Excerpt from Overcoming the Odds (C. Leaver): From Good Blood (Irit Schaffer)
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From Good Blood by Irit Schaffer --
As soon as I looked into his blue eyes, every cell in my body bubbled with joy. Yes, this must be love. I am in love for the first time. His are the bluest eyes I have ever seen. They are like the deep blue of the ocean on a clear and sunny day. My mom is sitting to my left, my sister, Edna, to my right, and I am falling in love. Ari Ben Canaan is his name. He is in charge of taking a boatload of people to Palestine. The boat, Exodus, is filled with Jewish Europeans planning to make their home in the soon to be independent State of Israel. Unfortunately, the British authorities have detained the boat in Cyprus. They are not allowing Exodus to complete its voyage to Palestine, and Ari has to take charge. His confidence is portrayed in his thin and muscular 5’9” frame. “We can go back, or we can go on a hunger strike,” he says, “but before we vote, we must reflect in our hearts.”
I close my eyes and can hear everyone starting the most important prayer there is in the Jewish religion, the first prayer that we are taught in first grade, the Shema, the holiest prayer, the holiest song: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad.” Even Jews who don’t speak Hebrew typically know these words. The first six words of the Shema are all I can remember by heart. We learn the whole prayer, but most people typically only remember the first six words. The rest of the prayer does not seem as important, especially to me, because I know about this prayer in ways no one else does, except my sister, of course. The first six words of the Shema saved my dad’s life.
My eyes go back to Ari’s face on the screen. Before I know it, the credits are rolling, and Exodus has become my new favorite movie. This must be what love is, I think again, but, of course, I decide to keep that thought a secret from everyone. Love is not something I am supposed to talk about because I am only nine years old.
I look out the glass doors of our apartment building. My family and I live in Apartment 4 at 4634 Dupuis Street in Montréal, Québec, Canada. I like coming out onto the foyer and looking at the stars through these glass doors. I feel like the smartest person in the whole world out here, smarter than my mother, smarter than my father, but this is just another secret of mine.
It is 7:30 p.m., and my dad just got home from work. He is a plumber so he often works late. My mom is washing the dishes while my dad is eating the breaded chicken, mashed potatoes, and onions she made for him. It is his favorite. I sit at the table and watch as he wolfs down the food. Dad is the fastest eater in the whole wide world. Edna, my sister, says it is because he was in the war and had nearly nothing to eat for a long time. I bet if there were a fast eating contest, he would win first prize. I look at my dad’s hands. They are so big and always chapped from working outside. The dirt on his hands never seems to disappear. I have seen him try soap after soap but always with the same lack of results. “Why don’t you just wear gloves?” I had once asked.
He laughed and said, “I’ve tried as many gloves as I have tried soaps. I can’t do the job properly with gloves.” I love looking at hands. I’m not sure why, but somehow, I feel like I understand things better when I do.
My mom’s hands, for example, reflect her childhood. Her left pinky is bent permanently, with a big scar from a graft on her palm. She says it is from when she was a little baby. That is one of the only stories from her childhood that she has told me. Her older sister had pushed her, and a pot of hot water fell off of the stove onto her hand and burnt her badly. She went to the hospital for it, but the scar never went away. When I first heard that story, it helped me finally understand why my mom had always yelled at my sister and me so much whenever we got anywhere near the stove. Now, if I could only understand why she yelled at me so much for everything else!
My mom, Alise, is only 5’2”, but she has a husky voice from smoking and can yell louder than anyone I know. My dad, Zoli, on the other hand, is a tall man at 6’2”, and his voice is always gentle. My mom gets upset easily, so she yells quite a lot. My dad almost never gets upset. Maybe that is why he never raises his voice at us. We have a television, but we don’t watch it much. I am afraid of television shows that are scary. I will only watch them if my Dad is sitting right beside me. Tonight, my dad is sitting beside Edna and me while Elliot Ness and his men look for bad guys, members of the mafia like Al Capone.
As the show progresses, one of the mobsters takes out an automatic rifle and begins shooting into a crowd of people on the street. “Iritka, Ednooka, that was the gun they used on me when I got shot,” my dad tells us. My name is Irit, and my sister’s name is Edna, but in Hungarian, grownups add -ka to the ends of names as a sign of affection. It always makes me feel good inside when my dad calls me “Iritka.” After the show ends, I turn to him and say, “Dad, can you tell me the story of how you got shot again?”
I am always begging him to tell me his war stories. “Iritka, it is late.” “Pleeeaase! I love the story, and there’s no school tomorrow.” He sighs, giving in, “Ok. Get into your pajamas, and then I will tell you about it for a little bit.”
My dad is the only father in my class who has been shot and who was a prisoner of war during World War II. I am the only one in my class who has these stories to share, and they make me feel special, like part of a super-secret club.
