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Chapter 1. Saturday, February 21, 1953

"Today I am a man," The Boy said. "The Boy" is how he thought of himself. It was what the men in the concentration camp had called him, Der Yingl in Yiddish. He had been told that, at his circumcision on the eighth day of his life, Rabbi Metzger had lifted him up and proclaimed, "His name in Israel shall be Chaim." But Rabbi Metzger had also been The Boy's own Tati, and Tati and Mamme had called him Hymie.

The Boy looked over the edge of the pulpit to the synagogue's congregation, with his own American family sitting in the front row. Most Americans had a hard time pronouncing "Chaim," with its throat-scraping beginning that sounded like someone hawking up a gob of spit, so they called him Jamie.

He started the bar mitzvah speech he'd been preparing and practicing for months, but inside he was thinking, I’m thirteen years old; I’m a bar mitzvah, with the responsibilities of an adult Jew. I'm not a boy any more. I should be Hymie to myself again.

He put aside his speech notes. “My name is Chaim,” he said, looking down at the front row, his family filling the high-backed wooden pew. “In Hebrew, chaim means ‘life.’ And my family name was Metzger, ‘butcher.’ My old life was butchered by the Nazis, and now my name is Jamie McAlister. The name ‘James’ comes from the Hebrew name ‘Jacob,’ which means ‘supplanter,’ one who takes the place of another. The last name I have now means something like ‘child of the protector.’”

His brothers and sisters were glancing at each other uneasily; they knew this wasn’t the speech he had memorized. Mom caught his eye and nodded encouragingly, but Ruby Jones’s dark face beside hers looked worried. Elsewhere in the congregation, people were shuffling a little. I’m losing them.

“I’m trying to say,” he went on desperately, “that I was given a new life after the concentration camp, that after all that death and suffering, I’ve come to a safe place.” That made people settle back more comfortably. But they snapped into tension again when he said, “Too safe, it makes me feel too safe. Because we’re never safe, we never will be safe. Less than two weeks ago, our new president, Eisenhower, refused to grant clemency to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who’ve been condemned to death supposedly for spying. But does anyone here doubt that they would not be facing execution if they were not Jews? Does anyone think it’s safe to be a Jew, even in America?”

Now a low murmur arose in the congregation; some people were glancing at the rabbi as though hoping he would intervene. Mom was still looking supportive, but her hand was wound so tightly in her purse strap Jamie could see the reddening bands of her flesh from here.

Jamie sighed and went back to his prepared text. “I would like to thank my teachers…” The congregation relaxed, though Mom’s hand was still in its painful grip on the purse strap.

Afterwards, eating Ruby’s sponge cake and the special little tub of tapioca pudding she’d brought for him in the social hall beside the sanctuary, Jamie was still shaking in reaction. He hated to talk, even in ordinary ways; he liked to retreat into silence, to shield himself behind it. And he hated to be touched, to have all these people shaking his hand and patting his back and even pinching his cheek.

It was a little easier to bear when his adopted family congratulated him. His older brother, Laurence, put an arm around his shoulders, ignoring Jamie’s reflexive flinch. “Man,” Laurie said, “I’m glad I’m a Catholic, and didn’t have to give a Confirmation speech.” He leaned in to say softly into Jamie’s ear, “I know that was hard for you. You done good.” Laurie gave Jamie’s shoulder a playful squeeze and let go.

A couple of people Jamie didn’t recognize stared at the young Negro half hugging the bar mitzvah boy. The rabbi noticed and hurried over to speak to the strangers in low tones, shifting them aside from Laurie and Jamie.

From long practice, Jamie put them out of his mind and turned to his sisters. Celia and little Joy, both with Dad’s Scottish features and Mom’s dark Italian hair and eyes, grinned at him companionably. They were guiding blonde Beth in this unfamiliar place, and moved her toward the cake table just as her biological brother, Rob, came bounding in from the direction of the boys’ bathroom. He gave Jamie a friendly swat on the arm as he passed. “I’ll get yours, Bethie,” he said, heading for the table. “Punch and cookies, too, or just cake?”

Then the milling crowd stilled and fell silent as the rabbi invoked the blessings on wine and Sabbath challah bread in sonorous Hebrew. Jamie closed his eyes and let the sound sink into him. I know these prayers, I know them in my bones, he thought. Why don’t I ever say them?

