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One Night of Eternities
My legs pumped swiftly underneath me, trampling through the tall grass parched by the intense heat. Trees blurred, seeming almost invisible.
The soft scent of the morning dew clashed beautifully with the light aroma of the spring fields. I knew that if today had been different I would have stopped just to take in the intoxicating scent.
Not today. Today was unfocused and unhinged. The world seemed to spin, blurred at the edges.
I heard the crackling of my feet through the matted underbrush, felt sharp pains as my bare feet hit a sharp rock, warm mud between my toes, and pushed it all out of my mind.
I swerved around the occasional pedestrian as they rushed to get home. The streets used to be busy and cheerful this time of the evening. Not anymore.
I was in my own little world. It was beautiful and soothing. Safe. I knew that when I stopped running I would reenter the reality that I desperately sought to escape. I wasn’t ready for that, so I pushed my legs harder, sprinting through the stunning, blissful meadow.
Suddenly I collided with a stone figure and was knocked off my feet. In a rush it was all gone. My beautiful daydream world was replaced with stone buildings, cold air and hard concrete beneath me.
I looked up and fear struck through me like lightning. Before me stood a tall man in a long dark coat. I didn’t need to see the patch on his arm. He was clearly one of them.
“What are you doing out at this time?” barked the German soldier, his voice rough.
My voice escaped me. I looked around wildly, searching the empty streets.
“Ah,” he spat, eyeing my Star of David necklace, “just get out of here girl.”
I got to my feet and swiftly turned to walk down the street.
I scowled as the remark met my ears. As soon as I was sure I was out of the soldier’s view I broke into a run again. This time, I was trying to put as much distance between me and that horrid man as possible.
I slowed as I turned and walked up the stone steps to enter a large red brick building. I lived on the third floor in a small apartment with my young brother and my father. My mother had died years ago giving birth to Johnathon. Still, he met her through the stories I created for him. Stories of magic and adventure, where there were no soldiers invading our homes, ripping apart neighboring families, our friends.
I sighed as I opened the door and entered our apartment.
“Annie!” A small five year old boy ran around a corner and wrapped his petite arms around my waist.
“Hey there Johnny,” I ruffled his hair and dropped a kiss on his head. “I thought you were going the Aarons’ house today.” The Aarons’ were a family that lived down the street from us.
A sad look washed across the boy’s face and I quickly changed the subject, repressing the curiosity and confusion that rose within me.
“Where’s Papa?” I asked walking to the kitchen to start supper.
“Oh, he’s working late,” he explained, bouncing after me, all traces of his previous anguish gone.
“Hmm. Well alright. Why don’t you go read for a bit, and then we’ll eat once Papa gets home. Ok?”
I grinned as he skipped away to the room he and I shared.
An hour later food was on the table. I was growing impatient, when finally the door swung open and a tall gray haired man walked in, hanging up his coat. “It’s getting cold out there. I can’t believe it’s only November!” He joined us at the table smiling.
Dinner was always a long event. My father worked hard all day so this was the only time we had to catch up and talk. It was unimportant chatter, but I knew by the look he gave me that he wanted to speak with me alone. Something had happened.
I put Johnny to bed and sat next to my father on the small sofa.
“What’s going on? Did something happen to the Aarons? Why didn’t Johnny go there today? Papa, I’m thirteen now, I’m old enough to know!” The questions spilled from me.
“Settle down Annie,” He paused and took a deep breath. “Mr. Aarons is dead. He was beaten to death in the streets this morning, defending a Jewish man being harassed.”
It felt like a boulder was slammed onto my chest. I knew about the horrible deaths, the name calling, the vandalism, but this time the death was close to home. I had known Mr. Aarons my whole life. He was not Jewish himself, but he held much respect for us, and had always been a kind hearted man.
“That’s so horrible. I just don’t understand why this is happening. What did we do wrong?” Tears sprung into my eyes and I frantically tried to wipe them away.
My Papa leaned forward, staring deep into my eyes. He grasped both my hands in one of his and used the other to wipe away the escaped tear that fell down my cheek. “Annie don’t think like that. We have done nothing wrong. It’s horrible, it’s unfair, but it will all be ok. Remember what your mother used to say?”
