Jerusalem Interlude


Page 19 of 53


“He says he’ll teach Charles and Louis to play Rugby.” Murphy exhaled with loud relief. Elisa accepted this rather large addition to their household with astonishment, but little evidence of resentment.

Elisa glanced at the man’s ears. She inwardly winced and gently suggested, “Perhaps you could start them with soccer?”

“Ah, ‘tis a woman’s game compared to Rugby.” Freddie’s lumpy face scowled. “But as you wish, Missus.”

Murphy mouthed the words thank you to Elisa. She shook her head slightly in disbelief. A car. A chauffeur. And a bodyguard who could carry packages and teach the boys to play Rugby.

“All this,” she said, “and a performance tonight.” She extended her hand to Freddie. He shook it heartily, then tugged the violin from her arms.

“I’ll carry this, Missus.” Then he screwed up his face in an expression that displayed deep pondering. “Of course, first I’ll have to put on me uniform. Them tall black boots.” He thrust the violin case back into her arms and bowed slightly at the waist before he turned and clumped down the stairs to the Duesenberg.

***

As Leah considered what to wear and what to play and what to say to several thousand British soldiers and the Woodhead Commission at tonight’s performance, Shimon penned a note to his great-aunt, announcing that they had at last arrived in Jerusalem and would come to the Old City tomorrow. At the suggestion of Victoria he sent the note by way of a hotel errand boy with the instructions that if he returned with a note from the old woman, he would receive another shilling for his efforts.

Thirty minutes before the scheduled departure to the Allenby barracks, the messenger returned to the hotel room. Shimon opened the door to a boy who stood wringing his hands and panting as if he had run all the way without stopping. The look on his face betrayed that something was definitely wrong.

“I am sorry, Mister. I am very sorry, but I could not give your letter to your aunt in the Old City!”

“Why not?”

“I knocked and knocked on the door, Mister. I knocked until the lady in the flat downstairs yelled at me that I should quit knocking.” The boy’s hands were trembling as he pulled out the original note.

“But did she say where my great-aunt was?”

“Yes, Mister.” Curly hair bobbed as the boy nodded. He looked as if he might cry. “That woman, she says the old lady was eighty-seven and nobody was surprised except now maybe you. They sent a letter to Vienna, where the boxes came from.”

“Where is she? Is she ill?”

“No. She is dead this one month past, Mister. She left you with four months lease on her flat but not a farthing besides, and you can get the key from the woman in the flat downstairs.”

Shimon’s lips formed a round, soundless OH of surprise. “Ah. I was not expecting. She was very old.” He winced and opened and closed his note to her.

“I am sorry, Mister,” croaked the boy. “But . . . I came back with a message and . . . so . . . my other shilling?”

Shimon blinked uncomprehendingly at the boy for a moment. Dressed in her black concert dress, Leah reached around Shimon and paid the nearly frantic boy, dismissing him with a curt nod as he thanked her and thanked her again. She shut the door and pulled Shimon to the bed. “Sit down, darling.”

He nodded blankly and obeyed. “I did not know her. I . . . I am sorry.” He put his hand to his forehead. “I am made of stone. Of stone. All I can think is that she left us with four months free rent on her flat. And . . . I am relieved.”

Leah sat down beside him. She put her arm around his broad shoulders and leaned her head against his. She sighed. “Why are you relieved, darling?”

Shimon looked wonderingly at Leah. “I wrote her and told her that you and I . . . that we are Christians.” He whispered the word and looked over his shoulder as if someone might hear. “I thought perhaps the news killed her. That she opened the letter and died of a heart attack. But then I counted. She could not have gotten my letter before she . . . died! She would have left the lease to someone else.”

“Wrong, Shimon.” Leah grimaced. “I wrote her the news from Paris. Before I knew you were safe, I told her I believed God would deliver you. That we would be here together in Jerusalem, and that I had found the Messiah of Israel.”

“And she still left us the apartment?”

Leah nodded and patted his leg. “You should say kaddish for her, Shimon. She would have liked that.”

