The German Girl

 

The German Girl

By Sam Osherson

 

Three things worried Paul Gilverstein as he stepped off his school bus that blustery March afternoon in 1958:
 
1. Balancing his ninth grade history textbook in front of his pants so no one would see his erection.
 
2. How hungry he was.
 
3. The hot, jumpy feeling that filled his chest after bumping into the German girl, Anne Von Richler. 
 
The girl-herd formed on the left side of the street, the boys moved toward the right curb, both groups walking up the slight hill toward their houses on the neat suburban block.
 
Mitchell, so cool with his swept back haircut like Kookie Byrnes in 77 Sunset
Strip, walked beside Paul. “You know about her father, right?”
 
Anne’s blond, curly hair bounced like silken cotton candy.        
 
Dr. von Richler was a pediatrician at the local hospital, but the scuttlebutt among the ninth graders was that he’d been a Nazi who’d come over to this country right after the war. He drove a Ford Thunderbird convertible, which also made him confusingly cool.
 
“Hitler’s still alive, hiding in Argentina somewhere,” Jimmy observed darkly, a step behind Paul.
 
Paul studied Mitchell’s manly moustache. He put his hand over the few thin, measly hairs sprouting on his upper lip. Mitchell had wolfed down two cheeseburgers—his own and the one Paul couldn’t eat—in the school cafeteria. The scent of that treyf burger had stayed with Paul, distracting him in afternoon history class, almost getting him yet another detention.
 
“Besides,” Jimmy chipped in, a step behind Paul, “you talk to her, you better have a lot of time.”
 
Mitchell laughed, wiggling his lower jaw, mimicking Anne Von Richler’s stutter.
 
Taller than Mitchell, Paul grabbed him in a one-arm headlock and gave him a running series of noogies across his head, producing a loud yelp from his friend.
 
He was aware of Anne Von Richler’s eyes on him as they goofed around, probably thinking what a doofus he was.
 
That night, Paul’s Bubbe G. visited from the City. “Our Jewish Saint,” as Paul once heard his mother refer to her mother-in-law. She’d brought some of her special baked chicken with matzoh balls dumplings with her in a tin saucepan covered with silver foil.
 
Chewing on a chicken leg, soggy and overdone, Paul pictured pouring bubbly melted cheese over the whole thing. Then he asked, “How come we keep kosher?”
 
His father started in with Abraham and Moses and life in the desert thousands of years ago. How quickly shellfish spoils in all that heat; how dirty pigs are. Trichinosis.
 
“But we have refrigerators and supermarkets now.”
 
“Eat your dinner, Paul. It’s just one of the things we do these days,” his mother said wearily.
 
“I just think it ought to make sense.”
 
“Make sense? It’s a part of being an observant Jew,” Bubbe G. responded, sounding outraged. She gestured from the dining nook across to the kitchen cabinets, pointing to the cabinet with the dairy plates, intoning milchik in her thick Polish accent,then to the cabinet of plates for meat dishes, fleyshichdik, as if that was the natural order of the universe. Bubbe G.’s harsh, guttural accent gave a deeper authority to the importance of keeping meat from dairy. “After all we lost in the war, and now you’re thinking of giving up our traditions,” she intoned.
 
“What’d the Rabbi say at services last Saturday?” his mother asked. “That word he used.”
 
His father took a forkful of maztoh ball. “These are good.” He smacked his lips.
 
She crinkled her forehead. “People were upset. ‘Holocaust.”
 
“Yeah, out of the blue. What got into Rabbi Rosenberg? Suddenly he’s got to talk
about that.”
 
“About what?” Paul maneuvered a piece of limp chicken through the gravy.
 
“Nothing,” his father said.
 
 “‘Holocaust,’” his mother repeated. “What a word to use.” She seemed to shiver.
 
“We buried millions. Can’t we move on?” His father stared out the window.
 
“Six million,” Paul said.
 
“No one’s sure how many.”
 
Paul had seen The New York Times headline earlier that week: 6,000,000 Jews allegedly killed during the Nazi regime. When he got home later that day he couldn’t find the paper anywhere in his house.
 
“Let them rest in peace. Okay?” His father wiped his mouth and turned to Paul. “That’s why we keep kosher. Because of all we lost.”
 
