Helen Maryles Shankman
The Mirsky mill nested at the fork of the Bug and Wlodawa rivers, near the liquid and ever-changing border with the Ukraine. At the hub of a cultivated patchwork of plowed fields, the plain stone structure could be observed for miles, a landmark in those parts, and was reached by way of a worn spur jutting off from the main road, exactly ten kilometers from everywhere.
Shayna and Hersh’s parents were the third generation of Mirskys to inherit the farm. As the sole proprietors of the only grist mill in a district famed for its endless fields of wheat and rye, Shayna and Hersh’s parents worked hard for the entire length of their short lives, wearing themselves out before they turned forty.
There were many who were willing to take advantage of the new orphans; after all, there was a Depression going on, the son was young and a dreamer, the daughter, just a girl. But Shayna’s black eyes crackled with a fierce intelligence, her tongue was quick and sharp, and she soon put an end to all that.
It was true that Hersh loved to read, but the dreamy exterior concealed a calculating mind. While the sister ordered the hands around, made sure the wheels ran true and the gears were mended, the brother stayed late in the office, poring over bills and receipts.
As he totted up their totals, Hersh told the farmers tall tales of forbidden feasts presided over by demons, many-headed dragons destroyed by their own teeth, sly foxes outwitting greedy wolves. Slapping heavy bags of flour onto the backs of their wagons, they shook their heads, regarded him with lined faces burned by the sun, hard, flinty eyes. Life was brief and brutal and pitiless, they told him. Fairy tales were a waste of God’s own time.
The Russians and the Germans pummeled the Polish army all through the harvest season of 1939, trampling golden fields of shimmering wheat, fertilizing the earth with their blood. When it was over and Poland was divided neatly between them, the Russians breaking camp to withdraw to their side of the Bug River advised the Jews of Zukow to leave their homes and come along with them.
The supply officer was Jewish. “You think Stalin is bad?” he murmured to Shayna as she wrote up his bill. Momentarily alone in the office as his troops piled bags of flour onto the back of a truck, he caught hold of her wrist. “Listen to me. You have no idea.”
Shayna rolled her eyes, thrust the bill at him. Young as she was, she knew better. Warnings like this had been sounded before, in voices thick with foreboding. Politicians would rattle their sabers, shout threats, demand impossible things. Young men would shoot each other dead in near and distant fields. Life would go on. Everyone needed flour.
When the Germans finally arrived, it lacked a certain drama. There was a lone soldier, putting down the rutted road on a motorcycle, followed by a few camouflage-colored trucks. Soon afterwards, a guard was installed at the mill, armed with a helmet and a Mauser. The hands glanced at one another, shrugged, went back to their work.
For a couple of years, nothing much changed. Farmers came in with grain, Shayna made deliveries to town. Apples, rye and wheat still came in from the Earl of Zamoyski’s estate, though now that his hereditary lands had been confiscated, SS Commandant Reinhart’s name was stamped on the bags.
Shayna treated the Nazis as she would any other client; she made sure the job was done well, weighed accurately, bagged securely. The soldier the Germans installed at the mill was a farm boy; after a week of watching the millstones turn, he put down his rifle, rolled up his sleeves and went to work alongside the hired hands.
On a cold Thursday in November, Shayna drove the wagon to the nearby market town of Wlodawa. The horse’s name was Toni; she flapped the reins over his back to make him go faster, but he had his own idea of how long it should take to get there. The rhythmic clip-clop of the horse’s hooves made Shayna sleepy. Perhaps she would stop at Soroka the saddlemaker’s before returning home, order a harness with bells on the straps; the jingling would be cheerful during the grim winter months.
It was market day. Farmers had arrived before dawn to set up their booths, and the air was filled with the sounds of women haggling, the smells of dung and cabbage and smoke. Shayna waved at the woman who sold eggs, a friend of her mothers; a big woman with high pink cheeks and a generous body, she wiggled out from behind her table, indicating that she wanted to speak with her.
Shayna stopped the wagon, waited. The woman wanted to discuss a match. She knew of a sturdy young man, looking for a wife. She clicked her tongue, shook her head sympathetically. Operating the mill almost by herself. A hard life. Hersh was a good boy, but he was a dreamer. Her mother wouldn’t want her to work so hard. Besides, in times like these, a woman needed a man around.
Shayna was almost twenty. The egg-seller was not the first person to attempt to find her a suitable marriage. But Shayna wasn’t looking for a man; she liked her independence. A husband would try to take over the business, tell her what to do, insist on doing things his own way.
Toni’s ears swung back and flattened, as if he didn’t like the way the conversation was going. After the woman said her piece, Shayna told her politely that she would consider it, and urged the horse ahead.
