an exceptional life
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by Andrew Lee-Hart



“ Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God…..” Ruth 1 v16.


I am cold in my grave, but I still remember her; the orphan who became part of a family of multitudes, the gentile who was the most devout of Jews, the woman who was despised by the righteous, but who died a martyr. Wherever she is now I am one step behind; my hand reaching out for hers.



Koln, 1911


Most people saw them as Jews, and despised them accordingly, but the Jews too wanted nothing them to do with them.  Although it is true that they kept many of the same feasts as the strict, kept a kosher household and did not work on the sabbath, stories leaked out about their services; about magic and divination, interpretation of dreams and spells, prophesies that the end was coming. This was the last thing that anybody needed, when the Jews were always liable to be attacked at the slightest excuse; many remembered the dead left piled in heaps and the sight of the old synagogue desecrated and then burnt to the ground.  Now they just wanted to be left alone, to marry, have children and to worship G-d, and have nothing to do with anyone who might disturb their peace and bring down another wave of pogroms.


By his gait and confidence, one could tell he was a soldier, or had been one quite recently; he was someone who was used to being obeyed and to having people fear him, but if you looked deep into his brown eyes you could see that they were full of sadness and fear, and that he was not quite the confident young man that he at first appeared.

“Who are you?” asked Moshe as the man walked in from the busy street below.

“Felix Desser.”

“Isaac the tailor’s son?”

He nodded and after a quick glance round to get his bearings he sat down on the men’s side of the large room; his eyes lowered either out of modesty or to hide the confusion that threatened to overwhelm him.


The Jewish sect met in an upstairs room which smelt of perfume from the parfumerie below, whilst the voices of the gentiles would drift up on the Sabbath morning, harsh like seagulls. In the room there were usually thirty or so men and women, sitting on opposite sides; their chanting of Hebrew and the gossiping in Yiddish eventually drowning out every other noise. Considering the amount of consternation that they caused the minyan were not a large group, nor particularly presupposing, but Felix was desperate, and so he stayed.


“I hear about prophesies and visions” said Felix.

Moshe shrugged noncommittally.

“I have dreams” Felix told him, “strange dreams, that is why I came here. I left the army and came back to Koln, I kept dreaming of the cathedral and the river, flowing red. A giant crocodile flowing down the river, eating everything in its path. And bodies, always bodies.”

A few people drifted over as he spoke so earnestly to the leader of the group.

“And sometimes I see a modern town, a strange town, where we can live in peace, and there is a young woman who I recognise, a friend, but she is a gentile.”

Felix expected them to laugh, even Alice, who was the woman in his dream, had not been able to take him seriously, but Moshe just looked at him steadily, taking it all in.


“Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,/ Your old men shall dream dreams,/ and your young men shall see visions.”

A young woman quoted at him, he had not even noticed her listening. She had red hair, underneath her cap, and looked at him intently; “these visions come upon us all; visions of death and destruction.”

There was silence for a moment and then she left, a whiff of something exotic trailing behind her.


“You are not the only one having such dreams, and that is all I know about. Something is happening, something devastating. G-d is talking to us.” Moshe told him, “but we do not know what the dreams mean, or what we should do about them.”

“I came here because I thought you could help.”

Moshe looked at him with compassion, “G-d will reveal it, perhaps through us, perhaps not. I wonder if you are someone who has been called upon to do a great work, or perhaps to reveal all to us. We are all in the dark just as you are, waiting for a sign.”


There were endless lines of children marching forward like soldiers to battle, but he knew that just ahead of them was the most fearsome of monsters waiting to devour them all, so he tried to stop them, he grabbed hold of one little girl, but she was strong and heavy and he could not stop her moving forward. He shouted and screamed, and tugged at her dress, but eventually she pushed past him, leaving him behind, helpless and in despair, whilst the children carried on walking, oblivious to their doom.


He woke up with his arm around Alice, she was snoring harshly. A beautiful, seemingly genteel woman, but once undressed and in bed she was strong and powerful and she dominated him as if she were the man and he a shy maid, something he found strange but not unpleasant. He had not even admitted this to himself, but she, more than his dreams and duty to his father, was why he had come back.  When he was fighting and marching down long roads, lonely and tired it was her face that came to him, and which he missed, which called out to him to return. They had met five years ago in a sweet shop, and ever since he had felt much closer to her than to anybody else he knew, and yet she was a gentile with none of his traditions or history, but perhaps this was what love was; wanting someone despite it being forbidden or impossible.


