On September 6, 1939, a Rabbi and Kabbalist named Yitzchok Falk sets fire to the Great Synagogue of Łódź. “The Germans will burn it anyway,” he tells his apprentice they drag a body out of the trunk of his car. “Let it burn without victims, and for a good reason.” The boy, Max, who holds the feet, only nods.
They carry the body in and lay it out in the prayer hall. It is a young man near Max’s thirteen years and fifty seven kilos, dressed in his clothes. He died of a broken neck, not of their doing, and was obtained at great cost. From his coat the rabbi produces a rag-corked bottle and a heavy black key, the latter of which he presses into his apprentice’s hand. “Everything is yours now,” he tells the boy. “Do with it what you will, if you will good. But your life has become a precious resource. Keep it from those who want it and give it to those who need it.” His voice breaks under the weight of emotion. “Do not loathe those who loathe you. Just live, Max. We are Jews; we know dark times will pass.”
Max buries the key in his fist, but only nods.
He stays long enough to help his adopted father start the fire, touching flame to the parched books in the study hall, dousing the holy ark in petrol. He finds that a Torah scroll smolders with the same smell as any other paper. He escapes as the flames begin to creep towards the rafters, leaving his master to his last act of charity. The gunshot is a raindrop amidst a downpour.
Max flies through cobbled streets until it is safe to stop and catch his breath. Only then does he crumple up and discard his master’s final words. There is no room left in his heart for them, for with apologies it is already so full of bile and venom and hate.
The key opens the hidden lock of a secret room in his master’s house. There, where by lamplight Rabbi Falk taught him of the sefirot and the boustrophedontic Folded Name of G-d, are kept many tomes of ancient Tradition. The Sodei Razayya, the Sefer Yetzirah, and others more arcane still, illuminated ledgers of demons and angels, books of power, all disguised cleverly in the bindings of Christian bibles. Max takes them all.
The Germans will roll over this place in a matter of days and pave everything, stone and knowledge alike, into a road going east. Same as the synagogue, which would have burned tomorrow if not today. In boot tread and tank tread they will track all that is jude across Poland until there is only dust left of it.
But Max knows well there is power in dust.
Seven months later, in the spring of 1940, Max has a new family. The rabbi, ever prescient, made the arrangements for him well before he falsified Max’s death. He has a new name; rest in peace, Max Steinberg, and welcome back from abroad cousin Oskar Kac. His aunt and uncle are Monica and Dieter, his little blonde cousin Else, and they live together in a modest house in the Sródmiescie district. They are ethnic German—happily registered Volksdeutsche—and they are Christians. Max could not ask for a better place to hide.
It is easy to be Oskar the Christian. In some ways it is an easier life than Max the judenschwein. The facets of the faith are not so different from his own. A crucifix is not the worst thing that can be tied around one’s neck. His false family are Jewish sympathizers, educated people, and they are very kind to him. They have made sure he is comfortable in their cellar and allow him to eat supper with them. Little Else in particular is a blessing. She is a dim but charming girl who is happy to help Max fill the empty hours when it is too risky to be outside.
And yes, his features are Aryan enough that he can even walk about in broad daylight, so long as he carries his forged papers like he would clutch shut an open wound.
Max may walk free, but he has not escaped the ghetto. Is he supposed to not hear it when the Orpo executes men and women in the streets, or smell the bodies strung up until they rot free of the rope? That pigpen between Inflancka and Drewnoska Street is where his kind is deemed to belong, and at all times he feels its subtle gravity threatening to draw him in if he is not absolutely vigilant.
Yet he is there, watching from the crowd, as the wall is put up around the ghetto. The barrier is a flimsy thing, green wood garnished with barbed wire. The weight of all the bodies behind it would easily bowl it over. And why don’t they? There must be thousands of them cramped into a tenth as many rooms turned cells. A universe of yellow stars. The few Germans who strut to and fro outside the fence would be drowned in them.
But those hot, fresh first days where anything could still have happened mature into weeks. More Jews are shipped in from outside the city and poured into the ghetto. What keeps it from rupturing like a full bladder, Max does not know—the Germans are geniuses in the science of cruelty. And still, he watches its occupants shuffle a little closer together, tromping in their own overflowing feces, making room.
