27. Not laughing any more

By Peter Fraenkel

The new rabbi liked to sleep in on Sundays. After all, Saturday, the Holy Sabbath was supposed to be a day of rest. It never was, not for him. He had to conduct two services and to shake hands until he ached and then listen to sympathetically to a myriad of personal problems, most of them boring. So – on Sundays he liked to sleep in. This Sunday, however, this was impossible. He was out early, pounding at Mrs. Hildesheimer’s door. She emerged in a hastily donned dressing gown and started to apologize. He cut her short: “You were searching for a brother called Erich, weren’t you? And your maiden name, if I’m not mistaken, was Miodownik? Someone with such a name is listed as a survivor at Maidanek…that camp in Poland… under Soviet occupation, I believe.”

The rabbi received lists of survivors regularly. He went through them conscientiously but so far it had been a thankless task. There were, alas, so few survivors. This was the first time he had found anyone related – or possibly related – to his flock.

That very day a letter was composed in two languages. Mrs. Hildesheimer wrote in English and the rabbi translated it into Yiddish. She also wanted to write in her native German but the rabbi advised this might not go down well with the Soviets. Then they waited.

The discovery excited the refugee community. If, so long after the end of hostilities, it was still possible to find a surviving relative, there was hope for others. The following weeks a steady stream of visitors called on Mrs. Hildesheimer for a cup of tea and the latest news. But there was no news.

Speculation was rife: “You know – I don’t like to say this but some of those bloody Nazis have been known to steal Jewish identity papers to avoid detection. I don’t want to depress you but…”

Mrs. Hildesheimer appealed to Schneeberger, the Red Cross representative. Letters went to Geneva but she remembered that Schneeberger knew Russian. Hadn’t he worked in Russia during one of those famines?   She persuaded him to write one more letter, this time in Russian. There was no Cyrillic typewriter at Akasul but he wrote by hand. They waited anxiously for a reply. When eventually it arrived Schneeberger was away – visiting an outlying Polish refugee camp. She could not read it. Of course she knew some of the Poles knew the language but she was reluctant to approach them. “Anti-Semites, aren’t they?” But she had always exchanged polite greetings with the handsome Zbyszek so she overcame her reluctance. He found her an old Polish woman who had learnt Russian in her youth but, as she said, it had been many years ago. She had forgotten a lot. What was worse, her English was poor. She struggled with the letter.

“I’m very sorry to bring you bad news. So far as I can understand it the letter says Erich Miodownik has disappeared…vanished. He is no longer at the camp and his whereabouts are not known. They say, these Russkis, that they have started enquiries.”

Then, to Mrs. Hildesheimer’s surprise, the old lady took her hand and said sadly. “You can’t believe what they say. The Bolsheviks have probably murdered your brother, just like they murdered our Poles at Katyn. I’m sorry …very sorry.” After a pause she added: “I shall pray for your brother!”

As soon as Schneeberger got back to town he confirmed the old lady’s translation. He would, he said, activate the Red Cross to try and find out what had happened. “But don’t hope for too much: Europe is in a state of chaos.” After a hesitation he added: “I do know how you feel. I lost my fiancé in Russia in the chaos after World War I… I never did find her.”

The wait was long. Eventually Schneeberger turned up at her house. She had guests for tea. He looked around embarrassed and said quietly “Come to my office tomorrow.”

“If you’ve got news of my brother, tell me now!”

“It would be better if you came to see me.”

Mrs Hildesheimer quickly got rid of her visitors and followed Schneeberger to his office. He had gone out but the office was not locked. She sat down at his desk and waited. She would have been quite willing to snoop among his papers but he had locked everything away. What could it be that had made him so secretive?

Schneeberger arrived an hour later: “I’m afraid the news will not make you happy. Of course, information we get from the Soviet Union is not always reliable…”

“What do they say?”

Schneeberger paused, then came out with it: “They say your brother fled when his collaboration with the SS was exposed. They say he had been a kapo.”

“A kapo? I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. He was a lovely, gentle lad.”

She knew about kapos. They were prisoners who had collaborated with the Nazis – guarding and often maltreating other prisoners in return for privileges. Some, she had heard, were as brutal as the Nazis – others even worse.

Schneeberger went to his safe and pulled out a letter. He translated it painstakingly: The Nazi concentration camp guards, he read, had fled a day before the arrival of the Red Army and had left the camp in a state of chaos. Before order could be established Miodownik had fled from the barracks – the barracks where once he had lorded it over others. He had sneaked into another section of the camp. Perhaps he hoped that no one there would know him. However one inmate did recognize him. Before the Soviet authorities could arrest him he had escaped over the perimeter fence. This was no longer electrified after the flight of the SS. He has not been seen since.”

“I can’t believe it”, she repeated.

Schneeberger shook his head. “Madam, thank God you and I have never been in such a situation. None of us know what we might do to save our lives.”

She had to feel her way out of his office, blinded by tears. But she was back first thing next morning, red-eyed. She had obviously slept very little. Schneeberger, too, had not found it easy to sleep. She stammered, struggling to recover her composure but Schneeberger knew what she had come to say. He held up his hand: “No need to speak, Madam. You can rely on my discretion. This remains between you and me. No one else will ever get to hear it. Besides, can we be sure that it’s true?”

She pressed his hand: “What times we have lived through! What times!”

He nodded. He was about to say more but held back and stood quietly for a while, then seemed to brace himself:

“I was at school in Russia. I think I mentioned it before. In our town there was a mad monk. Well, we schoolboys called him Mad Monk. We used to follow him round the streets. He went about in ragged clothes, with a wild beard and a wild look and he predicted the end of the world. ‘Our sins! Our sins! Our sins are forcing God to destroy this evil world. Sodom and Gomorrah! Sodom and Gomorrah…” We laughed at him. Yes, we did.

But you know: I’m not laughing any more…”