“Everything always looks better in the morning,” we said in unison and I smiled at the memory.
“Now go to bed Annie. It’ll all be better in the morning. I promise.” I hugged him goodnight and walked slowly to Johnathon’s and my room. My father always made me feel better no matter what. He was my one constant, my best friend.
I tucked the blankets tighter around Johnathon before climbing into my own bed and succumbing to the bittersweet darkness of slumber.
It was the screams that woke me. They pierced the night air, sending shivers up my spine. Johnathon sobbed silently across the room. I jumped out of bed in a flash to go comfort him, when I heard a pounding knock in the front door.
“I’ll be right back,” I told the crying boy, then ran from the room in a panic. I stood in the doorway listening intently as my father answered the door.
“Daniel its happening. You have to come quick, they’re everywhere. It’s crazy down there. You have to help!” a man’s frantic voice pleaded.
“Slow down. Now tell me, what’s going on down there? I heard the shouts.” My father’s voice was worried, but calm.
“Oh Daniel it’s horrible. They’re shattering the windows, throwing rocks, and the Synagogue! It’s burning Daniel!”
“Who is it? The soldiers?”
“There are some, but it’s others too! Some of my friends are down there, our neighbors, helping them! It’s madness! Please. I saw bodies on my way here. Please you have to come!”
I waited for him to say no, to tell the man at the door that he had to stay and be with me and Johnathon; that he couldn’t help. But-
“I’ll be right there.” I saw him throw on his coat and shoes and run towards me. He grabbed my shoulders. “Annie, stay here. I’ll be back.”
I shook my head at him, surprised to find that I was crying again.
“Please Annie! I have to help! Stay with your brother. I’ll be back soon. Don’t look outside. I love you.” I tried to plead with him, but I couldn’t grasp at the words. He kissed my forehead and then, he was gone.
“Annie!” I tore my eyes away from the door that had just closed behind my father and returned to my room. I rushed to close the curtains around the windows trying not to look out on the streets. Still I was unable to ignore the bright red and orange flames engulfing our beautiful Synagogue across the street, and the figures of people I had once counted among my friends shouting and throwing rocks at the store windows that lined the streets. Shattered glass gleamed everywhere in the light of the fire.
I looked away, whipping the curtains closed and going to Johnathon. I sat in his bed and pulled him to me. I took a deep breath, fighting tears. I needed to be strong.
“Do you remember the story I told you about Mama and the stars?” Johnathon nodded his head against my shoulder. “Do you want to hear it again?” He nodded so I began. “Once, there was a beautiful woman who loved the stars…” I told him the story and all the others I could think of.
The night wore on. It might have lasted for hours, but to me and Johnathon, it seemed like years, life times, eternities, all set into one miserable, fear stricken night.
It’s amazing how one moment, one event, can alter the fate of a world. For me that shocking moment was also an insight to the reality closing in around me. A realization that the world is not perfect, that horrible things happen and that there is nothing you can do but stay strong. However, having strength is not as easy as it would seem and sometimes by surviving the terrors, you encounter a world worse than death and find that there is no way out.
To everyone else it was Kristallnacht. It was “the Night of Broken Glass.” To me, the height of the fear came with the morning when I woke to silence. It was the fear that came with knowing that my father, my Papa, was not coming back. He broke his promise and he left me by myself to face the future that would just get darker and more terrifying. It was the fear that I was now responsible for Johnathon, and that we were alone. With every passing day from that night on, it became clear that my mothers saying that had always held true before that life shattering night, had died with my father. From then on for me and my brother, everything always looked worse in the morning.
When the violence ended on the morning of November 10, 1938, ninety Jews had lain dead and over thirty thousand Jewish men had been taken into "protective custody" at labor camps under Nazi control. Men that I knew, friends that I loved, all their lives had shattered with the store windows glass, all their hopes had burned away with the flames engulfing our beautiful house of God. It was not just Kristallnacht, “the Night of Broken Glass.” It was the end of my daydream world. I was forever trapped in a nightmare, a reality, a never ending night.