She pulled up in front of the bakery. A squat, square-headed man emerged in a cloud of steam, wiping his hands on an apron dusty with flour. A stranger.
“Where’s Becker?” she said.
“Not here,” he said.
“Let me talk to Fania,” she said. The baker’s wife.
He apprised her with pale blue eyes. “Gone, both of them. Resettled to the east. I’m the baker now.”
She felt a chill pass delicately over the hairs at the back of her neck. Keeping her face carefully blank, she waited until he finished unloading the bags.
She clucked to the horse, shook the reins over his gray shoulders. But the new baker blocked the road in front of the horse, putting his hand on Toni’s bridle.
The baker’s skin was pasty and scarred, his eyes flat, his expression unreadable. A light sheen of perspiration beaded on her forehead, though there was snow on the ground and the horse’s breath came out in white gusts. It took her a moment to realize that he wasn’t looking at her.
In the market square, five men were doing calisthenics, presided over by an SS officer and three laughing soldiers. As she watched, one of the men collapsed onto the muddy snow. His hat rolled off, coming to a stop before the officer’s polished boots. With a start, Shayna realized that she knew him. Korn, the fishmonger. Still laughing, the officer took out his pistol, aimed carefully.
The horse, startled at the gunshot, would have bolted if Shayna hadn’t been holding the reins so tightly. The baker released Toni’s bridle, averting his gaze to the bags of flour on the cobblestones.
“Same time next week,” he said. She heard herself agree. “Be careful,” he muttered, then stepped away.
Her heart pounding, she clucked to the horse. Reassured, he trotted off down the street that would lead them out of town and away from the blood tracing a delicate spiderweb pattern in the cracks between the cobblestones.
They sat in Shayna’s bedroom, the walls papered with tiny flowers.
“We should leave,” said Hersh. “Disappear into the forest. Join the partisans. Like Janusz.”
“And leave the mill? The mill that’s supported our family for generations?”
“It’s not our mill anymore, Shayna. It’s the Deutschen’s mill.”
“You, with a gun,” she said, amused, dismissing the idea. “The Germans will kill you on your first day. You’ll have them surrounded. Suddenly, you’ll be blabbing away, telling them the one with the magical flying rabbi and the demon with the stretchy arms, and bang.”
“The widow and the demon with stretchy arms,” he reminded her sulkily. “You weren’t even listening.”
“There’s nothing to tie us here. We should just go.”
“Reinhart likes you.” she said.
It was true, Reinhart did like Hersh. The Commandant had visited once in that first year, part of a grand tour of the businesses now under his jurisdiction, and Hersh had shown him the grounds; the waterway that ran the mill, the stone storehouse, the giant gears, the pitted stones. At the sight of the great waterwheel paddling in the stream, the German officer smiled like a little boy.
Shayna muttered to Janusz to load the hopper with apples. As new cider poured into a tub below the millstones, Hersh held a metal cup under the spill and handed it to the Commandant.
And because he was Hersh, he told him a story. At least it was a good one, with a demon, a midwife, a tabby cat and a treasure. Clapping Hersh’s slight shoulder, Reinhart guffawed, told him he hadn’t heard that one since his grandmother died. Then he’d winked at Shayna and told her to keep up the good work.
“When the time comes, he’ll kill us anyway,” said Hersh.
“They need the mill,” she reminded him. “As long as Reinhart’s happy, we’re safe.”
“I’ll bet Korn thought he was safe, too.” said Hersh, and the discussion was over.
That night was cold, colder than it had been in weeks. It was still dark out when she was awakened by a noise.
She smelled him before she saw him. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she saw that someone was standing before her bed. Completely naked, he towered over her, long ropes of muscles bunching and shaking, smeared in filth from his hair down to his toes. His hands were clasped together over the place between his legs.
Seeing that she was awake, he leaned forward. “You called me, Rabbi?” he said urgently. “It’s me, Yossel.” And then he fainted dead away.
Two things, they established immediately. One, the young man was Jewish; standing before them stark naked, it was impossible to miss. Second, and this was important, he was crazy.
“What’s your name?” Shayna asked him again.
“I told you,” he answered plaintively. “Yossel.”
“What are you doing here?”
“You called me. You said you’d call me whenever the Jews were in trouble. Don’t you remember?”
Hersh stared at him wide-eyed. “My God,” he said, in a voice choked with laughter. “He thinks he’s the Golem.”
She looked at him fiercely. “Real life going on here, Hersh. Not one of your stupid stories.”
