A dough-faced rab­bi and an eye­lin­er-smeared side­kick met us in the air­port, hold­ing a small green sign to demar­cate their pur­pose. My lay­ers bunched around my leg­gings. After the plane ride, I didn’t give a fuck any­more. We rerout­ed into a bulky gray tour bus with a long, sprawl­ing Ger­man word embla­zoned on its side. It was one-thir­ty in the Ger­man morn­ing. I hud­dled against the win­dow seat with the least leg room, cozy and com­pact, prick­ling with defen­sive­ness and relief as Saman­tha slid past me into a row far­ther back. The rabbi’s side­kick, Jane, count­ed us off: one, two, eigh­teen. The bus mean­dered through down­town Düs­sel­dorf, which twin­kled with trou­ba­dours and drunk­en­ness. I imag­ined all of our lug­gage col­lid­ing into each oth­er in the amor­phous dark­ness under­neath the bus.

There was nowhere to be alone.

At the hos­tel, we dis­card­ed our belong­ings next to twin-sized beds and clus­tered into the enter­tain­ment room!,” dec­o­rat­ed with Roy Licht­en­stein – like draw­ings of women with exag­ger­at­ed pouty lips and yel­low blobs of abstract sky. The chairs were met­al, hued in com­ple­men­tary shades of water­mel­on and rind. I was des­per­ate­ly tired in a way that promised no sleep. In the seat next to mine, the girl with the L‑initial neck­lace was try­ing to sub­tly employ her sleeve as a tis­sue. The TV screen shined dark­ly, crys­talline, reflect­ing our air­plane-stiff­ened bod­ies inch­ing around the rab­bi. He furtive­ly licked his lips with the bur­geon­ing of a group address.

We have arrived,” he thun­dered, then cleared his throat for vol­ume con­trol. He told us how won­der­ful the trip would be; what a bless­ing it is for us to all be here togeth­er, study­ing our cul­tur­al his­to­ry. In mem­o­ry of our ances­tors. Edu­ca­tion, pow­er­ful, jour­ney. Spir­it. Jew­ish, Jew­ish. Stop crit­i­ciz­ing the rabbi’s stale vocab­u­lary, I remind­ed myself; this isn’t work­shop. But it wasn’t just the phras­ing, or the trav­el-fun­neled exhaus­tion — some­thing about his deliv­ery seemed insin­cere. Rehearsed. I was see­ing the rab­bi dis­man­tled, in front a full-length mir­ror, prac­tic­ing where to lay empha­sis on each word, a sibi­lance sonata. I don’t trust you, I thought, and want­ed to cry.

At grad­u­ate school, every­one I knew was an athe­ist. I alone was clan­des­tine, anom­alous, bound to ideas that the oth­ers con­sid­ered a rite of pas­sage to deny and weave into their nar­ra­tives — at best with irony, and at worst with a brand of intel­lec­tu­al dis­dain that was pre­dictable and monot­o­nous but still led my stom­ach to wind­fall through my knees. Even my grand­moth­er Joan, before she died, said that she thought all real reli­gious peo­ple” should be insti­tu­tion­al­ized. I did not know how to talk about God. I didn’t remem­ber how to. Was this how to? Was believ­ing just as much a per­for­mance as not believing?

The rab­bi paused dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Now we will intro­duce our­selves,” he said, and cre­ate a new com­mu­ni­ty.” His wiry fin­gers were a cat’s cra­dle. Please, go around and tell us your name, where you’re from, what you do for a liv­ing, and what com­pelled you to join the Jew­ish Young People’s Asso­ci­a­tion for Remem­brance and Change. Let’s begin with you,” he said, ges­tur­ing to Samantha.

I hoped to gain greater insight about the injus­tice that faced my peo­ple through­out his­to­ry,” Saman­tha reeled off in a poised, pre­sen­ta­tion-ready voice. I pushed my legs into each oth­er until a squashed, slow pain entered my mus­cles. Kyle was the first per­son to say repres­sion; Lau­ren was the first to use atroc­i­ty. No one was real­ly lis­ten­ing, I con­soled myself. My palms nipped with famil­iar clam­mi­ness. Bren made eye con­tact with me and held it.

My name is Willa,” I start­ed. I am from New Jer­sey also. I study cre­ative writ­ing at Colum­bia. Um … why am I here, is that what’s next? My great-grand­moth­er Cecil­ia died in the Holo­caust.” Bren’s lips did some­thing resem­bling a smile. When I was eight …” I said, and then imme­di­ate­ly regret­ted it because now I was going to tell this sto­ry. I couldn’t just stop. Or maybe I could make a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. When I was eight, I decid­ed I want­ed to go to Ger­many and now I’m here. The end.

When I was eight,” I said, I had a Hebrew school teacher named Yael who got mad at me for wear­ing a red coat. It was win­ter, so a par­ka, I think. I real­ly loved it. One day we were in Judaica class and she told me, if I were her daugh­ter she would throw that coat out, and hadn’t we seen Schindler’s List? Didn’t we know what the red coat meant? And we hadn’t. She told us: that lit­tle girl died. The girl in the red coat. Yael was furi­ous, and start­ed talk­ing about how irre­spon­si­ble we were — our par­ents, that they just fig­ured it was a his­to­ry les­son but we should be talk­ing about it, because it was going to hap­pen again to us. Soon all of our coats would be red. She kept yelling, It will hap­pen again! It will hap­pen again!’ And I ran straight home, you know, because it felt like the truth. Even to me, then; I was in third grade. But … it also felt like it had already hap­pened to me. That I was cart­ing around these repressed mem­o­ries and it took a stranger to tell me what it was that kept me awake at night.”

I had been talk­ing for too long and no one was look­ing at me besides Bren, and the rabbi.

Shit,” Bren said final­ly. Some­one shud­der­ing­ly laughed.

Saman­tha eyed me. You cer­tain­ly have the capac­i­ty to bring down a room.”

Sor­ry,” I mumbled.

Thank you for shar­ing that pow­er­ful mem­o­ry,” Rab­bi boomed, glar­ing at Bren. It was coura­geous.” His praise pulled like taffy, sep­a­rat­ing me even more deter­mined­ly from the group. Coura­geous,” he repeat­ed, and leaned for­ward to touch my hand. Do not recoil, I thought, and held my body still. I had cement­ed an iden­ti­ty for myself. The girl who knew death was coming.

Excerpt­ed from WILLA & HES­PER by Amy Felt­man. Copy­right © 2019 by Amy Felt­man. Reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Grand Cen­tral Pub­lish­ing. All rights reserved.