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THE LAST SERMON
Reb Nahum opened the heavy wooden gates and stepped into the dense, milky fog covering the Ghetto with a thick blanket like a white shroud covers a dead body. "I am not prepared for the Yom Kippur sermon. What shall I say to the congregation at those tragic times?" He asked himself. Little did know what a dramatic, nerve wrecking sermon he is going to deliver before the day is over.
Reluctantly he started to walk. Reb Nahum was dressed in a black caftan, covering a white robe, the type worn by Rabbis on solemn occasions. The man with his taut skin, emaciated face and the big outstanding nose, looked like a forlorn bird that lost his nest. Reb Nahum slowly walking to the synagogue for the Yom Kippur services.
The dense fog was hiding all the small-dilapidated houses lining the gray sidewalk made up of old stones uprooted from the Jewish cemetery. In the distance one could see silhouettes of people scurrying around objects that looked like military trucks.
Reb Nahum was walking in the middle of the road, not on the sidewalk; he refused to deface the old cemetery stones. The dense fog was absorbing all the noises, and he heard the crackling noise of his booths munching the mud. It sounded like the mud trying to hold on to his boots screaming: " From mud you came and to mud you will return. " With each step the mud grew thicker, screaming: "Go back old fool. It is of no use. You will turn into mud." Reb Nahum wanted to turn back but he couldn't. An invisible internal force pushed him forward, pulled his legs from the mud, and kept him going. He continued walking deeply engrossed in his thoughts -" It is the first Yom Kippur I will spend without my wife Dwojra, and without my daughters. Is such a life worth living? "
At the thought of his wife and family Reb Nahum uttered a deep sigh and his eyes filled with tears. "Thirty years we lived together and each day I thanked God for giving me such a perfect wife. It feels like yesterday when I met her, for the first time, under the red velvet-wedding canopy. Her dark eyes were burning holes through the delicate, transparent veil, trying to take in the first glimpse of her husband. " He remembered her beautiful radiant face, the luxuriant black hair, on the background of the white veil, he just lifted.
"And what a wedding it was. The deep red wine, sweet like honeydew, resembled the lips of the young bride. The freely flowing tangy vodka was burning holes in the mouths, and the music was heavenly. The clapping of the hand and the dances of the Horah, the jerking motions of the Kozacki dances mixed with the free flowing rhythmic vibrations of the dances of the women. "And what a mountain of gifts: glittering silver spoons, highly polished copper pots and kettles, the handkerchief for his Dwojra a blazing mosaic of red white and green colors. Life was holding out such a promise to us. Dwojra was so excited with the beautiful coffee grinding machine."
They had a good life together, although they had their share of problems. God blessed them with four attractive daughters but no money for their dowries. He remembered the long nights, when Dwojra was crying bitterly: "They all will remain old maids. Who will marry them? Nowadays the young men are looking only for money." Reb Nahum consoled her: "Put your trust in the Lord. He is full of compassion and he will take care of them. And, the Lord had indeed took care of them. They all were killed in the prime of their maidenhood. Killed without knowing a man. Yes. Killed without knowing a man" repeated Reb Nahum quietly.
Reb Nahum proceeded with his muddy journey, still engrossed in his painful thoughts: "They were all killed, even the sweet, innocent Rachel, the youngest of them. She was the light of my eyes, the soul of my soul. She filled the house with her laughter resembling the ringing of silver bells. Always singing and dancing even when helping her mother in the domestic chores. Yes even Rachel was shot." Thought Reb Nahum bitterly.
He remembered her execution. She was standing naked in front the SS-man begging him: "Please don't kill me. Let me live. I want to live. I want to live." " God ordained that Rachel was killed and I survived. Why did I survive? Why this punishment? What were my sins? Master of the Universe, why did you do it to me, your devoted servant?" Complained Reb Nahum.
