January 28th, 1943

Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I remember my paternal grandparents and the journey they began exactly 71 years ago today. It’s a short passage from my forthcoming book, “Googling Moses.”

Moritz and Ida Neumark

Moritz and Ida Neumark

I read that seven thousand Jews in Berlin committed suicide when they got news of their impending deportation. Many more did what my grandparents did; they packed for the journey, carefully selecting, folding, stuffing as much as they could into the luggage they were allowed to carry with them.

The following morning, there was a knock on the door and a bus waiting to take Moritz and Ida away. They were first taken to Grosse Hamburger Strasse 26, a Jewish home for the elderly that had been converted into an assembly camp. Prior to their arrest, they had been required to fill out a sixteen-page declaration of assets, part of a gross, legal fiction. All assets had to remain for the benefit of the German Reich which meant that since my grandparents were going to be “traveling out of the country,” most of what they owned had to be left behind. To ensure full compliance, they were strip-searched while their luggage was being sifted through for valuables. Jewish assets confiscated by the Nazis paid for thirty percent of the war costs.

At the assembly camp, some were given contracts to complete, as if they were going to an old age home or assisted living facility, as they were told. Some Berliners had requested and paid for rooms with a lakeside view. I wondered if my grandparents fell for this sadistic ruse. They belonged under a “privileged” category that included Jews with war medals and some elderly. Most of them were going to be sent to Theresienstadt, although some went directly to their deaths at Auschwitz. At the time of their deportation, those were the only two destinations for the Jews of Berlin.

Did they really believe they were heading for a nice, old age home? After some research, I wrote to an office with government archives in Berlin to inquire if any records had survived of my grandparents entering into such a contract. It seemed like a long-shot, but a few months later, a manila envelope arrived in the mail with a photocopy of the document—Heimeinkaufvertrag (Home Purchase Contract). I took it to church and asked several of our German members to translate it for me. They found it as mind-blowing as I did. My grandparents had indeed signed a contract, paying $199,750 DM that would entitle them to good accommodations and meals at the senior living center where they would be taken. Since the Reich would be paying for all who needed accommodations, part of my grandparents’ fee would help those who were less fortunate. The contract was signed by Moritz Israel Neumark and Ida Sara Neumark on January 22, 1943…

While my grandparents were still being processed at the assembly camp, a furniture van pulled up outside what had been their home and whatever remained was carted away. Everything was going to a special sale for newlyweds who could buy what they desired at a good discount, a real steal indeed. Did someone buy the oil painting of my father? Did it survive the war? Does some family have it on their wall? Compared with everything else, the loss of these objects is a small thing, but it remains, for me, an infuriating violation.

Before their stay at Grosse Hamburger Strasse was over, my grandparents were charged 250 Deutsche Marks for their “lodging, ” a room where twenty people were crammed together with no bathroom. On Thursday, January 28th of 1943, a tram run by the Berlin Transport Company took them to the Anhalter Station where they boarded transport I/87 with ninety-eight other elderly Jews, including Rabbi Leo Baeck. The train would carry them east through the cold, German landscape towards a destiny neither could have imagined.

Advertisements

It’s 10am and the Manger is Full

images

Ten beds stand waiting for their second (and hopefully final) treatment to banish the bedbugs.  The floor is swept and the shelter residents’ belongings are bagged. The immigrant workers have had to move their weekly meeting to a different space to make way for the exterminators so now they find themselves surrounded by toddler toys while discussing the city’s ban on electric bicycles. They use the bikes for more efficient delivery of restaurant meals around the city and the recent crack-down impedes their ability to do this low-wage job and earn enough to feed their families here and across the border. Elmo the turtle watches the young Mexican men from his tank. He always seems to like company, although he may be a she.

I have learned that our city has passionate rescue groups for turtles and other creatures. When our sidewalk bridge was going up, the workers found a squirrel’s nest with three newborns and their dead mother. One of the guys took off his sweaty t-shirt, tenderly swaddled the baby squirrels and handed the orphans over to my care. I emptied out the reams of copy paper and put the t-shirt nest in a box from Staples. Within the hour, Gary, our office volunteer, discovered squirrel enthusiasts ready to drive three or four hours from upstate New York to get the squirrels and take them to some kind of squirrel sanctuary (isn’t all of upstate a squirrel sanctuary?). These same folks gave Gary the number of others in their network who might help. Who knew that squirrels have their own network of support? It turned out that there was a woman at a nearby vet’s office who nurses baby squirrels and releases them to a “safe place” because they may not be able to fend for themselves in the wilds of nearby Central Park. I wish the growing number of homeless children in our city had this many options. Or the young people in our shelter.

We adopted Elmo when he was left under the bed of a former resident. After his success with the squirrels, Gary got on the phone and within hours a woman appeared at our doorstep with special turtle equipment that she proceeded to set up. I didn’t tell her that Elmo did not look well and I doubted he would survive. I figured that he deserved the chance this fairy godmother of turtles was giving him. I allow the children at church to think that Elmo is named for a puppet on Sesame Street, but his real namesake is a gay bar in Chelsea whose owner was an early and frequent supporter of our shelter. Now Elmo has grown to twenty times his (or her) original size. His feeding schedule is taped to his tank and his food is hidden away from eager children who tend to overfeed. My intern Emily and I make sure that Elmo eats.  He resides in the room where we have Wee Worship snack and post-church play, and occasional labor organizing meetings. And confirmation class later today.  It used to be called “the choir room” because our choir practiced there, but things change.

