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G. SandersThe book is a startling achievement, one that gives new meaning to the concept of Filial Piety.
On Burning Ground is the tale of one desperate and brilliant man's ultimate choice: at the eve of the Nazi purging of Poland, to disguise his Jewish origin and pose first as a Christian, then to join the Nazi SS. Living in constant fear, Michael Skakun's father, Joseph, not only assumed a dangerous array of identities in order to survive, but subsequently compromised his very spirit. On Burning Ground is a brave and revelatory tale of a son's father who risked it all, and through his amazing odyssey, was keenly ...
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On Burning Ground is the tale of one desperate and brilliant man's ultimate choice: at the eve of the Nazi purging of Poland, to disguise his Jewish origin and pose first as a Christian, then to join the Nazi SS. Living in constant fear, Michael Skakun's father, Joseph, not only assumed a dangerous array of identities in order to survive, but subsequently compromised his very spirit. On Burning Ground is a brave and revelatory tale of a son's father who risked it all, and through his amazing odyssey, was keenly aware of the price of such deceits.
Gut shabes, mameh!" Joseph said, keeping any trace of alarm from his voice.
"Tayerer oytser!" Dear treasure! She embraced him with tears of gratitude at seeing him unhurt.
The previous night his mother had awoken in a cold fright, having dreamed of a firestorm racing through the center of Novogrudek. Upon greeting her now at dusk, Father saw the troubled appeal in her eyes. Ever since the Germans had arrived in Novogrudek in early summer, a drumbeat of fear pervaded the town. But on this first Friday of December 1941, he sensed anew how deep her dread had become. He resolved not to mention the Nazi curfew that would shortly go into effect.
Near the curtained window they watched the season's first snow descend. Father's expression betrayed nothing of the sad news shortly to come. Grandmother's fine features quavered in the lamplight. This was the time of year when northeastern Poland, which had earned the sobriquet kleyn Siber--Little Siberia--was gripped by a band of Arctic ice.
For her the greatest comfort was the coming of Sabbath. She would always remind Father that an extra soul was given to the faithful each rest day. She quoted the rabbis that the joy of the Sabbath was a sixtieth of the blessing of the world to come reserved for the righteous. It was the truest "load of immortality" this side of paradise. She had longed to die on a Friday so that, as she always said, she "could come unto Eternity on the Sabbath"--aheym kumen far Shabes.
"Come, Mother, it's time to light the candles," Father said.
She rose, struck a wooden match, and lit the Sabbath candles. She wove her hands over the flames and then cupped her eyes in tearful welcome of the holiest day of the week. The wavering brightness shone against the wisps of her blond hair. Her face had by then acquired a translucence that let through an otherworldly light. Father felt tinged with enjoyment as the glow of her eyes merged with the flame of the wick. For a moment the presence of the Sabbath hung in the air like a mystic truce.
His paternal aunt Rivke, with whom they lodged after the German Luftwaffe destroyed their home on Yiddisher Street and scattered death over Novogrudek five months earlier, burnished her old candelabrum to a high buff and lit her candles in turn. Every Friday she invested the coming of the Sabbath with what slender dignity remained. Father and his mother then approached the set table on which Uncle Shloimke leaned heavily, his face a furrow of strain. Rivke gazed at two empty chairs and sighed; both their children had escaped to the woods as a precautionary measure.
Shloimke thumbed through the yellowed pages of the Hebrew prayer book, its cover illegible from long use. Father and he turned in the direction of Jerusalem to recite the evening devotions. For a brief moment it was as if all nature began to sing a hymn of twilight.
They then moved in the direction of the table. Shloimke's voice, hardly more than a whisper, rose fitfully as he launched into the blessing over the loaves, which lay skinny and forlorn under the frayed white tablecloth flecked with wine spots. His voice trembled in an unsteady crescendo, all the while reading the words with a steady frown. They all stood in thought, their heads bowed.
When he finished, they sank down heavily in their chairs. Aunt Rivke ladled the thin broth with an old wooden spoon. Her motion awoke in Father a train of reflections. He was transported back to prewar Polish Sabbaths when the air was thick with the fragrance of khale, the aroma of yellow chicken broth cooked with marrow bones, the fried savor of gribbenes (cracklings), and the delicate whiteness of linen cloth. He remembered the days when his parents' grocery was stocked with candied delicacies to charm a child's heart. Jellies, glazed apples, and preserves were piled high on the counter and made his mouth water. On the far side, barrels of briny cucumbers and baskets of aromatic poppy-seed rolls bulked large. Fields of rye and buckwheat lay outside, and Novogrudek slumbered in deep shade.
