Stephen Field was sitting at his desk well after midnight, reading letters from strangers pleading to be saved. His apartment was quiet but for the ticking of the dining room clock. Occasionally, he would hear the soft whirr of the elevator ascending, the old doorman Mr. O’Brien greeting one of the building’s other residents, wishing a pleasant evening, but these noises and interruptions sounded faintly. This was how he spent his nights. Now, and for the three years before.
Every night he read letters written by the Jews of Germany, Austria, the Western Caucasus, and Poland, Jews who knew with growing certitude that if they did not get out of Europe, they were going to die. He read and read and read; for every letter he finished, five more appeared the following day, all of the petitioners phantoms to him, all writing under the tragic misconception that he, as a Jew, a Jew in America, an American Jew whose name was strong enough to carry across the ocean and through border control and to their desperate pleading hands, could help.
At the moment he held a letter from a fourteen-year-old girl in Vienna. Her father was from Lodz but had been living in Austria for twenty years until the Nazis occupied it, at which point they deported him to Sachsenhausen. The girl was hungry and half-frozen. The letters all came wrapped in their personal forms of darkness and the main chore, he had decided, was to scour them for traces of light. There was a man in the Austrian consulate Field knew. It had been a while since any favors had been asked. So he placed the letter in the thin pile to the right of a larger one. If it worked, whatever bureaucratic magic he might conjure, the girl would be dropped on Rector Street or in Nova Scotia or in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. If it didn’t her life was likely finished at this. A relatively early point. At a luncheon the week before, a luncheon he himself convened in his role as a director of the Zionist Organization of America, he confided to Louis Brandeis that he no longer believed there was much that could be done for the persecuted Jews of Europe. Three, four years ago—maybe. Now, with the Germans grinding across the continent and the British squeezing off the Mandate of Palestine for fear of hastening war with the Arabs, it was all but hopeless. Certainly some of those in danger could still be saved. The youth, the ones who were strong and resilient. But the old and the weak would perish. They were, as he himself had declared at the emergency convention in Evian, economic and moral dust in a cruel world, She’erith Hapleitah. That Stephen Field, son of a man who peddled groceries to laborers on Dean Street, should now act, inasmuch as anyone could, as the line between the living and the dead, made little sense to him. Whatever atrocities were happening over there, one thing was clear: it was the greatest crisis his people had faced in his lifetime. One had come to accept that history and crisis were essentially synonymous for Jews—Genesis to Gdansk—but what was happening now, what they were experiencing since the National Socialists had taken Germany and Europe after it, was wholly different and horrifying and inexplicable and completely undeniable. The immediacy he felt, the disaster that was literally being delivered with the mail each day, had an energy that was cyclonic. The letters and memos and newspaper clippings from the Yiddish press rained down on his office, poured in from every Jewish agency. He’d read one of these letters, or an eyewitness account from the paper, and he’d feel a pang of helplessness and terror, a sensation of falling through space, accelerating toward some unknown, unknowable catastrophe. But then he’d close the paper or put the letter in a drawer and the feeling would pass. He’d make himself a cup of coffee. He’d go for a walk. And the panic dissipated, faded like a dream upon waking, and then he got on with his day. As a Jew in America in 1941, one could get on with the day. That was the difference between him and the poor souls writing these letters: an impossible, uncrossable distance. Then one evening in June, a little before midnight, the phone rang, the voice insisting he come to the synagogue at once, as fast as he could.
The synagogue seemed taller, grander in a sickening way. There were screaming bright new levels, it reached higher above the Park than it had before. Field, dazed, temporarily staggering through iterations of reality, wondered about the strange new heights of his temple. As it burned it grew; these firefloors making it almost as big as some of the apartment buildings it shared 68th Street with. A bolt of black smoke rose up through the dome of the sanctuary. It mingled with the dark of the sky. It was morning but not yet dawn. There was a blanketing scream of breaking glass as the dome crashed inward. It dropped down on to the sanctuary and the influx of oxygen made for a burst of flame through the hole. The crowd—good God, yes, there were spectators—yelped at this and stepped away.
Field, having yet to identify himself, to approach the authorities or announce his role at the temple, was just another one of the spectators. An old man roused by the sirens and the smoke, drawn to watch from a safe distance. The urge to look on. The men and the women and even children. Watching was one of the purest expressions of human existence. It affirmed the presence of these people and the reality of the world they inhabited.
