Epidemics were the way most went-—hundreds died in a single day. Yet Anatoly didn’t get sick, though he starved with the rest on the meager rations, the soup with the unmentionable objects thrown into the water with a few pieces of cabbage that was not even fit for a scavenging dog. Were they eating human flesh, or was it cow udders? Most would say human flesh, but what choice did they have? Either eat the Nazis’ swill, or die. A ration of bread alone—which was only a crust of moldy black bread--could not keep a soul alive.
Perhaps because of his youth, when the camp was liberated in 1945 by British forces, Anatoly was the first to be pulled off the pile of corpses nearest the gate by a British officer when he moved his legs enough to show he was still alive. The officer thrust Anatoly’s shriveled body, which was just twenty five pounds of skin and bones, into a German doctor’s hands. “If he dies, you die!” the doctor was told.
The doctor took one look at his patient, whose wrists were as thin as a lady’s two fingers pressed together, and despaired of his life. Yet he was frightened enough to try, and the patient, unexpectedly, revived after injections of vitamins and bowls of hearty chicken and vegetable soup.
Anatoly, like so many in the camp, had no where to go after liberation, with his entire family exterminated along with thousands of other French Jews. The camp was renamed, and the former prisoners organized their own government, and began to make demands on the British administration. Gradually, all their freedoms were restored, except the one that would have permitted them all to disembark for Palestine—which was the first choice of the majority, now that they had no other home. The British issued visas and clearances for Canada, the U.S., Australia, and other countries, but refused any applications for the Jewish homeland. An entire ship of Jewish refugees was turned back at Haifa by the British who ruled the Palestianian Mandate, as the area was called.
How could Anatoly ever get to the Jewish-settled portions of Palestine if so many hundreds had failed? He was still a boy, and though a year passed, and then another at the camp, and while he attended school and began making up for lost schooling, going to “Israel” seemed a dream, not reality.
Now that the life at the camp, which was really a town closed off from the nearby German city of Celle, was largely in the hands of its own people, Anatoly had to devise his own amusements with children like himself. But the camp had aged his mentality considerably. He had grown up beyond his years. In many ways, he thought and acted like an adult. Why play children’s games? he thought. He was grown too serious-minded for that, yet one trait had survived Bergen-Belsen, his taste for puzzles, the more the better.
He also liked to play the lottery whenever he could win enough playing money with cards. The lottery the Germans ran was popular. You had to go into town to get a ticket, but a big prize of thousands of Marks was awarded the winner each week. It was also possible, even if you did not win, to win back your stake at least.
How excited Anatoly was when he purchased his first lottery ticket. He happened to draw a ticket that had the same number tattooed on his arm—354354. With the prize money he would buy his own boat and sail to Israel, then build a big house for himself there, and raise Arabian horses! It seemed the perfect life, when he was finally on his own.
Had he done the right thing? He had just gambled with the only money he had held in his hands since coming to Bergen-Belsen. It would be a shame to lose it.
The winning number was announced, and Anatoly saw he had not won the jackpot. But he had won back his stake with his ticket numbered 354354!
The next thing he did with his stake money was try again, picking another ticket at random with a different number. Again, he missed winning the jackpot, but won back his stake.
For 52 weeks this happened. He always lost the jackpot, but he won back his stake.
Well, he didn’t win enough that way to fulfill his original dreams, but he did get to Israel and was university-trained there, developing his mathematical skills for later work with the Israeli Defense Ministry for a time, and then he moved to the U.S. Years later, after successful careers as university mathematics professor, a museum director, and an inventor, he revisited the scenes of former horror. His old family home in Paris had long passed to other owners, and he had no desire to contest ownership. It was Bergen-Belsen, where his new life began, that drew him as an old man.
As he got out and left his chauffeur to watch the car, he noticed busloads of tourists eagerly disembarking, anxious to be first to see the site and lay wreaths by the holocaust memorial.
The sight amazed him. Some were old, possible returnees like himself, but most looked far too young to have known Nazi atrocity and imprisonment, unless it was their parents or relatives who had suffered at Bergen-Belsen and had told them about it.
