Miss Esther Remembers
Published Dec 20, 2011

Written By



Page 1 / 31

A Story

A Story I do not always understand Christmas, being a holiday I do not actually celebrate. I watch my neighbors with a sense of puzzlement in the weeks leading up to Christmas as they rush about; decorating the doors to their apartments, dragging trees through the building’s hallways and cursing as they do it, crowding the stores to make their purchases, always a little anxious and a little out of sorts; and everywhere I go there is music piped in, Christmas music; earlier and earlier every year it seems to me; I am told the music makes people more festive and having been made more festive they will buy more. I think it all very strange; I cannot reconcile the greed I see, the materialism, with what I am told this holiday is about.
That is not to say that I do not like the lights, that I do not like the sight of the trees all decorated in the windows of the apartment buildings on my street. They are very pretty to see on a cold winter night when I walk back home from the market, and I confess it makes me a little sad when they come down once the holiday is over. The streets turn dark and cheerless, the curtains are drawn over the windows in the apartments once again, and the world goes back to being rude and unfriendly.
The little neighbor girl, Teisha, asked me the other day when I saw her in the hallway, “Mrs. Ziegler, why don’t you have a wreath on your door? Don‘t you like Christmas?”
“It is not that I don’t like Christmas, dear. I am Jewish; I do not celebrate Christmas.” I told her.
“Not ever?” she asked me; I could see by the look on her face she found this statement to be very hard to believe.
“No, dear, not ever.”
But, that is not entirely true; in a very small way I do celebrate Christmas, not Christmas itself, not the celebration my neighbors have. It is more the memory of one special one; for you see, I had a Christmas once; not a planned one, not a Christmas one puts together like my neighbors do. No, my one and only Christmas was an accidental Christmas, and it is the memory of that Christmas that I celebrate when I light a special candle and put it on a table by the window.
It was not here, this Christmas that was accidental, the one I light the candle for; it was before I came here; when I still had my parents, still had my brother Seth and my sister Ruth. That I am here and they are not, I do not like to think about; but all that came after the accidental Christmas, and it is not the story I am telling now; perhaps some other time, perhaps not. No, in the story I am telling now my family is with me, we are still all together and I know where they are; not like now. Now, I do not know where they are and I have not known where they are for seventy years.
I was only ten, so I might not remember every detail; I hope you will forgive me. Some things a person never forgets; the events of that winter are one of those things; perhaps not all the details, I have chosen to forget some things. But, I remember; I dream of it; some of the dreams make me very happy, some do not. But I was lucky, I have always been lucky, although that is not always a blessing. . .
In the story I am telling you, my family is with me, and we are still living in the little house I was born in; we will not be there much longer, but none of us know that at the time; oh, there are rumors, of course; terrible rumors, but, as I have said, I was only ten and much of what is talked about I did not understand; later I will, but not then.
It was a pleasant house, this house that I was born in, the one we all lived in. It was really nothing more than a cottage, set back in the woods, away from the road, beyond a stand of birch trees, surrounded by a grove of pines. My mother often complained the pine trees shaded out too much of her garden in the summer and she had a difficult time keeping the needles that dropped from choking out the vegetables, but these pines were very useful at keeping the winter wind from blowing into the house, so my father never had them taken down.