They do not fear the Nazis, he has come to believe.
Not as much as they fear their sharp-edged eye. The eye that flutters from every storefront, that lolls from every shattered window. Bloodshot, lidless, its pupil a black windmill slashed into a cataracted iris, glowering over all. When the Orpo is gone, the eye observes. They call it the Hakenkreuz, though Max knows of many other names. The symbol came from somewhere in the Orient. India perhaps. It had meant only good things once, to many peoples, but the Germans can corrupt even the intangible, bend good to the work of evil.
In their hands it has become a lens for something to peer balefully through. Something that loathes the Jew and gluts on their suffering. Max knows not what name to call the entity. But whenever its indentured eye meets his, Max refuses to look away. Does the thing behind the swastika see the truth of him? Let it. Those trapped in the ghetto may be powerless before it, but he is not.
He has dirt, and a word.
In the cellar of the Kac house, Max is making a golem.
For the last several months he has scavenged and saved to purchase its components: Lengths of stiff wire, for structure; basic sculpting tools; eighty kilograms of clay in blocks. Concealing it all from the Kacs was a chore. Sculpting it by hand, by himself, in a night, is even harder.
Max misses the old rabbi sorely. This task is too much for just him. His hands know the way, but his father’s had been there and back. Max is only fourteen. Too young to be alone.
Still, grueling hours transform the mound of wet clay into an approximation of the human form. Its eyes are featureless bulbs, its mouth a gash. No nose or ears. His creation is smaller than he anticipated it would be; nearly two and a half meters tall but thin as a skeleton, its skull an oblong club. Max would have preferred to whittle it mighty and broad from the riverbank as Rabbi Loew did, but the curfew made that so dangerous as to be impossible. Its strength will have little to do with such trivia as mass and proportion.
Max stands over his work and sponges the sweat from his neck and brow. My Adam, he thinks, with pride. For was mankind not born through a similar art, cut out of the stuff of the earth?
For an hour Max circles his creation, whispering a string of names that scorch his tongue to pronounce, draping the golem in veils of meaning. Next he draws purified water from an urn and ladles it up and down the golem’s chest. Wherever it trickles, the clay takes on the oily sheen of living skin. He strikes a match, holds it to the golem’s feet until its soles are chapped and cracked as an old man’s. Lastly, Max crouches over the golem and breathes into its dent of a mouth. His heart accelerates as its chest rises atop imaginary lungs.
Earth, water, fire, and air. There is only one thing left.
There is one thing Max did not prepare in advance, lest it slip into irreverent hands. On a slip of torn paper no larger than his thumb, he writes a shem—a Name of G-d.
He folds it in two, gigs it with a pin, and tacks it to the floor of the golem’s mouth.
Eyes of solid clay snap open.
Max retreats into the corner as the golem climbs onto its feet. The hump of its scalp scrapes against the floorboards overhead. Overlarge hands swing limply at its sides. It is a mottled thing; red clay in places, ruddy flesh in others. Fingernails have sprouted on one hand, but the tip of its phallus has already broken off. It is imperfect, yes. And glorious as salvation always is.
Max would cry out, if it would not wake his family.
“Can you speak?” Max asks in Hebrew.
The golem shakes its head.
“Do you have knowledge?”
The golem nods.
“I have created you. Will you serve me?”
The golem nods again.
Max unfolds a photograph from his trouser pocket. “This man is Hauptmann Rudolf Pancke. He is an evil man: he has murdered many children of Israel for no crime. He profits from the theft of their possessions. Kill him, tonight, wherever he is.”
The golem nods a third time. It does not look at the photograph.
“Men will try to stop you,” Max adds. “If they are not Jews, kill them as well. When you are finished, do not return here—destroy yourself, or at least the shem in your mouth. Do you understand?”
The golem is already leaving.
The following morning Max swallows his exhaustion and requests to accompany the Kacs on their shopping. While Else is fitted for a new church dress and Mrs. Kac collects the week’s groceries, Max cocks an ear to the gossip running wild up and down Piotrkowska Street.
