The Auschwitz Candle
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel entitled “Ashes” by Tiffini Johnson. As with all of the writings on this blog, it is copyrighted material and may not be used without my express permission. Please feel free to share and link to this post all you’d like but do not copy and paste or change any part of this excerpt. Writing is not only something I do professionally, it is my passion, and I have poured my heart and soul into this novel for over a year; it means a lot to me. If you have a reason for wanting to use this excerpt in any way other than to link to it or “share” it, please e-mail me first.
“I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember.”
It takes me a minute to remember this when my eyes open from dreaming. Then I see the sunlight streaming in from my bedroom window, hear Josef, the freckle-faced giant of a boy next door, playing outside with his brothers, hear Maman moving around in the kitchen and remember: it’s Shabbat!
Maman rises early every Friday morning so she can prepare two loaves of braided challah for Shabbat dinner. The house is very small, only two bedrooms, and the smell fills every space. I throw the quilt off me and leap off the bed. Quickly, I dress, dropping my nightgown onto the floor, even though I know Maman will scold me for it if I forget to put it away later. I shove my mathematics workbook into my knapsack. I can’t really smell the challah yet, which means it’s not gone into the oven to bake but still, I can smell it: the rich aroma of sesame seeds and dough brushed with a little bit of honey that welcomes in Shabbat. I smell it even though it’s not baking yet because it’s a tradition, it’s a smell that fills our house every Friday. It always has and always will because Shabbat will always start 18 minutes before sundown on Fridays. Nothing stops Shabbat.
I hope the challah hasn’t been braided yet.
I love everything about Shabbat but my very favorite part is helping Maman braid challah. When I was little, I remember thinking she must be a magician, weaving the strands so quickly without ever messing up. When I tried, it looked… sloppy. Papa would tease me a lot, saying, “How many tribes are there this week, poppy?” because no one could ever see how many strands I’d started out with.
But Maman was patient.
She’d smile, wave a hand, shushing Papa, and say kindly, “Practice. Challah takes practice.” Then she’d tip her head a little towards me and add conspiratorially, as if she and I were sharing a secret, “And patience. Lots and lots of patience.” Maman and I laughed and laughed because we both knew patience was not one of my strongest gifts.
That was when I was younger, though.
I’m eleven now and have much more patience. And skill. Braiding challah is one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes I still mess up but even Papa can always tell, when I braid the two loaves of challah, that there are twelve tribes of Israel.
“Can I help braid?” I ask, bounding into the kitchen. The window is open and Maman stands at the sink, rinsing her hands. On the table sits the mixing bowl. Maman smiles over her shoulder at me, “You’re up just in time. Wash your hands and you can separate and braid the challah.”
“It looks good. It’s big!” I say, eyeing the ball of dough that has risen to more than twice its original size. That’s magic, too: putting a small ball of dough in a bowl, walking away and coming back an hour later to something twice as big as it was when you walked away from it! Sometimes I think about eating a little bit of yeast from the container myself: I wonder if it would make me grow taller in an hour. If my legs were longer, I could beat Josef at any race any day. But when I asked Maman if I could eat a little bit of the yeast so that I could grow faster, she laughed and said, “You’re growing fast enough as it is, my little weed. Leave my yeast alone.”
“Good morning, poppy, you got up before the birds this morning,” Papa’s voice is deep and gravelly, like rocks rubbing against each other. It’s comforting. He pats me on the back as he picks up the newspaper that’s lying on the kitchen table and sits down across from me. “Maman going to let you braid?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answer.
“Brave Maman,” Papa teases.
I take a bit of dough between my fingers and throw it at Papa. He holds the newspaper higher in front of his face so that it doesn’t hit him and laughs.
“I’m going to need that challah braided sometime today, you know,” Maman says absently, adding the egg yolk to the mixture for the second loaf she’ll make.
The dough is like a rubber band. It’s soft and fluffy and I like pulling it apart. I make six chunks of it and then grab the rolling pin, rolling the first chunk flat. I use my fingers to roll it back toward me until it makes a strand. I stretch it out and leave it be, then do the same to the other chunks of dough. Finally, I have six strands and am ready to begin braiding. I pinch them all together at the top.
“Take a strand over two,” I parrot the rhyme Maman taught me to memorize the steps of braiding. I think I could braid without the rhyme now but I want pretty challah, not sloppy challah, and so I still use the rhyme. I think when I become a mother myself then I will be the magician and I won’t need the rhyme anymore. Until then, I use the rhyme: “Take a strand over two,” I grab the strand on the right and pull it over the top of two strands, “Weave it under one,” I weave the strand under the third piece and drop it. “Pick up a new,” I pick up the next strand on my right. “Repeat to make a bun.” Over and over, I repeat the rhyme, making sure to carry the strands over two before weaving it under one, until my braid is done. As I braid, I talk. Talking is what I do best, says everyone.
“How long have people made challah?” I ask.
Papa looks away from his newspaper and shrugs, crossing one knee over the other. “A long, long time. Why do we make challah anyway?” he asks. He knows the answer; it’s just a pop quiz to see if I know the answer. If I didn’t know this answer by now, after eleven years of Shabbat, I would not be a very good Jewish girl.
“It’s to remind everybody that when we were taken out of Egypt by God, He gave us manna and on the Sabbath, when we were not allowed to work to gather food, He gave us a double portion. That’s why we have two loaves of challah.”
Papa nodded his head, satisfied that he has a good Jewish daughter, and I saw Maman smile. “Did you help Nonnie make challah?” I ask Maman. She nodded. “Yes. Maman would make one loaf and I would make the second. She started teaching me how to make challah before I could walk,” she added, chuckling.
