(Warning: Contains Death related to Holocaust)
“Our Father…who…which art in Heaven…hallowed be thy name—”
“Start again, without stuttering.”
Ruth could feel the tears welling up in her eyes as her mother’s lack of patience thinned.
“Our Father which art in Heaven…hallowed be thy name….”
Her tongue tried to grasp the slippery words but they kept escaping her, crawling down the depths of her throat and churning in her knotted stomach. More and more Jewish families disappeared each day, and Ruth feared each day she woke up would be her last in the comforts of her Berlin home with her mother and father.
At eleven years old, she couldn’t ignore the reality that surrounded her. She was no longer a girl of blissful ignorance. The German officer who ripped Caleb—an elderly Jewish man—from the corner store he owned and hit him in the head with the butt of his rifle after he refused to leave made sure of that. Ruth watched the unconscious man bleed to death on the cobblestone walkway as others—with heads bowed—walked quicky around him like nothing was wrong. When Ruth closed her eyes at night, her dreams were coated in his crimson blood.
Even before that, whole families disappeared at a time. Ruth could not picture where they were taken or what the Nazis did with them. Did they give them new homes in the countryside? Were they sent off to Israel to freely practice in the synagogues that were taken from them? After Ruth saw Caleb’s cracked and bleeding skull and the hushed murmurs of a camp called Auschwitz, she knew. The families were collected, separated, and led somewhere to bleed to death. She stopped questioning her mother and father about why she has to pretend she’s not Jewish, that her name is now Rebecca, and the importance of memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. She’s seen uniformed men pull people at random off the street into the shadows where trucks waited if they couldn’t answer their questions fast enough.
“Okay,” her father said, his deep voice barely audible in the hushed tone he was speaking, “what is your name and where do you go to church?”
“Rebecca Meyer. I attend St. Nikolas’ Church.”
“And the priests name?”
Her mother pulled at a thread on her coat, unraveling it with trembling fingers. Crisp and freshly printed papers slid out, and Ruth felt her heart race as her mother drew her daughter close, jamming it into the inside of her own coat.
“You are going to Father Lichtenberg. He can keep you safe.”
“No!” She yelled, hot tears burning down her cheeks, “you can keep me safe! All three of us are safe if we stay together!” She flung the precious documents from her jacket and onto the floor. She had spent many nights laying in her bed, thanking Yahweh for another day spent with her family together. She knew it was only a matter of time, but the words that escaped her mother’s lips still stung. Her new identity glared up at her from the floorboards.
“I take it back! My name is Ruth Abrams. My synagogue was burned down, and the rabbi taken! I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer because I am a Jew!”
Ruth fell to the ground stunned, her cheek stinging with the swift slap her mother delivered. She stared up at her in disbelief.
Her mother hissed through tears, “we have sacrificed everything for these papers, and you will honor your mother and father. You will go. Your father and I will be safe.”
Ruth knew this was a lie. If they were safe, they wouldn’t be sending her off alone to some strange man. It was especially dangerous now on the streets. Jews weren’t allowed out unless it was between the hours of two and three in the afternoon to scavenge for food.
Ruth felt a surge of confliction rise in her. She had learned that Jews were put under trial all throughout history…how was this any different than the slaves of Egypt before Moses came to save them? Wouldn’t Yahweh be pleased with those who stayed true and look down on those who didn’t?
“Lying is a sin,” Ruth combatted her mother.
“It is simply a precaution,” her father reassured, “just last night our neighbors disappeared. Who knows when we will get that same knock on our door? You will come back when things simmer down.”
Another lie. Nothing will simmer down. Each day, the street grows quieter and the world a shade darker. If she left her parents, she knew they may never see each other again.
“I cannot lie about who I am,” Ruth said, “I cannot lie about my beliefs!”
Her mother now pulled her in as Ruth stood up from the floor and squeezed her tightly. She could feel her nose nuzzle into her long brown hair, breathing her in as if for the last time.
“It isn’t a lie. Yahweh knows who we are.”
“So do the soldiers patrolling the town. How would I make it to the church without being pulled from the street?”
“You will go at night with me,” her father said, “And we will cut and bleach your hair.”
Ruth gasped, clutching at her long, chestnut brown hair.
“You must believe who you are. A French girl named Rebecca Meyer. Your very life depends on it.”
