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Jerusalem Interlude


Page 48 of 53


At that moment a voice behind him startled Herschel. “Pardon, monsieur, may I be of assistance?” It was a short, trim man in the dark blue uniform of a Paris gendarme.

“Yes. I mean no—that is, no, I’m all right, thank you,” blundered Herschel. He kept himself from running away only with the greatest difficulty, reminding himself that he was dressed as a prosperous businessman.

The policeman was apparently taken in by the disguise, for he continued in a helpful tone, “Ah, you are German, are you not?” He followed Herschel’s nervous gaze across the street to the embassy. “Can I be of some help?”

Herschel grasped at the first reply that came to mind. “Is this the main entrance to the embassy? I didn’t realize that it was so large and I am supposed to meet someone . . . to . . . to discuss business. I am a businessman from Hamburg, you see,” he concluded lamely.

“But of course,” the gendarme replied. “You have arrived correctly at the main entrance, just there beneath the flag.”

Herschel still hesitated, still held back from crossing the street.

“Was there something else, monsieur?”

I’ve got to go in now, thought Herschel. He’s expecting me to cross the boulevard and enter the building. I’ve got to go in now. “No, nothing, thank you, officer. I was just admiring the building and the way the flag moves in the breeze.”

With that, Herschel finally stepped off the curb and crossed the street to ascend the steps into the German Embassy.

These Germans! thought the policeman fiercely. What ugliness they must have in their souls! He continued on down the block, swinging his nightstick jauntily as he went.

***

The horrifying news about Eli blared over the radio of the Russian convent and sent the Mother Superior out searching for Victoria. How would she tell her? How could the old woman break such news to one so young and hopeful as Victoria? The Mother Superior found her sitting quietly in the courtyard.

Victoria walked beside the frail old Mother Superior across the grounds of the Russian convent. Here, on the fringes of the garden where Jesus had suffered and prayed alone in agony, Victoria felt a peace she had never known. The old nun pointed toward the gnarled trunks of the ancient olive trees where He had prayed and then been betrayed.

“They say the Romans cut down the trees when they destroyed Jerusalem. Ah, but the roots of olive trees live on, you see. Buried in the soil, hidden, they live on and then send forth shoots and live again. Yes. Those are the very trees. Their roots go deep into the centuries when He was here.”

She looked up at the onion domes of the Russian church. “The trees are a better reminder of His agony than all these buildings.” She paused and toyed with a small silver cross that hung around her neck. “I knew the Grand Duchess who built this church. She was killed with the rest of the Czar’s family when the Bolsheviks took over. Her body came to rest here, as she wished.” The old woman held up the silver cross. “This was hers. It is passed on from each of our Mothers Superior to the next.” She smiled at the memory. “Now I wear it.”

“Such sorrow you speak of,” Victoria said. “And yet I feel such peace here, as if even now the Lord prays there in the garden.”

The old woman turned her eyes upon the young woman. “Then you have found the secret of Jerusalem. City of sorrow. City of hope. We are not bound by time in this place.” She lifted her head as the wind brushed over them. “Time, after all, is not a thing you can touch. This moment as we speak—where is it?” She spread her hands as though letting a bird fly free. “It is gone. And so, we can look forward to eternity from here. We can see what Jerusalem will be, what is promised and sure. We can choose not to think about the dark side of faith, but know that Christ has called us to be friends. And the Russian word for friend is drougoi.”

“Drougoi,”Victoria repeated.

“The word gives a sense of being reflected in somebody, like a mirror. A friend, you see, is in a way another of yourself. Of all creatures on earth, we are made in God’s image and are given His freedom.”

“It seems no one is free in Jerusalem,” Victoria said quietly.

