“What’s that number on your arm, Mr. Hoffmann?” Lara asked. It was a Saturday afternoon and she was at his flat. She liked visiting him. He was such a nice, kind person. He was different from everyone else. He was friendly to her even though she was colored. He had a foreign accent. He wasn’t American like her.
He glanced down at his left arm. “That’s the number of the concentration camp where I was,” he explained.
She climbed up onto the stool, her brown eyes wide with wonder and her head leaning to one side quizzically. “What’s the number for and is a concentration camp where the Nazis kept the Jews?”
“It was just to identify prisoners.” He didn’t tell her that initially in Auschwitz, the camp numbers were sewn on the clothes but with the increased death rate, it became difficult to identify corpses because the clothes were removed from the corpses. So, the solution was for the medical personnel to write the numbers on the corpses’ chests with indelible ink. “Yes, Jews and other people like criminals, gypsies, Communists and Social Democrats, anti-Nazi civilians, Poles and other people.”
“Was it a terrible place?”
“Yes, it was.” It was a nightmare. He would never forget it for as long as he lived.
“How long were you there for?”
“Was your family there too?”
“Yes. My parents died and my brother and sister. I was the only one left.”
“How did they die?”
He blinked. There was a lump in his throat. “They were sent to the gas chamber. They thought they were going take showers to rid themselves of lice. The guards told them to turn over all their valuables and to undress. Then they were driven naked into the showers. A guard closed and locked the steel door. Then, poisonous gas was released.” He turned away and wiped his eyes in his shirt sleeve.
He suddenly felt her hand holding his. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hoffmann,” Lara said in a tearful voice. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
He smiled as he looked down at her wet upturned face. “Don’t be sorry, Lara,” he said. He got down on his haunches and hugged her.
“I’m glad you didn’t die in that horrible camp, Mr. Hoffmann.”
“Me too, Lara.”
They hugged for a while longer, then, he released her and stood up. She was the same age as his younger sister, Leah. He and Leah had been very close. She adored him and hung on his every word. He was still haunted by the memory of watching her as she walked towards what they thought were showers, holding their mother’s hand and looking back at him. He brushed the tears away and returned to the piano. He sat down and began to play Leah’s favorite song for the Shabbat.
Leah returned to the stool and listened to him play. It made her sad that he had been in horrible camp and had lost his family. She knew what it was like to lose someone you loved. Her father was killed in the 1935 race riot in Harlem. Life became harder for her mother who was raising her and her brother in a city where there was economic hardship, racial injustice and a community’s mistrust of the police. Her mother was a woman of faith and she trusted God to take care of her and her children which He did.
Then, her brother was killed by the police the 1943 race riot in Harlem. Her mother’s faith didn’t waver but she became disheartened about life in Harlem. She had lost her husband and son to violence. Now it was just Lara and her. She and Lara moved to Brooklyn in search of a better life and less expensive housing. It was there in Crown Heights where Lara met Mr. Hoffmann.
She met him on the afternoon he moved into the apartment building where she and mother lived. At first she was shy when he smiled and talked to her. He had a strong and unfamiliar accent which she later learned was German. He was in his late thirties, tall and very thin. His hair was thick and black and his eyes dark brown. He got a job as a teacher in a Jewish school. She sat on the front porch every afternoon waiting for him.
Instead of going straight inside, he sat next to her and they talked. Then, he invited her mother and her one afternoon to have lunch with him. After that, with her mother’s permission, she visited him regularly. Lara loved Mr. Hoffmann. Every night she prayed that he would fall in love with her mother and marry her so that he could be her new Dad. She also prayed for a new brother and sister. Even when she didn’t see any answer to her prayer, she didn’t stop praying. She had faith that God would answer it one day.
Whenever she visited Mr. Hoffmann, she sat on the stool while he played the piano. She learned about Shabbat and the different Jewish holidays from him. He let her light the candles for Hanukkah. They talked about the Old Testament. “We are all descendants of the patriarch Noah. He had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. I’m a descendant of Shem and you are a descendant of Ham.”
“Who are the descendants of Japheth?”
“Whites and Asians.”
She wasn’t too pleased that she was a descendant of Ham who didn’t cover his father up when he was naked like his brothers did. Her favorite person of the Bible besides Jesus was David. She loved the story of him fighting Goliath.
“Did you have to wear the star of David when you were in the camp?” she asked.
“Yes. I still have it.” And he showed it to her.
“What are you thinking about?” her voice interrupted his thoughts.
He turned as she entered the room. “I was thinking about when I showed you the star of David.”
“That was twenty years ago.”
“Yes. It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed.”
She smiled. “And so much has changed.”
He put his arms around her. “Yes. A lot has changed, Mrs. Hoffmann.”
She slipped her arms around his waist and pressed against him. “I always loved this apartment because you were here. I loved coming to visit you, listening to you play and talk to you about so many things.”
“I will never forget the sweet little girl who was standing outside of the building on the day I moved in. Twenty years later and I’m still blown away by those beautiful eyes. I loved you dearly like a father loves his child but I fell in love with you on your seventeenth birthday.” He recalled kissing her on her forehead as was his habit when he really wanted to kiss her on the lips.
“I didn’t think you would fall in love with me, a colored girl.”
“Both of us have experienced hatred–me for being a Jew and you for being black but we’re God’s children. We were created in His image and He loves us.”
“Yes.” She thought to herself, His Son, Jesus died for us too.
“Many of the Jews in the camp were angry with God for allowing what happened to us but I was never angry with Him for that or for what happened to my family. I was thankful for each day I lived. I knew it was because of Him.”
“You had the faith and patience of Job.”
“I thanked God everyday for surviving the Holocaust and more so because of you, Lara, mein Schatz. I adore you.”
“And I adore you, Jakob.”
Her eyes glistened with tears and then they closed when he kissed her. She thanked God everyday for not answering her childish prayer for her beloved Jakob to fall in love with and marry her mother. She didn’t get a new brother or sister but she got Jakob and God blessed them with a boy and a girl. And He blessed her mother with a new husband, a brave, black soldier who fought in World War II.