Smoke stung Field’s throat and nostrils, and he lifted a handkerchief to his face. There was steam in the air from all the spent hydrant water. He pushed his way through the crowd, the heat growing denser, the bodies he passed oblivious to his own, aware only of their place. At last he maneuvered his way to the line of firefighters. There were dozens of them. Three engines, two more ladder trucks. They moved around the building in a surprisingly orderly and efficient way but one that also seemed almost irrelevant in the face of the flames. Field went down the perimeter until a large wet hand took his shoulder and brought him to a halt. His badge, right about at Field’s eye level, identified him as a fire marshal. He was an oak of a man with pink cheeks and pale hair matted and wet from water and sweat. “You can’t go any closer,” he said to Field.
“I’m the rabbi here.”
“You’re the head of this church?” he asked.
“This temple, yes. What happened?”
“It’s too soon to tell anything for sure. Don’t worry, there will be an investigation. The best way to help now is to let us work.” He pointed up and down the street. “Right now we’re trying to keep the whole damned block from burning down. You see that building next door? That’s a residential building—forty, fifty units. Sleeping kids. You get it?”
Field nodded but didn’t move.
“So, I’ll tell you again, step back.”
He watched the smoke billowing out. He knew he should be thinking only about the people in those neighboring brownstones, or about the people, his congregants, who were losing their place of worship, or of his own place in the world—was he going to build a new temple, start again at eighty-four?—but instead he stood there thinking about what would be lost inside: the bimah from which he’d spoken on the Days of Awe for thirty years, the brass pipe organ, the Ark and the parochet concealing it, the five hundred-year-old menorah inside the ark, the chair for Elijah donated by the chief rabbi of Palestine, even the Torah scroll itself.
The men in their heavy padded gear, axes wielded, hoses balanced across the bridge of their broad shoulders, knew none of this as they surged forward, toward the structure of rising smoke and shifting, blackening matter, a wall of heat. If they were speaking to each other, or following directions shouted by some other voice, Field couldn’t hear it. Nothing was audible in the crowd but the crackling of water into flame, the buckling of wood, the smashing of glass as the windows popped like light bulbs crushed under foot. Field imagined what it would take to surge forward into such a scene, the mentality of such men. Surely there would need to be a separation, momentary at least, between action and self, a suspension of the natural laws of self-preservation. They were only a few feet from the building when something stopped them. A rumble, then a boom, then its echo like distant thunder. A support beam collapsed. And then the center fell. The synagogue was now a moat, a ring of a building with a ball of nothing at its center. The men retreated, huddled in a heap around the captain and revised the plan of attack. They would enter on each side now, not through the front. They would enter on faith that whatever supports remained would hold out while they battled from within, swept any protected pockets of the place for people trapped. Field hoped to God there would be none, no one inside so late at night. The conviction occurred to him, and just as quickly dissolved, an awful knowledge taking its place. A sound escaped his lips, something between a gasp and a moan. Mrs. Sobichek, the Polish woman who cleaned the synagogue in the evenings. She was supposed to finish her duties and leave the building by eight o’clock. That was what she’d been told. But she was old and poor. She lived on 89th Street alone. She had arthritis in her hips. She drank. She’d been found sleeping in the synagogue’s basement more than once.
He pushed through other on-lookers, toward one of the firemen. “A woman,” he called out. “Inside.” But no one heard him. No one listened. They had already entered the building, disappeared into the smoke. There was a momentary hush, a collective breath holding all around. And then, from the synagogue’s side entrance, the part of the building farthest from the flames, two firefighters were running forward, shouting at something unseen. A third man ahead of them had axed through the door. The marshal was moving toward them now. Field called out, but his words disappeared into the clamor.
The marshal rushed toward the other fighters without looking back. Field angled and shoved against the crowd to get a better view. The side door had collapsed. A thick smoke, gray and dense as dirty water, poured out and up. And then, in full gear, a firefighter emerged, a limp bundle slung over his shoulder. Field crossed the barrier, ignored the protests and shouts of those behind him. The bundle was still smoking, covered in ash. A limp arm slipped from under the blanket, charred and lifeless.
For the first time that night, he felt his age. His legs grew weak, his head light. He looked around for someone he knew, a congregant or friend, some source of support, but found no one. He should have told them earlier. He should have remembered. A terrible loneliness pressed down on his frail bones. He could feel his ribs straining beneath it. He couldn’t move. He could barely swallow. He couldn’t remember what it was that had once made him believe in God, or in himself, or in anything at all.
A veil of smoke rose up in the distance, spread out until it was thin as breath, then vanished into the blush of dawn above Central Park. All of creation was too lovely and too pitiful to behold. The fire burned on. How badly he wanted to help, to be of assistance to someone, to anyone, to be a part of it rather than outside it, but he couldn’t do a thing besides stand there and watch the younger, stronger men scramble to subdue the flames.
From THE HOUSEGUEST. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2016 by Kim Brooks.