The Pogrom

There was fear in fathers eyes. It was there in the sweat running down his face. And in his frantic shouting to my uncle.

My father, a small thin man with soft eyes and a full head of curly brown hair that was graying at his temples normally spent this time of day on the couch reading the morning paper with a cup of tea in hand, finishing his breakfast and getting ready to go to work as a doctor. I was usually in his lap resting against his chest while trying to read along with him.

“Papa, what’s that word?” was a frequent interruption. One followed by his patient voice helping me sound out the word.

But today was different. There was no tea and no morning paper. There was no calm.

“Kill the jews!” I could hear people shouting outside.

People were screaming, yelling for help. Occasional gun shots ran out.

Inside my home family members raced around to barricade us in. I was too young to help. So I just watched everyone else look for any item in the house that could be used to do so. Within minutes the door to our home was bolted with wooden planks. A piano and kitchen table and dining room chairs set against the boards served as backup. And back up to that were piles of rocks and kitchen utensils. Everyone held something in hand. Just in case we had to fight. The alternative wasn’t an option in our household.

Father paced back and forth, tearing at his finger nails. He was always such a man of ease, but this pushed his nerves to the edge. I sat there much of the time in silence reading a book. Mother would come to me occasionally and stroke my hair, kiss me on my forehead. She was not usually gentle and calm in her ways. Loving and loud, she had a voice that could be easily heard at our neighbors and like a brick wall, she was nearly unmovable when her mind was set. If she wanted, she did. This was her demeanor in life.

A tense few hours passed without anyone breaking in. The commotion outside settled. Everyone in our home was safe, but many in our community died that day. I was only six then. Later in life I’d learn what was happening that day was called a pogrom. Mobs were attacking jews. They could do so because the government allowed it, even encouraged it. And there was no punishment for any of their actions. This was life for us in early 20th century Russia.

Note: this is a work of historical fiction. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

“We’re so proud of you.” – A historical fiction story.

“Papa, papa, papa!” 

“What is it Hannah?” papa shouts as he nearly trips over a dining room chair while running into the house from our backyard. 

I can’t speak. Running towards him I jump into his arms and cry into his shoulder.

He pats the back of my head. “What’s wrong sweetheart?”

Dropping back to the floor, I hand him the letter.

“Laura!” papa shouts walking away from me. “Laura! She did it! She got in to Oberlin.”

Mama comes running down the stairs. There are already tears in her eyes too. 

They both walk towards me with outstretched arms. “We’re so proud of you,” they say almost in unison. 

Most women in my town don’t work. They marry, have children, care for a home. A few venture out in to the city. But most were born in and live and die in this town. In all the years only one has gone to college and that was nearly ten years ago, in 1875. 

Mama was almost another. She wanted to go to college in her youth, but wasn’t able to afford the tuition. So she stayed in town and became a teacher. Papa did go to college. He grew up in a wealthy family in Boston, graduated from Harvard and then Harvard Medical School. Now he’s the doctor of our town.

How papa and mama met is a cute story. Papa was visiting a friend in town and on a fine Saturday afternoon they went for a walk by the lake. Mama was there with some of her friends. 

Well mama is clumsy sometimes and she stepped awkwardly as she walked along the lake. She almost fell into the water. Papa saw her fall and ran over to help. 

The fall didn’t hurt her too bad, but while daddy helped her, they talked. He was smitten and came to visit her the next day to see how she was. 

That day he proposed to her. She said no. They were different, from different classes of society, different walks of life. Papa was a city guy, she loved the small country life. But papa came every weekend for the next few months. And she said yes on a walk along the same lake.

Both families objected to the marriage, but his family disowned him. Him marrying down crushed his parents. Why I don’t understand, but they felt that was more important than family. So he moved to mama’s small town and started a new practice. “Marrying your mama has been the best decision I ever made,” he’s always told me.

Papa and mama started teaching me from as long as I can remember. They both love literature and on most nights we huddle around the fireplace and read books together.  As I grew older, papa started teaching me about medicine. Sometimes at night if I’m done with my homework, I go with him to visit patients in their homes. He never rejects anyone, even those who can only pay with a warm smile and a thank you. After each patient visit we walk home and talk. And then at home, papa always sits down with me to read his medical books to better understand his patients needs.

