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The Tapestry.....Based on a true Story by Bob Stewart

altIt It was a terribly cold winter's day in 1942 Warsaw Poland.  It was here that Jan and Helga would part as the Nazi's herded them off never to be seen or heard of again.

Jan had first seen Helga carrying large buckets of milk door to door, selling the family's excess they had from their two Holsteins.  She would milk them by hand, when she had gotten all she could her father Henri would "strip" them, getting the last liter that only a very strong and experienced milker could get.  Jan had always felt a strong attraction to Helga for as long as he could remember but, he was much to shy to ever give any such indication as to his true feelings.  She was seventeen, she had but one dress and a good pair of "leathers" these were better than shoes.  They covered her ankles protecting her feet from the bitter cold.  Jan was embarrassed to answer the door when she arrived they had neither script or anything of value to trade, save one last cherished potato.  He extended it to her she was much amazed that such a prize could be had a time like this.  People were starting to boil bark from trees.  All dignity and pride had been stripped from the villagers as the most basic instinct took over....the will to survive.  Helga had a dipper that she tied to her apron to proportion out a neighbors buy.  As she started to proportion out milk to Jan he stopped her and with tired, soft blue eyes he said, "no please Mrs. Wojak".   Helga returned his kind gaze and suddenly felt her heart skip as seeing him for the first time.  She was over-whelmed by his generosity and obvious concern for others above himself.  She nearly skipped home, her father couldn't help but notice the change in her countenance.  He spoke softly to her, " I know that look that prescience, you're in love".  He had seen the same aura on his own wife's' face when they had courted 18 years prior.  Could he be right?  All she knew was that, that potato would be cut in the thin-est slices possible and a large bowl of potato soup would be Jan's reward for the generosity that he bestowed on her and the Wojaks.  Her heart raced for no apparent reason as she thought of Jan.  She was remembering that look of kindness but no it was more than that, it was a look of tenderness.  She momentarily was lost from her circumstance as she hummed in the kitchen. 
 
Jan's mother had been at the neighbors house to see the Wojaks new baby, Mrs. Wojak was very thin and Mal-nourished as the Nazi's had instructed that all food and fabric type substances be brought to the town square and delivered to the Nazi Headquarters in Kodz.  Only one person dared to go against the Nazi command.  Mr. Wojak, he was an independent sort, the type that was not to be bullied by the Nazi's especially since they didn't carry an actual prescience in their village.  It was early one evening that four Nazi's  rode into their village on their tandem motorcycles.  It was obvious that they knew exactly where they were going, they pulled Hans Wojak from his family's humble abode.  The Nazi in charge sounded a screaming alarm attached to his motorcycle.  He let the deafening blare go  until he was satisfied that all the villagers were present.  Henri was the only one to notice the assent given to the Nazi when it appeared all were there by a good friend and neighbor named  Wilhelm.  The Nazi's now had the villagers complete attention, they went into the Wojak's home and removed skeins of yarn, extra clothing, bedding, food stuffs.  It was strewn into a pile, an obvious enlisted man went to the motor cycle and produced a can of petrol and doused the pile, then with a nod from his superior, lit it. The flames shot into the air producing a warmth that was momentarily enjoyed by those close enough to the heap.  None had on an actual coat this was considered contraband.  Children were crying as they huddled their moms legs.  The head Nazi was enjoying his power as he paced about as if in deep thought.  He paused in front of Helga and with his night stick probed at the buttons on her blouse.  The other three Nazi's looked on with a certain glee like a cat with it's prey between its paws.  But then the Captain swirled as if he just had a great idea , he strode over to where the Wojaks stood, he grabbed Hans Wojak by his throat and pulled him close to the heap.  His pregnant wife began to shout and scream as the captain went to his holster and produced the Luger and without further ado shot him directly in the head.  He crumbled onto the burning heap.  Mrs. Wojak instinctively rushed  toward her husbands burning body, the captain stopped her by pushing his Luger hard against her swollen stomach.  It left a black circle on her apron the exact outline of the recently fired barrel.  She would later say she wished he would of shot her then and there.  The villagers were shocked and a quiet hysteria crept over the them, none dare look at the Nazi Captain save Wilhelm who gave a look that was begging for approval from the captain....none was given.
      
