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BEFORE DAWN

A Story of Christmas 1942

by Howard Fast

Faith is a story without end,
but ever a new beginning.

* * *

"Admittance to the shelter shall be denied to those who have one quarter strain of non-Aryan blood—"

And the mother said to the child, "Sleep, and all will be well." Five years old was the child, and what other times had he known? "And it was that way before," the mother said. "On a night like this, there is nothing to fear."
But the child knew of the bombers, of death and misery. There were things, you may believe, that a child knows; and who is to tell a child not to be afraid? When the child asked of the shelters, the mother said they were crowded. Deep down in the earth, the child saw the warmth of people, the comfort of faces. A stiff arm was raised in salute and the child was comforted, for what other salute had he known?
"And we will never go to the shelters again?" the child asked.
"Never."
"And the bombers will come?"
"They will come," the mother said. "Sleep." But she couldn't lie, even to a child. "They will come, they will come," she thought. And outside the city lay in darkness.

"All public gatherings are forbidden on the night of December 24th by orders of the Gestapo."

So the priest came alone to the roofless church on a night when Warsaw was still and lonely as a grave. It was a church in the old style, built a thousand years before, buttressed mightily, and this was not the first time that barbarians from the west had burned the timbered roof.
The priest came in his full vestments, not out of bravado, but because he in himself could not be considered a gathering, and because to this place he had come again and again for twenty-two years, and is a man to surrender his soul because of death and desolation?
He came looking for a miracle because he believed. With other prayers, he said this, "Oh my God, if my faith has wavered, forgive me."
Believing he came, and when the miracle happened, he was in no way astounded. Day and night, miracles happen, and should this night be any different? A single star gleamed in the sky, and under a heap of rubble and timber, sticks drawn together to contrive a home, a woman suckling a child lay dying. The priest heard the cry; he shrived the woman and took the child in his arms, and he walked away through the falling snow.

In Gestapo Headquarters, information service, welfare of the nation, it was reported at five minutes to one, the morning of December twenty-fifth, that already eighteen non-Aryan children had been born within the greater Reich. However, with the high mortality rate, only seven had survived. Four were male, three were female; and as always upon that day, when the birth reports came in, a certain nervousness was evidenced, a hold over of superstitions fastened upon the state in the years of its debasement.

Sitting in the dark, with a frightened city called Berlin stretched out before her, the mother thought to herself, "For all of us there is little enough, but what is there for a child who is five years old, one quarter non-Aryan, and therefore denied the shelters now that they are crowded? And what is there for any child here?" Tonight made her think of children. Even this in her arms was a tight little soldierly figure; yes, a soldierly generation; they carried daggers.
"He is yet too young to hate me, thank God," she said to herself, and told him aloud,
"Sleep, my little one."
"And I will never sleep," he said.
(And the children lost; had it ever been that way before, a whole generation of children lost? Tonight, one thought of it, and hope left one's heart. A man may hope, but what is a child to do?)
"If I tell you a story?" she asked.
"Of the leader?"
"Of the leader," she sighed. "But another one—he lived a long time ago."
"Like ours?"
"Like ours," she said thoughtfully. "So much like ours. His name was Herod, and he was building for a thousand years. Still his name is not forgotten. And one night, during his reign, a child was born—"
"And were there storm troopers?" the child asked.
"There were storm troopers, tall men in brown."
That caught the child's interest, and he would have more of them. What were the storm troopers and who were they? The mother explained and tried to make it plain, speaking of tall men and tight mouths, men who carried swords.
"That night, a child was born," she said.
And the boy, turning the matter over in his mind, nodded and waited for more.
"Like ourselves," she said, "the safe places were forbidden to his mother and him."
"The shelter?"
"Yes, the shelter. There was no place they could go but to a stable— and there the child was born. The mother wrapped him well and laid him in a manger."
"While the bombs fell," the boy put in eagerly.
"While the bombs fell," the mother nodded. She could not see the boy's face in the darkness, she felt his brow, his nose and lips, and let her fingers rest there as she told him of the shepherds in the field.
"They were French," the boy said —so many things crowded into his small mind.
"They went to the stable."
"And they were not shot for that?" the boy asked incredulously.
"They were not seen. They came there and knelt down in front of the child."
"Why?"
"Because they knew his greatness."
Pursuing a will o' the wisp he could not quite grasp, the boy said, "But he was like us?"
The mother nodded. "And the shepherds praised God," she said, feeling with her fingers how the boy's lips were creased in a smile.

When the mother came to that part of her story where the wise men said, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him," the child was troubled.
"And did the leader know?" he asked.
"Herod was afraid," the mother said. She felt a deep peace in telling the story, and some of it was communicated to the child.
"Of the Jews?" incredulously.
"Of the child—"
"Of me?"
"Of you, I think," the mother smiled. But the child was puzzled, and only said,
"And then?"
"And then the mother took her baby and fled, as so many others have fled—" As the mother went on with her tale, the child whispered, sleepily,
"Is it a story without an end?"
"Without an end, I think, but always with a beginning." The child didn't answer; and later, when she was telling how he said, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me," she knew by his soft and gentle breathing that the child was asleep.


from the reprint edition by Woman's Day for Christmas, 1942
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