The dull rattling of the front gate arrested his daydreaming. Suddenly a shout tore through the quiet air. A violent motion shook the door and their heads turned in unison. A wild, chalk-faced neighbor, Avreml Kalmanovitch, rushed in.
"Jews! Graves are being dug!"--Yidn m'grobt griber!--he shouted.
"What are you saying?" they demanded in a tumult of voices.
"Two hundred White Russians are digging trenches outside of town!" he cried, his voice pitched over their heads.
They rose as one and again repeated in an agony of alarm, "What are you saying?"
For a moment they stood like darkened figures in a murky space, the line between life and death appearing to fade.
Then the neighbor turned, around and flew out the door.
Father looked at his watch. It was six-thirty; the curfew was set for seven. Minutes remained before the trap would shut them in, blocking their escape routes.
At first his thoughts flew in every direction. But the prospect of death concentrated his mind, forcing a mental clarity amid the chaos. The image of the Nazi Ortskommandant's bunker, which he had swept clean that very morning as part of his daily work assignment, leaped into his vision. It was small and narrow, not much larger than an oversized pipe, but big enough to shelter Grandmother and him from harm, if only they might reach it safely. Who, he thought, could imagine them finding refuge right under the noses of their tormenters, in the bunker of the local chief of the Wehrmacht?
"Mother, listen to me," he said with death rattling at the door. "I know the layout of the Ortskommandant's house."
Grandmother leaned her face against the wall. The oil lamp illuminated her grayish blond hair, throwing her face into shadow. She then turned to him and said, "Thank God your father is shielded by death."
The minutes ticked away. There was no time to vacillate. He took hold of his mother's hand and urged, "Let's flee. I know a place we can hide."
She stared straight ahead, then turned to face him. "Were you talking to me?" she asked, as if incurious about her fate.
"We must hide before they come for us," he pleaded.
"It's useless," she whispered. "Let's stay here."
"There's no use panicking," Aunt Rivke said. "We're staying. If the children return and don't find us here, they'll assume the worst." Shloimke nodded.
"You must listen to me," Father said, turning to his mother. "I have a safe haven near the Ortskommandant's house."
He kept looking at the clock on the wall. Grandmother saw the agony etched on his face, heard the desperate pitch in his voice, and relented. He bounded to the closet, tore the door open, and then grabbed her thin and only cloth coat and her knitted cap. He helped her into her coat and then flung his winter jacket on his shoulders.
Grandmother crunched her handkerchief into her palm and dabbed her eyes. She turned to Rivke and Shloimke and embraced them in round-shouldered intimacy. Father fell upon them and pressed them close. Rivke then opened the door to let them out. A cold blast rushed in and slammed the door behind them, two phantoms in the night.
They toiled uphill with the full moon hung in the sky like a silver globe, its smooth circularity mocking their fate. It was piercingly cold, and the fine frigid scent of snow rushed in on them.
As his mother walked with a stammering gait, tugging her kerchief tighter over her head, Father strode along with a firm tread.
"Please, Joseph, slow down. I can't keep up with you," she pleaded.
"Just this little hill and then it will be easier," he said in a tone of affectionate remonstrance, knowing they couldn't afford even a short respite.
Father was afraid of everything. He was afraid that her stamina would not last if he rushed her, but he feared most what would be in store for them if they were caught. He supported her arm, but it didn't much ease the strain of walking.
He knew he needed strength for them both. He guided his mother to a side alley, hoping this roundabout route would enable them to avoid passing the police station. They crept under fences, now silvered by frost, and emerged like ill-fated wanderers onto the street.
"Halt!" a shout rang out.
They froze in place.
Two hulking White Russian policemen, spotting their joint silhouettes, trained their guns on them.
"Where are you going?" they demanded.
Father drew out the Ortskommandant's water-main key from his coat pocket and handed it to them. He explained with as much tranquil audacity as he could summon that if he did not return it to the commandant's staff right away, there'd be hell to pay.
The policemen looked them up and down and then took counsel one with the other.
"Get moving!" the taller one finally barked, putting his gun back into its holster.
They turned on their heels and marched away. Grandmother and Father held their breath till the brutes disappeared from sight.
"Got tsu danken!" Grandmother heaved a sigh.
Hedged about with danger, Father and his mother returned to the side road, following its curves and bends. From afar they heard sharp explosive crackles which made them hasten their step. The wind enveloped them and raked their faces as they ducked under a succession of fences. Grandmother was puffing and out of breath, her eyes bent upon the ground. Father could hear her murmur, "Oysbrukirt mit tsores iz der veg tsum beyshakvores"--The path to the grave is paved with troubles.
They finally came upon a wall that edged into the Ortskommandant's quarters. The cylindrical bunker--their refuge--was off to one side. The building's cellar would have been the better choice, but the trapdoor rested on rusty hinges; opening it might have alerted the occupants of the house.
