The five children were waiting for their mother to come out of the Amerikanische Packetfuhrt ticketing office. They sat on a bench in birth order, the two girls first in white pinafores over high-collared navy-blue smocks; the three boys in navy and white sailor suits. Their luggage was stowed under the bench.
Sora had been left in charge of her younger siblings. She leaned forward, gripping the basket on her lap that held their provisions as if it were a life jacket and she, already at sea. Her face was pale, her forehead damp. She stared at the door through which her mother had long since disappeared and was only dimly aware of her brothers squirming and whispering on the other side of Laia.
Laia’s pointy nose was in the English-German grammar Papa sent them. The book was supposed to be Sora’s responsibility, too, but she wasn’t able to concentrate on it.
She had been happy to comply when Mama said to stop sewing. She would read anything rather than sew, even a volume of declensions. The pages of the grammar were smudged black with fingerprints, surely her father’s. He was working in a print shop on the other side of the world.
“You learn it first,” Mama said, “then teach the children.” She took the stiff, unyielding fabric from her daughter and bent over it for hours and days until their traveling outfits finally emerged. Mama hummed as she worked, her full lips curved in a smile, and her dark almond-shaped eyes seemed to glow. Whether haloed by candlelight or sunlight, her face flushed slightly with the barely suppressed excitement they were all feeling, even the two youngest—Zvi, who couldn’t remember his father, and little Aaron, who had never seen him.
They were leaving almost everything behind and taking what could be carried in satchels and straw baskets. The three rooms she’d lived in her entire life had to be scoured clean. Furniture and bedding, pots and plates were carted off by her aunts and uncles. The last night in Zarki, they slept on the floor on blankets which their neighbor Gita would carry away in the morning. It was summer, sweltering even after sundown.
Sora had felt tired and achy for days, though she had no fever. The noodle pudding Gita brought over for their last meal, usually a favorite, smelled cloyingly sweet. She took a few bites to be polite. Her sister and brothers ate like famished wolf cubs.
That night Sora lay on the floor doubled up in pain, clenching her teeth to keep from crying out. How could she get through the American border in this condition? She didn’t sleep until just before dawn. In the morning there was blood on her blanket and nightshirt. Her mother was shaking her awake.
“Mama, my stomach hurts,” she moaned, “I’m bleeding, look. If it’s cholera, go without me. I pray I’ve not infected anyone.”
Her mother knelt to inspect the bedding and nightshirt. She felt Sora’s forehead. Suddenly the worried creases around her eyes vanished. She laughed with relief.
“My darling girl, this isn’t cholera, and you are not sick. You’re no longer a child. Get up and come with me.” She had collected a set of laundered rags against this day, Sora learned.
To her embarrassment, Mama proudly announced to Gita, her aunties and the other women who came to wave them off that “Sora is a woman now.”
“Mazel tov!” they all chorused.
But for what exactly am I being congratulated, she wondered sourly on the long overland trek to Hamburg, jostled first on the milk cart and then on the train, all the while enduring spasms of cramps and intermittent nausea, furtively washing bloody rags in a small, filthy sink, three cars down from their third-class seats.
“It’s a woman’s lot,” her mother explained. “It’s what we get instead of a bar mitzvah. You are capable now of bearing children.” She took her daughter’s hand. “I pray to God, not for awhile,” she added.
Here was something new to worry about.
“Do not talk to strange men,” her mother cautioned. “Or any of those scrawny boychicks barely out of short pants who keep walking by. Do you see how they look at you? Pishekahs,” she scoffed, “with one thing on their pea brains.”
They’re looking at you, Mama, Sora thought but could not bring herself to say. One fellow in particular sidled past several times, ogling. He was a gangly yeshiva boy, wearing black gaberdine and a black hat, and his beaky nose twitched. Sora flushed all over and sank into the seat.
The wharf in Hamburg was as crowded as the train had been. Women with head shawls wearing layers of shabby clothing despite the heat herded their children before them, carrying bindlestiffs and cloth bags. There were plenty of single men, too, thin and hungry looking, hovering like predatory birds. Sora had never seen so many people in one place, so many ragged, underfed people—Jewish people, she realized. This was why Mama had insisted on the new traveling clothes, to distinguish Family Mrowka from those less fortunate, and somehow ease their passage.
If that were so, why was she so long in the ticketing office? Mama was wearing a navy cotton skirt, a puffed-sleeve blouse, double-breasted jacket and matching cloche hat. She was slender, elegant. Wouldn’t the agents be charmed? Eager to assist? Or did she have to contend with a mob of refugees inside clamoring for tickets to America?
There were eight enormous wooden sheds adjacent to the wharf, into which emigrants were streaming. These were temporary shelters where they too would likely be housed while waiting to embark. She thought she saw the yeshiva student from the train in the crowd and shrank back and shut her eyes. When she opened them, the sun blinded her at first. She blinked.