Paul wished his mother would say something, but all she did was move a matzoh ball around on her plate. His Bubbe G. leaned over and rubbed Paul’s hair, too hard. “Give up keeping kosher and the Von Richlers will have won,” she concluded, shaking a fleyshichdik fork in the direction of their house down the block.
 
 
 
Paul passed Anne Von Richler’s house the following Monday morning, as usual, walking to the school bus. He saw Anne about a half-block ahead, her woolen skirt swaying in the slight breeze as she walked. He wanted to ask her to wait up, to slow down, but he hesitated and then she was at the bus stop.
 
He didn’t see her again until that afternoon. They shared a class right after lunch with Captain Chopper, their crazy ninth grade history teacher and school football coach, whochopped in the air with his hands when he talked to the class. If he didn’t like what was happening, he’d reduce everyone to silence with a sharp slash in the air. Captain Chopper kept his classes ducking and cowering long after Governor Rockefeller had scrapped the exercise.
 
The dark sky was spitting snow outside the classroom as Captain Chopper stood in front of the blackboard hurling questions to the class.
 
“Who’s the Director of the FBI?” he asked, pointing at the kid behind Paul.
 
“J. Edgar Hoover.”
 
Chopper’s attention moved a row away, not far from the wall where he’d posted their class reports. Paul had written one on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Chopper had given it just a C+ because he hadn’t included the part about Oppenheimer losing his government clearance for being a security risk three years earlier.
 
Paul immersed himself in removing all the yellow paint off his number 2 pencil, scraping it diligently across the sharp edge of his desk.
 
Soon Chopper called on Anne.
 
“What’s the title of Mr. Hoover’s book that I assigned for the book report?”
 
She was sitting in the next row over, one seat down, the back of her arm almost within Paul’s reach. Anne nodded. Of course she knew the answer.
 
He waited. Everyone knew Anne Von Richler enough to know what happened when she tried to talk: she exploded in stuttering. Her head shook, blond hair trembling, face spastic. Her jaw seemed to have a mind of its own, fighting with the rest of her mouth, though the way it trembled seemed infinitely sweet to Paul, as if she was about to cry and would not let it happen.
 
Paul liked Hoover’s book, with its vigorous warning that American minds were being taken over by strange, alien forces, who wanted to transform all Americans into the communist man, a mechanical puppet, whom they can train to do as the Party desires.
 
Chopper walked over to his desk holding a piece of chalk and put one hand on a pile of papers. He looked at Anne, then out the window. There was some tittering from the back of the room “M-M-M-A-M-A…
 
“Want to write the answer down?” Chopper asked, finally, his right hand slicing through the air, as if commanding a halt to the stuttering.
 
Anne gave a firm shake of her head, pursed her lips, tried again.
 
He handed her a pad off his desk.
 
Again Anne shook her head. Now her eyes seemed to blaze. “M-M-M-A…”
 
Masters of Deceit,” Paul blurted out, his voice way too deep. He couldn’t trust his tricky voice anymore. He’d start to say something and it came out suddenly high, suddenly low.
 
Chopper pursed his lips, then smiled. “You are awake after all, Mr. Gilverstein. Amid your yellow pencil shavings.”
 
The laughter from the back of the classroom didn’t disturb Paul. What he was most aware of was Anne’s fierce look, directly at him. Was she outraged or grateful? He held her look for the briefest moment, his heart beating. Then Chopper was there, walking up the row, talking about the spy plots that the FBI had broken up, Oppenheimer’s dubious loyalty, the Rosenbergs and the damage they’d done.
 
 
 
The next day, Chopper found him with a question. Paul had been studying the downy white skin on the back of Anne’s neck and was lost as to the subject or the answer.
 
“Surely you know the Senator’s name, Gilverstein. If you can remember Masters of Deceit, this should be easy for you.” The old school radiators wheezed behind him.
 
There the teacher stood in front of the board, chalk in hand. Paul searched frantically for a clue. Nothing. Chopper turned and raised his arm flamboyantly toward the board, a pantomime of readiness to write down his answer. He knew he had Paul.
 
In that second Chopper turned away, Anne—unbelievably—thrust an open piece of white notebook paper toward him. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Her writing was savage, sharp, a black pen slashing letters.
 