“Are you back for good?” she asked, as he stroked her hair.

“I am not sure. I feel as if I am on the verge of something else. As if I might be moving on, but I am not sure where, I am confused. I am just waiting to see what happens. I am unable to plan or think about the future.”

He loved stroking her head and hair; softly touching her skull as if he were a phrenologist trying to trace her personality and her humours.

“You can take me with you” she told him, “I am so restless.”

He said nothing, wondering if she knew what she was asking, for him to leave his community and his family, just for her.

 “I had offers when you were away, some from handsome rich men” she told him, understanding his silence and wanting to hurt him. He flinched with jealousy, “but I waited for you and I am not sure why. I suppose that I knew you were my fate.”


She was an orphan and had worked in her uncle’s sweet shop since she was young, which is where he had met her.  He remembered seeing her for the first time staring out of the window as if waiting for something, and she had been so beautiful, with the endless jars of bright sweets behind her, he had gone in and talked with her and that had been the beginning. Now he bent down and kissed her, and she kissed him back, and pushed herself upon him so that soon they were making love with intensity and without inhibition.  Soon it was impossible to tell whose limbs were whose, from whence came the groans of passion; it was as if they were one creature, pleasuring itself again and again.


“Are you going?” she murmured as she watched him get up and start to look for his clothes.

“Sorry, I promised that I would eat with my father.” And he swiftly dressed and, after kissing her again, he left her room, and she lay back amidst the chaos of blankets, still feeling the warmth of him inside her. Later she awoke with a start, having dreamt of something that was just out of sight and memory, and she lay there, her brain working, but her limbs refusing to move and for a moment she thought she was dead, until slowly she found the energy to get up and wash, and carry on with her day.


Felix continued to worship with the ostracised Jews; reading the scriptures with them and discussing dreams and portents, whilst during the week he worked in his father’s shop, which at least made his father happy.

“Look at my son” Isaac would proudly say to his customers; “so big and handsome, we are lucky to have him.”

Felix knew that his father wanted him to take over the shop in a year or two so that he could retire in peace after a lifetime of hard work, study the Torah and gossip with his friends in the city’s cafes. Thus in the evenings, he would go through the finances, trying to interest Felix in the business, or he would talk about new deliveries of clothes, and take him to meet his workers, who made the garments that he sold. But Felix resisted any such commitment.

“I don’t know father, I don’t think I will be here forever. Everything feels temporary. I cannot imagine staying here for the rest of my life.”


His father looked at him sadly, “Why don’t you go to Schul they miss you there, and there are some attractive young women. Whatever you decide to do you need to settle down. It is no good running after strange gods and gentile women. Your mother was the same; she was restless, but then she settled down with me and she became a good Jewish wife.”

Felix hugged his father, and felt unutterably sad, as if he was in the grip of something stronger that he realised was destroying all that was important to him.


And then he would go over to beautiful, golden Alice and spend the nights with her, making love, talking and reading.

“I dreamed of a wise man in the cathedral, shouting at the skies, and there was no roof. And then he burst into flames and I could smell him, like something rotten.”

“Oh Felix” she said half asleep, he had woken her with his cries. She snuggled up to him and tried to soothe him back to sleep.

“Do you not dream?” he asked her, as she languidly pulled the hairs on his stomach.

“No, well I don’t know, I am too tired to dream, or perhaps I forget them.” She knew that her uneasiness and fear came when she walked the streets of Koln, did her meagre shopping and talked to her friends, or served customers in her uncle’s sweet shop; an overwhelming feeling that it was all for the last time and that the world would end in fire and steel, and yet the buildings of Koln stood firm, and above them all was the Medieval Cathedral which would surely be there long after she and Felix were dead.


She had no memory of her parents; they had both died of fever when she was two, along with her older brother and sister. Only she had survived, and she had waited patiently in their damp house stroking her mother’s face, until her Uncle took her away to live with his family. She had seen pictures; the wedding photograph, where her parents looked serious as if anticipating their fate that was already close, and pictures of her two siblings, also looking serious and as if from another world. But Alice was different; ready to embrace life and not give in to fever or man.