“Men are even given the freedom to hate, instead of love. To destroy, instead of create.” She frowned and looked deeply into Victoria’s eyes. “And for those who love, freedom can mean suffering. As Jesus suffered there.” She raised a hand, as gnarled as the olive branches, to point to Gethsemane. “It was because He loved us that He suffered. Suffered for our wrong choices and the freedom we abuse. And if you suffer, my child, you will learn! You will reflect Him even more. Drougoi. That is how the great saints and martyrs came to be like Him.”

“I am a coward,” Victoria said softly. “I do not want to suffer. I want only to stay in a place like this. Very close to heaven. And I want to love my husband and live in happiness.”

The old woman patted her hand. She sat in silence and gazed at the ancient trees where Christ prayed. She needed help to say what she needed to say! How could she tell Victoria the news that blared over the radio every half hour?

“Sometimes the best dreams vanish,” the old woman offered gently. “I remember when I was sixteen, living in Moscow. The Bolsheviks murdered the husband of the Grand Duchess.”

“The woman buried here?”

“Yes. He was the Czar’s uncle, and they murdered him to make a point. No other reason than that. I remember kneeling beside her. Beautiful woman. All in black. And their sons . . . ” In a gesture of despair, she raised her hands. “They suffered. All of them. But . . . you must remember, even suffering is not permanent. Time will pass and so will the moment of your greatest agony . . . My dear . . .” She faltered.

“What is it?” Victoria drew back, suddenly aware that all this had not been idle talk. Mother Superior had been trying to tell her something. “Tell me. What? Is it Eli?”

The old woman nodded. “I heard it on the radio. I did not wish you to hear it alone.”

“Please?” Victoria begged. Tears filled her eyes.

“They say, on the Radio Cairo, he has been handed over to the Arab Council for trial. They accuse him not only of the murder of your brother but also the rape and possible murder of a woman they claim is the wife of a Muslim named Ram Kadar. Could they mean you?”

And so it was said. Peace vanished, cut down to the roots like the olive trees. Victoria’s dreams and hopes were tossed as kindling onto the fire of the Mufti’s ambitions. She turned her eyes from Gethsemane toward Jerusalem, where Jesus had been tried, condemned, and crucified even in innocence. So, it was to be done again in Jerusalem. Once again an innocent man was to stand in the house of the Mufti on the spot where the Sanhedrin had judged Jesus. The hour of agony had come.

***

Herschel stepped through the heavy doors to the lobby of the German Embassy. He found himself facing a reception desk topped with a telephone and an ornate fountain pen in a marble holder. A tiny replica of the Nazi flag waving outside stood on one corner of the desk, while the wall behind it was occupied with an enormous and fierce-looking bronze eagle clutching a swastika. The room was completely empty of people, however.

Now what do I do? thought Herschel. “Hello?” he called hesitantly in French, and then somewhat louder in German. “Hello. Is anyone here?”

Down the corridor to his right, a door opened and an elderly man shuffled into view. Herschel grasped the butt of the pistol in his pocket, then relaxed as he noted the man’s age.

The man moved with his head looking down at the floor. He was buttoning the fly of his trousers as he scuffed toward the lobby. When he finally caught sight of Herschel, he straightened his back as best he was able and attempted to look dignified. “Your pardon, monsieur. I did not hear you come in. May I help you?”

“Is there no one here except you?” inquired Herschel in an anguish of frustration.

“No one, monsieur. They’ve all gone to some sort of celebration or something.”

Herschel could no longer k

eep the desperation from his voice. “But I must see someone in charge!”

This phrase seemed to penetrate the old porter’s brain. “Someone in charge . . . of course, of course, how stupid of me! Third Secretary vom Rath is here. He is in charge.”

Herschel actually breathed a sigh of relief, until he realized what the presence of “someone in charge” meant. “Can you take me to him? I have an important message to give directly to the person in charge.”

“Certainly, I’ll show you right in,” offered the porter, turning to shuffle toward the stairs at the left of the lobby.

No! Herschel’s mind screamed. He can’t go with me!

