The Banker of Bread
by Arthur Mackeown
Almost every night Moshe Cohen dreamed he sat in a long, narrow, windowless room. The room was lit dimly by a few flickering light bulbs, weakly illuminating what looked like rows of shower heads high up on the walls. The air smelled damp, with a faint, pleasant trace of almonds. He knew he should get out, away from that smell and what it signified, but the ropes that bound him to the chair were tied too tightly. He also knew there was no escape even if he could break free, because all the doors were locked from the outside.
Apart from his chair the only furniture in the room was a table with a loaf of bread on it. The bread glowed softly from within, but Moshe never had time in his dream to wonder at this, because someone whose face he never saw always stood behind his chair, whispering to him in a language he had sworn he would never speak again.
“Go on then, you Kike bastard,” the voice hissed. “Eat the bread. You know you want to.”
“I won’t. You can’t make me. I won’t.”
“Oh yes, you will,” the voice said. “Otherwise, it’s shower time. You know what that means, don’t you?”
At this point Moshe always awoke, his fluttering heart gradually righting itself as he recognised the solid walls of his home around him, and heard the usual shouting match in Hebrew and Arabic from the market in the street below. He knew that if he got up and looked out across the flat roof-tops and the dense tangle of television aerials he would see only what ought to be there: the golden Dome of the Rock splashed by early-morning sunshine, the Kidron valley behind it, and the vast Jewish cemetery stretched out along the slopes of the Mount of Olives, with Mount Scopus and the Hebrew University off in the distance, all of it telling him that he was safe, and that the almond-scented showers of “Planet Auschwitz” were a dream-universe away.
* * *
Moshe had lived here, in this small terraced house behind the market, ever since the death of his wife two years previously. The house stood on a narrow, twisting street near the centre of the Old City, and belonged to his married daughter, Miriam, and her husband, David, who had converted the top floor into a comfortable little apartment, with a balcony where — fickle Jerusalem weather permitting — Moshe would sometimes sit and eat his breakfast.
On the balcony or in the kitchen, the breakfast itself never varied: fruit, muesli, a boiled egg, and two thin, crispy sheets of the unleavened bread known as Matzos, the only bread he would ever eat. He never buttered the Matzos or spread them with jam or marmalade but swallowed them down completely dry, chewing resolutely away with the expression of someone forced to take a slightly unpalatable medicine.
When they were children his daughters sometimes asked why he ate them when he obviously didn’t like them, but their mother, seeing how Moshe’s pale blue eyes darkened whenever he was asked the question, just told them to be quiet and finish their breakfasts.
* * *
Passover Eve, Berlin, 1943
It was all that damn bus inspector’s fault. Moshe Cohen was traveling home from his daily stint as a porter at the Jewish Hospital, one of the few jobs where Jews could still avoid deportation, just keeping his head down and hoping not to be noticed, when the man spotted his armband with its bright yellow star and demanded to see his ticket, all the while looking Moshe up and down with incredulous eyes, as if he simply could not believe what he was seeing.
Moshe was not at all surprised by this reaction. Well over six feet tall, blond, blue-eyed, and with a stern, lantern-jawed Aryan profile that would not have been out of place on an SS recruiting poster, he hardly conformed to the Nazi idea of the cringing, hook-nosed Jew.
This, apparently, was what had so incensed the inspector. How dare a Jew look like that? said his outraged glare — especially when the inspector himself, Aryan to the core, looked like something out of a Der Stürmer cartoon. He soon had his revenge, however. When Moshe didn’t produce his ticket fast enough he called the driver and the two of them kicked Moshe off the bus, ignoring his angry protests that there wouldn’t be another for at least an hour.
It wasn’t the thought of missing Passover that made Moshe so angry. There was no-one to celebrate it with, anyway, because his entire family had already been shipped off to work camps in the east — Poland, according to the rumours. He’d received a postcard from his mother only the other day informing him that everybody was settling in nicely, and that conditions were better than expected, which was one less thing to worry about.
No, what really annoyed him was being stuck out here in the middle of the street with the Jewish curfew about to come into effect any minute. He’d have made it home with half an hour to spare if those two idiots had let him off at his usual stop.
Too late to bother about that now, though, so he decided just to act like an ordinary citizen out for a stroll and a breath of fresh air. The only giveaway was his armband, which he ripped off hastily and flung into a doorway. After that he relaxed a little, for the people in the still-crowded streets were obviously more interested in concluding their business and getting home before the blackout than they were in him. He even began to hope he might make it back without incident.
* * *
With only ten minutes to go it started to rain heavily, and Moshe discovered he’d left his umbrella on the bus, as well as the meagre supper he’d bought from the tiny sum he allocated himself for each day’s food. The final straw, however — almost on a par with frogs, locusts, plagues, and Nazis — was the tantalising, familiar smell which reached his nostrils at that very same moment: the smell of freshly baked bread.
A baker in his former life, as were his father and grandfather before him, Moshe could even tell what kind of bread it was: his absolute favourite of all the breads he had ever baked — Zwiebelbrot, or rye with toasted onions.
Now, as all the world knows, the only bread Jews may eat during Passover is the unleavened bread called Matzos, and Matzos, unfortunately, were a little difficult to find in Berlin in 1943. Zwiebelbrot, on the other hand, could be had for the asking, and the very thought of sinking his teeth into a thick, tangy slice of it made Moshe’s stomach rumble.
On the corner of the street Moshe found the bakery from which that wonderful smell emanated. The baker was just preparing to close up, but he had not yet pulled down the blackout curtains and so, despite himself, Moshe came to a stop outside the window, enthralled by the richness and variety of the mouth-watering display. As well as Zwiebelbrot there was black bread, white bread, pumpernickel, yellow, flour-dusted baguettes, rye with sunflower seeds, rye with pumpkin seeds...
