The apocalyptic chariot race

This morning I was sitting on a bench in the park with a dear friend, Sasha Edelstein. We were talking, and feeding pigeons. Many years ago Sasha suffered terribly in a Nazi concentration camp, losing all but the will to live. Now he's a wisp of an old man, all winter-blue eyes and snowy beard, retired on the money he made in this country he calls ''the land of hope.''

''Is all right,'' he asked me, tossing his last peanut to those overfed birds , ''if I take a little snooze? You won't be offended? I'm getting to be really a sleepyhead.'' Leaning back and closing his eyes, he fell from breath to softer breath to sleep. When he started tipping toward his end of the bench, I caught him and braced him against me, letting his head rest on my shoulder.

It's a good feeling to hold your friend in the world as he sleeps, especially if you remember how close he came to losing it once. I've never asked Sasha to talk to me about the Holocaust, but whenever the mood has come upon him, and he has, I've listened.

He remembers, as if it were yesterday, the great emotional release that came after the liberation of the camps. Some of the prisoners, like himself, who had held back their tears for so long, as if to keep even a bitter part of their humanity from being torn from them, were able at last to cry, to have the dignity to cry. There were even those who could laugh, as if to proclaim that human life was a joke whose terrible point they'd finally gotten, though in their hearts they did not believe it.

Sasha returned to the little town in Russia where he'd been the caretaker of a cemetery before the war. And of course there was almost nothing left of the world he had known. Even the gravestones, all but one, lay broken. He embraced the one for a long time, like a man who had no other help in the world, and then left forever.

Often he's spoken to me of a dream that began haunting him from that time. He doesn't know where its images, vivid and allegorical, come from. He only knows that it's both his cry of pain and his prayer.

''It's apocalyptic, but in technicolor,'' he's added, as if to try to mitigate its somberness.

In his dream, somewhere up in the sky he and Hitler are having a fierce chariot race. Hitler is driving a chariot of fiery darkness drawn by black horses, and cracking a whip that makes reddish smoke pour from their flaming nostrils. Sasha is driving a chariot of radiant light drawn by white horses, and promising the world in a voice almost as booming as the one over Mount Sinai, ''Don't worry, everybody, I will win!'' Hitler's chariot has two wheels, Sasha's is down to only one, and Hitler never stops trying to ram his remaining wheel to eternal smithereens. Now Hitler is ahead, now Sasha; the race is fearsomely close. If Hitler wins, Sasha is convinced, death will be an everlasting concentration camp. Only if Sasha wins will it be green pastures, and he, like countless others, be saved.

When he awoke from his snooze, sitting stiffly upright and blinking with grateful surprise to find himself still among the living, I couldn't help wondering if he'd had the dream again, and who was ahead this time.

He looked at me and shook his head kindly. ''No, for weeks I haven't had that dream, David,'' he said. ''But I'll tell you something. The last time I had it I could have sworn that Hitler was down to one wheel too. Now how do you suppose that happened?''

He clasped his hands together and raised them above his head, smiling the answer, rooting for Sasha.

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