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By Roland Teichholz
I looked at the sky and found only stars
I looked at the sea and found only fears
I looked in your heart and found only scars
I looked in your eyes and found only tears
Dunkerque, Department of the North, June 3rd 1940. Since April 27th, three hundred thousand allied troops have been hastily repatriated from this seaport, to the white cliffs of Dover, on the opposite side of the Channel. This morning already, Messerschmidt fighter planes of the German Luftwaffe have strafed the city and its harbor, scuttling ships and raking the civilian population. Amongst the latter are many Jews who had hoped to flee to England. One can only feel totally disgusted, when reading in Pierre Closterman's book "The Great Circus" how this French hero of the British Royal Air Force praises the courage and the efficiency of the German pilots. How can anyone admire an "elite" of highly trained men, capable of shooting mercilessly and without any hesitation, at innocent old men, women and children!
Routed British soldiers scramble aboard the last vessels bound westward for the British Isles, thinking of nothing else than to get out of this hell and saving their skins. The whole scene gives the wharf the aspect of the Parisian "Galleries Lafayette" during the year-end sales.
Two French liners are still docked. Their captains refuse adamantly to allow any Jews on board. Thank G-d, since both will be sunk before even leaving the harbor.
A few Jews propose to pay fishermen for their passage overseas. Some of them agree, taking their human cargo across the raging waters. Amongst them are Israel and Zipporah Teichholz. They have reached Dunkerque this morning, coming from Antwerp, Belgium. They were supposed to meet here with Jo, Israel's brother, Ruchamah, Jo's wife, and her baby Boruch at the harbor. Alas, the latter are nowhere to be seen, having made a detour through Amsterdam to try to convince Jo's father, Rabbi Aryeh Teichholz, and the rest of the family, to join them on their flight to Great Britain.
After this morning's heavy bombardment, Israel understood that there is no point in further delaying their departure. Once the Germans will enter town, all hopes of escaping from their clutches will be shattered. Thus, he pays an exorbitant amount for a hardy seaman to take him and his wife over to England in a small boat. Even though their rudimentary vessel was not made for such an expedition, they make it safely to Dover. Israel will spend the rest of the war in London, devoting his days and nights to his favorite pastime: the study of the Torah.
Jo and his family will reach Dunkerque a few hours only after his brother's departure, yet these few hours will have made all the difference: there are no more boats anchored to the wharf, they are all at the bottom of the sea.
What happened to Rabbi Teichholz and his family? Arguing that he is too old to start running around Europe, he refused to follow his son and remained in Amsterdam with his wife Miriam, where he continued to deliver his daily lecture in his little synagogue, until he was eventually deported to Auschwitz. The truth is that Jo always thought that his father did not join him in his flight, because he did not want to be a burden in such dangerous circumstances - he would never either have agreed to sacrifice his beard to look like a gentile. Moshe, the youngest brother, did not want to abandon his parents and was deported with them on July 6th 1943. So were his sister Fanny, her husband Avraham Weinreb and their three children: Heinrich - 16 years old, Clare - 15 and Isabelle - 13. All have been brutally murdered upon arrival in Auschwitz. May the Almighty avenge the spilling of their blood!
When Jo and Ruchamah reach Dunkerque, they are dismayed by the apocalyptic aspect of town: refugees everywhere, mixing with British soldiers who did not manage to escape, collapsed buildings, bomb craters in the streets.What's more, a light rain has started to pour, which soaks to the skin and melts the dirt accumulated over the ruins by repeated German bombings. Israel and Zipporah cannot be found and Jo supposes that they did the right thing, crossing the Channel while it was still possible. Even though he is happy for them, it gives him a heartache to think that, if he had come straight from Antwerp to Dunkerque, he too would by now have reached the safety of London with his wife and his child.
