“This… this home that she wants to set up. Quite passionate she seems about these rather unfortunate girls"
Two perfectly good ways of getting to exactly the same place, albeit from the opposite direction, Felix thinks as he looks up at the double staircase in the Von Albrecht home. The height of modern style, perhaps, a celebration of symmetry — but he prefers his own home: small but without airs and graces.
The drawing room is on the first floor, and when a servant ushers him to follow, Felix cannot help but take the opposite staircase and meet him in the center.
He’s announced in the drawing room. Joachim, lolling in a corner chair with a cigarette in one hand and a newspaper in the other, looks up at him with some irritation. Felix steps forward.
“I do apologize for interrupting your dinner.”
“You have not interrupted. My father brooks no interruptions, and I agree with his policy. I am merely relaxing over the day’s politics.”
Felix nods. “Wolf sent me here. There is an article he is considering printing in his paper.”
He holds out the carefully typed pages. Joachim motions him to sit. He leans back as he reads. Felix watches the man’s eyes traveling across the page, inching down the paper.
Joachim’s face gives nothing away, even when he reaches two-thirds of the way down the second page, where Felix lets his pen run loose as he condemns a society that allows this travesty to take place.
At last, Joachim looks up. He crumples the pages in his fist.
It is just a tiny loss, but a loss nonetheless.
“No,” Joachim says. He shakes his head. “I do not know why he even considered it.”
“Can you explain your decision?”
Joachim cocks his head to the side. “Are you a messenger or an interested party?”
“An interested party.”
Joachim looks at him and his forehead creases into a question. “Ah, this has become a family affair, has it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Has Mama gone back to the shtetl and adopted a stray maiden?”
“No,” Felix says stiffly. My aunt came back from Turkey with a stray maiden. He says nothing. If he were more of a society man, more polished, less uptight, he’d be able to treat the man as a friend. For now, he’s simply glad that he never gained him as a brother-in-law. Although these sentiments will not help him smooth the way to receiving the man’s permission.
Joachim walks over to the writing desk that sits under a huge oil painting of his father. He unrolls the top of the desk and takes out a letter. From where he stands, Felix can merely see that it is covered in large script. A woman’s hand.
“A missive received, interestingly enough, this morning. From none other than your sister.”
“Oh?” Felix keeps his tone light.
“She has taken her mind off marriage, it seems.” Joachim shrugs. “Always a good thing, I believe, and indeed it is the belief of my family, to become involved in charitable causes. My own mother is always occupied with teas and meetings.
“This… this home that she wants to set up. Quite passionate she seems about these rather unfortunate girls. Asked me for rather a large sum on behalf of the newly founded—” He scans the handwritten page. “ ‘The Prague Organization for the Protection, Wellbeing, and Education of Dignified Jewish Girls and Women.’ Quite a mouthful.”
Felix can hear the voices in the title: Becca — Education. Emmy — Protection. Wellbeing must have come from Sarah Levy. Or perhaps she contributed Dignified.
“And have you replied?”
“I consulted my father and our secretary will draft a reply to the effect that we would be interested in learning more and would seriously consider her request.”
And does the article I wrote not move you further? he longs to ask. Does it not make you determined to help?
Joachim raises his eyebrows. “Fraulein Emmeline goes into quite some detail explaining why these girls need not merely proper beds and mattresses, but music lessons, instruction in German, sewing, and arithmetic. She seems quite the visionary.”
He is not sure how to read Joachim’s expression. Emmy is a different person from the young and careless girl he knew a year ago. Emmy would not consider marrying the man now. Despite the pain and sorrow she has encountered, she has become infused with something nameless. It has grown her, stretched her, made her into a woman.
“The article, sir.”
“Yes. What is the nature of your interest?”
“I wrote it.”
Joachim half-chuckles. “You did, did you? Well, there are a great many ways to change the world, as you will learn.” He waves the papers in the air. “Causing a sensation may be the easiest, but there is collateral damage.”
“Can you imagine how this will affect our standing in the eyes of the nations? They are ready to pounce, Felix. They are looking for ways in which to condemn us. We have to show we are blameless, that there is nary a spot on our white cravat, in a manner of speaking.”
“The only way to do this is to prevent this from happening and hold people accountable. Not push it under the carpet.”
He does not deign to respond. “And there are other reasons. There’s a danger here, in the most literal sense. These people have no conscience. And what you are doing will make them desperate. Desperation and cruelty are a lethal combination.” He pauses. “I would not have you put your family at risk.”
Joachim cocks his head to the side and considers. “I shall make you a deal.”
“Shelve the article and I will help this… this Prague Organization for the Protection, Wellbeing, and Education of Dignified Jewish Girls and Women. Publish it and I will not give them a copper coin.”
Emmy looks up from a pamphlet she is reading. “Mmm?”
“I heard you have written to Herr von Albrecht.”
Her head jerks up. “And what if I did? In an official capacity?” She bites her lip. “Who told you, anyway?”