A flock of seagulls wheeled above in the brilliant blue, swooping down one by one to the wooden planks, to strut and hop among the human herd and peck at crumbs. She heard her brothers giggling about bird poop and Laia hushing them. That was when she noticed the tall man with a pipe leaning against a post near the edge of the wharf. Wearing a white linen summer suit and straw hat, he stood out in sharp contrast to the emigrant men and dock workers. Smoke curled up lazily from the pipe, obscuring his face. The gulls flapped and cawed, perhaps fighting over a scrap. They flew up a few feet executing what looked like an aerial ballet.
Suddenly Aaron squealed and darted toward the birds.
“Hey, come back!” Laia shouted.
Sora put the basket down and stood up carefully. “Stay here,” she commanded. “I’ll get him.”
The little boy spun into the bird cloud, whirling about and flapping his arms. He had only learned to walk months before. Now he could run and maybe he could fly. The astonished gulls lifted up farther. They were out of reach now, drifting on air currents over the wharf, over the head of the man with a pipe, out over the North Sea.
And Aaron followed, laughing and cawing, the tiny arms spread wide. “Eee eee,” he cried, and dropped over the edge of the wharf.
It happened too quickly; Sora could never have reached him in time. She couldn’t run like a child anymore. She saw her brother disappear. She didn’t hear a splash. There were too many people in the way, too much noise. Then she saw the man with the pipe quickly throw off his jacket, hat and shoes and slip over the edge, and this time she heard the splash. Shouts from bystanders. Laia screaming something she couldn’t understand. Sora moved as if in a bad dream toward the edge of the wharf.
She didn’t know till later that her mother witnessed all of this as well. She came out of the ticketing office and saw her baby cavorting with gulls, and she too could not reach him in time.
The man, who now was without a pipe, pulled the child from the sea.
His head and shoulders appeared at the top of the ladder, dripping and briny, with the boy curled limply in one arm. The man scrambled over the top, put the child on the planks and bent over him.
“Stand back,” people shouted. “Give him room.”
“Let me through,” Sora cried. Sweaty bodies pressing against her held her back. She gulped air and realized she’d not been breathing. Now someone behind her was moving the crowd away, somehow clearing a path. That someone put a cool hand on her arm.
“Mama!” Oh, at last.
Mother and daughter sank to their knees just as Aaron sat up and opened his eyes. Green mucus and phlegm trickled over his small face onto the soaking wet sailor suit. The man, who was also drenched to his skin, his white shirt almost transparent now, sat back on his heels and said in a deep but gentle baritone, “I take it you lay claim to this little man.”
Mama was weeping, to Sora’s astonishment. Seeing that released a torrent inside herself of guilt, fear, relief, joy.
“Why you cry?” Aaron asked.
The man smiled. He had straight white teeth. “He’ll be fine, madam. Now he’s a fish instead of a bird.”
He carried Aaron to the bench where Laia had managed to keep Jakub and Tsvi seated.
“Did you catch a fish?” Jakub demanded. “Did you swim?”
“Za still,” Mama commanded.
Sora looked up at the stranger. He was tall and fair with pink skin plastered to his shirt. His face was clean shaven save for a trim blond mustache.
“Ich kann Sie nicht genug danken,” Mama began in her formal schoolbook German. He waved that off.
“No need, no need.”
“You saved his life. No one else did a thing, I saw it all. Can I reward you somehow? Are you hungry?” She indicated the picnic basket.
“No doubt I have earned another jewel in my heavenly crown,” he said dryly, and Mama looked startled for a moment, then put one hand to her mouth to hide a smile. Sora didn’t know why that was funny.
“I am Dobra Mrowka,” Mama said.
He was Gustave Bartsch. Now he shook hands with her and each of the children, in turn. The large damp paw enfolded Sora’s hand.
“What you can do to thank me, Frau Mrowka, is permit me to take your well-behaved and delightful family to dinner in a nearby cafe.”
“That is unthinkable,” she protested.
“Please do me this great favor.”
He explained he was a widower who traveled frequently on business. His children lived in Leipzig with his spinster sister. “I miss them terribly,” he said. “When does your ship sail? Where are you staying?”
She hesitated before replying.
“I really don’t know what to do next, Herr Bartsch. I need a new plan.”
“Don’t you have our tickets, Mama?” Sora whispered.
She shook her head no. “Either the fares were raised or I miscalculated. So I will need to earn a little more now.” She stood as tall as she could and addressed Herr Bartsch, who towered over her. “Perhaps you can assist me? I am an accomplished seamstress. Might I find employment with any of your business colleagues? Would you know of inexpensive lodging for us meanwhile?”
“Mama made all our clothing by hand,” Laia interjected. “Think what she could do with a machine.”
“I will give this some thought,” Herr Bartsch said, and excused himself briefly to retrieve his jacket and shoes, hat and pipe, which miraculously, it seemed to Sora, had not been stolen. He draped the jacket over Aaron’s shoulders. The boy was shivery though the sun was hot.
“Our first priority should be to take care of the little sailor here, nicht wahr? Allow me, bitte. I won’t take no for an answer.”