17

In Concert

Victoria held two handwritten invitations from Leah Feldstein to the performance tonight at Allenby barracks.

“A way of saying thank you in advance for helping us our first day here,” Leah had murmured.

Two passes. Not just one. Any one of the girls in the secretarial pool would have given a week’s wages for the chance to attend the concert. Every important official in the government would be among the audience.

Victoria felt rich. She would not give the extra pass to Mr. Parker, nor to a friend among the secretaries. She looked out across the lobby of the King David Hotel and thought of the brave and foolish Moshe Sachar meeting her this morning. Eli must be desperate!

She smiled and called to a passing messenger. She hastily scribbled a note and slipped the pass into a white envelope with Eli’s address on it.

“A shilling if you are back within thirty minutes,” she promised the boy. “I will wait here in the lobby for you.”

***

The delicious scents of fresh baked bread and chicken soup with dumplings filled the house. “And apple strudel for dessert,” Ida Sachar said, opening the door. The breathless young Armenian boy on the step wore the uniform of a page from the King David Hotel. He bowed briefly and presented the note. He did not withdraw his hand, as it was customary for a tip to be given at both ends of the line.

“She wishes me to wait for a reply,” said the boy.

Ida’s widened. The message was to Eli. And it was from a she? “Eli! Eli! Eli! A message for you from a she at the King David Hotel!”

Eli and Moshe descended the stairs together. Both looked strangely pale, but calm. Ida knew this look. Guilt. The guilt of boys who have been into the cookie jar. The guilt of boys who knew whose ball went through Mrs. Schlemeker’s window but would not tell.

“A message for you, Eli, and she wants a reply, whoever she is.” Ida tapped her foot and watched as Eli opened the note. He frowned, and then his eyebrows practically raised up over his head. Something was up. Moshe clearly knew about it, too. Ah, well. It was time for Eli to notice girls maybe. As long as she was a nice Jewish girl from a good family!

“So?” Ida asked.

“It is not signed.” Eli handed his mother the strange invitation.

Ida’s eyebrows went up and down. “Tonight. A personal invitation from—oy! Is this the wife of old Idela Feldstein’s grandnephew? The one she was talking about? The cellist. Oy! Hulda said she thought a messenger had gone to the flat. And now my Eli is invited to the . . . ” She paused, puzzled. “Why? How does she know you?”

Moshe spoke up. “I think he should go, Mama. Maybe the British drew names or something. Yeshiva students. To . . . uh . . . to represent every aspect of Jewish life in the Old City and New.” He scratched his chin. “I bet that is it!” He clapped Eli on the back. “Lucky fellow. He should go. It is an honor.”

Ida forgot about the guilty look. An honor? Of all the Yeshiva students, her Eli was chosen? And the bigwigs from England will be there and also those from the Jewish Agency! “Yes! He should go.” She tipped the messenger. “Yes! Tell them my Eli will attend! Hurry now!” she instructed her son. “You have just time for supper before you go.”

***

From over her music stand, Elisa could see the huge frame of Freddie Frutschy watching the performance from the wings of the stage. Properly dressed in a dark gray uniform and tall, shining black boots, he was an enlarged version of the chauffeurs of the British lords and ladies who had flocke

d to this evening’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

Unknown to her, Murphy had placed a telephone call to Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Murphy had managed to prepare the maestro for the fact that the orchestra’s newest violinist would be watched over by a toothless giant in a chauffeur’s uniform.

Knowing of the cryptic warning and a fraction of Elisa’s history, first in Vienna and then in the saving of the former president of Czechoslovakia, Sir Thomas was not the least bit surprised. “Splendid idea,” he had declared, as if he had thought of it himself.

And so tonight Murphy once again watched Elisa play from Row ten, aisle seat in the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, just as he had in better days in Vienna. Louis and Charles sat quietly beside him. After the first number, Louis poked Charles and whispered, “I wish Leah was here playing Vitorio.” Charles did not answer, but kept his eyes straight ahead. A single tear rolled down his cheek; he brushed it aside fiercely and fixed his gaze on Elisa.

