Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Beneath the Counter

The sound of fists banging on the door reverberated through my ears just as the counter scraped back into place over us.

"Police! Open the door!"

I heard the bookstore owner, Mr. Praski, walking to the door. Each step was careful as if he didn't want to knock dust into our eyes. The neighbor who had warned us stood still beside the counter. I could feel his tension seeping through the cracks between the floorboards.

Little Aron whispered something to Mama. She shook her head and placed her finger against her lips. Papa had his arm around Irina, whose eyes were so wide with fright that all I could see was white. Bogdan sat beside me, scowling at his hands in his lap. Even as I watched, he balled them up into fists. My heart skipped a beat and I reached over and placed my other hand over his. He looked up at me, and I could see the anger glinting in his eyes in the dim light. We stared at each other for a moment, then he smiled ruefully and I could feel him unclenching his fists. I started to breathe again, but I could still see Bogdan's anger. I knew it would only be a matter of time.

I heard the counter scrape above us, and everyone froze. I felt Bogdan's hands ball up again and he tensed, ready to spring. The trapdoor lifted and we saw Mr. Praski, his relieved face beaming over us. "They've gone! Come out and have some supper."

Papa laughed, and it almost sounded as carefree as it used to. He stood up and grabbed Mr. Praski's hand. When we were all out, Mrs. Praski and her daughter, Magda, shooed us into the kitchen for a hot meal. In spite of the Praskis' kindness, Mama's face was still white and Papa's eyes were shadowed. The time beneath the counter had marked us all. Who knew that by the summer's end, we would spend time there every day, hiding from the Germans?

I helped Magda with the supper dishes. Papa and Mr. Praski smoked their pipes as they looked at some books from the store. Mama showed Mrs. Praski a new embroidery pattern while she stroked Aron's head as he slept in her lap. Bogdan and Irina played chess. Bogdan glanced up at me and smiled, but the edges of that smile were bitter. I smiled back, but I knew my heart wasn't in it.

I turned to Magda. "Why would you help us? Your family could get into so much trouble!"

Magda smiled at me. "It is what Christ would have us do."

"Huh." I swiped a dish with a towel. "Most Christians I've met call us Christ-killers."

"Oh, Edyta!" Magda shook her head. "Jews didn't kill Jesus! Our sin did."

"Our sin?"

She nodded and put the plate she was washing down. "You see, God commanded the Jews, as His people, to make sacrifices for their sins, using an unblemished lamb, right?"

I nodded. Though my family didn't strictly keep to the law, we still celebrated the Feasts.

"Well, God wanted His people to see that they needed to atone for their sins through blood, but even keeping the law and doing all the sacrifices weren't enough." She smiled again. "So He sent His Son to be the final sacrifice for our sins, and not just for the Jews – for the whole world!"

Wonder began to seep into my soul. "So He really was a great Man."

Magda laughed. "Well, He was God! While He was here on earth, He set the example for all of us to follow. How can we do any less?"

Her words sank deep into my heart, and as we waited beneath the counter each day, I contemplated them. Every day, Magda told me more about Jesus. One day, several weeks later, I accepted His sacrifice for my sins.

Two days after that, Magda made her own sacrifice. Every year, I tell my children about Magda. I tell them I wouldn't be here if she hadn't followed Christ.