The Golem-Maker of Buchenwald
by Douglas J Lane
“We were told you can create a golem.” The man in the suit flicks ash from a thin black cigarette into the ash tray.
Gerstmann turns from the TV behind the bar–Mayor Koch making proclamations about the ongoing city newspaper strike– and studies the man. Sheffer’s card says he’s a director of cultural affairs for the Israeli Minister of the Interior. His suit makes the bar look cheap.
Gerstmann sips his gimlet. Frowns. Too much lime juice. “I don’t do that anymore.”
“But you are Ira Gerstmann?”
“One of them.”
“Born in 1930 in Erfurt, Germany to Bernard and Ruth Gerstmann.”
“Friends called him Bernie.”
“Your father died in the camps, but your mother was liberated and emigrated to the United States with you.”
“With her sister Miriam. There was also a schnauzer. An unpleasant dog.”
“Then you are the golem-maker of Buchenwald.”
Gerstmann dismisses the notion with a wave. “There was no golem at Buchenwald. Camp resistance had no need of one. They had guns and patience and a short-wave radio. All the magic they needed.”
“Men who were there say they saw it rise.”
“I’m a man who was there. The only thing that rose in Buchenwald was a cheer, when the Americans came through the gate. You know how legends build. They begin as pebbles at the summit. Those fall. More join them, and more, until they beget an avalanche that buries the foot of the mountain. Try finding the original pebbles in the rubble.”
Sheffer’s lips hint at a smile. “Then tell me the truth behind the legend.”
“The truth? They gave a hyperactive ten-year-old something on which to focus his energy, so the guards didn’t stave his head in.” Gerstmann has already said more about Buchenwald in a half-hour than he has in the decade preceding. “Much later, I successfully raised a golem. Once or twice. Assistance to old women or rabbis with pest problems. But as I said, I don’t do that anymore.”
Sheffer takes a drag. Smoke drifts from his scowl. The story has fallen short of his expectation. Gerstmann hears Bubbe Nussbaum in his head. Expectations are like eyelids, Ira. Everyone has a couple, and they can’t see past them. The woman was a Polish iron-work made flesh. She was sent to Ravensbrück early in the war, reduced to ghosts and memory. Gerstmann cannot recall her face now without a photographic prompt.
“Why not?” Sheffer asks.
Gerstmann thinks of five reasons, broken-necked and splashed across the front page of the Post. His stomach churns anew. “How did you find me?”
“Ben Kastner works with my office. He told me you come here. He says you attended mesivta together.”
“True enough.” Gerstmann makes a silent vow to rap Ben Kastner in the mouth the next time he sees him, for talking out of school.
“Plus I’ve seen pictures at the Ministry of the golem you raised for Irene Rosen.”
“Her rabbi found it in her basement, after she died. It was there with a box containing your correspondence on the matter.”
Gerstmann wonders if the woman simply died before she could destroy it, or kept it as some kind of memento. He feels naked. “What became of it?”
“It was inert. After he photographed it, the rabbi destroyed the form. Dust to dust.”
Gerstmann takes another sip and pushes the glass away, the drink devolving as quickly as his control of the conversation. “What need does the Minister of the Interior of the State of Israel have for a golem?”
Sheffer lifts a briefcase from beside his chair. He pops the brass latches. “I trust that you will keep what I’m about to tell you a secret.”
“I’m 43, unmarried, and unemployed. Who would I tell?” Sheffer sets a folder on the table and pushes it to Gerstmann. “We need someone to protect Avner Wollman.”
Gerstmann opens the folder. He flips through a series of newspaper articles and fuzzy photocopies as Sheffer narrates. “Wollman is a German Jew. An Auschwitz survivor. His testimony helped tie the noose around the neck of Franz Hössler at the Belsen Trial. Heard of him?”
Gerstmann shakes his head. If he doesn’t recognize the name, the story is familiar. He’s incapable of remembering all the people who have testified at some time to something done in Germany or Poland or the dozen other countries that had camps, a fraternity chartered by history.