“You know this one. In the sixteenth century, Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague, made a man from clay he dug out of the riverbank. His only purpose was to protect the Jews from outside dangers. Fanatical priests, greedy kings, superstitious mobs.” He corrected himself. “Not a man. A monster. The Golem of Prague.” He smiled sweetly at his sister. “If he’s the Golem, I guess that makes you the Rabbi.”
They had washed him off in the barn. Whatever he was covered in stank of dead fish and decay. Despite repeated applications of soap and water, the color of his hair remained the same, a muddy brown, like the clay they used to dig out of the riverbank when they were kids.
He was built like a laborer, with a deep wide chest and big sinewy arms. Blank, stony eyes stared out at her from shadowy sockets, too dark for her to see inside of them. Too tall for any of Hersh’s clothes, he stood before them in an old feather quilt, still shivering.
From the trunk where they kept Papa’s clothing, Hersh loaned him trousers, a jacket, a shirt. Before he handed it over, Shayna saw her brother surreptitiously slide a tiny paper scroll into the jacket’s inner pocket.
“It’s the Shema,” he explained sheepishly. The prayer Jews chanted each morning, at bedtime, and before dying. “The Golem wears it next to his heart. It’s how the Rabbi brought him to life. Don’t look at me like that. He asked.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Shayna. “Fairy tales. You’re leading him on.” Though they were Jewish, the Mirskys were not observant. For them, the Sabbath was a day for socializing with friends and family, not praying in synagogue.
“It’s not ridiculous,” Hersh said defensively. “And if it makes him feel better, what do you care?”
Shayna shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “Whatever you say. He must belong to someone. Tonight he can sleep in the barn.”
The next morning, Hersh took the wagon to town. No one seemed to be missing a confused young man. Shayna told the farmers waiting for their flour, receiving as an answer a terse shake of the head. But when the guard, Achim, went outside to open the sluice, one of the farmers relayed a terrible rumor he had heard, all the Jews in the town of Lubien marched into the Parczew forest, massacred. Perhaps this young man had dug himself out of a pit somewhere. That would be enough to make anyone lose his mind. Shayna shook her head. Propaganda, warmed over from the last war.
“We can’t send him away,” said Hersh. “If the Germans don’t get him, someone else will.”
She put her hands on her hips, pursed her lips in a frown. Another dreamer she had to be responsible for. “All right then. If he’s going to stay here, he has to work.”
“You can’t give a Golem an ordinary job,” said Hersh. “You have to save him for something really big. Like helping the Jews in their time of trouble.”
“He’s helping this Jew,” she said. Turning to the young man, she made sure to speak very slowly and clearly. “We need water,” she enunciated carefully, handing him a bucket. “Fill up the barrel outside the kitchen door.”
The young man gripped the handle, never taking his eyes from her face. Curiously, she studied the even features, the blank expression. Something flickered in the darkness behind those hollow eyes. Was it yearning? A memory?
But Shayna didn’t have time to figure such things out, nor was she the sort of woman who would have the patience for it if she did; the Commandant’s rye was not going to grind itself.
As it turned out, one of the gears was off, the wheels wouldn’t turn. Cursing, she stopped the millstones, called over Pavel, one of the hands. Pavel hammered at the huge old wooden spindles until they unlocked, then tinkered with the gears until he got them running smoothly again. She opened the sluice, the paddles of the waterwheel churned the gray water. To her satisfaction, the gear teeth turned in perfect sync with the motion of the wheels. Lost in the repairs, Shayna forgot about Yossel until dinnertime.
The sun was dying over the fields in a fiery red haze. With work over for the day, the hands were grouped around for a smoke outside the kitchen. The men should have been talking, exchanging ribald speculations about the local girls, fictionalized sexual exploits. Instead, they leaned forward, watching something beyond her sight with rapt fascination. Suddenly she remembered Yossel, and hurried guiltily forward.
“What,” she said, then stopped dead, aghast.
The courtyard was flooded. Water slopped from the barrel down towards the barn and clear across the road. Whorls of water sucked at the kitchen door, lapped gently against the bottom step of the grain storehouse.
In shock, she saw Yossel laboring towards her under the weight of two overflowing buckets. As she watched in disbelief, he emptied his pails into the barrel, turned around, and headed back towards the well.
“Stop!” she shouted, running at him. He halted in mid-step. “Give me that,” she said harshly, grabbing the pail from his fingers. “What are you, an idiot?”
Maybe he flinched a little. The men tittered. Still fuming, she stomped into the house.
