The unspoken consensus was that there was no reason for Hersh to be so high strung. Sure, he was a Survivor, but were not they all?
As told to Rayzel Reich
Hersh Frankel* was simply a loner.
You could usually find him sitting alone at a table quietly learning or davening. When the beis medrash was full and he couldn’t avoid the crowds he sat at a table with others. But he was alone then too wrapped in his own world. The cohesiveness that bound them all simply slid off his shoulders leaving a pocket of cold air around Hersh and his sefer.
That’s the way he wanted it.
If you got too close you paid the price. Annoyed he would look disapprovingly over his glasses at the man who had the audacity to disturb his privacy. In a polite but annoyed tone the conversation would quickly be terminated.
Children weren’t so easily kept at bay. Children in the shtiebel ran talked laughed and generally got involved in everyone and everything. Hersh would have none of it.
Sha! he would hiss annoyed when the noise rose. If they came too close to him playing chatting or simply disturbing he’d become frustrated. Leave me alone!
Among the other members of the shtiebel the unspoken consensus was that there was no reason for Hersh to be so high strung. Sure he was a Survivor but were not they all? True all his loved ones had perished in those unspeakable times. But he had a new home here with a new wife and her daughter and even if the daughter was not of his flesh and blood was he not hers and were her children not his cherished eineklach?
The man had much to be thankful for. There was no reason he shouldn’t try to loosen up a little.
Hersh Frankel was one of those people you learned to accept. You’d raise your eyebrows quietly when he got nervous and keep your distance.
Nu some people just don’t want to be part of the chevreh. What can you do…
he line stretched ahead interminably.
Mindel stood with Tatte and Mamme, Yankele, Ahrele, Shaindel, and little Perele.
All together. For now, they were all together.
But for how long would that last?
Her teeth bit nervously into her lip as she craned her neck to look ahead despite her strong desire not to.
She had to look.
Up ahead, people were being separated. Families were being separated. To where?
A shiver prickled up her back. Bad. She had a bad feeling about this.
The shiver jumped to her scalp, prickling across her forehead. Where were they going, those to the right? And where were they going, those to the left?
Her hand reached out suddenly, instinctively, and grabbed her father’s.
She was 15 years old. A big girl. The last memory she had of holding Tatte’s strong hand was… oh, when was it? She couldn’t remember… Maybe years ago, walking to shul in the early morning of Rosh Hashanah, trying to match her child’s steps to Tatte’s long strides. She almost had to skip to keep up. She’d heard Tatte get up in the wee hours of the morning and had jumped up to join in the excitement. They had walked to shul together, Yankele skipping along on Tatte’s other side.
That hand had felt so strong, so safe.
He seemed surprised now to find her hand in his. His fingers grasped back instinctively, but with none of her desperation.
Her heart beat faster. She felt like his calmness should calm her. Why did it not? For some reason, her heart fluttered and thumped even harder. Ominous. Dread. Dread.
A step forward. And another. They were moving forward, closer to the head of the line. Where… to where? Stop. Stop. They must stop!
Perele whimpered. Mamme bent down to soothe her. Shaindel started crying too.
Going with instinct, Mindel dropped her hand from Tatte’s and wrapped her arms around her little sister, making her feel safe. For a moment, her heart beat safe… safe… so sunk was she in that role of protector. She must make it safe, and so she must feel safe, must hold Shaindel safe.
And then there was a gap ahead and they must move forward… forward… her whole body shivered and her heart leaped—
And safe was gone.
Ground disappeared beneath their feet.
Soothe Perele, soothe Shaindel, heartbeat safe, safe. Look ahead, horror stricken, see the space diminishing—
See the German pointing, see his uniform, his helmet, his face — strong, strong, machine-strong, no softness—
She did not know why, she could not know why, but something, something, screamed and screamed inside her and would not stop.
And then they were there, and he was pointing, strong, strong, he was so strong, and they so weak—
Pointed to the right, and like a puppet, Tatte moved to the right.
Swept his strong arm to the left, indicating the rest of them. Like puppets lined up on a string, they moved to the left.
She couldn’t help it. For one moment, she was all-omniscient, every sense inside her tuned inhumanly acutely to the universe around her, so that she did not see, or hear, or smell—
Men on the right. Strong on the right. Young on the right.
Whimpers, tears, fears, hunchbacks, old, sick, women and children, the smell of disease, the taste of helplessness. On the left.
In the deepest empty pit of her stomach, she knew.
e was standing, all alone in the long line of men, trying to absorb this last separation.… What did it mean… where was he going… what job would he get?
And there she was, right beside him, so suddenly he almost jumped.
Tatte, she hissed, I’m coming with you.
He looked at her in astonishment. In all her 15 years, his Mindel had been her mother’s right hand. She was a good girl. The best. What on earth was she thinking? Nechy could never manage without her! At this crazy time?!
Mindel, he chided, surprise evident in his voice, go back to Mamme right now. Don’t you know she needs you?
Truly, he was surprised.
Instead of bowing her head in shame, she looked up.
Tatte, she repeated, I’m coming with you.
Anxiety and fear birthed annoyance. Now, of all times, she would act like a headstrong child?
Mamme needs you! he almost wailed, distress escaping in a stern cry. Mamme can’t manage four children on her own! You know that. He gathered himself, trying to be calm and stern, to discipline as a parent must, not as the fear-filled mass of gel that he felt like.
Now is the time that we need to be strong and do what we must, when things are hardest. Mamme needs you. You are a good girl. You will help her take care of the children.
She looked down, almost confused, and then up again, and tears shone in her large hazel eyes as they pleaded with him, pleaded for him to understand.
Tatte, one last wisp of breath, I want… I want to come with you.
Now was not the time to give in to tears. Gently he pushed her away, caressing her thin shoulder as he guided her on the path she must follow.
Go, mein kind… go back to Mamme. She needs you now. That is where you belong.
Why did she look so confused?
What was that look on her face — that look of… of horror… of… abandonment… Fading from those fine features slowly, leaving a look of utter death.
The large hazel eyes closed and fluttered open and looked up at him again, deadened and shocked.
Then they were gone, looking low, and she was gone, a wisp of a girl lost in the noise and dust and human hordes.
e sat in shul, Hershel Frankel, all those years, keeping to himself and slapping away any one who came too near. Oh, he was polite, but he didn’t enhance the simchah of those who sat at his table. Couldn’t he at least make an effort to be pleasant, if not friendly?
Yes, he had lost so much, but had not so many? Had not others picked themselves up and moved on, taking comfort from each other in shared pain-tinged joy?
Nearly every one of his generation had been through the hell of Europe. None were left unscarred. People carried their wounds with them, yes, but still they lived life as fully as they could. Why did he have to be so… different?
The shtiebel would be more of a cheerful place without his chronic sharp remonstrations.
Tension laced with bitterness seemed to emanate from him. If he opened his mouth, it was worse.
It was his own fault that he had no friends.
Fact was, Hersh was just not a pleasant person to have around.
For no good reason… no good reason at all.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 504)
*Name has been changed.