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Excerpt: 'Empty Ever After'

/

[ prologUe ]

1984

[ the moUrner's prayer ]

We walked through the cemetery, Mr. Roth's arm looped through mine. The cane in his left hand tapped out a mournful meter on the ice-slicked gravel paths that wound their way through endless rows of gravestones. The crunch and scrape of our footfalls were swallowed up and forgotten as easily as the heartbeats and breaths of all the dead, ever. The swirling wind demanded we move along, biting hard at our skin, blowing yesterday's fallen snow in our faces.

"Bernstein!" Mr. Roth defied the wind, pointing with his cane at a nearby hunk of polished granite. "You know what it means in English, Bernstein?"

"No. I know stein means stone."

"Amber."

"Amber, like the resin with the insects in it?"

"Amber, yes. Bernstein, like burned stone. German, such an ugly language," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "But at least the words

sound like what they mean."

We walked on.

"Alotta dead Jews in this place, Mr. Moe."

"I think that's the point."

"When I die, I don't want this … this nonsense."

"Why tell me, Mr. Roth?"

"And who else should I tell, my dead wife? Wait, we're almost at Hannah's grave. I'll say Kaddish for her and then I'll tell her, but I don't think she'll listen. I wasn't a very good husband, so it's only right she shouldn't pay attention."

"What about your son?"

He stopped in his tracks, turning to face me, taking a firm hold on my arm. There were very few moments like this between Israel Roth and me. He'd suffered through the unimaginable, but he very rarely let the pain show through.

"I'm serious here, Moses." He almost never called me that. "This is not for me, to be cold in the ground. Kaddish and ashes, that's for me."

"Okay, Izzy, Kaddish and ashes."

"Good, good," he said. "Come already, we're almost there."

I stood away from the grave as Mr. Roth mumbled the prayer.

"Yis-ga-dal v'yis-ka-dash sh'may ra-bo, B'ol-mo dee-v'ro …"

"Amen," I said when he finished.

As was tradition, we both placed little stones atop Hannah Roth's tombstone. I never said Kaddish for my parents. Israel Roth had tried to rekindle whatever small embers of my Jewish soul still burned. Even so, they didn't burn brightly. I wondered if they'd burn at all when he was no longer there to stoke them.

"Would she forgive me, do you think?" he asked, again twining his arm back through mine.

"Would you forgive her?"

His face brightened. "See, there's the Jew in you, Mr. Moe. You answer my question with a question."

"I would forgive you, Izzy."

The brightness vanished as suddenly as it appeared. "You do not know my sins." That wasn't quite true, but I didn't press.

As we got close to my car, I slipped on the ice and landed square on my ass. Mr. Roth took great joy in my fall. His joy seemed to dissipate as we rode out of the cemetery and back to Brooklyn.

"Poland had miserable winters," he said, staring out at the filthy slush and snow-covered reeds along the Belt Parkway. "The camps were muddy always, then frozen. Rain and snow all the time. The ground was very slippery."

"I'd think that would be the last thing people in Auschwitz would worry about. Slippery ground, I mean."

"Really? Part of self-preservation was to busy myself with the little things. Did you ever wonder what became of the ashes?"

"What ashes?"

"The ashes of the dead, of the ones the Nazis gassed then burned.

They didn't all turn to smoke."

"I never thought about it."

He cupped his hands and spread them a few inches apart. "One body is only a little pile of ashes, but burn a few hundred thousand, a million, and you got piles and piles. Mountains. In the winter, the Germans made some of us spread the ashes on the paths so they shouldn't slip. Everyday I spread the ashes. At first, I thought, 'Whose ashes are these I am throwing like sawdust on the butchershop floor. Is this a handful of my mother, of the pale boy who stood beside me in the cattle car?' Then I stopped thinking about it. Thinking about the big things was a dangerous activity in such a place. Guilt too."

"But you survived."

"I survived, yes, by not thinking, by not feeling. But I've never stopped spreading the ashes."

We fell silent. Then, as I pulled off the exit for my house, Mr. Roth turned to me.

"Remember what I said in the cemetery, no burial for me."

"I know, Izzy, Kaddish and ashes. But where should they be spread?"

"You already know the answer to that," he said. "And we will never speak of these things again, Mr. Moe."

We never did, but never is a funny word. Time makes everyone's never a little different.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Reed Farrel Coleman