"We are here to request an investigation into activities against young Jewish women”
Despite the assurances of Wilhelm’s uncle that Chief Inspector Dessoff would be at work, without a doubt, they both feel that it’s a risk, going to the police a day after New Year’s. Either they will be motivated, ready to start the year with a resolution of dedication, good work, and perseverance. Or they will be hungover, bleary-eyed, and foggy-headed. It’s a risk they will have to take.
The streets are cold and quiet as they walk to the central police station. Everyone should be at work, but there seems to be a silent conspiracy to remain in bed. It’s a wet January morning, after all.
In the station, no one sits behind the front desk, which is bare save for a green glass bauble. The air smells slightly musty, as if no one has bothered to open the windows.
“Surely, there are police officers on duty over the holiday?” Wilhelm asks, pushing open a window. The rush of air is damp and cold, but better than the close mustiness of the room. They open a door that leads to the inner precinct and walk toward the back of the building.
Most of the doors are ajar, and they peep in as they pass. In one, there’s a figure behind the desk. They check the brass plaque outside the door. Chief Inspector Dessoff. Excellent. They knock lightly and push the door open.
Dessoff has his feet up on a stool and is concentrating on brushing his bowler hat. He stops as they walk in.
“Company, I see,” he says. He smiles and reveals two large front teeth at odd angles.
Felix leans over the desk and holds out his hand. The inspector looks at it, looks at his hat and his hatbrush and shrugs. Felix can’t help but chuckle. Without waiting to be asked, he takes a seat as does Wilhelm.
“I do not deal with robberies.” Dessoff has started brushing his hat once more, in tiny repetitive strokes. “I do not deal with bribery or blackmail or perjury. I do not deal with physical violence.”
“We know that. And we know that you are the person to help us,” says Wilhelm.
Dessoff’s large eyebrows dip in a question.
“My uncle is Herr Arrweiler.”
A sharp nod.
Together, they outline the story. The man with the advertisement, which Felix has clipped and now slips across the desk for Dessoff to examine. The man finally puts down his hat and brush, and looks at it closely.
“And this is the man that attacked you?” he said.
“Did you not hear me say earlier that I do not deal with physical violence? There are enough thugs in the station who take an interest in those kind of cases.”
“We are not here to launch a complaint about physical assault. We are here to request an investigation into activities against young Jewish women.”
Dessoff nods slowly and lets out a deep sigh. “Any other leads?”
Wilhelm hands him the list of bank transactions, which they received from Joachim. The inspector scans it quickly. “Not huge sums of money.”
“No. But regular payments to Austrian Lloyd.”
Dessoff shakes his head. “Pirates. Every time we search them, we find more wrongdoing. Who knows what they have hiding in the storerooms of their ships, and down on the lower decks.”
“Slaves?” Wilhelm suggests.
Dessoff nods. “Exactly.
“Well, as far as we have deduced, these men find poor village families and oftentimes there’s a reason why the family is desperate, and offer the daughters jobs. Security. A home of sorts. A place with a family who are real menschen, they assure the girls’ families.
Wilhelm’s forehead is creased in concentration. “And what happens to these girls?”
“Legally, they are taken overseas. Illegally, they are condemned to a life of servitude.”
“Slaves,” Felix whispers.
Dessoff nods. “Here in the business, we call it white slavery. And honestly, there is not much we can do about it.”
“But why not?”
“As I said, I am a Christian man. I believe in right and wrong. I believe in an upright life. When a man has no conscience…”
Wilhelm repeats his question. “But why not?”
Dessoff counts off on his fingers. “The consul is involved. The foreign office is involved. The police stations near the borders have been primed. We have been searching the ships. But these people are evil. They do not operate under a single alibi. They have names upon names upon names.
“You bring me the details of one bank account, but there are hundreds of bank accounts we are surveilling, and each one leads us to a hundred more.” He leans forward and strokes his chin. “This is a web of evil and when we grab hold of one piece, it snaps off and the rest of the web is left intact.”
