How I Found Myself Living Out a 1980s Video Game

In 1984, my time was mostly divided among school, preparing for my bar mitzvah and playing Castle Wolfenstein on my family’s Apple II+.

Castle Wolfenstein was a game about a prisoner escaping from a Nazi bunker. The bunker is labyrinthine, with multiple levels. I knew every inch of it. Everywhere there were guards, but they were easy to evade. The trick was to not allow the guards to see you move. If you moved, you gave yourself away.

My friend Gene, a few months older, would come over, and we’d play together. Since it was a single-player game, the second player’s contribution consisted mostly of criticism.

“You moved!” Gene would shout, watching me play when it was my turn. “You can’t move. They get you if you move.”

That year, we were required to go to Hebrew school four days per week: Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Sunday afternoons and Saturday mornings. The Saturday class was right before the general Sabbath service, which we would attend with the adults. On top of that, there were private haftara lessons with the cantor each week.

Despite all this, we were assimilated public-school kids. In regular junior high, I rarely got into trouble. But I used the synagogue as a forum for acting out. Often, this took the form of driving my teachers mad by walking out of class and disappearing into another part of the building. (Gene preferred to stay in the classroom and play mind games with the instructors.)

The synagogue was the old Beth Shalom, of Kansas City. It was a sprawling, complex structure at the bottom of a valley, with both a sanctuary and a chapel, two floors of classrooms, a library, a preschool, a playground, a gift shop, a banquet hall and two kitchens. I had gone to preschool there, and had been back, for one reason or another, nearly every week since. I knew every inch of it. I was aware every time there was a change. I knew, for example, when the Hebrew school principal purchased an Apple II+ computer for the school; he probably got it just so he could mention it in the newsletter and sound modern. And then, not actually having any use for it, he had stuffed it into a tiny room in the classroom wing, where, nestled between boxes of school supplies, it did nothing.

Castle Wolfenstein contained boxes of supplies, too: uniforms, weapons, bulletproof vests. The keys to those boxes could also be found in the castle. Strange that Nazis would leave such important keys just sitting around.

Like many kids who didn’t grow up under adverse circumstances, Gene and I often talked about how we would act if our mettle were ever to be tested. What if we had grown up in a shtetl in the 1930s and had ended up at Dachau? After much discussion, we agreed that we would definitely have been able to escape, somehow.

One evening, I found myself in the Hebrew school administrative offices, waiting for punishment for talking back to a teacher. I saw, hanging on the office wall, a key on a shoelace, labeled “ramp.” There was only one ramp in the whole building, a long, slanted hallway leading to the door that separated the prayer wing from the classroom wing. When no classes were in session, the door was locked.

Strange that administrators would leave such important keys just sitting around. And these people weren’t Nazis. In fact, some of them were Holocaust survivors.

The mission was weeks in the making. We scoped out a nearby hardware store. We manufactured excuses to take a longer break between classes than we needed. And then, one Sunday, we stole the ramp key, then ran to the store and made a copy of it; then we brought back the original and returned it to the hook without anyone noticing.

One Saturday shortly after that, during services, Gene and I sneaked out of the sanctuary, quietly made our way to the top of the ramp, unlocked the door to the classroom wing, and walked through the silent halls to the computer room. In my blazer flap pocket was the Castle Wolfenstein floppy disk.

We booted up the computer and played the game about evading Nazi soldiers inside the game about evading Jewish teachers. In the smaller game, we did pretty well. In the larger game, we set off an infrared alarm that rang a clamorous bell in the sanctuary, where the congregation had been quietly performing the Amidah.

Gene and I couldn’t hear the alarm from the computer room, which, we were to discover, also contained the control panel used to deactivate it.

A janitor opened the door, pivoted toward the control panel without addressing us, and entered the code to shut off the alarm. Assuming we’d been caught, I took a step forward.

He jumped back with a start, and I realized that he hadn’t seen us at all. We pushed past him and ran, but the jig was up. “You moved!” Gene shouted as we ran out of the synagogue but toward our inevitable punishment.

Our parents were called. We got a lecture and a slap on the wrist. Mostly we got embarrassed.

When a Nazi catches you in Castle Wolfenstein, he exclaims “You’re caught!” in a German accent. Coming out of those ancient speakers, it was bracing. And then the disk drive hums as the game reloads.

Of all the experiences that I had in that building, the clearest one to me now is a confluence of hope, fear, imagination and memory. Low-res teachers, marching in lock-step. An ominous, non-diegetic humming. A guttural, scratchy sound coming through a speaker, which is probably my cassette tape of the cantor reciting my haftara for practice. Gene shaking his head. They get you when you move.

Michael Bennett Cohn is a digital media consultant based in Brooklyn.

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