“The Orange Tree.”
That is what he said when I asked him what he remembered about war time Greece. He was an elderly yet lively Greek gentleman with an accent that tried to belie a tapestry of history. Still it begged: ask me about my life. True, I could have asked him about the Greek fiscal crisis, his opinion on the Euro zone; but a question like that would unjustly fast forward years of a history he has lived. And as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I am always fascinated by people who lived in that era and have a different perspective. So I skipped the obligatory questions about the Greek economy and I asked him if he remembered the war.
And what do you remember about it?
I remember The Orange Tree. It was in my backyard and I loved that Orange Tree. I was around eight years old and food was not easy to come by. But every day I relished the opportunity to pick an orange, to admire it, to allow my fingers to wrestle with its firm peel. Ah, the sound of that first cut, that citrusy scent playing with my nose, and the first hints of juice freeing itself in delight. I would eat an orange every night. It was a custom; no, it was a recess. A break from a world that looked nothing like that bright and hopeful tree, even to an eight year old.
Then one day the Nazis came. I did not know much about Nazis but I knew that their colors did not match the colors of my country. They were gray and stern. A Nazi came to my backyard as I looked out the window. I remember the scene very well. It is the sort of scene that you cannot embellish with emotion. True, maybe you will add a thing here and there. Maybe there wasn’t a coffee mug on the counter. Maybe someone else was in the room. Those things I don’t know; my memory has already tricked me by playing that scene over and over with different settings, but those feelings that return tell me it happened exactly like this: A Nazi picked an orange from the Tree. He peeled it, not with anger, but not with sensitivity either. Not as aggressive as you may imagine but definitely indifferent; it did not mean anything to him. He took a bite and spit it out. He must have said something but I could not hear him, and even if I did I probably would not have understood him. He took a bad one. Not one that looked bad from the outside, but one that needed more time.
After him came more Nazis. They took some tools from our shed. A saw. By now I realized what was going on. I ran across to the backyard and stood with the Tree. Has this Tree hurt you? Has it wronged you? Do you know I love this Tree? But he did not understand me, nor did he care to understand me. He pushed me out of the way and I cried and cried on the ground until someone from inside the house came to fetch me. That is what I remember from the war.
This story has lingered with me since I heard it, and I am not sure why. Maybe it is the innocent, beautiful tree ripped from its roots for no real reason. Maybe it is the image of a child losing a friend, even if that friend did not talk. Or perhaps it is because I know that this indifferent cruelty did not only apply to opulent trees, but to small children, like my own, or to men and women with not a single bad limb in their body.
This year, at the end of Shabbat, we will be commemorating Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. I cannot say that I look forward to Tisha B’Av, yet I respect its importance. Tisha B’Av is a day to reflect and remember the rich and tragic fate of the Jewish people; it is day where there is nothing to do but cry. Starting with the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash to the current barrage of terrorism and Anti-Semitism, we will sit and recognize that there are people out there, many people, who will hate our children even if they are smart or kind, funny or giving. And we will continue to remember all those who were uprooted for no reason at all.