The crowd in the university chapel overflowed into the foyer. Almost all the relatives and a number of non-Jewish friends had come for Howie’s Bar mitzvah. The Torah reading was over and Howie made his way to the podium by himself. Sondra’s palms turned sweaty and she wondered if anyone else could hear her heart beating. Only she and the visiting rabbi knew what Howie planned to say.
“My dear parents, grandparents, rabbi, friends, and relatives, as I read from the Torah, I could not help but think of my cousin, Kurt, and his special relationship with this particular Torah. This Torah scroll was used for many years in Mafdner, Germany, where my father’s family had lived for generations. But in 1938 the buildup of outrage against German Jews burst into flames after a Jewish youth shot a Nazi official. This started terrible looting of Jewish homes and stores and the burning of synagogues.”
Howie continued with the story of the Kristallnacht in Mafdner, Germany and Kurt’s rescue of the two Torah scrolls. At the end of the story he took a deep breath.
“My cousin Kurt never had his bar mitzvah. He never made it out if
Germany. I am fortunate to live in a land of freedom and to have good parents who have shown me how important it is to keep the words of the Torah alive. My father does this every day as he deals with other cattlemen honestly and my mother does this when she volunteers her time at the hospital. As a bar mitzvah I plan to do everything I can to make sure that Kurt did not save this Torah scroll in vain.”
There was a hushed silence as Howie said Amen. Sondra unclenched her hands and glanced to the side of her. She was gratified to see many of the congregants pressing handkerchiefs to their eyes and she smiled serenely at Howie. There was no doubt his speech was a success.
Sitting in front of Sondra, Irene’s heart was bursting with pride. The glance she gave her parents sitting on her left seemed to say ‘I told you so’. It was her father who had brought Herbert into her life. Meeting him in shul one morning, fifteen years ago Karl Kramer invited the personable young man for dinner and regretted it for years afterwards. He and his wife, Martha, had no objections to Herbert Apfelbaum as a man, they just did not like where he lived.
“How can you raise your kids to be Jewish in that little hick town?” Martha had ranted before the couple was even engaged.
“You know, Omaha is a great place for a cattleman,” Karl had hinted once they were.
In truth, Irene would have loved for Herbert to move his ranch to Nebraska. She loved her family and the community, but she loved Herbert more and he felt he had a moral commitment to his Uncle Simon to stay in Lincoln.
Things had not turned out so bad. Her son was an all-American boy, popular in school, good in sports, and still able to read from the Torah as well as any rabbi. Her parents smiled back at her and nodded their heads. Their hearts, too, were bursting with pride.
After the service Herbert thanked everyone for coming and invited all of them to the Holiday Inn for a luncheon. Irene was a charming hostess to all, but somehow she could not help comparing the celebration meal to the simple kosher spread her parents had made after her brother’s bar mitzvah. But that had been years ago and this was the second half of the twentieth century. No one was so strictly kosher anymore that they would not eat any of the dairy foods that were being served.
On Saturday night there was a catered family dinner at Uncle Simon's house. Sunday morning, the newspaper had quite an article about the bar mitzvah and Howie’s speech. On Monday morning it was hard for Sondra to return to normalcy and go back to school.
Fortunately, her first class was World History, and Mr. Mane was her favorite teacher. Both Howie and Jane were in the same class with her. Mr. Mane began his lesson with congratulations to Howie and a brief synopsis of the Sunday article. He told his students that in a few months, when they began their unit on World War II, they would be covering the Holocaust in depth. Right before the bell rang, he called Sondra to his desk.
“Do you think your mother would be willing to talk to our class about her experiences in the work camps?”
Sondra gave her teacher a puzzled look.
“Didn’t your mother tell you that we took some classes together?”
Sondra shook her head. It made sense - this was Mr. Mane’s first year of teaching and he had graduated from Lincoln State. The only courses Helga took now were history courses. But Sondra’s mother knew who her history teacher was. Why hadn’t Helga said anything?
“Sir, my mother does not like to talk about her experiences,” Sondra shook her head.
“Really,” Mr. Mane raised his eyebrows. “She shared some fascinating stories with us in class last year.”
“I… I guess you can ask her,” Sondra stammered, wondering if they were talking about the same person.
Mr. Mane called the following week. Sondra and her mother were cleaning up from supper when the phone rang. Sondra answered and, although she recognized her teacher's voice, she did not say anything as she handed the phone to her mother. Helga spoke softly and Sondra could not manage to hear her mother's side of the conversation. Looking pale, Helga hung up the phone and, without a word, went to her bedroom leaving, Sondra to finish the dishes.
It was in January that they began to learn about World War II and, true to his word, Mr. Mane, devoted a week to the Holocaust. He began the week with a short documentary that showed American GIs liberating a concentration camps. The movie ran for thirty-seven minutes and every minute was pure torture for Sondra. Nothing in the movie was new to her, but she felt her heart beating rapidly and her face turning red, and she wondered whether everyone was looking at her. They were not. Some kids stared at the screen in shock, a few put their heads down on their desks, and several had tears running down their cheeks. Sondra felt Jane’s comforting hand on her shoulder when the lights came on, but it was to Howie she turned for understanding. They shared a sympathetic look and as soon as the bell rang met outside in the hall.
“You okay?” Howie asked his little cousin.
Sondra nodded. “I’ve seen it all in books. It was just kind of uncomfortable being around all these guys, who barely ever heard of the Holocaust.”
“I know,” Howie was being extremely compassionate.
Mr. Mane spent the rest of the week teaching his class about the rise of the Third Reich, the various concentration and work camps, statistics of slaughter from all the Nazi-occupied countries in Europe, and excerpts from a few Holocaust-era journals. On Friday, he asked Howie to relate Oscar’s story from the Kristallnacht. Howie told it as well as he had done at his bar mitzvah, and Sondra was just as proud of him as she was then.
They met in the cafeteria later during lunch hour and Howie played with his milk straw and put off eating any food.
“What’s on your mind?” Sondra finally asked over the din of the lunchroom.
“I’ve been thinking about that money Oscar gave me…”
“Yeah,” Sondra prodded.
“Maybe I don’t need a car.” Howie stuck his straw into his milk and took a swallow. “Maybe I should use the money to go to Germany to look for the other Torah.”
Sondra opened her eyes wide. “Do you think your parents will let you?” As permissive as Uncle Herbert and Aunt Irene were, they had their limits.
“I’m not talking about going now, silly. After I finish high school, the summer before I start college.”
Sondra nodded her head thoughtfully. “That will give us time to do all the research we want.”
“What do you mean we?”
“Don’t you want me to go with you?”
“Don’t you want me to go with you?”
“Sure,” Howie exclaimed. “That would be great! Do you think your parents will let you?”
“I have four years to get them used to the idea.” Sondra’s left dimple deepened as she smiled.
But before they could make any more plans, two of Howie’s team members hailed him and sat down at their table. Sondra was excluded from the conversation. It did not interest her anyway. She finished her food quickly and left to find Jane. However, for the next month, her main topic of conversation with Howie was how they could track down the Torah.