When Paul blurted out the answer, Chopper looked almost disappointed as he wrote it on the blackboard. Then the bell rang, making the moment even more dramatic.
 
Getting his books together in the crowded aisle between desks, Paul tried to bump his way next to Anne, but before he could say anything, fat Jean was there, walking in lockstep next to her friend, who stuttered hello.
 
 
 
That Thursday brought mid-March warmth to the walk home from the school bus. Blue and white crocuses sprouted amidst the pockets of melting snow that edged the houses. From his boy-side of the street, Paul could see Anne’s open jacket hanging loosely on her shoulders.
 
“Eva Braun,” Mitchell whispered in Paul’s ear, nodding slightly toward Anne.
 
That did it.
 
Knees weak, Paul crossed the no-man’s land between the groups and fell into step alongside Anne, who stuttered to tell her friends that she was going to help her mother make shrimp scampi for dinner that night. She worked so hard when she stuttered, as if wrestling with some evil force for control of her own body. He thought of Hoover’s mechanical puppets, of all the terrifying, irresistible horror movies he’d seen that year, Not of This Earth, The Man with the X-Ray Brain.
 
Anne’s fragrance was flowery and light. In profile, her nose looked sharp and sculptured. Paul could see a small zit on her cheek. From the other side, fearsome fat Jean stared at him. Anne turned toward him. No smile, a blank expression. He stared at the ground. His friends were yelling foolish things, making chimpanzee sounds. Anne gave him no encouragement. He was desperate, out of his mind. He wanted to bump her with his shoulder. He wanted to poke her. He turned to Anne and blurted out, “Sometimes I think you’ve got a monster inside you.”
 
The line stopped. “Weird-o.” Jean cackled. “What’s your problem?”
 
He couldn’t believe what he’d just said. His cheeks were hot; he imagined them glowing radioactively.
 
Anne said nothing, clutching her books to her chest. He wondered if her breasts liked being pressed like that. She looked right at him, her eyes as blue as the March sky. Then she smiled at Paul, and moved her blond hair away from her cheek. She had a slight gap in her front teeth. He was the only one who could see the smile. It was a secret between them.
 
The girls started walking ahead. “Jerk!” Jean yelled at him. Paul picked up a fist-sized rock lying in the curb, cocked his arm back and hurled it like Whitey Ford at the row of starlings perched on the telephone line. The jagged missile just missed a screeching bird. “Don’t do that!” Jean protested. “You’ll hurt them.” From behind the other three girls, Anne tilted her head slightly, looking amused.
 
 
 
“I don’t get it.   Aren’t we German, too?” Paul asked over dinner that night. He poked at his mother’s stuffed cabbage, pale and soft, with stringy red veins like tiny blood vessels.
 
Both parents looked at him. He was learning that “German” was a loaded word. Saying it produced a charge of energy in his chest, like a muscle contracting.
 
“A long time ago, right? Zayde Izzy and Zayde G. didn’t know each other but they both came over on boats from Germany.” Zayde Izzy, his mom’s father, was his favorite. He’d sit next to him at Seders and make jokes. His mother’s family didn’t really take it all that seriously. Once Zayde Izzy had leaned over at the Seder and whispered in his ear that the best thing about Passover was that it meant that golf season was only weeks away.
 
“Well, not Germany, really. The Shtetl,” his father explained, using that mysterious word. His father put down his fork. “Poland, really. Well, Russia. Shetl land was sometimes Russian, sometimes Polish, it went back-and-forth.” He made it sound as if it didn’t actually exist.
 
“So we’re Polish? Or we’re Russian?”
 
“We’re Jewish-American.”
 
Paul stabbed at the cabbage leaves, fork scrapping china, peeling away the leaves to get at the hamburger stuffed inside. He wanted to know where he was from, where he fit. A picture he could carry in his head. He’d never seen The Shtetl on any map.
 
“So our family came over from Jew to America?”
 
Paul’s mother suddenly started to clean up, taking her plate over to the kitchen sink. “Don’t be rude to your father.”
 
His father sighed. ”Look, Paul, we’re Americans. The Shtetl stuff doesn’t matter anymore.”
 
 
 
The next day, Paul skipped the vanilla ice cream dessert in the school cafeteria and got a head start for afternoon class. Chopper sat at his desk alone reading the New York Times, tapping it with a pencil. Behind him, the Universal spring-roller map of Europe lay coiled above the blackboard.
 
