Joseph Richard Goldman | The migrant

The SS wanted no witnesses left behind. Only the dead and the nearly destroyed crematoria and gas chambers stood as mute testimony to all who had passed their doors into oblivion.

When her transport arrived in the outskirts of Breslau, the SS drivers simply left. Their war was ending.

For Rachel and the graduates of Sobibor, their war never ended.

Fifty years later is a long time. Rachel found some peace in Baltimore. She volunteered at a local synagogue as a teacher’s aide. Eventually, Rachel spent more of her time working in the gift shop. These tasks wove her deeply into the life of the synagogue and its people. Services—especially on all the holidays—brought her a measure of contentment that being a Jew still had meaning, purpose.

One day she was tending the counter in the synagogue’s gift shop when a man about her age came in to browse. Rachel greeted the customer, who thanked her for the courtesy, and turned away to look at some books. The minutes passed. Rachel tidied up the glass top, and then decided to walk over to the man to see if there was something she could help find. She had noticed his bearing and looks from the corner of her eye and was intrigued. Sidling up, she broke the silence between them.

“May I help you? Is there something special you are looking for?”

“No, not really,” he replied. Rachel was about to retreat to the back counter when he turned and said, “I am new here. Perhaps you can tell me something about this shul?”

“What would you like to know?”

“I am a retired professor of history at the university. I was told that this synagogue has many who survived the camps, the Holocaust. Rabbi Silverman was kind enough to offer his assistance for a book on the daily existence in the camps that I am researching. He mentioned that some of his congregants might be willing to be interviewed.”

Rachel wondered where this was going. She stood stock still and said nothing. But her gray eyes did.

The man coughed quietly, and then reached for a book he plucked from a shelf. “I wrote this, you know.”

“I didn’t know,” Rachel spoke softly. “The title, Sobibor and Her Sisters, is not such a best seller in this shop.”

“I am not surprised. What does surprise me, though, is that there is a copy for sale here. Have you read it?”

Rachel thought, No, I lived it and died there! But she said nothing to this man.

As she began to close the register and go home, her visitor noticed the tattoo on Rachel’s forearm. He paused for a moment. With the book in his right hand, he approached Rachel, while reaching with his left for a worn briefcase on the floor nearby.

“If you don’t mind, I think I will buy this copy.”

“Why? You are the author. Certainly, you have a copy or two from the publisher. It makes no sense to spend good money on a book you know and wrote.”

“I want to make a gift of it for someone,” he said. “How much?”

“There is a twenty percent discount for educators in our gift shop. Since you are a professor, I guess I can give you a lower price,” Rachel responded in a cool tone.  As he paid for the book, Rachel offered to wrap it as a gift, but the man said it would not be necessary. Taking the book and receipt from her hands, the professor walked out of the shop.

When she locked the door at closing time, Rachel felt a pang of guilt for her “standoffish attitude” toward the academic. “My God, I am better than this! He was only trying to be nice and understanding, and I repaid him with indifference.” By the time she reached the parking lot, tears welled in her eyes while she fumbled with the car lock.

The following Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Silverman came into the gift shop right after Rachel opened with something wrapped in a tallit.

“Rachel. Someone left this gift for you. I agreed to give it to you to keep the identity of the giver anonymous for the moment.”

Nonplussed, Rachel looked quizzically at the Rabbi, and said nothing while he approached her counter.   Wordlessly, he passed the tallit-wrapped gift to Rachel, and smiled as he exited to plan the upcoming services.

Rachel unfolded the tallit and saw Sobibor and Her Sisters.  She gasped. When she opened the front cover, there was an inscription on the frontispiece.

“In gratitude to a survivor whom G-d spared and I have the privilege to meet!”

Rachel sat down on the stool near the register, trying to sort out the reasons behind such a gesture. Because the book was already signed, she could not return it to the book case for sale. And why wrap it in a tallit, of all things?

When Rabbi Silverman passed by the shop entrance, Rachel beckoned him to see her. He came in.

“Rabbi, what is the meaning of this? Please explain to me why a perfect stranger, an author and professor at Johns Hopkins, would make such a book a present to me? I was at Sobibor. I don’t need to read about it. Why?”

Rabbi Silverman became serious and told Rachel that her donor was a close friend of another survivor from Sobibor and their family in Minneapolis. When the donor heard that Rachel too had been at the camp, he wanted to meet her and didn’t know how without being rude or presumptuous.

“Rachel, what harm can it be if you would talk to him? He is a soul in search of an answer to the question you just posed: ‘Why?’”

Rachel looked at Silverman and for a moment said nothing.

“Rabbi, no one can answer that question. Least of all me. What I saw at Sobibor I can never explain to myself or anyone else. It happened. I wish it hadn’t, but God let so many people die there. Ask Him! You are His representative. You get the answer!”

Rabbi Silverman considered a hundred arguments before he spoke. “Rachel, I have no answer. I wonder if God Himself would answer unless He wanted to. Please, don’t be upset. The professor wanted to make a gesture, a token of his appreciation in meeting you. I will convey any message you want. If he, or I, somehow offended you, it was unintentional. On my part, I am sorry that you are angry and distressed.”

“Rabbi, I am angry and distressed.  This ‘gesture,’ as you call it, places an obligation that I tried to avoid for so long.

”I never wanted to survive. I watched my parents and siblings vanish by the Nazis. I saw the Lublin ghetto and its horrors. I ended up in Sobibor by sheer bad luck. I endured that hell. My body aged, and my mind went mad. I thought I had a reason to survive when I came to America. I built a semblance of life here in Baltimore.

“I also never married. No man would have me. I am not even a real woman anymore. Sobibor is a name and a place for historians. Not so for me. I lost everything and everyone in Poland. I don’t want to be interviewed or examined—now or ever.” Pausing and biting her lip, she realized her tone was bitter toward this gentle and sincere man.

“Please, Rabbi Silverman… I, uh… have offended you, haven’t I?”

“No, Rachel, this is my fault for acting like a go-between for two individuals I care deeply for. I don’t know what I was thinking when this idea came up, but what’s done is done. It is I who should be sorry, not you.”

Accepting his apology, Rachel let a small smile of sorrow cross her lips.

“Rabbi, there is no need to be sorry. But you can do me a kindness. Please convey my apology when you speak to him. I’m afraid my coldness wasn’t what he quite expected to his request. That’s all.”

Silence filled the shop. The rabbi and the survivor sat lost in their own thoughts as the minutes ticked away.

“Rachel, you are right. I will apologize to the professor and tell him that the gift was appreciated…and unnecessary. I am sure he will understand. Okay?”

Rachel nodded her agreement. After the rabbi left, she closed shop and went home.

She never saw the professor again.

Now and then Rachel wondered, What if…?

Rachel kept the book. She never looked at it. She’d had enough sorrow and anger because of Sobibor.   She did not need to relive the horror again from the pages of a book.

One day before she retired from the gift shop, she gave the book to the synagogue librarian as a gift.

Under the frontispiece she penned: “In hopes that a lost voice will find a kind ear; a sore heart to join another one for comfort; and a healing conscience to forgive a guilty one.”

Joseph Richard Goldman is the son of Holocaust and Russian Civil War survivors. A slightly different version of this story, drawn from the tales of other survivors he knew, appeared in his book Voices From a Distant Place, a Dark Time, Brindlekins Press, 2015, available on Amazon.

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