Azrael beats his four thousand silken wings and alights on the first of the steps that ascend to the mighty entranceway to Heaven. His colossal and dazzling form is ablaze with the eternal light the Almighty God bestowed on him when He created the Earth.
The shining angel runs a hand through the thick mane of golden hair that crowns the cherubic radiance of his handsome face. At once, he feels the majesty of the Lord’s presence. He shields his eyes with his hand, for no angel that exists within the four realms can withstand the magnificence of His holy brilliance.
“My most treasured of angels,” came the voice of the Almighty lord, “Thank you for answering my call to Heaven on this tenth day of Tishrei. I know how busy you are in your holy work, but I know how you have desired to talk with me. It is time we spoke.”
The angel’s soft face was inexpressive, but he knew that the great Creator of all things knew every one of his thoughts far better than he did himself. “Almost thirty cycles of the Sun have passed since you last summoned me, my Lord of Hosts. I can only hope that my wish to talk does not displease You.”
“My blessed Azrael, never have you displeased or disappointed me. You carry out your holy work without question. You will remember how, the last time we spoke, humankind waged a mighty war against itself. I saw how it affected you then.”
The memories of flights through sodden trenches fill the angel’s head – the soldiers’ cries, their pain and fear – the bitter stench of death – he took each of their souls to his breast. So many souls passing, so many to comfort. Irrespective of his feelings about his task, his duty to the Almighty is always his first concern.
“It is time to talk,” the Almighty said. “I know the events of the last few years have weighed heavy on you. Always remember I love you and understand how dedicated you are to your work. You never question my decisions or inquire as to the fates of the souls you carry from the Earth below.”
The angel folded his glowing wings behind him. “I have always performed my duty without question and am happy just to serve you.”
“I know, my most precious of servants, but I would have you share what you have seen in this last cycle of the Sun.”
“What would you have me say, my Lord?”
“Tell me anything. Anything that comes to mind.”
The angel sits on the step, deep in thought. He looks up and again must shield his eyes. “My Lord, I cannot think of anything in particular. Within the countless souls I have carried to Heaven in the last cycle, there was so much pain – so many stories – I fear we would never stop discussing them and I would never return to my task.”
“My blessed servant, we will always have time to talk, and I will always listen.”
The angel adjusts his position on the step with a few beats of his brilliant wings. “A story of a young couple has come to mind. It is an ordinary story played out so many times on Earth – but it was their story.”
“Please do share this with me.”
“As You will know, there was a lady by the name of Eva who lived in Wolborska in Łódź. She was to be wed to a local man, Avraham, a poor machinist who worked in a dressmaking factory in the same street. He had admired her for many years from afar. To his delight, the local matchmaker had considered them a good match for each other, and their respective parents gave their blessings for their marriage. Avraham saved his money over the course of a year to buy her a diamond ring but worried the little stone would be a disappointment to her. It was all he could afford – but you know this story, my Lord of Hosts.”
“My blessed angel, you must finish this story.”
“Avraham could not sleep the night before he planned to present her the ring. Would she even like it? Did she even like him? Why should she like him, a simple, ordinary machinist? But Eva cried with happiness as he presented the ring, and his heart swelled. She told him it was just perfect. With tears in her eyes, she told him it was the happiest moment of her lifetime. Avraham sensed her complete joy and loved her all the more for it. For Eva, the ring had meant more than she could ever express in earthly gratitude. After that day, Eva never omitted a prayer of daily thanks to You.”
“Indeed, Azrael, Avraham may have been poor, but he adored Eva and vowed always to protect her. Eva felt happiness beyond anything she had experienced before. Yet only a short time remained for them on Earth.”
The angel says, “Several months after the wedding, Eva became pregnant. When I passed one day, I saw the soul of the tiny girl that sucked her thumb in her mother’s womb. A week later, when the Germans occupied the city of Łódź, they arrested them both and sent them to Birkenau. Jewish Sonderkommandos, who collaborated with the Germans for the promise of a few months of extended life, pulled people off the overcrowded prisoner train and forced them into lines. The smell of burned flesh, urine and faeces clawed in Avraham’s throat. He and Eva held hands but were forced to place their other hands over their mouths so as not to breathe in the ash particles of burnt human flesh that descended from the sky. But then, the two were separated into the male and female prisoner groups and later forced to enter the camp undressing room.”
Azrael runs both his hands through his golden hair before continuing his story. “Both Eva and Avraham panicked when they realised there was no chance of finding each other. The guards commanded every prisoner to strip naked and to surrender all their possessions, and a Jewish collaborator grabbed Eva’s wrist and pulled the ring off her finger. She cried out in tears. She had braved the stinking crush of the cattle cart, had held her head high when the rumours spread of the certain deaths of all the prisoners, yet wept when her ring was removed from her slender finger.”
Azrael falls silent and sits in silent contemplation.
“How does this story conclude, my faithful servant?”
