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Jerusalem Interlude


Page 42 of 53

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She tried to bring her lips back in time with the voice of Papa:

Blessed art Thou, Lord, Gracious One who forgives abundantly.

She stared hard at the smoke rising from the silver lamps that hung above the heads of the men in the auditorium. Did God hear their prayers or were these words just like the faint traces of smoke? There was no room to doubt. No room! The look on Papa’s face told her that a terrible Evil stood even now at the gates of the Warsaw ghetto! Darkness had cast its long shadow over the house on Muranow Square. It touched the rabbi who prayed with his people in the voice Rachel loved like no other.

“OPEN UP! CHRIST-KILLERS.”

Sound the great shofar to proclaim our freedom . . . !

Voices and shouts rose up outside the synagogue, the pounding of fists against the doors resounded in the hall. But Rabbi Lubetkin did not raise his voice to compete with the sound.

Lift up a banner for the ingathering of our exiles . . .

The booming sounded more urgently on the doors. The heads of worshippers jerked slightly upward. Eyes widened with fear. They have come! The Poles have come to the ghetto! The Saturday people have come! They are here! Pogrom! Pogrom!

“OPEN UP JEWS, IN THE NAME OF THE POLISH JURISDICTION OF WARSAW!”

“WE DEMAND THAT YOU OPEN THE DOORS!”

“JEWS! . . . JEWISH BOLSHEVIK SWINE!”

Cries rang out in the women’s gallery. Mothers pulled their children close as the locked doors strained against the force of a bench used as a battering ram.

Rachel clung to the lattice. Her brothers, mute with fear, hung onto her arms in desperation. She did not look at the straining doors; she could not focus her eyes on the confusion of the men below as they turned to one another and shouted words no one could understand. She looked only at Papa. He stood with his feet together. Still he faced Jerusalem. Still his lips moved unfailingly in the Shemoneh Esrei:

Rule over us, thou alone, O Lord

With kindness and mercy,

And vindicate . . .

No one else was praying. No one except Rachel and Papa. Her own voice was drowned out by the shrieks of terror within the synagogue, but she prayed aloud—she prayed with Papa!

And let all wickedness instantly perish.

May all thy enemies be quickly cut off. . .

Boom! The hinges of the doors splintered! Boom! The frame crashed crazily inward. The voices of hatred swept in on the winter wind. Talliths were blown off and heads bowed against the force of this cold breath!

Others surged around Papa as he stood unmoving in the presence of the King. Children wailed as the roar of the Poles crashed over the congregation like a breaking wave.

“POLAND FOR POLISH! JEWISH SCUM GET OUT! BACK TO RUSSIA, FILTHY COMMUNIST SWINE!”

Rachel cried out as clubs fell on the heads of the men. Talliths became red with blood. She shouted as two Poles spotted her father and charged toward him, their clubs raised high.

Establish peace, well-being, blessing, grace, loving kindness, and mercy upon us and upon all Israel, thy people!

“GET THE CHRIST-KILLING PIG! KILL HIM! KILL HIM!”

Rachel tried to scream, but the scream caught in her throat as the men raced over the wounded Jews toward Papa. Her breath came in short jerks. “Papa . . . Papa . . . ,”she managed to whisper. Then, “God. God . . . oh . . . oh, God!”

But God did not seem to be listening that day in the synagogue of Muranow. Blackjacks landed on the rabbi’s shoulders and back. Red blood soaked through the white of his tallith even before he crumpled to the floor.

Rachel clung to her terrified brothers, their faces buried in her skirts. They did not see their father fall. From this high view, perhaps Rachel was the only one who saw as the rabbi was dragged out the side door into the bloodstained snow of Muranow Square.

As she watched, the prayer on her lips became a scream that went on and on far into the night.

***

It would not be said by future historians, Herschel reasoned, that the avenger of the deported Jews of Poland had died in rags. After all, Herschel‘s father had been one of the finest tailors in Germany. Should his son now put him to shame?

