According to the wall calendar, courtesy of Goldberg’s delicatessen, it was 1946. World War II had long ended, as far as the boys in a small, modest yeshiva in Williamsburg were concerned. Why, then, did Rabbi Ehrlich interrupt a perfectly good game of stick ball and call his pupils into their fifth-grade classroom for a meeting? Why is the rebbe dabbing his eyes and so choked with emotion that he is barely able to speak? Though one of the boys blames it on the boiled onions they had for lunch, it is clear that, for him, the pain of the war is still very much present, as it would be for the 20 boys from Poland he says will be joining the school. Not long afterwards, Reuben presented one of the boys, Daniel, to his roommates, Bernie and Aaron, the narrator of our story.
Aaron quickly introduced himself to the small, scared boy who was nervously clutching a small tin box. It is almost immediately apparent that Aaron is “different” from the rest. For one, Aaron was somewhat aware – more so than his peers – of the terrible sufferings of the Jews in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. After all, his parents in Lakewood, NJ (a close-knit Orthodox Jewish community to this very day), told him so. Second, Daniel was often at the mercy of endless teasing by his classmates because of his stuttering. Those same boys were no more sympathetic toward Daniel, asking why the “greenhorn” is so skinny and does not understand English. It is, therefore, fitting that it is the more compassionate Aaron who opened up communication with Daniel, using the tongue that united Jews throughout the Diaspora, Yiddish.
Daniel’s tin box. What could be inside, and why was he guarding it so closely? Everyone wanted to know, most of the boys for the sake of gossip and Aaron out of concern for the boy he sought to befriend. Tantalizing clues appear throughout the rest of the story. For example, Daniel read the tract in the Gemara about Ezekiel’s prophecy that in “the end of days,” a valley of bones would be brought to life, translating it from the Aramaic to Yiddish. More cruel teasing ensued, that day and the next. One night, while everyone else was sleeping, Daniel’s box fell to the floor with a metallic thud. Aaron respectfully put the box back under Daniel’s arm. However, the following day, a group of boys wrestled Daniel to the ground, and the box popped open. The rebbe picked up what looked like a rock and, with tears in his eyes, explained that the object was and proclaimed that it required a ritual burial.
In the end, however, Aaron invited Daniel to his parents’ home in Lakewood. Daniel preferred his new friend recite the prayer while he would bury the box and its precious contents. Aaron had finally found his voice and Daniel finally had a family. And Ezekiel’s prophecy may be fulfilled after all, albeit metaphorically.
This story is based on actual events, both during the Holocaust and the efforts of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to have New York area yeshivas sponsor refugee survivors. The characters are modeled on actual people, as Anna Olswanger explains in the afterword. “Greenhorn” is a story that needs to be told; Ms. Olswanger does so with the sensitivity it needs. It’s a story of sadness and loss, as well as redemption and renewal. “Greenhorn” brings to mind several other books, mainly “Lily’s Crossing,” by Patricia Reilly Giff, in which a Holocaust survivor has much to teach youngsters who were safe in the US during that terrible period, as well as “The Alfred Summer” and its sequel, “Lester’s Turn,” by Jan Slepian, both of which deal with children with disabilities in a profound manner. Both these themes are very meaningful to me. This is a book that brings tears of joy and sadness (but not in a bad way!) to the eyes of even an older reader like myself, someone who cares so deeply about both the children of the Holocaust and children with disabilities. It is evident that Anna Olswanger feels the same way. This is a book I will indeed treasure.