“I saw you in the shop” Felix told her, “the light made you like an angel, I could not resist.”

Which made it sound as if it was all Felix, that he had rescued her, but she had had plenty of suitors and would-be lovers, and even some actual lovers, but once Felix came into her uncle’s shop, she knew that he was the one that she needed, and she took him as much as he had taken her. He was funny and intense, and when they made love it was as if her body had been crying out for him, as if everything beforehand had just been practice. Even when he disappeared into the army, to escape his destiny, she knew that sooner or later he would return. Perhaps there was a God after all, or something more impersonal like fate and it was this that had brought them together.


“Your son is keeping strange company”; the man had never been in the shop before so far as Isaac could remember; he was well-dressed and smelt of lemons and expensive scent; he was the sort of person who would buy his clothes in the richest part of the city, and who would have little to do with Jewish Quarter.

“He is a good son and works hard. He is not the sort to keep bad company,” Isaac told him, feeling nervous.

The man looked at him hard, “tell him to be careful. These are strange times, and you do not need any trouble I am sure.”

He felt through the reams of cloth admiringly with his long fingers, but then left, without buying anything.


Felix laughed, “it is nothing.”

“But he keeps coming back, and I see him across the street watching us. You do not want to get a reputation.”

“I am sure they are questioning lots of people; the police need something to do to justify their existence.”

“Don’t be a fool, they can be dangerous. They just need any excuse to attack us. Just because you were in the army does not mean that you are safe, you are still a Jew, whether you like it or not.”

Felix dealt with a customer who had just come in, whilst his father seethed in the background; once the customer had gone Isaac resumed his complaints.

“You are mixing with that unholy group; I hear tales of the occult and heathen practices. Things are bad enough for us without you making more trouble for us. Whatever you do comes onto all of us. And who is that Shiksa?”


“You know who? Once I am gone you are the only one in our family left. Are you going to forget your traditions, your people? Just become a gentile? You are almost thirty. It was bad enough you joining the army, but now…”

Felix shrugged unconcernedly and got on with working in the shop, although later, as he left the shop to see Alice, for a moment he saw a figure in the shadows and there was the faintest whiff of lemon in the air.


Felix was late the day the police invaded the Minyan; he walked past the parfumerie and up the stairs, preoccupied with thoughts of Alice, who he had rowed with the previous day, and his father who he rowed with every time he saw him. He did not hear the sounds of fighting coming from the room, until he pushed open the door and became aware of a scuffle and suddenly he was pushed out of the way by the young woman with red hair, she was running, with two men in uniform just behind her. He had time to see that she was bleeding from her head and was shouting something he could not understand, and then Felix slammed hard into the first policeman sending him sprawling into his companion and then he aimed a savage kick at his head and then another one, before leaving the two policemen, temporarily helpless, at the top of the stairs.


The woman had disappeared by the time Felix was back in the street and so he too took off, he was a fast runner and knew the area well, so that although at first he heard footsteps and shouts close behind him, they soon disappeared and he became part of the Saturday morning crowd. Once he was sure he was safe, he walked through streets, wondering what had happened and why. At about lunchtime he arrived back at Alice’s room. She was up and dressed; eating bread and cheese.

“Come,” he told her, “if you want to leave, we must do it now.”

Without a word she filled two bags, as if she had been preparing for this moment all her life, and within thirty minutes they had left the building and were heading towards the train station.

“Where to?”



1913 St. Petersburg


She never knew why he chose Russia; was it an impulse or something else? When she asked him, he just said “well we had to go somewhere,” but that sounded like an excuse, as if it was something beyond his understanding.


They stayed in a hotel in a back street, where it was cold, and often they spent the whole day in bed trying to keep warm. But then when they were getting hungry Felix would go out and try to earn money doing labouring work or by begging, whilst Alice would go downstairs and talk to the Babushka who managed the hotel, and they would sit beside the fire trying in vain to understand each other.


“What are we doing here?” she asked Felix, one night.

“Waiting…..” he shivered and burrowed himself into her; she smelt of dampness and sweat.

