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By Rochelle Wisoff-Fields
When Sylvia uttered, “Hail Mary full of Grace…,” she saw Sister Honorina. With her white veil, blue eyes and round face, she resembled the paintings of the Blessed Virgin with Baby Jesus hanging on the wall of the dormitory Sylvia shared with seven other girls.
After praying the Rosary with Sylvia in her gentle Viennese-accented voice, Sister Honorina added the shema. “I promised to your father never to let you forget the words of your ancestors. We say them together now.”
Sylvia recited the prayer in unison with Sister Honorina both in Hebrew and English exactly the way Papa did. “‘Shema yis’ra’el, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai echad. Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.’”
“Sehr gut. Your Papa, he would be so proud.”
“When are he and Momma coming back for me?”
Tears welled up in the nun’s eyes. She dabbed them with her sleeve. “We must leave it in God’s hands.” Tucking Sylvia’s teddy bear in beside her, Sister Honorina kissed the child’s forehead. “Sleep now, kleine schvester.”
Sylvia curled up on her side, hugging her bear. Frost formed intricate patterns on the window. The way the streetlight outside the convent illuminated them fascinated the eight-year-old. She remembered Papa’s stories about frost-faeries with icicle paint brushes. Closing her eyes, she heard Momma and Papa.
Momma sounded angry. “You’re filling her head with stuff and nonsense. How’s this equipping her to face a world filled with discord and oppression, Aaron? How?”
“Esther, she’s only six.”
“You don’t hear the news? Six-year-olds are being slaughtered in their beds. Babies murdered in their mothers’ arms. No synagogue is safe. No Jewish market. Just like my grandparents in Poland. How long before they throw rocks through our windows?”
“We’re an enlightened society, Esther. Consider our technological advances. Never again. The pogroms aren’t going to happen here.”
“My Aaron, the scientist. My Prince Charming who still believes in fairytales. I love you, but you’re wrong. Dead wrong.”
Sylvia shivered and pulled the covers over her head. It happened a year ago. A year after her parents’ argument. Momma’s frightening predictions came true. Sylvia saw their beloved cantor beaten to death—right in the shul, the words of the Kaddish Shalem on his lips. She could still smell sulfur odor that hung in the air—hear the screams and moans of the dying.
By some miracle, Sylvia and her parents escaped that Shabbos day, the day the Shoah began in earnest. Many of their neighbors had already gone into hiding. Momma and Papa decided it would be safer for Sylvia to place her with Christians. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, she might escape being pegged as a Jew.
Papa carried her in his strong arms. He smelled of aftershave and chocolate. His heart thumped against her chest. “You will do what the sisters tell you, Silver Girl, do you understand? Even when you think it’s strange.”
“We will take good care of her, Mr. and Mrs. Green.” Sister Honorina reached for Sylvia. “We’ll allow no harm to come to her.”
“How can you say that?” Momma stroked Sylvia’s hair. “How can anyone in this godforsaken country make such a promise?”
Tears streamed down Papa’s stubbled cheek. “Never forget who you are, my daughter.” He placed her in Sister Honorina’s arms. “We’ll be back soon, sweetheart.”
Momma covered her mouth with her gloved hand. “Oh, Aaron.”
Sylvia reached for Papa. “Pinkie swear?”
His lips trembled. He engulfed her pinkie finger in his. “As the frost-faeries are my witness.”
March wind swooshed outside the convent. In the beds across the aisle, Elizabeth Nusbaum and Naomi Resnick who were both twelve spoke in stage whispers.
“Naomi, do you think they took our parents to the death camps?”
“Girls, shh.” Sister Honorina shone her flashlight on them. “This is not the time to speak of such things.”
“Seriously? When do we talk about it? After another six million have perished?” Elizabeth bolted upright. “It’s 1942 all over again. I saw it on CNN. There are camps in Colorado and Arizona and more being constructed in New Mexico.”
Please visit Rochelle on her website: https://rochellewisoff.com/