He thought back to his conversation with Dad last night on the long-distance phone; Dad was down in Florida, at the Pensacola naval technical training school. “I’m so sorry I can’t be with you, son,” he’d said. “Now that this business in Korea is winding down, everything’s in flux. I hope to be with you all soon.”

Hearing Dad’s voice, even at a distance, always calmed Jamie. Dad had found him in the French orphanage where he’d been sent after World War Two ended and Jamie’s concentration camp was liberated, when he was only four. With that voice, and his quiet, steady strength, he’d coaxed Jamie out of the space under the orphanage porch where he hid when strangers visited, and out of the place inside his head he retreated to when anything unexpected happened.

When Dad’s leave was up, he’d asked Jamie—in the fractured mix of German, Yiddish, French, and a few words of English they’d cobbled together to communicate in—whether he wanted to come home with him and be part of his family. “I don’t belong there,” he’d said. “I don’t belong anywhere.”

“If you don’t belong anywhere, then it doesn’t matter where you are,” Dad had said with that patient rationality Jamie found more reassuring than the sometimes overbearingly emotional attempts at comfort from the orphanage nuns. “Come with me, and then that’s where you’ll belong.”

Last night Jamie had said on the phone, “I thought becoming bar mitzvah, all the studying I’ve done this year, learning the Torah portion in Hebrew—I thought being more Jewish would make me feel more like I belonged somewhere. But…” He fell silent, unable to say more.

Dad had let the silence stand for a while, then said, “You’re only thirteen, son. You’ve lived horrors most children couldn’t even imagine. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ll find who you’re meant to be, and we’ll all help you. I’m proud of you for doing this, and I love you.”

Now Jamie was sorry he’d eaten the sponge cake; it felt like clay in his stomach. There’s too much food, he thought, panicking a little. In the camp, when the American soldiers arrived to free them, they’d handed out chocolate bars, and fatty meat from cans, and cheese and hard crackers. Some of the others, frantic with hunger, had died from gobbling the food. Not Jamie: Jamie had been hiding, watching, waiting for it to be safe.

Now, seeing all the food piled on the buffet table made his stomach clench. The smell nauseated him; the lingering taste in his mouth revolted him. The din from fifty people chatting and laughing in the big room hurt his ears. The movement of all the bodies in their colorful clothing circulating around the room made his head spin.

He was terrified he might faint. If that happened, if he lost consciousness, if he fell on the floor, he’d be out of control of the situation. All these people would immediately gather around, staring at him, exclaiming over him. They wouldn’t step on him, of course they wouldn’t, but even so… He sank onto a folding chair but he still felt unbalanced, as though he might fall off it. His palms were sweaty and his temples pounded.

Then he heard Mom’s voice, low beside him. “Do you need to leave the room?”

He managed to nod. She put a hand on the inside of his arm, hidden but holding firmly as she helped him to his feet. They walked slowly toward the door. People spoke to Mom and she answered, her voice light and cheerful, but she never stopped moving toward the door.

Finally they got out into the synagogue lobby. Mom helped him to lie down on an upholstered bench along one wall. “Rest a minute, Hymele,” she said, using the nickname Mamme used to, that he’d told her about after one of his nightmares. “You did very, very well today. There’s no reason to force yourself to do any more.”

He closed his eyes and felt her shift back to sit by his feet. She put her hand on his shoe: touching but not touching. She knows what I need, he thought, letting himself relax. The noise from the nearby room full of people didn’t bother him any more; even if strangers came up to them, she would shield him.

Some immeasurable time went past, then she said, “Here’s Ruby with the car. Let’s go home, my darling.”
Crowded with the others in the station wagon, Jamie tried to calm himself. This is my family now, this is my reality. Buchenwald is gone; I’ll never see it again. That terrified child is gone; I’ll never be him again.

He wondered, if he repeated it often enough, whether it would start to feel true. Because he did see the concentration camp, every day of his life: looming ominously in his memory, realer and more present than the world around him.

Clear in his mind, as always, was the iron gates of the camp. They stood athwart his mind, blocking whatever lay behind them, what he couldn’t see—didn’t want to see. There were just the looming gates, with the motto across the top: Jedem das Seine. Quoting it, he said now, “You get what you deserve,” and turned his head to gaze at the Pennsylvania farmland sliding past the car windows.


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