“I can’t wait until it starts to smell,” I said smiling.
Maman took the braided challah and began brushing it with the egg wash so that it will have a nice golden color when it comes out of the oven. I work on braiding the dough. Sometimes it’s a little tricky because, even with the rhyme, I can forget which strand I’m supposed to use next, or whether or not I’ve already woven the strand in my hand under or over. Maman is right: braiding challah takes practice and time.
A solid knock at the door sounds just as I am washing my hands, finishing up.
“I think it’s schooltime, poppy.” Papa says, smiling. “Josef.”
“Go on, shoo,” says Maman, coming to take the challah from the table. “Go to school, go on.”
“And don’t talk so much,” Papa says, trying to look stern. “I’m tired of having to sign off on the notes that say you talk so much.”
I smile, kiss Maman on the cheek, grab my knapsack and race to the door. I slam it shut behind me without even glancing at Josef, saying instead, “Race you!”
Racing Josef to school is a tradition. We’ve known each other since before we could walk and Maman says that we were racing even when we were crawling. The wind in my face feels good. I am a fast runner. Josef is behind me, although I can feel him gaining ground. I can feel my legs burning when he starts to catch up with me. I can see him from the corner of my eye now, but I don’t stop; I push my legs harder. I run through a pile of brightly covered leaves. They scatter, floating up around me. Around the bend I go, I’m almost to the gate, the finish line, when a small dog leaps out from behind a garbage can sitting on the edge of the sidewalk. I don’t fall but the dog makes me stumble and I hear Josef laughing as he sprints forward, ahead of me. I am panting, heaving big breaths, when I get close enough to slap the school gate. “I would have won,” I boldly declare, bending down to tie my untied shoelaces. “If that dog hadn’t jumped out in front of me. It almost made me fall.”
“But it did and I won!” Josef’s cheeks are red from the wind. He is taller than me, but skinnier. I call him The Twig. He calls me Speedy because I talk fast, write fast, eat fast…. And run fast! The bell rings, signaling the start of the school day, as I slide into my seat. I look to the side just in time to see a red bird land on the windowsill. A redbird means good luck. Looking back toward the front of the classroom, I smile, thinking about the morning spent braiding challah and racing Josef. I think to myself, I don’t need luck today, little redbird. It’s Shabbat.
***** ***** *****
My eyes slide toward the sky. There are colors streaking the sky but I don’t know what they are called; I have forgotten the names of any color except gray and black. Everything is dull. Nothing is pretty. Everything is just… gray… the colors in the sky, the color of my skin, even the way I feel. I think I remember vibrant colors, pretty colors, but then I don’t know if those colors were real or if they were all just pretend. When the snow is deep and I am afraid I can’t stand in it anymore, I pretend I am in a house with windows, a house that smells of bread baking and people smiling.
But today is a special day.
Last night, as I lay on the wooden planks, listening to people around me coughing, I used my nail to scratch a line in the wood. It was the sixth scratch. That’s how I know that today is a special day.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been standing in this line for so long. Maybe it’s because, even when I’m very, very still and try, I can barely feel my heart beating anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m not even sure I still have a heartbeat. Maybe it’s because I can’t cry for Maman or Papa; if I did, I’d have to acknowledge that they are gone and I am alone. I don’t know why, but tears fill my eyes. They won’t fall. Nobody ever cries here except the new arrivals and their tears die soon enough.
Eighteen minutes until sundown.
That’s when Shabbat starts. I am supposed to light candles, recite prayers, sing songs and eat challah. As soon as the word challah wafts through my mind, the tears begin to blur my vision. I don’t bow my head, I keep looking straight ahead. There is always a reason for the jackboots to strike: I am not straight enough, I am not looking straight ahead, my shoulders slump, I breathe. The tears blur my vision, my lip quivers. I just want these the way they used to be, Maman at the kitchen counter, Papa reading the newspaper and me braiding Maman’s challah. Was that real? Or is this—this place—real?
By the time the whistle blows and we are ordered back to our barracks, my legs are shaking and my teeth clattering because I am cold. The tears are gone and my mind is blank. I lay on the wooden plank again, stare at the scratch marks on the wooden post. What good does it do to keep track of the days if I can’t celebrate Shabbat? What good does it do to remember if I can’t honor it? The sound of someone moving grabs my attention. I shift my eyes towards the sound. A woman in a bunk across from me slides off the plank, reaches under something on the floor. I cannot see what she is holding because it is dark but I watch her anyway. Within moments, whispers begin rolling through the barrack.
“Butter, she has butter.”
How did she get butter? I wonder. What is she doing? I strain my eyes to see but I can’t make out her motions.
“She’s ripping her dress,” I hear someone whisper. A few moments later, a glow fills the room and a memory sparks in my head. That’s a candle. She’s made a candle from some thread of her shirt and a small piece of butter. I scurry off the wooden plank and edge toward her bed. Others are following me. We gather around this woman’s bed, staring in silence at the candle she has lit for us. I cannot take my eyes off of it. Its glow flickers, dances across the darkness of the room, the grayness of life. Candles are as much a part of Shabbat as challah. We don’t have challah. But now we have a candle.
“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam,” My voice is hoarse and whisper-thin and I do not know how I remember the words after so many silent Shabbats. All I know is that, when the candle is lit, I pray. Then my voice isn’t the only one. All around me voices join in. We are whispering, but we are saying the blessing over a candle and this lifeless, dark and cold barrack of Auschwitz is now bearable. There’s a momentary pause in the pain and I breathe again. When we say Amein, I start over and so does everyone else, and we repeat the prayer, our eyes never leaving the flickering glow from the butter candle, its ember lighting the space and my heart.
It is Shabbat.