Chopper didn’t look up when Paul sat down in the chair at the edge of the teacher’s desk and spoke the mysterious word.
 
“The kettle?”
 
“No, sir, I asked where The Shtetl is.”
 
“Is that German?” He looked from the newspaper to Paul and then back again. “What exactly are you talking about?” Then Jimmy came up to the desk to ask a question about the homework. The rest of the class arrived. Paul went back to his seat.
 
In front, Chopper held up The Times with its large-type headline about the Russian nuclear test. “Hydrogen bomb,” he said. “So now what happens to our heralded nuclear superiority?” He said those communist spies—“the Rosenbergs and their crew”—had given our nuclear secrets away to the Russians. Paul wondered if those Rosenbergs were related to his Rabbi Rosenberg, who’d taught him his bar mitzvah portion. His stomach began to crawl. He stared at the Bazooka gum wrappers swirling in the wind outside the window.
 
The next thing he knew Captain Chopper was saying something about walls.
 
“And so, Mr. Gilverstein, can you repeat your triumph of last week?” He pointed at Paul with the sharpened pencil still in his right hand.
 
“Um. A wall, Sir.”
 
Chopper’s big hand slammed into the metallic side of his desk, his wedding ring adding to the explosive booming sound. “Yes, Mr. Gilverstein, and it’s a big one. What’s the name of it?” The teacher moved down the aisle and loomed over Paul, his beige sports jacket almost grazing the boy’s arm. Behind him, Anne nudged her notebook to the edge of her desk. She’d written something in large letters, scrawled quickly. Her left hand and arm—downy skin extending from her sweater—rested innocently on the notebook, keeping it from falling off the desk. He read aloud the answer she’d given him.
 
“It’s of course the Great Wall of China, Sir.”
 
All the air seemed to go out of Chopper’s face. He leaned in and broke the pencil in half right in front of Paul, dropping the two ends onto the floor by his desk. The room went silent, except for a few guffaws, which Chopper stifled with an unusual backward chop of his arm. “The East German commies divided Berlin by building the Great Wall of China. Very funny, Mr. Gilverstein.”
 
Paul wanted to crawl under his desk. He was a hopeless case. He picked at the chipped wood on the surface of his desk, not caring about the splinter under his nail.
 
Chopper lurched over to the Universal wall map, snapping it down to its full extended length. “Here.” He pointed to East Germany, the Berlin Wall. He recited all the countries of the Eastern Bloc and with his finger traced the Iron Curtain across the map of Europe. Then Chopper strode over to his desk and wrote out a pink detention slip.
 
Anne kept her eyes on Chopper and scribbled in her notebook. The bell rang. He ignored her, angry and hurt. And ashamed: the Nazi daughter had made a fool of him. Amidst all the jostling and someone laughing right in his ear, Paul almost dropped his already-battered science textbook. Then he felt soft skin touching his hand. Anne’s fingers burrowed in, pushing a folded piece of paper into the little crack between his science book and his right hand. Before he could say anything, she hurried out with her friends.
 
He leaned against a hallway locker to read it.
 
Pay attention. What’s so interesting out the window?
 
The handwriting was again sharp and wild, not neat and careful like all those reports of hers on the wall. This note had a stutter to it, the lines dug into the paper, as if writing, like speaking, were an effort to escape from somewhere. It made Paul think of tall fence poles, guard towers, thick, barbed wire.
 
 
 
His mother’s face was hard and tight when Paul climbed into their old blue Ford station wagon at school later that afternoon after detention. “Passover’s next week. I don’t have time for this.” She hardly spoke in the car, rushed into the house, then hurried down the basement stairs off the kitchen. Paul hustled into blue jeans and sneakers for basketball and grabbed some cookies from the kitchen cabinet. He heard his mother carrying boxes down the basement stairs. “Bye, mom,” he said. No answer. He repeated himself, then walked halfway down the stairs.
 
She stood near his father’s workbench, her face tight and drawn. She’d pushed his tools aside and had all the boxes of Passover dishes lined up, half opened, the newspaper wrapping stuck out of the top.
 
“Is everything okay?”
 
“Yes. I just have to get them all out and stacked and then upstairs and washed.” She didn’t ask him to help, and he didn’t want to.
 
