“Fortuna, do you still think that I am a princess who lives in a castle? This is all I have”
The consul wears the tall traditional hat, with a turban wrapped around the rim and the clothing of an Austrian gentleman, as if he is embracing both the old world and the new, the East and the West.
Becca blinks when she sees him, and reaches out to hold Raizel’s hand. This trip to the Austrian consul is one of the first times that Raizel has left the house, and here and there, when the streets are quiet, Raizel actually looks around with something of interest on her face. She should have taken her outdoors earlier. Winter’s harshness has faded and the wind, though strong, is fresh and fragrant.
The consul waits for her to speak, and she has rehearsed her lines with the wife of the Rosh Kahal, who is quite happy to free herself of the responsibility.
“My friend was brought to this country under false pretenses.”
The consul drums his fingers on the table. “Yes.”
“She thought that she was coming for domestic work. And instead…” She trails off. She does not know the words, if there are words, if there is a way of enwrapping Raizel’s experience and communicating it to someone else.
The consul sighs heavily. He reaches in to his drawer and takes out a pen, which he unscrews and dips into a small glass bottle of ink. “Instead of domestic work, she was subjected to servitude.”
“Beatings?” he asks.
“I suspect broken ribs.”
Becca has them ready. She places her forged French passport, Raizel’s immigration certificate — also, doubtless forged — and her Austrian passport onto the desk.
He examines them, and Becca feels her cheeks grow hot with nervous energy. To her unpracticed eye, it seemed as if the forger did a perfect job. But will the consul agree? He drops the papers onto his desk and scribbles something on a piece of paper and hands it to her. “Passage back to the Austrian Empire.”
He looks at the calendar that stands on his desk. “There is a ship in two days’ time.” He takes out another certificate and signs it with a flourish. “Passage for the two of you. I take it that you will act as a chaperone to your friend.”
For a second, Becca hesitates. Then she nods. “Yes.”
“And a representative of the consul will be there to greet you when you disembark and will take responsibility for your onward journey.”
He looks at Raizel for a minute before speaking. “I am sorry for your experience, Fraulein. But Austria does take care of its own. Go home. Find a job, embroidery or in a school or the like. Find a husband. Settle down to a respectable life. These are my wishes for you.”
Becca cannot help but wonder at the matter-of-factness of his tone.
He nods and they all stand. She holds the back of the chair and asks. “How often do you see such a case?”
He raises his hands. “You are not the first and you shall not be the last.”
“I see enough that the proceedings are quite standardized. Passage back home, paid for by the Austrian government, which takes care of its own.”
Two days. Two days is nowhere near enough. To say goodbye to everyone. To pack up the unused classroom, prepare food for the journey, dismantle her last few months of living. When she expresses her worry, Fortuna takes her hand. “I shall prepare the food for you. One worry will be taken off your shoulders.”
For a second, Becca wonders what Fortuna will pack for them. On the journey here, she spent weeks eating matzah and salted fish, until she worried that she would smell of herring all her life. Will she return to Europe with the taste of coconut and pungent spices still on her tongue? She squeezes Fortuna’s hand to thank her. There is enough for her to think about without worrying about food.
The night before the voyage, she leaves Raizel in the hands of the Rosh Kahal’s wife and returns to Fortuna to finish packing her belongings into the wooden trunk Hannah had given her. She folds up her woolen shawl, and then looks at her everyday blue gown. As if from nowhere, Fortuna appears. “Are you taking everything with you? You will not return?”
“I do not know. I would like to. But I do not know.”
“Surely you can leave your things here and simply use the garments you have in Europe.”
Does she still not understand?
“Fortuna, do you still think that I am a princess who lives in a castle? This is all I have.”
The woman does not believe her. “I have a niece, and she could give me some of her older clothing if she is feeling magnanimous. If she is feeling kind.”
Her words fill her with disquiet. In Europe, she can draw no salary and be given no allowance. Her food and board will not be paid for by a director who sits in Paris with endlessly deep pockets. And she has no home, not really. The shtetl where she grew up will always be familiar, but Mama and Tatte — oh, she loves them so much that it hurts, but they are old, they cannot care for her, much less provide for her. There is no future for her there.
And Paris, well, it was home, but only when she was a student, protected by the director, four years of worrying only about the best way to engage a child’s attention and teach him how to read and write. Those little worries had allowed her to put the bigger worries to the side.
Like the feeling of displacement that shadowed her, the feeling of rootlessness. She had once asked the director about it, and he had said, “Well, this is the fate of the Jew throughout the ages.”
She had not been able to resist answering back. “It is easy for you to put it like this. You… you have a home. And a job. And a family. You are sending us away from here with nothing.”
“Nothing?” His eyebrows had shot up almost to the brim of his smart bowler’s hat.
She had stumbled over her words then, not wanting to sound ungrateful.
“I have given you an education and I have given you a purpose to live for. Is that nothing?”