Not four hours past, Rudolf Pancke was discovered murdered in his home, his throat crumpled as though by a vice, face black with trapped blood. His wife Gertrude was dead as well, her forehead flattened against their stovetop. Whoever attacked them tore their door of its hinges and took five bullets from Pancke’s sidearm without leaving a drop of blood.
Max had been expecting to feel happy. Vindicated.
Instead, he feels hungry
A Jew must be the culprit of course. A rare brute of higher cunning than his breed, escaped from the ghetto with slaughter on the mind. Or perhaps one who had evaded being swept up with the rest of them, for despite assurances, there are surely many still skulking under floorboards like rats. Over the following days, Max watches the Orpo presence around the ghetto increase dramatically, In a show of force, they drag ten young men from their homes and execute them on the blackened steps of what had been the old Stara Synagogue. Those deaths are his fault as well. Max accepts that and moves on. They were dead long before he killed them.
With every new invader he sees on the street corner, he feels more powerful. They are war now, because of him. Their lives are in his hands.
But the same time, each reminds Max of just how many Germans there are in Łódź. Months of caution and preparation, a bucket of sweat, for only one head. Two, if he counts the wife.
He wants more. But how to begin? Where does one bite first to devour a mountain? This problem keeps him awake through humid nights. Max is starving with too much on his plate, from the patrolling officers who inflict a thousand little brutalities along their route, to that quisling Rumkowski who runs the ghetto in the German’s stead. Who would be worth the time and risk, the blind retaliation? Of course he could simply knock down the walls of the ghetto, but that would hardly be productive. Animals escaped from the zoo are most often just shot.
Although he frets, he does not fear, for he knows his cause is just. In the darkened sky above the ghetto he has beheld the archangel Metatron, the right hand of G-d, with an aureole of flaming eyes about his brow and wings of gold forty thousand cubits in span. None but Max can see him—no, they merely duck under awnings and complain of the rain. Oh, if only the prisoners there could feel the hem of his alabaster robe pooled about their feet, they would know hope, for he who led the Israelites from Egypt has now come to Łódź. In one hand he holds a sword of smithied lightning, crackling and spitting; the other is pointed down in scorn at the ghetto administration headquarters.
The heavenly scribe speaks not a word, but its message is evident.
It is Else, of all people, who provides Max the breakthrough he needs. She has a little cloth doll named Odie, whom she carries with her everywhere. While playing one afternoon, a thread in Odie’s leg catches on a jutting nail and tears beyond repair. She is distraught, until her mother sews the doll a new leg from an old paisley headscarf. Else sees happy enough with the result, not minding the incongruous limbs. The doll is still a doll. One material is as good as another.
How far might that principle travel before it broke down?
Golems have historically been exclusively from clay, for two reasons. The first is practicality: they have to be wrought from earth, and clay is easy to shape. The second is tradition; it has been done that way since the time of the rabbi Rava. But Max suspects now that this way of thinking has stunted the possibility of the golem. It is the twentieth century now; the world is wider and vastly deeper than it was.
Rabbi Falk taught him more than the Kabbalah in the years they’d had together. Max was better with letters and numbers than most his age, though his aptitudes were science and history. For instance, he knew that some thirty-five years ago a German Jew named Einstein proved the ancient theory that all creation is composed of invisibly small particles—particles that logically can then be rearranged to construct whatever one likes. It seemed to Max that if one were to examine any two items on a small enough scale, they would essentially be the same amalgamation of substances.
In that realm where atoms are the size of planets, everything is dirt.
Through the summer and autumn of 1940, Max sets out to make golems from everything.
Very quickly he proves his theory true. A man made of branches and twine takes little time and less artistic finesse than clay, and, as he discovers, animates nearly as well. When imbued with a name of G-d, a brace of twigs will crack and twist into a hand of five functional fingers. Knots will blink and suddenly be eyes, and hoary bark will sprout goosebumps in the cold. And most importantly, though at its thickest it may be no bigger around than his calf, it will possess the strength to crumble a brick in one fist.