Herschel chose a fine dark blue wool suit from the rack, a coordinating necktie, shirt, new socks, and shiny black shoes. He tried on a dozen overcoats, finally deciding on a camel-colored trench coat of the cut worn by the American actors in the detective movies he had seen in Paris. He paid cash and tossed his tattered old clothing into a trash can in the alley behind the shop as he left through the back door.

The winter air of Paris felt good on his face. He felt renewed, alive again, like a man with an important mission to fulfill. In his seventeen years he had never had such a sense of control and power as he felt right now, walking through the St. Martin district of Paris toward the home of his uncle. He carried a secret with him! Hans was long gone, and now the plan, the idea, the courage were all his own. No one else would take credit when it was accomplished! He would go down in the history of his people as a man like David, facing the Nazi Goliath—or perhaps Bar Kokhba, fighting against the tyrants of Rome. He might fall, as Bar Kokhba did, but at least he would not be forgotten as those nameless thousands who now languished in the deportation camp.

Herschel stopped for a haircut and a shave, although he scarcely had a beard. He tipped the barber, who stared at his young customer with the curiosity of the old toward a young man of means.

The money in Herschel’s pocket gave him a sense of freedom and power. The immigration authorities of Paris would not think to chase down a fellow dressed this well and carrying so much cash. Herschel stopped at a haberdashery and bought a fedora, which he pulled down slightly over one eye. His reflection in the mirror pleased him.

Only one item remained for him to purchase: the gun. Once again he found himself looking over the weapons in the window of the gunsmith’s shop. He could afford to pick carefully. He could purchase the best. But he would buy the weapon later, after he visited his uncle one last time.

37

Snowflakes on the Wire

Eli buttoned his overcoat around him as he hurried down the Street of the Chain toward the citadel at Jaffa Gate. Every few yards the posters glared accusingly at him. The shoppers had returned to the marketplace. They haggled over prices as if nothing had happened. Did anyone but Eli notice the eyes that stared out beneath the bold letters: WANTED IN CONNECTION WITH THE JULIAN’S WAY BOMBING!

Heaps of baskets against a wall half concealed the faces on the posters. The eyes of young Daud looked out at Eli. Victoria’s brother!

Eli’s heart beat faster as he stepped around a group of four Arab men who stood in the center of the street as they glanced furtively at the sketches and then spoke among themselves in low, urgent tones. They knew—maybe everyone in the Arab Quarter knew. But they would not speak up.

Eli focused straight ahead, for fear his eyes lingering on the sketches would betray that he also knew. Past heaps of citrus fruit, sacks of beans and lentils, he hurried. From the corners of his eyes he saw the white posters—like opaque windows from which those familiar, threatening faces stared. He turned to glance back as conversations behind him fell silent and the scuffling of feet clattered over the cobblestones.

A dozen Muslim boys were jogging through the bazaar, tearing away the posters. No one tried to stop them. No one dared protest. The faces of the guilty were crumpled up, tossed into the air by one boy and batted playfully by the next and then the next until the paper ball fell into a puddle.

Eli stepped aside as they shoved past him and nearly knocked a Greek Orthodox priest to the ground. They made it seem like a rough game, the sport of adolescents jostling through the streets. But everyone knew. Everyone understood that the game was a warning concealed beneath the raucous laughter of defiant youth.

Eli wiped his brow as the boys continued up the steps, leaving a trail of crumpled paper behind them. He was grateful that he would not have to look at the glarin

g white faces of Daud and Isaak any longer.

He emerged into Omar Square. Even beneath the watchful eyes of British sentries on the wall, the posters had been torn away. Only those on the wall itself remained.

In spite of the cold, Eli was sweating. He looked up at the soldiers on the ramparts. Their presence did not reassure him. He ducked his head slightly and cut across the Square to the entrance of the citadel where two sentries stood in niches on either side of an arched doorway.

“I wish to see—,” he stammered, then began again—“Captain Orde, please.”

Eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Your business?”