It was minutes before seven when they finally slid into the bunker buried under a skin of ice. Grandmother gasped from exertion and soon began to shiver but did not complain, sitting absolutely still to conserve her fading strength. Father put his arm around her shoulder and held her close. Her hands were numb and her teeth began to chatter softly. He breathed on her hands, massaged her fingers as he fought with the cold. He trembled to think what would happen when her strength gave out.
In time their hunger pangs grew sharp, but their food ration consisted of a loaf of hard black bread Uncle Shloimke had thrust into his hands when they left. He pulled it from his pocket; it was as cold as the night itself. He broke a piece from the end and warmed it in his hands. Their teeth nearly broke as they drove into its hard crust. They softened it with their saliva and chewed on it for a hour, remembering their interrupted Sabbath meal, a repast once reserved for sanctity and delight.
The broad ends of the pipe could not be blocked, and the wind cut through them like a knife. Death skulked in the frigid air. Father remembered how he had snuggled into his blanket at home before the war and how the soft drowsiness of approaching sleep spread through him on a late Friday night. Now they huddled together on the icy floor, twisting themselves into positions of warmth; the moonlight sidling across the borders of gray cement marked the passing hours. Time became a weight as ponderous as night itself.
In this catacomb, their ears were roused to a high pitch of tension. In the silence, every noise was magnified, with periodic gunfire rattling their nerves. Unspoken thoughts hung like their breath in the air, and amidst the gloom they fought weariness, fearing sleep would spell death in the glacial night.
He thought of his dead father and of the many boyhood stories he had related to him. Like so many young Jews at the turn of the century, Grandfather had dreamed of America, the lodestar of his ambition. This was the country with a franchise on the future, of which it was said that every route might become a straight line to infinity.
When Grandfather was barely an adolescent, already rashly enterprising, he ran away from Novogrudek to Libau, the Latvian port on the Baltic Sea. Father imagined him as a young boy, scraping around the old wharves, watching the seabirds cavorting in the briny air and skimming the surface of the waves. From a great distance he would hear the foghorns sounding at sea. Then an old hulk bound for New York steamed into port and Grandfather stole his way inside. Imbibing the salt reek of the tide, he left his childhood behind, as the harbor fell away.
Aboard the ship, Grandfather recited the Jewish hymn "Nishmat," which sang of the faithful as "mouths full of song as the sea, and their tongues of exultation as the multitude of its waves, and their lips of praise as the wide-extended skies ... their eyes shining light like the sun and the moon, and their hands spread forth like the eagles of the air...." He gazed upon the expanding horizon, his mind freighted with the biblical associations of a shtetl youth.
The port of New York with its black funnels of smoke proved fearsome for so young a fellow in 1906. It was a city with a wild hunger for sensation and the promise of freedom. This was where Alexander Harkavy, the noted Yiddish lexicographer and one of Navaredok's famous sons had come. Here on the eastern seabord he transformed himself into the teacher par excellence of two generations of Jewish immigrants, and into the translator of Don Quixote and a revised King James English Bible into Yiddish. In one boat's journey, Grandfather entered the urban industrial world of the twentieth century.
Set ashore with little money in his pockets, Grandfather found his way to relatives, the Falks, in Borough Park, which had been recently parceled out of the estates and cow pastures of Blythebourne. But his sojourn ended disappointingly. He spent four years of sorrow and loneliness in New York, fitfully navigating the unsparing currents of the American marketplace--what he called "Amerika ganif": America the thief. Sailing back to Russia, Grandfather would never return to the United States. He was unable to find "freedom's larger play" in Brooklyn, where economic failure was synonymous with moral transgression.
On his return journey, he was accosted by a ghostly aboriginal vision that rose from "the script of the waves," divulging the sea's awful secrets. While others were overcome with the nausea of seasickness, he leaned bravely against the handrail of the vessel a day into the Atlantic. To his consternation, he saw on the line of the horizon an ocean-crossing eagle land on the back of a whale gliding among the waves. The seabird's talons had become entangled in the great fish's blubber. The whale rolled in agony, trying to free itself of the bird's talons. Two monarchs of the sea, the soaring fowl and diving mammal, drifted as phantoms on the ocean's surface, bound in a terrible conjoining of life and limb.
Upon hearing this fable of destruction in the Atlantic, I was reminded during my adolescence of Melville's story of the whale and its multiple layers of emblematic meaning. My grandfather's ominous sighting recalled an apocalyptic passage in Moby-Dick, in which one of the Pequod's gigantic sailors accidentally nails a sky hawk to the mast while the accursed whaling ship sinks: "The bird chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood ... and with archangelic shrieks ... went down with his ship, which like Satan, would not sink to hell till she dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it."
