My Friend, Max
by Chana Heilbron
It began like any one of the indistinguishable, mechanical days which had followed one another in monotonous succession.
We, that is my mother, my two sisters and I, lived as Christians like the scores of families surrounding us on all sides.
We shared their bomb shelter, we ate their food, we trembling with them at the ceaseless crash of bombs over Budapest.
Our society of a hundred women, children and disabled men became our whole world; only rarely did anyone venture into the death- infested streets to bring news of the war-crazed world outside.
Thus, day followed day till we had lost the will to count them.
Yet, as soon as I woke up, I knew that there was something different about this day.
Suddenly I remembered: since the day before yesterday, no one knew where Max was, or, at least that's what they told me. Max was my only friend in this place full of strange faces and fear.
Where could he be?
My mother told me time and again not to go with him on our "promenades" around the shelter, but I went anyway. Max would come, hoist me in the air onto his shoulders and say, with his big laugh: "Well, my queen, where shall we promenade today? In the forest primeval? By the babbling brook? Or shall we just roam through the fields of laughing daisies?" Then each broken chair and bed and old box in the dingy cellar turned into trees and rocks and flowers.
But there was another side to Max, too.
In the middle of a promenade he would mutter to himself and begin one of his interminable tirades about G-d.
"Where is your G-d now? Why is He hiding? Where is His justice to those who have served Him faithfully?" He would go on for hours.
This morning, my mother prepared breakfast, but neither of my two sisters nor my mother touched the food.
"Why aren't you eating, Mommy? Why isn't anyone eating?"
"I'm not hungry this morning." Suddenly she put her two hands on my head and said a few words quietly the way my father often did. Then I started to cry.
"Where is Max, Mommy? Why doesn't he come back?"
"Shh -- don't talk about him. It's dangerous."
"Are you still angry with him for what happened...?" "Nothing happened. You must forget it."
But I couldn't forget it. It was the night before last, the night before Max left.
Max barged in on us, and began to rummage through our belongings. Suddenly, he found a little book. He looked into it and then started laughing. My mother walked in.
"Of all the insane things in the world! A siddur (prayerbook)!" He shouted at my mother, "What do you think this is going to do for you?"
"I don't know what you are talking about or where you got that thing."
Then, she crossed herself solemnly. But he didn't leave right away. First, he tore out all the pages of the siddur, shredded them, spit on them and stamped on them wildly. I made a move forward but my mother's eyes were on me and I froze.
Then Max looked at me.
"At least you should know, there is nothing up there. Remember that." With that he walked out, and that was the last I saw of him.
It was evening when I sensed a sudden commotion; someone had come in, someone new.
I ran out to look -- maybe it was Max.
But, then I stopped, frozen.
The man who was hurrying forward with his head bent was not Max - - it was my father.
His face was deathly white and I noticed a steady trickle of red dripping from his fingers.
Someone had denounced him to the Gestapo and they came looking for him in his hiding place. He jumped two flights out of a window, scaled one concrete garden wall after another and outran and outwitted a detachment of SS men.
"Soon I must go. With the help of G-d, our passports to Switzerland should be coming through soon."
"I will make you something warm to drink," my mother said.
"No, it isn't time, yet," my father answered.
"You must eat something -- you must have some strength, I tell you!"
"And since when does our food give us strength?" my father asked softly.
"And who knows whether fasting does not give more strength than food? This is the time when each man's deepest nature is uncovered and each man sees what he wants to see. If only we could understand G-d's ways!"
(Only days later did I hear what else my mother found out that day. It was about Max. He had been found in a doorway near our shelter. Tacked onto his clothing, they found a piece of paper with the word "Jude" in big letters.)
I had been sitting playing with a flashlight when my father left. Now, my mother called out angrily, "Put that down!"
"But why?" Then my mother's anger faded and she leaned close and whispered in my ear. "Because it's Yom Kippur."
My hand dropped the flashlight. So that's why nobody had wanted to eat! Blurred images flitted through my mind -- my father blessing me, people in white, and the whole day in shul -- but it was so far away.
Now I wanted to think about Max.
Somehow I had a sad, empty feeling that he wouldn't come back, and I was angry at him.
(All in the shelter was spared except for Max. Ed.)