By fifteen I could pass for a doctor and sometimes in the store or at the park people ask me for medical advice. I never give it, sheepishly telling them they have to speak to papa. 

It was around then that I said to him, “I want to be a doctor like you.”

Papa got up and walked to his bedroom. He came back with a box and handed it to me. 

I tore at the box. There was a brand new stethoscope.

“You’re going to be a great doctor,” he said, tears streaming down his soft cheeks. “But promise me you won’t quit on your dream. No matter what people say or how many rejections you get.”

“Promise.”

And now sitting together as a family looking at my acceptance letter to Oberlin, the reality of leaving home for the unknown is sinking in. Likely I will be the only woman in my class. But I look at papa and mama and can see the beaming pride in their eyes, the girth of their will for me to chase my dreams in their hearts. They support me with money and more importantly with their love. 

“You’re going to do great, Hannah. We’re so proud of you.”

Note: this is a historical fiction story. The characters and their interactions are fiction. 

A Glimpse of Normal

Life feels normal. There is warm sunshine on my face. And soft grass under my back. Chaya is at my side.

I roll over and kiss her cheek. And then her lips. I taste milk chocolate and compote. 

We get up and walk the park trails into the neighborhood where she and I and our families used to live. The building looks the same, but now feels cold and distant. Back when life was normal, Chaya and I met outside every morning at 7:30 to walk to school. Most days we’d walk home together as well. Then do our homework together. She was a math savant, I loved literature. We were both pretty horrible at much of the sciences, so our friend Aron helped us there.

Our families hoped we’d marry one day. Our parents were best friends from childhood. But I was shy, nervous to make any moves. Sometimes Chaya held my hand and looked at me with sparkles in her eyes. I wanted to kiss her. I was so scared to do so.

Finally at fifteen I mustered up the courage. It was on a school dance night in our sophomore year. We danced the whole night together. And then as we walked home along the Vistula river bank, I stopped us.

“Chaya, I like you. Not just like you, but I like you like.”

“I like you like you too,” she said, a twinge of a smile, a twinkle in her eyes.

I leaned in and we kissed.

“Finally!” And she playfully punched my arm.

She was my first kiss. A week later I said, “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

At that point we started planning life together. We both wanted to go to college. She had dreams of being an economist. And I a journalist. We wanted to live in London or Paris maybe. Then things changed. In our junior year of high school, the Nazi’s invaded. Soon their flag was everywhere. There had been rumors of life changes. Rumors became reality. A few months after the invasion, they began building the ghetto wall.

It’s been less than a year since then, but how long ago it feels. Now we aren’t walking the main city roads. Carefully, Chaya and I walk the back alleys. If our families knew, they’d be furious. If someone discovered us we’d be taken to the police station. And from there who knows. Torture, death probably.

Sneaking out of the ghetto though was part of life for me now. Being blond and blue eyed made me invaluable to the resistance. I joined before we even moved into the ghetto.

But this is my first time out of the ghetto with Chaya. I had tried saying no. She begged me. “One day without the stench of death is all I want,” she pleaded. “Please make this our anniversary gift.”

“It’s too dangerous,” I told her.

Chaya always got her way. With her it was never if, but when.

We slither past our old home, doing our best to make sure no one sees us. Enjoying a bit more of freedom, we  make our way down to the river bank and settle in a nook near the spot of our first kiss. We eat more chocolate and drink more compote, luxuries I smuggled in to the ghetto for us to enjoy on this day.

As the sun sets we make our way back to the ghetto and to the tunnel. Our withered bodies have no problem sliding through narrow gap under the walled barrier. We walk back to the apartment our families now share. Nine to a room, that’s the average ratio in the ghetto. We’re lucky as the eight of us have two rooms.

“Thank you. Happy anniversary sweetheart.”

“Happy anniversary my love.”

Note: this is a historical fiction piece based on true events. The characters and their interactions are fiction.