Hebrew Scripture teaches that the sea yields the darker truth of reality; but in 1941, the heart of Europe far exceeded the ocean in sheer malignity. This swath of burning ground--Eastern Europe--with no cleanly defined littoral frontiers, had suffered the worst sort of imperial conquest. Fortunate were those continents--the American in particular--whose borders were washed by the seas of the world.
But of what use could such memories of America be at that moment? Grandfather was dead, and America lay beyond the reach of Europe. How unfair were life's favors apportioned, Father thought, sinking deeper into his winter jacket while his mother leaned against the pipe's harsh interior. Morning would soon be upon them, and if they did not exit the rusty pipe before the first rays of dawn, they would be trapped for at least another twelve hours.
Grandmother awoke in a shiver of light. They had to move to the cellar--it would be warmer and would muffle the howl of the wind. But how would they open the heavy door whose rusty hinges made such a racket? Father was terrified of making the least noise because of a resident in the building above whose shrewish wife had no second thoughts about betraying Jews. If she heard anything, she could alert the Gestapo.
Father wracked his brains till the first fugitive light of day lay on the ground. They would simply have to chance it.
Taking Grandmother's hand, he emerged from the pipe and headed toward the rusty cellar door. A powerful blast of wind swirled snow around them. Father winced as he placed his hand on the door handle. Even before he made any movement, he could already hear the noise reverberating in his ear. But to his surprise, the door miraculously gave way without its customary screech.
He led Grandmother down the dark wooden stairs. They advanced slowly, groping blindly with their hands and feet amid the basement's baronial provisions. The cellar ran the entire length of the house and was partitioned into storerooms filled with ample provisions for the Germans. They reached a lit passageway and soon found a backroom lined with flour sacks, which Father arranged on the floor as makeshift bedding.
It was warmer in the cellar than in the pipe, but the Russian winter penetrated even these thick basement walls. Father wrapped his winter scarf around his mother to give her an extra layer of warmth. They held each other in the darkness. By late morning the diabolical wind subsided. But soon the tension of waiting became unbearable. Would it not be better to anticipate rather than merely react to events? he thought. Why wait till disaster loomed?
He retraced his steps to the, entrance and climbed out onto the lawn. He knew one Nazi adjutant in the building who might be amenable to a special request. It was a grave risk, but he was counting on his constant need for an extra hand during the morning's chores.
Father's chest pounded as he mounted the stairway. What could he credibly say if he was confronted by a hostile Nazi official at the Ortskommandant's headquarters? But he was lucky; the building was fairly empty. He breathed more easily when he saw the adjutant racing downstairs.
"Ach, Joseph, good you're here. I'm shorthanded this morning."
"At your service, sir," Father said promptly.
"Go, run down and haul some water from the outdoor pump."
These words brought the world back to him. If only his duties of attendance could serve as a refuge.
FATHER WORKED DISTRACTEDLY ALL morning, cleaning milk jugs, polishing the Ortskommandant's boots, doing sundry menial tasks which absorbed some of his fear. But Grandmother's precarious safety troubled him. She was shivering in the cellar, he knew. And she ran the very real danger of being caught.
He used every excuse he could to run down to the basement and check on her. By late afternoon he was making repeated trips down the stairs when he sensed that he was being watched. He understood immediately it was the woman upstairs, who in making humble obeisance to the Nazi occupier reserved malice for the Jews. She had been prying and peering behind her closed shutters. Father's heart stopped when he saw her raise her window suddenly.
"You!" she shouted from her window. "What's going on in the cellar?"
"Just trying to keep warm," Father yelled back. "It's cold out here."
Once her suspicions were aroused, she would not yield without checking for herself. When he descended to the cellar a little later, he heard her menacing footsteps. He raced in and saw her advancing from room to room.
They came face to face. Father caught the calculating gleam in her eye.
"What are you looking for?" he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
"I don't have to answer you!" she snapped, and continued her search amid the bins.
"If you need something, I can get it for you," he offered affably, foolishly thinking he could stir some hidden vein of benevolence.
"Don't bother!" she replied, baring her broken teeth.
Before he could stop her, she rounded a corner and discovered his mother praying in a darkened corner.
"What is she doing here?" she screamed.
Grandmother's face was an unmoving white spot in the dark. The local woman sensed her fright.
"Get out! You have no right to be here, you wastrel!" Her voice rose in a shrill crescendo of hate.
She then turned to Father with a triumphant smile. "So this is your mother! You thought you could fool me? But you will soon learn you can't."
"Have a heart," he voiced a vain entreaty. "It's so cold outside."