He signaled a horse-drawn hansom carriage over from the side of the American Quai and led the Mrowkas toward it. Mama did not protest.
That night and the following four nights in the Gasthaus an der Alster where Herr Bartsch rented a room for them, Sora lay awake, vigilant and anxious, reviewing the details of each surprising day and waiting for her mother to return to the bed they shared. She was later every night.
Mama had accepted Herr Bartsch’s offer of help only when he agreed to eventual repayment for lodging, meals and the extra money required to purchase tickets on the Admiral von Tirpiz, sailing for New York on 7 July 1907. Passage was booked. Aaron had a cold, nothing worse. His sailor suit had been cleaned by Sora herself. They were well-fed and they didn’t have to stay in a shed full of half-starved people who were fleeing pogroms and reeked of fear.
She too was fearful and couldn’t say exactly why. It was in her nature to worry, she supposed. Herr B was kind, no doubt about it. He took them to the zoo and told them stories about his own children. “I wish you could meet my daughters,” he told Sora and Laia more than once. “You’d be best of friends.” But she didn’t like the way he looked at her mother when he thought no one was watching, as if he were memorizing her face, as if perhaps he loved her and already mourned her loss.
David leaving us was the only feasible plan. The only other option for him was to stay in Zarki, and any fool could look around and see that was the bad choice. He’d not been conscripted into the Tsarist army yet because one of his uncles supplied the local commandant with beer, but that had cost us more than we could afford. There were pogroms in nearby towns, insurrections and workers’ strikes in the major cities. If he could get to America and earn enough to send for us, we would leave Poland forever and begin life again in a new world.
All I had to do meanwhile was survive and raise five children.
It’s not as if I’d been abandoned. We had family and friends in Zarki and nearby villages. My parents and siblings lived a few hours away by horse and buggy, my in-laws were walking distance. Our cottage was owned by that same uncle, alleva shalom; he perished ten years later in the Great War. I eked out a living sewing clothes for more prosperous neighbors or mending old clothing. In the summer I had a vegetable garden.
When David left, we didn’t know I was with child again. Aaron was born seven months later, a tiny replica of his father, the living proof of our love, I told myself.
The hard part was the empty bed at night. Even worse: the letters that never got to me (which later he swore he wrote and mailed). None of that was unusual in our stetl. Young husbands and single men were leaving as soon as they could pull enough money together and procure a sponsor in America or Canada. The village was full of grass widows. Some never heard from their husbands again. They gave up. It was possible in these circumstances to get a rabbinical divorce. Gita’s cousin Zelda, abandoned three years before, had divorced her husband and married the butcher’s apprentice. Her choice, Gita reminded me, not a brokered marriage.
I refused to believe I’d lost my husband. True, our marriage had not been our choice and he was now free in that land of freedom. But we were glued together at the heart, were we not? In that empty bed I replayed in detail our first formal meeting, how fortunate I’d felt to be promised to so good-looking and intelligent a man, who apparently was well pleased with me. He seemed to me a man of the world. I saw power in the way his eyes swept over me. How tender he was on our wedding night, kissing and stroking me into a new, unexpectedly vibrant life. Above all, I remembered how night after night in that bed our arms and legs intertwined, skin melting into skin, an island of contentment and daily renewal. I forgot about our arguments, which were over foolish matters of no great consequence. I forgot how cranky and demanding he could be, how easily offended.
As time passed I grew lonelier and sometimes was ravaged by longing so intense I understood why people took to drink. After the baby was born, I kept him close to me every night.
The first letter from America did not reach me until just before I gave birth to Aaron. It was brief and choppy, as if scratching it out late at night, he was forgetting our language. He was working two jobs and living in some sort of shared housing with a half-dozen men. He missed me and the children. I must have read it a hundred times, at least. Of course I answered at once and wrote several times. He moved frequently and did not receive all my letters.
The most important letter from David arrived bearing extra postage and official stamps and included the battered English-German grammar. It was followed by a telegraph delivered to my door from a bank in Czestochowa, where I had to go to cash in the wire transfer for our passage, as well as process the requisite paperwork.
That letter simply said: “Obtain visas. Book passage to New York. Job in print shop is secure. Will wire enough for train and boat fares for you and five children. Sora can pass for and travel as a child. Looking forward to my family being with me. Yours, D.”
Looking forward? All right, I, too, was looking forward.
I lied about Sora’s birthdate at the government bureau. There was no record of it, I imagined. Oh, but somehow someone had reported it.
“You can’t recall when you had your first child, pani Mrowka?”
“Too many of them, I get confused.”
The look on his sour face. Jews breeding like maggots, I suppose he was thinking.
Even so, I thought there would be enough money. I thought I had it all figured out, down to the last groszy. Life is like that. It kicks you down, and unexpectedly lifts you up.
