bedtime stories

After the birth of our fourth child, my mother comes to stay with us. She has wavy red hair, the high cheekbones of Eastern Europe, a ready laugh, and boundless energy. She is a much better homemaker than I am, a real balebusta. Before she goes to sleep at night, the house is spotless, the laundry folded and put away in drawers, the floors washed. As she rocks and sings to the laughing baby, I comfort myself with the knowledge that at least I draw very well.

The baby is sleeping. We are folding laundry on the dining room table. Hesitantly, I tell my mother I am writing a book, there are vampires in it, that I would like to use some of her stories, some of her mother’s stories.

We are rolling socks into neat balls. Her pile is larger than mine, of course. I brace myself, waiting for her to scold me, to tell me to stop wasting time with narishkeit.

“You should have learned Yiddish,” she reminds me. And then she begins to talk.

For the first time, I hear, really hear, her stories. She starts with the one about the Aktzia. Selinger, whoever he is, tells my grandfather that SS forces are massing for an attack on the Jewish ghetto. It could happen at any time. He warns my grandfather to gather up his family and disappear into the forest.

That evening, a wagon arrives in front of my mother’s house on the market square. It is full of skins. The driver tells my grandfather that he has been sent by Selinger. He has instructions to pick him up, together with his family. He only has papers for Zaidy; his wife and children are supposed to hide under the leather. They are going to hide in his castle in Adampol.

Zaidy worries about this. What if the wagon is searched? He sends the wagon away. That night, my grandfather gathers my grandmother and their four small children, and leads them into the forest.

They walk all night. As day breaks, they emerge from the trees and trudge towards the castle. Selinger is there waiting for them, his arms folded, shaking his head. “Idiot, idiot.” he says to my grandfather, bemused. “So the wagon I sent wasn’t comfortable enough for you?”

“Who is this guy?” I ask my mom in stunned disbelief. She is not sure of the details; after all, she was only eight years old. What she knows is this; that he was German, that he was always dressed in a suit, that he was in a position of great authority, and that he liked her father.

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