Truth is the babka, hot from the oven, taken through the snowy streets. Truth is the knock at the door
Checkmate. Joachim has delineated his position — he will not compromise his gentleman’s honor — and Felix has expressed his request. And neither of them is moving. Unless…
Felix thinks. What will influence the man, sitting so comfortably in his warm, snug office, not a ripple on the surface of his peaceful life?
In a matter of seconds, Joachim will become impatient, and that will be the end of the interview. His mother’s voice comes into his mind: Just tell him the story. Stories have their own magic.
“Let me explain a little more,” Felix says.
Joachim nods. He has been given permission.
“Two weeks ago a man entered Wolf Paschele’s printing shop, where I work—”
Felix raises one hand in a question.
“My family is the main shareholder. We set up the paper.”
Why did he not know that? What sort of investigative journalist will he make if he does not even know this connection?
“Of course. We have a hand in all the decisions.”
Their eyes meet. Knowledge and power touch curiosity and defiance.
“But why set up a newspaper? Surely it cannot be a profitable venture.” Not with the paltry amount that Wolf pays him. But Papa told him that he is receiving training in the business, and so encouraged him to accept Wolf’s terms.
“My father likes to have a hand in many things. As for the newspaper, it is both a mouthpiece for Jewry, and a lens through which the outside world sees us. My father—”
“Your father converted to Christianity.” The words come out harsher than Felix intends.
Joachim shrugs again. “My father had some water sprinkled on his head, the same way I do every time I bathe, or as your uncle Shneur does when he dips in the mikveh. He has a piece of paper that makes it easier for him to traverse different circles of society.”
Felix looks at him for a moment. “Heinrich Heine: People in the old time had convictions, we moderns have only opinions.”
“But it is opinions that are tested by the examination of life experience and thus transform into convictions, is it not true?”
“Perhaps.” He drums his fingers on the desk. “On a day-to-day level. How much are you involved in the paper?”
“Here and there. Wolf is quite adept at knowing the subjects we do and do not want to cover. As I said, part of our task is to depict Jews in the best light to our Christian cousins.”
He sighs. Chasya’s words come to mind — how we are always defining ourselves by others, by people from the outside, instead of being in touch with our inner truth.
“So I was employed there under your say-so.”
Joachim shrugs. “I knew about the decision, yes.”
He reaches into his waistcoat and checks his gold watch. “So, again, why do you think I should help you with this?”
“It starts with a man who brought in an advertisement to the newspaper. To your newspaper. The ad promised to find domestic positions for young girls.”
“And I began to question the man. A few days later, I was visiting—” He takes a breath and blurts out, “I would not see fit to disturb you if it was simply for the sake of petty revenge for a street fight.”
He stops. It doesn’t start with the advertisement at all. It starts with Chasya and his sudden understanding of what it means to be oppressed and desperate.
Felix thinks for a moment, then begins to speak. He finds himself stumbling over his words, defending himself to an accusation that was never raised — all he did, after all, was question the propriety of this, ask the advertiser who, exactly, would send away their daughters with strangers? And how the man had not answered the question, not that question, anyway, but Chasya had, through her story.
Joachim nods. “I read the story.”
“And that was the answer. It is families who are desperate. Families feel they have no choice. Families who have so little that to feed another child will condemn all of them to starvation. Families whose homes have been stolen or burned, by a mob of angry gentiles. Or taken, through exorbitant taxes.”
Joachim is listening intently.
“And then… then there is another thing.”
It’s something that he has not realized before, that he is just understanding now. As he talks and everything he has been thinking about and acting upon and speaking and hearing about, as it all churns together somewhere deep inside him, he suddenly grasps how it is all one.
And then there is Emmy.
He takes a breath. “Emmy.”
Joachim looks up sharply. “What of Fräulein Emmy?”
“She has been trying to find an aunt, a sister of my mother, who disappeared more than 20 years ago. And it’s the same thing. There was no evidence of drowning, and they soon realized she must have simply been plucked off the streets.
“For what? We do not know. For domestic duties, perhaps. Simply to satisfy someone’s murderous urges, could be. Or to be sold on. She was a dwarf, people would have paid to ogle her.
“Emmy is quite distraught about the story, she has taken it to heart, and I did not know why, but I am starting to understand.”
He leans forward. “Emmy is fortunate. Even if she never marries, our father will provide for her. I will provide for her.”
Joachim is tense, there is a look of pain in his eyes that Felix had not calculated upon. “But most Jewish girls, Joachim, if they do not grow up in privilege, if they are not married off to comfort and wealth, then what is their fate?
