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Abandoned to Survive

Rabbi Moshe Grylak

The forest is swarming with Germans, and I’m just six years old, leading a group of even younger children through the trees. Now we’ve come to a fork. One path will lead to freedom, the other to certain death. I’ve never felt so forsaken…

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

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 "I don’t remember the moment when our guide left us on our own. I only remember the awful fear that suddenly came over me. The trees towered over our heads, and if the sun was out that day at all, its rays were not filtering through the thick canopy of branches above. And so we made our way in the dark." (Photos: Shutterstock)

The feeling hits me at the oddest times. Like the time I accompanied my friend Yanky to his son’s cheder.

“Come along with me,” he said as we were talking. “My six-year-old is in school crying and I have to go pick him up. Sounds like he’s traumatized.”

I got into the car with him, thinking, Six years old?

The boy rushed into his father’s arms, snuggling up as if he wanted to burrow into oblivion as Yanky stroked his head and shoulders, soothing his little boy’s heaving sobs.

I watched and felt a stab in my heart. For just a split second, I felt sorry for myself.

Where was I when I was six years old? Why didn’t I have any Tatte to hug and stroke me during the most precarious time of my life?

And then there was the time my wife and I were strolling through the little wooded area by the Kinar Hotel. A soft breeze was blowing from the blue waters of the Kinneret, rustling the branches and gently caressing our faces.

Suddenly a boy of six or seven came running amid the sparse trees, looking around wildly like a frightened, trapped animal. We approached him to see how we could help, and it turned out that the poor little fellow had lost sight of the path leading to his parents’ room in the hotel. I brought him to the dining hall, and he found them there.

A shiver of dread came over me. Days later I was still feeling somewhat depressed, or to be more precise, an uncontrollable sadness. The trees in that little grove had evoked a memory that clutched at my heart. 

“Why?” I protested aloud. “Why does it still trouble me? It was so, so long ago!”

It happened again in the middle of the Yom Kippur War.

I was stuck in an anti-aircraft embankment on the shore of the Red Sea, in theSinaiDesertnear Ras Abu Rudeis. It was exactly 9 p.m. Suddenly, the fragile desert silence was broken as a siren wailed through the sound system that was connected to several kilometers of embankments along the shore. We sprang to full alertness and took up battle positions. And then came the command: “Take positions. No open fire order.”

After a moment of nerve-racking silence, the system crackled and the voice returned: “An Egyptian commando squadron appears to be moving toward us on boats. Guard the shoreline and, if necessary, return fire! Stay in position until reinforcements arrive.”

It was petrifying. We were reservists, we’d been there just a week. We hadn’t learned the secret language of the desert and the tricks of the waters that separated us fromEgypton the other side. Especially in the dark of night, we could not interpret the ominous lapping of the waves on the shore where we were entrenched.

But we quickly took up our battle positions, alert to whatever would come. The enlisted men took cover in the darkness and left us, a handful of reservists, to do our work.

The silence was like a clenched fist over the water, and the choppy waves whispered vague threats in our ears. The blackness of a new-moon night hung over us, and even the stars had put out their lights. In the darkness, our eyes were fixed on every breaking wave, straining to see if this might be the one carrying the enemy to our doorstep.

"We were so alone. Even now, as I write, that terrible sense of abandonment engulfs me. Maybe we cried, maybe not."

And then, there it was again.

Every fighter felt a sense of overwhelming isolation. The thoughts of every heart drifted northward, to the home and family left behind.

And in some hidden spot deep in the recesses of my mind, that mysterious, sleeping little trigger jumped. I’d felt it before, that feeling of being left alone in threatening surroundings. It was no vague sense of dread; it was like a cold vise gripping my entire being — just like then. Just like then, when I was left on my own, without father or mother, six years old on the border betweenFranceandSwitzerland.

In those precarious moments, I wondered: Would that memory never stop coming, uninvited and unannounced, to revisit me?

 

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