Ruth cried quietly as she heard the shears crudely cut the hair by her ears, long brown tendrils floating to the floor. She ran her fingers through it, feeling it stop bluntly at her chin. She wouldn’t dare look at herself in the mirror, especially after the bleach set in. She decided she would never look at herself in the mirror again or succumb to the false persona her parents created for her. In the safe confines of her mind, she would stay Ruth.
Her mother pulled at the threads of her blouse and coat, pulling off the yellow stars that she wished so desperately to keep now. As the dark night set in, her father looked out the windows and squinted up and down the street, taking a firm hold of her hand. Ruth didn’t ask about her things. She knew nobody had time to carefully pack their possessions in a suitcase. No Jew in Berlin had that luxury.
“We are taking the backroads, so keep up and stay silent,” her father whispered as they left the house. Ruth didn’t dare look back at her mother. She couldn’t stand to see her face crumpled and tear streaked. That’s not how she wanted to remember her, for deep down she knew this was the last time they would be a family.
She obediently followed her father with her head down. Her heart raced wildly, and she wondered if it was loud enough for him to hear. The cold wind nipped sharply on the back of her bare neck, the jagged ends of hair tickling behind her ears as if to make fun of her.
I am Ruth Abrams. My synagogue was burnt, and my rabbi taken. I do not know the Lord’s Prayer, for I am a Jew.
They rounded a final corner where she saw St. Nikolas’ Church tower chillingly before them. Two sharp roof peaks like spears pierced the moon hanging in the black sky, proudly asserting, Can a synagogue catch the moon? Ruth squinted as they approached, the dark silhouette of a man standing still as a statue on the stoop of the moonlit doorway. There was no time to waste.
“Come, Rebecca,” he spoke quietly to her as they approached, “we must get you inside.”
I am Ruth Abrams. My synagogue was burnt, and my rabbi taken. I do not know the Lord’s Prayer, for I am a Jew.
Ruth panicked as she felt the grip of her father’s warm hand break away from hers. She swirled around to look at him, to hug him around the waist and beg him to stay with her but he was already gliding down the street, head bent behind hunched shoulders. Panic choked her as tears spewed from her eyes and down her cheeks.
“Come,” the man spoke patiently, gently wrapping an arm around her shoulder and ushering her inside. She wept quietly, keeping her eyes cast down on the stone flooring as she followed the priests’ soundless steps through the cathedral.
The nuns were stern with all the girls, but Ruth grew to like the busy schedule they laid out for her. She wore a crisp dark blue dress uniform with stockings. A quiet girl named Sarah would fix her hair in the mornings since she refused to look in the mirror and fix it herself. She went to classes and sat in a pew three times a day for prayer with the other students, then she helped prepare dinner of cabbage soup and bread in the kitchen and scrubbed the dishes after. She was only meant to do this two days a week, but the other students gladly let her take their chores. The busier Ruth was the less time her mind had to wonder about her parents. The Cathedral seemed daunting to her at first, but she began to find peace within the walls and the smell of old hymnals.
Ruth hadn’t spoken a single word after a month, but Father Lichtenberg and the nuns never pressured her. She felt confliction stopping the words behind her teeth, barring them from escape. She wanted to speak, but she couldn’t talk as Ruth or Rebecca. She was lost somewhere between Jew and Catholic, floating in a grey lukewarm pool where nothing took shape or form.
Who is Ruth? Her synagogue was burnt, and a rabbi was taken, but she is now in a church with a priest and nuns. She knows the Lord’s Prayer like the back of her hand. Is she still a Jew?
She woke from her troubled thoughts early in the morning and tiptoed quietly out the convent and into the garden. The sky was turning from black to deep blue, the first whisper of light gleaming across the frosted earth like a sea of diamonds. Most of the garden had turned brown and sunk back into the earth, waiting for spring to thaw them out. As Ruth sat on a cement bench, she felt her heart thud painfully at the sight of bright yellow peonies shining through the dim blue dusk, not at all bothered by the frost that coated it like sugar.