In our house, this cottage in the woods, we had the large room where we ate, the same room where my father read his newspaper by the fireplace, where my brother and I did our homework and my mother played her piano; she had the most beautiful piano; it was her grandfather’s; I do not know how he came to possess such a thing, but there it was, all ebony and shining, so very grand in our tiny little home. My mother had tried to teach me to play this amazing piano, but my hands were very small and I could not reach the octaves no matter how wide I set my fingers and my legs were very short and I could not reach the pedals; but Seth could, and she taught him how to play, so when it got dark, and when we had finished our work, we would light the lamps and Seth played Chopin for us, or mother played Strauss waltzes and we would dance. When we danced, Seth was always my partner; we would twirl around the room until we were silly with laughter, and he would joke; “My lady, how light you are, how well you dance,” for my feet never touched the floor while he whirled me about. So, you see, there is Chopin and Strauss and my father gliding with Ruth around the room; and Seth’s laughter drowning out the music.
Ruth helped my mother in the kitchen; it was not much, this kitchen of ours. Just a few tables to prepare things on, an old stove we had to chop wood for, and a metal-lined box we stocked with ice to keep the food fresh. From this little room came the most delicious smells; the cabbage and apples being stewed, kugel being baked, the honeyed scent of tzimmes, brisket braising when we were lucky and best of all for me, for this was the one thing I was allowed to help with, the aroma of freshly baked bread.
Ruth was older than Seth, older than me, old enough that she planned to marry the butcher’s son Herschel in the spring; mother said this was a very good thing, that Ruth would be comfortable and not have to work in the factory like father did. So mother had Ruth help in the kitchen so that Ruth would know how to cook for Herschel. “One day,” my mother promises me, “I will teach you how to cook as well.”
That day would never come.
We three, Seth, Ruth and I, shared a bedroom, each of us had a narrow bed, covered by quilts my mother had made, although my parents’ bed had a quilt my grandmother made, my mother’s mother, and I thought it very special; my grandmother had died long before I was born so this special quilt was how I saw her. My father painted the headboards of our beds with flowers, and when I had children, I painted flowers on their headboards as well; I never learned how to sew, I never made quilts for my children’s beds, and the old ones, the special one; who knows what became of them.
I was young enough then that my father would read me stories when he put me to bed. I loved these stories, but more for the fact that I had my father all to myself when he read them, than for the stories themselves. They were fairytales, of course, these stories he read to me; most nights I fell asleep before they were finished. I would read them myself the next morning to find out how they ended. The endings were always the same; no matter what the story, always a happy ending. It is sad that our real lives cannot be like the fairytales my father read to me.
So, that was our home; a garden, our big room, the flowers on our headboards. How perfect it all seems to me now that time and my memories have washed away the soot from the fireplace, scrubbed the wood floors so that they gleam, dusted the tables and the mantle piece, mended the quilts and brightened the sunlight that fell on us. I know it was not perfect; my father worked very hard, spent many long hours at the factory and had to walk for more than five miles each day to get to work, more than five miles to get home each night. I am sure we struggled, but I do not remember the struggle anymore; I remember only the sounds of the piano, the swirl of the waltzes, the fairytales being read, the aroma of bread baking. They are strange to me, these remembrances; I am sure, if I still had photographs, I would be surprised at how shabby it all must have really been.
This is where we were that winter; in the woods, with our latkes frying and our kugel for the festival baking in the old oven and of course the blintzes, the wonderful blintzes for the brave Judith; we would light the candles and count the days, just as we had every year; we would have our dreydls and our gelt, although I remember Seth believing himself to be too old for these children’s things. He did not fool me; I saw the sparkle in his eyes as we played, the glow in his cheeks when the candles were lit.
In my mind he is frozen there with the amber glow upon his face; I am made happy that I remember him that way; beautiful in the amber glow of the candles. . .

