It would be easier if he were a sole agent in the world, but he has a family, people he cares for… he could not forgive himself if—
As dawn breaks, Felix leaves the printing shop and walks out onto the streets of Prague; right, left, through streets that grow narrower until he finds himself by the Altneuschul. He strolls around the side.
In the watery light, he can see the top rungs of the ladder that lead to the sealed-off attic. As children, he and his friends would lob stones at the sealed door, vying to reach it. They called the game Waking up the Golem.
The rav had caught them once, during Krias HaTorah. The lecture he had delivered was one of the longest in Felix’s life. Now, he tips his head back and looks at the darkened space. The wind blows bitterly, and he turns and walks inside the dark, empty shul.
It is warmer inside, but not much. In the dim light, the brass candelabras glow and the furniture is simply deeper shadow. He rubs his eyes.
This is not his kind of place. His place is the library stacks, where they pull out book after book, piling them high on the desks as they argue a point. The lecture theater in the university: three rows back, five chairs along, in a worn velvet chair that absorbs his curiosity and his snores. Wolf’s printing shop, with its clatter. The coffee shop, where they debate politics and news over the rich aroma of fresh brew.
Although he has been to shul every week since he was old enough to walk, it does not feel like his place.
He steps quietly through the shul and up the stairs to the aron kodesh. He reaches out and lets his fingers brush the velvet paroches.
What will happen today? Back at the printer, everything is ready; the newspaper laid out and checked. If all goes according to plan, by lunchtime it will be on the stands and the delivery boy will load a stack onto his back ready to go from house to house. Is this decision, already made, to be blessed?
He leans forward and kisses the paroches. At present, the danger, the anger, the brouhaha that will surely result seem far away, almost unimaginable. It is there, of course, and when he thinks of it his heart beats faster. It would be easier if he were a sole agent in the world, but he has a family, people he cares for… he could not forgive himself if—
He squeezes his eyes closed and brings his head closer to the paroches, feels the worn velvet on his forehead.
A year ago, eons ago, his professor told him to seek transcendence. He had been bewildered. How does one seek the suprarational? Transcendence was something for angels or men who thought they were angels.
But maybe it is something else entirely. Maybe it is spending all night with burning eyes and an aching back and inky fingers filled with calm certainty that this is what has to be done and you are the man to do it.
A sudden weariness washes through him. It pushes away the tension and fear that lay on the periphery of his thoughts and leaves him with a deep, empty space. His head feels heavy, but something in him is peaceful. He stays there for a long time.
When the smell of fresh-baked bread begins to waft through the streets and into the shul, Felix rouses himself. Strangely energized, he strides through the frosty streets until he comes to Wolf’s printers.
When he arrives, he sets the machine into place, then pulls a lever. There is a clank and a clatter, and the smell of fresh ink and heat as the pages of the newspaper begin to feed their way into the machine and emerge the other side. The paper contains much news, but not a single advertisement. In place of information about woolen coats and spas and music lessons, are small squares. Under the printed word Communicated is written in bold print:
The newspaper is open in the middle of the dining-room table. An exhibit. A witness. A triumph. A tragedy.
Hannah rubs her eyes. Sarah, perhaps, is used to all the people. The whirlwind of it. The knocks on the door. The rush to wash up the tea set, for as soon as it has been used, more visitors arrive and, again, she boils up the kettle and sets the tray with cream and sugar and lemon and another animated conversation erupts.
Was it just yesterday that she was sitting with Raizel in the woods? Now, she keeps the girl close by, for fear that some well-meaning but clumsy soul will pounce and interrogate and trample the small sprouts of healing that Hannah detects.
Chasya sits at the kitchen table, struggling to translate every word into Yiddish. Here and there, Hannah leans over and helps. “I must understand every word,” Chasya says. Hannah nods.
In the lounge, the rav and rebbetzin sit on the ottoman. The rebbetzin nibbles her biscotti while they talk earnestly to Felix and Emmy. There’s a lot of shaking heads and clicking tongues and bewildered eyes. Wilhelm has come and gone, depositing bottles of wine that now clutter up the kitchen.
Wolf has already gotten wind of what has happened, although he is in Hamburg. He has sent one furious telegraph after the other, but Felix is untouched and unrepentant.
“Are you worried?” Hannah had asked him when she handed him the telegraph. Felix had just shrugged. “He is angry now, but I do believe that he will come to admire me for what I have done. After all, if you cannot fight for the truth when you are young, then by the time you are middle-aged, you are lost.”
The parnas has been at the door. The principal of the boys’ school. The melamed who teaches in the cheder, who knows a girl like this. Everyone, it seems, has family in a tucked-away village somewhere, and if they do not know someone, they know someone who does. And they come, all of them, though how they know it is Felix and how they know where they live when Hannah has always lived quietly, on the periphery of Prague society, is a mystery to Hannah.
But they come, some bearing beer; others, sugared nuts; and more, stories. Each is invited in, to talk, to think, to lament and rage and decide that this is intolerable, that something must be done.