Behind her, the hands filed in for dinner. While they wolfed down their borscht and pierogi, he remained outside, frozen in place. When Achim left to visit a girl at a neighboring farm, the conversation changed course, the men talking in low voices about people who had vanished, news of the war. By the time they pushed themselves away from the table and ambled towards their huts, it was ten o’clock. Yossel was still in the yard, exactly as they had left him, mud setting like cement around his boots.
“You have to tell him what to do,” said Hersh. “Tell him to come in for dinner.”
“No,” she said savagely. “He wants to be a Golem? Let him stand there all night.”
She was sure he was pretending, sure he would slink off now that she’d called his bluff. Looking out the window of her bedroom as she shook out her braid and brushed her hair, she could still see him, as lifeless as a slab of granite, shivering in the cold.
The next morning, a stiff rain pelted down from an angry sky, pounding the hardened earth. Shayna joined Hersh at the kitchen door. Water was running off the peak of Yossel’s cap, dripping from the hem of his sodden cloth coat.
“This is ridiculous,” she said to her brother. “He must be faking. Even animals know enough to come in from the rain.”
But Hersh was staring at him, watching the rain fall drop by drop from the end of his nose. “The Golem doesn’t have any will of his own. He only does what the Rabbi tells him to.”
He threw open the door, hollered to him over the clatter of the rain. He might as well have shouted at the waterwheel; Yossel didn’t move. Hersh tried again, louder this time, but it didn’t matter; he didn’t bat an eyelash.
He turned to his sister. “Well, Rabbi,” he said. “He’s your Golem. You try.”
She could hardly see him through the long, slanting rays of rain, barely distinguishable from the sea of mud around him. “Come in, you idiot!” she yelled.
He trained his lifeless eyes on her, stirred his frozen limbs. Pulling his feet from the sludge with a sucking sound, he lumbered stiffly forward, up the steps and into the house, where he stopped in front of Shayna, dripping onto the kitchen floor.
“Look,” said Hersh. “It’s not enough to tell him to fill the water barrel. You also have to tell him when to stop. You can’t just say, ‘come in.’ You’ve also got to tell him to take off his boots, change into dry clothes, sit down at the table, have something to eat.”
“He’s not a baby,” she said in exasperation. “I don’t have time for this. Why can’t he be your Golem?”
She told Yossel to wait in the pantry behind the kitchen while she fetched him dry clothing. He disrobed as if she weren’t there, allowing her to pass curious eyes over his bare body.
Shayna had never seen a man naked, not even Hersh. Tipping her head to one side, she inspected the width of his shoulders, the angles of his ribcage, the finger-like projections of the serratus, the way his muscles lapped forth over his narrow hips. She observed other things, too; the kite-shaped plate of muscle at his back, the upside-down triangle of sinew above his buttocks, the shape outlined by the patch of hair between his thighs.
“What is it, Rabbi?” he said. His voice had a gravelly, unused quality to it.
Reluctantly, she did as Hersh suggested. “Put these on. Then come to the kitchen, sit down at the table and have some breakfast.”
She caught her breath at the play of muscles across his chest as he thrust his arms into the sleeves of the shirt. When he turned away from her to pull on the trousers, she withdrew, shutting the door to the pantry quietly behind her.
Shayna left shortly before dawn. She had planned on making her escape before Yossel rose; if he saw her leaving, he would follow on foot behind the wagon, trailing behind her like a wraith for the rest of the day.
Frost lay between the furrows, whitened the stubble of corn stalks razed knee-high in the frozen fields. She flapped the reins over the horse’s shoulders just as the sun burst in a pink and orange haze across the horizon. She raised her chin and closed her eyes, letting the early morning sun warm her skin. She’d been looking forward to this little vacation away from home, where Yossel dogged her every step.
The first job they gave him was carrying flour sacks out of the warehouse, stacking them in readiness for the wagon that went to Reinhart every week. They were piled into a rickety tower twenty feet high by the time someone noticed. Next he was given the unenviable task of mucking out the animal shed, shoveling out shit and dirty straw. By the time she stopped him, he had dug himself into a hole five feet deep. When she let him feed the animals, he piled the troughs to the rafters with drifts of hay, filled the henhouse knee-deep in cracked corn. The day she ordered him to fill the samovar with water, well…she could have sworn she told him to stop when it was full.
When properly supervised, she had to admit, Yossel was a good worker; he did whatever he was asked, promptly and without complaint. The other men hissed at him as they passed, he was making them look bad. He carried two twenty kilo sacks to their one, as if they were filled with feathers and not with flour.
She discovered by accident that he’d been sleeping standing up. One night there was a tumult in the barn, someone had left the door open, a fox made off with two hens. As she pulled the heavy door shut against a wasting wind, she saw him in an empty stall, head down, swaying on his feet.