“Why have you brought me with you?” she asked feeling as low as she could ever remember, “is it to die in the cold? At least in Germany I had food and warmth.”

“But you asked to come with me. I warned you that it would be hard.”

“But why does it have to be like this? You men, driven by visions and religion, why can’t we live a normal life?”

Felix shrugged; he looked exhausted and thin, and when they made love, she could feel his bones pushing against her soft body, and she started to worry that he, who had always seemed so healthy, was beginning to sicken of something.


One day he came back after being out all day, he looked fragile and ill, as if only his spirit was keeping him upright.

“I have been speaking to a Rabbi; he is an interesting man, very young though, younger than us. He gave me work and then talked about G-d and the Devil. He said that he dreamed about us; he is puzzled about you, he asked me lots of questions; where you are from, who you are.”

“Probably because I am not Jewish” Alice suggested crossly.

Felix laughed.


The young Rabbi ignored her as they sat in a small café drinking schnapps. He was pale and looked austere and he kept a distance between him and the attractive young woman. The two men spoke in Yiddish, and Alice, whilst not understanding every word, knew what they were talking about, although Felix still felt the need to translate.

“He wants me to travel to Moscow” he told her, and then he coughed and coughed, she felt she could hear his body rattle as he did so. “There is another Rabbi that he knows; an older man, a visionary, who has written to him of a couple who will appear in St. Petersburg from the West, one of whom is a gentile, and they will go further East and will do great things.”


“He does not understand it all, there is something odd about it and I get the feeling that he is not telling me everything, as if there is something unpleasant going to happen. And then he wonders if his friend might be a bit strange, or he did, but then here we are, and we came straight to him, well I did.”

She looked across at the young Rabbi, who resolutely stared at the table. Felix coughed again and wiped his brow and soon they returned to their room and snuggled back under the blankets but however much she tried to warm him Felix stayed cold, as if his bones were made of ice and would never melt.


She made him stay in the room whilst she tried to beg for money, and because she was pretty and refused to give up, she did gain a few kopecks and then using gestures managed to buy food from the market, but it was never enough, and Felix became thinner and thinner, and however much she tried to warm him with her body he still shivered and coughed.


Felix never did get warm. The young rabbi came sometimes and sat beside him, and so did the Babushka who made him soup and insisted that he drink it, but however much he sipped he did not get better or become less wasted, until one day Alice woke up and the man beside her was cold and silent.


They buried him in the Jewish cemetery, the young Rabbi stood there with a few of his congregation, whilst Alice, standing apart, wept and wept at the loss of Felix, who had been alien but had loved her, and for herself who was alone in a strange country, an orphan once again. She huddled herself into her insufficient coat and hoped that she would die.


The young Rabbi came to see her a few days later; she had not come out of bed since the funeral, and lay full dressed under the blanket. He refused to look at her, but he had a bag full of clothes and money.

“From my wife” he told her, “you have to go to Moscow” he spoke in a mixture of German and Yiddish.


He looked at her for the first and only time, “I do not know why, but I have an address.”

He shrugged and walked out of the room, his job done, and once again she started to pack.


1914, Moscow


“I see a woman” the Rabbi told them, “a gentile woman, who comes bearing the truth.”

The years in prison had left the Rabbi rather odd, and his congregation looked at him pityingly and wondered when he would step down for someone younger and less strange. He was a kind old man who had suffered, but then hadn’t they all? It really was time he retired and concentrated on the next life. They felt sorry for his wife Chanina, who looked increasingly weary and talked of a husband that never slept and continually talked to himself.

“He is possessed” she told them, “that damn Czar and his minions, they left him the shell of a man.”

She wore black as if to mourn the man that he once was, although those who had known him a long time remembered him as someone always inclined to mysticism and madness.


The rabbi spent much of his time sitting in Ekaterininskiy Park, nibbling on black bread and cheese, and talking to passers-by, some of his congregation would see him and stop to have a word, whilst others would pretend he wasn’t there, and then talk about him later at home. Sometimes he would not come home until the next day; no wonder that Chanina was worried.

“What do you do all day?” She asked him, but actually she knew what he did; sitting there and if he had money giving sweet cakes to children and women. Twice he came home with bruises and cuts but he refused to talk about it, and was back out there the following day, even in the harshest wind.


