Often when he travelled through Austria and Germany, Papa brought the boy a present. The boy took care to look after each present; the plush bear, the wooden truck, and the tin spinning top. He kept them in a neat row in a wooden toy box in his bedroom on the first floor of their comfortable house in Innsbruck.
When the boy was ten, Papa brought the boy a Tyrolean yarmulka. The boy cherished this gift more than all the others. He thanked Papa with a little smile.
The yarmulka made the boy proud to be from Tyrol: the tailor had decorated it with white Edelweissen and the red Tyrolean roses. Papa brought it home just in time for the Succoth, Tabernacles, and the boy wore it proudly as they celebrated the feast camping in the backyard of their home. Papa also covered the Tabernacles wooden frame with bright new fabric bought from the old department store in Müllerstraße.
It was a pretty yarmulka, and the boy loved it. From then on he wore it every Friday night when Mama lit the candles on the eve of Shabbat. He showed it to Reb Joachim. The old rabbi smiled every Shabbat morning when he looked out over the first row of the Innsbruck synagogue and saw the boy sitting proudly next to his father like a little tower of the Second Temple: a tower that was festooned with a colourful yarmulke!
The years passed quickly. The boy’s thirteenth year was 1938. Hitler had cast a long shadow over Europe, and Jews everywhere feared for their lives and their loved ones.
This was the year of his Bar Mitzvah. He studied hard: he worked at his Hebrew lessons and he learned about the responsibilities of Jewish manhood. Reb Joachim asked all the boys to learn especially carefully the Shema: the ancient prayer which is sometimes called the Jewish creed:
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
“This is a time of martyrs,” the Rabbi said mysteriously, “and you may need to know this, for this is the heart of our faith.”
The boy couldn’t understand this – not really. He said to the other boys, “Why is he treating us as through we don’t know the Shema?”
The Bar Mitzvah approached. The boy and his friends planned their parties. Older relatives kept asking the boy what he would like and the boy’s present list grew and grew. Aunt Hanna even teased him, “You’d think being a Jew was about the number of things you are given!”
A few weeks before the ceremony, Mama called him to her room. “Here are your tefillin. Don’t tell Papa I’m showing you how to put them on!” She quickly covered the boy’s head with a yarmulka – to the boy, it just seemed to be one that was sitting there on the dressing table – and then unfolded the prayer shawls and tefillin and put them on, helping him place the box with the scriptural text centrally on his forehead.
“Remember,” she said, “after the Bar Mitzvah, this is your first mitzvoth, your first duty. To put these on and to say the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to put on Tefillin’.”
“Yes, Mama,” said the boy.
“And what do you think of your new yarmulka?”she asked.
“Is that to wear on my Bar Mitzvah?” he asked, afraid. She nodded.
He raced from the room, so she wouldn’t see his tears.
Mama knew her son well, but couldn’t understand his resistance to the new yarmulka. When he finally said that it was because he wanted to wear the bright Tyrolean yarmulka she was horrified. It wasn’t dignified enough for a man to wear at his Bar Mitzvah. And it was hurtful to display too much sentimental patriotism when the Nazis had turned that to their own propaganda ends.
The boy’s grandfather arrived from Poland in time for his first grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. He understood. “If that’s what the boy wants,” he said, “that will please Adonai, the Lord of the Universe.”
And it was what the boy wanted. Grandfather was pleased too, as Mama eventually gave in. Grandfather knew that this might be his last visit to Austria. He was old, and the cancer was creeping through his body. He needed to be back in Katowice in the familiar surroundings of home with the right nursing.
The morning of the Bar Mitzvah came. The boy dressed and wore proudly his prayer shawls and tefillin and on top – to show there is someone above – his bright childish Tyrolean yarmulka.
As the boys came one by one to the lectern to recite his passage, the old rabbi winked at each. “Don’t forget to take the Shema with you,” he whispered mysteriously. But the boy had no time to puzzle out this rabbinic puzzle, because the rest of the day was a family day – the Bar Mitzvah party. There was food, there were presents, there was more food and more presents, and the boy was the centre of attention in all of it.
That night, the boy was exhausted, and was about to go to his room to prepare for bed. He looked at his new jacket hanging outside the wardrobe. He looked at the tefillin neatly laid out in the drawer. Suddenly, he thought of his grandfather and ran to his room to thank him for being at the Bar Mitzvah, and for persuading Mama to let him wear the yarmulka.
He ran into the room and embraced his grandfather. Tall and gaunt, Grandfather’s arms gently knocked the boy’s head and the little cap went flying, unnoticed. “Thank you, Grandfather, for, for … for everything!” “May Adonai be with you,” the old man replied. The boy didn’t see the tears in his eyes. He turned again and ran back to his room, and was soon in his bed asleep surrounded by all the symbols and gifts that come to Jewish boys when they become a man.
It must have been midnight. There was a crunch of boots on the gravel of the front drive. There were shouts and yells of “Juden”. The boots were in the house. The boy woke terrified. He heard his parents reply to the yells and walk past his room. His father’s voice, “There’s no one in there!” But strangely the key was turned. The boy stayed where he was. Then a feebler voice. Grandfather being led away, crying “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.”
The voices and the boots receded. The boy lay there for a very long time, and then crept over to the door. He unlocked it from the inside, and walked quietly to his parents’ room. Empty. Then to his grandfather’s room. Also empty. But the yarmulka was gone. Not on the floor where the boy had last seen it. Not on the bedside table.
Next morning, the boy crept from his home and fled across the fields to Switzerland. He carried nothing. He grieved the Tyrolean yarmulka as he ran. But he discovered he had on him something to be carried with him always. Reb Joachim was right: we Jews carry the Shema in our hearts.