. . .Just like Ruth. . .
. . .Just like my mother and my father.
Frozen in my mind; forever frozen in the amber light of the Menorah.
We would not finish Hanukkah that year; the rumors were not rumors anymore. Father came home from town in the late part of the afternoon, Herschel came with him. The soldiers were taking people, marching them out into the cold streets; marching them away. They would come for us, Herschel had told us as my mother gathered food into a basket.
“We will go into the woods, deep into the woods.” Father said. “Who will want to find us in the woods?” I remember the fear in his eyes, and I remember crying.
“Let me take Ruth with me,” Herschel had asked. “Let me take her with my family.”
But everything was happening so fast, I do not remember anymore why Ruth did not go with him. Herschel left a very sad man; I wonder how things might have been had Ruth gone with him.
My father was saying to me, “Get your warm clothes, liebchen, warm clothes; not just pretty ones--Seth, help your sister pack; warm clothes, only warm ones; Ruth, pack the small trunk with quilts, we will need quilts. . .”
Then we are on the path that led us from the cottage; I look back. The Menorah is still lit on the table by the window. I believe I will see it again.
I am wrong.
I am sure, by now, you are saying to yourself, “But this is not about Christmas. Where is the Christmas in this terrible story?” and I am getting to that part; but how will you know what it meant to me, this accidental Christmas of mine, if you do not know why it should mean such things?
We were in the woods for many days; it is the fact that many days passed that we did not know what day it was when the woods and forests ended and we had only snowy fields in front of us; The snow filled fields and a small farmhouse.
We were very hungry by then; who would have thought to bring such food as could feed us all for as many days as we had walked?
But we could not go to the farmhouse; How were we to know who lived in there? my father had reasoned. We could not go back; we knew what was behind us. So, we stayed just on the edge of the forest, just on the edge of the field.
When it grew dark, when my parents and my brother and sister had all fallen asleep, huddled together, fearful to light a fire, I crept across the open field, made my way beside the cow shed and came to stop in front of the house; I had seen a candle in the window, a single candle and it beckoned. I do not know why; I was convinced it was meant for me. I peered into the window of the farmhouse, far more hungry than scared. Besides; who would hurt a child lost in the snow?
I saw no people in the house; not at first. No, the first thing I saw was a tree; a tree beside the fireplace; and it was very curious, this tree inside a house. Who grows a tree inside the house? But, then I saw the table, the long wooden table, the table with all the food. I am sure if I were to see it again, it would not be the banquet I remember it being; but I was very young and very hungry.
I did not see the people until they had seen me first; I did not have time to run away.
“It is a little girl!” the old woman said as a man pulled open the door and stepped out into the night to meet me.
“How did you get here?” the man asked me. He was not angry; just concerned. “Where are your parents? Your family? Are you lost?”
“No, not lost---my family is in the woods,” I said, not knowing enough to not say it.
“In the woods? On a night like this? Why?” he asked.
“We are running away from the soldiers.” Again, I was too young to know how unwise the statement could have been. I was frightened of the soldiers; I assumed everyone was.
The man’s face grew very serious. “The soldiers; come inside, come inside.”
Now-a-days, I would not do such a thing as that; enter a stranger’s home. But, I was a child, a hungry child and did not know any better. With them, these strangers, I was lucky, I did not have to know any better.
“Go into the woods, follow the footsteps,” the man said to the boy standing by the fire. “Bring the family here.”
“But the soldiers!” the old woman cried out. “We cannot keep them from the soldiers here. Think of the trouble it will cause.”
“It is a thing we must do, Mother.” the man said to the old woman. “If we do not do this for them, what kind of people are we?”
“Yes, yes, you are right,” she said, setting more chairs at the table.
Perhaps if they were some other kind of people, they would not have taken us in. But, you see? It is like I have said; I have always been lucky. They took us in; the boy found my family and they took us in.
“I am Bertram Muir,” the man said, seating us at the table. “My mother, Johanna; my son, Dominic. Eat, please, eat. You must be hungry--”
“We are the Reismanns,” my father said. “I am Lazar, my wife Hannah, my daughters Ruth and Esther, and my son Seth.”
So we ate, beside the fire, beside the tree; we ate while the old woman watched us nervously; while the boy Dominic stared at us with curious eyes and when we finished, my mother cleared the table of our dishes and she and Ruth washed them in the wooden tub.
“Have you seen soldiers?” Seth asked the man Bertram.
“We have seen the soldiers,” he replied. “They have come and gone; but they may come again.”
“Then we should leave,” my father said. “Thank you for the kindness of your food---”
“No. Stay and rest.” Bertram said. “We have cots in the attic, you can sleep. When times were better, my help slept there. Do not worry; surely the soldiers will not come tomorrow; they will still be searching new places. Stay and rest.”
So we stayed, we rested, they fed us and allowed us to bathe. My father helped Mr. Muir with the cows; helped milk them, feed them; turn their hay. My mother baked bread, Seth chopped wood, Ruth helped to clean; no one asked that I do anything, so I found books to read with Dominic; we kept quiet and out of the way.
Another day was to pass. I was asked to help with the cleaning; Old Mrs. Muir was very particular about a set of dishes she took from a box; these were special dishes, she told me, used only twice every year, so they sat packed away and needed to be gently taken care of. Why she trusted me to wipe the dust from them, I am not sure; perhaps they were not so special after all, she might have wished to keep me busy, but she was patient and encouraging and I wiped them clean with very great care.
