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Jerusalem Interlude


Page 29 of 53


***

“Eh?” Rabbi Lebowitz cupped a hand around his ear as the clatter of spoons against bowls nearly drowned out their voices. “You say Eli Sachar sent you to me?” He considered the young Austrian couple who stood before him amid the clamor of mealtime at Tipat Chalev.

Shimon nodded broadly, as if even a nod might not be understood through such a noise. “We were married in a civil ceremony in Austria.”

“Hardly a wedding!” Leah shouted.

The rabbi nodded. What was a wedding without a canopy to stand under? What was memorable about having some magistrate pronounce that the honeymoon was now acceptable in the eyes of the state? “Poor children.” He shook his head in sympathy. “So. You should have a proper Jewish ceremony, nu? A canopy in Nissan Bek Synagogue! A minyan to witness such a holy moment before man and the Eternal, may His name be blessed!”

Shimon looked pleased. “Then you will do this for us, Rabbi Lebowitz?”

“Such a pleasure for me, children. True? Of course true!”

A small boy squawked and his brother shouted for silence, which drowned out the rest of the rabbi’s words. Had he given the time for the ceremony?

“When?” Shimon mouthed as the argument at the table grew louder.

“We will need a little time!” The old rabbi thumped one child on his head, which silenced the entire table. “After the kettles are washed, nu? Eight o’clock tonight.”

***

The wonderful wail of the clarinet filled the air of Old City Jerusalem far into the night. There was dancing. There were cakes and cookies. There was even a little wine raised in toast to Mr. And Mrs. Shimon Feldstein in honor of their marriage tonight.

It was true that most of the women in the Old City were more than a bit irritated at Rabbi Lebowitz, however. “How can we provide a proper celebration on such short notice?”

“Oy! So you couldn’t give the poor girl a little time to prepare for her wedding? It had to be at eight o’clock tonight after the pots are washed?”

“Only a man would do such a thing!”

When all was said and done, however, perhaps it did not make such a difference. The canopy was lifted up. The ring was given. The seven benedictions were recited. The bride was beautiful. The groom was pleased. And everyone in the Quarter came to celebrate the occasion!

“Mazel tov!”

“Oy! And such a wedding, nu? Enough to bring tears from a stone! True?”

“Such a dress she is wearing, Golda!”

“The finest lace from Vienna, I hear. She shipped it to Jerusalem from Austria before the beast marched in! She wanted a proper wedding here in Jerusalem!”

“The girl has a head on her shoulders, I’m telling you.”

“And such a heart! Look at the way she looks at him across the room, nu?”

“If only I could look at Yosef with such a look!”

“And she saved the real wedding dress until she could stand right here in Jerusalem before a rabbi!”

“She is a real person, this Leah Feldstein! I’m telling you! She is a person!”

“A credit to our community.”

This was the conclusion of every woman among the congregation of Nissan Bek—a unanimous decision in favor of the sweet-faced Austrian refugee who had only a short time before been under suspicion. But even now, eyes narrowed and The Question was whispered behind raised hands: “But do you think she is expecting?”

***

Still in his wedding coat, Shimon remained two steps below Leah as she unlocked the door to the apartment.

The white lace of her wedding dress showed from beneath her warm coat. How beautiful she looks tonight, Shimon thought as he watched her. “Come here and kiss me, Mrs. Feldstein,” he said gently, feeling the glow of a dozen toasts mixed with the nearness of Leah.

“Mrs. Feldstein. At last I am a kosher bride.” She obeyed, caressing his face with her hands as she pressed her mouth against his.

The warmth of her kiss made him totter on the step. He said her name and pulled her against him.

“How was that?” she asked.

“More. We will discuss it later.”

“Perhaps we should finish inside?” She giggled. “But how will you carry me across the threshold with your arm in a cast?”

At that challenge, he simply slung her over his shoulder and carried her laughing into the room. “How is that?”

“Not as romantic as I had imagined. Put me down!”

