A tale by Johny Noer


Chapter 30


… I was determined not to be overreacting to things

On that fine summer day when the wind blew only as a breeze, and the sky was brilliant with its fleece of clouds and was blue forever, I walked through the Ukrainian town of Uzhgorod already having been in the city a few weeks, I recognized every street corner and knew the Russian names and revolution dates of every square. I could easily find the location of the old synagogue. I pushed open a weather-pitted door on the one side of the building. The room was filled with strong scent of wet wood and dirt clinging to the mortar between the ancient stones that made up the walls. The two shafts of light that fell from gaps in the old slate roof looked like spotlights. When I shut the door the room seemed to recede with the dimming of the light. In the aura of the receded room, all that was left were those two simple yellowy-golden shafts of light provided by the sun, and at their juncture I could see some coloured stones from the old synagogue’s floor.

The light became like a snapshot of memory. As if I could watch everything because of the gaps in the roof. I saw the old shoemaker, by the name of Lustig, walking with his two lovely daughters, and Shmulik and Mojshe coming towards the synagogue, humming Chassidic tunes. And Fischer with his … and now more pictures sprang to my mind: The Soviets took over the synagogue and made out of it a concert Hall … and then again: A few kilometres outside Kiev – some hot day of September, 1941 – people were ordered off the trucks and wagons and made to walk. They choked on clouds of yellow dust. Those who stumbled and fell were shot. German guards blew their heads off with pistols and shotguns. I heard the people talk:

"They’re taking us to a work camp. That can’t be too bad. They’ll feed us, anyway."

"Yes," a woman added. "They say we’ll be protected for our own goods from the Ukrainians."

"Where is this camp? How far?"

"Not too far. Just beyond the Jewish Cemetery. A place called ‘Babi Jar’…"


In the juncture of spotlight from the roof of the old synagogue I saw new pictures. All from the NBC-TV big event, Holocaust, by Gerald Green. I watched the film years ago in Copenhagen, but now images from this saga of fire, blood and tears suddenly passed before my eyes.

I was in Berlin a November morning in 1941. In the office of the Gestapo section of the Reich’s main security building, known as Bureau IVb, RSHA. The chief of the office, Reinhardt Heydrich, was present. A cold-blooded, anti-Semite sadist, who was subject to Heinrich Himmler, chief of the political police (SS), directly responsible to Hitler. We were watching the screening of photographs and movies from the Ukraine… from Babi Yar!

Heydrich sat in the darkened screening room, immobile reflective smoking, his musician’s fingers stroking his long nose now and then. We watched, as in flickering black and white the Jews were marched to the collection point at the edge of the pit, made to undress, prodded into the ditch, turned to face the guns. And then fell under the smashing impact of the bullets.

I heard again Heydrich’s voice from Gerold Greens film: "They die rather peacefully; their lack of resistance is remarkable. We fulfil the Fuehrer’s goal with a lot less difficulty than I imagined."

Somebody in the room said, "We resettled exactly 33,771 Jews in two days. And we’re still at it. The way the Jews oblige us, we may resettle close to 100,000 before the Babi Yar program is concluded…"

I rushed out of the synagogue. Out into the blinding daylight, my nose still quivering with the scent of damp earth. I crossed the street and went back to the square housing the main entrance of the synagogue. In the back of the square there were some chestnut trees. Dust whirled up like ashes blown by the wind. I brushed aside the pictures that fluttered against my mind. The warm day suddenly felt cold. My heart was full of questions, and then an answer suddenly presented itself: A strange answer!


The synagogue was over a hundred years old. Built in 1905. In the best Hebrew fashion. A structure that seemed to exist only for the purpose of worship – and now it was transformed into a communist concert hall. The huge front window, designed like a Star of David, reflected heaven’s Hebrew blue; everything built by dedicated hands to the honour of the Almighty – but now a sad combination of neglect and exposure to weather. Streaks of grey-green were descending from the roof.

As my eyes ran from the synagogue’s rusting window frames to the great gaps in its rain pipes, to the snarl of weeds and patches of damp where the base of the structure met the ground, I saw three men in black coming down the lane. All wore big, black hats. All had white beards. The one in the middle was of a greater stature than the others. His beard was bigger, slightly blowing in the wind. They walked steadily; approaching the place, where I stood. They moved past me towards the synagogue. The space suddenly seemed confined, and the arm of one of the black men brushed against me, as he passed. I felt like detaining him but chose not to do so. I followed them until we all stood at the entrance to the synagogue. The man in the middle lifted his eyes and looked up towards the roof and spoke.

I didn’t know, what he was going to say, but like a sixth sense I knew it anyhow. With one hand lifted as if there was an important point he wanted to make, he pointed towards the top of the synagogue and said, "They’ve taken down the tables of the Law!" He spoke English with a broad American accent and repeated, "They’ve taken down the tables of the Law!" He dropped his hand and sighed quietly, "They’ve taken down the word of the Law." I realised that he was trying not to weep. He cleared his throat and turned to me, but said nothing.

Silently he pointed once more towards the roof. I followed the direction of his finger and noticed on the summit of the synagogue a sculpture of a huge lyre: The symbol of the Philharmonic Orchestra. The boasting sign that this building was no longer a house of prayer; it was a communist concert hall!

Across the square three municipality workers were having coffee in the bed of an open-back lorry. Their thermos jugs were lined up on one stack of lumber. Another being used as chairs. Probably building-material for the synagogue? They watched me with undisguised attention. Three men from the mayor’s house, watching as if they had something to say…

The three men in black did the same: Stared at me! The one in the middle with a penetrating gaze. As if he wanted me to understand that all this had to do with me! It was my business! I was expected to do something about it. Then they turned and walked round the last corner of the synagogue – and disappeared.

It took me a moment to grasp what had happened. I paused in front of the synagogue’s main gate. The pavement stones here were cracked and clotted with weeds. With the toe of my shoe I dislodged a tangle of jagged-toothed dandelion leaves (dent de lion) from between two of the stones. I looked in the direction of the chestnut trees and the workers on the truck. They still watched me attentively. As if the mayor himself wanted to add something or as if I had better take care: The former prayer house was haunted… by killed Jews walking the upper corridor, weeping.

The white bearded rabbi had gone. But I felt as if his penetrating eyes were still gazing at me. I gave him a long ten seconds of waiting in which to move his eyes off me – but as far as I could understand he didn’t do so. He had once and for all directed my attention to the roof of the synagogue and made me aware of the fact that the tables of the Law had been taken down! He had shared with me a matter of evidently paramount importance. What he had thus mentioned in my presence, had from now on given him the whip hand – and I had seen in his eyes that he was determined to use it and to strengthen it by whatever means were available. I didn’t have much choice; - a matter of obedience, it seemed: Somebody took those tables of the Law down, and somebody would have to put them up again!

The introduction phrase of ‘The letter to the Jews’ came to my mind. Something about God speaking ‘in many different ways’. Was this one of God’s ‘many different ways’ speaking to me? Did I have to put those tables of the Law back on the top of the synagogue in Uzgorod?

I passed beneath the branches of the chestnut trees and headed for the Pilgrim Camp. I was determined not to overreact to things… but it was as if that black rabbi was standing at every street corner, silently watching me… with those penetrating eyes.