“That’s quite all right,” said Herschel, attempting to sound calm. “If you’ll just point me in the right direction, I’m sure I can save you the bother.”

“How very kind of you,” agreed the old man. “Secretary vom Rath’s office is just up the stairs at the top. You can’t miss it; all the other offices will be closed.”

Herschel thanked the man, who turned away without further comment and seated himself at the reception desk.

Herschel took the stair steps two at a time. Inside his coat pocket he kept his hand pressed tightly on the pistol to keep it from bouncing against his leg. He wished he had a hand that he could keep pressed against his pounding heart as well.

All at once he arrived at the head of the stairs and an open doorway. Herschel marveled that his body seemed to be moving so rapidly when his mind seemed to be dragging along so slowly. Abruptly he found himself facing another desk, this one with a thin, aristocratic-looking man seated at it, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette.

“Yes, can I help you?” asked Ernst vom Rath.

Herschel made no reply. His body, which a moment earlier had been all in rushing motion, seemed rooted to the floor. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He could not even will himself to speak, much less draw the gun from his pocket.

“Did you have a message to deliver?” prompted Ernst. “Something to do with Jews?”

As if Ernst were reading the script for his own destruction, the words message and Jews exploded in Herschel’s brain, freeing his mouth to work, his body to move. My father, he thought wildly, at last I can strike a blow for you . . . for you!

Drawing the pistol from the pocket of his overcoat, he pointed it at Vom Rath even as the secretary was rising from his chair to gesture to his visitor to seat himself.

“You filthy Nazi!” shouted Herschel, pulling the trigger. “Here, in the name of twelve thousand persecuted Jews, is your message! Here . . . is . . . your . . . message!” he repeated, punctuating each word he screamed with another shot from the gun.

Vom Rath collapsed backward into his desk chair as if suddenly overcome with extreme weariness. His mouth opened and shut but succeeded in producing only one syllable over and over. “Why? Why? Why?”

The old porter reached the top of the stairs and stood panting for breath. He had come up as fast as he was able after the shots were fired, but he had heard no other sounds since. He peered cautiously around the doorframe into Ernst’s office. Herschel Grynspan still stood in the middle of the room, the empty gun hanging from his hand as if it were a useless appendage.

Herschel made no movement, except to sway slightly. He seemed to be looking at vom Rath, who was slumped to the floor, his white shirt a soggy mass of crimson. The porter turned and stumbled down the stairs as he ran to telephone the police.

***

The old nun embraced Victoria as she left her at the door of the guest house. Victoria entered the sitting room alone. More alone than she had ever been.

She closed the door behind her and stood in the center of the room. The fire had died out. The charred end of a pine bough lay on the cold hearth. Victoria thought of Eli as he had stoked the fire just this morning. Where had that moment gone? It had vanished even as they lived it. All that was left now was the eternity Mother Superior had spoken of. Victoria must cling to that faith, that whisper of truth, or she would go mad.

Eli had been betrayed, handed over to the Mufti and the Arab Council for judgment. The cup of sorrow had not passed; she must drink it, here in Gethsemane.

Victoria’s eyes lingered on the white nightgown lying on the neatly made bed. “Eli,” she whispered, wishing she could call their moment back.

She opened the top drawer of a writing desk to find clean white paper and a pen. Carefully she wrote her farewell and thanks to Mother Superior. She did not want to tell the old woman what she had in mind. She folded the sheet and slipped it into an envelope which she propped on the mantel. Beside that she left her Bible and a second note: For Leah Feldstein.

She looked out the window. A gentle fog was drifting over the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane as if to shield the world from the sorrow that was there.

The courtyard was deserted. Victoria looked back one more time at the little house where she had known one night of happiness. Then she slipped out the door and made her way through the clinging mist toward the gate at the rear of the compound that led upward to Gethsemane.

Still in the habit of a novice, she might have been just another member of the small Russian community going to pray. Ghost-like, she glided out of the safety of the convent grounds and disappeared among the gnarled trees of Olivet.

