Diamonds and Rust

Daniel V. Klein © 2004

S.S. Ryndam out of Rotterdam, 1920.  A long time ago – the ship is now rust in some scrapyard, its captain dust.  My grandfather dust, my father and brothers ashes.  Not quite the same, I'm afraid.  But ovens or earthworms, we all turn to fertilizer eventually.  And soon enough, my turn.  But I remember her still, so bright in my mind, like it was only yesterday.  Yes, yes, a yesterday of failing eyesight, fallen arches, lost teeth, and the daily dull ache of arthritis, but still I remember.

We started in Kamanetz Podolsk, in the Ukraine.  You've never heard of it, I know.  No one has – it's gone now.  First the Cossacks and their pogroms, then the Octobrists, then the Nazis, then Stalin, finally Ceausescu, that bastard.  Which was better, the devil we knew or the one we would know soon enough?  Gone now, all gone.  My shtetl, forgotten, the devils dead and not forgotten, my family...

My family.  Twelve brothers and sisters, and only Sammy and I escaped.  I even forget some of their names, now.  Taube, my dove, gone now more years than I knew her.  She watched as a Cossack shot her mother in the back, you know.  Her whole family gone.  All dust and ashes.  But I try to remember them, to sing their Kaddish.  It's funny, you know?  After the war, I swore that God was dead.  How could he let this happen?  But now that I face the great unknown, I find some obscure comfort sitting in shul, after shunning it all these decades.  Who knew?

We walked from the Ukraine to Rotterdam.  You don't believe it, do you?  Sure, the horse helped, and the money we saved got us on a boxcar to somewhere, but God, it certainly felt like we walked all the way.  No, of course we didn't.  Moishele was twelve years old then, but Gidore was only seven.  Give an old man some license, God knows I've earned it – it makes a better story.

Taube and I were pledged to each other, of course – an arranged marriage.  But I had never seen her!  So I snuck into her village with my friend Mottele, because he knew who she was.  In those days, the houses were built from big logs, overlapping at the corners.  And Mottele told me to look around the corner, that she was standing down the lane a ways, and I did – I peeked!  But she turned around and saw me, too.  I was so startled that I dashed back around the corner – smack!  Right into one of the big logs.  Taube, my pigeon, my dove, I used to joke that she made me see stars.

And she was truly beautiful.  Nevermind getting hit in the head, I fell in love with her at first sight.  I know you can't see it – you only see an old woman, dust for so long.  But she was, she was.  And she gave me two beautiful sons, my life, my joy.  Yes, a daughter too, but that was later, after I saw her, the lady with the light.  Something changed in me when I saw her.

It was on deck of the Ryndam that I first saw her.  Taube was below decks with the boys.  She was always the strong one, my heart, my love.  I was sick for all the five days out of Rotterdam, and the fresh air helped.  But steerage passengers were only given an hour a day on deck, and then only if they paid extra.  Can you imagine five days in an iron box with two hundred other people, and one toilet?  No, no, there is no license here.  I could not invent that hell, that stench.  But still, it was better than ashes, so who am I to complain?

Of course, we had all heard the stories.  Streets paved with gold, freedom and opportunity.  You were free to make your own opportunity.  But gold?  Silver?  Tin, even?  I was a carpenter, I had a trade, and Sammy had a job waiting for me.  But oy, did I work.  By the sweat of my brow, I made my trade.  Sammy was the smart one, he made his millions, but did he ever share?  Come the revolution... 

But it came, and we left, and good riddance.   Dust, and more dust.  Water under the bridge, over the dam, and in our wake.

 I was telling you about the lady.  You need to know the whole story – it's not what you think.  I loved my Taube, but the lady hit me in the head, too.  We knew we'd see her, of course.  Streets paved with gold and Lady Liberty in the harbor.  There, you think you know the story now.

You don't.  My brothers and I stood up against them, and we were shot down.  Bullies against the weak, the small.  We were nothing.  The lady changed everything.  She changed who "we" are.  "We" are no longer small, "we" are no longer alone.  "We" may not like all of us, and "we" may not all agree, but "we" are strong.  That's not a torch in her hand, it's a dream.  Don't you forget that.  Never forget that.

When I first saw her, I was frozen for a minute.  I was hit in the head all over again, and I saw stars.  But then I ran down to fetch Taube, to show her.  I ran down to the iron box, to the stench, and pulled them up on deck, and crowded on the rail with hundreds of others.  Moishele didn't know, he asked "What? What is it?".  And I told him: "Everything".  Everything.

Dust and ashes, blown in the wind.  Me too, soon.  But I remember her like it was yesterday.  So now you, Mr. Big Shot, don't you forget either.  Go visit her sometime.

Now let me sleep, and dream of my Taube.