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I ALMOST KILLED . . . THE ANGEL OF DEATH
It happened in 1943 in the town of Rohatyn, in Poland, a few months before the liquidation of the ghetto. Returning home for lunch, I noticed suspicious activities. The entire block was roped off and people were loading bedding, clothing, pots and pans on waiting buggies.
"A horse drawn wagon in the ghetto?" I thoguht, alarmed. The Ghetto so tightly sealed off, to prevent smuggling in of food, that the young children never saw a horse, never saw an animal. The buggy spelled trouble.
On the corner, a young girl sat crying. I recognized the girl. It was Bella, our neighbor's daughter.
"What happened, Bella? Why are you crying?" I asked her.
"The Germans are taking away all our possessions: the food, furniture, bedding. Everything. They left bare walls. How are we going to live? What are we going to eat? Where are we going to sleep?" She began to cry again.
"Why are they doing this?" I asked surprised.
She looked up at me and said quietly: "Budzynski told us that they are taking the stuff, before in gets stained with blood. We will not need them because soon we will be dead."
"Budzynski?" I knew the bastard. He had been my schoolmate, an artistic dumb head. At school I helped him with algebra and physics and he helped me with art and crafts. Now, claiming that his Grandfather was German, he became a German. Soon afterwards he was put in charge of the Jewish Properties and it looked like he had decided to get rich fast.
I looked at the once-chubby girl and the loose hanging, worn out dress she wore, and felt sorry for the child. "Don't worry," I said to her, "people will help you."
She raised her head and looked to me with her tears filled eyes and said quietly: "Starving people don't share their bread."
Listening to her, I felt my heart aching. I liked the girl. By the age of twelve she had experienced many tragedies; she saw her father being axed to death, later her brother was shot. She had this pain-induced maturity and wisdom.
"I could kill this bastard Budzynski. Kill Budzynski? Oh my God." I jumped to my feet. I recalled that I had a revolver, hidden in the kitchen hearth. It was a revolver entrusted to me by the resistance group. If the Germans found the weapon they would kill all the residents. I swiftly ran into the house, grabbed the gun and approached the window.
"What are doing? Where are you going?" Cried my sister. "The Germans are all over."
I did not listen. I had to hide the weapon. I opened the window, jumped out . . . and landed in front of the SS-man, conducting the operation.
"Come on Jude," he motioned me.
I was caught. I looked at the SS-man. In the bright midday sun, his Death Skull, was shining with etraordinary brightness. In his dark uniform, walking eith a proud strut, he looked like an invincible Angel of Death, ready to shoot, ready to kill. Feeling the weight of the weapon in my pocket, I slowly approached him. I was calm. "You can kill him," I told myself. "Here is your chance to be a hero. Don't wait. Shoot."
In time of mortal dangers, one thinks with lightning speed. I had to act. "Shoot. Shoot. You will surprise him. Don't hesitate," urged the Hero-in- me.
"If you shoot him today, tomorrow the Germans will kill all the Jews in the ghetto. Two thousand people. Don't shoot." Cried the Coward-in-me.
"Yes, but they will be killed anyway. A month later. What's the difference?," argued the Hero.
"There is a difference. Life in the ghetto is fast moving and very precious. Each moment counts. A day in the ghetto is like a month, under normal conditions. A month in the ghetto is like a year. You are shortening the lives of thousands of people. They will go to their graves cursing your name. Don't do it."
Precious seconds passed and I could not make a decision. I was walking as if in a daze. I was ten feet away from the SS-man, when I heard myself saying: "My dumb sister locked me in the kitchen, by mistake. I am late for work. I have to return to work, to the German Post." I lied with a straight face, turned around and walked away.
I left the ghetto, and feeling the weight of the weapon, walked to my work. At work I went straight to cleaning the cowhides. I worked with a group of Jews, cleaning the salted cowhides, from the strips of meat left at the slaughter. The cleaned hides were shipped to the tannery and we kept the strips of the fatty meat.
I worked slowly, so that I did not expose the weapon bulging in my pocket. Suddenly I heard screams: "This is my hide. I took it first."
I looked up and saw that Moses and Ariel were fighting over a choice hide. Moses was pulling the folded hide yelling, "Let go. I have two children at home to feed."
"Stop fighting like two dogs over a sliver of meat. Aren't you ashamed?" I yelled.
They stopped the tug of war, for a moment. Moses turned around and said: "Ashamed? Do you know what it means to come home empty handed to a starving child? Do you know what it means to see your child walking with feet swollen from hunger? I hope you never live to experience this."
Suddenly, Moses let go of the cowhide, and raised his trousers: "Look at my legs. Do you feel better now?" Then, with an expression of a beaten dog, he picked up another hide.
I looked at his leg, swollen thick like a column and I was ashamed. On the way home I felt dejected. I felt responsible for prolonging the misery of Bella, Moses and Ariel. My inaction helped the Germans to get clean bedding. Some heroism.
To this day I honestly can't answer the simple question. Was I really concerned with the fate of the ghetto or was I afraid to die? Did I act like a hero, or like a coward?
Although I never found the answer, deep in my heart I know that, despite my outward bravado, I was not a hero. Neither was I a coward. I was just a scared teenager, wanting to live, wanting to survive.
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