***

Adolf Hitler was holding court in the formal reception room of the Rathaus building in Munich. He was wearing a simple brown uniform with a single lapel ribbon and swastika armband to show his solidarity with the crowd of eager national socialists. He was greeting delegations from all corners of the Reich as each German state sent representatives to the memorial service of the Beer Hall Putsch.

The bespectacled head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Himmler, stood unobtrusively in a corner of the room watching the proceedings. An aide in the uniform of the SS entered the hall and scanned the crowd briefly before locating Himmler. The aide strode quickly to Himmler’s side and bent to whisper in his ear. Himmler nodded twice, grimaced once, and dismissed the aide with a jerk of his head that was as close to anger as the calculating Chief of Internal Security ever betrayed.

Catching Hitler’s eye, Himmler received a look that indicated the Führer had also seen the aide’s arrival. A moment later, the two withdrew to a private office.

“Well,” demanded Hitler at once. “The sacrifice—has it taken place as planned?”

“Yes, mein Führer,” Himmler began. “Only—”

“Only what?” growled Hitler ominously, his petulant anger bubbling just beneath the surface.

“Vom Rath is not dead. The Jew Grynspan shot him—excuse me, mein Führer, shot at him—five times, but only two bullets struck him. One of the wounds is only minor, having lodged in his shoulder.”

“And the other?”

“Much more serious. The last bullet penetrated both stomach and spleen, as well as grazing a lung. It is considered very unlikely that he will survive the combination of injuries.”

Hitler lapsed into thought, gazing off into a silent contemplation that Himmler did not even dream of interrupting.

A few moments passed, then Hitler spoke. “Certainly he will not survive beyond two days. I sense this. I have a vision of him lying in his coffin surrounded by wreaths of flowers and grieving comrades-in-arms.” The Führer paused to favor Himmler with his most direct and intense gaze. “However, it would be inconvenient if our martyr of the Fatherland lived. We will dispatch my personal physician to attend to him immediately. Is my intention clear?”

“Completely, mein Führer.” Giving a precise salute, Himmler exited to see that Hitler’s directive was put into immediate execution.

43

Last Chances

Etta kissed each of the children good-bye and left them with the reassurance that Papa would be home today. The good priest, Father Kopecky, had promised as much, and they must pray and believe.

The expression on Frau Rosen’s face was doubtful, almost accusin

g. After all, had it not been some folly of Etta’s that had brought this disaster down on the household and the community? There was much that needed explanation.

Father Kopecky did not get out to knock on the door. He simply waited as the engine idled and exhaust fumes rose up through the snowflakes.

Etta, feeling lighthearted and confident in the veracity and respect her witness commanded, felt better than she had since the incident in Catholic Warsaw had happened. The priest was correct: she and Eduard should have called on him when the threat of blackmail was first made!

She threw open the door and climbed into the car. She greeted him with a cheerful smile, but this morning the priest seemed subdued. The radio was on. News from Paris. The priest was shaking his head in distress as he turned up the volume to drown out her optimism.

***

The director of police eyed Etta with some doubt. How could he not believe her story with Father Kopecky sitting here to back her up?

He turned his gaze on the priest as if Etta were not there. “You have heard the news from Paris?” the director asked, rubbing a hand across his paunch as if he had indigestion.

“Yes.” The priest nodded, not certain what that had to do with two corrupt policemen and the arrest of a rabbi in Warsaw.

“This is all tied up with those Jewish deportations, you know,” explained the director.

Etta jumped in. “My husband headed a relief committee for the Jewish deportees.”

The director eyed her coolly. “The arrest of your husband has nothing to do with the unfortunate incident you had in the street. I can promise you, if you had come to this office when you were first approached by the corrupt officers, I would have personally dealt with them.” He seemed to say this for the benefit of the priest. “And they will be dealt with now.” A quick frown of sincerity.