The Polish countryside lay like a sleeping child beneath a blanket of pre-dawn mist. At the edge of a large open field, tendrils of gray wetness gently tried to push their way into the ancient forest. A surreal silence seemed to permeate the entire area. The night creatures had already returned to their homes, while the day creatures had yet to awaken.
Four black-clad figures knelt down just inside the tree line. The one in front raised his hand, signaling the others to stop. “This is as far as I go,” the man said.
“You have our gratitude, Bogumil,” one of the others told him.
Bogumil nodded. “I will be waiting at the rendezvous point. May God go with you.”
“Thank you,” the other man said.
The Pole turned and disappeared back into the forest. If everything went according to the plan, the four men would be reunited within the hour, and all that would be left of the mission was to return to Egypt.
“There it is, boys — Treblinka,” the man told his companions as he pointed out across the field. “That’s the last stop on our little shopping excursion.”
“Tell me, Christman,” one of the men said. “I know Guardineer and I weren’t told the reason for all we have done for security reasons, but since this is the last stop, can’t you give us a little hint?”
“Baker’s got a point,” Guardineer said. “I’m kind of curious myself.”
“All I know is that the fate of millions rests in our hands,” Christman told the two men. “I wish I could tell you more, but I was told that our mission is so important that they couldn’t risk the Nazis finding out. Sorry.”
“Oh, well,” Baker shrugged. “Let’s get this over with and go home.”
Each of the men knew his task, so they wasted no more time with words. Keeping low and taking advantage of the mist, they moved out of the forest and started across the field.
Guardineer was the first to spot the two German soldiers. If he tried to alert his companions, he knew he took the chance of drawing the Germans’ attention as well. Still using the mist, he quietly crept toward them. Since it was still dark, silhouettes were all that could be made out, and a plan immediately popped into his head.
The two men passed, and Guardineer waited until their backs were toward each other before he made his move. As the German passed him, he stood up, wrapped an arm around his neck, and grabbed his chin with his free hand. One quick jerk, and the man fell to the ground with a broken neck. Quickly, Guardineer removed his helmet and collected his machine gun.
In the distance, he saw the other German turning and walking toward him. Putting the helmet on, he stood up and started walking toward the other soldier. Keeping his head bowed until he was almost face to face with the German, Guardineer suddenly brought the butt of the machine gun up and slammed it into his enemy’s throat. The man died wondering why his friend had killed him. Moving away from where the German’s blood was seeping into the ground, Guardineer removed a vial from his vest pocket, knelt down, and began filling it with soil.
Unaware of what was taking place not too far away, Baker had stumbled across what appeared to be a disguised air vent. Quietly, he uncovered it, then lay down to see if he could hear anything. At first there was nothing, and Baker started to rise. He was on his knees when he heard a faint cry. Dropping flat, he listened more intently.
“Ah, Fritz, do you hear? The poor little Gypsy begs to know why we end his life.”
“What a foolish question he asks, Hans. Why else would we do this but for the glory of the Fourth Reich?”
The closing of a door suddenly cut off the two voices. The cries of the Gypsy seemed to bore into Baker’s soul. Pressing his face to the vent, he started to call out, but the aroma of exhaust fumes silenced his tongue. He knew it was too late.
He didn’t know why, but for some reason, collecting his soil sample from this spot seemed to be appropriate.
Unlike his companions elsewhere, Christman encountered no one. He pulled a small map from his pocket and began to look around, feeling an unearthly chill grip his body when he realized he had reached his destination. Not more than three feet beneath him, the decayed bodies of an untold number of Jews lay in their final escape from the persecution of the Nazis.
Closing his eyes, the man said a silent prayer. As he knelt there atop the mass grave, he would have sworn that he heard a collective whisper from the past saying, “No more.”
He opened his eyes to find Guardineer and Baker standing before him.
“Are you OK?” Guardineer asked. “You’ve been like this for almost five minutes.”