After the loss of his family, Rabbi Nahum refused food, he stopped praying he felt such emptiness, he lived like a zombie. He lived in a purgatory, suspended between heaven and hell, neither alive nor dead. He was like a piece of dried wood, tossed around the stormy waters of the ocean. His neighbors lamented: " It is the end of the world when the stern demanding Reb Nahum stopped praying three times a day as God commanded. Did he become, God forbid, a nonbeliever?" They wondered. Today on the urging of his neighbors he ventured out for the first time. He was going to conduct the Yom Kippur services. "The community needs me, I have to go." Reb Nahum had only one wish "God let me die in peace in my own bed. I don't even care where I will be buried. Is it much to ask from you after all those years of devoted service? " Little did he know what is in store for him. After a while Reb Nahum reached the House of Worship. The synagogue was a makeshift place of worship located in a big barren room that once served as a bakery. It was sparsely furnished with rough wooden benches and a small old dark mahogany table serving as the pulpit. The small dirty windows were covered with dark blankets. In one of the corners reigned an old bakery oven, adorned with two heavy iron doors blackened by the decades of smoke. Lookouts were placed around the synagogue to guard against the Germans. In the Ghetto praying or worshipping was strictly "Verboten" and punished by death.
When the Rabbi entered the synagogue it was packed with people, standing room only. The men were wearing old; black and white stripped prayer shawls. The women had their head covered with black kerchiefs. The flickering, pale greenish lights from the homemade candles produced long shadows on the thin, pale faces. The air was filled with sweat and the smell of the burning fat; all mixed with the controlled sobs and cries of the women.
Rabbi Nahum wrapped himself in his clean, prayer shawl richly adorned with a silver collar, and surveyed his congregation. " I can see the thick pain suspended in air. It can be cut with a knife, but I can't feel it. I see but I don't feel. I am like a crushed dried-up wick cutoff the supply of the kerosene. No dancing orange, blue and read colors of the flame, just smoldering smell that is left." The service proceeded smoothly without interruption; Reb Nahum started the sermon. He was standing in front of the congregation with the Torah scroll in his hands, when one of the look outs, knocked on the window screaming: "The murderers are coming. Run for your life. Run." Pandemonium broke out, everybody was pushing and running, mothers tried to catch their children, abandoned scared children crying, in the distance one can hear the thunder of the shots . . . Reb Nahum remained motionless at the pulpit standing like a pillar, murmuring: " I am not going to run. I am tired of living and not scared of dying. Why should I run? Let Gods will be done. There is an old belief that on the Day of Atonement only the most righteous people die. On this awesome day the gates to heaven are wide open and unguarded and the heaven is easy to enter. Let me die on Yom Kippur."
In a few seconds the room was empty. Suddenly, Mojshe his neighbor put his head in the door and cried: "Reb Nahum run! Run! Don't stand here like a mummy." Under the urgency of his cry, Reb Nahum put down the Torah and started to move toward the door, when suddenly he tripped and almost fell . . . The legs of a young boy, were sticking out from under the dark wooden bench where he tried to hide.
When he regained his balance, the shots were closer and closer. Seeing the small, defenseless body Reb Nahum jumped like a lion defending his cub grabbed the child and darted toward the oven. His hand felt the desperate pounding of the little heart. At each shot the convulsed body cringed to the old man, seeking shelter. "The child is scared. Maybe I shouldn't leave him alone. No, I cannot take this decision alone. The Bible says that when in danger hide."
"My mommy took my sister and run away from me," said the boy pleadingly. "Please stay with me. I am scared." With great agility and unexpected strength Reb Nahum shoved the child into the oven, and for a split second watched the child crawl into its dark soothed belly. "We became a nation of moles, even the youngster know how to borrow into the ground. Maybe I should do the same thing?" Thought Reb Nahum.