All the while, vigilant Freddie Frutschy stood just offstage and tapped the shiny toe of his enormous new boot to the rhythm of music he had never heard before. A wonder and a marvel!

His lumpy face revealed his determination that no one would get within ten feet of the beautiful young Missus Murphy! She smiled at him and nodded slightly when he put his huge hands together to applaud with the same enthusiasm as Murphy and the boys.

When the audience rose to its feet and shouted “Bravo!” Freddie seconded the shout and tossed his cap into the air. Such a job sure beat tossing stacks of the Times into the back of a delivery truck.

***

The mess hall of the Allenby barracks in Jerusalem had no real stage. Sheets of wood were laid across supports, providing a platform three feet above the concrete floor. Three thousand British soldiers talked and laughed with the steady uproar that always preceded concerts everywhere. Above their heads, the rain drummed on the corrugated tin roof, adding to the noise.

Members of the Woodhead Commission were seated in a section of folding chairs reserved for British officers and the British high commissioner. These civilians were dressed in black dinner jackets as they would have dressed for a concert in London’s Royal Opera House.

The sight of them, and that thought, made Leah suddenly homesick for Elisa. She held tightly to Shimon’s hand. “Close your eyes and listen, Shimon,” she said. “Where are we?”

Eyes closed, they stood very close to each other.

Once again the audience of the Musikverein waited in red velvet seats. Behind the closed curtain, Leah and Shimon took their places. Rudy Dorbransky swung the bow of his fiddle like a sword as he strutted onto the stage. Elisa . . . dear Elisa, laughed and rolled her eyes as an unspoken message passed between her and Leah. The orchestra tuned up with a cacophony of noise that blended into the clamor of expectant voices in the audience. And then, as the oboe sounded the A, Rudy found the note and everyone suddenly came to attention.

Vienna. The Musikverein. What days those had been! How far they had come to reach this night!

At the sound of thunderous applause, Leah opened her eyes. Stacks of long dining tables lined the walls of the room. Chairs were folded and stacked in rows along the back wall, where an opening showed huge black stoves and racks of tin plates.

Leah looked up at Shimon. His eyes were still closed. Yes. He saw it. He was there. Vienna. She squeezed his hand as the British high commissioner climbed onto the makeshift stage and nervously grasped the neck of a microphone. The clamor fell silent except for the still-drumming raindrops on the roof.

The distinguished Englishman spoke, retelling the story of Leah and Shimon’s flight from Germany. He had heard the story, he said, in a wire sent from Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. How fortunate Palestine was to have stolen Leah Feldstein from the great orchestras of Europe.

Leah was not listening to the man’s empty flattery. He could not know the pain and struggles and endless miracles that had brought Leah and Shimon to this place. For the first time since their arrival, Leah knew somehow that they had come home. She knew that the elegant British official on the stage and the thousands of men crowded on the floor would someday leave Jerusalem, but Leah and Shimon would not leave. They would stand on the shores of a Jewish homeland and wave good-bye to the men who made it so difficult to come here, to the men who welcomed her onto the stage. She prayed silently, asking God to shine through her first performance tonight.

“ . . . And so we wish to greet virtuoso cellist Leah Feldstein. We welcome her now to the British Mandate of Palestine and to Jerusalem.”

Shimon helped her up to the platform. Victoria stepped forward and handed her the cello. The applause and the rain were one continuous roar.

***

Victoria watched as Leah crossed the crude stage. Someone had rigged a spotlight and it shone on the bobbed hair of the petite musician. Her hands and face were a bright, animated contrast to the black of her long concert dress. The deep red wood of her instrument seemed alive, radiating with an existence all its own. The wood caught the light and sent it out, then turned in her hands to capture the light again. There was applause and more applause as she bowed slightly, turning toward David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and a dozen other proud Jewish faces among the members of the Jewish Agency. And then a slight bow to those men who had come to Palestine as judges—the Woodhead Commission.