A memory of her mother’s garden flooded back to her so fast, she was momentarily lightheaded. Her mother had planted yellow peonies and she would sit out in the morning as the sun rose and began its journey across the light blue sky. Morning was her favorite time of day. It was peaceful, she was left with her thoughts as the world slept. The morning brought new promises, new hope, new adventures. She would stay long enough to witness the dew drops on the peonies slide from the delicate petals and absorb into the soil. Even in these dark times, when whole families disappeared—before she came to this church and wondered where her parents were and if they were alive—she would sit in her mother’s garden and look at the beautiful peonies, hopeful for the new day.
As she looked at these frosted peonies, she thought of them as ignorant. They were bright, cheery, and happy because they were unaware of the destruction the frost had havocked on the rest of the garden. They didn’t know any better. If somebody were to tell a peony that it was coated in frost, would it wither away into the ground? Would it bashfully hide its face from the cold like the pansies and coral bells?
Perhaps it knew it was a flower, and it simply convinced the winter it was a wild shrub, indifferent to what the day brings. Maybe this was how it survived the frost that claimed everything else.
As the sun breeched the sky, she felt a new wave of hope wash over her. The frost warmed, turning into dew drops on the peonies.
The day began much like all the others. She rushed upstairs and dressed in her uniform. Sarah combed her hair and pulled it back from her face with a plain barrette. She attended morning prayers followed by classes, but by midafternoon as she made her way to the kitchen, Sister Mary’s face was filled with concern.
“The delivery never came,” she spoke in hushed tones to Sister Elizabeth, “We have no wheat, and will be out of cabbage by the end of this week, even. What would we feed them?”
“I will go.”
Ruth’s voice cracked as she spoke the first words since she arrived. The nuns looked at her, stunned. Either dumbfounded at the boldness of her words or to hear her finally speak, she did not know.
“It is too risky,” Sister Mary whispered.
“I am eleven, and small enough to escape the eye of the soldiers and blend into the crowd, but if they were to seize me what do I have to fear? I am a French born Catholic.”
The Sisters glanced nervously at each other. There was no other solution. The Sisters could not leave the convent, for gossip had spread that the church was protecting Jewish children. Even if they changed from their habits, their faces were known by all. When Sister Catherine left the convent two weeks ago, soldiers had beaten and tortured her for information. She never spoke to them, and as a result she lay bed-ridden with broken legs and ribs from the severe beating. She was lucky to even be alive. Father Lichtenberg was expecting a raid of officers any day now.
Ruth walked down the street and felt strange doing so. It took considerable effort for her to keep her head up and walk upright without shame, like she used to walk before being a Jew was a crime. She wasn’t fearful of seeing anybody she knew, because it was three-thirty in the evening and no Jew was permitted to be out at this hour. Did her mother and father walk by the cathedral ever, hoping to catch a glimpse of her?
She found herself at the market, walking past the sign in the window saying, No Jews. She bought wheat and cabbage as instructed, tossing over the francs to the clerk and strolling back out into the street. Her heart thudded in her chest as she felt a pair of eyes following her.
A tall man in a sharply creased grey uniform and red arm band paced quickly toward her. She felt her legs tremble under her, but she clenched her jaw and stared back at the officer.
He eyed her curiously, a sickly smile creeping across his sharp features as he spoke in German, “What is your name?”
I am Ruth Abrams.
“I am Rebecca Meyer.” She was surprised by how her voice didn’t tremble.
He took a step closer, but she did not budge. “And where are you going, Rebecca Meyer?”
“Back home to my convent. I attend St. Nikolas’.”
My synagogue has been burnt down and my rabbi taken. I return to my refuge.
“I see,” he smirked, eyeing her up and down. She wasn’t in her blue uniform. She had changed out of it to better blend in.
“And, Rebecca Meyer, where is it you originate?”
“France,” she answered without hesitation. She spoke to him in fluent French, “My family has sent me to follow my calling of becoming a nun. The convent is my home where Father Lichtenberg and Sister Mary and Sister Elizabeth are my teachers.”
“And can you recite to me the Lord’s Prayer?”
Ruth did so without hesitation, for she knew the Lord’s Prayer just as Yahweh knows her.
She showed proof of the identification as the sisters taught her to keep her documents on her always and he finally let her go, watching her walk down the street with her head up.
Berlin was crawling with the frost of Nazi’s, but Ruth was a peony, and the frost could not bite her. Winter does not last forever, and she spoke a silent prayer that her parents were somewhere safe, for there was still hope they can all be together again one Spring day.