“What are you doing?” she had asked, unnerved by the sight.
At the sound of her voice, he came to life. “Does the Rabbi need me?” he said.
“No,” she said. “And stop calling me Rabbi.”
“What does the Rabbi want?”
“The Rabbi wants you to lie down and sleep,” she replied firmly, wincing at her own use of the title. “Tonight. Every night.”
He dropped like a stone into the straw. Within moments, the deep chest was rising and falling with the steady rhythmic breathing of sleep. He must have been dreaming; his feet twitched as if he were running, he brushed at wet eyes with the back of his hand.
Toni flicked his ears back at her, harrumphed white vapor from his velvety nose. It was Thursday, market day. There were tables laid out with potatoes, cabbages, mildewy clothing. Merchants stood around fires lit in rusted oil drums, stamping their feet, slapping their arms to stay warm. Four German soldiers stood in a circle, laughing together with an officer.
One of them glanced up, catching her eye. Shayna looked quickly away, remembering the way the fishmonger’s blood had pooled around the cobblestones, but it was too late; the soldier separated himself from his comrades and took hold of the horse’s bridle.
“Good morning, Pani,” he said, as if he were delighted to see her. He assured her she wasn’t in any trouble, it was just that he and his companions had a friendly little competition going. Which of these ladies could do the most push-ups, they wondered. Could she help them out?
The soldiers parted to make room for her to pass. Three women were waiting on their hands and knees on the cold paving stones. The place he was indicating for her was already occupied by a steaming pile of horseshit.
Beaming benignly, another soldier took the horse’s bridle, stroked his head as she climbed down from her seat. Maybe she wasn’t moving quickly enough, maybe he didn’t like the look on her face. He smashed the butt of his rifle into the side of her head, knocking her to her knees.
It hurt to breathe. I’m dead, she thought, tears stinging her eyes. Will Hersh ever know what happened to me?
The soldier leaned close, smiling confidentially. “Go on. You’re younger than the other ones. I’m betting on you.” He winked. “Don’t let me down.”
Shayna lowered herself onto the pile of manure.
The officer’s cap was pushed back on his head, his cheeks flushed with the cold. He held a stopwatch in his hand as he counted off ein, tzwei, drei.
For the first set of push-ups, she held her breath, almost blind with the pain and odor. But with the deprivation of oxygen to her muscles, she soon found her arms weakening, her pace slowing. It was suicide. Giving in, she gasped great lungfuls of stinking air. The stench filled her nostrils, made her light-headed, made her eyes water.
Up, down. Up, down. Up, down. She was careful to keep her face blank, expressionless, but her injured eye leaked continuously. For a while she kept track of the numbers, and then she lost count. Just one more. Just one more. Just one more. Just one more. Just one more.
The woman to her left collapsed first. Shayna was conscious of the harsh wheeze of labored breathing as a pair of polished boots clicked slowly to a stop behind her head. There was a moment that felt like forever, and then a gunshot exploded near her ear, the report ricocheting off of the buildings surrounding the square.
The woman beside her jerked violently, lay still. When the boots had clicked away to a safe distance, Shayna dared a glance. Recognizing the staring blue eyes, the astounded round mouth, she went weak in the knees, her pace slowing.
“Come on,” the soldier’s voice was nearby, encouraging her. “You can’t stop now! One down, two to go.”
Her chest was on fire, her head throbbed. Up, down. Up, down. Every movement an agony. It wouldn’t be long now. Just one more. Just one more. Just one more.
A pair of cognac-colored oxfords stopped at the edge of her field of vision. The soldiers stiffened to attention. With the sound of Reinhart’s hearty voice, she felt tension spark and fizzle in the air. He made a crude joke, the soldiers laughed knowingly, and suddenly the crisis was over, the soldiers drifting apart, strolling away.
Shayna swayed to her feet. She put a hand to her forehead, recoiled from the stink of her own clothing. Her bruised eye had swelled shut.
Reinhart was standing right in front of her. “Mirsky?” he said softly. Incredulity, followed by rage, blazed in his bright green eyes, hidden under the wide brim of his fedora. Then it was carefully tucked away, the clean-shaven face urbane and bland and smooth again. “You should see a doctor.”
“I’m fine, Herr Commandant,” she said stiffly. “I just want to go home.”
He nodded towards the corpse on the frozen cobblestones. “Who is she?”
“Zimmer. She sold eggs in the marketplace.” Her voice wobbled. “She knew my mother.”
Reinhart averted his gaze. “Don’t come back here anymore,” he said in a low, tense voice, just loud enough for Shayna to hear. “You understand? Don’t come back.”
