Iowa Writes

JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN
The Miracle of Volodsk (Part 4)


        First the Rebbe wrote a note nestled in his hat--an appeal--to leave in front of the Gates of Prayer.
        The SS leader once again strode up to the Gates of Prayer, readied his fist to pound upon them; however, he paused on the porch when he saw the Rebbe's hat with a note inside.  He plucked it up.
        The Rebbe wrote: "Respected Sir," the note began in flawless German from the Rebbe's own hand.  "Your word not to kill us is an honorable deed.  We will honor our pledge to you.  A ransom will be collected--if you would be so kind as to tell us how much.  The G-d who is Our Master will remember you and yours if you spare us."  With a sardonic smile, the SS murderer crumpled the note.  He threw it aside as he turned his back and returned to the campfire he left earlier.  The empty hat was undisturbed where it lay, empty for the rest of the night.  The hours since the message was left on the porch, etched a fear in the rebbe's mind like acid on slate.  Silently, he prayed that the ransom offer was enough.  When there was no knock in response to his plea, Rebbe Shimeon knew that none now was necessary.
        Esther Markowitz tapped Miriam on the shoulder.  Esther was betrothed to Shmuel, and both his parents loved this sweet and gentle girl as if she was their daughter.  "Rebbetsin.  Is it alright if I go downstairs and sit next to Shmuel?"  Miriam reached out to embrace Esther.  "No, dearest.  It is not fitting that you and Shmuel make such a display, especially tonight. Please?"  The girl was plainly distressed, but she remained at her seat, and began wringing her hands from worry and growing fear.
        Rebbe Shimeon broke off from the circle of anxious men, and calmly walked up the aisle toward the Gates of Prayer.  When he reached the doors, he hesitated for a moment to ask Hashem for help.
        Sammael also heard the plea.
        Opening the door to his right, the Rebbe stepped on to the porch.  Several campfires surrounded by SS men greeted his eyes.  A figure rose up from one of the fires, and approached the first step on the porch.  Rebbe and Captain engaged in a brief negotiation.  The Jews would pay all their wealth in the morning and the Germans would just burn down the synagogue and take their leave.

