Tateh and the Angel of Death:
A Family Fable
by Gina Roitman
When I was a little girl, Tateh and I would go fishing. There were the rituals — stripping a young birch to make a pole, digging for worms and walking through woods to the river — all made sweeter for taking place beyond the range of my mother's vigilant eye. I could run skipping along the bank of the river in search of the perfect spot to drop our lines and never once hear a cautionary note escape my father's smiling lips. Unlike my mother, my Tateh had no dire predictions about reckless behaviour and entertained no anxiety over what one false step might bring. Not that my father was the fearless type. Later in life, I would speculate that he taught me how to fish so I would be the one to hook the worm.
As we sat on the grassy riverbank, hugging our knees and our poles, waiting for a tug that came only rarely, my father would tell me stories, wonderful Russian fables about talking fish and bushy-tailed bears. And sometimes he told my favourite story about how on three separate occasions, and with God's help, he had cheated the Angel of Death.
When my Tateh was an infant, my grandmother, Muschia, undertook an arduous journey by foot and by cart from Baranowicze in Byelorussia to Vilna in Lithuania. The year was 1911. Just months before, my grandfather, Moishe, had been conscripted into the Czar's army, leaving his wife to care for their two adolescent daughters, beloved baby son and their little farm outside town. While in the service of the Czar, my grandfather would contract consumption and over time, the illness would wear him down the way he wore down the nibs of his pens as he copied out tracts of Torah. But in 1911, it was her son not her husband, that Muschia feared losing.
A week earlier the child had contracted rheumatic fever. Muschia and her young daughters did what they could but despite all efforts, the little boy was burning up. The doctor said nothing more could be done but Muschia refused to accept that. There was one last hope for saving her son. She would make a pilgrimage to consult a tzaddik renowned for his understanding of the mysteries of this world and the next. His mother was a practical woman, my Tateh said, leaving the mysteries of the world to her husband and all the men who studied Torah. Moishe was a soifer and spent his days copying brief tracts of scripture onto parchment in a miniature hand. Each tiny scroll copied would be placed inside a mezuzah, like a soul inhabiting a body, and each would find its way to the right side of some Jewish doorway. Muschia feared for her son, feared that his soul might leave his fevered body. Already there were four tiny coffins in the cemetery, each holding the body of a son, dead and buried by the age of two. The child who would become my father had just turned two when he fell ill.
Determined, Muschia left the fevered child in the hands of her capable daughters. After a day's journey, my grandmother finally arrived at the rabbi's court in Vilna. She sat waiting for almost an entire day but was finally ushered into the inner chamber. There the tzaddik listened to Muschia's straightforward tale of four dead and one dying son.
When she finished, he told her he needed time to reflect and pray, that she should return the following morning. The next day, the tzaddik gave his advice.
"You must trick the Angel of Death. That will keep your son from being taken."
Dismayed, my grandmother asked how was she supposed to do that?
"All things are possible," the tzaddik told her, "when there is an Almighty to guide us. To trick the malaach hamuvet, we must change the name your son was given at his bris."
Muschia had never heard of such a thing, and asked bluntly if it was allowed.
The tzaddik assured her that it was not so uncommon in Galicia where he came from.
"But by what name should I call him?" she asked.
"Benzion. You must call him Son of Zion, and the Angel of Death will pass him by," said the tzaddik, thus ending the audience that changed my father's name and his life.
There is an old Yiddish story about a man whose birth, bar mitzvah, wedding and funeral took place in four different countries although he never left his home town. So it was for my father, born in Czarist Russia but then bar mitzvahed and married in Poland. Ten years later, he rejoiced at the arrival of his third child and only son, born to him in the USSR. In all that time, my father never once left Baranowicze, not until 1941, two years after his son's birth. That was the year Hitler turned on his Soviet allies and began the march on Moscow. It was then that the Bolsheviks came to conscript my father, just as some 30 years before his father had been conscripted into the Czar's Imperial army.
"We lived in a place that never belonged to anyone for long," my Tateh said.
Before 1917, Byelorussia had been part of the Czarist Empire but in 1920, after more than a century, it once again returned to Poland. Then in 1939, the Germans handed over western Byelorussia to the Soviets as a reward for their alliance with the Axis.
