My mother-in-law was a hidden child in France during World War II. Like most survivors, she didn’t speak much about that time in her life, but she did share some memories when we took a family trip to the village where she’d been hidden. I wrote a children’s book based on some of those stories, and I was thrilled when a friend of mine, the librarian at my children’s former elementary school, recently agreed to “test drive” the manuscript, reading it to a class of third and fourth-graders.
Coincidentally, we did the reading on the anniversary of Kristallnacht—which was fitting, we decided, for a reading about a child’s fate during the Holocaust. Thankfully, my manuscript’s test drive went beautifully; the kids were engaged, and when my friend asked questions afterwards, even a fidgety girl piped up with answers. The story centers on the knowledge of languages; “Why,” my librarian friend asked the children, “does the story mention several times that ‘French country girls don’t speak German?’”
“Because,” one boy answered, “she would be found out and then she would be killed because they wanted to kill all the Jews then.”
After the children had gone on to their next class, my librarian friend and I chatted in the school office. The school secretary called her name over the intercom, and she walked to a temporarily vacant receptionist desk to take the call that had come in for her. I remained on the bench where we had been sitting.
She took the receiver.
A group of teachers walked by on their way to the lunchroom, and then I heard my friend say, “I am sitting down now.”
I watched her from across the room. Her face was full of apprehension.
“Oh, no, no!” she cried, throwing herself back in the chair, then rocking back and forth. Her eyes had widened, and she started to shake. I jumped up.
“Oh, no! No, no! …. Yes, yes, I’ll come home right way. Yes, yes, I’ll find someone.”
AS I was approaching, she hung up. She was grabbing the edge of the desk.
“What happened?” I asked.
“My niece was murdered.”
I hugged her quickly, then took her arm and steered her around the desk.
“In Gush Etzion.”
In between sobs she told me that her 25-year-old Israel niece, Dalya, had been stabbed to death in a terror attack near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut. She had seen Dalya only a few weeks ago when she’d been in Israel for her youngest nephew’s bar mitzvah.
“I need to go home. I need to talk to my brother.”
“Of course,” I said. “I’ll help you.”
“I’m supposed to sub this afternoon. I can’t do it, I have to go home.”
She stumbled back to the library to log out and collect her things. I looked around for the principal but couldn’t find her. As we walked out I spotted one of the other administrators and explained briefly what had happened.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” the administrator said to my friend trembling behind me.
In the parking lot I asked, “Do you want me to drive?”
“No, I’m fine.”
A second later she handed me the car key. I drove her the few blocks home, asking questions about her niece.
“She was so together,” my friend said as we rode the elevator to her apartment, “she put herself through college, worked as an occupational therapist. She was such a lovely human being.”
On the 12th floor I left my friend at her doorstep, where her husband was waiting. “I’ll call you tonight,” I promised.
I rode the elevator down and walked home. The wind was rustling the leaves, it was a mild November day in Chicago. I had just witnessed my friend read stories about the Holocaust, explaining to young children how the Nazis wanted the Jews dead, only to learn minutes later that her niece had been brutally murdered by a member of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad.
Not enough has changed, unfortunately, from Kristallnacht to today.