I entered the ticketing office at the wharf, hopeful and excited. It was a cavernous, high-ceilinged room with several clerks stationed behind a long wooden counter. The lines of people were long but orderly. Above the clock at the front entrance a large banner read “Mein Feld ist Die Welt.” And while I waited my turn, I thought surely the world will be my oyster now.
Perhaps an hour later I came out of there with what felt like the world’s weight on my back. I didn’t have enough money, yet somehow I had to get myself and my children on a ship, preferably the one I’d wired David we’d be on. I could not go back to Zarki.
There was a commotion at the end of the pier. All I saw at first was a flock of gulls beating their wings. I saw Sora move like a sleepwalker through the crowd. And then that sudden streak of motion, the little one, my baby boy, flying over the edge of the pier. Into the sea! Never have I felt so pure a terror. It propelled me forward in a few heartbeats. I’ll never know how or why people fell away before me, clearing a path. I did not see our rescuer dive off the pier. I saw him the first time climbing up the ladder with my darling in his arms. I saw him smack and breathe life into the inert little body, like some god from the sea might. I fell to my knees and wept, and Sora with me. We could have been worshipping that man. But who was he?
The sort of gentleman you read about in romantic novels for girls and you’ll never see lurking about in Zarki, especially soaking wet with bright blond hair plastered to a pink scalp. He seemed gigantic to me. When we stood, I had to tilt my head back or I’d be talking to his chest, which I tried not to look at through the wet shirt. His eyes were Himmelblau, the color of a cloudless sky.
Those five days in Hamburg were the only holiday I’d ever known. I had to wait until the 30th anniversary of my marriage for the next one. The room he rented for us was small but clean. We had our own bath and toilet, an unprecedented luxury. Every morning Gustave met us for Frϋhstuck in the dining room. He stayed in that Gasthaus whenever he was in Hamburg.
Every day he took us some place different, to a large park, the zoo, a concert. But I remember most clearly our long, intricate conversations in the common room of the Gasthaus after the children were in bed. He was surprised and pleased to learn that a girl from a Polish stetl was well versed in German literature.
How was that possible, he wondered. My father was a free thinker, I explained. He enrolled me in a Gymnasium for girls in Czestochowa where there was a free library. I read German, Polish and my Muttersprache Yiddish.
We both admired Goethe and Schiller. I had also read in translation some of Shakespeare’s dramas and Dickens’ novels. These were his favorites, too, only he read the original English. He had never heard of Scholem Aleichem and was curious about Yiddish literature.
“My husband is a great reader, too,” I told him. “But not of fiction or poetry. He devours political tracts. He insists on facts, not fiction.”
“I’m sure you learn from each other,” he said gently.
He told me he had studied philosophy and poetics at the University in Leipzig, and would have preferred an academic career but had to take over the family business after his father’s death. His wife had also been an avid reader. She died in childbirth.
“What sort of business is it?” I inquired, hoping to distract him from melancholy thoughts.
“Importing, exporting,” he sighed. “There will be some crates in the cargo hold of Admiral von Tirpiz with Bartsch Enterprises stamped on them.”
“So in a sense you will be sailing with us.”
“Would that were so.”
Gustave always drank brandy as a nightcap and he’d offer me a glass, which I declined until the very last night. And then I thought, here is an opportunity to try something new. The children are asleep and will never know about it.
I’d had alcohol before, at Passover, for example, or my wedding dinner. But this was a very fine, smooth brandy that slid down my throat like honey and made me glow all over. I had a second glass without thinking about it.
I can’t recall now who said what or why it was so funny. I laughed so hard I started to choke. He fetched a glass of water for me.
When I had recovered, I saw he was watching me intently. “I’ll be fine,” I assured him.
“Oh yes, Dobra, I know you will always be fine.”
“As will you, I trust.”
His face fell. He looked so sad I wanted to get up and put my arms around him, but of course refrained.
“You are thinking of your wife, Gustave. I can only wish you will find a new love before too long.”
He looked at me directly and said, “I already have, but I think to no avail.”
“What are you saying?” I managed finally.
“That I am deeply in love with you and, were it possible, would marry you, and we would merge our families. That is my fondest dream. I know it’s not possible, yet I could make you happy, and you, me. Alright, there, I said it. Forgive my presumption, bitte.”
I was shocked into a long silence, while he grew more anxious. Finally he ventured, “A divorce could be arranged. Would you not consider it?”
“Impossible.” I cut him off. “Even if I were widowed, what are you thinking? I’m a Jewess.”
“Why should that matter?”
“Are you truly so naive?”
“No. It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. Except that all our lives would be enriched. Unfortunately you belong to another. As, in fact, do I.”
“What do you mean?” I was bewildered, and Gustave seemed embarrassed.
“I didn’t think it necessary to mention before,” he said, taking my hand in his. “I have a fiancée in Leipzig, herself a widow, although without children.” I pulled my hand back.
“We are fond of each other,” he went on. “It is a suitable arrangement for both of us. But Dobra, never have I known anything as,” he hesitated, “as encompassing as what I feel for you—neither with my wife, whom I loved very much, nor with Elise, my fiancée. I would leave her for you, if you would have me. But I know I can’t have you. David does.”