And then a terrible thought came to him: he had just enough money left in his purse for a single loaf. Without further ado he entered the bakery and bought the Zweibelbrot. He told the baker not to wrap it up, he’d take it as it was, then wandered back into the street, and stood quietly for a moment, letting the bread warm his cold hands. Then he raised it and breathed in the beloved oniony scent until a shock of nausea hit him, and he tossed the bread into the gutter as if it were unclean.
Behind him someone laughed, and Moshe’s heart missed a beat when he looked over his shoulder and saw a group of off-duty soldiers watching him with big grins on their faces. One of them, a corporal, was holding up his armband, examining the yellow star as if he’d never seen anything like it before. “I think you lost something,” the man said.
“It’s not mine,” said Moshe.
The corporal smiled. “Of course it’s not: you were just throwing it away for a friend.”
“And what’s all that about?” demanded another soldier, pointing to the fallen Zwiebelbrot. “What kind of lunatic buys bread just to chuck it in the gutter?”
Moshe shrugged. He was caught and he knew it. “Old Jewish custom,” he said.
“Think this is funny, do you?” the second soldier said. He bent down, retrieved the loaf, now stained with grimy rainwater, and shoved it in Moshe’s face. “Eat it, Jew boy!” he hissed. “Go on. All of it.”
“Keishe mein touchess,” said Moshe.
Such petty heroics only made them laugh. Then, when they’d finished laughing, they beat him and made him swallow every single, soggy mouthful. And he couldn’t even hate them, because he knew he deserved it.
* * *
So that was that. No more “Next year in Jerusalem” for Moshe Cohen: more like “Next week in Auschwitz.” And even in the camp there was no escape from bread. In fact, Moshe spent his entire time there baking it. His Zwiebelbrot was especially popular with the SS. One of the bastards told him it was the only thing that kept him from the gas.
Even so, to the SS bread was just bread, but to the inmates it was a currency more valuable than gold, and Moshe could have been rich in it, yet he would never take even a single crust for himself. When the others realised this they made him a banker — a banker of bread — forcing on him the job of protecting the bread rations for the entire hut. They paid him for it in extra soup and potatoes, not much, but he still ate a little better than some. He even survived almost two years in Auschwitz, until the Russians came.
And so, in the next year but one after the Liberation, he reached Jerusalem.
* * *
Moshe would often think about all this as he ate his Matzos. He was thinking one cool spring morning when Miriam called him into the kitchen, where she struggled to feed her two year-old son, Ran, who was red-faced and crying.
“I think he’s coming down with something, Aba,” she said.
“Don’t you worry about that,” answered Moshe. “I’ve already raised three of you. If he runs a temperature I’ll give him those drops you bought. Anyway, David’s here.”
“Well, he was up late, so let him sleep in a bit,” said Miriam. “And try to get His Majesty to finish his toast, at least.” With that, she kissed the child, grabbed her coat, and hurried off to work.
“All right, then,” said Moshe, when she had gone, “let’s get this show on the road.” He sat down facing the high chair and examined the tray. Ran eyed him suspiciously. He was no longer crying, but from his expression things could still go either way. The toast he was supposed to finish was cut into three fingers, all spread invitingly with strawberry jam.
“Off you go,” said Moshe. “Be a good boy for Grandpa. It’s strawberry jam. Your favourite.”
The boy pouted and turned his head away. Moshe sighed. This is ridiculous, he thought, we’ll be here until the Messiah comes, at this rate. So he picked up a finger of toast and held it to the child’s lips. “Ran, open wide,” he said.
Ran shook his head. “Gran’pa open wi’,” he replied.
“It’s like that, is it?” Gingerly Moshe bit off a corner of the toast, and swallowed it. “See?” he said. “Grandpa likes strawberry jam, too.”
That did it. The child immediately pulled the plate closer, wrapped his forearms protectively around it, and polished off the rest.
After he finished Moshe checked his temperature. Finding it normal, he carried the boy onto the balcony and placed him on the carpet with some toys. Then he sat down in his favourite chair and looked out over the city with the taste of bread still in his mouth.
* * *
When Miriam arrived home late that afternoon she found her father sitting at the kitchen table with an uncut loaf of bread, a pot of coffee, and some cups. Opposite him sat her two older sisters.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” he said.
“He’s fine. David’s taken him to the swings for an hour.”
Miriam sat down next to her sisters. “All right, Aba,” she said. “What’s all this about?”
Moshe opened his mouth to speak, then fell silent as he gazed at the three curious faces on the other side of the table.
“There’s something I need to tell you about,” he said, finally. “I’ve been putting it off and putting it off, but I’m not getting any younger, and this morning I suddenly thought, ‘If not now, when?’ Apart from that,” he added, “I promised your mother.”
“Promised her what, Dad?”
Moshe bent forward and broke off a corner of the loaf. He didn’t go so far as to taste it, but he did hold it gently in his palm as if it were something of value. Then he took a deep breath, and began to tell his daughters the story of how he came to be known as the Banker of Bread.
Copyright © 2013 by Arthur Mackeown
Historical NoteMoshe Cohen was traveling home from his daily stint as a porter at the Jewish Hospital, one of the few jobs where Jews could still avoid deportation
As incredible as it may seem, the reference is accurate. The Krankenhaus der jüdischen Gemeinde — Jewish Community Hospital — did exist in Berlin in 1943. It was still standing and functioning — to the amazement of the Soviet soldiers who liberated the city — in April 1945.
The history of the hospital in the Nazizeit and, especially, the war years ranges from horror to miracle. Once again our prophecy is fulfilled: “There is no story so truly bewildering as reality.”
For more information, see: “World War II – Jewish Hospital in Berlin.”
— Gary Inbinder and Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories