Hermann Schultz, the young guard, peered through the bars and saw the shadows of the evening gather around the skinny, naked man huddled in the corner of the cell. The shadows accentuated his sad gray eyes and rivulets of sorrow glistened in his gray beard.
The frightened wretch was lost in thought, staring at the wall as if mesmerized by the unfolding pictures of his dwindling life.
As the SS officer and theinspectorof concentration camps, Joseph Goebbels , had said at the illustrious professor’s trial, he deserved special privilege — to be stripped naked and shot at dawn because he was a liberal with a generous predisposition and a hopeless naivete about the value of human life.
Crouched on his steel cot, Professor Aharon Frankel recalled how the men in black uniforms had stormed into his class at Frankfurt University, striking the first blow for the Third Reich against fidelity to decency and democracy. As he was lofted overhead on the shoulders of burly men, he continued to defiantly interpret The Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides to the class. But he stopped when they shot Karl Müller, who had risen to his feet and raged, “Dass ist mein Professor!” That is my professor.
The boot of the tyrant crushed all opposition with a single gunshot.
He recalled the book burning in the University Plaza, where all nine of his literary critiques on the finest in German literature were ceremoniously burned after the Nazi Commander read off the titles one by one, occasionally mispronouncing the more difficult nouns. Books that had taken him two decades of painstaking research burned to ashes in minutes.
He recalled, with some regret, the vanity that occasionally influenced him after he had acquired a reputation as a scholar. Even his literary critics had called him a man of prodigious learning who had an indefatigable memory for all the great books from
As they burned his books onto a pile at Unter den Linden, which was opposite the University of Berlin, his mind disassociated from his reflections of self-reproach about the pride he had once taken in his career and writings.
He had always known that everything returns to dust and ashes, but he had not expected it to happen before his eyes.
The Devoted Immigrant
He remembered his father, who had brought the family over from Poland. His father had idolized Germany. It was a glorious place, he explained to young Aharon, the home of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Robert Schumann. His father also loved literature. At bedtimes, his father would read The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe aloud while playing Bach in the background.
For the first time in his life, he was glad that his father had died before the death of democracy in his adopted homeland.
The light was now gone, and the cell was almost pitch-dark except for a glimmer pouring in through the bars from the hallway. This would be the last night of his life. At the first light of dawn, he would be put up against a wall and his heart — which had struggled to love everyone all the years of his — life would be shot out.
Exhausted by the long night, Hermann leaned up against the wall.
Despite his fatigue, he couldn’t stop his erratic thinking.
All his life, he had been a good Christian, and now his betrayal to the Lord of Love weighed heavily on his heart.
He also mused about the God of the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims. Where they all the same deity described in different ways.
Before he fell asleep, he remembered a story he had once read about another faith, Islam: It was about how Mohammed had been visited by an angel.
He had read a book about how a miracle had happened in a cave called Hira, high up in the mountains of Jabal an-Nour. It was there that the archangel Gabriel recited the opening lines of the Quran.
In his troubled sleep, Hermann dreamed of angels.
Then the diaphanous form an angel, nine feet high and glorious of face and form, towered over Hermann’s dream body.
“I have come to free you from following your perverse logic of blind obedience to a power that you do not believe in,” said the luminous being.
“I do not know what I believe,” replied Hermann. “I’ve read many books in vain. Some propose a monotheistic god. Some say this world was made by a malevolent demiurge. Some say it is all by chance and nothing means anything. Some say we ourselves are the light, the truth, and the way.”
“Where you are now, you cannot understand the complexity of misery and of evil, and your only hope is to follow your heart and trust in hidden guidance. Just know this — you, too, are the one who is everyone.”
A slap in the face woke Hermann up. An SS officer screamed obscenities in his face but then recoiled when Hermann’s calm gaze settled on him.
Unnerved by the surreal glow that emanated from Hermann’s eyes, the soldier turned on his heels and stomped away.
“Fall asleep again,” he shouted back, “and I’ll put you in front of the firing squad this morning.”
Undisturbed by violence or rage, Hermann was now more awake than he had ever been in his whole life. An intense aliveness throbbed through his body.
His mind was so clear he imagined he could see eternity if he squinted his eyes.
The Logos had become flesh. The sacred and the sublime had become real, individuating itself as his consciousness. Eternity had collapsed into history to talk to him. All the centuries were an illusion because every moment only existed in the now to those who lived back then.
He knew who he was and what he must do.
The mystery was now so simple, so clear, so beyond the mind that he was almost embarrassed to have spent most of his short life trying to figure it all out.
Everyone with the best intentions had lied to him. But now he knew the truth. He was, as the unnamed angel had said, “the one who is everyone.”
Geh Mit Gott
Unlocking the door, he went in, woke up his prisoner, swaddled him in the bedsheet, grabbed him by his arm and marched him outside with a firm hand.
Noticing the crepuscular rays beginning to light up the hallway, the professor moaned and became a limp weight under Hermann’s strong grip.
They marched into the chilly courtyard, where the soldiers were smoking, cleaning guns, loading up bullets.
“Es ist zu früh,” said the captain of the firing squad, irritated. “It’s too early.”
“I’m taking him to the store,” said Hermann, “ to buy his last cigarette.”
“It’s pointless, “ objected the captain, waving him away in resignation. “He is as good as dead, dummer Mann.” But, still, as he spoke, he avoided the professor’s petrified stare.
“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” said Hermann, glancing at his watch. “Then it will be his time.”
“His time to step out of time,” said the Captain lamely, but even his own gallows humor failed to amuse him.
Hermann dragged the professor into an administrative building, then they walked through a series of doors. Soldiers they encountered chuckled as Hermann dragged the frightened man. When asked by a superior, he repeated his explanation about fulfilling a dying man’s request.
Then, suddenly, when no one was around, he hastened around a corner, rushed to a side gate, unlocked it, and pushed the professor out.
“Geh mit Gott,” he said, “Go with God.”
“Warum?” asked the Professor, confused. “Why?”
“Ich bin dein Bruder,” said Hermann. “I am your brother.”
Still, the professor stood there.
“Geh schnell,” exhorted Hermann. “Go quickly.”
“Nein,” said the Professor, suddenly understanding.
“Ohne dich bin ich niemand.” Without you, I am nobody.
Grabbing his liberator’s hand, he pulled him out of the compound to join him in freedom.
Together, like long lost brothers finally reunited, they ran back into a world of new beginnings and infinite permutations, a world where it was possible for angels to speak with men and set them free.
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