With this first success to whet his appetite, Max attacks the subject with renewed fervor. He finds that it is easier to smuggle other materials into his room than clay, especially via the cellar’s small window overlooking a strip of weeds beside the house.
From the moment the Kacs go to bed, Max toils at innovating the concept of the golem. Wood works well, as does sacking, and especially metal. Over the course of two sweltering nights in late August he patches together a child-sized thing of scrap pilfered from a garbage heap near the factory where the Germans have put the Jews to work. Although its gait is ungainly, its pipe neck inflexible, it handily eviscerates an Orpo captain with fingers of serrated steel, leaving him to be found in an alley the next morning.
That is good; two nights is not. Max can do better.
He finds efficiency in hybridism. Clay is ideal flesh, but sticks will function as limbs, and anything will serve for a head. With each golem the time and energy needed to acquire its pieces shrinks. What helps, Max finds, is to inscribe the shem directly on the skin of the golem, as not every one can have a mouth. It seems to provide them with a shade more humanity—broader swathes of flesh, more articulate digits—than his previous method.
Some turn out laughable, jiggumbob men with old kettles for heads, clopping about on wooden clogs. But function supersedes aesthetics. Broom-handle legs, knives for fingers, rags stuffed with rags for feet—all perfectly lethal. Night after night he sends them out with a name and a mission, infesting the shadows of Łódź with scuttling, clanking deaths wrought of its own matter. Max feels unfettered, a renegade genius in his field. What else had others not dared to attempt? He wonders how small a golem could be, how sneaking and insidious. Could a shem be written with a needle? A hair?
He wonders how immense as well.
He wonders that often.
Not every golem is successful. Some are destroyed by happenstance; an incidental scratch can obliterate a shem. And it was inevitable that one would be caught in the act or fail by some unforeseeable chance. On the night of October 12th, a Gestapo officer bursts into his headquarters with an arm lacerated in a thousand places, gabbling about shear-handed scarecrows. They public thinks him mad, but a month later, a boneless poppet made of a straw-stuffed Polish uniform is speared in the headlights of a truck full of German soldiers. A hail of gunfire blasts it to tatters, but whispers of it spread like fleas off a rat.
Golem. Max begins to hear the word from other lips.
Else asks what it means one evening as the family takes its supper. Max must feign disinterest. A golem, Mister Kac explains, in that tone fathers use to shrink adult concepts into child ones, is a big man made from clay and a magic word. It is a way for powerless people to become powerful. The legend goes that a Jewish holy man in a city called Prague created one to protect his people from their enemies. But although the golem was strong and fearless, it one day went mad and became a danger to everyone. So remember, Else, that sometimes the answer is worse than the problem.
Over the course of weeks, the Germans clamp tight about the city. They begin to move in larger groups. They publically scoff at the notion of a clay man murdering by night, but the streets start to empty themselves a little earlier come nightfall. Perhaps they, of all people, believe in some small way.
They think caution and numbers will make them safe. Max is overjoyed to prove them wrong, when at three in the afternoon on January the first, the devil Biebow himself is throttled dead in the warmth of his own office.
On the morning of February 3rd, Max lurks in the crowd outside the ghetto wall as the Germans begin to take the Jews away.
He had been hearing talk of Extreme Measures to be taken. There is no longer doubt that a Jew has been behind the murders, by means mundane or supernatural. Rather than root him out amongst many thousands, they’re simply going to relocate the lot.
Day by day, trucks come and go carrying them away family by family. He hears word that they are to be moved by train to a place in the south called Auschwitz. How long the process will take remains uncertain, what with the logistics of it, and the war. Max feels a thin satisfaction. It isn’t much, but it’s something. He pushed, and the world stumbled. Only G-d knows what he can do if he only pushes a little harder.
Max returns home electrified with purpose, only to find a Nazi at the door.
He spots the man first and hangs back across the street. The officer is speaking with Mrs. Kac; he cannot hear what they are saying, but she doesn’t seem afraid. After a time he nods goodbye and moves on to the next house in the row. He is going door to door looking for anything suspicious, not Max in particular.
But the demon that follows him is.