But the Soviets were fierce and ruthless. Soon the Jews of Baranowicze prayed for the Germans to replace them. After all, my father said, his eyes downcast, everyone knew that the Germans were a civilized people and the Russians, pigs. It would seem that in my father's town, there was not much news of the ghettoes that were spreading like malignant cells throughout Eastern Europe, nothing about the rounding up of Jews like cattle or of transports and concentration camps. No papers carried such news in the USSR. No fleeing Jews passed through with tales of horror. Or maybe, the stories were told in Baranowicze but were not believed, as so often was the case.
'Who would have believed such a thing?' my Tateh asked.
When my father protested to the Commandant of his unit that he had three children, a wife and a mother all depending on him, he was assured that the Germans were interested only in men for the forced labour camps. Women and children were safe from the Germans. How could my father know that his family would disappear forever?
So, as he kissed his family goodbye, the Soviets gave my father a rifle. Hands that had never held anything larger than shears for cutting cloth, fingers talented enough to sew a stitch that magically disappeared and eyes trained to measure a form perfectly were now expected to draw a bead on the enemy, pull the trigger, and cut him down. My father was now expected to make Germans magically disappear into the folds of the earth as if they were stitches in cloth.
Perhaps being raised by three women, my father was uneasy in the company of men. He never spoke of men as friends, not even in stories about his childhood. He readily admitted to a shvacheh neshomeh, a soft nature. But if his were hands that could not kill, they were hands that could sew and, in the end, that was what saved him.
They were on foot and heading to Moscow, my father said. It was bitterly cold. The wind howled constantly, swirling across frozen fields as the ragtag army marched, their makeshift uniforms flapping wildly as if waving goodbye to all they had ever known. My father's fingers were frozen and his shoulder ached from carrying the heavy rifle. His head ached too, from the wind biting at his face and the relentless glare off the snowfields. Up ahead, the colonel mounted on horseback, was moving ahead slowly.
Looking up, wondering what it would be like to be on the back of an animal, my father's boot struck a rock. He tripped, lost his balance, and fell forward, clutching desperately at his rifle. It flew from his hands, arced into the air and landed butt down with such force that it went off. And it killed the colonel's horse out from under him. My father's execution was set for sunrise.
That night, the colonel raged about the stupidity of soldiers who could not even hold onto a rifle. The colonel's wife, a captain in the company, listened with half an ear as her husband vented his fury over losing a perfectly good horse at the hands of a fumbling tailor, a Jew, no less. Perhaps, the colonel's wife looked up, but slowly, so as not to convey too much interest.
"A tailor?" she may have said. "If only he knew how to sew a decent uniform for you. "
In this manner, as my father told it, she convinced the colonel that a live tailor might make up, in some small way, for a dead horse. And that is how my father once again slipped past the Angel of Death. When she came to see him in his cell, my father said, the colonel's wife confided that she too was a Jew but warned him to hold his tongue and prove himself an excellent tailor, for she would not defend him again. There was no need for her to worry. Apprenticed at fourteen, my father had a gift with cloth and an eye for form. He could cut a pattern merely by studying a photo or a garment. So, after the necessary materials were liberated, my father successfully produced a new uniform for the colonel and, out of gratitude, a dress for the colonel's wife. The memory of her pleasure would serve to save him on another occasion.
As it happened, before my father's battalion could reach Moscow, it was redirected to the eastern front. They marched or sat crammed onto trains whenever their route intersected the rail lines. My father no longer carried a gun but to compensate, he had been loaded down with additional supplies. Sometimes, waiting at a station for trains that ran on erratic schedules, my father would steal some sleep in a quiet corner. That's how he came to be left behind. Separated from his battalion, he haunted the station for two days until he was finally found wandering about with a small but precious cache of supplies. My father was immediately branded a deserter. Deserters were summarily shot but somehow that was not my father's fate because he remembered how the colonel's wife had loved her dress. So overcoming his fear, he asked to speak with the commandant and suggested to him that perhaps there was some woman for whom the commandant might like to make a fine present of a lovely warm dress or coat. The commandant was willing and my father was by now wily enough to trade a few small possessions for some fabric. With the needle, thread, thimble and shears he always kept with him, my Tateh cut and sewed his escape from death.
But the Angel came looking for him during the war one last time.