Suddenly, the sound of sirens! Most probably, they mean another air raid is coming. Jo drags Ruchamah and Boruch to the closest bunker available. A few Jewish families are already huddled inside. While the far away purring of motors can be heard, a group of British soldiers make their way inside the by now crowded air raid shelter. After just one minute, all hell is let loose. Shells explode with a deafening noise on the last buildings that are still standing and a hail of bullets mow down everything that moves on the streets. The Jews are praying, the English, lost in their dreams, are smoking cigarettes, notwithstanding the sign above their heads which reads: no smoking!
Two or three minutes later only, an unsettling calm returns to the ghost town. Jo comes out of the bunker to assess the situation. Night has fallen and the rain is still pouring down. Streets are empty and look surreal: no lights are on. The temperature has fallen drastically. Jo returns to his wife. There is nothing they can do before daylight returns.
Nobody sleeps sound tonight in Dunkerque. All ears are prodding the silent night and all hearts are pounding.
At daybreak, people wake up inside the bunker, while disquieting noises are ricocheting along the street walls.
Suddenly, a disheveled man, his clothes all in a mess, enters the shelter. He looks bewildered while he is catching his breath. Then he talks fast, barely coherently, saying: "The Boches are here.truckloads.the whole town is encircled.there's no way out!"
Even though in their heart, they knew that this is what was going to happen, nevertheless, the people who had sought refuge in the bunker are disappointed and scared. Indeed, now they can clearly hear the shooting, the shouting of the soldiers and the screaming of their victims. The English seem to be accepting the situation with philosophy and resignation, they look almost aloof. For them, the war is over. They will now wait patiently in some internment camp until one side surrenders to the other. Then they will be released and go back home to start anew where they had left, as if nothing had ever happened.
The Jews, on the other hand, are petrified. They know only too well what they can expect.
Jo looks at his wife and his little baby: only six years that they are married, yet so many souvenirs bind his life to hers! Maybe if he had been a good husband and a good father, rather than a good son, they would not be now in such a dreadful situation!
Ruchamah too looks at her husband and, as if she could read his thoughts, she says: "Whatever happens, Jo, do not regret anything. I am thankful to you for all the wonderful moments we spent together. May we be united in death, just like we were in life!"
Jo has barely time to give the ghost of a bitter smile, when an officer of the Wehrmacht, followed by a bunch of heavily armed soldiers, irrupts inside the bunker.
"Juden rechts, Englander links" he barks (Jews to the right, Englishmen to the left). While all present reach for the wall designated for them, Jo recites quietly - he will be doing so quite often during the next five years - "May my death be the atonement for all my sins!"
The British look mockingly at those ragged Jews who mean nothing to them. There is no spark of pity whatsoever in their dull eyes. None of them opens his mouth to protest or remind the Germans that civilians are protected from any harm by internationally recognized laws.
The Jews have already turned all their thoughts toward their Creator. Looking at them, one might be forgiven to think himself inside a synagogue.
Jo cannot see the face of the German officer: the only electric bulb of the shelter makes his visor cast its shadow over the whole top of his face. Only his tight, thin lips are visible.
The officer produces what - in other circumstances - might pass as a smile and announces: "You Jews have ten minutes, and ten minutes only, to run for your lives. After that, you shall be sorry if we ever catch up to you. You, the British, stay right where you are!"
The Jews, men, women and children alike, don't have to be told twice what they have to do. Picking up their meager belongings, running away as fast as they can, the stronger supporting the weaker. Jo and Ruchamah have barely left the shelter, when they hear the short bursts of machine gun fire. So much for the "prisoners of war"!
How did that German officer dare do such a thing, the exact opposite of what he probably had been ordered to do? No one will ever know. Maybe this was just a sample of his sense of humor?
"Just like the canvas in the hands of the weaver, who aligns or diverts as he wishes, we are in the hands of the Almighty, the G-d of jealousy and vengeance."
"A Strand of Pearls" is the English translation of a book in French
written by Roland Teichholz, presently being serialized in the French Magazine,
from the September 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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