It rides naked upon a camel, a drooping animal harried by flies and striped with the shadows of its own ribs. Its head is a horse’s lolling painfully upon its neck. In one hand it brandishes a golden scepter. Upon its brow is a flaming crown. Max goes absolutely still as its gaze sweeps down the street and over him without stopping. The officer keeps walking, and the demon canters after, unseen by all.
Max flees, but he sees now that the mazzikim have overrun the city. They skulk in the shadows of German officers, or ride upon their shoulders, tugging at the barbed reins of their fearful hatred. Toothless crones parade nude upon the backs of crocodiles; a mitered raven goose-steps before its host on ape-like hands; a fiery hakenkreuz of lion’s paws rolls by, trailing a brimstone stink. More perch upon the rooftops and chimneys, terrors too real for Bosch’s hell caterwauling in a tongue of lies and blasphemy.
These are the emissaries of the thing behind the swastika, for indeed those spirits that have the arms for it wear upon them a sash bearing its symbol. Far too late, Max understands the enormity of what he has antagonized.
The swastika is the eye of a god.
This is the most blasphemous thought he can have, but even so. Yes, a god, one unknown to the Patriarchs who articulated The Lord as the solitary power in the universe, for men know only what they can perceive, and though they knew great suffering, who among those ancient fathers could have even conceived of the unholy miracle that is the Reich? That ancient symbol of goodness, itself enslaved by Germans, has unwillingly become the aspect of an Anti-G-d, its beneficent meaning corrupted into domination and extermination. And just as G-d once tasked the Israelites with proclaiming his laws, so too did this evil counterpart uplift a nation of wolves and saddle its own chosen people with a covenant to become the world, devour the Jew.
Max returns home as calmly as he can, pretending he can’t see what he sees. In the safety of his cellar he strips to the waist and pens upon his own body the names of G-d and other psalms of protection. The Evil G-d walks the streets of Łódź but does not recognize him as its prey. Forget the pretensions of dead mystics—only The Lord itself protects him now. My Lord, he prays, hide me from the sight of my enemies. I only need a little more time.
Max is a fugitive in a city he once strolled as a king.
He dreads now to leave his shelter, even with the nomenclature of G-d scrawled upon his chest. It is difficult to see the people anymore for the demons that caper among them. They are more real now than the men they orbit, and he must always pretend that he is blind to them. He no longer visits the ghetto, for that is where they congregate most thickly. And though he may creep about beneath their noses, he knows he is as pungent, as savory, a Jew as any other. G-d’s protection cannot falter, Max assures himself with every spare thought.
But if it did…
He spends every moment preparing for the end, maximizing the reward for the risk that is living. From everything he can scrounge he breeds golems—dog-sized, hand-sized, lopsided, crippled by haste. These he stows in the crevices of the city, in trash bins and ditches disguised as rubbish, until the time comes when they will be summoned to their purpose.
The wreckage of the Great Synagogue yet lies where it fell. The rabbi’s grave, Max supposes numbly, but he has not been coming for that reason. The Germans have not yet cleared the rubble away. What would they do with the plot? They did not come to Łódź to build. The pliable ground has begun to digest the old, charred stone. If Max stands in a certain spot, tilts his head just so, he can conjure patterns from the scree as one may invent faces in clouds. A heap of brick and mud becomes a protrudent knee; a grove of burnt rafters, a brace of ribs. What is the plot, he thinks, but the face of a block of clay from which anything can be cut?
Hidden in a slit in his mattress is a bundle of papers—sketches of an idea that has consumed his thoughts like a parasite. Diagrams in smudged charcoal arguing weight and pressure and balance, jottings on cost and time required. Discarded notions clutter the margins. Numbers smear into drawings—a Vitruvian man fully eight feet tall, yet no more than a reference point to the giant that stands beside him.
It can be done, Max has determined. He is only lacking in manpower, and he will not lack that for long. His mind is a furnace fueled by tradition.
Why could a golem not be tasked to build a golem? All he needs is a little more time.
He has little idea of how many will be needed so he works like a madman, shredding this throat with the names of G-d. He avoids the near certainty that anything will not be enough, that he will never be ready. Once he begins his work, the Anti-G-d will know and try to stop him. But no matter what Max will fight it, until either he is dead or is his fist is big enough to crush it like a grape.
