By Annette Keen
The first time I saw him he was scampering up the huge mound of rubble outside my door that terrified me. It was just another bomb-shattered building blighting the Berlin landscape after the war, but to a five-year old child it was a magic mountain, a monster who slept badly, swaying and groaning, and wafting a stench of rot across the displaced persons’ refugee camp that was my home.
On sunny mornings, a hideous face emerged from the heap of debris. A blob of congealing stucco stuck out like a cankerous nose from between two rounded window frames shaped like eyes. One eye, empty of glass, stared out blindly. But a narrow shard of glass was still trapped across the other socket. It seemed to wake with the morning sun, blinking and winking as it stretched what remained of an iron balcony into a crooked smile that grinned menacingly down on me through its lattice of broken black teeth.
But on this singular morning, up, up this mountain monster a strange and fearless boy rose. He seemed to grow taller as he hoisted himself ever higher, grabbing hold of protruding fragments, finding footing on chunks of rubble, until he stood at the very top. Balanced precariously on outstretched legs, the boy raised his arms to the morning sun, and crowed victoriously, "I am Joshua, Defender of Israel."
I was transfixed. Now that I saw that the mountain was not insurmountable, I too would ascend, not in Joshua's careful climb, but like a spirited gazelle freeing herself from the hunter and all the while yelling up to my pathfinder, "I am Deborah, Champion of Israel."
Suddenly the mountain monster awoke. Gasping and shuddering, it began to crumble beneath my feet. Then all went black until I felt myself half carried, half dragged along by my savior. Blood trickled over my face, drenching the boy's bony shoulder. Joshua was no bigger than I, and we were both crying and clinging to each other. With our tears and blood mingling he made me promise not to die. And I didn't die. I was wounded – sixty years later my forehead still carries the scar – but it was the monster that died. And a special love was born, one that touched and dazzled the entire camp.
Together we lived many adventures and faced down other monsters, but one more stands out in my memory. It was the nightly terror lurking in the communal latrine which serviced the dormitory where we refugee families camped. Just down the hall from the latrine I could hear the scratching and scurrying of rats in the walls, and only when I felt my bladder bursting, would I slide off my cot and seek out my Defender of Israel, sleeping nearby. Joshua would take my hand and lead me to the latrine. There, he would lift me onto the seat, and as I gripped his waist, pressing my cheek against his gurgling stomach, Joshua wielded a broom against the fearsome rats; like Joshua of old, swinging his sword against the marauding Amalekites, attackers of the frail and the innocent.
Joshua and I tore around, wild and free, so enthralled with each other and irrepressibly happy that the memory is indestructible. Whatever else my 85-year old mother has forgotten in her declining years, mention Joshua and Deborah to her, and recognition punches through her mental fog. She'll tell you in Yiddish, "Doss iz given epis tzu zain," (This was something to see), "Der gantza lager autzekh g'shpigelled in zayrer freilechkeit." (The entire camp reflected their joy.)
And so the months passed. The refugee camp was emptying out. Then one autumn day in 1949 Joshua was gone. To Israel with his family, I was told. Soon we too left, for America, sponsored by a distant cousin who had recognized the family name on a Holocaust Survivors list published in a Yiddish newspaper.
And so the years passed. When I think of Joshua, Defender of Israel, my heart still swells with joy. He was my first great love, because he made the world safe for me and safe for love. I picture the skinny little boy grown to manhood with his country, still raging against Amalek, still scaling the mountain monsters, and bringing them down with his ringing, "I am Joshua, Defender of Israel."
And in America, Deborah, Champion of Israel, remembers.
Annette Keen is a freelance writer in upstate New York.
Thanks to Ezra Magazine for this touching article. MFB