With a slight heave, he tossed her onto the bed. It was not the narrow cot they had shared, but a real bed—walnut headboard, mattress big enough for two, real sheets and quilts and down pillows.

Shimon towered over her as she blinked up at him in amazement.

“How’s that?” he asked.

“But how? Where?”

“It cost us two place settings from the silver. One wedding present in exchange for another. I thought under the circumstances we were more in need of a decent bed.” He lay down beside her. She raised up on one elbow and studied the rugged face of this quiet, gentle man.

“But where did you find such an elegant bed?”

“You do not recognize it? I bought it from the head housekeeper at the King David Hotel.” He grinned sheepishly. “He threw in the bedding and the pillows for two serving spoons.”

“I will not ask anything else.” Leah covered her eyes with her hand and moaned.

Shimon laughed at her reaction to the black-market bed. It was best not to ask too many questions, she was right about that. “Anything for my Leah.” He kissed her again and then, with his lips still against hers, he began to unbutton her coat.

“Now I have a surprise for you,” she whispered. Her eyes were shining in the lamplight.

“I thought you might . . .”

“It is not what you think, my darling.” Her smile broadened. “You must be the first to know. You are going to be a father, I think. I am practically certain.”

He drew back, removing his fingers from her coat. The desire in his eyes softened to something else. Bewilderment? Tenderness? Fear, perhaps? His eyes skimmed over her body to her stomach. He blinked at her in wonder. “A baby?”

She guided his hand to touch her abdomen through the coat and the lace wedding dress. Nothing seemed different, and yet . . . “Part of you. And me. Us, together. Tiny now, just beginning, but I have such hope, Shimon!”

Tears streamed down the big man’s cheeks. He embraced her gently, as if he were afraid of breaking something. He saw the face of Klaus Holbein in his mind as the tiny infant Israel had been dedicated on board the sunny decks of the Darien. The vision made him fearful. How he longed that their own child could be born in a world of peace.

Leah felt the dampness of his face against her neck. She stroked his hair and held him close to her. “You will be a wonderful papa, you know. I married you because of the way the street urchins gathered around you at the train station in Paris two years ago. That was when I thought, Such a papa that one would make!”

They lay together in silence for a long time. He managed to whisper, “How long have you known?”

“I have thought so since last month.”

“But you did not tell me?”

“I wanted to be sure you did not feel trapped into marrying me,” she teased. Then she kissed his forehead and his cheek and his mouth again. “And so, wake up from dreaming, Shimon. This is our honeymoon.”

***

The joyous music of the wedding had faded. Nissan Bek Synagogue was dark and silent except for the sputtering oil lamps that flickered on either side of the ark.

Eli sat alone on the long wooden bench where he had first read Torah on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. How the eyes of his parents had shone with pride on that day! And a fire had been kindled in him at that very hour: a desire to serve the Lord here in this place, within the very shadow of the wall where Solomon’s Temple had once stood.

Ah, the dreams of a boy. He had imagined the bright Sh

ekinah glory of God as it had filled the holy mountain in answer to the prayer of Solomon. Eli had raised his hands and felt it himself, as if the light had touched him and the words of Solomon had only just echoed from the stones of the holy place to ring in his ears! Eli shouted the words of Solomon:

“ . . . THAT THINE EYES MAY BE OPEN ON THIS PLACE DAY AND NIGHT, UPON THE PLACE THOU HAST SAID THOU WOULD PUT THY NAME: HEAR THE PRAYER WHICH THY SERVANT PRAYS TOWARDS THIS PLACE!”

The shout echoed in the dome of the great auditorium. It seemed to mock him. In this place so near to where Solomon stood, could God not hear him now? Would He not listen to the anguish of Eli’s heart?

“Do you hear me, God?”

Silence. Eli stood slowly and covered himself with the bright silk tallith he had received on the day of his bar mitzvah. He had always imagined that one day it would also be the wedding canopy he stood beneath with his bride. But it would not be so. No rabbi would marry him and Victoria.

Eli stepped forward to face the ark. Shadows and light danced eerily against the walls. He bowed and placed his lips against the Hebrew letters embroidered on the garment as if it was not night—the darkest night of his life.

Tears stung his eyes. He quietly tried to recite the Amidah: “Look . . . upon me . . . in my suffering. Fight . . . my struggles. Redeem me speedily, for thy Name’s sake.”

He lowered his head and wept in grief. He had failed. For the love of a woman he had failed his God and his people. He knew. He would not serve God in this place. Not here in the shadow of Solomon’s wall. He did not know the One whom he longed to serve. He wanted to know God, but God was far away tonight. Victoria was real to him. He loved her.

Forgive my sin against You, I pray, if You can hear me! Forgive me. I cannot be a rabbi. I cannot serve You in this place.

Eli cried out in a physical anguish at this grief. He dropped to his knees before the flickering lamps, and his sorrow was lost in the shadows of the cupola.

26

The Inferno

“It is time,” Hitler said to Himmler over lunch, “for another demonstration.” He toyed with his plate of steamed vegetables as he considered the upcoming anniversary of the Nazi party’s attempted coup of the German government in 1923. That event, celebrated each November, had ended with several of the old-guard Nazis dead, and Hitler himself in jail. He had written Mein Kampf while in prison, and so counted the time of his isolation as a great advantage for the principles of the Aryan race. This year he decided that the occasion needed an extra touch of violence, something to show the world how far the German people had progressed beneath his guidance. For weeks he had pondered the problem. He had set his Gestapo chief to work on a solution.

“Only a spark will turn a forest into an inferno, mein Führer,” Himmler said obligingly.

“And who will strike the match?”

“There is a Jewish boy in Paris. Herschel Grynspan. You remember the name?”

“Ah yes.” Hitler chuckled. “The one Hans Schumann used when he killed the French agent. What was the name? Le Morthomme, was it not? The Dead Man. Yes. I recall the incident quite well. The Jew Grynspan was given a gun that he did not know how to fire. He was put on the trail of Thomas von Kleistmann. Hans followed after him with a weapon he then used to shoot the Frenchman.”

“Quite efficient. Grynspan himself believed that he had murdered the old man. Hans was able to simply walk away while the boy ran like an assassin and the French agent quietly bled to death.” Himmler dabbed the corners of his mouth, then took another bite of cabbage as the Führer chewed on the smoothness of that Gestapo action.

“And where is the Jew now?”

“In hiding. The French officials as well as the British investigated the case. Witnesses reported that the old bookseller seemed to see someone else in the crowd. That there may have been a second shot a fraction after the first was fired. All is speculation, of course, and they are quite unsure who killed Le Morthomme.” Himmler folded his napkin and sat back, satisfied. “Hans has remained close to the boy. Hans moves easily among the Jewish population of Paris. He reports now that young Grynspan is more than half mad. Hans has fed him daily on reports of actions against Jews until the mind of Herschel Grynspan is consumed with hatred. His parents were among those deported to Poland.”

“Good.” The Führer was satisfied. “Then we will arrange a little something to spur him on, Heinrich.” Hitler’s brow furrowed in thought.

Himmler nodded once. “We should not let this drag on much longer, however. Hans reports that young Grynspan talks of suicide daily now. Hans is afraid he will find him dangling from a rafter before we can find further use for him.”

“That would be a pity. To lose such a carefully nurtured assassin at the moment before he can be put to use. Well then, issue the orders.”

“Who will be the martyr to our great cause, mein Führer?”

Hitler closed his eyes in deep consideration of who might be the target of the Jewish bullet. “What was Commander Vargen’s conclusion about Ernst vom Rath?”

“He is still under suspicion. He was closest to Thomas von Kleistmann among the embassy staff.”

Hitler cleared his throat. A decision was imminent. “Vom Rath comes from a good German family?”

“Impeccable.”

“His father is of the aristocracy?”

Himmler was always amazed by the details the Führer was able to remember. “Of the purest Aryan bloodlines.”

