Sometimes after aleph bet class we watched movies. Living skeletons in black-and-white striped uniforms danced and shivered, flickering on the bed-sheet screen. When the 16 millimeter film broke, the lights came on and one of the younger teachers, a heavy-set giant with a curly black beard, spliced the celluloid, all the while cursing under his breath in Yiddish. The lights went off, the movie continued and we watched piles of bodies bulldozed into mass graves, the camera pausing to show emaciated faces frozen in final rictus. I saw my first picture of a naked breast, a slack, waxy protuberance sagging from a bony, lifeless ribcage dumped without ceremony into a pit from a wheelbarrow.
The narrator's grim voice becomes lively and animated as giant furnaces lined with charred human skulls dissolve to tanned, well-fed young adults driving tractors, laying irrigation pipe, harvesting grain, baking bread, playing with plump babies, dancing and celebrating Jewish festivals in their kibbutz.
After the movies, teachers hand out Zionist pamphlets with pledge cards from the United Jewish Fund, and tell us to give them to our parents.
At eleven I have been forced to give up my paper route and put aside my baseball dreams. Monday through Friday, after my last class at Grover Cleveland Elementary, I walk several blocks to the classroom of Rabbi Starr, Auschwitz '45. Starr is an immigrant's name chopped from a longer string of mostly unpronounceable Polish consonants; he came complete with blue tattooed forearm and a long white beard stained with food and tobacco from chain-smoking Chesterfields and gulping endless glasses of tea through a sugar cube clenched between rotted teeth. He was silently, sickeningly flatulent and wielded a steel ruler without warning or mercy, smacking hands and fingers whenever he thought a student's attention had wandered.
Bounced from relative to relative and then to a string of foster homes after his parents died, my father never had a chance to learn Hebrew, to celebrate his coming-of-age with the traditional bar mitzvah. Poor as we were, he wanted better for me. Once a month Mom put a few dollars in an envelope that I handed to Rabbi Starr. Each time he tore open the envelope, examined its contents, then gave me a sad look. "Tell your mother I said thank you," he said in his thick, guttural accent, always sounding disappointed. No other boy brought an envelope; I was afraid to ask why.
The Hebrew was not so hard. In days odd squiggles took on meaning, letters and vowels became words that melded into sentences. Every few months a pimply teenager from the principal's office brought a stack of report cards. Starr passed them around, but there was never one for me. Mom said that the rabbi called regularly to say that I was doing very well, my father should be proud of me. There was no need for a report card, added Mom. There was more to it, I thought, but I knew not to ask.
Dad had given up all his jobs and made a living prowling alleys and factories in search of rags, paper and scrap metal. He started with a rented horse and wagon; by the time I had progressed from simple Hebrew words and phrases to reading sentences and learning the trope that would guide my bar mitzvah Torah chanting, he was making payments on an old truck.
Unless there was a movie or guest speaker, my Hebrew class ended at five,. I strolled home down Irving Park Road, taking my time, knowing that dinner was about seven, when Dad got home. Afterward, while my sister Freyda washed the dishes, I would do my homework on the kitchen table. Unless Mom or Dad sent me out for a loaf of bread, a pack of Camels, or a late newspaper, I would be in bed by nine.
I tried not to get home too early. Mom was slowly losing her battle with schizophrenia, though none of us knew what caused her angry outbursts, and she was usually screaming at somebody. Freyda, well into puberty, was the favored target, but if I was home Mom always found something to scream at me about. Or nothing.
It was dark and the few boys who I knew from the neighborhood were nowhere to be seen. I dawdled along Irving Park, peering through shop windows. I passed the dry cleaners, where acrid smells issued amid clouds of steam, then a tailor shop that Mom had visited once. Beyond the restaurant that Dad called a "greasy spoon," I stopped to peer at a parchment-skinned man using a giant magnifying glass, rebuilding a watch. And then I came to Kresge's, the five-and-dime.
I liked to steal mints at Kresge's.