“It was easy to identify their souls once the zyklon B seared into their lungs. Whilst the other dying prisoners used what they had left of their strength to claw at the walls in futile panic, the two lovers called for each other in their agony. It took longer than usual for me to calm them as I took them into my embrace and nourished them. I placed the soul of their unborn child into their arms. Their souls are now in your possession.”
“Azrael, would you like to hear the fate of those souls?”
The glowing angel stays silent for a few moments. “Only as you see fit, O Lord of Hosts.”
“I do feel the time has come that I should tell you. But first, I would like to hear more of what you have seen.”
Azrael shielded his eyes again. “There are so many similar tales. There’s another soul that I recall in Auschwitz. A Polish Christian by the name of Paweł Dembinski. Paweł had been a successful property owner in Zamość. Even though his tenants complained about his high rents, many of the properties suffered from leaking pipes and were full of mildew. He had closed his mind to the suffering of his tenants and even overcharged an old lady, so poor, she would sit out the winter months sallow-eyed with hunger in her unheated flat.”
“Indeed, Paweł was not a man to worry about the consequences of his actions.”
“The Gestapo arrested him when he resisted their demands to hand over his properties to the German administration. Sentenced to a life as a prisoner in Auschwitz, he was assigned work digging pits in the frozen earth for thousands of bodies as the overwhelmed crematoria could not keep up with the sheer numbers of corpses. There was one bitter winter’s day when Paweł was hungry to the point of fainting; his threadbare prison uniform and hat could not keep away the biting cold of the winter air.”
The dazzling angel pauses from his reflection to place his hands on his brow. He looks skyward, again shielding his eyes. “Well, you will know, my Lord of Hosts, on this particular day, two prisoners were assigned to dig with him. One of them was his old schoolfriend, Tomasz, the other was an older, Polish man he did not recognise, stick thin with malnutrition and one eye clouded by a cataract. That day, while Tomasz was digging, he saw black frostbite had reached his fingers and cried out in anger and fear. The guards shouted at him to be quiet, then beat him with iron bars as he curled up on the ground. The deep cuts from the blows bled through his uniform, and I collected his soul as it exited from his broken body. On seeing this, the older man with the blind eye crumpled to the ground, no longer able to withstand the suffering around him. I could feel his hunger and the pain of his frozen hands in the snow.”
“So, my eternal servant, why have you selected Paweł’s tale for your story?”
“Perhaps it is because after the guards left, he gave the old man the piece of bread he had hidden for himself in his uniform sleeve and helped him back onto his feet as a last act of selfless kindness in his lifetime. That very evening, Paweł collapsed through hypothermia and starvation. He nestled into my arms, relieved to have parted the earthly realm.”
“Indeed, my blessed angel, in the years to come, the old man will light candles in honour of the selfless man who saved his life with that piece of bread.”
Azrael flaps his multitude of wings a few times, the eternal light radiating from him as he moves. “I also recall a young man in the Kraków ghetto by the name of Gabriel. He would not forgive his father, Isaac, who had remarried after the death of his wife. For two years, Gabriel refused to speak to Isaac despite his father’s many attempts to reach out to his son. I could feel how the conflict of silence tore at each of their souls.”
The Almighty Lord replies, “Isaac was always a pious man and prayed to Me in the synagogue services. Yet you
he also prayed in private that his son would find it within himself to forgive him and come back to him.”
Azrael closed his eyes in a momentary respite from the blinding intensity of the presence of his Almighty host. He opened them again and said, “One morning in the ghetto, a German guard picked Gabriel out for a punishment line-up of men and women in the street of Targowa. The ghetto wall behind them, designed by the German occupiers with repeating dull grey stone arches, resembled a Jewish cemetery, so the prisoners should feel bereft of any hope of survival. The guards ordered the line-up because a soldier had mislaid his tin of tobacco and had assumed that one of the Jews in the compound had stolen it. He produced a pistol and shot the heads of every second person in the line. A woman standing next to Gabriel perished as she covered him in a spray of her blood and brain. I took her soul into my arms and soothed her with my eternal light.”
Azrael pauses and wipes his face as he looks down.
“Please continue, my trusted angel.”
“The guard laughed and walked off, leaving collaborators to remove the dead and their body fragments. In that moment, Gabriel’s longstanding anger with his father dissipated, and he yearned to see him. He ran to Isaac’s house and found it crammed with people deported from other parts of the country, all sent to perish in the ghetto. The moment he found his father, his discovered the old man was dying from pneumonia. His new wife was cradling him as he took his final breaths, no longer having the desire to live. Gabriel ran towards him and wept as he cried, “I’m sorry father, please forgive me as my anger had taken over my judgement. Please know how I love you.”
“Did Isaac hear these words, Azrael?”
“The old man heard his son’s message just before his soul slipped into my arms with ease and happiness.”
“Are you happy to continue with these tales, my blessed servant?”