These were perilous times the Nazi's were rumored to be coming closer to their little village on the outskirts of Kodz a larger city known for it's leather goods.  Henri's massive forearms and rock hard callouses were no match for the for the tuberculosis that racked his body.  He was no longer able to work, he would watch as Helga struggled to take up the slack.  It was just getting dark, she  laid her father in bed, he suddenly looked very old and tired, she didn't want to think the worst.  Her mother had died when she was 16 and had missed the worst of it.  She was momentarily lost in those happy memories of her and her mother constructing the most beautiful tapestries in all of Poland.  But along with the rest of the villagers except Mr. Wojak they too had turned over all their yarns  to the  Nazi's.  Her moment of bliss was interrupted by a knock at the door.  This was the most feared sound in the village.  No one visited at night it was illegal to go out after six.  This knock however wasn't harsh it was gentle almost apologetic.  When she opened the door her heart fluttered and pounded against her chest she thought surely he must hear it.  But with his own heart was beating so wildly he could hear nothing above the roar of the rush of blood through his veins.  He quickly apologized as he held her hand.  She could hear nothing as her emotions were completely taken over by his prescience.  He looked her in the eye and then over to her fathers fever ridden, cough racked body laying in bed.  He took both of her hands and went to one knee.  I've come to ask if you would have me, I mean as a husband, I don't want to live if the answer is no.  I have no right except, the right of a true love for you and none other.  If you dare say yes, all I can promise you is all I am, nothing more.  Before she could speak he said, if your answer is yes I will ask your father for his permission.  If it should be no, at least I will of not been defeated for not trying.  As the tears loomed in her eyes she could hardly say the word yes, as she was so taken by his honesty and sincerety.  She could only nod as this feeling of unsurpassed joy leapt and bounded throughout her body.  He embraced her then strode over to where her father lay.  Her father smiled and nodded his assent before Jan could utter a word.  Henri felt a peace come over him that he knew his daughter was able to find love when he knew that only death was a matter of days if not hours away.  He rose with great effort and lifted up some boards at the foot of the bed.  The treasure that lay at her feet was unmistakable.  It was the unfinished tapestry that her mother and her had started just before her mothers death from tuberculosis.  There were huge skeins of yarn.  This was one of the most bitter sweet moments in Helga's life.  Amid the sorrow, deprivation and fear there was joy.  Her father stood erect and said, "I pronounce you man and wife", her father had been the pastor of the small Christian church in the village.  This would be his last official act and wrote it out on a piece of paper making it official.  He said, finish the tapestry that's what your mother would of wanted.  He said, I have one last thing to do, I hope G-d will forgive me, I must go see Wilhelm off.  They watched as her father left with the heavy ax in his hand not understanding.  Her father returned a half hour later and went to bed never to wake again.
 
The villagers were stunned and happy for Helga and Jan.  It was a splash of happiness upon this tiny section of the world that G-d had seemingly forgot.  They were equally saddened by the death of Wilhelm.
He had evidently hung himself but the noose had nearly severed his head off, it was hard to understand but suicide was not unusual as a way out of the Nazi brutality.
 
The tapestry was a beautiful rendition of the Garden of Eden.  She had made it from the descriptions her father had used during his sermons.  The lion was laying with the lamb, the fruit trees, peacocks, flowers were a burst of color and energy that only a truly inspired piece of art can convey.  When it was finished she stitched in her mothers initials W. L., Wilma Lazker in the right hand corner at the bottom.
 
There was no knock it was a thunderous crash as the door swung open.  Jan and Helga had just risen they were forced into a large canvas covered army truck, packed with as many of their neighbors as it was possible to fit.  The elderly, the children, the adults, all were crammed together no one was allowed to put a sweater on or take anything with them.  The lucky ones were dressed warmly.  The others squeezed together to try to keep warm. Jan and Helga faced each other and embraced the entire 22 hour drive no one was given water there was no chance for any kind of toilet break.  The conditions only worsened as the stench caused many to vomit.  People were heard praying others were cursing a non existant G-d.  But most just trembled with fear, conjecture and rumor were all they had to go on and none of it was good.
 
They came to a halt in Warsaw they were herded from the truck the elderly were shot immediately if they didn't move fast enough.  The cold and non movement for  22 hours made it nearly impossible for any to move.  Fear is a prime motivator, people moved when it seemed impossible, mothers did their best to hold their children's hands but Nazi rifle butts separated men, women, children, and the elderly with machine like precision.  They were put in lines accordingly.  A high ranking Nazi officer walked around Helga stopping behind her and lifting her dress, he smiled approvingly and pulled her toward another line that had the young attractive women.  Jan broke from the line and sprinted toward the officer, the raised rifle butt would be the last thing he remembered.  He felt himself, lifted, dragged, cajoled, to a waiting cattle car on the train tracks.  Blood was caked over his eyes, he saw nothing his only sense that seemed to work was his sense of smell.  He was pushed to a corner of the cattle car where the cattle dung had been shoveled and stacked.  He was nearly immersed in the pile as he had no strength to resist.  The first time he became conscious was when he found himself alive in a giant fresh cattle excrement pile.  He had no recollection how he got there or where he was.  He would lay there for two days trying to gather strength to move.  The only audible thing he would say was thank you G-d for sparing Helga.  He felt his swollen tongue and realized he needed water, with slow deliberate scoops he skimmed the snow from atop the putrid pile that held him prisoner.  He awoke, when and how long since he ingested the snow he had no idea.  But a large bird was perched near his embedded hand it was busy separating seeds from the dung.  With one felled swoop the bird was in his grasp but its squawking caused him alarm as it could draw attention to his where-abouts, he had no choice but to submerge it.  As it continued to fight he rung it's neck.  He felt the warm blood on his numb hands.  Using the snow he bathed and plucked his prey.   The next night he knew he had to leave, traveling only at night and burying himself during the day he made his way, to where and what he knew not.
 
