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How to Make It to the Promised Land

A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry

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Here is the game they want us to play. Bobby Z., the camp director, explains it to us the night before. First, he reads us the names: Treblinka, Birkenau, Terezin, Auschwitz. “This is what happened to so many of the Jews of Europe,” he says, as if we didn’t know. “But what about the ones who got away?” He asks this, and then he splits us up. We are no longer the three dozen 15-year-olds attending Camp Shalom in the summer of 1991.

Illustration by Sam Weber

Tomorrow will be November 1, 1940, and we will be in the city of Lodz, which was invaded by the Nazis last September. Two-thirds of us are Polish Jews, living in the ghetto. The remaining third are Polish “officials” or German SS guards. The challenge, for the Jews, is to escape deportation.

We are handed yellow stars and strands of plastic beads that will double as currency. We are given purple, ink-smudged maps of camp on which everything has been renamed. All the Hebrew names are gone: My bunk, formerly called Machon, is the Polish Passport Agency. Bunk Alonim is the bank. The kitchen is the town’s desecrated synagogue and is entirely off limits. The old canyon fire road is the Polish border.

My name is gone too. We are handed ID cards, and I am no longer Lizzie Lenthem, 15, of Topanga, California, but Anya Ossevsheva, 28, of Lodz. I have four kids. I have a long aquiline nose and a hard unsmiling mouth. I look nothing like me.

We are told: “You will have to make it across the Polish border by sundown.” We are advised to try the official routes first. We will try to trade our pathetic beads, acquire visas, masquerade as goyim, charm guards into letting us stow away on a train to Zurich or a boat to Buenos Aires. How will we do this? Who among us has money? Who doesn’t? Bobby Z. won’t say. “Go to the bank. Try the passport office,” he says. “You will see.”

We are told: “The wood between the girls’ and boys’ camps is Central Europe; the goal is to move beyond it, past the fire road, to the old tennis courts, to America.” The guards will try to prevent this—the soccer field will be used for round-ups—but if you have the proper papers, there is nothing they can do. Bobby Z. says: “Do not enter the synagogue; do not try to trade real goods or real money; and do not, I repeat, do not try any funny business, or you’ll never leave this camp, let alone Poland, again.” Any of these rules can change at any time, we are warned. We are told all this, and the next morning we are sent on our way.

Except I don’t go on my way. What do I know? I am the newcomer. When I was a kid, I once asked an old woman on a Santa Monica beach if the numbers tattooed on her arm were her phone number. I spent last Yom Kippur with my Filipino boyfriend, making out in the parking lot of the Wendy’s on Pico, eating bacon double cheeseburgers. The only reason I’m here is that my mother (Israeli, atheist) wants to piss off my father (Bostonian, Presbyterian), who is six months behind on child support. She sent me here so she could “rejuvenate,” she said. Where’s the rejuvenation in steaming off wallpaper and installing new bathroom tiles? That’s all she seems to do these days, ever since she got the house in a settlement from Richard (her “soon-to-be-ex,” as she now calls him). I haven’t answered a single one of her letters since I’ve been here. But one thing I do know is this: Malibu in 1991 just isn’t Lodz during the war. And I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

We are forced up and out of our bunks before the summer sun has warmed the air or dried the dew on the clumps of yellowing grass, and the basketball court we assemble in is buzzing in the bluish morning light. A small group settles down on the blacktop, just inches away from Bobby Z., all anxious and excited. They’re kids like Leslie Epstein and David Margolis, who are always offering to lead one of the million prayers that I still don’t know, sending those stupid Shabbat-o-grams back and forth to one another, or saying, “You haven’t been bat mitzvahed?” as if I’m some kind of alien. They cup their IDs in their hands. They have already pinned on their stars.

Then there are the boys in loose flannels throwing mock layups into the sagging basketball net, and a knot of languid lip-glossed girls in little white shorts and tanks, who don’t seem to notice the cold, stretching out their legs, exchanging looks. A girl with a great smear of purple eyeshadow is braiding Jill Simon’s long lush hair; Jill is drawing a bunch of daisies on her knee. In front of them, in a bright pile of shifting colors, are their IDs and stars. There’s no way they’re going to put them on until they have to.

This is the difference between cool and not cool here: who wears the stars and who doesn’t. And this is just one of many reasons I can’t stand this Jew-camp hell, which everyone else has been coming to since they were fetuses, practically. I am sitting behind the basketball net, away from everyone else, just as I’ve been doing all summer. In order not to look for Rafi, whom I look for far too often, I am staring at the distant, hay-colored hills. Rafi is a madreich, a counselor for the little kids, a guitar-playing junior from Santa Cruz, with sleepy silvery eyes and a mass of jet-black curls. You’d think everyone else would be after him too, that all those lip-glossed girls would try to sidle up to him during meals, but they don’t, and it just proves all that they don’t know.

“You’ll have an hour here in the ‘town square,’” Bobby Z. tells us, slicing his fingers through the air to form quotation marks. “You can trade items with one another, you can look for family members—it will be easier to get across as a unit than alone.” His wide bearded face breaks into a grin; nothing in his look lets on that his camp is in decline, that parents now prefer Ramah or Wilshire Boulevard camps to Shalom. “You must wear your star and ID at all times. Failure to do so will jeopardize your chances of obtaining a visa.”

“Fascist,” I hear a low voice say. It is Kron, with her crazy red hair and dozens of black rubber bracelets wallpapering her pale wrists, the closest thing I have to a friend in this place.

“You’re lucky to be here in America. All of us are. For just one day we’d like you to pretend otherwise,” Bobby Z. concludes.

Names are being called out: “Rosie Glass, Wolfe Gootman, Lev Levy.” People are milling about, searching for family, grabbing their friends. I am doing none of this. I am not interested in finding Anya’s husband. In my family (my real family, my only family, that is), marriage is a burden not a boon, and one that the women of every generation have worked hard to shake off.

A boy with a moon face comes by. “Have you seen Helen Markowitz?” he asks. I study him for a moment. He should be at the other end of the basketball court, where people really care about this stupid game, where counselors are pointing out wives and distributing extra safety pins and tips on how to make it to the promised land.

“Helen is dead,” I say.

His face shifts colors, from pink to purplish red—I see it happen.

“Dead?”

For a second, I feel bad—I mean, I don’t even know him—but I continue. “Of course, she’s dead. You’re dead, she’s dead, Anya Ossevsheva is dead too,” I say, thrusting my ID in his face. “It’s only a game.”

He looks at me and scowls. “Thanks a lot.”

I smile. “You’re welcome.”

“Bitch.”

“Asshole.”

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How to Make It to the Promised Land

A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry