Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Heather Huhn
Category: Short Story
The sun peeked in through the windows; its glare lit up the foreign room as Tzach placed his shoes in a duffle bag. The slight wind of the early morning swept in through the window’s crack: a photo fell to his feet. Slowly kneeling down, Tzach picked up the photo, careful not to bend it with his hands. Tzach’s mother, father, and grandparents all posed for the camera: a moment frozen forever. He felt his eyes water and quickly placed his hand on his face to stop it, but it was too late – the tear already reached the photo, slightly wetting it. His strong, yet mysterious father Odede: his whereabouts remain unknown. His mother stays at home, unable to shake herself from the pain; she hasn’t left the house once since the end of the war, too scared of what might happen if she goes outside. Only one of Tzach’s grandparents made it; his grandfather stays hidden at home with his mother. But what about his father, who has been missing for fifteen years since the war? Tzach grew up, twenty now, without ever knowing where his father might be.
But he decided that wouldn’t be the case anymore. With the help of an old friend, Tzach set out, determined to find his father. Someone had to know something. His mother, trapped in her own grief, urged Tzach not to search for him.
“Oh, but you’ll never find him. He’s been gone for too long. What if they come and get you, too?” She held onto him like glue, unable to let go.
“Mother, I’ll be fine. I need to know what happened to him. What if he’s out there, all alone, looking for us?” He forced her to release him with a gentle hug and a wave goodbye.
“Tzach, please come home. I don’t know what I’d do without you, especially since Odede is–” His mother choked on her own words, unable to finish her sentence.
But that was then. Now, as the sun was peeking in, Tzach was ready for his first interaction. Maybe, Odede’s lifelong friend, Noah, would know something. But, what if he didn’t? What if this trip was all for nothing? Maybe Noah didn’t want to talk about it, the memories of the camps were too strong in his mind, forever infiltrating him with worry and fear.
He placed his hand on the wooden front door and pounded it once.
Immediately, Noah opened the door. His wrinkled hands and face made him seem eighty, not fifty. “Hello?”
“Uh, hi! I’m Tzach, Odede’s son. Do you-you remember him?”
“Oh my, you are the spitting image of him. Well, come in. Would you like some tea or coffee?”
He placed his foot in the room. Nothing was out of place: simplistic, yet beautiful. “Tea would be great, thank you.”
Noah entered the room with two steaming cups of tea and handed one to Tzach. As they seated themselves onto the aged couches, Noah calmly asked, “What would you like to know, child?”
“It’s been fifteen years since the war. I haven’t seen my father since I was born; I don’t have the slightest memory of him. Yet, I have a desperate need to find him. He must be out there. We know about where each one died their death, but father, his death is mysterious. I need to know: did he make it or is he forever gone?”
“Wow, how you and your father are so similar. You speak just like him, sophisticated, particular.” Noah sighed as he sipped his tea. “Oh, how Odede and I were friends our entire life. Ever since we were born, we were inseparable. Born in the same week, even. But the war separated us for the first time. Although I was caught with him, our paths went different ways.”
“Oh, how you speak of him in the past. Can’t he be found now? Why don’t I know anything about him?”
“Slowly, boy, I’m getting there. In our camp, half of us were able to escape, with the help of some others. But everyone else – including your father – was stuck there, waiting for their next command. I tried to get him to come with me, but it was too late. I had to take my chance; it was the last bit of hope I had.” He paused, tears streaming down his face. “Forgive me, please. I made it home from the camp, unaware of the fates of those who stayed behind. I wish I could be more helpful, but the last time I saw him was in 1944, just at the turning point of the war.”
“Oh, thank you. Do you know who I should speak to? Anyone else who was also at the camp with him?”
“Yes. You should visit Michael, a friend that Odede and I met during the war. He’s only a short trip away; if you take a plane, it shouldn’t be more than an hour or two. He was away recently, but he’s back now.”
“Thank you so much. Take care!”