Usually it was just one patty wrapped in silver paper that I slipped into a mitten or pocket. After that I spent five or ten minutes looking at packets of needles, spools of thread, sewing patterns, buttons, lace trim, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, dolls, train sets, kitchen gadgets, cheap perfume, nail polish, makeup, costume jewelry, plastic and paper flowers, baby clothes, umbrellas, drinking glasses, dinner plates, tea cups, ceramic pitchers and vases, throw rugs, pictures in cheap frames, and flashlights. On the darkened sidewalk I gobbled the evidence of my crime, shivering with excitement and relief. The sweets Mom gave me never tasted as good.
Candy was fine, but I really wanted to steal a flashlight.
Not a big one like Dad kept in his truck, but a penlight, a shiny cylinder that took tiny batteries. I could carry it anywhere, use it to read under the covers, or when I was sent to the store at night. The one that I coveted cost a dollar, but when I asked Mom to get it for my birthday she gave me socks instead. I knew that I would never be able to afford such an expensive gadget, and that anybody could steal candy. On the way out of Kresge's on a snowy winter evening after cheder, I glanced around to see that no one was looking, then slipped a penlight into my coat pocket.
A balding man in a wrinkled blue suit flew through the door behind me like he was pursued by a swarm of bees, spun me around by the shoulder, took a death grip on my collar and dragged me inside. Desperate for a toilet, dying of shame, I stood alongside the counter until a policeman came. He wore a leather coat, high black boots and a round cap with a polished bill. Like a storm trooper. "Little kike comes in here every day and steals candy," said the balding man. "Now it's a flashlight."
"Do you want him locked up, or should I just kick his ass down the block?" returned the cop, face expressionless, watching me through opaque blue eyes.
"I think you ought to give him life in prison," said the store manager. "Teach all them Jewboys a lesson."
I fought back tears. Life in prison. Had I not watched the films, boys and girls my age—even younger—sent behind barbed wire to starve and die? Would I ever see my parents again? Would they take them all to prison, or could they escape to Israel?
"Come," said the cop, a huge hand gripping my shoulder. In the squad car he produced a notebook. "Name? Address?" he demanded, then wrote down what I said.
The look of fear on my mother's face stabbed red-hot icicles down through my colon. "This your kid?" said the cop, shoving me forward.
"He's a good boy!" Mom screamed. "What did he do?"
"Shoplifting. Kresge's Five-and-Dime," said the cop.
He was drinking a third cup of coffee when Dad came through the door. Before anyone could say a word, he backhanded my face and head five or six times. "Go to your room while I speak with this officer," my father bellowed.
I saw myself fighting for air in a packed boxcar, herded past rows of snarling Dobermans, shoved into a shower where no one washed. The minutes crawled by.
When I was summoned, the cop stood at the open door. "I could put him in jail tonight," he told my father. "We have lots of room."
"Do you want to go to jail?" said my father, calmer but contemptuous.
"This policeman is ready to take you downtown right now," he said. "I ought to let him. You spend a few years in prison, you won't be so quick to steal."
I did not want to go where people starved to death and dead bodies were tossed into pits like so many sacks of flour. Tears streamed down my face.
"Please don't send me to jail," I said. "I won't ever steal again."
"I should let him take you away," yelled my father, hitting me full in the face. I licked my lips, the blood salty on my tongue.
"You get plenty to eat! I keep you in warm clothes! I send you to cheder and you steal from the five-and-dime!" he railed, well into his second wind. "Get into your pajamas—If this policeman doesn't put you in jail I'll beat you black and blue."
I stood, stunned, not understanding.
"Get into your pajamas now! I'll be in with my belt to teach you a lesson!"
The next day, accompanied by my mother, I found the balding man in his dusty, cramped backroom office. "I'm sorry for stealing," I said, Mom's fingernails biting my arm. "I won't ever do it again."
"Don't ever let me see you around here," said the man.
A few years went by before I discovered that in America juveniles are rarely jailed, that shoplifters are not imprisoned for life, and that jails are not concentration camps. Not until I became father to my own adolescent, however, did I realize that on that dark winter night in Chicago that I had been the beneficiary of a conspiracy between a cop and a concerned parent equally determined to frighten me into respect for the law.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.