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The Golem of Prague

The Golem took a step forward. His head reached up to the second-story windows. His body was as large as the houses. Calmly, he moved through the frenzied crowd. He lifted up men and beasts as if they were wisps of straw and used his fists to destroy anything that blocked his way. Paralyzed with fear, some people did not try to run away but closed their eyes, waiting for death. Others ran as fast as they could. All around him, men and animals rushed around like insects. The Golem flattened them with his hand. Some people tried to fight him, but the arrows launched at the Golem slid down his body like thin rivulets of water. Spears barely pierced the clay before falling to the ground. Soon, the terrified attackers drew back, realizing they could neither kill nor wound the Golem. He was indestructible. The Golem turned and walked toward the Maharal, who had not budged. With his eyes cast down, he was waiting for the creature. Together, they went through the Paryska Gate while, one after another, the Jews came out of their homes through the barricaded windows and doors. A long and joyful cry arose, “Golem! Golem” But the Golem’s face showed no emotion; he had a strange look that made those who came near him uneasy...

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Diwali Lights

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The Sound of Freedom

Chapter 1

“Last one to the bakery has to pay,” shouted Anna, bolting down the street.

“Wait, you didn’t warn me,” her friend Renata yelled before dashing after her.

The two girls raced, pigtails flying, through the streets of Krakow, on their way home from school. Anna thought she was comfortably in the lead until she glanced over her shoulder and realized that Renata was right on her heels. At the last second, Renata sprinted ahead of her and rounded the corner, coming to a stop in front of Mrs. Benna’s bakery shop.

“Not fair,” Anna said a moment later as she pulled up. She was panting heavily, and even though the air was cold and the wind was biting, she could feel the sweat rolling down her back under her heavy jacket.

“What do you mean, not fair?” Renata replied. Her cheeks were flushed from the run. “It was your idea. And I’ll have my donut filled with chocolate, please.”

Anna raised her arms in defeat and entered the bakery with Renata. They quickly found a table and ordered their sweets.

Stopping at Mrs. Benna’s shop on the way home from school was a Tuesday afternoon tradition for the two girls. Tuesdays were when Anna’s father gave music lessons at their house. He was a gifted clarinetist who played in the famous Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and lectured at the music academy. Many families in town lined up to send their children to learn to play clarinet from Anna’s father, the renowned Avrum Hirsch. So on Tuesdays, Anna had permission to stay out after school with Renata––that is, as long as the two of them also got some homework done.

“You have icing sugar all over your face,” Anna said after she and Renata had polished off their treats.

“Do I?” Renata reached up to brush the sugar and crumbs away. “It’s so good. I could eat donuts filled with chocolate all day long.”

“Agreed! Except that I’ll take mine filled with strawberry preserves.”

At that, Renata made a face. “Nothing is better than chocolate.”

Anna pushed her plate aside and pulled out her notebook. Mrs. Benna never minded when the girls came to her shop after school. “You set a good example for other young people who walk in here,” the shopkeeper said. As long as no one was lining up for their table, Mrs. Benna said they could stay as long as they wanted.

Anna flipped through the pages of her math assignment and chewed on the end of her pencil. “I don’t know how I’d get through math without you,” she said, looking up at Renata.

“You’re just as smart as I am,” Renata replied. “Just in different subjects. I’m better with numbers, but you’re the one who helps me with literature.”

Anna and Renata had been great friends for years, ever since they started school, spotting each other across the classroom and exchanging smiles. They met each weekday morning at Anna’s corner to walk together to school. Now, at age twelve, they were as close as sisters. Baba, Anna’s grandmother, always said they could have been twins with their jet-black curly hair and dark eyes. But when it came to their studies, they were as different as they could possibly be. Anna loved to read while Renata could untangle a math equation faster than anyone in the class. Anna loved art while Renata always claimed she had ten thumbs when it came to drawing or painting. Anna loved music, and even though Renata took clarinet lessons from Anna’s father, she hated to practice. Anna always reasoned that the differences between them were what made them great friends––complements of each other and a perfect team. One couldn’t manage without the other to help. Today was no exception. The girls finished off their homework in record time.

“Will you come over to my place?” Anna asked as they began to pack up their books. “Baba is making her famous beef stew.”

“Sounds delicious!”

“And maybe she’ll give us a cooking lesson.” Anna’s grandmother loved to cook.

Renata nodded. “Sure. My mother will be thrilled that I’m learning. She can barely make a cup of tea.”

“It can’t be that bad!”

