Recap: Ruchama decides to go back to Queens College to finish her research paper after a visit from Mrs. Schwerner. She also goes to the doctor and discovers a shocking reality: that her scary symptoms were epilepsy. She worries how this will affect her future.
I glanced in front of me. There was an open field. My heart was pounding – I could run fast but could I outrun three people? I wasn’t sure, but I felt the adrenalin kick in. I was off, running the fastest I’ve ever run in my life. I glanced behind me. I was out of breath. I could see them coming. They were still chasing after me. I kept on running. I ran and ran. I felt a sharp pain in my side. My breath was coming in short spurts. I heard them behind me. I followed a sharp turn and there was a thick grove of trees. Miraculously, as I passed behind the trees, I spotted a car that was unmarked. I recognized it as one of the FBI cars. I raced over to the car and banged on the window.” I was dizzy. My legs and knees were shaking.
A man wearing dark glasses opened the window a crack, and I recognized him.
“Please, I’m in trouble. I need help now.”
The agent hesitated.
“Please let me in.”
He opened the car door and I slid inside.
Jed and his friend ran right by the car.
“Those people chasing you?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“I have to tell you that I left something out of my story.”
“Okay, so spill it,” the agent said.
“Can we drive away from here?”
“They didn’t see you. Don’t worry. My windows are tinted.”
I tried to catch my breath. Then I began telling him how Jed and his friends were constantly threatening me and voicing threats to Mickey and the other civil rights workers and how, on the night of their disappearance, Jed and his gang had attacked me.
“Why didn’t you share this information earlier?”
“I – I was scared they’d find out and come after me.”
“Looks like they’re coming after you anyway, but I don’t think they’ll be bothering you much longer. I’ll see to that.”
I thanked him, and he drove me back to Henry’s house. “I’ll be dealing with that little group next,” he said.
“Are my friends still alive?” I fearfully asked.
“I don’t know, but honestly the longer this drags on, the less likely they are.”
I felt a horrible emptiness inside. Please, Hashem, please let them be well and alive. Please!
Days passed and there was no news of the three men. I was starting to give up hope that they were still alive.
One night, Mrs. Schwerner stopped by the dry cleaners. “I’m going back now.” She had Gandhi on a leash. “I hope—” She shook her head. She was still wearing sunglasses. “Be well, Yonah.”
I wished there was something I could say to comfort her, but I had no words. It was so sad watching her leave.
Ben was real quiet. I caught him sniffling once in a while. “I miss James,” he said. “I’m so worried ‘bout him.”
Mississippi was on the evening news every night. Henry’s family watched and pointed to the spots in Neshoba. Governor Wallace kept repeating his nonsense about Negroes having full rights and living prosperous, happy lives in Mississippi. On the news, Walter Cronkite reported that the FBI was raking the river and combing the whole area to try to find the men or their bodies.
This was one of the hardest times in my life. I spent a lot of time reciting T’hilim and asking Hashem to save my friends.
Forty-four days. It took 44 days until they found the three civil rights workers buried at Old Jolly Farm. The FBI paid an informant from the KKK and that’s how they found them buried under a new dam on a farmer’s property in Neshoba. They dug way down and it was awful. I couldn’t watch the news anymore. I found myself sobbing.
I saw Rita Schwerner on TV. She held her head high and she didn’t cry. “They murdered my husband,” she said. “And this whole FBI investigation is only because two white men were involved; otherwise no one would even know about it.”
I was with Henry when the news came out on television about my friends. I recited Baruch Dayan HaEmes. I was shaking and sobbing. I couldn’t stop crying. These were young men close to my age. It was horrible. Henry offered to go with me to the Chaneys to pay our respects. I was surprised and happy to take his offer. I didn’t want to be alone right now. We walked over to the Chaney home.
There was black fabric on the door. Mrs. Chaney stood when she saw me, and she said, “They killed our boys. They killed my boys.”
It was hard to stay long. We left. Henry was real quiet. There was nothing to say. My heart felt like it was squeezed against my chest, like I could understand the meaning of a broken heart. I couldn’t stop crying. I felt angry, too. It was so unfair, so unjust what had happened. I davened and learned extra. That was the only thing that comforted me. I asked Hashem to help me through this.
Henry broke the silence as we headed back to his house. “How could G-d let this happen to such good people? I don’t understand. You say G-d is good and kind.”
I thought of what my grandfather taught me. “G-d is all merciful. We can’t understand why things happen. There are so many things we don’t know. A righteous soul can come down for a short time to finish its task and then go back to Hashem. We are all here on a mission; that’s what my grandfather explained, and when the mission is done, Hashem takes us back.” His words that came back to me now gave me nechamah.
Henry sighed. “They were so young. Andy Goodman was just 20 and –”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
Henry put his arm on my shoulder. “I’m sorry you lost those friends, Yonah. They were good people trying to change the bad.”
Later that night, Henry started asking about the Jewish view of death, and I explained that we are not our physical body. We have a neshamah and that neshamah goes back to Hashem. Talking about it actually comforted me. Two of the men were killed because not only had they tried to pursue justice but they were also killed because they were Jewish.
Henry said, ‘”Ya know I’d like to know more about being Jewish. I don’t know anything about it ‘cept people hate us. Can you tell me more?”
“I have a book you might like to read. It belonged to my grandfather.” He kept copies of it around to give to Jews who were unaffiliated and wanted to learn more about Judaism. “It’s called This Is My G-d by Herman Wouk.”
“I’m not the best reader but I’d like to read that.” Henry started saying Sh’ma at night. He said it made him feel peaceful and whole. He was really getting interested in observing more and more. He said, “When I save up enough, I want to move up North and live in a place where there is a Jewish community.”
When I was getting ready for work the next day, Henry pointed out something that made chills run up my spine. “The suspected murderer is living fee as a bird and he may know you are associated with Mickey, Andy, and James.”
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams, a novel (Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time, historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes the community column for The Queens Jewish Link and she writes freelance for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivahs and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.