He drums his fingers on the table. “And there are legal loopholes that these people use. If the girl is going abroad for a so-called job, and her parents have agreed to that, then what can we do? If a girl is excited to start a new life, and traveling willingly, again, with her parents’ consent, then what can we do?”
“And there are no witnesses?”
He spreads out his arms. “Oh, there are rumors and stories, most of which would make any father shudder. They filter back here from the Ottoman Empire, and from the New World. Without witnesses, there is little we can do.” He sighs. “Even with witnesses, there is little we can do.”
Hannah and Emmy are perched on Sarah’s best chairs, in her best room. Guests, rather than close family friends who lean against the kitchen counters and chat while the kettle boils.
Sarah has a guarded expression on her face, but it softens as Emmy explains their efforts to find Perla. “The only chance of her being alive is, ironically, her small stature. There’s a chance — a tiny chance, but one that we are pursuing — that Perla was sold to a traveling circus, where she would delight the audience.”
Emmy springs up lightly from her chair and hands Sarah the list that they have compiled: circuses and traveling freak shows. As Sarah reads, a gleam enters her eye. Hannah watches and lets her shoulders relax. The woman is happiest when she is at work on a project, and it seems that the more outlandish the project, the happier she will be.
Sarah clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “This will be like searching for a needle in a haystack,” she says. “Not that there are any haystacks here in the city. Though circuses may well have use of them to feed the horses.” She sniffs. “So, how do you require my help?”
“We are unsure of how to proceed.”
“Yes. I can imagine.” She glances at Hannah, who holds her gaze.
“The most important thing is simply to act. You try one thing, then another, and a third, and then you see what works. Too much thinking does not get anyone anywhere.”
Hannah raises her eyebrows. Let Sarah throw a few arrows. She has come here to make peace. Or at least, a truce.
“The first step,” Sarah says theatrically, “is to write to each of the places on your list and tell them that…”
“What?” Emmy demands.
Hannah suppresses a smile. In Emmy, Sarah will find someone who matches her determination. Not like Hannah, who is too obedient for her own good.
“Tell them that…” she taps her forehead, as if willing an idea to come. “Of course. Tell them that you are trying to trace your sister, Perla. Describe her, and explain that there is the issue of an inheritance.”
“An inheritance?” Emmy asks.
Hannah gives a little laugh. “Clever.”
“Yes. It is not untrue. An inheritance does not have to be money. But it will be bait and all the fish will try to bite.”
“And ask that if they know her, please could they send a picture and ask Perla for an identifying letter.” She waves her hands through the air. “They will send you fake letters and fake photographs, to get their hands on a few gold coins. Expect it. But perhaps among the photographs and letters there will be one which is a bit less contrived than the others, and then there may be a lead for you to pursue.”
“If she is alive,” Hannah whispers.
Sarah and Emmy both look at her and ignore her comment. “If you get down to it today, you may have an answer by next week,” she says.
Emmy jumps up. “Aunt Sarah, you are a genius.”
Sarah just nods.
Hannah turns to them both. “Emmy, would you please give Sarah and me a few minutes alone.”
Ringlets bobbing, Emmy strides out of the room.
“Thank you for your help,” Hannah says.
Sarah shrugs. “Get it out of her system. And then we’ll either find her a husband or get her to work on community matters. She has energy. She is young.” Sarah pauses. “She will be an asset to the community one day.”
From Sarah, this is a compliment, indeed. She accepts it, grateful.
“I am sorry, Sarah, for the way I have treated you. The way I acted as if no one could understand me, because none were in my exact position. I… I cannot assent to your bones and I cannot eat in your house, which will divide us. But all that you do and all that you are, and… and how I cherish our friendship.”
She had prepared a longer speech, but she cannot find it now though she searches her mind.
Sarah hesitates. “I do believe you mean it.”
“Oh, who has the time or energy to argue. Let bygones be bygones, I always say.”
Sarah reaches out and begins to pump Hannah’s hand, and then changes her mind and pulls her into an embrace.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 711)
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