by Diana Henning (Cape Town, South Africa)
This story is based on a true event which unfolded on the night of Tuesday 4 December, 2018.
The mobile phone rings urgently on the bedside table; my husband answers.
“Dave, do you know that your synagogue is on fire?”
We both sit upright, fully alert now.
Tracy, our neighbour, is Christian, but she has a fond interest in our faith and cares about the well-being of her Jewish neighbours. My husband and I pull on our clothes over our pyjamas and dash toward our shul which is located a few metres away from where we live. On the way, we spot our rabbi racing towards his workplace, which is aflame against the night sky.
It’s the third night of Channukah. Earlier on we had sung Ma’oz Tzur to celebrate the miracle. How had a happy holiday turned into such a calamity?
Smoke is billowing from the roof and three fire engines have surrounded the building. The firemen squirt their hoses towards our shul but the inferno is indomitable. As word of the tragedy spreads around our city, more and more onlookers arrive; friends, curious neighbours, members of the press. I spot my friend, Elaine, in her dressing gown, her hair tousled. We embrace silently.
Our security organisation battles to prevent the public from running into the pyre to save the Torahs.
“Get back everybody. For your own safety please remain behind the tape!”
Shards of broken windows burst onto the street. The scene is reminiscent of those horrifying visuals of Kristallnacht that we know all too well. The firemen dash in and out of the fire’s grip, with their oxygen tanks at hand. They haul out many religious items and holy books. A human chain is formed; the books are lovingly wiped with towels and laid out on trestle tables to dry.
We all look out anxiously for the Sifrei Torah, but only one tiny Torah is carried out. The rabbi cradles it like a baby and places it in a towel. It is burnt irreparably, and we are later informed that all the other Torot were incinerated.
People around us begin to sob as the severity of the event unfolds.They sway and sag as they mourn the loss of the scrolls. The rabbis that have come from around the city simultaneously rip their shirts; bury their heads in pure despair. Yitkadal v’yitkadash sh’meih rabah…
Even as we stand there, people are posting video clips to social media; within hours, thousands have heard the news and hundreds of messages of support stream in.
Someone has remembered that the firemen are thirsty and dozens of bottles of water are handed to them. They sit on the pavement and begin to pack away their equipment. We slowly disperse, still in shock. It is clear that as a physical entity, our house of worship is no longer, but its spirit will surely live on.
Diana Keschner Henning lives with her husband in the cosmopolitan suburb of Sea Point, Cape Town, South Africa. Besides penning flash fiction, she loves arm-knitting, walking and pampering her fur babies.
For readers concerned about how the fire might have started, Diana adds, as a postscript to her story, that “insurers are still assessing the fire; however congregants have been assured that it wasn’t arson.”