On the morning of February 17th, 1941, Max awakens to a door banging open upstairs. It could be Mister Kac leaving for work, but it isn’t. He is out of bed and running before he hears the first barked words of German. Barefoot and naked to the waist, he scrabbles up the wall and through the unlatched window. He does not see the pair of oily black boots waiting for him outside.
They take him by the wrists and drag him onto the grass. He is struck once in the mouth, and bits of his teeth spill everywhere. A heel stabs into his belly, and Max vomits blood and food across his face and chest. The swastika upon the officer’s arm seems to wink at him, as that arm coils back, storing power. Through the haze of pain, he can see Mister and Missus Kac watching from the kitchen window, clutching each other.
The demons riding the Kacs laugh and point and yank on their bridles.
The world whirls on a broken axle around Max as one of the officers heaves him over his shoulder. As they carry him out into the street Max glimpses neighbors and passers-by watching in sick-faced silence. The Germans’ idling truck lurches briefly into view through the crook of the officer’s arm and Max understands that he is going into the ghetto like slop into a pig’s trough, to fester and be devoured.
Through a mouth full of broken teeth, Max screams.
The truck’s rear door swings open; the unwashed interior reeks of blood and bile. Max screams again—anyone, please—wringing his lungs out like sponges of terror, as they hurl him inside.
The two officers linger there, gloating over him. There is nothing left to lose now—it is struggle or die. Max kicks out, stomping his foot into the closest groin. The man bends double, cursing in German.
“Verdammter jüdischer Bastard—”
Max scrabbles onto his hands and feet to run for it, only to run up against the snout of the other officer’s sidearm.
“Das ist es, was du bekommst, wenn du so nah stehst.”
“Schieße schon die kleine Ratte ab.”
And as he turns to Max to fix his aim a blur of rag and metal drops from above and takes his hand off at the wrist.
“Was zum teufel ist—” the other blurts, scrambling for his pistol, but then the golem is upon him to, its knife-hands strobing with speed. The officer goes down shrieking, his skin coming away in peels. The survivor tries to run, but the golem is fleet as a fox upon its broomstick legs. In broad daylight, for the whole street to see, it slices the heels out from under him and efficiently disassembles him.
Max crawls from the truck to meet it. A dwarf of cotton-stuffed curtain with a pail for a head, it stares up at him through hole-punched eyes, gormlessly awaiting the next command. Max looks all around at the crowd retreating in fear from him—women clutching their children, men, clutching their wives—and at the cacophonic throng of demons baying for his blood from every rooftop and lamppost perch. They can certainly see him now, Max thinks. There will be no restoring that veil.
Max’s heart begins to pound in his ears like a war drum. This is the moment, he realizes—the end whose approaching shadow chilled him awake through so many endless nights. He had worked so hard to hold it at bay but now it is here, and he is in it, and there is nothing to be done but embrace it.
Max had dreamed once of deific heights. Of crossing the land upon a colossus of his own creation, stepping between towns as one would stepping stones, and obliterating Germans with as little thought as he’d give ants. He had fantasized of trampling over Berlin and palming the Reichskanzlei into the dirt. Perhaps that had been too much to hope for—the whimsy of a little boy.
So be it. He shall become a man then.
What can be done with a giant can be done with a horde.
As Max marches through the snowy streets of Łódź, the golems he seeded the city with answer his summons. Tall, small, hodge-podge and whole cloth, they awake from their spider-holes and join his ever-growing procession. Some are mere spiders skittering along on sewing-needle legs, others monkey along on cork knuckles, on strong rebar bones. They are the matter of the city itself risen up to fight beside him, Max now understands. He never needed a colossus, no—the greatest champion he could possibly construct would be an insect beside the totality of Łódź.
People run screaming wherever he passes, their infernal jockeys hauling futilely on their bridles. Flocks of demons hurl abuse from the rooftops but they dare not stand against him. Delirious with pain, dripping blood with every step, Max feels stronger than ever before, a beast loosed from a too-small cage and free at last to stretch its claws.