Christman looked at his friends, then back down at his hands. He didn’t know when he did it, but the vial was in his hands and overflowing with soil. He wiped away the excess and replaced the lid.
As he stood, he noticed that Baker seemed distracted and somewhat agitated, but he said nothing. Guardineer took his friends by the arms and steered them toward the trees.
It was a quiet trip to the rendezvous. Christman and Baker seemed to be only marginally aware that they were moving. As Guardineer continued to lead them, he could only imagine at what had happened to his friends.
“Do not think that I seek to rid myself of your company,” Benjamin said to the man standing beside him, “but wouldn’t you rather return to your hotel and rest?”
Christman stifled a yawn and shook his head to clear the drowsiness. “Honestly?” he asked. “Yes, I would. Unfortunately, I don’t think I could.”
The rabbi gave his new friend a questioning look.
“Something happened,” Christman said, his voice barely more than a whisper, “in Treblinka.” If anyone would understand, he knew it would be the rabbi, so he told the old man everything he had heard. “I promised them,” he said in conclusion.
Benjamin put his hand on Christman’s shoulder. “I, too, have heard and made that vow.”
After a moment of silence, Christman cleared his throat. Before he had a chance to say anything, the rabbi spoke.
“Your mind is troubled. You wish to know about your mission. You wonder why we left the safety of Egypt to come into occupied Israel.” With a slight grin, he added, “And you would really like to know about the men in the hooded robes, wouldn’t you?”
The younger man didn’t question how he knew this; he only acknowledged what the old man said.
“Have you heard of Yad Vashem?” Benjamin asked.
“No,” Christman said. “Should I?”
“I only wish more people did.” The rabbi’s voice was full of sorrow, and Christman was suddenly ashamed.
“Yad Vashem means name. In this instance, it is also the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. The purpose of Yad Vashem is to make sure that those who died at the hands of the Nazis are never forgotten, and to honor those who risked their lives to save as many Jews as possible.
“This place,” he said, motioning toward the entrance of an underground cavern guarded by members of the Resistance, “is the Children’s Memorial. Were you to enter the cavern, you would see the reflection of memorial candles in the darkness that brings to mind the stars in the heavens. In the background, you would hear the names of nearly one and a half million children, as well as their ages and their countries of origin.
“For reasons known only to God, the Germans have never ventured near this complex; perhaps it is His way of making sure those taken from us in the Holocaust are not forgotten.
“As you know, you have collected soil from each of the sites of the concentration camps, and for that we are truly grateful. That soil is being used in a formula that will be used in the creation of a savior. It holds the blood, sweat, and tears of the victims of the Holocaust. You also collected soil from three graves — one in Russia, one in America, and one in Germany itself. Each of these graves held men who are what Yad Vashem refers to as Righteous Among the Nations. These men, along with thousands of others, risked their lives to protect the Jews.
“The Russian grave held the body of Pan-Jun-Shun, the first Chinese to be awarded the title. He took a young Jewish girl into his home and raised her as his own daughter, keeping her hidden from the Germans. He died in 1974.
“The American grave was the final resting place of Varian Fry. He helped smuggle over one thousand Jews out of occupied France.
“Albert Battel occupies the German grave. He served as an Oberleutenant in the German army. It was he who helped members of my own family escape the Warsaw Ghetto. On July 26, 1942, he directly defied the SS who were to begin transporting the Ghetto’s inmates to Belzec. Himmler himself took an interest in the investigation of the events of that day.
“The soil from these three graves symbolize the compassion of those who thought the lives of the Jews were worth the risks. It will be mixed with the soil of the victims.”
“And the men in the cavern?” Christman asked.
Benjamin’s voice dropped to a whisper. “They are kabbalists.”
Christman was unfamiliar with the word.
“They deal in the mysteries of God,” the rabbi said by way of explanation. When he saw that his friend was still not grasping what he was being told, he decided to ask one more question.
“Have you ever heard of a golem?”