I rush to my side of the bedroom that I share with Edna and quickly put on my pink-and-purple pajamas with daffodils, daisies, and violets. My Aunt Ersie, my dad’s sister, sent me these pajamas. My Dad always tells me that she picked them because purple is her favorite color and she loves flowers, especially violets. I grab my paplan, the Hungarian word for down comforter, and jump onto my dad’s big bed—which is actually two beds put together with a headboard.
As I snuggle in, I rub the corner of the paplan with my index finger to keep myself from sucking my thumb. After my sixth birthday, I decided that when I was seven I would be too old to suck my thumb. So, the next year at Camp Massad where my mom was the cook, I officially became a big girl and stopped, but even now, at nine years old, I’m often tempted.
My dad finally comes in and joins me on the bed. “Ok, Dad, I’m ready,” I say. “Tell me about how you got shot and how the Shema prayer saved your life, and how you had the bullets taken out without any medicine and—”
“But you already know the story,” my dad chuckles.
“Tell me again!” I pull the paplan over my chin as I cuddle next to my dad and repeat, “I’m ready.” My father begins, “We were in the Hungarian labor camp. It was early afternoon, and the officers were busy eating so they weren’t paying attention to us. I told Barna, ‘Now is the time to escape to the Russian camp. Do you want to come with me?’”
Barna was my dad’s best friend growing up. Ivhave never met him, but from all the stories I’ve heard, I feel like I know him well. I would love to visit him in Europe, but Dad says I have to wait until I’m older. “Barna said, ‘Zoli, I can’t.’ Barna and I had known each other since we were your age.
Now, after all those years, it was time to say goodbye. ‘Good luck,’ we both said, and we gave each other a hug.
There were two other men who did choose to come with me. When the moment came, we ran away as fast as we could. We saw Russians so I put my hands over my head, waving a stick with a light cloth on it. I was trying to show the Russians that I had no guns and wanted to surrender. A Russian officer stood a few feet away, and his machine gun was pointed right at me. The two other men who had come with me got scared and hid to watch what would unfold. In an attempt to let the officer know that I was not the enemy, I said, ‘Tovarash,’ which means comrades. ‘I am your brother, and I am a Jew.’ I could see the man’s hand gripping the machine gun, so I said, ‘Tovarash’ again, but he pulled the trigger. The two men made it back to camp and told Barna and everyone else that I had waved the flag and then died from many gunshot wounds.”
“So, what happened next, Dad?”
“Next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground. I must have passed out. I had a dream, and then I woke up to the sound of a group of men standing around me and speaking Russian. I heard one say, ‘He is still breathing. Finish him off.’”
“What did you do?”
“Once more I said, ‘I am a Jew. I am your brother. If you are a Stalinist and this is what Stalin teaches, then you must teach this to your children by example. You must take the machine gun and shoot me yourself if I am to die.’
The Russian soldier then said, ‘Prove you are a Jew.’ I could think of only one prayer, and suddenly I could hear myself saying, ‘Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohanu, Adonai Echad.’
Then, I heard another Russian, who was obviously Jewish, say, ‘Only a Jew would know that.’ The officer in charge then said, ‘Take the wagon and put him in it.’
I remember the sun was so hot it burned into my wounds. There were insects feeding on the bullet holes and on my face, but I could not move my hands to swat them away. I could not even move my fingers. I had no feeling in my arms. I was partially paralyzed so I just closed my eyes.”
“Dad, tell me about how they took the bullets out, how they took them out without any medicine and you didn’t scream. That’s my favorite part.”
“OK, Iritka. I told them I didn’t want them to give me anything that would make me go to sleep because I knew that if they did, I would never wake up. I told them to take the bullets out without anything. One by one, they came out, and I didn’t say a word.”
“How could you not scream?”
“I was afraid that if I screamed they would put me to sleep forever, so I had no choice.”
“So, tell me about the doctor. What happened after she took the bullets out?”
“I remember the doctor well. She was a Russian Jew, and she told me, ‘You are a special man. I cannot believe you survived this and didn’t even cry.’ I even heard her tell one of the guards, ‘We must save this man. He is very important, and he is fluent in many languages, so he can help us.’ She made all of that up, but because of her words, they made me an interpreter, which was an easy job compared with many others. Of course, I spoke some Russian and German, but I mostly learned as I went. The doctor took on the task of feeding me every day. I still could not move my hands, but I was getting stronger. There was little food to eat, but she would steal extra for me. She was a special person who gave with her heart. I will always remember her.”
I look up at my dad and see that spark of joy and light that I have always loved. “After she removed the bullets, my left arm got an infection. They said it was gangrene and wanted to cut it off, but she kept saying, ‘Let’s wait one more day.’ She insisted that it was getting better.”
“Were you afraid they would cut it off?”
“Iritka, at that point, I didn’t care.”
“How long before you were better?” “About six months. The doctor, she saved me.” “If your arm was gangrenous, how did you get better?”
“I have good blood.”