She shot him a stony look, spat a few anti-Semitic curses, and strode out. Her distant figure was a small bundle of sharp, angular gestures and choice imprecations. Father hated this witch of calamity for whom at the moment no malediction seemed adequate.
Grandmother understood that they had finally been routed from their unquiet haven. She burst into tears while Father made a great effort to seem composed.
"What a beyzeh khaye"--a vicious animal--he said.
Alas, all too often in those terrible days, her kind proved to be the rule rather than the exception. A leader of a German annihilation squad wrote to Berlin, "It is difficult to imagine the joy, gratitude and delight our measures awoke ... in the local population. We had to use sharp words to cool the enthusiasm of women, children, and men who with tears in their eyes tried to kiss our hands and feet."
"Come, Joseph," his mother pleaded, "this place isn't ours. We should go."
He agreed, but they found themselves in a real fix now. They were forbidden to be outside on pain of death. Father thought for a moment and then mounted the indoor stairs leading to the office of the adjutant, whom he knew to be a fairly decent sort. He gambled On the dubious hope that the adjutant might find a way to issue him a transit permit. Under the curfew rules, Father was as good as dead if he stepped out with no protective clearance.
"Sir," he began, "is it possible for me to carry a pass giving me liberty to do all my errands for you without hindrance?"
"Well, I don't see why not. You have been doing your work steadily, so I can't imagine why that should be a problem," he answered.
He took out a pad he carried with him and wrote quickly that Father should not be harmed during his work assignments. He handed it to him with a flourish.
"Thank you, sir," Father said.
Grandmother's face was etched in sorrow as they left the Ortskommandant's headquarters and headed back to their relative's residence in Peresheka. Crows flew overhead in a dense shifting canopy. Though it was only afternoon, the day was dark around them. A great black cloud bank descended on them. Near the bombed-out center of town they were intercepted by White Russian police once again. They could not proceed and saw that around the bend in the road thousands of Jews were streaming from the direction of Peresheka toward the courthouse on the edge of town.
Father could smell danger in the air as fear gripped them in an expanding and contracting ring. The sight of people being herded like cattle from their homes and hiding places confirmed his worst fears. The interminable sky stretched in a wide, dark expanse.
Despite Joseph's pass, they were swept into a confused sea of humanity, carried down the avenue in a chaotic surge, tossed amid the stampeding crowd, now consisting of thousands of Novogrudek's Jews clutching their last possessions. The German army and SS units, armed with their pointed bayonets and rifles, were flanked by the White Russian guards, their loutish collaborators, who prodded the throng toward the two courthouse buildings on the far side of town.
Women clutched infants to their bosoms and pulled toddlers along behind. Cries and oaths mingled with desperate pleading voices: "Where are we going? What will they do with us?" But the White Russian police and Wehrmacht soldiers herded them along silently across the broken cobblestones. They had to proceed toward the district courthouse square, where a solid wall of SS men, their ruddy faces wreathed in smiles, waited for them in a diagonal line.
In the eastern regions, the German army and the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units, operated so closely together they considered themselves Waffenbrüder, comrades-in-arms. The basis for their cooperation was an order by the High Command of the Wehrmacht earlier in 1941, which stated that in the area of army operations the SS had been assigned special missions pursuant to the order of the Führer.
In Novogrudek SS Officer Traube headed this special operation and served under the command of Wilhelm Kube, the Gauleiter and governor of White Russia, a graduate of the University of Berlin who had joined the Nazi party in 1928 and sat as a deputy in the Reichstag. In 1936 he was removed from all his positions by the chief of the Nazi Party court on charges of blackmail, seduction of colleagues' wives, and embezzlement, but Himmler, upon hearing that Kube had volunteered for the Waffen SS at the age of fifty-three, had him appointed master of White Russia.
Twilight's purple haze hung over the captive Jews as the Sabbath drew to a close. The five thousand were squeezed into the open yard between the two court buildings, sitting on their bundles or squatting on the cold ground.
Grandmother and Father had brought nothing with them, so they leaned against each other. The Germans kept their guns trained on them.
Rumors spread through the yard like wildfire through dry grass. Many knew graves had been dug in Skridleva but could not fully comprehend what that meant. To mask the unnameable, people spoke of the establishment of two ghettos, one for the old and the other for the young and skilled.
Finally the SS officers threw open the massive wooden courthouse doors and herded the crowd inside. "Single file!" they shouted, but the Jews were too panicked to listen. Families held hands and rushed inside in groups. Whip- and stick-wielding Nazis, attired in pressed green-and-black uniforms and looking famously jut-jawed and steely-eyed, flanked the crowd and lashed out at will. Their mien augured some dreadful business was close at hand.