They were marching, always marching, my father said. It was early in the winter of 1943 and food was as scarce as the memory of spring. The soldiers were hungrier than they had ever been, and exhausted beyond human limits. They encountered few villages and when they did, there was never any food to be found. Still, the unit continued across the barrenness of Trans-Siberia and every day, a few men fell and were left where they lay to die, perhaps to be eaten by wolves whose nightly baying would have been terrifying if the men were not so numbed by hunger.
On the day my father decided to die, they were marching through a large orchard. The gnarled apple trees standing in neat rows must have seemed a rebuke, a mockery of the ragged formation presented by the straggle of men moving through it. My father dragged his feet. They were covered in festering sores from months of living in damp boots. Finally, unable to take one more step, he fell against a tree and slid onto the cold, hard ground.
He closed his eyes in exhaustion, in resignation, in the certainty he would not open them again. Perhaps he thought of his wife and children as he had last seen them, crying and frightened, or of his mother who had adored the son whose life she had snatched from the malaach hamuvet.
There beneath the tree, my father fell into the sleep that invites death. And he dreamed. He dreamt that he lay beneath an apple tree in a cold, bleak orchard where bony branches stretched out like the fingers of an arthritic crone. He was alone except for a figure in the distance that seemed to sometimes walk, sometimes float as it made its way towards him. As he watched, my father trembled with fear believing that at last, the Angel of Death was coming to claim him. But as the figure drew nearer, he recognized his father, saw the ink stained fingers reaching out gently, with longing, in what might have been the beginning of a caress. But instead of reaching down to touch his son, Moishe reached up, up and above my father's head to pluck a golden apple from a leafless branch. Then he offered the apple to his son whose arm felt so heavy, he was unable to lift it, even though his mouth had begun to water in anticipation of the first bite. The apple was perfect; its burnished skin shone glinting in the sun that stood just above and behind my grandfather's shoulder.
"Take it," said my father's father. "Take a big bite, Benzion, my son."
"I am too weak, Tateh," replied my father. "I cannot move and anyway, this is only a dream for you are long dead, may you reside in the heavenly Garden of Eden."
"No, I am here," said Moishe, "and you must eat this apple. For if you eat it all, you will live. And you must live. You are my only son. You must not die here for if you do, who will say Kaddish for me?"
And my father took the apple and ate it. When he awoke, he said, he marched for another day as if renewed, and finally, they arrived at a town where there was food enough for all.
Once, when I was old enough to have known better, I made the mistake of referring to my father's escape from the Angel of Death in the presence of my mother. Almost instantly, I felt guilty for having exposed my Tateh to my mother's cynical judgement. She turned to him and said, "You are filling your daughter's head with narishkeit, with your stories and fables. Thank God she has me to tell her the truth."
Fables or truths. Even now, I favour my father's fables, so full of hope to my mother's ominous truths.
One day, when he was 70, my father lay down for a nap on the cutting table in the backroom of his tailor shop. The table had had many lives. Purchased second hand when I was a toddler, it served as the dining room table for our little family of four. At Rosh Hashonah and Passover we took our holiday meals on it until my parents bought the tailor shop and then the table took on a new role. At lunch, my father would eat on it the hot meals my mother brought. When done, he would clear away the dishes and carefully wipe down the wood before unrolling a bolt of cloth to cut a suit or a dress. But since my mother's death three years earlier, business had dwindled and now the table was used mostly for afternoon naps.
When I called to check on him that day, my Tateh said he was feeling tired, unable to concentrate on putting the finishing touches to Mrs. Tweedy's jacket. It was only Tuesday and he had promised it for Saturday. He had plenty of time, Tateh told me, and then, as if talking to himself, said he had been thinking about Drora. His eldest daughter was ten when he last saw her. Such a good girl, he said. He didn't want to think about how she died but he was thinking about how the Angel of Death had released her from Auschwitz and delivered her to the radiance of Gan Eden. I grew anxious, perhaps because my Tateh rarely mentioned his 'other' children. I drove down to the shop to check on him. There, I found him lying on his side on the table, clutching his left arm.
In the ambulance, his eyes were closed but his lips were moving.
"I can almost see her," he said softly. "The sunlight is on her face and she is calling, Tateh, Tateh. I am here. Come, we are all here we're waiting "
Before we reached the hospital, my father sighed and opened his clutched hand. And the Angel of Death finally led him gently to the other side.