She had the blue eyes and blonde hair of a typical girl of the Aryan race. Yet the six-pointed yellow star on her clothes ear-marked her as a Jew. It was she, among the assembled people gathered there, that caught the young soldier’s eye. Despite being despised as a Jewess, she had a princess-like aura to her. Her attire bespoke of no importance, yet a royal blood poured through her veins. He knew that he had to act fast, before this fish slipped through his hands.
“Fräulein Esther Rosenberg!” called a soldier. “Come here.” Esther stood in horror. To be singled out surely meant that they wanted to kill her. At the tender age of sixteen, she had already experienced the worst. Death flirted before her, bared its teeth and showed off its muscles, sweeping through the shtetl and later the ghetto, leaving many, including Esther, bereft. She turned to her father, who had wizened before his time. His beard, once red, had now turned white; his face was in need of ironing; his once joyful electric blue eyes now seemed dull, grey and stony.
“Go Esther, my child.” His voice was raspy, as very little water had graced its threshold in recent times. “Remember, that you have a Father up in heaven, who guides our lives, as well as an angel that guards you all the time.” His voice was weak; he summoned his strength to continue. “Remember your namesake, Esther HaMalka, who erased the darkest dark with light. And remember that you are a Jew, prized by Hashem, and whatever happens is good. Call out to Him for help, and help will come. Be strong,” called out Herr Rosenberg with all his strength. With that, he blessed her to be like her matriarchs, Sara, Rivka, Rochel and Leah.
Esther took one last look at her family and her friends and quickly turned away. Timidly, and with a silent prayer on her lips, Esther approached the soldier who had called her name. Why had her father given her chizuk when he knew that these would probably be her last moments on Earth?
The soldier gruffly directed her to an important looking officer that was standing at the side. His uniform was collapsing under the weight of his medallions. “General Koenig will deal with you, you miserable Jewess, though I might add, you are not worth the trouble of a man of the General’s stature.”
Obediently, her head held high, Esther followed orders and awaited her fate. The General put a gun to her head and led her to the darkened woods behind her. Moments later the shots rang out and no one doubted that Esther was already pleading for them at the heavenly court.
Franz Koenig was a general in the German army and had the ability to whatever he wanted to any Jew he chose. He fought valiantly for his country and for ideologies and empty slogans he didn’t believe in. Pangs of conscience, for the blood of the innocent ones had always tugged at his heart. Now was his chance to appease his conscience – he was going to save a life. Yet only on his conditions was he risking his life. He looked at the girl, whose life was in his hand. Yes, she would do. He blindfolded her and placed her against a tree. The gun in his holster was not to be used. Out of his satchel, he got a different sort of weapon. He aimed and the shot rang out, and his victim slumped to the forest floor.
Groggily, the girl opened her eyes. She realized that she was being watched, felt eyes staring at her. She did not know where she was. It must be a cellar somewhere. It was quiet. Too quiet. Something Esther wasn’t used to.
“Good morning, Ellen. Or should I say afternoon?” a deep male voice said. The girl’s eyes flickered in recognition – it was General Koenig. The general handed her a cup of water. Out of habit, the girl mumbled a bracha and quenched her thirst. Putting her cup down like bolt of lightning, she protested.
“You have the wrong girl, sir; my name is not Ellen, it is Esther.”
Seeing the confused look on the young girl’s face, the general smiled and replied, “You are Ellen here. Esther is meant to be dead. Your name is now Ellen, and you follow my orders, as I have spared your life.” Franz look at her pale face with concern. “So how do you feel?”
“Sir, I have no ways to express my gratitude. I am feeling fine, thank G-d. A bit drowsy, yet I suspect it was probably from the sleeping thing you shot at me. Now tell me, why you did this? Why did you save my life?” said Ellen.
The general shifted uncomfortably, sweat on his face showing his exertion. “Yes, that was the sleeping dart; you were out for about three hours. You want to know why I did this. Well, what refined man could stand by while the blood of the innocent is spilled? I am afraid there is a way to show your appreciation, which you will have to fulfil anyways. That is in order for you to live –you have to play along. You will just have to marry me.”