The crowd moved at the behest of the cracking whips. The air was thick with shouted orders and strangled sobs as the mass streamed through the door into the corridors. Father and Grandmother were among the last to enter. Once they were all inside, the doors were pulled shut behind them.
At first it was hard for many to give reality its proper weight. Families ran from room to room in wild processionals, searching for loved ones and combing every last rumor which raced along like nimble fire. Grandmother and Father made their way to the second floor of the structure, where they spotted Aunt Rivke and Uncle Shloimke standing at the threshold of a room far too crowded to give entry.
"Look, Shloimke, there are Chaja and Joseph!" Aunt Rivke shouted. They fell into each other's arms and sobbed, as they recounted the savage roundup in Peresheka after Father and his mother had left on their ill-fated journey to the Ortskommandant's bunker.
In a few minutes Father spotted Itche, another of his uncles, seated with his wife and children in a waste of dislocation and gloom. They were in the middle of the bursting room, which made reaching them impossible. Never before had Father heard so many multiplying rumors of ghettos and graveyards, while the Judenrat, darting to and fro, strained to maintain calm and "negotiate" with the Nazis on the main floor.
Father and Grandmother sank to the floor against the wall in the hallway. The shadow on her face deepened. They both sat in a great glare of comprehension, knowing in some incontrovertible way that the end was near. It was now that the last floating plank of their old world sank.
Sepia-toned photographs of prewar Navaredok rose in Father's mind: the first fruits of the season, the children's singsong recitation of the alephbeth, the baking of matzohs, for which the town was famous far and wide.
Grandmother turned her face away in prayer, in a monotone as hoarse as a sea dirge. Her entreaty no longer included supplication for herself--as if she had been released from all earthly cares--but only for her son. In spite of all she had seen, nothing could sway her from the conviction that God was the steersman of all things, and that every life was held in submission to him. The ebbing of her hope did not diminish her faith. Father turned as well to petitionary prayer, now that every earthly effort had been exhausted.
They nibbled at the stale crusts Father had buried in his pocket until their shrunken stomachs pinched. With clouded eyes, he tried to pierce the obscurity. But despair now brought with it its own clarity and certitude.
Later Grandmother experienced a sharp pain in her side. She had taken ill a year earlier with an undefined ailment and had journeyed to Lemberg to be operated on for what was feared might be cancer. She was never to regain her strength. She now inquired if there were any bathrooms, but since no one seemed to know, they moved from floor to floor. Finally a good soul shouted out, "In the basement."
Father guided his mother down steep steps into a dim cellar where the stench was overwhelming. She gave him her coat and knitted cap as she lifted her skirt and waded through a pool of urine to reach an open drain. Father could see how shrunken she had become, her attenuation now surpassing mere exhaustion. They then trudged back up the stairs, Grandmother holding her handkerchief to her mouth.
Night deepened. It was difficult to breathe. The damp air was solid with fear, and Grandmother gasped, coughing up phlegm. She had not eaten a full meal in days. Near her sat a father crooning over sick children who could not be comforted.
"Let me find you a piece of bread and some tea," Father pleaded.
"No, Joseph," she said, "it's best now to do without," waving her hand in resignation.
People were heard speaking of God and providence, of messianic birth pangs and other eschatological schemes, of Russian victories and the supreme power of public opinion, but scarcely of what was in store for them. From dusk to dawn every consolatory myth was duly regarded and each delusional prediction was carefully examined.
"Graves! For children? Ach, it's impossible! It cannot be," some said. "They'll divide us into ghettoes, you'll see. What is it that we say, 'Oyb Got vil ken a bezem shisn'--if God wills it, a broom can also shoot?" Rumors and adages of varying reliability and credibility circulated widely. As the hours progressed, mercurial shifts of mood swept the courthouse.
Time stretched interminably. A nerve-peeling tension hung in the air. Grandmother said, "At least your father has been spared all this. Earth is the best shelter." That was her only consolation as night drifted into day. Toward dawn on Sunday new rumors were aflutter: death for the old and infirm; hard labor for the young and fit.
Now the race for life was on in earnest. Even devout women, ignoring their feelings of outraged modesty, opened their bundles and dug feverishly for whatever might serve as makeup kits. There was a frantic traffic in the accoutrements of acquired youth: lipstick, tweezers, eye pencils. Pious grandmothers applied rouge, darkened their eyebrows, and draped scarves around their necks. Men and women pinched their cheeks to restore color to their ashen faces. Even the most sedentary scholar with the customary bent shoulders and studious pallor tried to appear ruddy and straight-backed.
"Mordecai, what are you doing?" a wife screamed at her husband.
"What do you mean?" he said, as he continued trimming his snowy locks with a pair of rough scissors in front of a hand mirror, hoping to shear ten years off his appearance.