“Trust me, it is. Last week, she burnt the chicken and served rice that was still as hard as gravel. I need all the help I can get.”

“I’m sure Baba will be happy to include you. And then, when we’re done, you can help me find a dress to wear to that concert that my father is playing in.” That was another difference between the two girls. Renata loved to dress up while Anna didn’t give a thought to fashion and “girly” things. Baba was the one who always insisted that she wind hair ribbons around her long pigtails, or wear fancy dresses. Anna found all of that so tiresome.

“You can borrow my scarf,” Renata said, tugging at the bright green silk that stood out against her shiny coal-black eyes. “It’ll be perfect with just about anything in your closet.”

Just then, the bell above the door to the bakery shop rang and a group of boys entered. Anna recognized them from school, though she didn’t have much to do with them. They were older and a couple of grades ahead. And they usually kept to themselves––that is, unless they were going after the weaker kids at school. They had that nasty reputation. Lately, they seemed to be targeting Jewish kids. Another boy from their school had been chased home by one of these boys. Everyone was talking about it. The bully threw rocks at the younger boy and shouted terrible insults. Anna and Renata looked at each other nervously. Both of them were Jewish, and they knew that it was better to stay away from these boys.

The boys were jostling one another and talking loudly. One pounded his fist on the counter and demanded, “Hey, we need some service.”

Mrs. Benna approached from the other side of the shop. Her eyes flashed and her mouth narrowed into a thin line. “There will be none of that in my restaurant,” she said sternly. “If you don’t show better manners, then I want you out of here.”

The boy who had banged on the counter took a step toward Mrs. Benna. He was just about to say something when one of his friends grabbed him by the arm. “Come on. Let’s find somewhere else to go. This isn’t worth it.”

And with that, the boys turned and left. Anna exhaled a long, deep breath and shuddered.

“Those boys give me the creeps,” Renata said.

Anna nodded, a knot settling in the pit of her stomach. And it wasn’t just the boys that made her nervous. They were simply a reminder of the other troubles that seemed to be descending on her city of Krakow and across all of Poland. Lately, she had heard stories of Jewish people being attacked on the streets, pushed off the sidewalk and made to walk in the gutter, or forced to pick up garbage. At first, the victims were the most observant Jewish men, those with long beards, full-length coats, and bowler hats. They stood out and were easily targeted. But more recently, the violence had spread to the general Jewish community––people not unlike Anna and Renata.

Her baba had said that everything changed when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. She called him a maniac and said he’d made everyone feel unsafe.

“My parents have been talking a lot about what’s happening to Jewish families,” Renata was saying. “The attacks, the name calling. They’re afraid those things are only the beginning.”

“The beginning of what?” Anna put her coat on and grabbed her bag of books.

Renata shook her head.

“I don’t think anything worse is going to happen,” Anna continued, although what her friend said was making her even more anxious now. And it didn’t help that when they were thanking Mrs. Benna and saying good-bye, the shopkeeper leaned closer and said, “I’d stay away from those boys if I were you. One at a time, they’re a nuisance. But a group of them …”

She didn’t finish the sentence. And Anna didn’t want to hear any more. She linked her arm in Renata’s and pulled her out of the bakery shop. Outside, Anna flipped her thick-braided pigtails off her shoulders, pulled her knitted cap down on her head, and lifted the collar of her coat up around her ears. She needed to steer the conversation to a better place. “My father might still be teaching when we get to my house. So we’ll have to be really quiet until his student leaves.”

Renata remained silent.

“Are you okay?” Anna asked, turning to look at her friend.

Renata still looked troubled. “Those boys …”

“Don’t be afraid of them, Renata,” Anna said, mustering more certainty than she was feeling. The girls were passing through the Jewish quarter of Krakow, where the streets pulsed with activity. This was familiar territory: the old synagogue Anna and her family attended for the high holidays on her right, restaurants that overflowed with patrons up ahead, and the market where Baba bought fruit and vegetables was just around the corner.

“It’s just that my parents keep listening to the news reports from other countries,” Renata continued. “And the news isn’t good. Even Mrs. Benna warned us to be careful.”

“She just meant those boys. And we will.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Renata replied. Then she shook her head as if she were trying to clear any nasty thoughts away. “I hope your grandmother has a couple of extra aprons. I like to make a mess when I cook.”

Anna laughed and the two girls continued to wind their way home. Nothing terrible had happened, Anna thought, allowing herself to relax. And soon, she and Renata would be home and cooking with Baba. That was the last thought she had before she suddenly saw them again.

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