“Yes, my Lord, but I am needed to return to my work soon. There is one more story I would like to recount. Again, it is not unique, but I feel compelled to mention it. A young girl by the name of Mania Halef had existed on the Earth for just seven Sun cycles. The Gestapo ordered her and her mother, Klara, to the ravine at Babyn Yar alongside thousands of other Jews, rounded up in collective punishment. The German administration had organised this event in retaliation for the large number of their soldiers and officials who had died in a series of explosions. They chose to blame the Jews as a justification to murder those that remained in Kyiv. The prisoners were forced to undress and enter the ravine where dozens of Ukrainian soldiers laid in wait with their machine guns pointed at them.”
“Azrael,” the Lord of Hosts said to him. “I understand if you would prefer not to recount this story.”
The silken winged angel replies, “With Your permission, this tale will be my last before I return to my work.”
“I will always welcome your thoughts, my most precious of servants.”
“Naked and vulnerable, the prisoners screamed in panic. Mania cried out, ‘Mother! Mother!’ over and over as Klara held her daughter as tightly as she could to her chest. As the guns roared and the bullets tore open their bodies, I took the agonised souls of the dying and comforted them. As they ascended, they could see their own mortal bodies being thrown onto the pile of corpses in the pit. For many hours, neither Klara nor Mania could be calmed by my eternal light, and I took them to my breast, still locked together in fear and love.”
The angel, in his brilliance, extends his many wings. “My Lord, if that is all, I would like to return to the earthly realm and continue my work.”
“Yes, my eternal servant, there is much need for your services. But before you leave this realm, I would like to ask you something more.”
The angel folds his wings back down. “If there is any way I can help, Your Holiness, I will fly across the Four Worlds to be of service to You.”
“Azrael, even though you are engaged with assisting the dying, I have seen how you have taken time to visit the souls of the living. I would have you tell me what draws you to them as these journeys extend beyond your holy duty?”
The angel’s eternal light shimmers in waves of sparkling radiance, yet his fine face remains unsettled. “My Lord of Hosts, I have always carried out my work without question and will continue so long as You wish me to serve You. But I have become increasingly concerned about the way people have been discussing You, O Lord of Hosts. I worry how the faiths of many of the people have been shaken.”
“I understand your concerns, my blessed servant. Please tell me of what you have observed.”
“One day when I visited the Birkenau camp, I saw in passing a group of prisoners collapsed onto their bunks, exhausted from their long day’s work. A young man named Ethan asked the other prisoners how such tragedies could befall the Jewish nation and how the Almighty Lord, in his wisdom, could allow this to happen. He talked of children sent to their deaths and questioned how a benevolent god could allow the suffering of innocents. A rabbi was among them and told Ethan not to harbour such thoughts. He said he should worship You without question and explained there was a higher purpose that, in Your wisdom, You have chosen not to share with mere mortals. Another man, an elder, said, You have broken Your covenant with the people. Another doubted that You could even exist upon Your Heavenly throne. For all these living souls, I gave nourishment, so they had the strength to carry on through such relentless pain, until it was their turn to suffer an agonising death in the gas chamber.”
The angel became conscious of the Almighty’s judgement of him. The last time he had been summoned to speak to the Lord of Hosts, his own heart had not felt so laden with questions.
“Please, my most trusted of angels, don’t be alarmed by what you have heard. Consider when Jacob crossed the ford of the Jabbok stream, he met a man who wrestled with him through the night. The man ended the impasse by touching the socket of Jacob’s hip, wrenching the tendon, and causing Jacob a searing pain so intense that he had to stop.
“The man eventually told him to break off the struggle, for it was daybreak. Jacob replied he wouldn’t let him go until the man blessed him. The man replied to him that his name would no longer be Jacob but Israel, because he had wrestled with God and with humankind, and ended victorious.
“My dear Azrael, what they are asking are questions that should be asked of each other and of Me. Their souls spend but a brief time on Earth, yet an eternity within the realms of Heaven. The people need to sit in judgement of themselves, of humankind and of Me, so they can reflect, debate, and teach each other their learning, so the tragedies that befall humankind are never forgotten. It is only correct the people should wrestle with Me, their Lord of Hosts, so the people will be victorious for when you, My dear spirit, come to collect them.”
At that, a burst of luminous brilliance radiates from the mighty angel as he spreads his wings on his journey to the land below.
As Azrael descends, he can hear the Holy voice of the Lord say, “As for Eva and Avraham, they are united in eternal bliss with their daughter. Paweł has found riches beyond his imagination; Isaac awaits his son in peace and tranquillity, and Klara and Mania dwell within the planes of Heaven in blessed happiness in each other’s company. For each of these precious souls, honour and majesty surround them; strength and beauty fill their sanctuary.”
As the shining angel swoops down to collect the countless souls taken so early in their time on Earth, he can hear the Almighty’s words resonate within him.
“Know, dear Azrael, that you are special to me, for I know that within your heart, you wrestle with me. For the questions you raise give you the strength to carry on despite the tragedies humankind bestows upon itself.”
Adam Frosh is the co author of the award winning novel Space Taxis, a science fiction novel with historical links to WW2. It is the Gold medal winner of the Reader’s Favorite Science fantasy category. It can be purchased here as paperback, kindle or as an audio version.
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