Then in the evening; the family brought out a small box of glass baubles and ribbons and they began to decorate the tree that sat by the fireplace. They sang songs while they draped the tree with the ribbons and ornaments, pretty songs about a baby being born.
Now, you must understand, I had lived all my life just outside of the shtetl, I did not know any Christians; I only knew of them. My father must have known some, perhaps my mother; but not I, so I did not know what to make of what I was watching.
My family retired up into the attic, not wishing to disturb the others in the middle of their celebrations.
I was awakened in the morning by Dominic standing by my cot.
“He Came !” he squealed with delight. “He Came. . .come downstairs and see!”
“Who came?” I asked him with a very startled voice. I imagined soldiers, I had spent the night dreaming of soldiers.
“Father Christmas came, come and see! Come and see!”
“Who is Father Christmas?” I had asked. “Why has he come?”
But Dominic simply stared at me; ( much like Teisha, the little neighbor girl, does now ). His face was filled with disbelief.
“You do not know who Father Christmas is?” he finally asked.
Clearly puzzled, he said to me, ”Come downstairs.”
My parents woke and followed me; so did Seth and Ruth. I realize now how concerned they must have been seeing me going down the ladder, going away. How were they to know where I was being taken?
“Papa?” Dominic called to his father. “Papa? The little girl Esther does not know who Father Christmas is! How is that possible?”
His father put aside the book he had been reading and gently said; “Not all the world knows him. Should our little friend be any less surprised that you do not know what a dreydl is?”
“A dreydl? What is that?” Dominic asked.
“You see?” Mr. Muir asked.
“Look! Look!” Dominic said to me, pointing at the table. “Does a dreydl bring you apples? Father Christmas does! Have one! They are very good.”
Can you imagine? A bowl of apples; this was Christmas to Dominic. I admit, a bowl of apples in the winter is a very special thing, but imagine giving your children a bowl of apples now; I suspect they would not be very happy.
Never-the-less, a bowl of apples it was; later Dominic would be given a woolen scarf and a little toy boat carved from a block of wood; I remember to this day the look of wonderment that bloomed in his eyes.
Mr. Muir bent down to me, standing there next to the tree with its ribbons and baubles, and handed me a box wrapped in white paper with a red ribbon; “Father Christmas left this for you.” he said, his eyes grown sad. I was not sure what his expression meant; I still don’t; perhaps he knew what was coming.
“For me? How does he know me?” I was very confused and startled.
“He must have seen you sleeping in the attic,” Mr. Muir said to me, motioning me to open it.
You must understand, by today’s standards, it was not much; but I remember it; I remember it as clearly as though it were sitting in front of me now. A doll; an old-fashioned doll in a beautiful dress.
I was again confused, for I had seen this doll on a table in Mrs. Muir’s room; I whispered my confusion to my father.
“It is a very special gift,” he whispered back to me. “Mr. Muir may be embarrassed to give it to you himself.” and then with a wink, he said, “Or perhaps he is Father Christmas; it does not matter, my darling; give him a hug and say thank-you, then give Mrs. Muir a hug as well; she has been very kind to give away her doll.”
I think often of that kindness, that very simple kindness; who was I to this family? An inconvenience, a burden, a trap. I cannot fathom the gesture; not even now. They had provided us food, they had sheltered us; they would later hide us and pay the price for it; hadn’t they done more than enough? Why the gift?
I have concluded it was their good hearts; they thought to include me.
We have an expression, “He is a mensch.” In German it means “human being”, in Yiddish it means, ”A person of integrity and honor” as well. So, you see, the Muirs were “Menschen”; human beings with good hearts.
We had a special meal with the Muirs; my mother and Old Mrs. Muir prepared it. Mr. Muir read the story of Christmas; Joseph and Mary; the kindness of strangers who sheltered them; the child king born of the house of David; the star that guided the Oriental Kings; the flight into Egypt. In my ten year old mind the story wrapped itself up in our circumstance; we were sheltered by the kindness of strangers; a light had guided me; we were fleeing. To this day the Christmas story is intertwined with my memories.
After the story was read, after the dinner was eaten and cleaned up, my father urged that we should leave; we had been there too long and were putting the Muirs at risk.
“It is Christmas,” Bertram Muir said. “The soldiers will not be searching for people; surely even they have some respect for the day; stay, rest. The time will come soon enough that you will find yourselves in the woods again; let the children warm themselves while they may.”
We should have left; how were any of us to know Mr. Muir was so very wrong.
We heard the soldiers and their trucks before we could see them. My family was hidden in the root cellar. . .
There is no point in going on with the story, for now it is no longer the story I was telling. Now, it is the story I did not want to tell, the one I may tell you later; but most likely will not.
It was the candle in the window that beckoned me; it was the candle in the window that spoke my name. “You are safe here,” it seemed to say to me; and for a few, very special days we were.
So, now I light a candle for the Muirs and I place it in a window; I hope it beckons to the lost and lonely, just as their candle beckoned to me. It is not really for Christmas, you see; but it is woven into the day.
I do not know what became of them, the Muirs; I hope they survived. I hope Dominic grew up, I hope he is now old like me; I hope that he had a family, or at least that he was deeply loved. They were Menschen, he and his family.
The world needs Menschen; the world will always need Menschen.

