My mother was four years old when the storm troopers marched into Hungary and shattered her childhood.
The details are familiar in the collective Jewish memory, and form the dark underside to my personal brightly lit, Generation-X American existence. The roundups. The executions. The starvation. The cruelty. And the recurrent leitmotif of gas and barbed wire. Mom doesn't have many clear memories of those harrowing days. Miraculously, her parents and brother were with her throughout, and so her four-year-old world remained largely intact, its edges barely nibbled by the brutal reality outside its windows.
But she does remember the day they threw her out of her house. It was a lovely home, full of beautiful things for the adults, and scads of toys and clothes and jewelry for a pampered little girl. She didn't know where they were going, or why. But she knew that she certainly wasn't going anywhere without her flaxen-haired friend, her treasured doll. And so she snatched it up, and took it with her as they were herded onto the train and into the ghetto.
In the days that followed, as the tornado whirled around her, it was to her doll that she turned for solace and comfort and companionship.
But not for long. Though her memory of the episode is strangely – or perhaps not so strangely – absent, her mother later told her what became of it. "A Hungarian soldier, a collaborator, swaggered up to you and knocked it out of your hand, sneering 'You won't be needing that anymore where you're going.'"
If the twentieth century has bequeathed humanity anything, it has provided the cure to any lingering romanticism any of us might still have clung to about war. It is not a splendid adventure, a glorious proving ground for manhood, a noble exercise in mailed chivalry. War is, truly and like few other things on earth, hell. People are dislocated, killed, left bereft of possessions, family, hopes. But even within hell, it takes a truly twisted and evil mind to smash a jackboot down on the face of a porcelain doll and declare war on a child.
I thought of my mother's doll when I saw a recent newspaper photograph. It showed the twisted remains of a wrecked car, a shattered windshield, and a small body face down, arms and legs wildly akimbo.
For one heart-stopping moment, you think it is a baby. And then the caption clarifies things: "The shattered windshield and a doll lie at the site where Rabbi Binyamin Zeev Kahane and his wife, Talia, were shot dead in a hail of Palestinian gunfire near Ofra Dec. 31."
Sixty bullets were fired at the Jewish family. Which of the five orphaned girls did the doll belong to? Surely not the two-month-old. Maybe the ten-year-old, still grasping for childish comfort on the cusp of teenagehood? Or the two year old, or her sister who is four?
Perhaps it was the companion of the five-year-old, who is now lying, on a respirator, in a hospital's intensive care unit, unaware of the fact that she no longer has a mother to hold her hand?
The doll cannot tell us. She lies on her stomach beside a bullet-riddled car, limbs splayed, blue dress torn, face ground into the blood-soaked earth.
Sara Cohen is a teacher and writer in New York, part of Am Echad's writers pool.