No more cowering in a cellar. No more pretending to be what he is not. No more fear.
Those Orpo officers that blunder into his path find themselves torn apart by the horde. The golems carpet Max’s cobbled path in glistening red. No, Max need never have hid. The Germans have nothing like this power. When Max looks to the murky heavens, he sees the Heavenly Scribe suspended there once more, the tip of his fulgurant sword blazing like a star above the ghetto. Yes, my Lord, Max thinks, his heart bursting with elation. He weeps, for his purpose has never been so blindingly bright. He is to be as Moses and take his people away from this forsaken land. He will teach them to make golems, and together they will raise the world itself into an army, G-d’s final commitment writ across a billion clay brows. All land will be as the promised land, and milk and honey will flow forever more.
Yes, my lord, I understand and obey.
I will lead the last exodus.
When Max and his legion arrive at the edge of the ghetto he finds the Orpo waiting. A barricade of soldiers levels its weapons at his ranks of teeter-tottering scarecrow men. “Halt,” the officer barks across the stretch of emptied street between them. “Ergebe dich sofort!”
Max sneers at the naked terror in the officer’s voice. The Germans have placed their faith in the power to destroy human flesh, the most frail substance in creation. Max bids his army advance, and as one ramified limb the golems go bounding through the snow. A chorus of rifles retorts but it is like shooting at nothing; bullets pass harmlessly through dining cloth skin, ricochet off of candelabra claws. Some catch in interstitial physiology, where Łódź -matter has imperfectly become meat, but the golems are only sporadically filled with blood to shed. They crash into the German rampart and smash it instantly into panicked rubble. These soldiers have never expected to kill anything other than men; to shoot at a thing and for it to still live is a contradiction in their reality.
One by one, the soldiers fall and die. Soon there is only a wall garnished in barbed wire and a small, steaming aftermath. Many of his golems lay in pieces, overwhelmed at last by force of arms, but no matter—Max bids the remainder tear dear down the wall. Limping, bleeding, he steps into the ghetto for the first time.
Max expected celebration. His people flooding into the streets to welcome their liberating son returned. He expected anything.
Each step he takes through the crunching snow echoes between looming tenements like a gunshot. The street for as far as he can see is marked by neither footprints or wheel tracks. Max cups his hands around his lips and hurls his voice as far as it will travel. A minute passes with no answer.
He is too late. His people, down to the children, have all been taken away. To Auschwitz, yes, but not to be resettled. He understands that now. Only ghosts still walk these streets—not the souls of the dead but those who will die when their train reaches its destination, for the tragedies of the future weigh like disappointment on the present. When Max closes his eyes he sees thousands of men and women, boys and girls, babies crawling, all gusting south, towards bullets still in their casings, graves yet to be dug.
He balls his fists, sobs tears and snot and blood. For all his power he cannot even save that many. How many millions more are steaming even now towards Auschwitz? How many more are already beyond him? Beyond salvation?
His ears prick at the growling of a distant engine. He turns, wiping his mouth—a German truck is fast approaching, barreling through the hole in the ghetto perimeter. Its wheels catch lagging golems and crush them to splinters; more are obliterated against its rusted steel scowl. A figure leans out the passenger’s window and lets out a sound like cracking river ice. An invisible fist strikes Max in the belly and knocks him onto his haunches.
The urge to survive puppets him quickly onto his feet. Max screams a command, and those golems he has left throw themselves upon the truck. As they stave in its windows and climb inside, it swerves hard to the left, stopping dead against the wall of someone’s house. Orpo officers spill out the back, taking the butts of their weapons to the fragile golems—swinging, smashing, stomping, hammering the holy names of G-d into the ground.
Max screams again—Kill them!—but what use? The golems that can already are, and the rest…
Max watches his army crumbles before his eyes.
All that he can do, is skirt the confusion and flee the way he came.
Max is going to die. The bullet shattered all his illusions on impact. He can feel it—the bullet G-d could have caught, but didn’t—rolling in his guts. Growing, it seems, like a venomous pregnancy. He caps the wound with his hand, but still he leaves a trail of bright red breadcrumbs behind him as he flees the ghetto.
