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My Grandmother’s Courage
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“Alone? They should go alone?”
He shrugged. “We can apply, get the papers, always we can change our minds, if things don’t get worse.”
He was right. But it still felt wrong. “Sure, sure. Better to have options.”
If only she could talk to her neighbors. Her friends. But nobody was talking to anyone. Everyone with their heads down, their mouths closed. Like if they didn’t look, or talk, they wouldn’t be seen or heard. Only a lift of the chin, a meeting of the eyes from under their hats, pulled down low over their faces. Good it was winter, more clothes to hide behind, more reasons not to go outside.
Like that helped? How did staying inside make a difference that night when they broke all the glass, when they rioted in the street, when they pulled on old mens’ beards, and grabbed at women, girls, old ladies. When they came into the shop looting and hollering. Shooting and laughing.
The world turned on its head.
She’d found Freddie behind the door separating the shop from the apartment, holding Tate’s bayonet, a gun as tall as he was, his arms trembling under its weight, or maybe from what it meant, she didn’t know which. Fourteen, his skin still soft, his cheeks still round, but his eyes, never again the eyes that see only what a child should see.
Picking through the rubble and remains the next day, she knew there was no choice. Not anymore.
Her three boys. Freddie, the oldest. The responsible one. Theo, quick with a smile, always stealing candy and cake. And Valter, that boy, customers came into the shop for a mop, they left with a bucket, soap, a broom, a shovel, and two mops. And also, like they needed it, a little something else for the kitchen.
The night before they left, helping them pack. Freddie, so proud of his new tefillin. “Tate, I’ll put them on every day.”
Their father, her husband, his eyes wet but his mouth turned into a smile. “I know, sheyfelah. I know. Soon, we’ll join you. With tefillin for the twins, in time for their Bar Mitvahs. In a few months.”
Freddie nodded. Sober. A few more odds and ends. His books.
“Books? Clothes he needs. Warm sweaters.”
“Sha,” her husband told her. “In England they’ll have sweaters. Boots. Gloves. Hats. But his seforim?”
She stopped complaining. What would he take of her? What does a mother pack into the bag of the child she’s sending away?

At first the letters came. When they stopped was it because they forgot her, or were they no longer worthy enough for mail? Her husband taken for “questioning.” Weeks, months. She had to stay. The letters wouldn’t know where to go.
A sister-in-law, the one her brother married. The Shiksa who lit Shabbat candles even after her brother, the bum, deserted her. She knocked on the door, shoved papers in her hands, forced her to pack, arranged for her secret passage over the border in Czechoslovakia. On the way a German soldier spotted her. She showed him her papers. He held his hand to her face, studied her cheekbones.
“One kiss, and you can go.”
Better to die. But, her boys. The twins in England, Freddie in America. He got to America, his last letter said. A miracle. For her boys she squeezed her eyes and puckered her lips.
A man of honor, he let her cross.
A brother from the sister-in-law. Not a nice man. But he let her stay. His wife bossing her this way and that. Cleaning her toilets, washing her underwear. But an address where letters could come. She kept writing. She kept writing. Her boys were safe. Her husband? Better not to think about it. He’d find her, after. After.
Finally, finally, Yankees they were called. The Yankees came to rescue them. Dancing in the street. But for her? Where to go? She’d stay, still. Wash her clothes, clean her toilet. At least she could go out in the street. But for what? There were others like her, maybe even worse than her. She’d find them. Maybe join them.
A knock on the door. Lies? A trick to get whoever still breathed?
An American soldier filled the whole hallway. Her heart pounded. She still had those fake papers.
A big man. Handsome like in the movie posters. So well fed, these Yankees. Dark shiny curls under his cap, big shoulders under his uniform. A strong chin, straight white teeth. A smile that wasn’t a smile. Big eyes, Bright. Green. Wet. Eyes that saw what no child should ever see.
Her hand went to this movie star’s cheek. Her hand remembered on its own how to do this, to wipe away his tear. His big hand covered hers.

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