There were hundreds of pedestrians in the street. Eli could not speak his purpose. “I am from the Jewish soup kitchen, Tipat Chalev. You know it?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Well, we are having some trouble, you see, with the English walnuts we were traded. I will need a word with Captain Orde since we feel we have been cheated.”

Indignation was a certain way to get in to speak to the British officer in charge. This worked well. The eyes of the soldier widened. The Jews of the Old City feel they have been cheated by the British government in an issue of food?

Within minutes Eli stood before Captain Samuel Orde.

***

Shimon heated water on the primus stove and helped Leah bathe in a tin washtub as the music of Benny Goodman played on the hand-crank phonograph. In her head Leah could hear an irritating ringing over everything. “Like a trumpet hitting high A,” she explained to Shimon. “But I can hear you beneath it. You don’t need to shout, my darling.”

Shimon felt like shouting for the joy of having Leah home. She was thin and shaky, but she insisted on dressing this morning, and sat curled up on the bed as she drank her tea while Shimon finished the windows.

He waved broadly at two British soldiers whom Captain Orde had stationed as sentries on the roof across the street. Their constant gazes in this direction had made him get up before dawn to clean the windows and take them a pot of steaming coffee. He had not meant to awaken Leah with ammonia, even though she accused him of waving the bottle beneath her nose like smelling salts. Later, she insisted, he would have to go into the New City to telegraph Elisa in London that Leah was at home and well. She must not worry.

He was just finishing the last panes of the front windows when he caught sight of Reverend Robbins walking quickly up the street. The minister also spotted the soldiers on the rooftop. He looked from their perch toward the apartment, and his expression displayed a grim approval at their presence.

“The Reverend from Christ Church is coming to pay a call.” Shimon said over his shoulder.

“You think he will come inside this time?” Leah asked, remembering his hesitance to enter the apartment the first day.

Shimon shrugged. Reverend Robbins was climbing their stairs and seemed quite anxious to reach the top. Shimon gathered up Leah’s nightgown and shoved it under a pillow as the minister banged urgently on the door. “This is the way Christians knock when they visit someone they think is deaf?” Shimon asked wryly, amused but surprised by the demand of the gentle pastor’s fist on the door.

“Coming!” Leah replied. She got up and opened it herself as Shimon stood smiling proudly behind her.

Reverend Robbins did not smile back. He seemed not to notice at all that it was Leah who had answered—Leah who addressed him; Leah without the bandages on her head.

“Shalom,” he said, having somehow forgotten entirely that she had been injured in any way. “May I come in?” He glanced nervously over his shoulder, then slipped in before they could reply. “I am glad to see you have sentries here.” Then, “Oh. You are up?”

Leah nodded, baffled by his agitation. “Is something wrong?”

“Please sit,” Shimon offered. “We have coffee. You would like coffee?” The lightheartedness of the moment before had vanished with the anxiety the minister brought into the room with him.

“Something has happened,” he began without introduction. “Victoria came to me this morning at Christ Church. We need your help.”

***

“And so, you see,” the pastor finished, “her brothers took all her clothes. Every modern dress that she owns. They locked her in her room without explanation.”

“I will pack some of my things for her,” Leah said in quiet consternation.

“She would like to see you, if you are able,” the minister said to Leah. “And—“ he eyed Shimon—“I need your help locating Eli. I cannot go ask for him without arousing curiosity in the Quarter—probably even hostility. There is no time to wait in this situation. If Victoria is married to Eli, her family will have no legal recourse in the matter of forcing her to marry anyone according to Muslim law. I am prepared to perform the ceremony immediately.”

Shimon nodded. It must be accomplished for her safety. At least then Eli would have the legal right to ask protection from the British for his wife. Except for the signatures, Reverend Robbins had already completed the legal forms. It was a simple matter of finding Eli and bringing him to Christ Church today.

***

Eli left the citadel as Captain Orde called the British military headquarters with the news that a possible identification had been made of the two primary terrorists in the bombing. The apprehension of the Hassan brothers would have to be carried out in an orderly fashion during what looked like a routine patrol.