Moving closer to the chattering groups, Anatoly heard German, Italian, some Scandinavian language, and English spoken, so it was really at least four nationalities represented. He heard no French, however, and somehow he longed to hear French more than any other language at that moment. He couldn’t make himself ever go back to France, but yet his ties were there, inextricably bound up with the soul of France, which even years of service in Israel and America had not been able to weaken and sever.
Guides began telling their various flocks exactly what the site signified, so he began to listen. They listed the usual, mind-numbing statistics on the death camp, when it was set up, for what reasons, and then how it developed into the brutal killing machine under its last director, the infamous butcher of Bergen-Belsen.
Anatoly felt strange, as if listening to someone else’s experience. Having been so young at the time, he hadn't thought statistically, it had all been seen through a child’s eyes. And children, mercifully, are so ignorant of the adult world. Now he was fully educated by the guides as to the extent of the horror and “inhumanity to man” such camps as Bergen-Belsen represented.
“Those were mostly Jews they were killing here,” he murmured under his breath, surprised at his own reaction. “Didn’t they see that, these tour guides?” he wondered. The Nazis weren’t just being “inhumane,” and awfully mean-spirited, he reflected. They were determined to fully exterminate all Jews and erase all trace of them from the face of the earth. Other nationalities such as Russians and Gypsies got in their way and were slaughtered too, but it was the Jews the Nazis were after.
The guides all continued with their programmed remarks, and of course touched on the most famous inmates of the death camp, the Frank sisters, Anne and Margaret.
Anatoly had no reason to think them remarkable at the time, and had spoken once or twice with them, but that was all. But now they were world famous, particularly Anne the writer of the famed diary that was made into a best-selling book, a film, and a Broadway play. So many children had died, and both Frank sisters fatally contacted typhus, he knew. Once Margaret died and left her, Anne seemed to lose her will to live. But what was remarkable about that? Death was death, and there was so much of it, it couldn’t be remarkable at the time that two Dutch girls died.
Yet the guides dwelt on Anne and Margaret’s experience as if it were the most important thing about Bergen-Belsen.
Shaking his head at so literary an interpretation, he moved away, and decided to return to the car. He had tasted enough of his former life. It was time to go, even if he could never forget.
As he was seated back in the car, and they were moving away from the crowded memorial, a strange thought flickered into his mind.
What was it so important about the experience? That anyone died? That so many people perished here? No, that was the express purpose of the camps—to kill people in massed numbers like animals or insects and shovel them into the ground as fast as possible. No, death comes to every man. Bergen-Belsen’s expertise was to make death more brutal and degrading, but it was the same death that came, to young or old.
“I survived this place against great odds,” he reflected, “yet I am still facing death, which can’t be put off indefinitely. Is that inhumane? Of course, not! So it isn’t inhumanity to man that so marks this place, if death is so bad, which it is not. No, if the forced degradation and starvation of captive people, torn from their homes, is inhumane, I agree, but not death. Death was the only merciful thing the camps could possibly offer us suffering prisoners!”
He was thinking in this vein, how death is really a persecuted Jew’s best friend who has nothing more to hope for from life, and that the guides were wrong in describing the “tragic deaths” of people like Anne and Margaret Frank, when his mind was stirred by a different thought. He had just remembered the puzzle of his life, the one he called “Le Grande Puzzle.” How could he, indeed, have won his stake back playing the lottery fifty two weeks in succession? What were the odds of that? He had to wonder, not so much how it happened, but why? Was there a secret message being sent to him? If so, by whom?
He had a thought to change his itinerary, and he did. He flew from Germany to Switzerland, and went to a hotel he knew in Zurich. There he could hear some French being spoken, without actually crossing the border.
Hearing his native language again stirred deepest memories, of course. For the first time in many years, he was almost put to tears over what he had lost so long ago. It was a mistake, he thought, to have come so close to his former homeland, but it was too late. The memories could not be put off any longer. He took long walks in the parks, and gradually put them to proper perspective. As an adult, he knew how to do that. But one memory persisted, which would not be resolved. His “Grande Puzzle.” He was about to burn all his personal papers, the first thing he would do when he returned to his home in the states, but he could not burn his memory, which kept insisting, like a hound on a sure scent, there was something he should know or discover about the “Grande Puzzle.”