Then one Wednesday evening he came out of the dry cold looking tired and discouraged.

“The woman you were expecting has arrived” said his wife, and there she was, dressed in rags and looking weary and sad but with golden hair; she said something in broken Yiddish and the Rabbi looked see that she was on the verge of tears.


He gave the young woman a smile and they spoke for a while in a language that Chanina could not understand.

“She is German” the Rabbi told his wife, “and she is staying with us”.

“Where?” she asked, rather than saying “no”, or “how dare you?”

“Our daughters’ room.”

And with a sigh Chanina got the room ready for her husband’s guest.


That evening the two of them spoke in German, whilst Chanina sat opposite them and knitted, until she dropped off, and when she awoke they were still talking.

“What did you talk about?” she asked her husband later in bed.

“She was telling me about herself; how she came from Germany to St. Petersburg and now here. She is the one; as soon as I saw her, I knew.”

“Oh Yakov. But who is she exactly? What is she here for?”

The rabbi smiled “all will be revealed. Be patient, we have waited long enough.”


She sat in the synagogue even though there was no reason to think that she was a Jew, and the Rabbi’s family fed her even though they were not rich. During the early mornings she slept, her snores vibrating round the house, but once she had got up, she would help Chanina cook and clean the house and then once it had grown dark she and the Rabbi would talk and talk; the harsh German tones rising and falling so that it seemed meaningless, like chanting in a Christian church.


“Does she know?”

“Know what?” the rabbi asked half asleep.

“What she is here for?”

“Not yet.” And he rolled over and fell asleep.

But Chanina continued to lie there, staring up into the dark, wondering what trouble they had brought into their house.


She called the young woman Alya as she could not say her real name and soon everyone else, even the Rabbi, called her that. She was a pleasant enough woman, helpful and kind, and she was company.  Since the children had left, Chanina was often alone, and having someone there by her side was pleasant, even though they could only exchange a few words. Sometimes the Rabbi’s wife would be woken by weeping from the next room, and then she would go to her and hold her and kiss her as if she were one of her daughters, not that her daughters had ever been so affectionate, but Alya clung to her and wept and then afterwards kissed her.


She stood on a bench in the park and a few people gathered round, bored and curious at this attractive woman who was speaking. At first she did not know what to say and just stared at her sparse audience, and the few words she had prepared blew away in the wind, but then she found inspiration and quoted from the prophets Jeremiah and Malachi.

“Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

The Muscovites continued to stare, so she spoke again.

“We need to flee, leave this country, this continent; hard times are coming, for Jew and Gentile; death by fire, death by disease. Gather your possessions together and be prepared to depart, and if your loved ones will not come with you, leave them behind.”


There was no obvious reaction from her audience; she could have been talking about anything, rather than telling them to leave everything behind and escape. Close by the Rabbi watched her every move, as if the proud father of a precocious child. Two soldiers, who had been watching for awhile, eventually walked over and told everyone to disperse, which they did with no fuss, and then after alternately flirting and threatening the young woman, they eventually told her to go.


The Rabbi was called before the Beth Din, it was probably inevitable, in fact he wondered why it had not been called before. As he sat in front of them, he looked at the three men, all of whom he knew extremely well.

“Who is this girl, this Alya?” Stefan asked him.

“She came to me in a dream, so that I was expecting her, and then a few days later there she was. G-d speaks through her.”

The three men looked at him which a mixture of sadness and anger.


“She is a gentile, how can G-d speak through her?” Stefan asked furiously, “and she is becoming a nuisance; arrested four times. The Czar and his ministers already hate us, especially now, and you and this woman are making things worse. And she is living at your house and you spend more time with her than with your wife, no wonder our congregation is disappearing, they are embarrassed of their Rabbi.”

“Not all of them, some are loyal, and we have many new people.”

“Yes idiots and wastrels who want a cheap show. You are disgracing our synagogue.”

Rabbi Himmel, the most senior man of the three, spoke at last.

“You need to put this woman aside, send her back to her own people in Germany, and then take time away from the synagogue. Study and pray, rest and spend time with your wife. We will appoint someone to take over your duties.”


He told Alya what had happened.