Our social worker has tended to the bed bug detail and is in the church office interviewing a new resident (Since our volunteer is only there two days a week, the office is available). The homeless young woman across the desk will bring her bag of belongings tonight and be given the one bug-free bed that has become available. It’s a twelve-hour respite from the hate that recently broke the bones of another resident, a transgender woman assaulted on our not-so-welcoming NYC streets because she refused to give in to her attackers’ demand that she admit to being a man.

Our building is small and with the office occupied, the exterminator downstairs and the immigrant workers in with Elmo, the only space left for a group of local church and synagogue leaders to meet is the sanctuary. We set up as far away from the church entrance as possible because a contractor is installing new glass doors to allow for greater transparency. This means we sit where we eat, beside the altar, to discuss the next steps in our food justice campaign. It’s hard to hear when the drilling starts, but we carry on.  At one point, we realize that our group and the laborers have an intersecting agenda and so we plan a joint conversation when the meetings conclude around the same time.

Our intern, Emily, goes to get the wipes she has purchased. Germy toddlers have been all over the toys and someone really needs to disinfect before Sunday. Emily saw the need, bought the wipes and is going to work. A Wee Worship mother did this a month ago, but now there is a new set of germs. We probably need a toy-cleaning sign-up sheet alongside the snack sign-up, but that won’t happen before this Sunday.

I just filled out Emily’s internship evaluation. It’s a new model being tested by her seminary that includes fifty-two categories for evaluation. There is no space for feeding turtles or sanitizing toys.

Big Yellow Parrot vs Wild Goose

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

‘Til it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot. Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi”

Image

My church does not have a parking lot because we’re in New York City and almost no one here drives to church. On the other hand, the parsonage is next door to a parking garage run by a company called Quik Park. We’re also across the street from a playground bordered with four-story oak trees that can accommodate multitudes of rent-free birds. I wake up and hear the birds singing. Sometimes there are sirens because the park is next to a police precinct and a fire station, but the birds get far more airtime and I love it. Or I did love it, but something really weird and disturbing has replaced the birdsong.

It began with the parrots. Despite the rapid progression of global warming, the Upper West Side of Manhattan has not become a tropical parrot habitat. Some years back, I read that there were escapees among the thousands of parrots from South America smuggled through Kennedy airport. These feathered immigrants settled in Queens and a few went as far as Brooklyn, but none of them reached my neighborhood. Or did they? Why was I hearing the chatter of parrots outside my window?

I looked to the trees across the street but there were no parrots. In any case, now the birdsong seemed to be coming from the Quik Park garage. I stood on the sidewalk and listened to the trilling of birds interrupted by a chattering parrot. The sound was definitely coming from the depths of the garage, but that made no sense.  One of the parking attendants emerged from the shadows and I asked him about the strange flock of birds inside. “It’s our new alarm,” he said. Huh? Sadly, yes. It turns out that if you play a loud, mixed tape of recorded birdsong, it will keep the real birds away from your garage and off your cars. Presumably this was to fend off obstreperous neighborhood pigeons but now we cannot hear any real birds in the vicinity. Actual birdsong is prevented by an endless replay of birds that are not here, birds that may now be dead for all I know. I hear them now through the drafty, century-old windows of my office as I write during our polar vortex. It’s nine degrees outside and snowing, but the parrots chatter on.

This whole thing struck me as bizarre until I realized it was all too familiar. It’s what happens when we try to take the wild, holy spirit and fix it in time, recorded to play back, the same patterns, the same order, the same voices, year after year, over and over again. And one day, all authenticity takes flight. Of course, some words and patterns remain essential for the church, but some, perhaps many, are not. I hate the parking lot alarm but it’s a helpful warning too. It begs me to consider my own personal and pastoral complicity in this sham.

Bed Bugs, Condoms, Frankincense and Myrrh

IMG_0212

(first published by the Christian Century: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-01/bedbug-epiphany.

Inside the plastic baggie I see a paper towel and a dead bed bug. The bearer of this gift asks me if I want to have it for evidence? Not really. The young people in our shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth view me as an authority in such matters and want me see the source of their distress with my own eyes. Yes, I am concerned and distressed. It reminds me of when I make a hospital visit and a patient wants to pull off sheets and lift bandages so I can see an incision, staple, stitch or wound. Words are not enough. I am called to be a witness of these things.

I think of the time our afterschool program director found a “used and full condom” on the floor while she was setting up for the children. She too asked if I would like to have the bag as evidence. (It appears that I have become an ecclesiastical CSI.) Fortunately, it was not entirely up to me to remedy this situation. I sent an email to our ever-thorough shelter director and immediately received the following:

“Staff will need to serve as ‘daily condom patrol.’ Quick question, does ‘used’ and ‘full’ mean there was semen visible inside the condom . . . or does ‘used’ simply mean opened and not in the package? We discussed this matter last night, and several residents use condoms as homemade, free hair bands to tie their hair back.”