It was a summer rain, it had been forecast after all this was the year 2000 we knew in advance when these things would occur but they said,"light sprinkles", Oh well, you take what you get.  Bill Peterson had been the pastor at the little non denominational church for 10 years and had seen it grow from a dilapidated old building to a congregation of over three hundred that was a lot when you consider that Cortland is not a large city in upstate New York.  He was a newcomer but he served with a pure heart and it was evident to everyone that knew him.  Homeless people were always there, they were never turned away.  He took serious that Lords admonition to feed the hungry and care for the sick and help those without.  It was Saturday morning he liked to go to the church to sit and just draw close to G-d.  But the rain was becoming quite disconcerting as a leak was forming and drenching the wall creating an ugly stain.  He was not much of a handy man and the thought of fixing and painting the wall definitely did not sit well with him.  Just as soon as the rain came it left.  It was nearing lunchtime so he thought he would go to Tony's his favorite deli and grab a sandwich.  As he sat at the booth looking outside he was amazed that only an hour or so ago there was a deluge now people were out and about as if nothing happened.  As he finished his sandwich he was attracted to a group of people across the street at a garage sale.  He walked over and was immediately struck by what was obviously the most beautiful tapestry he had ever seen.  He thought that this re-creation of the garden of Eden would be absolutely perfect to hide the stain left by the mornings rain.  He asked the price and the young lady said would $50.00 be too much?  No, he said it's allot cheaper than paint and sheet rock.  He knew that this had to be a G-d send, his sermon was to be about the fall of man from the garden of Eden.  He had planned to tell the joke about how Adam asked G-d for a woman.  And that G-d replied, "it's gonna cost you an arm and a leg" and Adam responded, "what can I get for a rib"?  He knew the women were good natured and would boo his joke but that is why his concretion was growing he could take it as well as dish it out.
 
No sooner had he rolled the tapestry up and put it in his car it started to drizzle.  He decided to go by the park on his way back to the church the drizzle turned to the second half of the deluge.  He put his wipers on, it was growing dark, he nearly missed seeing an elderly woman walking into the park hoping that the trees would afford some protection.  The preacher caught up with her and pointing to his car was able to let her know that he would take her home.  Once inside the car the preacher was trying to make her feel at ease and not to be afraid.  He told her he pastor-ed a church, and would help her home.  She looked him in the eye and said, "no YOU don't scare me" He asked if  she minded if he stopped by the Church to drop off a wall hanging first.  She was in no hurry.  As he entered he was somewhat surprised to see that she followed him in.  He was also surprised that the wall appeared stained, but dry.  He shrugged and went to the closet and returned with a ladder and a hammer and some nails.  After pounding in a couple of nails, he began to roll down the tapestry it was a perfect fit, it hid the stain perfectly.  As he stepped back from the ladder to enjoy his handiwork the little lady asked him does that have the initials W.L. in the right lower corner.  This was something that the preacher hadn't noticed before and exclaimed, "why yes".  She told him the story how she had finished it for her mothers namesake and that she too, had been the daughter of a preacher but , that this was the first time in 50 years she had entered a church.  The pastor told her he understood and started to ascend the ladder.  She asked what he was doing?  I 'm getting you your tapestry!  No,no she repeated, I won't be here but I feel good that this work of love will be.  The preacher could not persuade her to take her treasure home..she wouldn't hear of it.
 
Sunday brought in a smaller crowd than usual.  He told his rib joke but did not tell the story of the tapestry.  He knew that it would be a sermon in the future.  After the service he stood at the door to shake hands with his flock.  The place was empty save one old man with a big dent over his missing right eye.  As he shook hands with the preacher he asked about the tapestry and started to explain how his wife who died in Poland had made it.  The preacher acting somewhat distracted asked if he would have lunch with him and tell him about it.  The old man readily agreed.  The preacher asked James, his friend if he would drive the gentleman to Martha's the nicest restaurant in town.  James was bewildered but agreed.  The preacher yelled I have to run a quick errand I'll be there in half an hour.
 
As the preacher and the little lady, Helga, approached the men at the table, recognition set in immediately with her, she would know her husband anywhere distortion or not.  As she approached them Jan stood and said, Helga?  Tears welled in pools as they embraced like they had 50 years earlier.  The piece that was missing in each others life was miraculously restored.
 
Epilogue:  Upon meeting it was revealed, it was the first time either one had experienced the emotion of life...tears, since being torn apart  Jan and Helga never missed a service after that.  They volunteered in the nursery where they would rock and comfort the little ones.  It was as if they were filling in the blanks that for whatever reason were denied them.  They died one day apart in 2007.  They were buried wrapped in the tapestry that was to re-unite them, it was theirs alone.  There epithet on the headstone in Cortland, New York, read:  We were blessed, we lived and loved  twice...

Bob Stewart
www.convictedartist.com

 

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