This is not a beautiful woman, as men define beauty, Victoria thought as she watched Leah capture the audience with a smile. But there is an elegance, a poise and confidence about her that is deeply beautiful.

Victoria glanced up at the face of Shimon. He was smiling and weeping at the same time. He was so proud and so in love. The look in his eyes made Victoria search the crowd again for Eli. He was somewhere among these cheering men. Somewhere. She scanned the rows. Column on column of English faces. Uniforms and civil servants. Very few women among them. She still had not found Eli when the cheering faded to expectancy.

Leah stepped up to the microphone. The drumming of the rain competed with her first words, and then, suddenly, even the rain fell silent as she spoke.

“I have played in all the great concert halls of Europe. But this is my first performance in a mess hall.” Much laughter. She smiled. Waited for silence again. “This is also my first performance in my new, yet very old, homeland. And for the first time in my life—” she glanced at Shimon—“in our lives, we feel that we are finally home indeed.” She paused. Victoria saw the emotion behind her words, and yet Leah was in control. “There is a saying in the Talmud: if a jug falls upon a stone, woe to the jug. And if a stone falls upon a jug, woe to the jug also.” A small wave of laughter. “It has been this way for the People of the Book for two thousand years. We have fallen on the stones. The stones of every nation and people have fallen on us. And yet, here is a miracle far greater than any I can think of . . . still we remain. And still we are here. As the prophets have foretold, we return now to Zion from the four corners of the world. And when we are returned, so will our Messiah also return, as it is written: ‘To Jerusalem Thy city, return with compassion, and dwell within it as Thou promised: Rebuild it soon in our days—an everlasting structure . . . ’”

The silence was thick in the hall. This message had not been expected! And then Victoria saw Eli. He stood across from her, half obscured by a stack of tables. His eyes were bright, on fire, as he listened to Leah Feldstein.

“The one you call Jesus, the One we call Messiah—He will return when the People of the Book come home to Zion! That is written. It is promised. And that is the reason the Darkness fights so hard to keep us out of this, our homeland! And that is why behind us the whole world burns and rages to destroy us!”

She looked directly at the stony faces of those honored gentlemen from London. “It is a miracle, you see, that even one of us has survived to come home. It is proof that God exists and that He d

oes not lie! He has not forgotten His Covenant with Israel. Though men may forget, God has not forgotten us.”

She lowered her head for a moment, and Victoria thought perhaps she was praying. The words had stirred something inside Victoria. Leah had somehow interpreted a mystery for her tonight while she awakened a thousand questions. Who is Light, and who is Darkness?

Leah Feldstein spoke no more with her lips. She backed up and took the chair set in place for her. The men and women were silent. The rains were silent. And Leah Feldstein said again in music what her heart had told them all a moment before.

***

Dressed in his black suit, Eli felt strangely out of place among the press of British uniforms that surrounded him. He pushed his way slowly through the throng, ignoring the comments that followed him.

“What’s the Yid doin’ here? Thought this was just for us.”

“This is Jerusalem, after all. He must know somebody.”

Eli knew Victoria. And for that reason he had come to the concert. He could see the head of Shimon Feldstein over the crowd. Victoria had stood near the big man throughout the performance. Would she still be there? He prayed as he moved closer. Through a small crack in the dam of admirers, he glimpsed the upturned face of Leah Feldstein as she smiled and chatted with David Ben-Gurion. And there, just beyond them, was Victoria in conversation with an elegantly dressed woman. The wife of an Englishman, no doubt. Victoria was smiling, too. Eli stopped just to watch her. He had never seen her in such a setting—so beautiful, so light and at ease. Life should always be this way for her.

And then she glanced toward him. She had not been looking for him, but her eyes caught his and held him there. The Englishwoman continued to speak, “How wonderful! How wonderful the music was! Oh, my . . . she should be playing in London! And you know her . . . you are her interpreter! Oh, my dear!”

Victoria was not listening any longer, although her head nodded in feigned attention as she touched Eli with a look.