But before he could make a decision he heard the Germans approaching. He swiftly closed the heavy iron doors. A second later the wooden entrance door was kicked by a heavy brown boot. A tall German dressed in a green uniform with shining brass buttons, pointed the nozzle of the gun at Reb Nahum yelling "Juden raus! Juden Raus!" Reb threw the last glance at the oven where the child was hiding, raised his hands and slowly walked out. Passing the Nazi Reb Nahum read the inscription on the shining, brass belt buckle" Got is mid Unz- God is with us" Outside Reb Nahum joined a column of resigned victims heading toward the marketplace. The shots died down, and the whole scene had an unrealistic aerie felling of peacefulness. Small houses looking in amazement with their little windows on the columns of people proceeding peacefully to the collection point. It looked like a trick or treating group. Rabbi Nahum was disturbed. "Maybe I shouldn't have left the child behind me? What is going to happen to him? How will he die?"
Rabbi Nahum reacted to this superficial peacefulness in a strange angry way. He still felt the pounding of the child's heart under his fingers. He glanced at the shining buckle proclaiming proudly that God is with us, and felt the blood rushing to his head. "God why did you changed sides," he cried. "If you wanted to destroy us why do you do it in such a piecemeal way? Why do you tear up families? Why do you kill the husbands leaving the wives and children? Why do you leave the 4-year old suffering and hiding in an oven? You Almighty God could have sent us a plaque or pestilence killing swiftly and indiscriminately. Why this slow dehumanizing death. You, Almighty God can kill the body without tearing the soul. Why do you inflict so much sufferings? For a thousand years we Jews lived by the teaching of Isaiah and 'learned war no more' and now we are defenseless."
The column entered the collection point located at the old marketplace. The scene at the marketplace resembled Dante's Inferno. Hundreds of people sitting in the mud, waiting to be killed. Some people were trying to escape, and shots piercing the air were mixed with cries of the wounded. At one corner Reb Nahum saw the dead body of his neighbor Rivka pulled by her blood smeared baby crying "Mamma, Mamma, wake up!" Rabbi Nahum sat down quietly, and started to say the "Kaddish" - the prayer for the deceased, when a husky, red-faced sergeant approached, picked him by the white collar and pulled him into the center of the marketplace.
"This the stupid Rabbi, Herr Sturmfuhrer", he said saluting the commanding officer. "OK go ahead with the show sergeant", came the reply.
The sergeant put a dirty metal pail over the Rabbis head, put a broom into the one hand and the strings tied to the neck of a black goat to the other hand. "Now sing! Bastard," commanded the German. The rabbi remained calm. "If they wanted to crucify me, I cannot help it. All I want is to die with dignity" thought Reb Nahum. "Sing bastard, or I will crucify You, Donnerwetter!" Screamed the German hitting him with the butt of the gun. "What shall I sing?" Asked Reb Nahum calmly. "Proceed with your services, Rabbi. Proceed with the Yom Kippur services. Your congregation needs you." Interrupted the Sturmbahnfuhrer, laughing heartedly at his joke. Two thousand years ago, on the barren, sun-drenched hills of Judea a crucified Rabbi, uttered in ancient Aramaic language "Eli, Eli lama sabbachtani? God my God why has to forsaken me?" By design or sheer coincidence Rabbi Nahum started his own crucifixion prayers with the same complaint uttered in ancient Hebrew "Eli, Eli lama azawtani . . . Habet minimum hashamaim . . . God my God why has to forsaken us? Why has to abandoned your children? Look down from heaven and see how we became the laughing stock of the people?
It was a strange majestic spectacle indeed: the frail old man, dressed in white robe soiled with black mud and stained with red blood, a black goat at his side, and a dark rusted pail over his had praying. "Almighty, give me once in lifetime the strength of Samson to bring down the cruel world on us and on our executioners. I have no strength, I am no hero but let me die with dignity. Is this so much to ask?" Prayed Reb Nahum silently.
After Reb Nahum started to sing, his voice grew louder and louder resonating and amplified by the empty metal pail his voice was carried over the tin roofs of the small houses, over the tall gold steeple of the church, it muffled the shouts of the raiders and the pitched screams of the victims. After a while everybody grew silent watching in amazement this strange spectacle of the old, broken Jew talking with God. Yes Rabbi Nahum was talking to God. He did not ask God for forgiveness for imaginary sins and transgressions, he was talking God to account for all the atrocities committed by man upon man. He was taking God to account for the transgressions committed against Israel. "God cried Reb Nahum Why has to broken your covenant with Abraham? Why have to broken your promises given to Moses? Why has to broken your covenant with David?" Not even the revered ancient prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah dared to do that.
