Mendel and Esther will not leave their child. Even though she’s an adult. Even though she’s being completely irrational.
I hold the cup of steaming Earl Gray, watching the gently unfurling wisps of steam.
My grandmother smooths the lacy embroidered tablecloth and her green eyes take on that faraway look. Wherever she is now, it’s definitely not at 22 Riverside Drive, Golders Green, London.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I refused to go into the bomb shelter?”
Stoke Newington, London, 1940s
The Nazis are blitzing through Britain with lightning speed. Night after night the Luftwaffe turn drizzly gray London streets into blazing infernos. The dreaded whine of the air-raid siren becomes an all-too familiar sound.
The Gayers are just another family among the multitudes of sleeping Londoners who learn to leap out of bed and race to the bomb shelters as if the devil is after them (which, in a way, he is.)
They squeeze into the little tin Anderson shelter dugout at the bottom of the garden, along with their gentile neighbors. Nights are spent huddled together in the airless hut, surrounded by the sound of thuds and wails. Nobody sleeps.
Chana’s eyes are almost closing as she slowly says Krias Shema, trying not to skip over the words. It had been sheer torture managing her secretarial work while almost collapsing from fatigue. She desperately needed a good night’s sleep. In her own bed. Just for one night.
Within seconds she’s asleep, breathing evenly.
Until the shrillness of the siren pierces through her dreams.
Chana’s almost drunk with exhaustion. There’s no way she can handle another night squashed into the stifling shelter. She turns over and buries her head into the pillow. The sirens wail on, alerting London to the impending danger.
Mendel Gayer runs hastily through the rooms making sure his family is heading to safety.
Is that lump in the bed Chana?
“Chanale,” his voice is urgent.
She sits up, sweeping away her soft brown hair.
The droning sound is getting louder, a deadly hornet approaching.
“Chanale, nu! Shtei oif!”
She looks resolutely at her father.
“I’m staying here.” Her voice is low and certain. “Tonight I’m sleeping in my own bed.”
Mendel is desperate. This is a matter of life and death. “Chana — bist meshige?! Get up now! Quick! The planes are here!!”
But Chana looks at him calmly, a determined glint in her large green eyes.
“Tatte. I can’t go on like this. I’ve had enough. Tonight I’m staying here.”
Soon the rest of the family is clustered in the bedroom, begging, pleading, threatening. But Chana, usually so timid, so subservient, has turned into steel.
She needs a normal night. Just for tonight. The rest of the family should go seek protection in the shelter. Tonight she’s staying in bed.
And with the sounds of explosions rattling the window panes, Chana simply turns over and buries her head into the pillow.
Mendel and Esther will not leave their child.
Even though she’s an adult. Even though she’s being completely irrational.
And so, with the bombs exploding around them, and all the other neighbors taking refuge within the shelter, that night the Gayers stay inside their narrow London house.
My tea is finished, and I gently slide the gold-rimmed china cup onto the flowered saucer.
My grandmother sits up in her chair, her beautiful green eyes glinting.
“That night, the Anderson shelter got a direct hit.”
She looks at me, watching me absorb the significance of her words. “There were no survivors.”
She glances round the room, shelves laden with pictures of the eineklach and smiles softly as she stands up to take my glass. “Another cup of tea?”
I shake my head. I’ve already been warmed.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 663)