In my precious, much pondered book of photographs of the Jews of Europe before they were destroyed by Hitler is one of a very tall old Hungarian Jewish man with a bearded, moon-shaped face. Wrapped in a prayer shawl, his tiny, worn prayer book in his hands, he is standing near a patch of sunflowers that are even taller than he is. They seem to be swaying in the wind and struggling to keep their top-heavy heads high, just as he is swaying and struggling to lift his thoughts. It's as if they are praying together, he and the sunflowers.
Nearby is a barn, with a cow peeking out the door at her master, and chickens oblivious in ungodly pecking. Next to it is the old man's home, a thatch-roofed cottage with geranium boxes in the windows and tidy plots of very small flowers in front, as if to show he loves the short no less than the tall.
Perhaps most of his life he had a little flower shop in town, and every year he carried his flowers to dozens of weddings and dozens of funerals. Then one day a single flower weighed heavily on his hands, and he bought this retreat for himself, away from human beginnings and ends. Now, instead of the scents of flowers on his clothes mingling with the mustiness of old books and the sighs of old worshipers in the town synagogue every day, they mingled with the smells of life itself.
It was only a few short months after this photograph was taken, in the early autumn of 1943, that the Germans invaded Hungary. They were already losing the war against armies but still winning the one against a people, so the first thing they did was to set out in their trucks toward every place, no matter how far, no matter how little, where Jews lived.
No book records the personal fate of this one old man. But perhaps history doesn't always end up in books. Perhaps sometimes it finds its way into dreams.
One night I dreamed that the Germans surprised the old man praying with his sunflowers. They surrounded him with their trucks, and grinning soldiers pointed guns at him. An officer grabbed his prayer book away and, pretending to chant from it, swayed violently, mocking him. Then he slapped him with the book and threw it on the ground.
The old man turned his face toward the sunflowers. There were about ten of them in full and heavy bloom. Their yellow heads swayed gently in the wind, as if they were saying that yes, they had witnessed his pain and humiliation, and they suffered them with him, but what could they do, what could they do? They were only flowers.
The old man was very moved by the sympathy of the sunflowers. Even as the officer shoved him toward a waiting truck, he took heart from them.
And now for the first time he understood why he had always been drawn to do that seemingly strange thing, to pray with them. To stand in his prayer shawl and with his prayer book in his hands, and as they swayed in the wind and looked up at the sun, to sway with them and look up to God. He understood suddenly the secret of their tallness. Towering above the ground, they were God's way of showing to man that mere flowers were reaching for Him. Mere flowers were stretching out their arms of prayer. How then, he asked, could man do less? In the sweet swaying and heartful silence of the sunflowers the old man had felt a yearning, a prayer that was as deep and pure as his own.
What difference did it make if the sunflowers prayed for sun, for rain, for dear earthly life, and an old man, a pious Jew, prayed for a heavenly one? What mattered was to pray. All prayer was an unappeased hunger for love.
The last thing I remember in my dream was the old man being taken away in the truck, dust rolling up from under its wheels like smoke. He must have foreseen his fate, yet he was smiling a sunflower-heartened smile. Perhaps he foresaw, too, that what he would lose in this life, he would find in the next.
Whenever I ponder the photograph I tell myself that his end was probably quite different; probably infinitely sadder. Then I close my eyes and remember, for who can love hope as much as truth and not believe, a little, in a dream?