        First the Rebbe wrote a note nestled in his hat--an appeal--to leave in front of the Gates of Prayer.
        The SS leader once again strode up to the Gates of Prayer, readied his fist to pound upon them; however, he paused on the porch when he saw the Rebbe's hat with a note inside.  He plucked it up.
        The Rebbe wrote: "Respected Sir," the note began in flawless German from the Rebbe's own hand.  "Your word not to kill us is an honorable deed.  We will honor our pledge to you.  A ransom will be collected--if you would be so kind as to tell us how much.  The G-d who is Our Master will remember you and yours if you spare us."  With a sardonic smile, the SS murderer crumpled the note.  He threw it aside as he turned his back and returned to the campfire he left earlier.  The empty hat was undisturbed where it lay, empty for the rest of the night.  The hours since the message was left on the porch, etched a fear in the rebbe's mind like acid on slate.  Silently, he prayed that the ransom offer was enough.  When there was no knock in response to his plea, Rebbe Shimeon knew that none now was necessary.
        Esther Markowitz tapped Miriam on the shoulder.  Esther was betrothed to Shmuel, and both his parents loved this sweet and gentle girl as if she was their daughter.  "Rebbetsin.  Is it alright if I go downstairs and sit next to Shmuel?"  Miriam reached out to embrace Esther.  "No, dearest.  It is not fitting that you and Shmuel make such a display, especially tonight. Please?"  The girl was plainly distressed, but she remained at her seat, and began wringing her hands from worry and growing fear.
        Rebbe Shimeon broke off from the circle of anxious men, and calmly walked up the aisle toward the Gates of Prayer.  When he reached the doors, he hesitated for a moment to ask Hashem for help.
        Sammael also heard the plea.
        Opening the door to his right, the Rebbe stepped on to the porch.  Several campfires surrounded by SS men greeted his eyes.  A figure rose up from one of the fires, and approached the first step on the porch.  Rebbe and Captain engaged in a brief negotiation.  The Jews would pay all their wealth in the morning and the Germans would just burn down the synagogue and take their leave.
        When Shimeon reported the outcome of his discussion with the Nazi, Raskolnik again shouted, "How can you believe him?  Are you meshugginah?  What guarantee do we have this beast will keep his word?  Answer me!"  Avram Metchnek shouted back. "Douryak!  Fool!  We have no guarantee!  There is nothing to stop the Germans from killing us right now.  We are Jews, for G-d's sakes.  We must put our faith in Hashem and the Rebbe.  You have another answer, Raskolnik?"
        Rebbe Shimeon raised his hands again for silence.  As the confusion and consternation died down, one of the rebbes in training--Mordechai--who fancied Rachel to be his rebbetsin asked this question.
        "Rebbe.  Is it permissible to say the Kaddish for all of us should the Germans not keep their word?"
        This question seared Shimeon's soul like none other in his rabbinical life before.
        In the Jewish religion there is the concept of 'Kiddush Hashem'--or 'Martyrdom for G-d.'  Mordechai's query raised the same thoughts in Shimeon's mind when he took a certain book from his shelf earlier that day to seek the answer.
        Every eye and despair focused on Shimeon's face.  How would he answer?
        Sammael wondered too.
        "Mordechai.  Hashem will protect us.  Please believe me.  Somehow a miracle will happen, and this evil will pass from us if He Wills it!"
        Others in the shul were disappointed in this sophistry.  More hoped their Rebbe was right.  After all, Yom Kippur is about Atonement and Redemption by Hashem, yes?  Then the Rebbe did something no one ever expected.  He went into his study and brought out his cherished viola.  Sitting on the top step of the bimah, he put bow to string, and once again Kol Nidre flowed softly, heavenwards.  It was his final answer to Mordechai's question. 
        Hashem was pleased with His tzaddik.
        The long night gave way to a grim dawn as the Day of Atonement unfolded hour by hour.
        Outside the Germans made preparations to betray their side of the bargain.
        Sammael stirred and began to unfold his wings.  His duty was about to be fulfilled.
        Unbeknownst to the Jews of Volodsk and to the surprise of the Archangel, Hashem silently appeared, and filled the shul with His Presence.  Nothing needed to be said between Creator and His Messenger.
        Sammael departed.
        Outside the SS first barred the Gates of Heaven and the synagogue's only back door so that no Jew could escape their doom.  Then they positioned their flamethrowers.  As the watery sun rose over the forest beyond Volodsk, the order to burn the synagogue was given.  In minutes the two-hundred-year old building was engulfed in flames.  To the surprise of the SS no one inside the flaming inferno looked out the darkened windows.  No screams could be heard despite the roar of fire.  When the last of the collapsed shul ceased to burn or smolder, the SS captain and some of his men gingerly walked across the blackened ruins and greyish ash settling everywhere about them.
        Where were the bodies?  As the Germans looked for remains, they stared at one another in amazement, and growing doubt.  A thorough search found no trapdoor, no tunnel to the outside, no other refuge.  On the charred floor where the bimah steps once were, a burnt and blackened viola lay on its back.  Its creamy horse hair bow singed, and the wooden rod warped and strands less.  In a fit of pique, the SS leader kicked the Voice of Judaism until it split in two.  Then he walked out, collecting his men to leave this latest scene of murderous rage.  As the SS drove away, every man was grateful in his own way to leave Volodsk forever.  The more religious among them feared for their souls when another day would come, and they must answer for the Volodsk Jews and their gentle rebbe.
        From that day on, no one among the Germans there ever spoke about the Aktion against the Jews of Volodsk.  When the war ended, the former SS captain joined his SS comrades for beers and reminisces.   
        Most of his comrades in arms bragged about their exploits on the Eastern Front, but not he.
        Not about Volodsk in Southern Russia.
        Not about that Yom Kippur in 1942.
        To his dying day many years later, this SS man wondered what happened to the bodies that were never found amidst the charred beams and broken walls in that synagogue.
        We know.
        There was a miracle on that Yom Kippur Day. 
        At least that is what we Jews of Volodsk to this day believe.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

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JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN

Joseph Richard Goldman has taught modern European history at the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas.  He is now writing two novels.  He has participated in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival since 2014.




The Miracle of Volodsk appeared on the Daily Palette in four parts.  If you missed Parts 1-3, you can find them here, here, and here.

This page was first displayed
on May 06, 2016

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