A teenage gift near them urged her mother with filial tenderness, "Here, take my comb and do your hair. Let it fall over your shoulders like when you dated father."
"Az okh 'n vey"--woe betide--the woman replied, "who would I be kidding?" Then she resignedly drew the comb through her thinning hair. Her daughter patted her hands with the speechless softness used to soothe a child.
Tension mounted as impending doom hung heavily.
On early Monday morning Father decided to press through the crowd in the chamber to speak to his uncle Itche before all passage became impossible.
As Father negotiated his way into the room, he suddenly heard the metallic click of heels. Two Wehrmacht soldiers rushed down the hallway, guns sagging at their hips. "Everybody inside!" they shouted.
Grandmother, Aunt Rivke, and Uncle Shloimke were crowded with others at the threshold, unable to get inside. Then a German Feldgendarme, fitted in a great fur-trimmed green coat, tried to force entry but failed. His face darkened. He crushed his cigarette against the wall and expelled the smoke in a long hissing sound. Drawing his pistol from his holster, he shouted, "Damn it! It's too crowded in there! I want more space made immediately!" There was a sudden violent shoving as people tried to obey his command. Somehow, Father found himself thrown against the back wall, separated even from Uncle Itche, trapped in the churning vortex.
A low murmuring Yiddish curse, "Der malekh-hamoves"--the angel of death--rose from the condemned crowd.
After the shoving and pushing died down, Grandmother stood beside the Feldgendarme. He grabbed her by the collar of her thin coat and with a cold homicidal stare shouted, "Raus!"--Get out!--shoving her out of the door. Fire raged in Father's brain as he saw his mother disappear. The steely glint of the Nazi's pistol pinned him to the spot.
Furious with impatience and spite, the Nazi Feldgendarme sprung upon Aunt Rivke and flung her down the hallway. Uncle Shloimke, who was standing beside her, followed. Fear held Father still. Over and over came the bloody yell "Raus!" as scores of Jews were torn from the room. The German's shrill voice reverberated with the sound of hell. When the German cleared the area near the doorway, he began a more orderly screening.
The elderly couples near him were reciting Judgment Day prayers, normally uttered on Yom Kippur, invoking images of the Binding of Isaac (the Akedah): "And Abraham lifted his eyes, and looked, and behold, before him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him for a burnt offering in the stead of his son."
Father was pressed against the rear wall, watching as the Feldgendarme waved his pistol as each individual approached, announced his trade or profession, and pointed to his immediate family members. Heads of households presented work cards in hopes of appearing indispensible, but nothing softened the exterminating angel.
Uncle Itche's turn came on the selection line. He had worked for the Gebitzkommissar, the regional commissar, and tried to use this to his advantage. He presented his work papers, diligently pointed to his wife and children, and then waited expectantly as so many before him.
"Raus!" the German barked. "All of you!"
When Itche protested softly, the Wehrmacht soldier tightened his finger on the trigger. He did not need further encouragement.
An elderly couple who had lost sight of their children pleaded quietly with a fellow of twenty near Father to claim them as his parents. But their ploy failed, as so many others did; hardly anyone was given a reprieve. The selection continued until the room was practically empty.
The guard had cleared the side walls, working his way to the back. Father's turn approached. His options seemed no better than the others, but he frantically turned each of them over in his mind. He checked the note of the Ortskommandant's adjutant, granting him permission to be outdoors on errands.
Only two people separated Father from the gendarme. He could no longer put two thoughts together, as if he had been stunned by a poisoned dart. He was past all intelligent deliberation. He grew dizzy and dangerously faint, and the polished wood of the courtroom floor reeled beneath his feet.
Suddenly he stood in front of his tormentor.
"Was machst du?"--What do you do?--he bellowed. Father felt naked under his gaze.
"I work in the private quarters of the Ortskommandant," he answered, rallying his faltering thoughts. He then unfolded his identity paper and handed it to the Feldgendarme.
The German gave him a sharp appraising look and with his free hand grabbed Father by the lapels of his green coat--a color strangely similar to that of the Wehrmacht uniforms. He gripped him while with his other hand he brandished his pistol. He shuttled Father back and forth, uncertain what to do with him.
Father set his jaw and looked straight at him, trying to meet his glance with a semblance of composure. The gendarme tightened his grip and Father's collar tore a little as he was shaken to and fro. Then the man flung Father against the back wall. He nearly lost his balance, but managed to stay on his feet, much as a piece of cork cast onto the snarling crest of the sea waves: one minute sinking into the depths, the next bobbing back to the surface.
The Feldgendarme worked through the end of the line as a trowel through soft loam. When he finished, hundreds had been ordered out of the chamber. Only seven stood with, Father against the wall. He returned his pistol to its holster, gave them a last sharp look, and strode out, slamming the door behind him.
