Pesach on the Autobahn

It was nearly midnight when Louis Roth’s seder ended and we packed ourselves into my old Bug. My wife, Kyongcha, rode shotgun; Steve, my 12-year-old brother, shared the cramped back seat with a case of matzo and boxes of kosher-for-Passover canned goods from the chaplain’s office. It was enough to supply each of the seven Jews in my U.S. Army signal battalion.

Just south of Frankfurt, we hit scattered patches of fog, frightening seconds zooming through a white tunnel of reflected headlights, before bursting into the clear. Soon we were in an impenetrable cloud.

Outside city limits, the autobahn admits to no speed limit; neither night nor fog deter the German driver from going as fast as his engine will propel him. There are frequent multiple-car crashes, many involving hundreds of vehicles, often with fatalities; nobody seems to care enough to slow down.

On that Pesach night of 1970, the fast lane was Mercedes and Audi sedans cheek-to-jowl with sleek Porsche and boxy BMW sportsters, all running flat-out at upward of 100 mph. We Volkswageners shared the “slow” lane with titanic trailer trucks, five feet between our bumpers, everyone charging heedlessly headlong into the fog.

I was doing 85, white-knuckled, wide-eyed and scared half out of my wits, when the engine quit. The driver embracing my rear bumper flashed his lights impatiently as I coasted onto a shoulder barely wide enough to park. “Out of the car! Hurry!” I yelled, with rolling metal screaming by, inches from my open door. I punched the emergency flashers and bailed out as Steve extricated himself from the back seat.

From 10 feet away, we could barely see the flashers, so I moved my family back another 20 feet, and then retrieved the flashlight from the glove compartment. I gave it to my wife and told her to hug the wall, well away from the car. I then set out at a trot through the thick vapor; somewhere behind us, there must be a service station. After perhaps 20 minutes, a petrol stop suddenly loomed. The lone attendant was huge, well over 6-foot-6, with broad shoulders, olive skin and a fierce, dark mustache.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

Nicht English. Kleine Deutsche,” he returned. No English, a little German.

Ich bin ein Turskische.”

He was a Turk, one of many guest workers Germany imported to scrub toilets, wash dishes and work graveyard shifts. They were usually treated with the same contempt and suspicion reserved for swarthy Spanish-speakers in U.S. border towns.

“Mein Volkswagen is kaput,” I said, and he nodded.

Amerikanish?” he growled, and I returned the nod.

“Ja,” he said, dropping a screwdriver and wrench into his coveralls and grabbing a light. He followed me, a great cat effortlessly keeping pace as I trotted alongside the swooshing trucks. I suddenly stumbled into my VW. My family was huddled in the car, trying to get warm. Fearing for their safety, I got them out, noticing the Turk’s odd expression as my tiny, beautiful Korean wife was illuminated by the flicker of passing headlamps. I raised the hood to expose the engine, and he played his light over the innards. Abruptly, he straightened up, set the light down.

A knife appeared in his hand, its long blade glittering in the passing lights. The Turk peered at me, then at Kyongcha and Steve. He stepped forward, menacing in the weird, twilight haze. Fear washed over me; I had once taught hand-to-hand combat at Fort Benning; even so, at 5-4 and 150 pounds, I was no match for this giant.

It flashed through my mind that my family’s only chance to survive was to shove the Turk onto the autobahn. I would probably die as well, but at least Steve and Kyongcha would be spared. I turned to her. “Run,” I said, in a low voice. “Take Steve and run.” But she stood wobbling on high heels, frozen.

Steeling myself, willing away emotion, preparing to die, I intended to smash his knees, to keep pushing till he went down. I pictured the chain-reaction crash this would start, smashed cars and trucks, flaming gasoline, the screams of the maimed and dying. I thought of the irony of surviving Vietnam to die here. I thought about how much I loved my wife and brother. My heart threatened to burst from my chest, but just before I launched myself, a long string of trucks hurtled by, and by the light of their passage, the Turk turned away to peer into my car. I crabbed sideways for an angle that would let me drive him straight into the autobahn.

He looked at me, astonishment on his face. “Matso? Matso shel Pesach?” he said in Hebrew. I nodded, watching the knife, and he returned to the engine, dropping to his knees, beckoning to me. Still wary, I approached, and he handed me the light. I shined it where he pointed, and, with his blade, he quickly scraped insulation from both sides of a broken wire, then twisted the ends together. Rising to his feet, he folded the knife and dropped it into a pocket.

I turned the key, and the engine caught immediately.

Yosef Toleadano, as this Turkish Jew was known, refused money, but allowed me to stuff his pockets with jars of gefilte fish, and cans of meatballs and stuffed cabbage. I borrowed his knife to open the case of matzo, and gave him several boxes.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” he said in Hebrew, and then vanished into the mist.

A few miles down the road, the fog lifted; as I relaxed at the wheel, I realized that on this Pesach night, as on the first, the Angel of Death had again passed over my household.

Marvin J. Wolf, no longer married, is writing his 10th nonfiction book, an illustrated history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He can be contacted at Marlene Adler Marks will return next week.