It was early December. The afternoon was desolate—a veil of ashen clouds shrouded the silver sky, and bitter bursts of wind ruffled through my hair and the hem of my dress. Though golden sunlight still streamed in patches against the pavement, Chanukkah season had begun somber as usual.
I swiveled to face my cousin Anna, who was still peeping at the sodden hem of her heavy wool coat (she’d skimmed it through a patch of thawing ice as we’d hastened our pace to please our mothers).
“Shame on Max, for snapping up all the candles. If he weren’t so stupid, we wouldn’t be running about trying to get candles before sunset on the first night of Chanukkah!” Anna yanked a hand through her fluff of chestnut-brown hair.
“Don’t mind Max, he can’t help being stupid.” My rascal of a little brother was at the stage where he liked making mischief just for the pleasure of seeing our father’s face turn purple. “Are you sure we should go in here? We were meant to go to Mr. Weiss’s…Mr. Müller might not have any Chanukkah candles, since he’s a Lutheran and all.”
Anna shuddered and swathed her fraying scarf taut about her lanky neck. “Well, what else are we supposed to do? Mr. Weiss’s shop is already closed up for Chanukkah, and our mammas will be ever so angry if we can’t get home before sundown to light the menorah!” She flitted her hands in flustered exasperation. “Oh, please, Ruthie, it’s dreadfully cold out here! We’ve been to Mr. Müller’s for sweets so many times before.” Anna shot me one of her finest pitiful looks.
“Are you sure Mr. Weiss’s shop is closed?” I sent her a withering glare to match. “It’s all the way up the street, so how should you know?”
We scuttled to peer up the block. Indeed, no light bled away from Mr. Weiss’s windows.
I’d been into Mr. Müller’s shop at least once a week since the day I was born, and it was only a month before that Mamma had begun dragging Max and me to Mr. Weiss’s, or downtown to the Wertheim on Leipziger Platz. She’d fluttered a hand when I’d questioned why she’d been avoiding Mr. Müller’s shop, but I suspected it had to do with the billowing Nazi flag with which he’d adorned the scuffed-up spot of his window. It glared at Anna and me as we huddled in the bitter air, gawking at the vast, looming storefront—H. MÜLLER & CO., the awning boasted.
At least Anna was right about how cold it was (though much of her haste to get home quickly was driven by her adoration for fresh sufganiyot, which our mothers were likely preparing at that very moment). Twining flurries of crisp flakes drifted gradually from the swath of dismal sky arched above us to the damp pavement, glazed over with a sheen of slick ice.
“Alright, let’s go on inside.” I was the deciding factor as, at 12 years old, I was a year my cousin’s senior. “You’re right that Mamma and Tante Hanna will be angry with us if we can’t get candles for the menorah before the sun sets.” Just picturing the contorted face of a wrathful Tante Hanna was incentive enough for me to tentatively reel the hefty door open.
Inside, the shop looked the same as always—same yellowing hardwood floor, scuffed but dutifully polished; same gleaming glass countertop; same creaky shelves jammed with cans and sacks and who knows what else. There were the crystal jars of sweets—gummy bears and chocolate sticks and cocoa creams—that Anna and I had so often ogled, our mouths watering, and, if we were lucky, purchased to suck on as we hurried home. No, the shop itself hadn’t changed, but something had.
A tremor crept up my spine as I noticed the irregularity—and instead of displaying his usual reserved smile, Mr. Müller slouched against his counter, an incomprehensible smirk on his lips.
Of course Anna paid no mind. My cousin barged right through the door and downright screeched as she scurried to press her nose against the candy counter. “Oh, Ruthie, come here and look at these—Hitchler Softies! Come and look, they’re those taffies your pappa brought home from the Wertheim last year!” She breathed a wistful sigh and swiveled to face the usually affable storekeeper. “Hello, Mr. Müller! Ruthie and I would like one box of Chanukkah candles, please.”
Mr. Müller grunted. “We’re closing up for the night,” he muttered, so low and gravelly I barely heard him.
“What was that?” Anna tipped her head. “But, mister, you’re always open till six o’clock, and it’s only four right now. It says so on your sign and everything.” Anna clenched her fingers about my wrists. “What are we to do? Mr. Müller, won’t you please give us a minute to buy our candles, oh please? If we haven’t got them when we get home my mamma will hate us both forever!”
She lifted a sheath of powder-blue lace from the cloths counter and whisked it about her neck. The fabric was flimsy but intricate, and evidently expensive. I didn’t bother getting snippy with my flighty cousin, but I surely started when Mr. Müller lashed out at Anna. “Hands off, little lady.”
Anna first flinched away, flicking her fingers into a clasp at her stomach. Mr. Müller blinked rapidly, as if unsure of the words that had just left his lips. “Get your filthy hands off.” His voice broke to a squawk as he dashed to whisk the fabric back into its crisp fold.
Anna jutted a hand to her hip and scowled at the contemptuous shopkeeper. Mr. Müller squared his flabby jaw, gritting his teeth together. I scrabbled to clutch my cousin’s sleeve, to stop her, but Anna wrenched from my grasp. “My hands are perfectly clean, mister, cleaner even then yours! You haven’t the right to be so unfair to us!”
Oh, dear. There was no stopping Anna when she was angry—she must’ve inherited her fiery streak from Tante Hanna.
Mr. Müller sneered. “You little Jews haven’t the right to barge into my shop and think you can do whatever you please!”
He said Jew as if it was a filthy word, as if a foul odor lingered in the air about it. It made my head lurch, my stomach roil. We had to get out of this place—my mamma was right not to bring us here anymore.
Anna plunged her hands to the glass counter. “We aren’t doing whatever we please!” she yelped. Mr. Müller’s eyes bulged as the counter groaned. “We aren’t! We’re just trying to buy some Chanukkah candles, mister!”
Mr. Müller gazed into Anna’s eyes, frayed and dark like two coffee stains. “Jews aren’t welcome here anymore,” he hissed, gasping out each word as if he had all the time in the world to finish his sentence. “You girls would best be going.”
I let out a whimper in spite of myself. What kind of poison had this man ingested, the man who’d sold Anna and me sweets for half price, and parceled up an extra bundle of Mamma’s usual groceries each Thursday night so she wouldn’t have to go out on Shabbat?
My cousin started, paled, and swiveled to burrow her face in my shoulder. Her tears seeped through the wool of my sleeve.
Anna’s fingers crept against my palm. “Maybe we shouldn’t have come in here…” she blubbered, huddling up to my shoulder.
The surly shopkeeper was still glowering at us, so I flicked my eyes to the floor and hassled my cousin through the door. Outside, night had melted over Berlin like a spilt receptacle of ink. Only a miracle would bring glittering candles to my window for Chanukkah, 1936.
I’d always been a fretful child, that precocious little girl who’d feared so much more than the monster under her bed. But today had been the first time ever in my life that I’d felt truly afraid.
Beneath the feeble glow of a streetlight, Anna’s willowy body seemed to snap as she croaked out a wrenching sob.
I gazed upward into a swath of velvet sky, into a patchwork of stars like shards of silver glass. The afternoon’s golden sunlight had dwindled away, and somehow I knew we wouldn’t see it again for a long, long time.
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