Maybe I did need to bag the evidence.

I am happy to report that the condom trouble was resolved. Peer pressure can be a good thing. As I guessed from its location, the item was tossed there from a bed after solitary use. Now that the light of day has shone on this nighttime habit, the offender is not likely to repeat.

Unfortunately, bed bugs are better at evading that light and require a flurry of effort, expense and changed plans. This bed bug was discovered as I was in the midst of organizing costumes and props for the following day’s Three Kings pageant:

–Need to get bobby pins for the haloes.

–Yes, that is a bed bug.

–The frankincense gift needs to be taped back together. So does the stable wall but that will require electric tape, preferably brown.

—Yes, I am calling the exterminator.

Were there bed bugs in the stable?

The children are now arriving and the bed bugs will have to wait. Johanna is the lead angel. She will guide last-minute angelic arrivals in their routine. She hopes she’ll be expected to get the other angels lined up and then show them what to do. She is six but a pageant director in the making. Then there is our little lamb, Hendrica, who spent the first months of her life in the warm and prickly manger of a neonatal intensive care unit. She was lifted from a crimson sea as her mother bled out, but through a miracle of medical perfection and divine mystery, they passed together from death to life. Her mother is now adjusting her lamb’s wooly ears. I think of Blake.

Little lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Gave thee life & bid thee feed

By the stream & o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing woolly bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice?

Little lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Hendrica will know. I feel certain of it as she rests in her mother’s arms and our organist begins to play the opening hymn. I ache for the lambs that are torn from their mothers’ sides by Herod’s minions. The lambs deprived of stream and mead . . . for the children in our pageant whose mother is on other side of our frontera and who weep some weeks in church with longing. I ache for the youth in our shelter, the lesbian daughter whose mother refused to take her call at Christmas. I ache for my powerlessness to impart a convincing faith to my own youngest lamb, now a young adult. Could I have done something differently? Hendrica’s father is assisting in worship today and leads the entrance procession as we sing:

O Morning Star, how fair and bright!

You shine with God’s own truth and light,

aglow with grace and mercy!

In Your one body let us be

as living branches of a tree,

Your life our lives supplying.

Era is the star. She’s been asking me about this role for months and arrived an hour early to get ready in her shiny yellow robe. She is nearly seven decades older than the baby lamb and has also come through a harrowing birth. Her sister told me that the flow of oxygen to Era’s brain was cut off at one point in the birth canal. This has dimmed some areas of Era’s functional capacity, but sharpened others. One Sunday when Era came up for communion she pointed at the bread and asked, “Is there forgiveness in there?” Yes there is. “That’s good because I sure need some.” Then there was the Bible study when Era announced that although she believes in Jesus and in life after death she is afraid to die. “Is anyone else here afraid to die?” Era searched the faces around the table. “Who else is afraid to die?” Those who presumably had had their full share of oxygen at birth sat in uncomfortable silence trying to decide what to say. No one wanted to make Era feel stranded with her question but no one was quite ready to enter the sudden, rarified air of her honesty.

The moment Era has been waiting for arrives and she carefully carries the star to the front and takes up her position behind the altar that is now behind the manger wall. As the three kings make their war forward, we are singing,

Star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to Thy perfect light.

 

Era waves the glittery star back and forth on its pole. Later, I will find flecks of gold on the altar linens and one floating in the wine. After the last of the kings has made his way forward and we are singing, Glorious now behold him arise, Mary raises the baby Jesus doll high for all to see. Her brother sulks and refuses to participate because he is angry at their father’s drinking. This father is undocumented, like the shepherds who apparently were not expected to join in the census. He works hard for too little money and no respect.

Joseph is from the African Garifuna community in Honduras. The three kings hail from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Portugal. Gabriel was born in Germany. The other angels come from the four cardinal points, shining in perfect light. One of our little lambs is wailing. The other has fallen asleep. Mine is home watching football. I pray that his own epiphany is on the horizon.

After church we have a fiesta downstairs. The person who was supposed to bring a hundred tamales never shows, so we make do. At least the three kings came through with candy and now Mary’s brother is happy to hand out the bags of sweets. Later the tables will be folded up and the beds will come out. The shelter youth and staff will launch their laundry marathon in preparation for the exterminator’s arrival on Monday. The social worker on duty writes: “We’ll be dining on two different birthday cakes tonight to celebrate Victoria and Che! The birthday sweetness will really be welcome and the exercise we’ll get from the cleanup will be much needed!” This is the kind of radiant cheer you want when bed bugs are afoot. We’ll take the trees outside to be picked up for chipping and recycling into compost for city parks. We’ll pack away the costumes and star, the gold and frankincense and myrrh.

But first, after the prayers are prayed and the peace is shared, we’ll receive communion. There is forgiveness in there and we need it. I am called to be a witness of these things.