The Trees Share No Secrets
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
~Robert Frost, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
Even as they die, the woods are alive. The wind carries gossip from fields afar to the trees, making the leaves laugh as they chase each other to the ground. Animals scurry around, trying to find the last morsels of nuts and berries before their long hibernation. At night, fireflies glow and swarm like enchanted beings from a fairy tale. The woods, it would seem, should be a magical place to a four or five year old girl, and she desperately wants to stay and play in this beautiful place. However, her mother’s fear and despair make her shutter these feelings, and she quietly continues on, always moving, always hunted. It seems that wolves also lurk in these woods.
A day, a week, a month ago the woods were merely a boundary outside of town, a place where children, especially a little girl like Ghitel, wouldn’t go far into. Her life, what little she knew of it, belonged in this town, her shtetl. There were many people like her family, her mother and father and older brother who thanked Yahweh for what they had and when it got cold exchanged eight gifts on eight different nights. She loved her grandparents, her grandfather who told her stories and her grandmother who could make delicious treats. She was told that she had other grandparents, her mother’s parents, who lived across the ocean and in a new land called America. But Ghitel had never seen the ocean so she was unconcerned with who or what lay beyond it.
Ghitel was hungry, but then again, she was always somewhat hungry. She had been told her country and another had fought each other, and that food wasn’t as plentiful as it used to be. Still, she sometimes saw her mother give her and her brother portions of her own meal. It made her happy to have more to eat, but sad because her mother must be hungry too. Still, she supposed her family must be lucky compared to others. Her father worked at a lumber yard and came home smelling of sawdust, so there was always firewood at least. And the small garden outback helped to supply what the local market could not. Her brother teased her sometimes, to be sure, but whenever she fell down and hurt herself he would always pick her up and bring her to her mother. Plus he didn’t kick in the bed when they were sleeping like other siblings did. She also had a little doll that her grandmother had made her. It was small and hand made, and she loved it very much. Overall, Ghitel was very happy.
They slept during the day and walked at night. Ghitel’s mother held her and her brother’s hands, until Ghitel grew tired and her mother had to carry her. Her mother promised that they would be there soon, to a magical city named Bucharest where they would be safe. Ghitel tried not to get tired, because it was hard on her mother but it was so much walking and it was so cold at night and she had such small legs. Besides, she couldn’t truly sleep, not anymore at least. They came to her in her dreams. The men, yelling and cruel and Ghitel just wanted to forget it all.
Her parents were worried. Ghitel could hear it in their voices, how they quietly whispered at night when they thought everyone was asleep. She heard a strange word, pogrom, and decided that she didn’t like it. Her mother started keeping her and her brother closer to her, and they left the house less and less. Her brother seemed to understand more of what was going on, but he was also almost nine and so very wise.
Ghitel was in their small kitchen playing with her doll when they came. The shouts appeared to come from nowhere and from everywhere throughout the village, their voices rolling through the streets like the leaves that had just begun to fall. Her mother rounded herself and her brother into the sleeping area and pulled the curtains shut. A few minutes later the voices were in the kitchen, rough and cruel and yelling and oh so loud. There was banging and clanging and laughter, her mother’s screams of protest and yet more of that cursed laughter. Ghitel pulled her doll closer and felt her brother protectively wrap his arm around her. Some of the local villagers, the ones her mother called gentile, came through the curtains and began picking through her family’s things: linens, her mother’s little jewelry, and their nicest clothing all fell into baskets already filled with their cookware and candlesticks. Through the gap in the curtains Ghitel could see the course men with guns eating through their food, slapping each other on the backs as they told jokes. She couldn’t see her mother.
Minutes or hours or even days later the men left. Her mother reappeared and joined Ghitel and her brother. She couldn’t stop trembling. The light dimmed and night fell, only to have the sun reappear hours later. The whole time villagers, neighbors came through and helped themselves to her family’s things, until Ghitel was sure that nothing would remain. Shortly after the sun had risen Ghitel heard loud pops and bangs and echoes, similar to the sound of a tree falling. Except the pops and bangs kept going for many minutes, one after the other. Her father had yet to return.
They had been walking for weeks. The night had been slowly growing colder and harsher as their bodies grew weaker and thinner. Ghitel and her family had left the center of the woods for the road, and they now traveled during the day. They begged for food in passing towns and at any remaining berries they could find. One day, the road became cobbled as often happens when it runs into a better-populated village. Except this time it got wider with more cars and people dashing around. As Ghitel and her family walked, people glanced over and gave them disdainful looks. Ghitel thought that their scrunched up noses made them look like pigs. They walked for a bit longer until they reached a synagogue, or at least what her mother told her was a synagogue. It was far bigger and grander than anything they had had in her village. They went in her mother found a rabbi, asked for help. They were given a meal, hot soup!, and put up with a local widowed woman. It seemed, at the time at least, that their ordeal was over.
Night was falling. The soldiers and neighbors had ceased coming to their home a few hours before. Ghitel heard her stomach growling, heard her mother and brother’s growling too. Her mother finally stood up and grabbed their hands. She bade them to be quiet-they were going to find Ghitel’s father-it wasn’t safe for them to be alone. So they set off, keeping to the shadows and edges of the village. Although her mother tried to shield her eyes, Ghitel saw a few people sleeping in the street. Except… they were covered in blood. Ghitel buried her head in her doll. They eventually reached the lumberyard at the edge of the woods.
It happened so fast. They turned around a corner and saw a group of soldiers drunk, eating supper next to a partly filled hole. Someone-their rabbi was filling it in, blood streaming down his face. Limp hands stuck out of the soil, some still holding shovels. A few faces not yet covered could still be seen. Ghitel was surprised to see her father’s face staring into the sky with a blank expression and dropped her doll. A few of the soldiers stood and reached for their guns. Her mother grabbed Ghitel and her brother’s hands and fled into the woods. The soldiers tried to follow, but stumbled and fell and quickly fell behind. Ghitel and her family kept running, and never came back.
It took a few months but finally they were set to sail. Ghitel’s mother told her and her brother all about the new life they would have. How they would live in New York with their grandparents for a while, and how their father and other grandparents wouldn’t be joining them. Ghitel already knew that but didn’t tell her mother. She just wanted to forget. So, as her mother packed up the meager belongings they had been given, Ghitel said goodbye to Bucharest, to Europe, and instead prepared herself for a new life.