The sun rose as its light overrode the night’s darkness. A mix of colors seemed to paint the sky abstractly. From within the pocket of exposure from Tzach’s window seat, the world seemed endless, everlasting; his father could be in the depths of the sea, far off in another land, or right next to his home. Hopefully, Michael would know. But maybe, he’d know as little as Noah – the sweet man who tried to help but was ignorant as to where Tzach’s father might be. Though everyone around Tzach was shivering and their lips were chattering, he couldn’t seem to stop his sweaty hands from shaking as they clenched into fists. The slight rumbling of the plane and a series of clapping from everyone around Tzach signaled that he had arrived: only thirty minutes until he might learn the truth.
Trees enclosed him with an array of green as the everlasting road twisted and turned. At last, an opening led to a huge pond that the house was behind. The overarching pillars, windows, and roof made the house seem like it was reaching the sun. Slowly, Tzach walked up the marble stairs and approached the double doors.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“I’ll be there in a minute!”
A tall, widely built man – dressed as if he was at a wedding – opened the door. “Hello?”
“Hi. My name is Tzach. I’m here regarding Odede – my father. I was wondering if you know anything about him.”
“Oh! Odede. Wow, it’s been so long. Come in! Guests are always welcome. We just started dinner, would you like to join us?”
The halls were enchanted with paintings and statues – the deep tones of red and brown were encapsulating – as Tzach was led to the dining room. The table didn’t have an inch of free space; food of all sorts and colors were like sirens, luring Tzach over to them. Tzach felt his hand reaching out to indulge in the food but quickly stopped himself.
“Welcome and please sit! Help yourself to anything. To my left is my beautiful wife, Hannah.” Michael exclaimed as he took a seat on a velvet-coated chair. “Hannah, this is Tzach. He’s looking for his father, Odede, who I met during the war.”
“Nice to meet you!” Hannah stated sweetly, but as soon as Michael turned away to tend to the food, she slipped Michael a relaxant, one that would release him from his emotions. “It’s so Michael doesn’t get too emotional about the war. Sometimes, it takes him months to get out of his own mind,” she whispered and then held her husband’s arm as he swiveled back around.
“The war – I shall not talk about it in great depths – but yes, Odede and I were there together. I remember this singular moment… Hannah was there too. They took our wives away and separated us from them. And slowly, as our wives passed by us, all skin and bones – we weren’t much better ourselves – we were taunted to make a move, to get out of line. But Odede, he held us back and even stopped a specific man, I can’t quite get my mind on his name, from calling out to his wife. He put his great hands on the man’s mouth and covered it– yes, he saved us all.”
As Tzach picked off a piece of bread with cheese from the beautiful golden board, he saw how Michael became entranced; his eyes seemed to turn into deep brown wells with endless pits full of trauma. And although he wanted to help Michael, lead him away from the past, Tzach had one thing in mind – to find out where his father was. “Oh, Michael. I’m so sorry about asking this. But, do you know anything about where he might have gone? Is he still out there, looking for his family, for me, for his wife?”
“My, my, my,” Michael sighed. “Yes, although I am afraid I don’t know much… Let me tell you what I know. Not much longer after that incident, I was sent to another camp. All the way on the other side of Europe. I thought that I would never see anyone again. Thankfully, I was mistaken,” he paused, gazing over at his wife as if he could never stop looking at her after being separated for so long. “Odede stayed there. It was a terrible place: almost no one made it out alive. I was convinced that he had not. By the time I had left, Odede seemed more like a shell than anything else; his clothes were so large on him. But, a dear old friend of mine, the one who saved me at the end of the war, claimed that she saw him.”
Tzach’s jaw opened wide; he was frozen, paralyzed. Never had he heard such amazing news. “So, my father might be alive?” He ran up to Michael and hugged him, overwhelmed with an indescribable feeling.
“I can’t guarantee anything. It was fifteen years ago. Apparently, Odede was rescued, but then he went off the radar. Gone. No one knows where he is. He might be out there, waiting for you, but it’s been so long…” His voice trailed off.
Anguish. Is he alive? Gone? Here? He might be somewhere else, enjoying another life.
“What’s my next step-?” Tzach croaked out, unable to finish.
“That’s up for you to decide.”
Tzach couldn’t help but wonder what he would tell his anxious mother, waiting for him to come back home. Maybe his father is completely gone and the trip was for nothing. Maybe his father doesn’t want to be found. Maybe it was better being left in the dark than to know a sliver of information – not enough to satisfy him, but enough to make him restless, yearning for more.