In truth, at that moment, I was not thinking about David, the love of my youth, that taciturn and difficult man. He was somewhere else, three years and tens of thousands of kilometers distant and God only knew what he’d been up to meanwhile. And here was Gustave, in the flesh. His skin close to mine smelled faintly and sweetly of sweat.
Shall I blame what happened next on the brandy?
Gustave leaned forward and took my hand again, intending, he told me later, only to comfort. We looked into each other’s eyes. We kissed. It was a very long kiss. I broke away.
“I must go to sleep now,” I said, getting to my feet. “I’ll say goodnight.”
“Dobra, please forgive me.” He stood, too.
“There’s nothing to forgive. I am equally culpable, am I not?”
“How can I not love you?” he said.
I looked at him — a large, affable businessman in a linen suit, a would-be poet-philosopher, a generous and curious being. A gentile! And to my astonishment, then as now (I shall never forget the moment), I understood Gustave Bartsch was my soul’s true mate.
We fell into each other’s arms. I followed him to his room on tiptoe. Much later that night, just before dawn, I tiptoed back to my room and got into bed with Sora, who was sound asleep.
Some might say, you waited three years, why not wait three more weeks? I don’t know the answer. I only know that I took what I needed and no more, although I did want more, much more, and that for the duration of a few hours we lived and breathed and held each other in a timeless time, as if cast away on an island together.
“I will remember this night forever,” he told me. “It is my only consolation.”
On the ship with my children I lay awake night after night, trying not to dwell on the ending in Hamburg, which could have been a new beginning. Although I managed not to linger on the details, I could not or would not suppress the heart-opening wonder of it all.
As it turned out, I had a consolation of my own, the baby born eight months and two weeks after our ship docked in New York, little Gustave, whom the children insisted we name after our “Good Samaritan.”
“Gus looks like my Auntie Freya whose hair was so blond it was white,” I told them. And: “Babies born in America grow taller.”
The children, with the possible exception of Sora, had no problem believing me. David, however, took one look at the baby, fat and rosy with a thatch of white-blond hair and eyes the color of a summer sky, and his face darkened. He left the birthing room without a word.
There was much confusion and tension attendant upon our arrival—getting through American immigration on Ellis Island and finding each other afterward. The older children were wild with joy. The two little boys hung back shyly. David hugged and kissed each of them, in turn. But when his lips grazed mine, there was no heat.
“You are looking well, Maustshen,” he said. Although “little mouse” was a familiar endearment, it sounded to my ear merely polite or contrived.
“And you, my husband, how handsome you are.”
He was no longer rail thin and bone pale, and he’d shaved his beard and sideburns. What a handsome cleft chin he has, I marveled. And a moment later wondered who has been fondling that chin. Who has been feeding and clothing him? He looked like an American now in a striped flannel coat with brass buttons and a bowler hat. He spoke American, too, with what seemed to me at the time masterful fluency, hailing a horse-drawn cab and issuing orders to the porter. The New York dialect was a sea of incomprehensible sound through which he sailed.
In the flat he’d rented for us recently—three rooms plus a kitchen and private bath, “our little palace” he called it—the icebox was full of food, some of it from a nearby deli, ready to eat. And there was a gift for the children, a large jigsaw puzzle of the Statue of Liberty. Here again, I discerned another woman’s hand.
In our huge American bed, he held me like a porcelain doll and did not at first caress me.
“You must be exhausted,” he said.
“Yes,” I murmured into his chest.
“I forgot how fine-boned you are, Dobra,” he whispered, and a moment later his breathing deepened. He was snoring and I lay there wide-awake thinking does he no longer desire me? And I? Do I desire him? My husband’s body lay warm and familiar next to mine, one arm draped over my belly.
But the next morning, we woke up wrapped in each other’s arms and at once resumed—what shall I call it—our marital affection, after which I persuaded myself it was possible to love two men at the same time, though not in the same place.
This altogether private conclusion fortified me to endure what followed.
Not until the annual holiday party for employees of the print shop where David was now the manager did I begin to understand what had happened to him in America. I was large with child then and we had our entire brood underfoot. This was our first Christmas ever, our first tree and first Santa.
“But that’s Papa,” Zvi protested.
“You don’t really believe there is a Santa, do you?” Laia scoffed.
The widowed Mrs. Henderson, whose shop this was, presided over the punch bowl. She was a plumply handsome woman of middle years, ample bosomed with heavy lidded dark eyes that gave her a melancholy cast unless she smiled or laughed, which at that party she did frequently.
I knew her husband had died suddenly of heart failure several months after David began working in the shop as a pressman, and that Mr. Henderson had held David in high regard, and the widow had asked him to teach her the trade and help her run the shop.
“I should think she’d remarry,” I’d told David. “She is attractive and she owns a shop.”
“It would be good if she did,” he’d agreed. “But she is a stubborn woman. She tells me she prefers her independence and is happy running her own business.”