“He’s a cultural treasure,” Sheffer says. “A writer, photographer and poet. He started by self-publishing his own experiences. He was also one of the first survivors to return to the camps after the war, to document them. He recorded oral histories of their survivors, as well as people in the towns nearby. He’s highly regarded as an outspoken champion of human rights, and an enemy of war criminals. He is thus very important to Israel.”
Gerstmann skims pages. Samples of the man’s work. Interviews. Lecture transcripts. Photographs of places for which Gerstmann’s memory needs no prompt. “Where is he now?”
“Rio de Janeiro. He went there in 1974 on vacation and decided to stay. Keeps to himself. I’d call it retirement, but he still publishes the occasional op-ed.”
“And from who or what does he need protection?”
“For four years, Wollman flew under the radar. But in the last few months, people have begun harassing him. There are individuals down there still sympathetic to the Nazis–expatriate German nationals, Holocaust deniers, that ilk. Wollman doesn’t want a thug with a gun. He thinks that invites trouble.” Sheffer flips to the back of the folder, to a color snapshot of Wollman sitting at a table outside a cafe. The man’s face is old, creased, hard. His gaze bores up from the image, annoyance at being photographed.
“You think a golem is the answer?”
Sheffer points at the photo. “He does. The Minister thinks they’re a fairy tale.”
Sheffer shrugs. “I’m a little more open to the notion of such things.”
Gerstmann sighs. “I don’t do this anymore.”
“I have three men on my list. The other two are both elderly rabbis, only rumored to have raised golems. You, I’ve seen proof. I’d prefer you.” He takes another drag, the tip of his cigarette rage red, then fading. “You would be well-compensated for your work. Monetary payment for time and effort. A personal letter of thanks from the Minister of the Interior. I also understand you’ve been unemployed for six months.”
Gerstmann’s tone cuts. “Does the Ministry also know my brand of toothpaste and my shoe size?”
“We can also offer you a job. The Ministry maintains an office in lower Manhattan, if you don’t mind clerical work.”
Gerstmann studies the man for some sign of mirth. All he sees through the haze of cigarette smoke is grim determination.
“I need to think about it,” Gerstmann says, with no real intention to give it another thought.
Gerstmann takes the D train to Bay Parkway in south Brooklyn and walks home. The autumn night is crisp. Winter is going to sting. As he passes other homes in the row, he sees his house is dark. He always leaves the porch light and a living room lamp illuminated.
He steps onto the small porch and sees the notice on the door. The Con Ed logo is more festive than the words that leap out at him in the glow of the streetlight: “service disconnected,” “account past due,” other utility company hate-speak toward the unemployed. He stuffs the notice in his pocket and unlocks the door.
“Yeah, the power jockeys were here,” a voice says behind Gerstmann. He turns to see Milkin, his neighbor for the last ten years, on the adjacent porch. Milkin’s a busybody, his eyes always watching, his lips crowded with probing questions. “Money troubles?”
“No. Just a crossed payment. A miscommunication.”
“Oh.” Milkin pauses. “Because it seems like you’ve been out of work for a while.” He stops again, as if the words need to queue in his mouth. “You know, my younger son has a lot of pull at his firm. They respect his opinion. He worked on that Son of Sam thing. I can ask him to float your resume to their accounting department.”
“Thanks, Milkin. I’ll let you know.”
“I mean, it won’t be easy. You don’t find a lot of guys your age just starting at law firms. What are you, 50?”
“I’m 43, but thanks for the extra birthdays. Goodnight, Milkin.” Gerstmann enters the house and closes his door.
Gerstmann sits on the old wooden stool in his basement, candlelight flickering on the walls, the porcelain tub, his workbench. He sets aside his bowl of cereal. He uncorks a bottle of Kentucky bourbon and pours two fingers worth into a clear glass. He rocks the glass between his hands, the bourbon making confused currents.
He peers into the shadows and thinks about the non-golem of Buchenwald. Remembers its smooth face and broad shoulders, large arms and hands, feet that could have crushed a guard with the casual flex of a knee. The situation was exactly as he described to Sheffer: the other prisoners, the ones who adopted him after his father was marched off and never returned, conceived it to occupy the boy’s mind. Gerstmann had seen his grandfather animate such a figure, once, when Gerstmann was five. The appeal to his imagination was successful enough, though the form was never completed. The arrival of the American Third Army rendered the point moot. But the act of forming the figure, the possibility of such magic by his hands, took root in Gerstmann’s young mind.