It is late, past ten, by the time the visitors have all left, and exhausted but triumphant, they sit down to dinner. Ernst gestures to the place next to him and ushers Felix to sit beside him. “I am proud of you, Felix,” he says. “You have written the truth and that is the music of G-d.”
The beef is dry after sitting for hours, but they are hungry and no one notices. They eat quickly, ravenously, and looking around the table, Hannah cannot help but feel that this is a siyum of sorts, the culmination of so many events and efforts. When the plates are clean, Hannah stands to clear, but Ernst gestures for her to sit down.
He takes out his violin, tunes it carefully. Then he lifts his bow. “Well?” he asks. “What would you like me to play?” Ernst’s eyes meet her own. She is silent.
“I shall play Hannah’s song,” he says.
Bow meets string, fingers dance, and music fills the room. It is air clothed by notes, sorrow cloaked in melody, the dewdrops of spring and the ice that silvers the trees. It is Leil Shabbos and bedtime lullabies and the voice of bride and groom as they stand under the chuppah and hope for the future and pray that they will one day have children and these children will bring goodness to the world.
Before they retire for the night, two more telegraphs arrive for Felix. The typed capital letters read: Be vigilant. Danger abounds. Dussoff.
The second telegraph reads: Not even a journalist gets the last word.
Hannah wakes suddenly, irritated. Do they not know how tired she is? She turns over and blinks. The darkness seems to be thicker than usual, and when she takes a breath, there’s a stinging in her chest.
Her eyes feel like they are raining.
She is surrounded by noise. Something is breaking. And there is a smell.
Felix — he said he wanted to stay up all night, although he hadn’t slept the night before. Is he in the kitchen, burning something?
But the smell is strong and the black is worse and suddenly she finds herself coughing.
Where is the voice coming from? She jumps from her bed and pauses for a second to take her book of techinos. She leaves her bedroom, and down the stairs just ahead of her she sees Ernst and Emmy and Felix, calling to her, ready to open the front door and escape. In some place in her mind, she thinks, so they did not go to bed at all.
She runs forward to join them.
But then there’s a great sound and the staircase becomes a wall of flame.
She could jump. She could run through. From a distance, she hears Emmy scream. She does not scream. She crouches near the ground and her eyes stream from the light, so much light. Who knew that fire was so bright?
The stairs, the banister, the wooden wall, the oil paintings. Sheets of orange. The flames grasp and pull and grow and bellow out black smoke until she sees nothing at all.
She could turn back but the windows are barred.
She runs back to the bedroom and wraps herself in a blanket. Without thinking, she runs, jumps, leaps, down, through fire and ice and stumbling stumbling, she is on the hallway floor.
Her eyes. Her chest, it is ready to burst open. There is terror, but then the clouds of smoke twist and become people. Mama. Tatte and Perla. Ernst. Felix. And then Emmy. It seems that the smoke person that is Emmy is afraid and screams: Mama, come out, come out.
Who knew that fire was so loud? That it could drown out all the voices in your head and leave you with just one sound, the sound of the thing you want most in the world.
She pushes herself forward.
The violin. Where is the violin? She stumbles into the living room and falls and her hand lands on the tablecloth that Raizel has been embroidering. She brings it to her face and covers her mouth and her nose. She cannot breathe, her mouth is filled with dry linen and ash.
Ernst’s violin. It is his voice, his soul, his words and his heart. She hears a pop, pop, pop of glass shattering, the photographs.
Her fingers will have to search instead of her eyes. She gropes in the gray, dark cloud.
Her fingers touch soft leather. Leather. This is the violin. This is him, he is here with her and now all she needs to do is to find air.
She could give up but there is music to be made, words to say. There are children and one day there will be grandchildren. She stumbles and falls and her eyes pour tears, and she does not know whether it is tears or blood or some kind of elixir of life, Rosh Hashanah honey, Chanukah oil, a drop of wax from the Shabbos candles, milk, warmed for a baby.
Another step. She cannot walk, she drops to the floor and she will be a child again and learn to crawl. With one arm she clutches the violin case and the other pulls her along the floor.
She is floating up and away from her body, so she can almost see herself. The noise is a thunderous terror, but inside her head, it is quiet and still.
Ernst. Emmy and Felix. Nothing else matters. Only that they will live, all of them. As she lies and crawls and puts her cheek to the floor, Tatte comes back to her.
When the Eibeshter created the world, Tatte told her when she was a child, and the smoke person he has become says it again now. So He created one world and destroyed it. Another world and destroyed it.
Again and again. Some say that He did it a thousand times.
Did He not get tired? she asked.
No. Hashem never gets tired. Hashem know that the world is built little by little and at the end of the process, there will be something beautiful. But you need faith to get there. A little patience and a lot of faith. Or maybe it was a little faith and a lot of patience.
Destroy and create.
Patience and faith.
Destroy and faith.
On and on, again and again, says Tatte in her mind and in the smoke.
Hand on the floor, elbow pushing, fingers gripping the cracks between the floorboards, hand on leather, the violin against her side, the violin against her chest.
Create and patience.
Faith and create.
Hannah. Patience and destroy.
Perla. Destroy and faith.
Air. Air air air.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 726)
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