"Thank you for your efforts, surely you are a brave and courageous reporter and I admire your values. But these subjects do not belong in our newspaper”
"Paper. Pens. Ink. Instructional manuals in German.” What else? Becca casts her mind back to her classroom in Izmir, so painstakingly furnished. “A globe.”
A globe was not, strictly speaking, necessary, but there’s something about a globe that both depicts the vastness of the world and the fact that it can be cradled into two cupped hands.
“Feather pillows,” Emmy says. “Sheets, blankets, beds, comfortable chairs.”
Sarah lifts her hand from the paper, sets down her pen, and shakes her wrist. She blows on the page to dry the ink; thick, cream notepaper, embossed with the symbol of the Prague Women’s Charity Foundation: a Magen David intertwined with the double-tailed lion of Bohemia. She looks around at them.
“Letters of approbation from the rav, as well as various prominent members of the community.”
Becca opens her eyes wide and nods at Sarah. “A job of the utmost importance, Sarah. I would only trust you with such a task. I have no doubt that you’ll be able to present them both the need and the solution in a way that will not fail to arouse their sympathy.”
Sarah throws her a sharp look. The woman never quite knows if Becca is serious or making fun of her, and the result is mildly entertaining. Sarah is not used to being unsure of herself.
“Are you reluctant to undertake this?” Becca asks. “We can divide up the work differently, if you should want.”
Sarah picks up her pen. “I know perfectly well how to allocate tasks, thank you. I’ve spent years playing to people’s strengths.”
Becca holds up her hands. “Well, we cannot hold up a candle to your experience.” She looks at Sarah, whose expression has become as stiff as one of the hats she favors and inwardly sighs.
“Gertrude,” Becca calls. There’s a clatter of pots in the kitchen, so she must be here, somewhere, although Gertrude maintains that as housekeeper, rather than servant, she is not bound to heed their requests. “Gertrude!”
She appears. “A pot of tea, please, for our esteemed guest. And perhaps something a little stronger to ward off the winter cold.”
She hopes Gertrude will bring Ernst’s sherry. To help them stop yapping at each other like lap dogs whose mistresses do not get along. Becca catches sight of Raizel, gliding from one room to another like a ghost.
“What we need most of all is…”
“Money,” Emmy says.
“Four walls,” Sarah says.
Money. The director of the Alliance never seemed to worry about money. His budget appeared endless, but then, every evening he seemed to have another dinner party that necessitated a bowtie and tailcoat and sparkling conversation with the wealthy and notables in Paris. And there was no shortage of Jews there who came to immerse themselves in high culture.
But who are they? One housewife (admittedly, Sarah was not simply the average frau), and two girls. Spirited and ambitious, but without money or connections or even a real status in the world.
She hopes Gertrude will bring the sherry.
“Can I have a moment, please?” Felix asks when Wolf finally appears at the printers, staggering under the weight of a supply of fresh ink.
“A newspaper man,” Wolf says with a huff, setting down his load on the floor and looking up at Felix, “must have a sense of timing.”
Felix bobs his head in agreement. “Apologies. It will not take long.”
“But do you not see?” Wolf walks over to the little stove and bangs down the kettle. “I’d wanted to at least finalize the advertising before I leave.”
“I can do the advertising in my sleep.”
“But will your dreams remind you of our new system?”
“Two tiers of payments. The higher tier for pages one to five, as well as the back page. The regular tariff applies for the rest of the newspaper.”
Wolf claps his hands together. “Excellent.”
“And I will, of course, be sure to check even the advertisements for errors, although we claim no responsibility for their contents.”
Wolf sniffs. “Yes, well. Make sure you take care. You would think the advertisers would, after they pay good money, but no such luck. Last week I got Soap — Does Not Soil the Hands. They simply placed it in an envelope, paid the bill, and left. And I was left trying to puzzle out the meaning of the thing: Soap — for soiled hands? Soap — for hands that will not be soiled? Or perhaps it was for hands that shall not be spoiled — some of these soaps are terribly rough on the skin.”
“So what did you do?”
“I left it. At least that way I could not be blamed. But really, it should not happen. It brings down our reputation.”
The kettle sings and Wolf pours himself a cup of coffee. He brings the cup close to his face and inhales.
“Have you had any more thoughts about the article I have been writing?”
The man spins around. “You are flogging a dead horse.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? No. No is no. Thank you for your efforts, surely you are a brave and courageous reporter and I admire your values. But these subjects do not belong in our newspaper.”
“Then perhaps I will have to turn to the competition.”
Wolf laughs. “Please do. Gei gezuntheit. But please, you insult me when you call them competition. Do you know what their circulation figures are? Paltry. Laughable. They only keep alive and running because they recycle all the news we publish. They alter the first paragraph, sometimes also the last. The contemptible thing is that it takes them two weeks to do it.”
Felix shrugs. “Some would say that it is easier to live in the dark. For a while at least.”
“Yes, indeed.” Wolf sets down his coffee cup and leans closer. “Too much truth is like too much wine. At first you sense it elevating you, filling you with a spirit that is more expansive than your own. But what follows?
“The wine soaks through the system. Either people get angry and bitter, or they cry, or they start to sing. And then they go to sleep because it is all too much for anyone to cope with. No. A little truth does me fine. Too much…”
Felix studies him. “And in your mind a half-truth is not falsehood?”
“No. It is one version. One angle.”
He is getting no closer to persuading the man. “Wolf. There are lives at stake.”
