This is the slightly edited cartoon retelling of my lifelong recurring dream. The complete text version is below.
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When I was twelve years old (in 1969) I had a horrifying dream. I woke up in a cold sweat screaming. That year, and for the five or six years following, I have had the same dream four or five times a year. Over the years the frequency and sense of realness of the dream has only intensified. Whatever this dream means, the time has come that I must try and make some sense out of it if I can. I can no longer shrug it off as just a weird and disturbing dream. For this reason, I offer the following.
The dream never changes in any substantial respect. Minor "changes" have taken place but these seem to fill in some of the missing pieces as I remember and understand the dream more fully. For instance, I recount hearing someone chanting Kaddish at one point. For the first several years all I understood was that this person was reciting comforting prayers. When I later heard the Kaddish prayers for the dead I immediately recognized it as the prayers I had heard in the dream. Therefore I added the name of the prayer to this re-telling. There are a couple of such instances. If I tried to rewrite the dream from my childhood point of view, it would be less true to the dream than sharing it as it is now experienced. Besides, while I am presenting this for your consideration, I'm also hoping that by sharing it, my memory will be jogged and I will remember and understand more of it. What follows then is a somewhat modified version of the dream as it is now experienced.
The dream takes place in two distinct segments. For years I thought these were separate dreams but have now come to understand that there is a point in the dream where I often wake up (frequently in a cold sweat and sometimes crying out, kicking and shouting in a language I am told "sounds German"). Following that point there is a clear time break in the dream. Practically all events during this interval have been lost to my memory I fear [8.06: I am beginning to remember pieces of this interval. These hazy reflections are added in brackets at the appropriate place in the dream below]. [6.09: This section of the dream has gradually become more clear to me and a few new insights have been added in this update. I will continue to included these in brackets because they are later memories].
When I first encountered the idea of reincarnation in my mid teens I readily accepted it as true because this "dream" has always seemed too real to be "just a dream." In other words, the realness of the following dream led me to accept the probability if not certainty that reincarnation is real and that this "dream" is actually a past life memory that sometimes returns while I sleep. Theologically the acceptance of this knowledge has at times been problematic. For instance being raised and later ordained as a Christian and a minister I would read in the Scriptures that: "It is appointed once for man to die and after that the judgment." Yet I feel certain that I have lived before, and if before, then will likely will return again and again in the future after this current life-tide turns. This led me to look deeper into the Scriptures and I now understand that the existence of rebirth does not violate biblical doctrine, only popular interpretation.
If this is "only a dream," I'm at a complete loss to explain why it has haunted me these 40 some odd years. I present this retelling here therefore without explanation or apology (although with a long preface hehe). It is what is:
My Lifelong Recurring Dream
It is very dark. I am alone, terrified. Stray beams of yellow tainted light filter in through slats of wallboard once covered with stucco and from a broken window near the bottom of the rickety wooden stairwell. The stench of urine permeates the hushed air. The slashing of frigid air whistles in through the exposed slats running along the outside wall and mercilessly assaults my face. I seek to keep my head covered under what was once a jacket, but the stench is too intense, I must uncover my head and bear the assault of the urine-drenched stilettos of the wind. At the top of the stairs, huddled on the wooden landing and wrapped in rags and ancient yellowed newspapers we sought the escape of unconscious oblivion. I am not alone... yet I am... utterly.
It had been months since any of us had known the simple bliss of real sleep. Each night we huddled together like mice on this landing hoping to renew our strength for the next day's tribulations and, most of all, to be safe.
There is no time. There is only time. Endless, relentless time and yet whether it is dark or light outside it is always night and they are always feeding, feeding, and we are the vermin they most crave to fulfill their voracious appetites.
I doze and soon awake as a knee jabs into my sore back. He grunts, I shift and doze again. Will this interminable night never end?
In the distance the sound of scratching and whimpering drifts into our "Palace" (that's what someone called our hallway and the name fits as well as any other, certainly better than words like "home" or "safe place"). The sound of the dogs searching, sniffing, scratching and my body emits a cold perspiration that soaks me to my soul. I shiver, afraid to make a sound. My companions begin to stir, some of them. Someone whispers, "You OK?" Pause. Then, "Moshe!" then nothing, except the dogs drawing ever closer. Another voice: one of the Yeshiva teachers I believe but can't be sure, whispers without emotion, "He's gone." People come and go in the Palace; mainly they go.
Then the sound of many feet running, growing louder, shuffling in the street below. I hear the shouts and commands of the soldiers.