With a swirl of caramel-colored coattails he strode off, instructing the soldiers to unload the bags at the bakery and escort his miller and her horse safely out of town.
The soldier who had struck her was now as polite as could be. The baker emerged once again in his cloud of steam, wiping his hands on his apron. His eyes widened at the sight of her, but whatever thoughts he had he kept to himself. Shayna struggled to keep her composure as the soldier cheerfully unloaded the flour, then swung himself up into the wagon. She could hear him whistling as they rolled away. At the edge of town, he swung back off.
“I still think you would have won,” he said, grinning engagingly. “And what a prize I had waiting for you!” He winked. Shouldering his rifle, he stopped to light up a cigarette, then strolled at a leisurely pace down the road that led back to town.
Shayna lashed the reins over the horse’s shoulders. Toni leaped forward, almost jerking her out of her seat. In a frenzy of fear, she whipped the reins against the horse’s neck until he was going at a full gallop.
The courtyard was empty. This season was the busiest time of the year, early winter, the great stones turning day and night. Farmers slept on their bags of grain inside the mill, awaiting their turn. No one would miss her until nightfall. Shayna slid off of the wagon and uncoupled the horse, led him into the barn.
The horse gave a sympathetic whinny, nudged her side. Exhausted, her head throbbing, Shayna finally dared to look at herself in a cracked vanity mirror hanging from a nail next to Toni’s stall.
She was covered in shit from head to toe; it was caked in a solid coat across her thighs, her chest, her sleeves. Stench rose around her like a cloud of carrion birds. Her injured eye seemed unable to stop weeping.
They were all Golems now, the Jews of Europe, forced to commit the same acts again and again like machines, free choice a dim memory. Automatically performing their duties until told to stop, easily replaced, their lives in the hands of the men who called themselves their Masters. The first helpless sobs burst from her throat.
Yossel was in the empty stall, watching her.
Something moved in the blank face, struggled for life in the shadowy eyes. With the tip of his index finger, he traced the black and purple stripe that crossed the orbit of her eye and ran down her cheekbone.
Suddenly, he left the barn, moving quickly and with purpose. Her stink had chased away even him, she thought dully. But he returned with pails of hot water, sloughed them into a washtub he set in the straw. Steam curled lazily into the air as he pushed the shawl back from her face.
His long fingers worked the buttons of her coat, undressing her as if she were a child. He unpinned her hair, shaking out the plaits of her braid; freed, it splashed down her back like a puddle. He unfastened her sweater, then her heavy skirt, letting them slip down around her ankles. With great care he untied her boots, sliding the muddy, hobnailed things from her feet as if they were holy relics. He went down on his knees to roll the thick wool stockings down her legs.
When she was stripped down to her underwear, he lifted her, carried her to the tin washtub. Dipping a cloth into the water, he washed gently around her blackened eye, rinsing away layers of blood and muck until she was clean.
With the washcloth, he massaged along the nape of her neck, down the length of her arms to the tips of her fingers. He described slow, lyrical circles on her back, sweeping it over her belly, her thighs, her knees. Expressions dawned one by one across the planes of his face like scenes from a movie, shaped by the liturgy of flickering shadows. There was a ragged catch in his breath as he passed the cloth over the swelling of her breasts, down the slope of her bottom.
He made her cover her eyes while he poured the last of the warm water over her head. Clean water ran in rivulets from her hair, down her body, draining away into the dirty straw.
Steam rose from her skin in the cold of the barn. Yossel towered over her, massive in the yellow light of the kerosene lamp.
“Shayna,” he wondered in his dusty, disused voice. Putting his hands on either side of her face, he kissed her.
He laid her down in the hay. She didn’t see when he took off his clothes. Suddenly he was kneeling over her, his skin pale and smooth and smelling of green fields and mown grass and children’s games and summertime. His chest was so deep and broad she couldn’t reach all the way around him. She buried her face into the curve between his neck and shoulder and gripped him between her thighs.
It was already dark when the soldiers came for the German farm boy, Achim. His chair made a scraping sound on the floor as he pushed away from the dinner table. A few minutes later he reappeared in the kitchen, dressed in his uniform. There was a moment of awkwardness, as if he wasn’t sure which group of people he belonged to anymore. “All right, let’s get going,” he said almost sheepishly, gesturing with his rifle.
