We were twelve and we knew all there was to know. Of course, we didn’t.
But Stevie Gershon thought he knew even more than the rest of us. And, because of that, he was a dick. A nudnick. A putz. He was tall and angular, with neatly-parted brown hair, ruddy cheeks, and an open collared shirt. Sometimes, he wore a vest. He lived in a house with a long paved driveway and a housekeeper.
Every Wednesday afternoon, he sat in the last seat in the last row in the cramped and crowded classroom on the second floor of the synagogue where the Reb Himmelstein taught us to read and write and speak Hebrew.
We opened our notebooks from the right side and printed the Hebrew letters the same way, right to left on each page. Gershon was left-handed. He said that it was an advantage over the rest of us. His father, he said, knew someone who knew Eisenhower. He was still a putz.
We learned that shalom, which you probably know already, means hello and goodbye, tov means good and rah means bad, a boy is yeled and a girl is yaldah, lechem means bread, yom means day, and chalon is the word for window.
Reb Himmelstein was thin like an egg noodle. He always wore a black pair of pants and a black jacket over his white shirt with the buttons fastened all the way up to his collar.
He walked into the room each Wednesday at 3:15, took off his black Borsalino hat, adjusted his kepa on the back of his head, placed his leather briefcase on the desk in the front of the room, looked around the room and into each of our eyes, and said Shalom. We would repeat that to him. “Shalom, Reb Himmelstein.”
He then turned to the blackboard behind the desk to write. He wrote words in Hebrew, like on this one day, because it was the start of the holidays, he wrote Yom Tov, on the board and next to it wrote ‘good day’, and then he wrote the Hebrew letters next to that.
And as he said each word we repeated it, trying hard to say just as he did. He said them as many times as it to took us to get each one right.
But then like every week, Gershon, from the back of the room, called out Yontif.
“Not yontif”, said Reb Himmelstein. “It is yom tov.”
“My father says yontif,” said Gershon.
Then you tell your father that yontif is not Hebrew. It is Yiddish and in here we are learning to speak Hebrew.
Gershon said yontif again, but lower than before and Himmelstein give him a look. And Gershon looked straight back at him.
It was as if Himmelstein had never heard such impudence, or seen such puerile obstinance.
“Ba hineh tzaiyr, come here, ben Gershon akh’shav,” said the Reb. None of us knew what those words meant but of course we knew what they must have meant.
Himmelstein took a step in Gershon’s direction. Gershon stood up. The Reb’s fists were balled, his knuckles pale. He touched the kepa on his head. We could see his hands shaking. He looked for sure as if he was going to hit Gershon.
But then he stopped. He sat back down in the empty chair near the front of the room, near his desk and his briefcase. His head bowed, lowered into his hands. His elbows resting upon his knees and he looked up at us.
There were tears in his eyes.
“Let me tell you all something. I am sorry to you. I am not myself today.”
“This day, this afternoon, before I am on the train to be here, to teach you, to teach you how to speak Hebrew, how to be Jews, good Jews, good people, good young men, I learned something that I hope you never do.”
“I learned today that my family,” he said to us, “my grandparents and my uncles and cousins who escaped from Poland in 1939, and went to Holland and who we thought had been hidden, and saved? They were not. They were rounded up, every one of them, and sent to Mauthausen and then put on trains to Birkenau. Birkenau,” he repeated. “Do you know what is Birkenau?”
We did not know. No one spoke. Not even Gershon.
“It is where the Jews from Holland were sent to die, to be starved and shot to death or killed by Zyklon B in rooms that could hold a thousand people at a time and then their bodies were burned in ovens. Ovens. All of them. Do you know what is Zyklon B? It is cyanide. A poison they used to kill rats.”
Again, we looked at one another, saying not a word.
For those few minutes, and it could not have been more than ten or fifteen minutes that he spoke to us, he seemed to be a broken man, a man who himself had been starved and beaten, a man who had seen his own parents, his own small children (Did he have any? He never spoke of them.) pulled from his grasp and led away, crying no doubt, their arms wrenched and torn behind them, rifle butts poised above their heads.
He seemed to be a man who had lost everything. Folded in on himself.
I could not believe what I was hearing; that this could have happened without anyone telling me. I knew none of this. Not Poland or Holland or ovens. Nothing.
“What have we done to deserve this?” he said. “To be treated as sheretz, vermin. As less than vermin. To be crushed under a foot like a cockroach?”
I could not look at him anymore. I wanted him to stop.
Did my parents know about this? Why was I not told? Were any of my own family murdered like this? The ones in Germany or Austria. The ones in Latvia. The ones who were never spoken of. The ones whose pictures I never saw. As if my family had somehow begun with my grandparents.
Before he let us go he said, “Why did I come here today? Why do I write these words on the chalkboard? Why do I want you to know them? It is because to know these words is to know the lives of those who came before us. The words they spoke. The words they were killed for knowing and speaking. These words,” he said, pointing to the board behind him, “these were not taken from us.”
“Now,” he said, “go home to your families. Go home and be thankful.”