"I always hated the Germans. They acted so civilized, but they are not. At least not anymore" [this thought is in the dream. I include here for accuracy in the retelling, no offense is intended and I hope none is taken. It does not reflect my opinion today, especially now that U.S. is walking the same path].
We drew closer together avoiding a shaft of light at the top of the stairs. The dogs drew closer as well. Their scratching and sniffing drives me mad. They barked too, fiercely, but it was the sniffing, the whining of frustration that they could not quite get to us vermin to eat us up that drove both them and me nearly insane. The sniffing, the whining and moaning. They drew closer and closer and my body shook despite my determination to "be a man." I was after all a man now! I was thirteen years old and my bar mitzvah was six months past. Yet I was terrified and silently I shook and cried and inwardly I besought HaShem but no one heard me because I was a man and I held it all inside where only G-d could see and hear. And I knew that G-d would forgive me if cried.
At the door below us a fist suddenly banged like a machine gun. "Open up!" Bam, bam bam. What good was a door? Nothing could stop them! Our shivering ball of humanity tightened like a python too frightened to strike knowing the danger is too great. That fist, banging, demanding, pounding: "Open up in there!" The voice was odd. It was angry, even enraged, and yet had a sense of resignation. There was a feeling that this was just another door in just another town in just another country behind which slithered ever more vermin without end to be exterminated. No humanity, only vermin. Yet there was also a bestial thirst for blood in that harsh voice… and in the incessant whimpers of the hounds. There was an excitement like that of a priest in a mythical Kali temple preparing the ritual slaughter of a young virgin. He was undeniably in a state of religious ecstasy to his god, Adolph Hitler, and would not be denied his victims. Nor would the dogs snarling below us.
It is strange how contradictory feelings can sometimes merge and make insanity seem rational. To the Germans it was just another day on earth, to us Jews just another day in hell.
A darkened figure: one of us. He struggled onto trembling legs and stepped over our pile of quivering flesh and toward the stairwell. No one said not to go but we were all horrified by the prospect that he would. Yet there was no choice. They had come for us as we all knew they one day would. The figure -- I never knew his name -- braced himself along the darkened stairwell wall and hurried slowly toward the door below as best he could. The dogs were going crazy now. They could smell the rotting stench of our filthy flesh as it wafted down the stairwell. They couldn't bear the moments before the door would open and our emaciated flesh would be theirs.
"Open this door!" the soldier demanded moments before it crashed in with a thundering splintering of wood, light and cold fire against the far wall. The madly flickering beams of their torches flooded the lower stairwell. The greasy light illumined the man who had gone down to grant them access. One of the dogs lunged forward but was jerked back by a thick leash held by one of the soldiers. It yowled a tortured reproof.
Our compatriot fell backward against the wall and his arms flew up above his head in surrender as a single point of blood exploded from the center of his forehead and burst into the darkness, painting the filthy walls crimson around him. The redness of it glittered in the light of the open door with a sickening appeal. The soldier holstered his weapon and stepped toward us clearly feeling victorious in his discovery.
Never close the doors I told myself. Never close the doors, and if you do, never ever open them!
As one diseased entity they turned toward the stairwell and upward in slow motion and yet with such speed that I felt sick: both was true. Perhaps due to the angle of the slanting ceiling or because of my unwillingness to look up due to the fear that had already caused me to soil my sweat-drenched pants, but I could only see their legs. I remember only their shiny black knee-high boots as they flowed like a putrid and nauseating black liquid wind up the stairs in the dark. As they came their inhuman forms were highlighted by the flickering of sinister torches. Their harsh commands made my teeth clench and my head to pound.
The dogs remained outside in feral hysterics. They wanted inside in the worst possible way. For their efforts they demanded the spoils of their successful quest: our flesh. One beast yelped loudly as though struck into silence by its handler and I envied it. The dog would survive. Up the stairs the rest of the soldiers came as we pressed against the cold walls hoping to disappear within them. Time stood still as their flow up the short stairwell took an instantaneous eternity to occur. I was aware of my heart beating, and then it seemed to stop. All breathing halted as we sat frozen in place staring at our enemies. With knees firmly pressed against my chest I stared vacuously forward with my arms around people I didn't know. They could not possibly help me. No one could. I was utterly alone, abandoned. I no longer cared to act like a man and tears flowed from my eyes like rivulets from a dead and wasted sea. I shook and whimpered silently still not making a sound in the hope against all hopes that even now they might not see me.
Then a sound. Almost timidly but without a doubt, someone was whispering Kaddish – the prayers for the dead. This comforted me. Our rabbi had talked about how our people have often had to die for being the Chosen of G-d. If this was our time it was good that someone was saying Kaddish and I listened.