“They are dependent upon fathers and brothers, upon lawmakers and policemen who may or may not care enough. They are vulnerable to anyone who may ride past them in the street, put an eye to them and say, she would make a good worker. She looks healthy, she has good teeth, I shall take her for my own, or I shall sell her on and make a few coins on the deal, it will buy me another round of drink at the tavern, or maybe a pair of winter shoes.”
Felix stands up, agitated. There is more. There is Becca, sent off to Turkey for there is no future for her in the village where she comes from, in Paris, anywhere on earth. And for all her gaiety and spirit of adventure, there is something wrong with that.
And there is his mother, not that he wants to think of it, really, or try to understand it too much, but surely it was not simple for her to leave her home and lifestyle and marry Papa. There is a wistfulness that she carries around with her, until today, though she says she is blessed, though she says that Papa is her miracle, but really, what choice did she have?
So maybe, now, he is not just fighting for the unknown girls who are duped into leaving their families. He is taking up arms for, well, for Chasya. And for his mother.
He turns, anguished, back to Joachim. “When I entered into my job, my uncle told me something. He said, speak truth. And this is the truth: G-d Himself defends orphans and widows, but who will take care of the girls? Who will make sure they are protected?”
Joachim watches, and Felix lapses into silence.
Suddenly, he hears Sarah’s voice, urging them to do good, do good, do good: Live with your century but do not be its creature. Schiller. He had always resented Sarah, pulling Mama out of the house for long hours, ordering Gertrude to cook up delicious cakes and stews. He wasn’t allowed a single sliver of cake or even half a bowl of the stew that filled the house with its delicious aroma.
All the meals were wrapped up and sent to others — women after birth, an elderly lady all alone, a mother fading away from some illness. He has always thought of his mother as weak, but she has been there, on the front lines, defending and taking care of the weak.
And him? He has been ensconced in libraries, and never once did his mother complain or say, what are you doing with yourself, why do you not help humanity? With all his grand talk and his beautiful quotations, it is his mother who has known the truth. And truth, he suddenly realizes, is not about thinking, it is about living.
Truth is the babka, hot from the oven, taken through the snowy streets. Truth is the knock at the door. Truth is the smile, a look into a pair of eyes that are hungry for company. Truth is taking the time to sit down and listen and be there.
He is ashamed of himself, suddenly. A Prague Jew. A university man. And he is no more grown-up than Hans and Bertha, busy with their antics, perpetually children.
Joachim is staring down at his desk, ever so slightly biting his lip.
Now, maybe now, he is doing something of truth.
For a long time, they sit in silence. Then Joachim lifts his hand. It hovers for a second above the brass button on his desk. He lowers his palm onto the button, which rings a bell. The door opens and a clerk appears.
In an undertone, Joachim hands the clerk the name and the bank account number. The clerk nods and exits the room.
It is only a few minutes before the clerk returns with a brown manilla folder.
Joachim nods and dismisses him.
Then he slowly and deliberately opens the folder and surveys the contents.
Becca steps closer to the figure on the bed. She kneels down, so she is on level with the face. The girl — for it must be a girl, there is a childishness to the features — has covered her hair with a wimple but wisps of blonde stick out from the side.
The girl opens her eyes again, and they are the brightest blue. Then she closes them again.
She knows those eyes. But from where?
Becca turns to the lady of the house. “What happened? Where did she come from?”
The woman spreads open her arms. “She knocked on the front door. The servant opened. By the time I arrived, she had collapsed onto the floor. She was dreaming, and talking in her dream, and I thought I detected a language that sounded like Yiddish. So I called for you.”
Becca nods. It is not just the eyes that she remembers. The voice.
“Has she had some nourishment?”
“A little broth.”
“Let us get something more inside her.”
Until the girl is stronger…
But. She said her name. Becca. Who?
She looks closer. “Raizel?”
The girl’s eyes open again. She nods.
Raizel. Raizel? “I thought you were in Istanbul.”
“I came. I came to find you.”
Becca points to the wimple, the nun’s habit. “Why are you wearing this?”
The lady of the house returns with a glass of tea. Raizel eases herself up on the bed and sips.
When she is finished, she holds out the glass for Becca to take.
The girl nods. She looks around and a smile creeps up her face. “I have arrived.”
“We said, did we not, on the boat, that we would be embarking on an adventure.”
The girl seems strange. Brittle. She jumps slightly every time Becca shifts on her chair.
“The nun clothing.” She pauses. “Protection. No one will lay a finger on a bride of G-d.” She gives a little, bitter laugh. “Only on a child of G-d.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 708)
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