What could it be?
As for God, his faith, like so many other Jews, had been knocked clean out of him by the Holocaust, but how much faith could a boy like him have had anyway in such a hell as Bergen-Belsen? It was, to his adult thinking, sheer coincidence that kept him winning his stake back in the lottery for fifty-two weeks in succession. Sheer coincidence! That was all.
But that was not all, his memory kept doggedly insisting, even as he flew back to Denver to settle affairs regarding his estate and will. The odds were just too great, he knew from his extensive knowledge of mathematics.
Anatoly never reached Denver according to schedule. The plane was rerouted to a small town in Canada on the border. All commercial aircraft were shut down over the U.S., after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He decided to take the train back to Denver instead, rather than wait for official release and reboarding the plane for the flight “home.” Life did not wait. He had his business affairs to settle, he knew. He wasn’t feeling well, and wondered what could be going wrong.
As for his “life affairs,” they too seemed pressing.
The train gave him more time to think than he had bargained for, he found, early in the trip. And he hadn’t thought Colorado was so far, far away! But he had been so used to jet travel, he had forgotten how tedious it was to travel any long distance in America’s heartland on earth-bound wheels.
Yet the scenery, which he missed entirely from the air, was eye-catching. He had seen most of Europe at various times, and the Middle East, but had he really seen America? It seemed new to him. Passing through the Upper Plains, he was amazed at the brightness and vigor of the cities and towns, and the beauty of the well-kept farms. He saw no extremes of wealth or poverty, only a Middle Class that was triumphant and well-accustomed to its comfortable life-style. Bergen-Belsen, if he had thought about it, would have seemed like a place on another planet compared to the scenes that passed his window hour after hour.
He would have enjoyed it more, except his body felt so weak, and he breathed so shallowly, as if he could not take a deep breath. “I must check in with the doctor on my return the first thing,” he told himself, though he hated the idea and knew he wouldn’t.
Doctors, though a German doctor had saved his life after a British officer pointed a gun at the man’s head, had brutalized the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, and he wanted nothing to do with them, even decades after the experience. Some things in himself he simply could not change, he knew. This-—a deep distrust of the medical establishment—-was definitely one of those things!
Consequently, he was not sure exactly when the train finally pulled into Denver. He was lying on his bed, unable to move off it, when the medics came for him. He was carried off, protesting weakly.
The last hours were in some room of an unknown hospital. He really could not have cared where or what hospital it was. He wondered if he would be able to muster his energy and restore use of his limbs, so that he could dress and get out of the place. All he wanted was to return home, and burn his letters and other personal papers, and make sure calls would be made by his housekeeper, “in case of an emergency.”
He had no family to call on him. A chaplain was sent, in a mix-up, before a rabbi came, but Anatoly sent him away too. He had never been a religious Jew, so why start things like that now? He wasn’t a hypocrite. He didn’t believe in a God, so why should a God—-if He existed—have anything to do with him?
“I’m apparently not going to win my stake back this time!” he thought ruefully, as more and more tubes were hooked up to his body. “All life systems must be failing!”
Indeed, they were.
That was when an inner voice spoke to him he lay, not asleep, but not quite conscious either.
It was clear enough for him, however. “Why not stake something and see if you win or not, one last time?”
The invitation repeated itself.
He began to wonder what he was thinking, or if it was himself or not. What could he stake in his condition? It was ludicrous. Was life some sort of grand lottery? Were human lives or souls to be cast into the hopper and a winning number or jackpot pulled out? What would be the jackpot anyway?
“What could a man give in exchange for his immortal soul?” the inner voice replied to his questions.
That really puzzled Anatoly, even in his dying hour.
He finally concluded, without having to think too long about it, that nothing could be worth a human soul. It was unique, therefore priceless, even if you couldn’t say it was immortal. The Nazis only treated Jews so contemptibly and murderously because they placed no value in Jews either as a race or as individuals. For them the only good Jews were dead Jews! They thought more of their dogs than Jewish lives--
“But we’re talking about you, Anatoly, not your persecutors,” the voice declared.
