by Hallie Alexander
“Always they treat it like a legend, till something happens and turns it into actuality again.”
— Gustav Meyrink, 1914 (The Golem)
Every night, prisoners snuck dirt in their pockets into the barracks. They didn’t know why Rabbi asked for it, yet they dutifully placed their handful on the far bunk hidden in shadow. Within a few short weeks, a mound of dirt filled the space.
‘We must pray for rain,’ Rabbi said.
Most saw their prayers to Hashem as nothing more than breaths of windswept desperation on the coldest days of their lives. But for their rabbi, they prayed.
The rains came.In order to avoid notice from the guards, one by one they set their cups outside, beyond the back wall. The wind rushing rain at an angle shook the barracks. It made their hearts pound in their ears. If the guards caught them outside, the prisoners would never see daylight again.
When their cups were full, they snuck out to collect them with no less fear in their hearts.
One by one, they poured their rainwater over the dry grains of dirt. They kneaded it into mud.
‘Rabbi,’ the last prisoner said, hugging his full cup to his skeletal chest. ‘One mistake by you can monstrously affect us all!’
Rabbi gave a Talmudic shrug, considering both sides of the argument, and maybe a third. ‘Nu? And should I fail? Can our fate grow any worse?’
No, it could not. If they didn’t die from disease, they would starve or be worked to death, or worse, declared no longer useful. The Nazis had special camps for those unfortunate souls.
The silence that followed was more deafening than the rain and wind.
‘Forgive me.’ Rabbi looked to each man in turn. He was only human, and he’d made a mistake. They deserved his leadership, not his resentment.
Measuring his words, he tried again. ‘I must be cleansed to perform this ritual, no? I stood in the rain. This must be done in a synagogue. Is this not where we pray as an act of defiance? A golem is made from untouched earth and living water. Will Hashem not understand our limitations?’
The last prisoner poured out his cup and blended his offering into the mud. It was the precise amount of water needed to turn the mud into clay.
Rabbi formed the clay into the likeness of a human. He spoke Hashem’s forty-nine names forward and backward. He recited ancient incantations while sculpting the clay into a stout chest, while shaping sturdy thighs, while fashioning arms of strength and hands charged with justice.
Exhaustion made Rabbi’s hands shake as he carved the Hebrew letters for the word death — mem and tav — on the golem’s forehead. The mystical body would remain as inanimate as death until hope grew too small and desperation too big. He covered the body with a tattered blanket like a shroud.
Two days later, another train arrived. Strong prisoners today to take the place of the old and infirm tomorrow.
Rabbi thought, I am weak, and I am ill. If not now, there will never be a when.
Before his brother died, he gave Rabbi a blue stone to place on his grave after the war. Tonight, Rabbi etched an aleph on its surface and pushed it into the middle of the golem’s chest. The aleph joined the mem and tav to spell the word truth, activating the clay into a powerful body.
With his head bent, Truth opened its earthen eyes, set deep in its sculpted face. ‘Master, I am honored to serve you.’
Rabbi issued his command that warranted the creation of the golem: pursue justice.
Fearlessly, for how could a body without a soul feel fear, Truth left the barracks under a starless sky. Its clay feet moved stealthily over the dirt from which it was made, but the security lights cast the golem’s shadow, revealing it to a stationed guard.
He was not Truth’s master. Only Rabbi. Truth did not halt. He bore down on the guard.
‘Achtung! I will shoot if you do not—!’
Hands as fast as dust whirled by wind, Truth grabbed the guard’s rifle and bent it in half. It did the same to the guard’s neck.
At the locked gates of the camp, Truth gripped the iron bars, bowing them with its hands until they snapped. Above the entrance, a metal sign proclaimed Arbeit Macht Frei. The golem ripped it in half. Empty cattle cars sat like tombstones on the railroad tracks, waiting to collect more prisoners. The golem left behind a wake of crushed cars and twisted steel tracks.
Truth’s job was not done. A quarter of a mile away loomed the crematorium. Its chimney spewed unctuous smoke day and night. As the golem approached the death tower, a sea of cries, a chorus of horror, seeped into Truth. It tried to make sense of what it heard, but had no capacity to do so.
An unexpected fierce wind slammed into Truth. The golem fell to its knees. The stone in its clay chest rattled.
‘Can you hear them?’ The voice came from inside the golem.
‘Truth hears them. Truth hears you. Are you like Truth?’
‘I am the opposite of you. I am a soul without a body. A dybbuk. Unable to rest because I cannot do more.’
‘And the others?’ Truth asked, coming to its feet.
‘Those are the screams of the dead whose souls rose from that chimney. They are not anchored to my brother as I am. As you are. They will relive their torture until they are freed.’
Rabbi’s command echoed inside Truth’s head, pulsating through its limbs, drumming in its chest. The dybbuk’s emotion fused to the golem’s purpose. A growl louder than the wailing from the chimney bellowed from Truth’s mouth with the dybbuk’s voice.
A swarm of SS guards surrounded them. They fired pistols without warning. Truth staggered. Chunks of dirt blasted from its body, marring its smooth surface. The golem stormed at them in a fury.
Truth ripped the pistols from their hands, their arms from their bodies, the brains from their skulls, the unholy hearts from their chests, with the same savagery the guards showed their prisoners.
More shouts. More commands. More guards assembling into formation. But it wasn’t an army bearing down on them. It was Truth, gouged by bullets, unstoppable in strength, and eyes glowing with the dybbuk’s haunting soul. The guards tried to retreat.
Truth roared. Like a shofar at Jericho’s walls, the sound made the crematorium’s chimney tremble. Bricks broke away, hurling through the air, raining down until nothing remained but rubble. The furnace’s embers dimmed into the black night as the screams from the razed tower ebbed into silence.
Truth tilted back its head to watch the freed souls rise in peace. Instead, it saw the veil of clouds give way, revealing a small, bright, mesmerizing crescent. Truth stared in wonder as the stone in its chest glowed with warmth.
‘That is the moon,’ the dybbuk said. ‘Every grain of dirt to the towering mountains on high bathes in the same moonlight.’
‘When Truth is no more,’ the golem said, ‘its grains will reflect moonlight.’ Then Truth remembered its master’s command and looked upon its work. ‘Truth failed. Truth did not set you free.’
‘That was never your job, friend.’ Pieces of clay crumbled from the golem’s body as if it could feel the dybbuk’s praise. ‘We must go. Rabbi is waiting for us.’
Truth and the dybbuk entered the barracks. The men clamored and cheered at the golem’s return. Rabbi came forward. The men fell quiet.
Truth bent its head and knelt before its master.
Rabbi cupped the golem’s battered face in his frail hand, expecting earthen eyes to meet his. Rabbi gasped. The eyes glowed familiar and blue. Rabbi’s mouth popped open. No sound came out. He shook his head to clear it.
This time, he didn’t flinch from his brother’s eyes. When he spoke, it was to the golem and the dybbuk.
‘You fulfilled your purpose,’ he said, his voice roughened with emotion. ‘You brought justice upon our enemies, and peace to the souls of our people.’ And peace to his own soul, for he hadn’t allowed himself to grieve his brother in this place.
Rabbi kissed Truth’s forehead, carved with the mem and tav. As a mournful prayer surged from his depths, the men joined in. Rabbi’s tears flowed over the golem. The letters on its forehead dissolved into the clay. The blue stone etched with the letter aleph emerged from the lifeless mound.
Rabbi pocketed a handful of dirt and clutched the stone in his hand. ‘One day soon, I will plant a tree with this dirt and place this stone as a monument to all who have suffered and perished here. And my brother’s memory will be a blessing.’