From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

She Didn’t Pray for a Miracle

One who has compassion for others will receive compassion from Heaven.

Talmud, Tractate Shabbat

That morning, as every morning, Sonya awoke from a nightmare, her heart thudding. She had heard it all again so clearly—the shouts of the soldiers, the pounding on the door. Quickly she got out of bed, pressing her hands to her head. She could not, would not let the past intrude on her. After a moment, she willed herself back to calmness, and then, methodically, she began dressing for work.

Sonya had escaped from Hitler’s Germany the year before. She and her family had been active in the resistance movement in their small city—and they had paid for it. Her husband had been taken away in the night. For questioning, the SS men had said. But as they led him out, he and Sonya had managed a brief embrace. They knew it was farewell. Her brother-in-law had disappeared in the same way; her sister, niece and nephew had been taken off to work as slave laborers in a weapons factory.

Last of all, the soldiers had come for Sonya’s son. They had arrested him at school. That time there wasn’t even the chance for a good-bye. Shortly afterwards, Sonya had been smuggled out of Germany through American intervention, and she resettled in New York City. An apartment had been found for her, and a job as well, doing alterations and fine needlework in a large department store. She had a life—but not really. To survive, Sonya had not only sealed up her past, she had closed herself off. During the day, she was as removed from the rest of the world as if she was a stone. In fact, that’s how she thought of herself. As made of stone. Only at night, as she slept, would the unwanted past come creeping back.

At the store, Sonya did her work efficiently and well— and silently. She never spoke to any of the people who sat near her, and they knew better than to try and speak to her. At lunch, too, she sat alone.

Only on this day, as she sat in the store cafeteria, a voice interrupted her.

Sonya looked up, startled. “Mrs. Stein!” She gestured to the heavyset woman in the elaborate hat. “Yes, please, please sit.”

Mrs. Stein was on the refugee assistance committee that had found Sonya her apartment and her job. “We have two children, from Germany,” Mrs. Stein began. “They’ve been through so much. The girl is ten; the boy is seven. They need a home. Not just a place to live, a home. I thought maybe you needed someone, too.”

Ten and seven. The exact ages her niece and nephew would have been now. Of course, she couldn’t take these children. They’d be living reminders of the past. Sonya shook her head. “I cannot.”

“Will you at least think about it, Sonya? I’ll come back tomorrow and you can give me your answer then.”

“There’s no need,” Sonya said stiffly. “I cannot take them.”

For a few moments more, she felt Mrs. Stein’s eyes on her. Kindly eyes, but eyes that saw too much. Sonya kept her head down until the woman moved away.

Sonya worked faster than usual that afternoon and left work early. She hurried home, turned off the lights and crawled into bed. That’s what she did on the bad days, struggling alone in the darkness to keep the door shut on the past. But tonight it wasn’t working and she knew why. The mention of those children had started up memories she couldn’t stop. The ache within became an actual physical pain. The only way she could ease it was with tears. For the first time since she’d left Germany, Sonya began crying.

Sobbing, stumbling, she went to the closet and pulled out the small satchel she’d carried with her from Germany. Wrapped in heavy cloth were three photographs: her husband, her son and her sister. Tenderly, she unwrapped the picture and then she set them on the bureau. It hurt to look at them . . . but they also brought comfort. She began to remember the good times again, the happy times as well as the bad. And she knew that she had to start reaching out again, not only for herself, but for the people in the pictures. She had to carry on for all of them.

Sonya knelt by her bed. It had been a long time since she’d prayed, and the words came hard. “I want to come alive again,” she whispered. “I don’t know how, but I’m hoping you can help me. Amen.”

It had been a very disjointed kind of prayer, but maybe God would understand.

For the first time since her husband had been taken, Sonya slept through the night. And when she awoke, it was naturally—peacefully. She knew what she had to do. She would take the children! That would be the first step in reaching out.

At noon, Sonya stood nervously at the door to the cafeteria, watching for Mrs. Stein. As soon as she saw her, she started to speak, “The children—they still need a home?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then I will take them! It will be crowded, my apartment is so tiny, but we’ll manage. I want to take them!”

Mrs. Stein’s face broke into a big smile. She took Sonya’s hand. “Good! I’ll bring them over tonight.”

Right after work, Sonya began baking the traditional German pastries she hadn’t made in so long. She would reach out to those children with good food—and love. They would be shy, of course. Maybe they would even be like she had been—closed off, closed in. But it didn’t matter. She would keep trying.

“Sonya!” It was Mrs. Stein. Quickly, Sonya opened the door. The girl stood on one side of Mrs. Stein, the boy on the other. Sonya’s heart lurched. They looked so sad. And why shouldn’t they? They’d lost everything—and everyone. And there was something else, too, something strangely familiar about them that tugged at her.

“Please come in,” she said. Each child carried a small satchel and wore clean clothes that didn’t quite fit. The look of a refugee, Sonya thought. The look she herself had worn not so long ago. Was that why they seemed so familiar? Because they reminded her of the other refugee children she’d seen on the ship coming to America?

“Sonya,” Mrs. Stein said, “this is Liese and Karl.”

Her niece’s and nephew’s names. Sonya’s stomach dropped away; her heart began beating hard. It couldn’t be. Things like that didn’t happen. It would be a miracle, and she hadn’t prayed for a miracle. She’d only prayed to be able to reach out again. But still she took a step closer, searching the children’s faces. It had been so long, and they would have changed in so many ways. As she had changed.

Puzzled, Mrs. Stein said, “Is something wrong, Sonya?”

Sonya shook her head, still staring. The girl lifted her eyes, wide and dark—wrenchingly familiar. It was as if she was searching Sonya’s face, too. And then the boy cried out.

“Karl?” Mrs. Stein asked. “Are you all right?”

The boy pointed a trembling hand toward the three pictures Sonya had set out the night before. He ran toward the bureau, grabbed up the picture of Sonya’s sister and held it to his heart.

“Mama,” he whispered.

Cynthia Mercati

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