Commentary Magazine


Memo from the Thirty-Six
A Story

This story is based on an old legend that there are always thirty-six just men (The Thirty-Six) by virtue of whom the world exists and without whom the world could not continue.

When all the Jews of the town of Sapetkin were exterminated, one of them was left alive. Todros, the water carrier—he was left alive.

The Lithuanians with their whips and the Ukranians from the other side of the frontier didn’t bother him; the Polish peasants wearing Jewish boots kept away from him; even the Gestapo chief turned his head and pretended not to notice Todros when he passed by.

Apparently this was because Todros was one of the hidden saints, one of the Thirty-Six.

If they had exterminated Todros, there would have been no more world, God forbid: no more Lithuanians with whips, no more Ukranians and Poles wearing Jewish boots—even no more Gestapo.

But Todros wasn’t satisfied. So he set out through desolated cities and towns and had the following announcement published in the proper places: “As of this date, Todros the water-carrier convokes a Great Assembly of the Thirty-Six. And at once, without delay.”

For, according to their constitution, every one of the Thirty-Six can convoke a general assembly. That is to say, he can convoke it when times are really bad.

And times were really bad. And how bad!

They asked, “Where is it to be held?”

He answered, “In a small forest near Treblinka.”

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So the Thirty-Six assembled in a small forest near Treblinka. There were all sorts: scholars with long, gray beards, small-town artisans with broad backs, as well as a few Galician doctors. There was even a rabbi from New York State. All he could understand was English. Nobody knew how he got there. At any rate, he didn’t come by airplane.

Somebody with a long beard began to justify God’s ways, saying that: “God can never err nor doth the Eternal pervert justice,” and that: “Man cannot be more righteous than his Lord.” As proof he cited opinions all the way from Moses, our master, to the Gaon of Vilna and the author of the book, Ye Who Desire Life (of blessed memory).

But Todros wouldn’t stand for that: he was a simple Jew, he said, and he just couldn’t get so much Torah into his head. “And it seems to me,” he added, “that this time ‘they’ have really gone too far.”

“Then what is there to do?” they asked.

He said, “One of us has to go up there, himself, ‘not through an Angel and not through a messenger,’ and see about Watchman, what of the night?’, that is to say,—‘Where is the watchman of the night?’ ”

So they said to him: “‘Let the letter-reader be the messenger”’—meaning, that is, that he—Todros, that is—ought to be the one to go.

But since he was no scholar and knew nothing of the Holy Tongue, they decided to give him a memorandum to take along. So a committee of scholars sat down and wrote a memorandum with goose-quills on parchment to the Master of the Universe: “Such and such being the case, ‘The waters having come in even unto the soul’—‘how long, oh Lord, how long?’”

At the end they even put in a couple of ulterior motives: “If there are no more Jews, who will praise God? ‘Not the dead shall praise the Lord’ . . . etc., etc. . . .”

So Todros stuck the memo under his coat tail (so that if the Poles were to catch him they wouldn’t convert it into uppers for a pair of boots) and set out on his way.

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He went along with a large company. There were thousands of souls in the heavy smoke pouring out of the Treblinka chimneys: men, women, young folk, old folk, children—everybody. There were even a few apostates; and one proselyte who looked like a former Subotnik [a Russian religious sect that observed the Sabbath] with a singed beard, hung around the edges of the host. So Todros attached himself to the crowd and flew along.

At first they all related what had happened to them: how they had been thrown into trains, which were later sealed, how they had been given towels and led into a room . . . but no one listened, because the same thing happened to everybody. They all knew all about it. It became a little jollier tile second day. They began a political discussion: Zionists argued with Bundists, Bundists with Communists, and some Left Poale Zionists quoted Ber Borochov. Pious Jews discussed and studied a page of Gemara which they knew by heart.

Todros knew nothing about politics and since he wasn’t a scholar either, he listened to the women. They began to tell all about the pickled cucumbers and casks of beet soup which they had left at home. The richer housewives listed their jars of preserves and bottles of vishniak. Old grannies chanted their Yiddish-taitch prayer book.

When they arrived at the Gates of Heaven a brigade of angels began to sort out the souls: some were to go to Paradise and some to Gehenna. The atheists at once protested, “What’s the idea?” They raised a row. “We were good enough Jews for the crematorium, why shouldn’t we be good enough for Paradise?” “‘All Israel have a share in the world to come,”’ a Socialist suddenly recalled a long-forgotten text.