“Okay, see you.”
 
His mother took out a dish and hurled it against the concrete wall of the basement, smashing it into little purple, gold, and white pieces.
 
“Mom!” he shouted.
 
She looked at him and her face melted. She started to cry.
 
“It’s okay, Mom, we have a lot of them.”
 
“They were a wedding present from Bubbe G. How could I have done such a thing to a fleyshichdik plate?” She stumbled over the Yiddish and it was that which turned him against her, proof that she was following rules she didn’t really believe in. He couldn’t breathe around her. When she said, “Just go,” he surprised himself by running up the basement steps and out of the house.
 
 
 
The afternoon chill lent him speed and strength as he ran to find the usual afternoon pick-up basketball game. He gulped cold air, ran faster, faster, looping from one side of the street to the other, curving around the occasional car carrying a commuter father home from work. He’d be unstoppable in the game, he’d take the pass, dunk over anyone trying to guard him.
 
The yard was empty at Jimmy’s house, the game over. Paul doubled over and sucked at the sharp, raw air, the cold scraping his lungs. He thought of his mother in the basement. What a lousy son he’d been to run out on her just for a basketball game. He found his breath, ran back the way he’d come, feeling a new, frantic burst of energy.
 
He wanted to break out of himself. As he passed the dense, thorny hedge that surrounded the Von Richler’s property, Paul swerved through their gate and took the uneven flagstone steps three at a time. Tall evergreen bushes surrounded the house itself, blocking the windows. He expected Doberman Pinschers with spiky, iron collars to come howling from around the side of the house at the sound of the brass doorknocker.
 
The door swung open and Mrs. Von Richler—tall, thin, forbidding—asked politely what the young man wanted.
 
“Is Anne home?”
 
Her eyebrows tensed. “Oh, my...”
 
She invited him to wait in the living room, then disappeared. There was a smell of sauerkraut and something else he couldn’t immediately identify, but which left him slightly nauseous. The living room walls were covered with pictures in ornate wooden frames and with hanging display boxes filled with knick-knacks and little figurines that made him wish he was sitting in Zayde Izzy’s apartment on West End Avenue in the city. He sat on a long couch with lace arm covers, surrounded by embroidered cushions. He tinkered with a music box on a small wooden table. He identified the familiar smell: pork or ham, like in the school cafeteria. Thick and cloying. The place oozed treyf. He stood up, looked at his reflection in the window: he was the pig for coming here. Maybe Zayde Izzy would laugh at his being here, but Bubbe the Saint knew that the Von Richlers had won.
 
Then Anne was standing in the vaulted entrance to the living room next to her mother. They were clearly mother and daughter, but they didn’t really look alike, not with Anne’s deep blue eyes and blond hair, so different from her mother’s dark hair and gray eyes.
           
Anne stuttered hello, holding her hands in front of her, red all over her fingers. Blood.
 
“Hi,” Paul replied, standing up from the couch, wishing he could banish his roiling stomach. He put his hand over his mouth to cover the scrawny hairs on his upper lip.
 
Anne looked expectantly at Paul. The only thing that held him to the ground was that she didn’t seem surprised he was there. Her mother said something in German—thick, precise, harsh-- and Anne replied sharply in German. No stutter. The tall grandfather clock in the hallway tick-tocked back and forth.
 
“W…W..We..a-r-e…”
 
He didn’t mind. The longer she took, the more time he had. He watched her lovely face transform into a herky-jerky battleground, wondering if there was some way he could help, remembering when he’d spoken for her in class a few weeks earlier, and regretting that now, as if he’d taken some of her own power away. Her cheeks puffed out, as if she was trying to inflate a balloon.
 
“You want to write it?” her mother interjected in a thickly-accented English, handing her daughter a pad of paper. Anne’s eyes flashed—she had dark eyebrows, not blonde—and she pushed aside the pad, then worked at saying something to Paul through her trickster jaw. Her forehead furrowed. She paused, touched the slight gap in her front teeth with her tongue. Her hair rose and fell in snaking waves, like blond surf. Their eyes held as she stuttered out the sentence. He wished he’d paid attention in those embarrassing dance lessons his mother had driven him to; if he had, they could have danced and he’d hold her tight.
 