My Holiday Gift, such as it is, for all of you who have shown me such kindnesses over this, my first year here.

I Wish You Joy; I Wish You Health; I Wish You Happiness.

Most Of All, I Wish You Peace; I Wish You Love.

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#17spitzmagicDec 22, 2011

I loved this story so much and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you. I only know you from here on TSR and I have not a clue as to what you do outside of here nor is there a need to know, but I know one thing, that there is something special inside you. Thank you for this gift.

#18snowsnow2133Dec 22, 2011

such an amazing story! so well written! \:D great job and a merry christmas to you to! \:D

#19pixi449Dec 23, 2011

That was such a beautiful story. It was so moving and wonderfully written! Merry Christmas, to you and Miss Esther. \:wub\:

#20Audrey MayDec 24, 2011

This story is amazing and touching and sad.  I loved it, orlov!  \:wub\:

#21urm0mDec 24, 2011

That was truly beautiful

#22isarpgistaDec 25, 2011

Sad, touching, awesome... Brought tears along... Randall, you're an artist! I have no more words at this moment... Truly beautiful.

#23ShelleyBJan 20, 2012

...just wanted to let you know you touched my heart... I'll never forget this story, or its author.

#24joxanthMar 3, 2012

I worked in a small Jewish grocery store while I was in high school and met a little old lady with a 'tattoo' on her arm from the concentration camps.  I'll never forget her, or your touching story.  Thanks for sharing!

#25GancannaMar 10, 2012

This is a beautiful story. Well written and thought provoking.

#26mitz011Jul 15, 2012

You have a real gift for story telling.... love your work keep adding to the library....

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