They were walking to Wlodawa, where they would meet up with other Jews from the Lublinskie district. From there, they would get on trains for resettlement. There was no need to pack belongings, everything would be provided at their destination. Shayna looked to Achim for a warning, a hint, an explanation, but under the helmet, he was a soldier again, the farmer’s boy from Pfalz was gone. The night was cold and black as ink. A litter of stars twinkled knowledgeably at them from a very great distance away. Outside the mill waited a convocation of Jews collected from the many little towns nearby; Hola, Skorodnica, Mosciska, Zamolodycze, Osowa. They were quiet for such a large crowd, there must have been two hundred and fifty of them, shepherded by five soldiers with rifles. As they tramped away down the road, Shayna peered back toward the place that had housed her family for generations, the mill a landmark in these parts, but it was already swallowed up by darkness.
The barren fields along the road were a ghostly white in the moonlight, emptied of color. Dogs barked at them from each shuttered farmhouse they passed.
Shayna had no illusions about where the Jews of the Lublinskie district were headed. The farmers had tried to tell her. She couldn’t bear to look at Hersh, pale and frightened, his face sunk deep into the collar of his coat. If she had listened to him, they might have been safe in the forests with the partisans. His birthday was next month, he was going to be eighteen, a man. This year, he had finally managed to coax forth a blond wisp of beard. Tears leaked continuously from her injured eye. All those tales of miracles and wonders, did they give him comfort now?
The freezing wind hurled before it pellets of ice, whistling shamelessly through the seams of her clothing. The bruise over her eye seemed to have its own heartbeat. Her fingers and toes grew painful and then numb. Beside her, Yossel walked like a machine, tireless, his arms and legs pumping like pistons.
The column of Jews wavered, came to a halt. Word passed down the line. They were turning off the main road, into the Parczew forest.
To her left, Yossel grew agitated. She could see him trying to glance ahead and then behind them, his breath gusting out in great plumes, like Toni, when something disturbed him. She took his hand, wove her fingers through his, hoping to calm him. Hersh’s jaw dropped open in surprise.
The crabbed trees grew dense here, thick clusters of branches crowding out the sky. From somewhere far ahead they could hear commands shouted in German, a burst of caustic laughter, something that popped like a string of firecrackers.
The guards seemed relieved. German soldiers disliked the forests of the Lublinskie district, rife with saboteurs and partisan activity.
It started as a frenzy of strange sounds, exploding all around them. The screeching of monstrous birds, wheeling through the trees just overhead. The roar of an attacking bear grew in volume then receded as it bounded through the woods. Branches shook as some huge beast galloped past them, just out of sight.
The Jews muttered amongst themselves, the guards glanced at each other uneasily. All down the line, they held their rifles at the ready, swinging their flashlights wildly at the underbrush.
To Shayna, it seemed like an opportunity. She whispered to Hersh. “They’re distracted. If we’re going to make a run for it, now’s the time. There are only five of them.”
Hersh hissed furiously. “Are you crazy? He’ll shoot us.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the soldier guarding them.
“They’re going to shoot us anyway.” she said.
Sweat was making rings in the armpits of Achim’s greatcoat. Breathing heavily, he swept his rifle at the woods, at the prisoners, at the woods again. In the flashlight’s beam, Shayna could see that his eyes were round and fearful. She almost felt sorry for him.
Yossel followed his movements with a troubled expression, his muscles jumping and straining under the skin. Perhaps he was frightened. From somewhere, she summoned up the resources to reassure him. “Don’t worry,” she murmured, squeezing his arm. “It’s only Achim. He won’t hurt you.”
Turning towards her, he laid his hand on the side of her face. “Shayna,” he said in his gravelly voice.
All the tenderness in the world resided in that one word. He leaned over, rested his head on top of her shining hair. Then he separated himself from her and launched himself at the guard.
Taken by surprise, Achim wheeled around, bringing up the barrel of his weapon. He managed to squeeze off a solitary round before Yossel struck him to the ground. As if he were taking a toy from a child, Yossel took the gun out of his hands. With a single blow, Achim was dead.
Another guard came charging up the line towards the source of the disturbance. At the sight of a prisoner crouched over a fallen comrade, he screamed curses, firing indiscriminately into the crowd as he ran.
Yossel climbed to his feet. He seemed to grow larger before her eyes, the muscles of his arms and legs and shoulders and chest rippling and swelling as if he were a giant in one of Hersh’s stories.
“Run,” he said.
A line of bullets drilled across his chest as he hurled himself at the guard. Now the Jews fled, scattering in every direction. Hersh grabbed Shayna’s wrist and dragged her into the woods, where they lay flat in the underbrush.
They heard men shouting and pleading in German, the staccato rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. Something that sounded like the tearing of flesh, followed by the desperate cries animals make when they’re wounded. Shayna buried her face in the shoulder of Hersh’s coat, put her hands over her ears.