“No, I can’t marry you. I would rather be killed then to forsake the house of my forefathers, I am sorry.” Ellen knew she could not marry him. No, it was not due to his looks nor his personality, it was because she was a Jewess. Jews simply do not marry Gentiles. All know that. Of course, refusing would mean death. Yet, it is a great sin to marry out. She remembered once learning that all laws are disregarded for the sake of human life, except murder, adultery, and idol worship. She averted her gaze downward; her eyelids were too heavy.
“So I see. Is it something you have against me?” said the general quietly, biting his lower lip. Ellen shook her head and pointed to the Jewish star she was wearing around her neck. The general nodded. She was Jewish and he was not. He went over to her and removed the necklace, which he had forgotten about. He shoved the star into his pocket. Noticing how tired she was, he turned towards the door. “You look tired. There is bread next to your bed. Think it over and get some sleep. I do not think your Jewish law requires your life instead of marrying a Gentile – I am sure it has been done before. I will see you in the morning.”
With that, he headed towards the door. In afterthought he added, “By the way, call me Franz.”
The door closed behind him. Ellen went over to the bed in the corner, made a blessing, and had a bite of the bread. She waited for the crunch of the hard stale bread she was used to, yet it did not come. The bread was soft. It was a luxury; she had only eaten crumbs of stale bread for weeks. She climbed into the bed and closed her eyes. She was too tired to weigh the pros and cons about the decision awaiting her in the morning. Soon her breathing slowed and her subconscious mind took over.
“Esther, Esther, remember Esther HaMalka…” Someone was calling her. “Remember, sometimes in life we have to make sacrifices, including our life. You are right, Jews do not marry Gentiles, and it is better to die al kiddush Hashem than to marry a Gentile. Yet the keys are in your hand. Remember, cry out to Hashem when you are in need and He will be there. Esther, Hashem only gave you this situation, as He knows you have the ability to handle it. He provides the tools before the test. Remember, you have the ability to bring a Jewish soul closer and we do not yet know the map of life or where it will take you. Things are not the way they seem.”
There was neither a clock nor any way of telling time in the room, yet her internal clock woke Ellen up. She could hear birds chirping in the distance, it was probably after dawn. Ellen jumped out of bed. “Zrizim makdimim l’mitzvos,” she said to herself. The day was hers; she must get up and serve her Creator. It could be her last day. Washing her hands with the little water that she had, she said the morning prayers by heart. She cried out to her Creator, begging for her salvation. When she finished, she said Psalm 121 and Psalm 20. She was so busy talking to her Creator she did not realize that the door had opened and she was being watched. Ellen heard a sob and she turned. There was a woman there. When did she come? The woman looked a bit like Ellen’s mother, plump and jolly. She resembled Franz. Yet the woman was crying. Ellen went over to her and put her arm around her, comforting her. After a while, the woman calmed down and turned to Ellen.
“I didn’t think I would see this again. I thought Judaism had been snuffed out.” Ellen looked at her quizzically. “I guess I should explain,” said the woman. “It was during the year 1914. Europe was a battlefield. Near the frontlines was a Jewish town, a vibrant community. There lived a girl about your age. One day, after a particular victorious battle, soldiers went and got a bit drunk. With their breath filled with the vulgar whiskey they, in their drunken excitement went and burned the Jewish village, killing all the unfortunate Jews. This girl, Aidel, ran to the forest, where a kind Gentile soldier found her. She was in the same predicament as you. She thought that there was nothing left of her town and tragically assimilated into the soldier’s family.”
“What a story! How do you know about it?” enquired Ellen.
The woman smiled kindly and continued, “Aidel changed her name to Adalheid, a typical German name, and married Karl Koenig. I cried today because your strength and martyrdom made me feel ashamed. I know this may be asking too much, yet can you please correct my misdeeds and bring my son back to the faith of my fathers?”
Ellen froze. Yes, her dream was right; things are not the way they seem. No, she did not actually save her nation, yet she would save a lost Jewish neshama. After all, it says that one who saves a soul is like someone who saves an entire nation.
~ Chaya Kraines