File under: “Lessons for Life”

Offered in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day…

“Done! You now have a working dishwasher.” I began gathering up my tools.

Don looked dubious. “Will it hold up?”

“Sure it will hold up! It’s a product of Alex’s Engineering Marvels: guaranteed to hold together until the last of the workmen has fled the premises. Here, let me show you what I did…. See this outlet? The manufacturers cleverly designed the hookup so you’d have to order the coupling from their factory, probably at a substantial markup. The threading doesn’t match the standard hosing, but it turns out that it does match the top of a large plastic pill bottle.”

“A pill bottle?”

“A pill bottle. All I had to do was drill a hole…. Oh, and I used the lid of a different bottle for the gasket.” I waited in vain for complements on my ingenuity. “Your pills are in a plastic bag over there on the counter, by the way.”


“And this tube here, I organized from an irrigation system—”

“Alex, you didn’t happen to ‘organize’ that from the neighbor’s drip system did you?”

“Of course not! What do you take me for? A scumbag I may be, but I’m not a thief!” He didn’t look convinced. “No, I scavenged that from a pile of stuff someone tossed out.”

The lad had a rather low opinion of my scavenging, but had not been too proud to accept a nice chair for his study from the same source. I got up and squeezed the water out of my trouser legs. “So yes, it’s about as durable a piece of work as any of us are, which is to say, not much. On the other hand, the improvisation would have done credit to Shmuel the Glazier himself!”

“Shmuel the Glazier?”

“I never told you that story? Pour us a shot of arak and I’ll hand down to you an important bit of history—the remarkable story of Shmuel the Glazier.”

We took our drinks out onto the porch and sat in comfortable silence for a while. Ember the tomcat made a beeline for my lap.

“That’s the strangest thing,” Don said. “That cat doesn’t like anyone else; only you. I don’t always know who I’m talking to, but Ember always knows.”

I looked down at Ember. Astute creature. Even I don’t know myself that well. The cat blinked up at me.

“So, Shmuel the Glazier….

“He was from somewhere in Poland and came to Birkenau after they’d taken his entire family. No illusions. Lasted about four weeks in Quarantine. Winter was coming on, but he was pretty sure he needn’t worry about it. He gave himself about ten days. One can usually tell, just from the signs.”

“What signs?”

I drummed my fingers on the chair arm. “You want to hear this story or not?”

Don grinned and made a little ‘after-you’ gesture.

“Right. So Shmuel knew he was going down and he knew already not to expect a miracle. But it seems they do happen occasionally, to some people. The next morning at Appel, a German officer showed up, accompanied by a couple of Poles in civilian clothes. It was announced that a workshop was being opened up and they needed some skilled workers: ‘Two electricians, four carpenters, and a glazier.’

“Now one of the unwritten rules of that place is: never volunteer! Never! But poor Shmuel, what could he do? He knew how things would go with him if he didn’t get out of Quarantine. The evidence was all around him. He had to take a gamble. ‘Electrician is out,’ he thought to himself. ‘I’d electrocute myself the first time I tried to connect two wires. I can do that tonight right here with less bother. And carpentry…I scarcely know one end of a hammer from another; the others will out me in no time. But glazier? Well, I don’t know what a glazier does, but…nothing to lose anyway.’ So he raised his hand and the overseer took his number. Shmuel was out of Quarantine! He and the other six volunteers were escorted under guard out the motor gate and down the road toward the Stammlager. There, the Germans had set up a little industrial complex right on the main road—factories, small tool shops, carpentries, the works.

“The first thing that meets Shmuel’s eyes when he’s escorted through the door to his new job is a huge room full of unidentifiable machines. Glass cutting machines, beveling machines, machines that did God-alone-knew-what. The Germans must have denuded every factory in the region to gather together this lot.

“‘Gevalt!’ says Shmuel to himself (for he was an Ashkenazi Jew, albeit from a decent neighborhood). ‘I have no idea how to operate any of this!’

“But of course, he didn’t let on. He was playing for his life. He walked around the room, examining the machines, making little expert grunts and comments on the make and manufacture. ‘Ah yes! A good make! Hmmm…but this one…a piece of crap.’ He examines the huge sheets of glass stacked up on racks and gives the outer sheet a flick of his finger, then puts his ear to the glass as if judging the quality of the ‘ping!’

“Then he turns back to the Polish foreman and says, with an air of authority, ‘All right, you’ve got some excellent resources here, but most of these machines need two men to operate. I’ll need an assistant. But listen! Make sure the man has at least three years of experience, because I don’t work with amateurs!”

“A toast to Shmuel the Glazier, may his name be long remembered in Israel.”

(An excerpt from A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption.)

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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