(At the end of this Prologue, you
can click on a link to read Chapter 1.)
When I had my wits about me again, I knew I had to find Gella and Surele. But a beautiful woman was in my way. For a moment I wondered how anyone could look beautiful in this chaos. "Could you excuse me, please?" I asked. "I am trying to find my daughter and granddaughter."
She smiled, but said nothing.
"Where am I?" I asked, looking around. I recognized nothing. Gone were the trees and fields of Poland. Gone also were the soldiers and the crowds of people. All I could see and feel was light, as if the sun had fallen to Earth. I tried speaking slowly to the woman. Maybe she was a foreigner. "Who are you?"
"So many questions," she said in a Yiddish that told me she came from far away, maybe some big city. At least she knew my language.
"Where am I?" I repeated. The separation from my loved ones was unbearable. Bad enough I had had to leave Gittel behind. Now I had also lost Gella and Surele.
"You are in the First Celestial Sphere," she said.
"The what?" I asked.
She repeated the same name.
"Please, I do not understand," I said, feeling the weariness of this day hit me. "Look, madame. We were on a train; then soldiers and dogs and guns fell on us, forcing us into a room. The children were crying. I could not breathe..."
She was still smiling at me.
"Please, my good lady, do you know where they are--my daughter, my granddaughter? I had them near me, and now they are gone."
There. That was as plain as I could express myself.
"They are here, also," she said. "Soon, you will be with them, but for now..."
I looked around me. She said they were here. How could she know this? I did not see or hear anyone but the two of us. Why could I not see them? Or was she trying to fool me for some reason?
"Are they all right?" I asked, trying to keep terror from my voice.
She remained tranquil.
"Please," I begged, "I want to see them."
"You are all here now, safe at last," she said. "You will see them soon."
I frowned at her. "Where are we?" I asked. "Who are you?"
"My dear," she said to me. "You are in the place you know as Paradise. Heaven."
I recoiled. Paradise? Heaven? I would sooner believe myself in Hell. Or maybe I had landed in some insane asylum. The whole world had become an insane asylum.
I felt a strange kind of warmth that seemed almost...comforting.
The woman again said I was in Paradise.
I laughed to keep from weeping. Paradise. And then I felt that comforting warmth again. But to be in Paradise...
"This means I am...dead?" I asked, not believing these words were coming from my mouth.
She inclined her head slightly. "Yes, my dear," she said, her voice so sweet that it took the sting from her words. "Your life on Earth has come to an end."
Despite the sweetness and the warmth, I felt as if someone had hit me with a big stick. It was not possible. I was dead? No, something else was going on. Somehow I had become separated from everyone else and ended up in the company of a meshuggina, a crazy woman. Who could blame anyone for going crazy in such times? Even someone like her, a beauty whose family must have been wealthy, educated. Still, poor thing, she would not be able to help me. I would pretend to believe her until I could find someone in charge.
So, to go along, as greatly as it pained me to put such words together, I asked, "And Gella and Surele, they are also...dead?"
"Yes," she said, serious as a professor. She did not look or sound crazy. That was worse. I did not know how to make sense of what was happening. I forced myself to pay attention as she continued.
"I know how difficult and frightening this is to understand. But then newcomers realize this place is better than where they were. And they come to understand the Highest Reward awaits them. Dying is but the first step."
I shook my head, thinking I must get away from this woman--quickly. She was clearly beyond all redemption insane. And wasting time with her would not help me find Gella and Surele. I doubted that she knew where they were. I did not think she knew where she was.
She seemed unaware of my disbelief. She continued, "It will all be clear in good time, my dear. Do not expect to understand on this first meeting."
"Of course," I said so as not to rattle her any further. "But who are you?"
"I am the one you know as Queen Esther of Persia."
"Queen Esther of Persia?" Maybe I could convince her to stop spouting such nonsense before she got us both into even more trouble with the Nazis. I shook my head. "That is not possible. Queen Esther has been dead for centuries, and Persia is far away. Perhaps you have become a bit confused..."
"I assure you I am who I say I am," she said calmly, as if we were at a tea party and she wanted to know if I cared for lemon.
Beyond imagining, I said to myself. I could feel sorry for this poor creature, but I would not be able to help her. And, of course, Gella and Surele were my first concern..
