A survivors Thanksgiving

Sammy Green had a past, as they said in the new country. His past was the slaughterhouse of Europe. But that was behind him, in a time, in a place, banned to even his imagination. And here in Philadelphia the dead were where they belonged — confined to graveyards. Not in the streets like in the Lodz ghetto or piled up beside the barracks in the camp. Here there were no executioners, only those old predators — disease, old age.

Neither threatened Sammy Green (so much more American than Shmuel Gruzenkywitz). He was well and he had a job that provided all the food he could eat and an apartment with three rooms.

The newcomer was surrounded by non-Jewish neighbors, so unlike the ghetto in Lodz. But they were friendly folk who after a few weeks of cautious inspection of their new neighbor and his alien appearance warmed to his loneliness.

It was mid-November and they talked of the great American holiday, Thanksgiving. “We give thanks,” said Chuck Heffernan from next door. “Thanksgiving — you know, giving thanks.”

“Yes, but for what?” asked Sammy.

“For life I guess. The Pilgrims, you know, started it. They were celebrating their harvest and the fact that most of them were still alive. They ate turkey and maybe they said prayers. You could find out all about it over at the library or in the encyclopedia.”

They stood in the hall and talked. Chuck’s wife, Jean, joined them and proudly described her traditional holiday menu for the newcomer: turkey and trimmings.

Giving thanks. Sammy knew about that. As an observant Jew, did he not give thanks before and after every meal? And did he not declare his thanks every morning and night for the divinely engineered body that was the temporary vessel for his immortal soul?

Sammy Green, the Jew from Lodz, knew how to give thanks. It was his ethnic specialty, you might say.

He would conduct a Thanksgiving ceremony with tallit and kippah in his apartment like his American neighbors. That’s the way they did it in America. He would recite the Kaddish for the infinite emptiness of the chair that faced him at the other end of the table. And he, like those survivors of the New England winter of 1690, would celebrate life. Life is for the living. The dead have no need of shoes, they said in the camp. And the living no need for tears, thought Sammy.

So, Erev Thanksgiving Sammy walked to the kosher butcher and came home with a ten-pound turkey and two sacks of trimmings. His neighbors greeted him in the hall. Chuck, from next door, invited him in for a beer. One beer turned into two and then three. Sammy, uncontrollably, talked about that which he had never talked about before.

The pivotal holiday. The need to grasp his new world by letting go of the old with a proper farewell — as quarreling lovers say goodbye — that’s what loosened his tongue. There in the kitchen, a man who survived Hell on earth gave his neighbors a lesson in European history that newsreels, magazines and newspapers couldn’t. Sitting around the table, they listened on the night before Thanksgiving. Life and death, two wrestlers, flickered in the shadows of the Heffernan’s kitchen. 

Sammy Green told of his rescue by Patton’s 2nd Division, then took a deep breath as though to cleanse himself. “Now you know,” he said with a wan smile, “why I’m going to have the best Thanksgiving in the building.”

Sammy’s story traveled through the 106-unit apartment building with the speed of a winning lottery ticket. He would never be alone again.

Ted Roberts is a writer living in Huntsville, Ala.