The expectation was always that Gerstmann would follow the rabbinical path of his father and grandfather. He surrendered short of his formal semikhah. It was a huge scandal in Rego Park in 1955. He was pulled instead by the mystic.
He wonders sometimes if that first success, a small man of clay he designed as an experiment, was where he laid a normal life–wife, children, a respected position in the community, a place of faith and peace–upon a sacrificial altar.
One or two, he told Sheffer. The actual number of golems raised would stun the man. Helpers, protectors, guards, tuned to the needs of the individual each was to serve. Gerstmann took pride in each of them, and might have gone on making them if not for Benny Getty.
Gerstmann animated a helper for Mrs. Getty in 1967, when glaucoma stole her eyesight. It was a favor to his own mother. Mrs. Getty was one of her first friends in New York after the war.
Getty’s son Benny, a small time hood fresh off a stint at Rikers, arrived home one day in 1968 to discover his mother’s helper. Unable to keep his nose clean, and well-read for a hood, Benny re-tasked the golem to be his enforcer in a protection racket.
In the end, Benny wound up in Bellevue for the people the golem killed, if only because no one accepted that a pile of dust in his mother’s home had ever been animate enough to break the necks of five goombahs at a Brooklyn warehouse, no matter how many times Benny said it.
The broken bodies, splayed across the pages of the New York Post, were too much for Gerstmann. He set aside his tools and swore off the craft, gnawing guilt in his gut. He hadn’t sculpted a human form since.
Gerstmann drinks his bourbon and mulls Sheffer’s offer. It’s more attractive by candlelight.
When he finishes his drink, Gerstmann walks upstairs. Con Ed may have forsaken him, but Ma Bell, that great telephonic bubbe, hasn’t. He dials Sheffer’s number.
Clay dredged from Gravesend Bay is purified in the deep porcelain tub, liquified and strained to remove sediments. It takes three days to clarify enough for the form.
The body begins as a long oval. Under Gerstmann’s hands, the shape emerges, molded to Sheffer’s specifications: “Muscular. Compact. A towering figure will only draw attention to Wollman. Anglo features, Nondescript.”
Before he details the face, Gerstmann writes in Hebrew on the back of the color photo of Wollman from Sheffer’s folder. SHAMAR. Keep. Protect. He layers clay over the image to form the forehead. The golem’s mission, hard-coded.
When the figure is done, Gerstmann fishes detail pieces from the apothecary chest along the basement wall. Glass eyes of azure blue. Strands of coffee-colored hair woven from silk. Fish scales trimmed into fingernails. It is all part of the verisimilitude. Wollman’s golem needs to walk alongside men.
When the detail work is done and the golem sewn into appropriate garments, Gerstmann begins the incantation prayers. They are long, involved, precise. They demand perfect focus. If he stumbles or falters, he must begin again. Gerstmann surprises himself by not misspeaking a syllable of the litany.
He finishes by carving all but the final stroke of the final character of the Hebrew word for Truth–EMETH–on the golem’s forehead. When it reaches Rio de Janeiro, Sheffer will complete the word to animate the golem. Gerstmann’s never left animation to someone else. It’s like entrusting a child to a stranger’s care
Four men and a truck arrive the next day, dispatched by Sheffer. They are baby-faced. Gerstmann worries they will be careless. Instead, they crate the golem with slow, deliberate movements, as if handling sweating dynamite. Gerstmann doesn’t engage them in small talk.
They load the golem and pile into the truck. The driver hands Gerstmann an envelope. His compensation: a cream-colored check. A signed letter of thanks from the Minister. Directions to the Ministry office downtown, and a welcome letter from the hiring manager. Paid in full.
Gerstmann watches the truck’s retreat. He looks at the check, then his watch. He has enough time before the bank closes to start getting back on his feet.
Gerstmann’s boots crunch snow underfoot, the sidewalk uncleared. The February wind tugs at his coat. Gerstmann contemplates the joy of sleeping late on Saturday.