"Please, my lady," I said in a louder voice, "I do not know why you think you are Queen Esther, but I really need to find my daughter and my granddaughter..."
Suddenly I saw something that convinced me I was as crazy as my companion. What looked like a plump baby with wings flew to us!
"Your Majesty," the creature said, "dear Queen Esther, our Lord has asked me to remind you of the meeting that is about to start."
"Sweet Balasheva," she said, "please inform our Lord that I am with Madame Estera Wolinsky."
The creature flew away.
I stood frozen with shock. When I could find my voice, I asked, "What was that? And how do you know my name?"
She smiled. "That was Balasheva, a messenger angel. And I know much about you, my dear."
An angel? With my own eyes I had seen the creature fly. I had heard it talk. Too many strange things were happening. Could she be telling the truth? This would mean I was dead, my loved ones were dead and she really was...
For a moment, I did not know what to do. If she really was the queen I had to show respect, try to explain that confusion lay behind my lack of proper reverence.
"Queen Esther. Is it possible?"
"All things become possible," she said.
I shook my head in wonder. "All my life... I was named for you. I was born on Purim."
"Yes, I know," she said. "I have often seen you, heard you. I have always appreciated your admiration."
"This is all so strange." It was much more than that, but strange was the only word I could find.
"Yes, there is much for you to take in."
"But, Your Majesty, why are you here with me? I am a simple woman, a nobody. Should you not be with a noblewoman, a queen?" From fearing her, I had moved to fearing she would abandon me.
"My Estera, I am with you because we are both important to each other," she answered, as if it were ordinary and normal for us to talk. "Up here we can read the souls of our people on Earth. I was selected as your guide because you honored me. And, my dear, your sweet admiration helped my soul to glow."
What was I to do? "Meeting you is beyond my greatest dreams. How can I possibly show you my gratitude?"
"Here there is no such obligation."
I was not used to receiving without giving. "There must be something."
She paused. "Perhaps there is just one little thing."
"And what, Your Majesty, is that?"
"Just this, my dear. Please do not call me by any of the titles I have always hated," she said, her voice now sounding musical. "Call me by my Hebrew name--Hadassah."
"Hadassah," I repeated carefully. "Hadassah." That was all she wanted?
"But, Your Majesty, please tell me why you are with me."
"Remember, please call me Hadassah. I am here to help you reach your Highest Reward, much higher than this first chamber of the Spheres."
"Gella? Surele?" Being the queen, surely she must be able to reunite me with my loved ones quickly.
She looked at me with such kindness I nearly wept. "They are with the guides who will take them to the Highest Spheres. They are almost there, both such pure souls. As for you, you have a bit more work to do."
"Work?" This was something I understood. I had cleaned my house, cooked, worked in my businesses. I had struggled to provide for my loved ones. Now, I would need to learn something new--if I wanted to be with my loved ones. All she had to do was tell me what sort of work was expected, how much... But the queen now spoke of matters that did not sound like the work I had known before.
"Yes. First you must put anger from you. And you must understand Gella and Surele no longer need you."
"They do not need me?" I echoed. They had always needed me.
"Now, it is love rather than need that guides your being together with them. But, Estera, you are needed by another. You have a daughter who survived. Gittel. And in the future, which is now if you know how to look, she lives in a land far from Poland. She has a daughter--your grandchild--who needs you, just as every child needs her grandmother. You need her, too--for she can help you come to your Highest Reward."
"Gittel lived through the war, then?" I said, drawing comfort from this and trying to sort out everything else the queen was saying.
"Yes. Just as you wanted, just as you tried so hard to ensure, she lived."
"Who else?" Surely, Gittel, my youngest child, was not the only one of us to survive.
Just one from our entire family. "How cruel, so many lost..."
"We will speak of these things later," she said. "For now, I am concerned that we will lose our window to the Earth if we do not align ourselves immediately."
I wanted to see the Earth, see Gittel and her child, so I accompanied the queen.
"If we look this way, we will see and hear them on Earth. Listen to your granddaughter's heart and watch her on the day when she will first call for you."
The queen and I settled into a niche from which to view the Earth. I felt bewildered but, most of all, spellbound.
"There, my dear," she said, "there is your granddaughter, the child of Gittel."