Now, looking at Fortuna, hands hovering over the gaping lid of the wooden trunk, she sees that his words were both true and untrue. Her education has brought her here, to a different life, but one with possibilities. And her sense of purpose allows her a space in which she can choose. The French liberté.
She corrects herself. No, the Jewish value of freedom. V’karasem dror — you shall proclaim freedom. The words were written on the wall of the director’s office. Thinking of Raizel, she shivers.
But still. To walk through the world as if through water, leaving no mark, no family, no roots, no stability, no one who will say, “I miss you.”
She swallows and sets her jaw. It is not a time for sentimentality. Now is the time for action.
Fortuna kneels down and takes out a handful of clothing from the chest. She lays it on the floor and starts to refold it neatly, taking care to straighten out seams and pull the fabric smooth.
“You do not have to—”
“I would like to help you.”
The dark eyes stare into her own. “After all, Becca, I will miss you.”
Becca touches her hand. “I shall write to you.”
Fortuna gives her a half smile.
“You…” Becca stops, thinks, here is the answer to the question that she has always wondered but never confirmed. “You can read, if I write to you?”
Fortuna shakes her head.
Ah. So it is out between them. Finally. When Fortuna fashioned her elaborate system of silken squares, indicating where Becca is needed each day, Becca wanted to ask her: but have you never heard of a pen and paper? She had always assumed, though, because Fortuna is intelligent, because they have grown to respect and like each other, that she could not be illiterate.
Illiterate. It is such a strong word. The director: “We must fight illiteracy!” Like it is some form of a plague. Her teachers: “Illiteracy is a scourge.” Like it was the source of all evil. And she, Becca, had come all the way to Izmir, determined to save the townsfolk.
“Do you… Is it hard for you?” Becca asks.
“I have never known anything different. And my husband can read and write and fill in the forms for the government.”
“And those who don’t have a husband?”
“There is a Rosh Kahal.”
Becca nods. Over the last few weeks, she has seen the daily line outside the house, and wondered that both men and women came to seek his counsel. So he was a secretary of sorts, for the widows and orphans.
Fortuna smiles. “I know you think it is important, but when a community looks after its own, then we are all quite safe.”
“But do you not feel like you are missing out?”
“Perhaps.” Fortuna leaves the room and returns a minute later with a sumptuous blue silk gown. It is covered in embroidered leaves and flowers, in silver yarn. “My wedding gown.”
Becca reaches out and strokes the fabric. “It is beautiful.”
“I made it myself. And I can cook. And I keep house. I drive a hard bargain at the market. I am bringing up my children. There are many types of learning, Becca.”
Becca nods slowly. “So you have taught me.”
Becca’s bag is laden with gifts. A piece of silk from Nona. The Rosh Kahal’s wife gave her a small tablecloth, richly embroidered with pomegranates and foliage. Diamenta gave her a small wooden figure of a camel that her husband had carved for her. She had protested, pushed it back into Diamenta’s hand, but the woman had insisted. As she lugs the bag with her, she realizes that she may be a wandering Jew, but in her pack is a taste of what, despite the confusion and the failures, has become home to her.
She holds Raizel’s hand as they tread the wide gangplank onto the Neptune. The wind whips in from the open sea and her skirt billows and the tendrils that have loosened from her bun blow into her eyes. She reaches up and pushes them away. The wind puffs something out of her, as well, something of the horror of the last few days and weeks.
She takes a deep breath, feels that sea air fill her. The wildness of the ocean, the freedom. Nothing is written on the ocean, there are no tired roads and suffocating alleyways and fatigued horizon. There are no leaves layered with dust, there is no garment that’s waiting to be washed and dried, no family desperate for her to come and save them from the vicissitudes of life. The waves bring newness, constant change.
She leans over to Raizel. “Say goodbye to Ottoman Turkey,” she says. They both hold up their hands in a wave, goodbye to this country, goodbye to the strangeness and cruelty. Goodbye hospitality and community. Goodbye silk and scarlet and honey that tastes like pomegranates and tea that is thick and sweet and soothing. Goodbye, too, to stretching and learning, the words in Ladino and the silent utterances of people’s hearts.
Even as the ship begins to sail, Becca stands on the deck and watches the land recede into the distance and wonders if she will ever return.
The music is raucous and loud, and although at first, Hannah shudders when she hears it, after a few minutes, the tune is familiar and she finds herself, if not singing along, predicting the next note in her mind.
There are crowds of people, but these are not her people. Not Prague people. These are men with rough trousers and gaudy linen shirts, and women without hats and with too much rouge. There is too much noise as well, women throwing back their heads in uncouth laughter and men guffawing, clutching their bellies. The whole place stinks of beer and smoke and sawdust and human smells.
All the sweet, lavender-scented veneer of humanity that she and Gertrude spend endless hours gilding onto their home, has been stripped away. Without the constant washing and ironing, the rosewater and polish, the carefully sewn dresses and suits, what is left?
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 715)
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