“I am sorry” she said, “should I leave?”

He held her for a moment, and looked deep into her eyes.

“Come let us pack.” He told her.

“What about your wife?”

“She had her chance….”


Chanina returned, and saw their packed bags and without a word she gathered some clothes and other items, and the three of them set off towards the railway station, just another family leaving the city, scared of revolution and repression. As they did so they called at various houses on the way and were joined by two more families who had listened to Alya’s preaching and a young man from the synagogue, who they thought was special.


“Where are we going?” asked the father of one of the families.

Rabbi looked puzzled, as if he had not thought of this.

“G-d will provide.”


Ware, England, 1930


They stood in a circle as they laid the Rabbi to rest. Ayla watched her community closely and intermixed with her sadness at the loss of her friend and guide was the worry about what would happen next? The Rabbi had kept them together when they moved to England and then found this small Hertfordshire town where they had built houses and settled down, he had been their focus, and now he was gone.


Would they now disperse? Many of them were confident and part of the town and perhaps now the Rabbi was gone, they would go to London and join the Jews in the East End or move elsewhere. But they seemed at home in Ware, and happy, and were respected by the local townsfolk who from the start had been welcoming and kind.


Not only had the group survived as a community; they had increased; Jews and even gentiles had come from other parts of England and from Eastern Europe looking for safety and a community, and they had been made welcome. They had built more houses on the outskirts of the town and then a synagogue and they had – unofficially – a special corner of the cemetery.  Other Jewish congregations in the capital mostly treated them with a bemused respect; like a wayward half-brother who had a lot of good qualities if only he would settle down and smarten up.


Ayla had never married despite having several offers; she said that she was too busy with her haberdashery shop and her work in the community, but deep down she still missed Felix and could not imagine being with anybody else.

“What would I do without you?” asked the Rabbi one evening last year, as he and Chanina sat with her over the Sabbath Meal.

“What would I do without you?” she asked in return. She dreaded to think what would have happened to her if he had not taken her under his wing, and ignored the gossiping and jealousy. But now he was gone and she was at a loss.


They came to see her a fortnight after the burial. She lived above her shop in a small flat, and was drinking tea and lemon, and thinking about Felix, dead in a cold and alien land, and who she still missed. What would he have thought of all this she wondered? And what would he tell her to do now? Then there was a knock on the door and four of her friends came in; Chanina was there, and three men, one who come with them from Russia and two who had joined the community since they came to England.


She hugged and kissed the Rabbi’s widow, and for a moment smelt her perfume and the scent of oranges. They sat together and drank tea. It was Chanina who spoke; she had been a reluctant member of the community at first, but once they had come to England she had been the equal of her husband in strength and encouragement. She seemed happier and stronger since she had left her home country, and unlike her husband she had picked up English easily and in the early days had been the go-between for her people and the locals.


“Since my husband has died we need a new leader.” She told her.

Alya nodded.

“Someone with our best interests at heart, but also someone brave and clever. We have decided that that person is you.”

Alva looked at all four of them; they all looked back with smiles.

“But I am a woman, and a gentile” she reminded them.

“We know,” said Chaim Benetok, who had twice asked her to marry him, “you are also gifted and strong.”

“We are all in agreement.”

They nodded.

“There is nobody else.”


Dusseldorf, 1939


This was the seventh time I had been back to Germany, but this time we were at war. I arrived at the railway station and kept walking. There were uniformed thugs everywhere and the strangest of atmospheres; fear maybe or hatred, and yet it was all so familiar, this was my country; the smells, the language being spoken all around me, the food and drink, just like when I lived in Cologne. It was only when I returned to Germany that I realised I was still a foreigner in England, still a German, as much as I hated what was happening to my country.


I had nothing written down in case I was captured, but I knew the address, 21 Duisburger Strasse and I had a single name, “Alice”, which is my real name of course, although nobody has called me by it since Felix died. I had been contacted three years ago by someone who remembered Felix and somehow had found out about our community and thought we might be able to help to bring Jewish children out of Germany to escape the persecution that was increasing week after week. A few of our community had volunteered to go, but I am an old woman, nobody would suspect me and as leader of our group I had insisted, after all what mattered that I might die.  