I had to admire that.
Mrs. Henderson was childless. Apparently she admired my capacity for producing children. She came around the refreshment table to greet me.
“Mrs. Mrowka, I am so very pleased to meet you at last.” Her voice was honeyed, comforting. She smelled of lavender. Her glance lingered briefly on my belly. “You must tell me if there is anything you need, anything at all. I adore children. And please, do call me Abigail.”
David relished playing Santa. He was to perform that part every Christmas for years, wearing a white cotton beard and transformed for the night into a Jewish elf.
“Ho ho ho, little girl, have you been good?” he teased our girls. Laia giggled and Sora glowered. She wasn’t having an easy time in America.
“How about you, boss lady? Have you been good?”
Abigail flushed. “Good enough,” she said, smiling into his eyes.
Was it then I knew they had been and might still be lovers? Or when he helped her into her coat at the end of the evening and his hand lingered on her shoulder?
But she is too old was my first thought, an unworthy one, I realize now.
I had already suspected he would not be faithful. He could not have endured solitude for three years, not David Mrowka, whose embraces were certain to kindle me, or any woman.
I will never know how or why it happened. Obviously two lonely people had found each other. I knew each depended on the other. David would not have advanced so quickly elsewhere in his trade. My guess is she loved him dearly but stepped aside before his wife and family arrived (possibly on the very morning we disembarked, they’d bid each other a fond farewell). She was no more a dissolute, scheming woman than was I; she was simply a woman in love. And when, after baby Gus was born, David came back to her, she might have felt some remorse now that she knew me, but mostly she would have been grateful to hold him again in her arms.
Did he love her? I think so, though in a different way than he loved me. I had been his first passion and the baby was a persistent reminder of my betrayal. I’m convinced he went directly to Abigail the day Gus was born. He scarcely spoke to me for days and came home later every night. I had never been so unhappy. As difficult as he could be, I still loved and desired him.
One night he strode in the door after midnight. I was in the kitchen, sipping tea and reading the Vorwarts. The baby slept in a cradle near the stove.
“You’re still awake?” He seemed annoyed.
“I can’t sleep till you come home.”
He leaned over the table. I smelled alcohol on his breath.
“You should be reading the English newspaper, not this Yiddish chazzeri.”
“The Vorwarts isn’t junk.”
“You’ll never learn English if you can’t read it,” he said sharply.
I took a deep breath, not wanting to provoke him and replied in the best English I could muster, “I shall read the Sunday newspaper. It is the Times, yes?”
“Good,” he said, and the corners of his mouth twitched as if he might smile.
But the baby stirred and whimpered.
My husband glared at tiny Gus. He never touched the child.
I hurried to the cradle to rock it and quietly sang the lullaby that had soothed all my babies. David watched with arms folded across his chest.
That night he made rough, punishing love to me. I held back my tears. Afterward, exhausted he lay on his back staring at the ceiling.
“You didn’t sell yourself cheaply,” he murmured.
“Nor did you,” I replied.
I wrote many letters to Gustave Bartsch in care of his office in Leipzig. David never saw the letters from Germany. They arrived during the day when he was at work.
Gustave wrote to let me know he had married his fiancée Elise. It was only then I admitted to myself why, when I held our child to my breast, I felt a burst of radiant hope. Not that I ever allowed myself to imagine a future reunion with Gustave; it had been an inarticulate hope. Now I quietly mourned its loss.
I wrote to congratulate him and wish him and his bride happiness, but never told him my new child was also his. What would be the use of that? I told him how the children were flourishing. My husband had procured an old sewing machine for me and I had set up shop at home, sewing fashionable outfits for Mrs. Henderson and her friends. I could therefore afford to repay our “Good Samaritan.”
I did not relay the discord between David and me, nor did Gustave ever burden me with any hint of trouble in his life. I described David’s employer, whom the children called “Auntie Abbie.” She invited the girls over for tea parties and took all of them to plays or the roller rink. Every summer, each child would have a turn “camping” with their aunt at her cottage in the Catskills. She promised each would receive an advanced education, if they wanted it. I did not mention that, although Abigail became part of our family, she and I were merely courteous with one another and never intimates.
I assured Gustave that his bright young namesake, a bookworm before he even started kindergarten, would attend college, and perhaps teach philosophy or literature at an American university.
For many years, whenever I opened or reread a letter from Gustave, a sudden longing stirred in me. Later, it was the memory of longing, like a ghost of that all too brief romance. I am still occasionally haunted by the possibility of a life forsaken.
David and I, despite all the Sturm und Drang, were mysteriously joined at the heart, as well as in our bed. We had two more children in America, and we worked hard to support our family. We grew close again as we aged — as all three of us aged. When Abigail suffered a multitude of illnesses, it was Sora who nursed her. And when finally the old woman departed this life, my husband collapsed in my arms and wept. I held him to me and wept as well for all the terrible losses in our lives.