Later a long marching column, four abreast, was formed. Reb Nahum was put ahead of the column with the black goat at his side. It was a strange procession. The streets were lined with onlookers. Some of the old people not yet saturated with the virus of cruelty crying seeing their neighbors and friends let to their death. The young people contaminated with the absurd violence laughed at the funny picture. It was funny indeed to see a thousand hapless victims, who in orderly fashion, in endless rows four abreast, were following a black goat. "Who ever saw sheep led to slaughter by a goat?" They asked jokingly.
When they approached the big pit, a German Officer in an elegant smart uniform turned to Rabbi Nahum and with a exaggerated civility and a slight mockery said: "So you are the Rabbi of this congregation? So why don't you proceed with your sermon? Do your job, Rabbi!" Rabbi Nahum surveyed his congregation: " What shall I say to those remnants of humanity? How can you lift their spirits and help them die in peace?"
"What shall say to Mottel the Gambler, who for years was beating his wife and starving his children. Shall I tell him that his punishment so often predicted by me has arrived?
"What shall say to Lea the market woman, the poor soul who burdened with a retarded son and invalid husband, went through hell in life, waiting for the rewards in Heaven? Shall I tell her the time for redemption and rejoicing has arrived?" Rabbi Nahum slowly turned to the congregation and started in a low voice crackling with emotions. "We Jews, survived 3000 years of persecutions by sticking to the faith of our fathers, and the readiness for the "Kiddush Hashem", the readiness of the individual to sacrifice his life for the community. All the martyrs of the Crusades, the sacrifices of the Hashmonaim fighting the Greeks, the Marronnim burning on the bonfires of Spain, sacrificed their lives for the nation. Now our generation is called to sacrifice." He again looked up to his congregation. His words missed the target. "They don't care for sacrifices. They want to live."- He said to himself.
With a stronger voice he proceeded: "We are called to sacrifice, but it is not really a great sacrifice. We are leaving this valley of death, this world full of hatred, twisted with contagious violence, saturated with hunger and terror. I don't feel sorry for us. We are departing for a better life. I feel sorry for our persecutors. They will have to live long with their conscience and they will pay the price for their deeds." "We are departing to a different life, a life full of serenity, joy and fulfillment. We are going to be reunited with our loved ones, soon. Let us depart calmly and with dignity. No cries, no begging for mercy. Let the boys take the journey with their fathers, the girls find comfort in the arms of their mothers. And don't forget the orphans. All the kindness you show to them now, will be repaid a thousand times in heaven."
Suddenly looking at the grotesque scene he felt a piercing pain, penetrating his whole body. The pain emanated from his hearts and carried by the circulating blood stream to each crack and nanny of his body. " This must be a type of pain felt by Prophet Jeremiad when he witnessed the destruction of Israel, thousands of years ago. I am not the first one to suffer. I feel the pain, I am alive. Thank You, Lord for bringing me back to life."
With sudden determination he raised his hands above his head, folded them to position used in the priestly benediction, and with a loud firm voice blessed the departing congregation: "Y'varerchah Adonai . . . Let the Lord bless you and protect you. Let the Lord shine his countenance upon you and give you peace . . .Peace.... Peace. Shalom" .
He slouched for a few seconds, and murmured: "Dwojra please wait for me in heaven, I am coming. I missed you so much. Rabbi Nahum dropped his hand to his side, stood motionless for a while, slowly gathering his strength. Then he slowly raised his head and turning to the Officer said in a firm voice with impeccable diction: "Officer, I finished my job. Now, you can begin yours."
Reb Nahum did not bring down the world on his enemies, but the Almighty granted his second wish and let him die with dignity...