But still he runs, lurching through the crooked back alleys of Lodz, a hunted animal, a hunted animal pushing inevitability as far as it will stretch for it violently snaps back. Max squints blurring eyes at the overcast sky, begging the Heavenly Scribe for an answer, but Metatron is nowhere to be seen. I’m sorry, he silently pleads, but a soul’s volume of contrition does not fill the heavens with angel feathers.
Max runs and stumbles and retches blood until somehow he arrives at the lot where the Great Synagogue once stood. Where the rabbi sacrificed himself to let Max live a little longer. The blackened stoop is the only whole piece left. As good a gravestone as the man will get.
Max stops to comb his fingers through its blanket of snow. I am sorry to you as well, father. I could not live the way you wanted. I was too strong to live peacefully and too weak to succeed.
What a fool—what a little boy I’ve been.
Max drags himself across the lot where he’d once dreamed idiotically of raising his champion. Flattened by snow, the distance seems infinite. How much further must he walk to escape the Germans? Much further than Łódź, he is certain. Paris fell before them long ago. He has heard that they have been bombing London every night for months, a dog worrying down a bone. Not even distant Africa is free of them, and that is almost the whole world. Max could walk for forty years and never find a place not branded flat and white by the swastika.
The dark times the rabbi spoke of will not pass. There have never been other times, only exodus, the flight from one boot-heel to another. One day, they will not even have that. In one year or ten the children of Israel will be extinct. The voice tasked with exulting G-d will be silenced forever. Max cannot see how it could be otherwise, for there is no Promised Land left to run to. Warding their homes with lamb’s blood would only attract wolves.
When G-d’s chosen people are gone, what good is his world?
Max goes rigid in the grip of revelation.
There is something more that he can do.
He still has his hands.
He still has dirt.
An entire world of it.
Max falls to his knees and digs through the snow until he reaches the hard-packed dirt beneath. His fingers are blue by the time he is done shaping a lump of it into a doll-sized homunculus. For water he rubs snow between his hands until it trickles across the golem’s chest. For fire he cups blood from his belly and bastes it with his body’s dwindling heat. With a torn thumb-nail he gifts it a name of G-d.
The golem, half-flesh and half-earth, tears free of the ground and blinks at him with pinhole eyes, waiting for a command.
Why could a golem not be tasked to build a golem?
“Adam,” Max whispers.
In that realm where atoms are the size of planets—
The golem nods.
—everything is dirt.
Max crouches over it, enunciating so that his words are not stolen by the wind. “You will create for yourself a companion as I have created you, as small as you can. You will inscribe upon them the name of G-d that I have inscribed upon you. You will command it as I command you, and then you will begin again. I command you and your progeny to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. I command you to wash away all that is touched by evil upon this world and to live virtuously thereafter. Do you understand?”
The golem is already at work
Max deflates into the snow to watch the golem sculpt a still more miniature version of itself and brings it to life. His eyes grow heavy as that golem immediately begin to reproduce itself in turn, eking fire from the friction of its earthen hands, while the original gathers soil together to start again. Two times two is four, Max thinks, slipping into a warm bed of snow. Just as you taught me, father. Four times two is eight. Eight times two is sixteen. A billion times two is…
Each golem is born in half the time of the one before, and is half the size. In less than an hour they are too small to be seen with the eye and as plentiful as the stars. With his last flicker of consciousness, Max watches grass and stone melt into the same dun-red as the earth, sees that voracious color rip through the snow like a dye through water. In that micro-plane where all is dirt, golems smaller than cell shave away the scar left by the Anti-G-d, rebuilding debased soil from the atoms up into fertile earth.
The last thing that Max thinks before the golems reach him is, it will be good. The long suffering of man is at an end. Even awake he will feel nothing as they take him with absolute kindness, as they will all things, their trickle soon to be a flood enough to drown a planet. All souls, wicked and good, will go without pain into their common grave and be at peace. This fatally wounded creation will be uncreated, licked flat and clean by loving waves, restored at last to innocence. The anti-G-d will perish along with this world, and the next one will be better.
Its new people will be happy.
Max dies with a smile, and becomes them.