But then I was jerked roughly upward by the right arm. My left arm was locked tightly to the man huddled at my side. The soldier yanked me hard a second time and my grip gave way. I was sent reeling to the right, toward the stairs. I grabbed for support -- a soldier's arm -- only to steady myself, and...
[I open my eyes slowly. My head is throbbing. I look around and the world is jerky and I can't focus. I am being jostled. I am wedged in place and can not move my arms. I smell bodies, sweat and blood, and dung and I hear sheep. I realize that am traveling, going somewhere. Below me the floor is green painted slats. I don't know where I am or where I'm going and then everything is deep green blackness].
[The stench is suffocating, the pounding noise deafening. The heat and the flames billow. My back aches and my legs work uncertainty -- Dante's Inferno: a painting I recall from somewhere... I remember it. I'm pushing a cart. The floor is uneven and slick. I must not fall. The cart is filled with wood and I am pushing it because it is to pushed.
[To a certain destination I am pushing and I see other people pushing the wood. Not just me. The wood must be moved and we push the carts. Emaciated people fortunate to have work. We dress in gray white and do not question. There are cords and cords of wood to be pushed in the pushcarts to the fires that never go out because that is what is to be done.... except I know it isn't wood in the carts at all and I look into the cart of another as it passes and... Everything is a daze of red and orange haze and vile filth and smoke and flesh-searing heat and I remember my mother. I wonder where she is now.
[There is a gray desk. I stare at the floor in front of the desk. I don't know why I am here. I'm confused. I don't know what it is... I think I am in trouble... fool that I am... what have I forgotten! The man behind the desk will demand to know but I do not remember. I feel ashamed of what I don't know.
[I do know that I did what they told me to do. I do know that it was wrong and I feel ashamed. How can I ever be forgiven by my people or by my G-d?]
The sun is too bright and hot. It beats down on my head and shoulders, stings my eyes. In the distance I can see trees, a forest. So lovely. Beneath their cool branches in the shade is a path. I look at the path. Have I walked down that path before? I think I have. I remember it. It's so lovely and so cool. If only I could reach that path I could run forever and ever and no one would ever see me again until I reached the Holy Land. But I cannot reach the path. I am no longer worthy because of what I did and what I have forgotten.
Closer are the soldiers and they would not allow such freedom to anyone even if I could get there. Even if I hadn't done what I did. What they made me do.
My legs ache and tremble. I glance down at my right foot. It is inflamed and swollen. Most of my body has become so thin, thinner for I was never large. I notice without interest that am naked. My ribs show through my skin but I'm not hungry anymore. I have left such luxuries as hunger behind. I am now hunger itself.
I carefully glance to my left and right, being careful not to move my head. They're still there: the soldiers. So many people, I muse. All naked in the burning sun. We're mainly men but there are a few women too, mainly old. How long have we been standing here? I don't know. My body is coated brownish-red with dirt and my hands are stained with dried blood. They burn fiercely but at least its a feeling. It doesn't matter. How I wish I could run to that trail in the forest and never stop until I get to the Holy Land. Surely the trail leads there...
One of the soldiers lights a cigarette and another approaches him. He says something to him, takes an offered smoke. They both smile vacantly.
'How I wish I had a cigarette! Perhaps if I ask respectfully...'
The one with the shiny cigarette case looks at me. He nudges his comrade who also looks at me with contempt. I look quickly down, 'they can't see me, they can't see me' I affirm silently as the sweat in my eyes burns. Again I tell myself: I will be a man. I will be a man. 'They can't see me. They can't see me.'
There's something that I know I know... What is it? If only I could remember I could get away, but I cannot. For the life of me, I can't remember what it is. The memory tortures me...
Eternity passes. The sun burns my blistered skin and I hazard a glance up. The guards have moved on. No one is looking at me. A hand grabs my lower arm momentarily and then releases: "Don't fall!" It's the man on my left. Live.
I look up at him briefly and wanly smile. My foot feels like it's on fire. I look down and see that it has turned purple. How odd, I think, a purple foot. I'm becoming delirious. My head is throbbing. My empty gut is feeding on itself.
Looking beyond my purple foot I crane my neck. I can see the pit that lies below us all and it is then that I realize why I am so dirty and why my hands are bleeding and I remember what I have done for them... What they made me do... but still, what I did. And I know I can not walk down that path because of it.
I look ahead, beyond and then down again. Silently I sob for what I did. But no tears come. None remain. I am empty.
In my mind I hear the man saying Kaddish in the stairwell: It's good someone is saying Kaddish. I should have died then before I did what I did...