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The Back of Men’s Heads

A Kurdish boy's Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall brings an intimacy of strangers, and what feels like a blessing from the grave.

Last year my husband and I went to Israel to celebrate our son’s wedding. The day before the ceremony he had an aliyah (the honor of reading from the Torah) at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. He’d had his bar mitzvah there 14 years earlier, and wanted to celebrate this milestone there as well.

When my husband and I entered the plaza at 8:30 a.m., it was already bustling with tourists, the many relatives of bar mitzvah boys having their celebrations that morning, and the hassidim at their morning prayers.

My husband, son, and brother-in-law went to make arrangements for the aliyah. I entered the women’s section of the Kotel, separated from the men’s by a high partition. I said my prayers and then returned to the entrance where I could watch the various bar mitzvahs. The women in their long-sleeved dresses, colorful kerchiefs covering their hair, shouted words of encouragement to the celebrants, trilling and throwing candies. Above, on top of the Wall, soldiers stood guard, holding their guns.

One bar mitzvah boy caught my attention. Slender, olive-skinned, and dark-eyed, he was dressed in a beautiful red coat embroidered with silver and gold; a gold hat glimmered on his black hair. His father, brothers, and uncles celebrated with him, while his mother, sisters, and aunts clapped and shouted from the women’s section. Their joy was wonderful to share, even for an outsider. What a beautiful family they were!

The sky was so blue, the May sun so hot—a chamsin. I had that special feeling one only experiences at the Kotel. Sweating, uncomfortable as I was, I could not tear myself away from watching this particular family.

I felt her presence next to me, even before I saw her. An attractive, older woman, in a dark print dress, stood at my side, a white lace scarf covering her graying hair.

“Isn’t that coat beautiful?” she asked me in Hebrew.

“Yes,” I replied. “I have been admiring it and the boy’s family for quite awhile.”

“You know,” she said after a moment’s pause. “Thai coat must have been handed down from generation to generation. Where do you think they are from?”

“I think they’re from Kurdistan,” I answered.

“I’m going to ask them,” the woman said. In a minute she returned.

“You’re right,” she said. “They are from Kurdistan. They seem to be a very happy family. The Kurdish Jews I know don’t have much materially, but they have strong family ties and are happy with whatever little they have. They observe all the Jewish celebrations. That coat, the woman said, has been in their family for years, going from father to son for each one’s bar mitzvah. I don’t have anything like that to give my children.”

“I don’t either,” I said. “How many children do you have?”

“I have four,” she answered.

“And why don’t you have anything to hand down to them?” I continued pressing her. She paused before answering me.

“My entire family was killed in the Holocaust and everything we had is gone,” she said.

“Where were you from?” I asked.

“Czechoslovakia.”

“How did you survive the war?” I asked, not looking at her. I continued watching the celebrations before me.

“I worked putting bodies into the ovens in Auschwitz.”

I felt my hair rise in horror as I turned to look at her. Yet at the same time, I was in awe of this woman. How could she have survived such an ordeal, have four children, live a seemingly normal life, and sleep at night? I felt her strength.

“Where are you from originally?” It was now her turn to ask the questions.

“From Holland,” I answered. “My entire family was killed during the war, too. I am the only survivor.”

“You must have been a very little girl at that time,” she said, looking at me closely. “How did you survive?”

I looked at her, my heart swelling with the emotion of the moment, my eyes stinging with tears.

“I was hidden by many different people. Sometimes I think I survived only by a miracle. I had so many close calls. Perhaps the purpose of my surviving, of my life, is to start my family all over again, to continue the lineage so it won’t disappear altogether.”

We stood silently, watching the elation of the bar mitzvah; two strangers with a special bond between us—an older and younger sister. We didn’t ask each other’s names, who we were or what we did. We were related at that moment by our pasts.

“Why did you come here today?” I asked her softly.

“It is the anniversary of my parents’ deaths. I come here every year on this day to say kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for them. And you?” she asked.

“My son is getting married tomorrow. We came for an aliyah.”

“Congratulations. I wish you, your son and your family much happiness.”

We shook hands and I watched her leave, not really wanting to break the connection, wanting to call her back. She had been sent to me on this special day to tell me that my young parents, so brutally murdered so many years ago at Auschwitz, were here, at the Kotel, giving their blessing to their grandson’s marriage.

Hedy Markowitz lives in North Miami Beach. This story is her literary debut