The first time it had been Klaus and Frederich; brothers three and five, both very frightened, and then I had somehow managed to take four young children out.  There had been scares and close calls but we had always made it safely back to England, and in total I had rescued twenty children. Some of them had relatives in other parts of England and had gone to them, but others had joined our community in Ware and were adopted by various families, away from harm.


Things were becoming more difficult now and I was frightened; I wondered what would happen if I was caught. No embassy to protect me; I would be lucky to be beaten and then put on a train back out of the country. The country had become governed by thugs and hooligans who could do what they wanted without any repercussions.


I sat in a café and ordered a coffee and a pastry; it was three in the afternoon and suddenly I felt very hungry; and for a few minutes I allowed myself to rest and to look around me; the café smelt clean and there was the hushed talked of frightened people. I was an old woman now, my joints ached and I wondered what on earth I was doing. I knew that I had probably achieved all that I was going to, that I should be at home in England looking after my community rather than risking my life for this.


Two men in uniform came in, and after looking at the occupants of the café (two old men, the young woman who was serving and me), they sat down and ate; their conversation harsh and filled with laughter but not much sense that I could hear. For a moment they watched me as I left my seat and headed towards the door, but I was not young enough to hold their attention for more than a second; and they had resumed their conversation before I had left the cafe.


The address was not far from the city centre, and so I walked;  the trick was not to pause or in any way look as if I was lost, thus I would not attract suspicion. They had given me a time, seven o’clock and so once I had found the house I wandered through a nearby park before returning again and knocking just on time. A man answered the door; young and scared looking.

“Alice?” I asked.

He opened the door wider and disappeared back into the house without a word. I followed, which was probably a mistake, but you have to trust somebody.


There were two children and a young woman sat in a cold room. The woman smiled at me nervously.

“These are Josef and Moshe”, they looked at me and did not say anything. They looked about eleven; Josef was dark and thin, Moshe had red hair, and kept picking at the rug he was sitting on.

“Fraulein?” said Moshe, but the young woman hushed him, “you should get some sleep you will be picked up at five in the morning, and driven out of Germany.”

“Are you Alice?” I asked, and she smiled before taking me to a small bedroom.

“Sleep well” she said with a smile “you will be busy tomorrow.”


At midnight I was aware that someone was in my room and a small hand was touching my face.

“Fraulein, my name is not Moshe,” and then he disappeared. I was already dressed so I quickly walked down the stairs and passed the kitchen “they will be here in a moment” I heard the young woman’s voice say and then I opened the front door, where two soldiers seemed to be waiting for me. One of them punched me hard in the face and watched me fall.


Auschwitz, 1940


I thought that I would be dead before I reached our destination; the heat of the train, the pain from my beating and the electric shocks and the awful hunger, as if my tummy was going in on itself. But then I felt a hand in mine and I realised that Felix was here and that I was safe.


I don’t know why they did not kill me in the police station after they had realised that I had told them all I was going to; I am sure plenty died in the cold cells in the basement or in the interrogating rooms; when the prisoner was obdurate or the soldiers bad-tempered and tired. My main questioner was cold and ruthless but I felt he was in control, and knew what he was doing, but the others who administered the beatings were thugs, given power for the first time, and determined to enjoy it without restraint. But although they hurt me more than I have ever been hurt in my life before, they eventually had me taken away, bleeding and battered. But now Felix was here, with his calm and passion, the same Felix who had died whilst I was sleeping and who had brought me on this journey.


A child, the same age as Moshe, gave me bread, I offered some to Felix, but he smiled and shook his head, and I quickly put it into my mouth and eventually managed to swallow it. I felt it lodge in my throat but, after a moment, slowly slide down into my stomach, and then I felt sick, but I smiled at the child and hoped its mother would not be cross.


As they lead us through the gates and into the brick building, Felix was close to me, whilst behind me I could hear the child talking quietly to his mother. And then it was as if I was barely there, but that I was with Felix in bed in my old apartment and he was lying in my arms.

“Take me with you, wherever you go I want to be there too.”

“Of course; my country is your country, my people are your people.”

And as they ushered us into the building that smelt of gas and death, I walked hand in hand with my people, knowing that I was part of a chosen race and that whatever happened we would endure.




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