Wolf’s cheeks begin to grow flushed. “There are always lives at stake. There are always people hit by poverty and sadness. We are a newspaper.” He bangs his fist down on the desk. “We supply news.” Another bang. “People pay for it. We are not here to change the world, Felix.”
Felix opens his mouth to answer but Wolf holds up a hand. “I am tired of this argument. I am traveling. I have a newspaper to publish. And you have work to do.” He lets out a deep sigh. “If you want permission, go and ask the owners.”
“Correct. Show them the article and if they give you permission, then I do as well.”
“Thank you, sir.”
How loud can women’s voices be?
Becca, Emmy, and Sarah are still sitting around the table. This time they are arguing about the level of self-sufficiency that they expect their haven — they have started calling it a haven, instead of a home, and Hannah is not quite sure what this means about homes in general, and her home in particular — to eventually attain.
Emmy swivels in her chair to catch her eye as she walks past. “What do you think, Mama?”
Hannah is touched that Emmy is appealing to her. “I… I have not been following the arguments.”
“Sarah says that the girls will become too independent-minded if they keep their wages, and they should be giving the entirety for the upkeep of the home. This also means that it will be less dependent on charity. Becca and I think that the girls should be able to save for their future.”
“And they cannot do both?”
Sarah considers. “They could, I suppose. As with any communal affair, I believe we should consult the rav.”
Hannah nods. She considers the little gathering. So, her children have decided to save the world. It seems strange, odd somehow, that she suddenly has a break from worrying about whether or not their lives will be meaningful. She is grateful, although she wonders if the planning and debating are simply easier than talking to Raizel herself, who is drifting, aimless, around the house.
Hannah pulls her aside. “Can I show you one of my favorite places in Prague?”
Raizel stares at her blankly.
“Come, there is a little woodland, with a pond that is still iced-over. I used to take the children when they were small.”
They wrap up in scarves and boots and hats — when will this winter finally be over? — and step out, the women’s arguments following them down the street. It does not take long to get to the woods, and the place is just as she remembers it. This is a haven. Hannah spreads a large, thick blanket on the ground and leans back against a tree trunk. From her basket, she pulls out a pair of skates and hands them to Raizel.
She watches Raizel. At first, the girl keeps to the perimeter of the lake, but soon enough her confidence grows and she skates across the middle. Emmy thinks that she is polished sophistication when she twirls around the big lake, but Hannah has never told her that every shtetl girl, herself included, knows how to skate.
There is always one family who has skates: cast-offs from some relatives, usually, and in exchange for either a chore or a plate of biscotti, will lend them out for an hour. And then, off they go, up and down the river, skating up crests and jumping over the dips, for the river never freezes smoothly, and that is the fun and the challenge and the skill.
When Raizel is red-faced and laughing, her blue eyes bright and her blonde hair disheveled, Hannah lights a fire and spears some potatoes on sticks. Their feet are cold, but their fingers are warm from the heat of the flames, and their faces glow orange.
“A river is the best skating rink of all,” Hannah says.
“Yes. We used to skate all winter.”
“When I was a girl,” Hannah says, “one little boy took all the chickens onto the frozen river, to watch them slip and slide.” Raizel laughs. “It was the best part of winter.”
When silence falls, Hannah asks, “How did you come here?”
The girl stiffens, like the trees and the ice. “You know,” Raizel says eventually. “Becca brought me.”
“Not that. Before.” She is almost afraid to mention it, but she does so anyway. “To Turkey.”
“I ran away. And then I dressed up as a nun. And I found people, people in carriages, who would take me some way, and then more of the way, and then more, until I arrived in Izmir.”
“But what made you run away?”
“I was… unhappy. Things were bad.”
“But there were other girls, and they did not run, did they?”
A shadow crosses over her face. “No.”
“So what made you run away?”
She shrugs her shoulders.
“Maybe it was just… I had this picture in my head.”
“A picture. Of what?”
“Of me, in a home of my own.”
Hannah prods the potato. It is cooked. She hands it to Raizel. “A picture. How often did you see this picture?”
“Every night. At first it was a blur. But then I thought about it some more and every night I saw it a bit better. On the side of the house was a vegetable patch. It started as dry earth, but then I made furrows, and planted seeds. I’d close my eyes and see the little sprouts, and then leaves. The carrots and turnips grew well, the potatoes didn’t come out good.”
“And the house itself?”
“There was a front door. It was made of oak — the oak tree that had fallen at the edge of the village. I saw how my brother sawed planks and sanded it down, and nailed the planks together. Together, we oiled it until the wood shone, and we found good, strong hinges. And that was the door.”
Raizel stares into the flames and Hannah wonders how her eyes do not sting.
“And what else?”
“I wore an apron. It was white. With frills around the side in the latest fashion. And…”
“Yes?” Hannah asks, her voice gentle.
“I saw children. A little girl and boy. The boy had a dimple on his chin and the girl had blonde curls. I would tie a silken ribbon around those curls, but her hair was so fine that it would slip off.”
“I saw me sitting on a rocking chair.”
“What were you doing?”
“I wanted to be holding a child. But every time I looked, I was sewing white tachrichim, the way my mother did.”
A thickness rises in Hannah’s throat. She holds out her hand to Raizel, whose fingers curl around her.
“And this is what made you escape? This picture?”
“And… and what is the picture that you see here, now that you are with us?”
The girl looks at her with anguish. “I cannot find one. I only see darkness.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 724)
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