Anatoly almost objected audibly, he was so surprised at the inner voice turning so personal of a sudden.
“It is your soul at stake, not the Nazi Germans who mistreated you,” the voice went on. “But you haven’t answered. You drew your life number-—the one branded on your arm—-fifty two weeks in succession. You knew that could not happen, but it did. You even suspected a secret message was hidden in the occurrence. And you had your entire life to ponder it and come up with the answer. What is your answer, Anatoly? Your time is fast running out.”
Anatoly was upset now. “I must be going crazy! It is the medication they’re pumping into my veins, no doubt. I—“
He knew even as he protested that he was blowing smoke and getting nowhere.
“Oh, well, have it your way,” he sighed. “I must confess, I have no answer. I can’t think why I was so lucky as to win my stake back so many times. It is entirely impossible, and I ought to know. I taught probability theory long enough.”
Just then he heard background noise grow louder, and heard a street preacher pass by on the street below, one of the tribe of “overly zealous Christians” apparently that the Nazis so hated. He heard the name of Jesus, and other words like “redemption,” “sin,” and a phrase, “paid the price for your sin and rebellion.”
It meant nothing to Anatoly, and the noise soon went away. Though not religious, he had lived long enough in America to know in general the spiel of street preachers, having run across them several times in his lifetime. It sounded no different to his ears now than previously. At those other times, he had chuckled at the message and gone about his business. But now his business was taken away. He had to lie there, helpless, at the mercy of doctors and nurses who were making all his decisions for him, it seemed. The voice hadn’t forgotten him, though it hadn’t said anything for several minutes. Finally, it spoke again. Anatoly, by this time, was ready for it, or thought he was.
“You’ve turned away my prophets, four and now five times. If you will not listen to them, and you will not read my Book, how can I reach you with the truth?”
Anatoly was thunderstruck. He got right to the point. “WHO are you? If you think you are going to play God with me, think twice about it. I am a Jew from Bergen-Belsen, remember that. You, if you are God, let that happen. And so you would be the last God I would believe in, because no God who truly loved his people, or any people for that matter, would let the Holocaust happen!”
The voice let his have his full say, and when he fell silent and exhausted, the voice returned, in the most gentle way. It was like the dropping of dew, it was so quiet and still a voice. “But I suffered and died at Bergen-Belsen—by my own choice, not because I was forced to do so.”
“What do you mean?” he shot back. “If you’re God, you were in heaven, looking down on all our misery, and doing absolutely nothing about it! It couldn’t possibly be any concern of yours, since you let it happen to us.”
The voice became even more gentle, if possible. “When I let the Romans pound nails into me, I was taking all your suffering into my own body. When they whipped, mocked, and spat upon me, I was voluntarily taking the contempt and rejection you too received. When they crucified me, I was taking your death and sin and the full punishment for your sin too. You were not crucified for your sin. I was.”
Anatoly lay, stunned for a moment. Who could be this selfless, sacrificial “I” speaking to him? This had to be Jesus, the one his people called Y’Shua! He was, everyone told him, the Christian God, not the true Messiah. He had only been a pretender, according to the rabbis.
Now he had nothing more to say in protest. What in the world could he say? It was true that Y’Shua had been crucified. Nobody denied that fact, nobody except certain radical skeptics who called themselves Jesus Seminar scholars and theologians, the ones that always got in the papers and into TIME Magazine’s colorful spreads on “Religion in America.” But if this “pretender” was really the Messiah—what then? Had some colossal mistake been made by all the religious authorities of Judaism? How could that be? They represented three millennia at least of intense religious teaching and study. Those people ought to know what they were talking about—how could they have gone so far wrong as to have missed the true Messiah when he came? It was so improbable!
“How improbable was your winning your stake back fifty-two weeks in succession?” the voice challenged him.
Checkmate! Anatoly knew he was beaten.
“No more improbable, and quite a bit less, than our missing you as Messiah, O Lord,” he replied.
The voice spoke no more, but He didn’t have to. Somehow, with a gambler’s and a mathematician’s instinct for numbers, Anatoly was assured his response had struck gold, casting the right number this time into the hopper.
All his numbers came up! It was “Jackpot”!