Gutreichs' apartment, unbeknownst to almost everyone.
The next night, after curfew, my father sat us down and explained what was happening upstairs, the challenges that would face us by the choice we had made. Then he said something I will never forget.
"From this point on, we are at risk. We will be aiding and abetting the Gutreichs, we will be doing what's right at the risk of our lives, but we are not the ones to take any credit. The Gutreichs are angels on earth, holy souls in humble bodies, lights in the darkness."I will always know exactly how the lamplight fell on his face, haloing half of it in a fiery glow and cloaking the rest in shadow all the more deeply.
"I wish to God we could do the same thing. I hope with all my heart they succeed, I pray with all my being that we all survive this terrible war."That was the beginning of the end. The Steins lived in the Gutreichs' attic and the back room, and we gave them everything we could spare. Extra food, extra clothes, extra money. It wasn't much – there wasn't much for ANYONE. It was late fall when the Steins disappeared from their home, and the two mysterious non-existent refugees appeared in ours. It was scary, knowing there were outlaws living upstairs, and knowing I could say one word – one phone call – and end the agony of fear. And that brought me back full circle, to moral responsibilities and promises. I couldn't make that call, not when everyone was depending on trust and support. It was scary, knowing that there were two extra people upstairs, night-dwellers. Hearing footsteps in the walls where there shouldn't have been, seeing the Gutreichs' supplies dwindling as they fed two more mouths than they should have. They were ingenious. The back window broke before winter hit, and that had to be boarded up and insulated. Frau Gutreich came down with a severe case of gout in February, it kept her bed-ridden for months. Then Herr Gutreich had a spring relapse of arthritis, which completely immobilized his joints. They didn't let on about anything; even when there weren't enough hours of the day, they still managed to live normal lives.
As the summer progressed, things got a bit easier. I didn't have to stay cooped up inside; I could escape to the park across the street. The footsteps never ceased, I fled to the park again and again. Maybe that was why I missed the shift in attitude in our small apartment house.
The Muellers were suspicious. Of what, they didn't know, nor why, but there was something going on in our house and they didn't like it. Their eldest son was part of the Nazi youth group, their two daughters were infatuated with any officer they met, and they were all completely under the Nazi thumb. They must have seen us smuggling, or something similar. I was very glad the Steins were so circumspect; at the time I didn't want to deal with the young Muellers, let alone their parents.
Summer came and went, nothing much happened beside the usual war-time news and deprivations. I think I got careless as time wore on, but even now I can't be too sure. The war was hanging over our heads constantly, I can't tell what was worry about the war and what was worry about our secret refugees in the walls. They seemed to have been there forever. And as winter turned to spring again, I realize I should have worried more.
Daughter, I should have realized why the Mueller children were so interested in playing in the back yard and on our stairs, pretending there were mice hiding in the wall, and Jews hiding in the corners.
The spring night the soldiers came, I was sleeping under the trees in the park again. Not well, I might add, it was terribly hot and buggy. So I was awake when the soldiers pulled up to the house and got out, with Herr Mueller in tow. They went pounding up the stairs, I could hear them banging on doors, faintly. Screaming and yelling, a light pierced the darkness of the night, silhouettes. And then… I'll never ever forget, no matter how hard I try. Gunshots. Six. Six shots, one for each traitor and outlaw…. I curled up on myself, shaking, staring with wide eyes at the gleam of light in the back room of the Gutreichs' apartment, until it finally went out. Dear Lord… I couldn't even cry. The soldiers returned to the car, calm as ever, without Herr Mueller. I shook in place until dawn, until someone found me and brought me to the orphanage.
My dearest daughter, this tale is not an easy one. The full force of it cannot be conveyed on paper. It was not good, it was not kind, it did not have a happy ending. The Gutreichs were the only ones with the courage to do what was right; even WE didn't have the sense for that. In a world gone dark with hatred, they shone as a beacon of trust in God, of faith in the basic goodness of humanity. You, my daughter, are their legacy. You are the heritage of the lessons they strove to teach everyone through selfless giving, that I have tried to impart to you. I charge you to never forget the forgotten, to never lose sight of the lost. I charge you, my daughter, my dearest Hannah, to be a light for the darkness of generations to come.
Yours with all the love I can give,