* * *
The wooden barracks was poor protection from the insistent wind. Snow filtered
onto the bunks, stacked three high, then packed chinks in the walls with icy mortar. Abraham shivered, backing closer to his
older brother, Saul, in the upper bunk they shared with the old man who always smelled of diarrhea and vomit. Below, in feeble
light, the men crouched together over a puny candle.
Rebbe Liebbman, whose striped uniform shirt had long ago disintegrated into
shreds hanging on his skeleton chest, led The Blessings. He knelt before the precious candle, made of scavenged fat and threads
pulled from their thin shirts. He rocked forward and backward on his bony knees and his voice rose with each passage. At the
last blessing, tears coursed down his sunken cheeks and the light in his dark eyes was brighter than the candle.
“Baruch ata Adonai, elohanu malech
ha olem, sheheyanu vikiyimanu, vihigiyanu, lazman ha zeh.”
Twelve-year-old Abraham repeated the Hanukkah blessing to himself. Blessed
are you, Our God, Ruler of the world, who has given us life, sustained us and has brought us to this season. “Why?”
he asked his brother.
“Why has the Lord God brought us to this season? It’s so cold.
I’m sure it’s much better where Mama is.” The boy felt Saul’s body stiffen.
“Mama’s dead.” Saul was quiet for a moment, studying the
clump of men on the floor. “They gassed Mama, Avrom. They threw her body on a pile and let it rot.” The cold in
Saul’s voice rivaled that of the thin covering of snow that filtered from the holes in the roof onto the top bunks.
The door banged open and a blast of frigid air swept through the building,
extinguishing the Hanukkah flame. It was Fleischer, tall, broad-shouldered, threatening in his stiff uniform. His name meant
butcher in German, Abraham knew. He buried his face in the thin blanket and listened.
“Is there a doctor among you?” No response. “You will answer,
please. A doctor?” The emaciated men in their ragged uniforms straightened their shoulders and steeled their eyes. They
did not answer, and the big guard raised his eyebrow at their defiance.
“I am a medical student.” Saul’s tentative words thundered
through the barracks. Abraham gasped.
“Saul Sorkin. This is my brother . . . ”
“You will report to the hospital tomorrow morning after roll call.”
The officer hadn’t even looked at the brothers, but fixed his gaze on the old man cradling the extinguished candle.
“My brother must come with me.”
The child, Abraham, was startled at the boldness in his brother’s voice.
The guard looked up at them on their top bunk, and for a long moment there was silence, no movement. Abraham heard a loud
drumming in his ears and realized it was his heartbeat. Then, from a bunk below, came a rasping, labored cough and the stillness
“Bring your brother.” The guard spun on his heel and swept out
of the barracks.
“You can not go.” The Rebbe’s voice was a whisper.
“My brother is a doctor,” said the boy, his thin chest puffed
out. “If someone needs a doctor, he must go”
The man ignored Abraham‘s statement. He spoke to Saul. “You can
not go to the hospital. You know what they do there.”
“In a hospital, they treat sick people. German or Jew.” Abraham
challenged the old man. “Sh-aul must go, he is a doctor.”
The rabbi turned his razor gaze to the boy. “In this hospital they take
Jewish men and women, and no one knows what becomes of them, but we hear their screams. In this hospital, they cut babies
from their mothers’ wombs without first killing the pain. We see the young mothers go in, their bellies stretched tight,
and we hear them yell. Then we hear nothing. They kill the mothers and their children. Jewish children. Like you.”
Saul pulled his little brother back from the edge of the bunk and looked into
his frightened eyes. “Enough, Old Man,” he barked at the rabbi. “They will do these things with or without
“You can not go.”
“Is it your plan that we all die here together, even if two of us might be
saved? Is that it, Old Man? Because, I tell you, I promised my mother at Auschwitz, as they tore her away from her little boy, that I would keep him safe. The devil with the cane tapped her with that
gold tip and they threw her into the death line.”
Rebbe Liebbman raised his hand as if to protest.
“You can’t deny it old man. Maybe at first we didn’t know.
But a day or two in the cattle cars, with the rumors, and we guessed. An hour at the camp and we were certain. We knew where
they were taking those women and the littlest children. The ones who couldn’t work. I met her eyes as they marched her
away, and I promised her. Abraham will survive. And so will I.”
The man who shared their poor bed struggled to the ground and hunkered against
the icy wall. Several of the other men turned their backs, shunning the Sorkin brothers.
Rebbe Liebbman’s eyes narrowed to slits. “A broch tzu dir,” he hissed.
The curse hit Abraham like a rock thrown at his chest. Curse you, the holy
man had said. Surely, the Lord God listened to His holy men. The rabbi spat, and Abraham shivered as he watched the spittle
hit the floor, sealing his fate.
The guards put cots for them in the far end of the barracks, where the cracks
in the walls weren’t as wide. The other prisoners walked in broad circles to avoid crossing paths with them. They never
looked at the Sorkin brothers and all conversation stopped as soon as they entered the building. They called people Kapos,
who did what Saul Elim Sorkin was doing. The brothers spent their days in the camp hospital, Saul assisted the doctors, secretly
easing the pain of the pitiable Jews confined there. Abraham swept out the rooms, emptied bins of bloody rags, scrubbed the
marble-tiled medical table. At first, the boy gagged at their assignments, at the betrayal of his fellow prisoners. Then,
he grew numb to it, the pain and death. When the prisoners in that cold, dead barracks saw the brothers coming back in the
evening, they called out “Kapo, Kapo.”
Like lepers, Abraham thought. Like lepers who had to yell “Unclean”
as they made their way through the streets of old Jerusalem. “Kapo” became the curse the other prisoners spat at them. So when
Abraham recognized one of those prisoners in the pile of bodies that rose and rotted outside the camp hospital, he wasn’t