by Mimi Rosen
A butterfly lies dead near the wood steps of the barracks. Its velvet wings, orange and black with three rows of white spots, tilted against the ashy earth. I consider embodying the creature, stealing its place on the frigid ground. All this death is frost to the spirit, but it is better not to think such things. Besides, I have protection, a small parchment tucked under my tongue on which I have inscribed the true name of God.
“Who is speaking?” the SS officer snaps. He halts crisply, enlarging his chest and scanning the faces in each row. His eyes are amber like a jackal’s.
I’m not frightened. I shiver because I’m naked and it’s cold. I’m standing within a column of camp Jews, between the prisoners’ barracks and the east watchtower. Men and women, frozen with obedience, watch the ground as if doing so could blanket them.
Only God can save them. I pray to him constantly. Barely audible chants, not intended to offend, but which manage to disturb the jackal-eyed officer nevertheless. He scans the rows of prisoners as if on the hunt. His black boots wear a path behind the white-coated physicians, who unfold their tables before each human column.
“Open,” one physician says. He reminds me of a goat. A gray and black beard elongates his chin. He adjusts his spectacles then pulls on Yossele’s lips, revealing the carcasses of his remaining teeth. “You’re sick,” he says.
“No sir, I’m strong like a horse.” Yossele coughs.
“This one’s useless,” the physician says.
A young soldier goosesteps towards them. He shoves Yossele into the group of ailing prisoners. Yossele’s ashen color deepens under the blue-eyed soldier’s stare.
The doctor leans over the table and scribbles. He looks up as the next prisoner steps forward. “Open,” he says. His methodical touch reminds me of father, who once examined a speckled horse with similar efficiency.
Father had been a respected teacher and gifted storyteller. His stories filled me with the power of God and the greatness of those who believe. Before the war, Yossele and I would spend Shabbos afternoons seated at our father’s feet. Father’s grainy voice still vibrates through me. Long ago, it had spirited me from our shtetle to places where extraordinary men experienced wondrous miracles.
Now, only one story reverberates through my head, the tale of Rabbi Judah Loew and the Golem. Rabbi Loew once molded a giant man from clay and placed the name of God in its mouth. And so, the Golem lived and served as protector.
These camp Jews deserve protection too. I can protect them, because I myself am extraordinary. I whisper over and over the prayer that Rabbi Loew used to breathe life into the Golem, believing it will transform me. And so I will become a superman and deliver these Jews from this barbed-wire camp.
“Who is mumbling?” the officer snaps. He scans the crowd of down-turned faces.
“Solomon sha!” Yossele whispers, his icicle fingers draping his testicles.
He’s close enough, within his ashy group, for me to shield when the time comes. The parchment jabs the inside of my cheek. I shift it to the other side of my mouth and continue to chant softly, bracing for the miracle.
I am extraordinary. I see what others can’t, like smoldering faces within piles of embers. I know that the ashes of each camp Jew will eventually form such a pile, but it is better not to think such things.
“Is it you I hear?” the jackal-eyed officer asks.
“No sir,” Yossele says.
“Then who is mumbling?”
I am the jackal’s accomplice. Each day, corpses are piled before me and I shovel them into flame-licked ovens. It is blistering work, but if not me someone else would be assigned to it. This work would engulf lesser men in madness. I’ve learned how to insulate from insanity. I avoid looking at faces, but then my eyes sometimes betray me. The sight of father once singed my mind that way.
If my eyelids had remained together, if my eyes had looked at only what was necessary, his vision would not have afflicted me. Now, father’s face relentlessly smolders before me. I try not to think of him, but my mind won’t pardon me. His slender mouth has become one with the pale lips of each man I’ve set aflame. His limbs have become tangled within each mound of floppy arms and legs. My mind persistently relives that moment. It won’t acquit me from my sins.
Other camp Jews know what I have done. I can tell by their shifting glances. I can hear it in their thoughts. They meekly await their fates, while loathing the jackal’s accomplice.
“Silence!” the officer barks. “I think you know which Jew is buzzing.”
“I d...d...don’t, sir,” Yossele says.
The young soldiers in the background laugh as the officer brandishes his pistol at Yossele. Fresh blond faces with wicked smiles. Their cold rifles loose in hand.
Yossele fears guns, but I’m not afraid. I could seize a rifle and shoot one smiling soldier after another. I am extraordinary that way.
“Shall I shoot this Jew?” the officer says, pointing his pistol at Yossele.
“The time has come,” God whispers and my voice rises in prayer. The officer turns, but I lunge before he realizes who I am, sinking my fangs into his gruff face. Blood fills my mouth. I yank the pistol from his hand and fire. The officer grunts and falls. Blood spreads across his black shirt.
Something strikes the side of my head. A metallic taste fills my mouth. I tumble, then lie motionless on the ash-colored earth. Yossele’s eyes are on me. They remind me of father’s. The jackal-eyed officer twists on the ground. His screams vibrate through me.
I am transforming. Steamy blood oozes between my cheek and the earth. It spreads like a glistening pool. I move the parchment to the back of my tongue and swallow. It curls within my throat. I resist the urge to cough.
I see father and surrender to his vision. He appears in a warm aura, caressing my face. “Forgive me,” I whisper. I reach for him. He grasps my hand. Then I realize it is Yoselle’s hand holding mine.
“You’re not guilty of anything, Solomon,” he says, bringing his lips to my ear. He softly chants the Sh’ma.
I am shrinking. My soul flutters and my body willingly releases it. It emerges as a butterfly with crystal wings that lift me above the barbed wire.
Copyright © 2010 by Mimi Rosen