As Gerstmann tops his porch steps, Milkin emerges next door without a coat. Gerstmann wonders if the old man wants pneumonia. He sips a Schlitz. “Gerstmann. Beautiful night, huh?” The words are slurred around the edges.
Gerstmann stomps to clear his boots. “You’ve started your weekend early.”
Milkin waves a fresh can at Gerstmann. “Drink with me, neighbor. Drink to life. To justice. To the blessed end of an era.”
“What’s in your bonnet?”
“The butcher is dead. Down in Sao Paolo.” Milkin takes a long swig of his beer. “My older son called this afternoon. It’s all hush-hush, but he had to tell me. They got him. God is good, Gerstmann. God is good.”
“Who got whom?” Although standing on his porch, Gerstmann feels like he’s lost in the snow.
“Mengele. That murdering Nazi cow. They’ve been watching him for years. Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil–they could never touch him. The official story will be drowning. They’re gonna let him be buried under his fake name, ‘discover’ he’s dead later. No headstone, no grave to worship at.”
Gerstmann gapes. “Mengele? But… who? They who?”
Milkin takes another swallow. “The Mossad. My older son is a station chief in South America. Has his finger on the pulse. He figured they’d take the butcher alive some day, like Eichmann, but I guess it got ugly. He said Mengele’s head was damn near screwed off his shoulders.”
Milkin says more, but Gerstmann doesn’t hear. He steps inside, closes his door. His eyes are full of dead goombahs in a Brooklyn warehouse, necks broken. He retrieves Sheffer’s card from the study. He dials the number, wondering how close Sao Paolo is to Rio.
The next afternoon, Sheffer stands in Gerstmann’s dining room. He refuses coffee or tea. He declines a seat, put out. Gerstmann wonders why he even bothered to make the trip.
“Is Avner Wollman real?” Gerstmann asks.
Sheffer shakes his head. “The entire folder was a prop for your benefit.”
“Who was in the picture?”
“He was a Sao Paolo local. A drunk. Nobody. But he had the element we needed: Mengele didn’t like him. Mengele thought he looked Jewish. He swung at the guy for fun. Old bastard. It gave us an opportunity. We created Avner Wollman.”
The room is so quiet, Gerstmann can hear his wristwatch ticking. “You used me.”
“We were directed to be hands off. I needed something outside the box. An unconventional weapon. One you knew how to build.”
“I don’t animate golems as weapons. They’re intended to protect. To preserve. Not to destroy!”
“No?” Sheffer leans over a chair. “Let me ask you: if ten year old Ira Gerstmann had been capable of finishing the task, what would his golem have done to the Buchenwald guards? Talked them into surrender? Reasoned with them? No.”
“I had no chance of success.”
“I’m speaking to intent, not ability. It would have maimed and ripped and torn and crushed and killed those guards, to the point of its own destruction, to protect the people in that camp.”
Gerstmann glares. His body shakes. His voice fails him.
“Tell me, Gerstmann. If I’d approached you with the real reason I wanted your expertise, would you have told me ‘no’?”
Gerstmann begins to answer. He remembers Buchenwald, the stench of death and dying and fear. His affirmation dies on his tongue, unspoken.
His silence pulls Sheffer’s mouth into a smug pucker. “If it makes you feel better, the culmination of your life’s work has the thanks of a grateful nation.” He leaves through the side door.
Gerstmann listens to Sheffer’s car drive away. He begins to weep. Not from being The Mossad’s dupe. Nor for Mengele. Never for Mengele. He might even be share-a-Schlitz-with-Milkin pleased the bastard is dead.
He weeps because he cannot bring himself to speak truth to Sheffer’s question, even to himself.
When he’s done weeping, Gerstmann descends to his basement. He peers around his workshop. He thinks about the golem, provoked by Mengele’s swing at a Sao Paolo barfly into twisting Mengele’s head from his shoulders.
Gerstmann steps to the corner. The wooden handle of the rusted sledgehammer is rough in his grip. His first swing tears an irreparable hole in the side of the old porcelain tub.
Douglas J Lane has been a government contractor, a marketing project manager and a journalist. His fiction has appeared in publications including Tales of the Unanticipated, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Washington City Paper and Machine of Death. He lives in Houston, TX with his wife and their feline overlord.