During the Great War, there were no letters from Germany, nor were there any after the Armistice. I do not know exactly what happened to “my friend in Leipzig,” as David called him. I only know he perished somehow and our connection was permanently sundered.
What might have happened if I’d stayed in Germany with the children, assuming we could somehow have survived? David would have been devastated and on my conscience forever. My parents, my entire family in Poland and those few who later managed to emigrate before the borders closed would have disowned me and the children. Gustave and I might have been happy for a while. Or we might have wound up hating and hurting each other. People do.
When I was fifteen, I worked after school and on weekends in Aunt Abbie’s office. I was a troubled adolescent in this strange new world, over-anxious and fearful of barbaric New Yorkers, the trolleys, even the children in my school. Home was no refuge. It was good to get out of our cramped apartment where my parents’ tempers were short and babies, squalling.
Aunt Abbie needed an assistant and I enjoyed the job, not so much the filing and typing of orders for the print shop, but the camaraderie. My surrogate American auntie could make me laugh whenever I was gloomy. She could even make Papa laugh. But not Mama, who kept her distance and was always polite and serious with her husband’s employer.
Since we were the only members of our extended family to emigrate before the war, I didn’t have other aunts or uncles while growing up and Mama was always busy. It was Aunt Abbie who taught me how to paint my nails and curl my hair, and instructed me in the waltz and polka, the dances of her youth. When I graduated high school, she paid for my training at nursing school. She counseled me when I began dating and warned me off an attractive fellow who worked in the shop. “He is a womanizer,” she cautioned.
She approved of my eventual husband, Isaac, whom I’d first met on the Admiral von Tirpiz. He was the skinny yeshiva student I’d noticed on the train into Hamburg. We scarcely spoke to each other on our voyage, after which he gradually transformed himself into an American, first shaving off the payas and later discarding the black suit, until finally he was the handsome hawk-nosed man whom I met again ten years later, recuperating from wounds in the veteran’s hospital where I worked as a nurse. He was luckier than most returning soldiers. He had all his limbs and his eyes.
Abbie said our marriage was fated. At our wedding she got in the hora line and kicked up her legs, and she and my brother Jake did the Castle Walk, then the latest craze.
Papa laughed and poured out more wine and Mama rolled her eyes. “When will she act her age?” she whispered in my ear.
It was a while before I understood my mother’s coolness toward Abbie. When I was young, it estranged us a little. Even after I had borne a child of my own, Mama would not visit if she knew Abbie was coming over too, as if she could not share the beloved grandson with her. As if they were rivals for my affection.
Mama kept her secrets well; Papa was more transparent.
When our first born was two years old, my husband and I left him in the care of my parents and motored up in our Model T to a resort on Lake Champlain for a honeymoon trip, one of Aunt Abbie’s gifts to us, delayed because until now Isaac had not been able to take more than a few days off work.
We enjoyed an idyllic week in a grand old hotel and then made our way south on a blistering hot day to Aunt Abbie’s summer cottage on Lake Minnewaska. She came out on the porch with arms open to embrace us. Her skin was deeply tanned, her face remarkably smooth for her years. She wore her salt and pepper hair in a stylish bob.
Isaac patted her awkwardly on the back. She took his arm and led him around the property. He’d never visited before.
“That’s where we swim.” I pointed out the sandy beach. “Papa used to drive me up and come back for me a week later. The first thing he did was jump in the lake.”
“He runs the shop all summer while I lollygag around up here,” Auntie laughed.
“Does Mama Mrowka come up, too?” Isaac asked.
“She never has, though I’ve invited her often.” Aunt Abbie shepherded us back to the cottage.
“Perhaps Mama’s afraid of the water,” I offered. “She never learned to swim.”
“Dobra afraid? She’s not afraid of anything,” Auntie scoffed.
We went inside where it was cool. Isaac admired the knotty pine walls. Three bedrooms opened off the long living-dining area with its plump wood-burning stove. Recently, indoor plumbing had been installed, I learned, and the old outhouse removed. Our bedroom window looked out at the lake. I felt altogether at home, but Isaac was uneasy.
While I unpacked he walked around the guest bedroom examining the framed photos on the walls and atop a dresser, chiefly of my family. Aunt Abbie had snapped most of them with her Brownie camera—my siblings and I building sand castles at the beach or posing stiffly in our best clothes, a portrait of my parents at the Christmas party, Papa in the Santa suit laughing at the photographer, Mama with a tight smile. On the dresser in an oval silver frame was a formal portrait of Papa, looking dreamily off into space. Isaac studied it for awhile.
Later that night when we were snuggled in bed, he whispered, “Sora, have you ever thought Abigail and your father are more than employer and employee to each other?”
“Of course they are. They’re good friends. She’s part of our family.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?”
“The way they are when they’re together, how they look at each other.”
“What about it?”
“They may be having an affair,” he blurted out.
I opened my mouth to protest, but in that moment realized I was aware of their liaison. I’d worked in the print shop for years and could not help but register the signals between them.
“I hope they’re not,” he said.
I began to sniffle and he held me tighter.