A Jew who had lived through a couple of dozen sortings in various camps sighed in a low voice, “I didn’t know that there were sortings in Heaven, too.”

Todros didn’t have the time to hear out the entire debate. He was concerned with those who were still alive and hurried to the Seat of Glory. As he approached, a secretary got in his way: “Where to?”

So Todros explained the way it was; how the Thirty-Six had assembled and composed a memorandum and how he had to deliver it to the Master of the Universe, in person.

“Hand it over!” The angel stretched out his ‘hand from under his wing. “It will be all right. I’ll pass it on.”

“No!” Todros stood his ground, “This time it is not to be through an angel and not through a messenger . . . .”

The secretary crinkled his forehead. (He didn’t want to start up with the Thirty-Six.)

“The Master of the Universe is not at home,” he said coldly. “I suppose you think that yours is the only world he has on his mind? There are (God keep us from the evil eye!) thousands of stars and suns, big worlds and little worlds, like sand on the shore of the sea.”

“Why, what do you think, that all He has to do is sit all day on the Seat of Glory and wait for your prayers?” interrupted a blonde, plump angel girl, who was sitting at a typewriter and typing lists based on last Rosh Hashanah’s balance sheet.

She really didn’t have a hard job at all, that blonde angel. All she did was stick long columns of names into the typewriter and, without looking, type along every column the same two words:

By Fire
By Fire
By Fire
By Fire

But her heart was sad. A mere matter of five thousand years before, her sweetheart, a handsome young angel, had gone down to the sinful earth and there had fallen in love with one of Adam’s daughters. Can you imagine it, he even got friendly with her and she bore him a child. At any rate, he stayed down there.

Todros, the water-carrier, didn’t want to mix into the love affairs that go on between the inhabitants of heaven and earth: “When will He be back?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

“Oh, well, there is nothing to be done about it,” Todros thought to himself. True, he knew that by tomorrow there’d be a good few trains arriving with Jews aboard in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Treblinka, but there was nothing he could do to help them.

So he waited. Gradually evening stole in. The stars shone down on the heavenly streets and avenues. The nightingales started singing in Paradise and couples kissed in the dark alleys. The gleaming sword automatically turned at the gate of heaven, reflecting the gleaming moon now on one edge and now on the other.

Todros lay down behind the paling, and fell asleep at once.

_____________

 

Tired out after his long journey, Todros slept late. When he opened his eyes, the sun was already high in the sky, and it was nine o’clock. “Oh, oh, I’ve overslept!” Todros said, taking it to heart. He knew that every morning at nine o’clock with true Prussian punctuality the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Maidanek opened. Around him the angel mothers put their radios on high, so that the screams from down below might not disturb the heavenly peace and frighten the angel babies in their cradles.

“Perhaps we will still be able to avert the decree before noon,” Todros thought to himself, and set out, stepping quickly along. On the way he encountered an elderly angel carrying two tremendous sacks on his back.

“Is the Master of the Universe at home yet?” Todros asked.

“No, not yet.”

“What are you carrying in those sacks?”

“Good deeds,” the angel sighed. “I am carrying them from the gates of prayer into the storage-hanger. But it’s a useless labor: they won’t appear at the Judgment Day anyhow, for their owners are already in the camp, awaiting their turn.”

Todros waited till noon. The angels began to stream into the restaurants. For lunch they ordered stuffed fish taken from the Leviathan. Afterwards they ate steak cut off the Wild Boar and drank down foaming glasses of the Preserved Wine. While they were having coffee an announcer broadcast over the radio that between the afternoon and evening prayers the saint of our generation, the brilliant, etc., Rabbi Samuel Aaron ha-Kohen, who had just come from, the Auschwitz ovens, would deliver an interesting, authentic account of his adventures in the other world, at the same time preaching on the text: “The world reposes on three things: on Torah, and on Service, and on Charity.” In addition, a chanteuse from the Jewish theater on Earth who had been in the Warsaw Ghetto would render the verse: “Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, For His mercy endureth forever.”

Todros was very fond of singing, but he had no time to go. Instead, he hurried to the Seat of Glory. The same secretary who had got in his way the day before came out to see him, looking surprised.

“Is the Master of the Universe back yet?” Todros asked.

A peal of laughter rang through the office. Even the serious-looking Chief Secretary smiled.

“What are you laughing at?” said Todros, puzzled, “You said, ‘tomorrow’ yesterday yourselves, didn’t you?”