No one dared walk to the door and open it. They stared at the blank wall, listening to the panicked pleas rising from the courtyard outside. The wailing of the small ones, writhing in pain and fear, was the most unbearable.
The room's only window had been smashed in the bombing and was covered with tin. There were no gaps or crevices to spy through. Father tried to force the metal but it would not give. He rummaged through his pockets and found a nail under his mother's knitted cap which she had given to him to keep. He began to bore it into the hard-to-pierce tin plate. He worked at it for a long time, keeping one eye on the door. He sensed that the very light by which he searched for his mother would also be the fire by which his spirit would be consumed. The screams in the courtyard intensified, turning into a solid wall of unearthly wailing.
He heard the sound of running motors, and it was then that he finally pierced the tin. A long line of black trucks drove into the compound outside, confirming the horrific truth. He squinted hard, trying to spot his mother in the crowd. He gripped the nail with all his might and he enlarged the hole to get an unobstructed view: whereupon he saw SS men and White Russian auxiliary police pushing, tossing, hauling people into the trucks, shoving them into oblivion. With obscene wantonness, the elderly and the infirm were butted with rifles, the tips of which were smeared with blood and brains. Many were lacerated, some had skulls cracked open. The trucks quickly filled.
People Father had known since childhood were visible, but not his mother. His eyes wished to close but could not cease seeing what leaped before them. As he watched the trucks leaving the now depopulated yard in a long column, the door to his chamber flew open. Uncle Itche, beaten and bleeding profusely from the head, was roughly thrown in. Pale as death, he ran straight to Father, shaking uncontrollably. Torment wracked his entire body. His cries, full-throated howls of anguish, came quick now. But after a while, he recovered his breath and said haltingly that the German officer for whom he labored had been in the courtyard and decided on the spur of the moment to pull him off the truck. "I pleaded with him to let me take my wife and children, but another soldier who heard me slammed me with his rifle," Itche said in a rush of words.
Dark rivulets of blood streamed from his wounds and he could not stem their flow. Father tore out the lining of his coat and pressed it over his uncle's cuts, feebly consoling him and wondering out loud what had kept them from being condemned as those who now rode in the trucks awaiting their final sentence.
"Don't try to understand," Uncle cried in a blistering voice of pain. "Es iz ek velt." It is the end of the world.
"Did you see my mother?" Father whispered, barely finding the strength to utter the question.
"Yes," he said. "She asked that we all forgive one another, for the end had come. 'The world is being called to account. Today is like Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, and we are all being judged,' she said over and over again. Her prayers were only for you. She had ceased praying for herself."
They fell on each other's neck as the room reverberated with an unearthly echo of five thousand voices crying in a plangent swell of sound, "Shema Yisrael." Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
I have often imagined that Grandmother Chaja, like Rabbi Akiva, who had been publicly tortured by the Romans nearly eighteen hundred years earlier, must have prolonged the final word of the Shema--Ekhod One)--so as to die pronouncing God's inalterable unity in one breath.
LATER THAT MORNING, THERE came a deafening report. The distant rattle of gunfire--deeds eternity itself could not annul--mowed down thousands for hours, as the blind majesty of the forest blotted out the sky. Shovelfuls of earth fell to the ground.
Excerpted from On Burning Ground by Michael Skakun Copyright © 2000 by Michael Skakun. Excerpted by permission.
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2. Who were the Einsatzgruppen, and what was their genocidal role in the latter half of 1941? Why does the author insist that "eternity itself could not annul their deed"?
3. Why does Joseph Skakun adopt false identities? Why is one insufficient? How does he hone his observation skills, exploit his linguistic strengths and weaknesses, and become a master of detail?
4. Does the protagonist's rabbinical education and training in mussar, an austere form of ethical piety, hinder or help him survive? How so?
5. How does Joseph Skakun justify his entry into the Waffen SS, the most brutal and feared echelon of Hitler's armed forces? Describe his crisis of ethical choice? How does the question of means and ends figure into his moral equation?
6. Why does the author write that On Burning Ground is a story of choice and moral improvisation and not merely one of passive fatality?
7. What does his father mean when he says that he came to embody a central element of Proustian time: "The only true paradise is always the paradise we have lost"? Describe how his coming of age coincides with the coming of history?
8. Explain how the protagonist's wartime experience redefines the meaning of the Sabbath for him and his son?
9. Enumerate the different roles America plays in On Burning Ground. In what ways does this nation serve at once as sanctuary and barrier?
10. How didJoseph Skakun negotiate his postwar return to his ancestral faith? Why does the author describe his father as "perhaps among the most religious of men"?