“Yes.” He sighs. “I was sent there by Wolf, to seek permission to publish my article. He refused. Unsurprising.”
He has been turning the matter around in his head, trying to fathom the man’s moral code. He thinks he has it: Be a hero. If the problem is too big for you to solve, thereby making you look weak, or if someone else steps into the limelight, then shoot them down.
There are worse moral codes, he supposes. After all, it does propel the man to do some good in the world.
“So what has this got to do with me?” She asks.
He stares, and takes a breath. “He said if I publish without his permission, then he will not consider funding your haven.”
She opens her mouth and then closes it. Her chin wobbles slightly.
Felix watches her. How much attachment does she still have for her former beau?
“And what are you going to do?”
“I am going to ask my sister for advice.”
He looks theatrically around the room. “I do not know of any other sister. You were with me. We saw the mothers. Heard the stories. This refuge that you are planning…”
She drops her head into her hands. “We have space, at least at the start, for six girls.” When she looks up at him, her eyes are huge and filled with pain. “And you can prevent hundreds, maybe thousands of cases if you bring this to the attention of the entire city.”
Part of him wants to say, this is not arithmetic, this is your life and mine, your success and mine, pitted against each other. But part of him is silent at the hidden grandeur of her thinking.
She shrugs. “Joachim is not the only wealthy banker in Prague. There are the owners of the cotton factories. There are Oma and Opa in Vienna. There are—”
“They will think this is a hairbrained scheme.”
“Not when they read about it in the press.” She gives a half smile.
“And what of…” he hesitates. “Matters of the heart?”
“Joachim?” She shakes her head. Of late, she has been adopting Becca’s sardonic tone and she pronounces: “Felix, I have far more important things to think about than the possible affections of a man who thinks that the only way to help the Jewish People is to encase us in filigree and gilt us with 24-karat gold.”
Chasya is surprised to see him, but she steps aside and allows him to enter. It is early evening, and Leibele has fallen asleep, curled up on a blanket next to the fire. Felix crouches next to him and gently touches his hair.
“Like a little puppy,” he says.
She laughs. “Not a comparison that I would make. But I see the point.”
He straightens and paces around the small living room. “I am thinking of publishing the article.”
“But there are obstacles.”
He tells her. Joachim, the money, Emmy. Wolf. His job. The danger. “It’s as if everything I have been building in the last year — all of it — will be destroyed if I go ahead.” He rubs his forehead. “I do not know what to do.”
“But you have some idea?”
He nods. “Wolf has left town. I have only a few hours to finish the paper. It goes to print in the morning. The main task is the advertising.”
“Well, the advertising is not the official voice of the paper. On the top of each box is printed the word ‘Communicated.’ If I take apart the article I have written, and publish it in small squares of advertising space — oh, I will pay for it, of course, though it will take three months’ salary — then neither Joachim nor Wolf could have any complaint.”
“They will have a complaint.”
“Yes. Of course. But there is perhaps a little more room for maneuver.”
Chasya shakes her head. “Felix. You are fooling yourself.”
“It will be devastating. Perhaps, in this form that you suggest, it will have even more of an impact than if it is one long article.”
A gleam shines in his eyes. “You know, Chasya, you may be right. I will leave out all the commentary. Just keep the stories.”
She nods. “And the title of each story shall be another girl’s name. Peshie’s Story. Sara’s Story. Frumet’s Story.”
He takes his watch out from his pocket. “The paper goes to print in the morning.”
She look at him. “Why are you asking my advice?”
“Because I trust you. I will lose my job.”
“Does that matter to you?”
He stops and thinks. “Yes. Yes, it does matter to me.”
She nods and he is grateful that she is making space for his future loss. Not demeaning it or undermining it.
“Inspector Dussoff believes that I will be placing myself in danger. And he is not the only one.”
“And what do you think?”
He catches his hands together behind his back and begins pacing the room.
“Are you worried for yourself?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.”
She laughs. “Very decisive.”
“If I do decide to go ahead, there are three ways of looking at it.” He ticks off his fingers. “Either I am reckless, and thus not careful about the danger. Or I am naïve, and I do not realize what may await. Or I am brave, which I am not.”
“How about a mixture of all three? That is, if you plan to go ahead.”
He looks up in confusion. “How could I not? After what I have discovered?”
She opens her eyes wide and looks up to meet his. “Ah, then, you have your answer. You are neither reckless nor naïve. You are brave.”
He shakes his head. “But still—”
“Felix. There are times when we sense the person we will be one day in the future walking toward us. You squint and stare, unsure that you see anything, but inside you sense them.
“And they wave to you and gesture and there’s a whisper you suddenly hear inside, although there was no sound. And they say, step this way. This is the way you will greet me, the man you will one day become.”
For a long time, he looks into the flickering flames of the orange coals. Then he dons his hat and raises his hand in farewell.
Just before dawn, he sits up and stretches. The process was painful: slaughtering sentences that he had formed and shaped and chiseled to perfection. His eyes are swimming and his back aches, but the work is complete.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 725)
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