“Apparently you don’t read the psalms,” said one of the students, nodding confidentially to the blonde secretary. “For if you did read the Psalms, you would know that ‘A thousand years in Thine eyes are as yesterday.’“

Todros started up, “Yes, yes, I have often read the verse, but I’m a simple Jew and don’t know the meaning of every Hebrew word I read.”

“When we say ‘tomorrow’ around here we mean in a thousand years around,” the secretary explained to Todros. “Do you want to leave your memo with us?”

“No!” Todros stuck the parchment behind his coat-tail. “It’ll get lost among all your papers, and you won’t be able to find it in a thousand years around.”

And he set out on his way back to the sinful earth, to render an account of his mission to the Great Assembly.

_____________

 

Todros was alone on his return trip. For who is so crazy as to go down to the sinful earth from heaven nowadays? True, the angels were still talking about their fallen comrades of yesteryear, and the kindness of Adam’s daughters. But what’s the point of visiting Earth when the cities are in ruins and you can’t even get a hotel room to sleep over for a night?

The journeying back and forth took a long time and when Todros arrived at last at the small forest near Treblinka he found nobody there. In the distance he saw people walking around with large sieves and shaking their hands, like peasants sifting the chaff out of the grain. Curious, he drew nearer and saw that they actually were Polish peasants. So he asked them:

“What are you doing, my good people?”

“We are sifting through the ashes,” they explained. “Sometimes a gold tooth turns up, and sometimes even a marriage ring.”

So Todros understood that the Jews had been burned to death. Oh well, no use crying, they were burned to death, and nothing could be done about it—“blessed be the true judge.” But where were the other thirty-five saints?

Todros looked around and saw that the world continued to exist: the peasants were looking for gold teeth in the ashes; the corn was growing splendidly, for the earth was fat with the dead; and they were dealing in inflated currency in the town of Treblinka: with gold imperials and green dollars.

So he understood that the Thirty-Six must be somewhere about. For the world would have perished without the Thirty-Six: the peasants would have found no wedding rings in the ashes, the corn would not have grown, and there would not even have been any business dealings in inflated currency.

So he went on. He sought the Thirty-Six in the DP camps of all four zones, English, American, Soviet, and French. But they were nowhere to be found.

He saw fräuleins kissing American soldiers and hausfraus hauling up the fancy credenzas from their cellars and setting them up in their rooms; and he understood that his comrades must be somewhere about. For by virtue of whom were the fräuleins kissing American soldiers in return for free nylons, if not by virtue of the Thirty-Six?

So he went on. He went on and on till he came to a great expanse of water. And there a lot of Jews sat waiting. Someone told him that just the day before an illegal ship had sailed off, carrying Jews to Palestine. There were thirty-five of them, all told: small-town householders, scholars with gray beards, a couple of Galician doctors, and one rabbi who spoke only English.

So Todros understood that those were his comrades, who had just sailed for Palestine. So he signed up for the illegal emigration too, and sat down and waited.

He waited for one day, and two, and three, till on the twelfth day he saw everybody running towards the waterfront. So he got up and ran too. There on the water was a ship that had just arrived. It was the very same ship on which the Thirty-Six had set out.

Apparently, the ship had been turned about in mid-voyage, because the lower deck was fenced off with barbed wire and there stood British soldiers, armed with rifles, revolvers, and other such weapons.

Todros wanted to go aboard the ship, to give a report on his mission as soon as possible. But no one was permitted to come on board. What was he to do? He finally disguised himself as a correspondent for the New York Times. Then they let him on board.

The comrades were overjoyed when they saw him, for they were sure that he had managed to avert the death decree. But, looking more closely into his face, they understood that something had gone wrong.

“What happened?”

“The Master of the Universe is not at home! When I asked for him, they said that he would be back tomorrow—but in heaven tomorrow means a thousand years around!” Todros rushed through his report, anxious to get rid of his mission as soon as possible.

“Certainly!” exclaimed one of the gray-bearded scholars. “Why the verse states explicity, ‘For a thousand years in Thine eyes are as yesterday.’”

“Yes, yes!” Todros agreed at once. “That’s exactly the verse they cited.”

And the next morning the ship carrying the Thirty-Six, the barbed-wire fence, and the armed soldiers sailed off in an unknown direction. Todros didn’t go back on shore again, and no one knows to this day where the ship sailed to.

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