Hitler smiled. “And yet his son may be a traitor.” He shrugged. “We should make young vom Rath a national hero before he disgraces his family and betrays his Fatherland, Himmler. I think Ernst vom Rath will serve us better dead than he has served us alive.”

***

Hans had been late in coming with food for Herschel this afternoon. There was a dance tonight, so Hans had left the attic after only a few minutes.

Herschel was alone with the radio. Rain thumped hard on the roof as the roar of cheering Nazis filled the room. Hitler had spoken, and once again the people of the Reich raised their voices in support of all he said. Had any of those among the audience been there when Herschel’s family had been driven across the German border into Poland? Had any one of them laid the lash on the back of Herschel’s father or pushed his mother into the mud?

Such images first made him angry; then they overwhelmed him with despair. What could he do about any of it? Who was he? Just another Jew. In Germany, if he opened his mouth to speak out, the Hitler Youth would throw him to the ground and stuff his mouth with human excrement. Herschel had seen it with his own eyes, watched his friend and neighbor choke and vomit as the strutting members of the Hitler Youth had laughed and beaten him.

One Jew’s protest meant nothing, Herschel knew. He could call a newspaper and say, “My family was deported by the Germans! They have nothing left! Everything was taken!” But if Herschel said these things, the newsmen would ask him who he was and where he was and where he was from, and then he, too, would be deported from France.

Martial music blared over the radio. The voice of German Propaganda Minister Goebbels announced that the speech of the German leader would be reprinted in its entirety in tomorrow’s paper. Hitler had a voice; the whole world listened and trembled. He commanded persecution of the innocent, and the world fell silent for fear of answering that all-powerful voice!

Herschel stood wearily, bumping his head on the light bulb that hung from the ceiling. He lifted the mattress of his cot and stared at the rope supports across the frame. He looked from the ropes to the rafters. It would be so easy . . . so easy to end his life tonight. He had no wish to go on living in such a world. If he killed himself, perhaps his voice, his final statement, might be heard as well.

He knelt beside the bed and began to unknot the rope, loosening it from the frame. Threading it through the wood and then through the cross-weave of ropes, he discovered that there was plenty for a hanging. Herschel looked into the shadows of the rafters.

He pitied Hans. It would be a terrible thing for Hans to find him strung up beside the light bulb. Herschel wondered if he should turn out the light before he put his neck through the loop. Or would it be more frightening for Hans to reach for the light and find Herschel instead?

He sat on an upturned wooden box and began to write notes of farewell. One to Hans. One to his uncle. One to his parents. And the last one to the silent world. Yes. At least death would give him one moment to be heard!

He heard the tramp of Hans’ feet on the steps below. Quickly he hid the finished letters beneath clean paper. He could not let his friend know his intent. Hans would try to talk him out of it.

“Hey, Herschel!” Hans cried, poking his head through the trapdoor. “I brought you some . . . ” His smile faded. He eyed the loose rope lying over the wooden bedframe, then looked at Herschel. “I brought you this,” he remarked flatly, holding up a piece of chocolate cake. “And I see you have been busy.” He entered the attic and towered over Herschel.

“I . . . the rope support broke. I was just—”

“You were just lying.” Hans set the cake down. “Going to leave me, eh? Leave me to find you and then to explain what you were doing here? How I hid you?” Hans was angry.

“What is the use?” Herschel hung his head in his hands. “How else can I make a statement?”

“You are a coward!” Hans spat. “Who do you think will care if you die? There have been hundreds of suicides in Vienna. Thousands of Jews. And who cares, eh? You are going to be just another Jew, buried in a pauper’s grave.” Hans picked up the blank sheets of paper as if he knew there were notes written beneath them.

Herschel looked away dully as Hans read the first one. “Thank you for all you have done! Ha!” Hans scoffed. “You think anyone will care? Why not end your life doing something worthwhile, Herschel? Have you forgotten what you said? To kill a Nazi! Now there is a goal! And not just anyone—someone the Nazis care about! Kill one of their own, Herschel, and then they will listen to you! Have you forgotten?”