Orde believed that the brothers were still at their Old City residence. He requested that additional troops be sent to the citadel in case there was a violent response by the Muslim population to their arrest. To Eli’s satisfaction, Orde mentioned that several members of the household were innocent, and special care must be taken that they were not hurt in the operation. Orde did not tell Eli that Victoria had come to see him. The less the young man knew, the safer the two of them would be.

For a moment, as Eli emerged from the citadel, he was tempted to walk back along the Old City wall to Christ Church. He stood in the crowded street of the Armenian Quarter and gazed solemnly up at the bell tower. Then he looked to his left toward Jaffa Gate. Victoria would be getting off the bus there, he reasoned. He would intercept her at the pedestrian entrance and guide her quickly back to Christ Church, away from whatever horrible things were happening within the Arab Quarter and her own home.

He began to walk slowly toward Jaffa Gate and Omar Square, trying to think how he could explain to her that she must not go home, that her two youngest brothers were about to be arrested for the bombings. He could only pray that she would forgive him, that she would not blame him. Perhaps in time she would thank him.

***

Rabbi Lebowitz’s kitten perched on his shoulder and leaned against his head as he stood in the doorway of Tipat Chalev to answer Shimon, who towered above him.

“Eli Sachar? I have not seen him all morning. He was not in class. Is he ill, perhaps? Did you try his house?”

“His mother says he left before dawn this morning. She thought he was on his way to morning prayers.” The usually pleasant face of the big man was lined with concern, even urgency.

The rabbi scratched the kitten beneath her chin as he considered where Shimon might look. “Perhaps he has gone to the Western Wall. I am just going there myself to pray. We can walk together, nu?”

A light of impatience flashed across Shimon’s face as he considered the request. “I will run ahead and look in the souks for him. If you see him later at the Wailing Wall, please tell him that it is most urgent that I see him. I will meet him at my apartment. Will you tell him that if you see him?”

The rabbi’s face clouded. He nodded and put the cat on the floor. “Some time ago I saw him enter Christ Church. His mother says he has become involved with a girl from the Muslim Quarter. Is that what this matter is about?” There was no unkindness in his voice, only concern.

Shimon took his hand. “I cannot say. Truly, I cannot.”

Rebbe Lebowitz nodded in under

standing. “If you see Eli before I do, tell him I pray for him today at the Western Wall. Tell him no matter what happens, my door is open to him. So. I hope you find him, whatever this is about.”

***

Muslim houses faced the Wailing Wall, so it was not unusual that Ibrahim and Ismael strolled along the street where old and young Jews gathered in the cold to pray.

Ibrahim scanned the black coats and hats. He paused to examine the swaying forms beneath their silk or woolen prayer shawls. He watched. He waited until a slight movement displayed beard, hair color, or profile which was not that of Eli.

The Wailing Wall stretched on: Ismael was impatient and angry. The hilt of his dagger was hidden beneath his jacket, but he kept his hand on it as he walked.

“He is not here,” Ismael said gruffly. “I say we go into their Quarter and demand she be returned.”

“Shut up,” Ibrahim commanded. “That is not the way we will get her back. You think Eli will hand her over and let us leave the Jewish Quarter as if nothing is unusual?”

The singsong chants of a hundred Jewish prayers rose up. Eli’s voice was not among them.

Ibrahim turned to walk back the other way. He stopped a young Jewish boy and asked about Eli Sachar. “We are trying to deliver an important package to him,” Ibrahim said. It did not matter that the lie made no sense. The boy believed it.

“I think he went that way.” The boy pointed toward the street that led to the souks.

Ibrahim thanked him and then very calmly and deliberately left by the same way.

***

Shimon ran ahead of the old rabbi to scan the worshippers along the Western Wall. He asked a young Orthodox man if he had seen Eli Sachar.

“Very early,” said the fellow. “He was just leaving when I arrived.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“He did not say. But he left in that direction. Toward the souks. Not unusual. Maybe to go to market for his mother.” He tugged his earlobe in thought. “He seemed preoccupied, I will say that.” Then he smiled. “Like you!”



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