The shooting grew sporadic, then ceased altogether. Eventually, so did the moaning. Quiet settled over the woods, more dreadful than all the sounds that had preceded it.
Men came fanning through the brush now. Soldiers of a partisan unit, seeking survivors. One of them helped Shayna to her feet, told her in Yiddish that she was safe.
They had to move quickly, he said. The German army would be swarming through the forest by morning.
“We have to go back,” she told him urgently. “We left someone behind.”
“We’ve all left someone behind,” he said. “At least you have your brother.”
Her hair blowing wild around her face, she started back through the forest. Swearing, he followed her back to the place where they had last seen Yossel.
They found the first soldier hanging from the fork of a tree. Loops of his entrails dangled to the earth like ribbons.
The second one was missing his fingers. Another had lost his nose and both ears. The third soldier had his throat raked open. He had no face at all. The fourth one had no skin.
“What did this?” the partisan breathed in appalled awe.
They found Yossel on the riverbank. He lay on his back, half-in and half-out of the water, the current tugging gently at his body. Though his eyes were closed, his chest still struggled up and down with the effort to breathe.
At the sound of Shayna’s voice, his eyes flew open. With nerveless fingers, she prised open the flaps of his jacket, then sat back on her knees.
A dozen bullet wounds tracked in a curved line across his chest. There were more stitched across the flat stomach she had kissed, stab wounds where the bayonets had found him. She couldn’t believe he was still alive.
Yossel was looking up at her. The face was no longer blank and expressionless, it was knotted with knowledge and pain. Shayna took his hand.
“The doctor is coming,” she said lightly. “You’re going to be fine.”
When he breathed, it made a wet, syrupy sound. “Shema,” he whispered.
“Shayna?” she said, with a calm she did not feel. Tears were blurring her vision. “I’m right here.”
“Shema,” he begged. With an effort that was painful to watch, his hand crept slowly up to his chest.
Beside her, Hersh drew a sharp breath. “The Shema,” he blurted. “He wants you to remove the Shema.” His voice was unsteady. “The Golem can only die when his mission is complete. When the Rabbi removes the name of God from over his heart.”
Inside his jacket, she found a pocket. Her fingers closed around a tiny scroll of paper. The Shema Yisrael, washed in blood.
She put the scroll in his hand, curled his fingers around it. Gratefully, he smiled. He turned his head a little so that it rested against her lap, and then he was still.
The town of Zukow, located halfway between the Parczew forest and the Bug River, has a thriving tourist industry. At least once a week in the warm months, a taxi arrives at the hotel, bearing American Jews who are seeking their Holocaust roots, or a family whose grandparents came from Zukow before the war, or college students with grants to study the partisan activity that flourished in the area.
Zukow even has its own mascot, the Golem of Zukow. A bronze statue of the Golem occupies a place of honor in the center of town. You can buy a small reproduction cast in tin, or a picture postcard of the statue at sunset, at any of the stores and kiosks around the square. The partisans who witnessed the results of the Golem’s rage carried his story throughout the region.
Since no photograph of the Golem exists, the sculptor leaned heavily on artistic license, carving him with a huge barrel chest, short legs, exaggerated, dull-witted features. On the pedestal, a Stalinist-era plaque describes in Polish and bad English, how the Golem of Zukow saved two-hundred-and-fifty innocent civilians from death at the hands of the Fascist enemy forces in the winter of 1941.
There is a hotel named after the Golem, and a café. For a small fee, a taxi driver will drive you to the Mirsky mill, now nationalized, or to the riverbank, where a shrine sprang up to honor his memory.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, new records surfaced which shed some light on the identity of the so-called Golem. It seems that the farmers were right. Early in November, 1941, the Jews of the town of Lubien were herded into the forest, where they were stripped, machine-gunned and buried in a mass grave, a story tragically familiar throughout Eastern Europe. By some miracle, the barrage of bullets missed David Turno, oldest son of the Rabbi of Turno, a respected authority on the Maharal of Prague. Later that night, he must have dug himself out of the tangle of bodies, physically unharmed but mentally shattered, and wandered through the freezing darkness until, too tired to go any further, he stumbled into the home of Shayna and Hersh Mirsky. One of the partisans who buried him was from Turno. He recognized the rabbi’s son.
In 1989, a reporter tracked down Shayna Mirsky, now the owner of a kosher bakery in Teaneck, New Jersey, looking for an interesting angle. All this time, he asked her, did she honestly believe she’d been saved by a Golem? Did she really believe in magic?
Obviously, she had given it some thought over the years.
“Love is a kind of magic too, isn’t it?” she said, before hanging up the phone.