“I could be imagining it,” he tried to comfort me.
Isaac was an upright man who, despite appearances, remained deeply influenced by his yeshiva training. I knew he was thinking about sin and the seventh Commandment. I was grateful he let the matter drop. He would have difficulty understanding how I felt. Abigail and Papa (and Mama, too) were complicated and conflicted, but essentially good, and I respected them all.
Years later, after another world war, the annihilation of our stetl and the death in old age of Abigail and both my parents, I found the letters from Gustave Bartsch buried under expired insurance policies at the bottom of a file cabinet. There were no copies of Mama’s letters to him, but since he was responding to hers, I was able to piece the puzzle together. These were not love letters and yet were suffused with the tender feelings I’d intuited all along, even before Isaac opened my eyes to the possibility that both my parents were adulterers. After all, I had Gus Mrowka, my giant of a brother and his blond progeny as evidence, as did my father, who may never have forgiven Mama her one lapse.
It was only after discovering the cache of letters that I told my brother who his birth father almost certainly was. Gus was 55 years old, divorced, and teaching at Brandeis. I drove up to Waltham with the box of letters and an overnight bag. My husband no longer was comfortable being any farther from home than the senior club at our temple and didn’t even know the letters existed. He knew our family lore about the Good Samaritan, but nothing else.
“Come home, soon,” Isaac fretted. “I’ll worry about you.”
“What have you got in this box?” Gus asked. “It smells ancient.”
“The story of your life,” I said.
“I’m not that old.”
“Yes, you are. We better sit down.”
He snorted. My brother was a large handsome man, as quick to laughter as anger, a man who relished intellectual discourse as much as solitude.
He listened to me quietly, stroking his beard.
“You’re saying these letters prove they were lovers?”
We picked one out at random. I am more fluent than Gus is in German, so I translated while he looked over my shoulder.
My dearest Dobra,
I just finished a marvelous novella by Thomas Mann. Have you read him yet? I will send you a copy of Tonio Kröger, if it is unavailable in German in New York. I think often of our discussions of literature and music and wonder what you would say about books or articles I’m reading. I cherish the memory of our conversations and miss the company of your children. It would be wonderful if you could all visit us in Leipzig. You would love the old town. Our daughters would become life-long friends.
Thank you so much for the photograph of your family. What mischief is our little sailor boy up to these days? Is my namesake in school now? Please relay my fond greetings to the older children who might still remember me.
With great affection, as ever, Gustave
“How does that prove anything?” Gus protested. “I don’t have a problem with the Auntie Freya story. I’ve met plenty of blond, blue-eyed Jews.”
“I was there. I saw them together. Papa knew as soon as he laid eyes on you. He’d done the math and you were no premature baby. It all makes sense to me now. Besides, I never heard of an Auntie Freya before. I think Mama invented her.”
Gus wrinkled his brow. “Which photo do you think he meant?”
I said it must be a copy of the large framed portrait that hung in Abigail’s front parlor as well as in ours. He went into the den and brought out his copy, and we studied it carefully. It was taken by a professional Abigail hired and is the only portrait of all the Mrowkas, including the youngest two, who are held by Mama and Laia. Everyone is seated except Papa, who stands behind Mama and me. Little Gus is sitting on my lap. The shadow of Papa falls over him, rendering the flaxen hair and pale face indistinct.
“It’s hard to see in this photo how different you look from the rest of us. You really do, you know. Maybe that’s why Mama sent this one to Gustave.”
“You could be on to something,” Gus said slowly. “Papa was always more distant with me somehow. Did you ever notice?”
I nodded. “Lucky you were a sunny child. Nothing seemed to bother you for long.”
“Did you come across a photo of Gustave?” he asked hopefully.
I shook my head no. “You have his hair and skin and eyes. And his height. And Mama’s nose.” We smiled at each other. “You’ll find his beautiful soul in the letters,” I added.
He brooded over our family portrait. “Maybe she was sending him a coded message,” he suggested.
“Maybe. But I’ve read every word and he never wrote to her about it.”
Like me, he might have suspected the child was his. Or hoped and dared not say.
Early the next morning, I left my brother alone to puzzle over the letters and drove home on two-lane country roads past apple orchards in blossom. How wonderful it was to be alive on that warm spring day. The sky was hazy blue with tumbled storm clouds at the horizon. I felt as though a burden had been lifted from me yet was also aware of a subdued but obstinate sadness. I still mourned my parents, of course. But that wasn’t it. I was perhaps too keenly aware of the many tangled sorrows in their lives.
I tried to imagine how my mother felt when our Good Samaritan vanished from her life without a trace. I thought about his daughters. Could they have discovered and read my mother’s letters after their father died and wondered what had happened to Dobra Mrowka of New York and her children? Might they too, before the war machine obliterated them as well, have done the math and thus deduced a half-sibling in America?
At last I understood. Family Bartsch was yet another amputated limb of my family that neither emigrated nor survived. I was preparing to mourn them too.