“We’re making blood sausages for dinner.” She smiled, held up her hands with the red stains.
 
Her mother fluttered around as if her daughter were a wounded bird. Paul was relieved when—after an exchange in German that seemed to have something to do with his staying or not—the woman left to drive into town and do some errands, then pick up Anne’s father.
 
They were alone. He felt as if he’d known Anne forever, and could sit with her that long. An irresistible lilac fragrance surrounded her. The kitchen smells added an acidic-stale smell that disgusted him. His head started to throb.
 
Anne stood up and walked over to a long shelf with a collection of small beach stones displayed on it.
 
“Here,” she said, handing him a large one, pushing through her stutter. “You like t-to throw rocks at birds. You can have one of the-ese for next time.”
 
“Give me two more and I’ll juggle them for you.” Pure bravado. He didn’t know a hoot about juggling. She lifted an eyebrow and got the other rocks, which Paul proceeded to drop on his foot.
 
Anne broke out in laughter. “Gott in Himmel. You are s-strange.” Her German sounded soft, breathy. She tightened her lips. “Back at the bus stop that day when you said you thought there’s a monster inside me—How c-come you said that?”
 
“Sometimes it looks like there’s something trying to get out of you.”
 
She nodded.
 
“You don’t always stutter.”
 
Her eyes narrowed and she stared at him. “I don’t like to t-talk about t-that.”
 
“I didn’t mean anything. I don’t mind that you do.”
 
Her right eyebrow arched, a rich black streak across her skin.
 
“I could stutter, too. Then we both would.”
 
She laughed. “A l-lot of good that would do.”
 
She led him into the kitchen where they leaned side-by-side against the counter. He ached into his teeth to take a step forward and kiss her. Instead, Anne walked over to the refrigerator and got some milk and cookies. They sat on the counter, legs dangling, talking. The blood sausages lay in a big tray on the counter behind them, like exhibits from science class. He yearned to taste something treyf. What did a cheeseburger taste like? He asked her where in Germany her family was from. Hardly stuttering, she told him that before the war the Von Richlers had had an extensive estate in Bavaria, and that parts of her family still owned a lot of property there. She’d never been back but she hoped to go someday and meet her relatives, who never wrote. Her parents didn’t seem very interested in visiting.
 
He needed to use the bathroom. She pointed to doors across the kitchen. The one he reached for was locked. “No. The other.” When he returned, Anne said, “Sometimes I think there’s a monster in the basement,” nodding at the locked door.
 
“Why’s it locked?”
 
“I don’t know. My parents have never let me go down there. Maybe it’s a huge monster, with hot, glowing eyes.”
 
Paul chewed on his cookie. Her eyes were deep blue like his mother’s ring with the Lapis Lazuli inset.
 
“Want to kill it for me?”
 
“Me?”
 
She nodded, the trace of a smile on her lips, her lapis lazuli eyes watching him. “Yes, the monster in the basement.”
 
He wished now he’d never knocked on her door. But he wanted some danger, something to defeat. “C’mon,” he said, rattling the locked door, and hoping he looked confident and strong, flexing his arm muscles as he pulled on the old brass handle.
 
Anne got the key from her mother’s writing desk in the living room, opening a little drawer behind the neatly-stacked pile of notes and records.
 
He hesitated at the top of the steps, momentarily dizzy. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.” What if there were Nazi uniforms, pictures, documents? Maybe Hitler himself, in a rocking chair, reading The New York Times.
 
“No, go ahead.” Anne’s voice was hushed but strong, and she gave him a little push. The feel of her hand on his back propelled him forward.
 
Paul reached the bottom of the stairs with his right fist clenched. At the top, Anne flicked on the light switch. He scanned a large musty room with casement windows, a hard concrete floor and cinder block walls, and lots of junk. Not all that different from his own basement back home. Cardboard storage boxes, a hula hoop, a rusty bike, an old washing machine with a foot pedal and wooden rollers to dry clothes.
 
“No monsters so far.” His voice sounded shaky, far from a man’s voice. Against a far wall, a large wooden cabinet stood out. The dark mahogany wood was polished and well-kept. It was big, slightly taller than Paul and maybe five feet wide.
 
From across the basement the furnace rumbled. Anne called down, asking what he saw. The cabinet—dark and massive—scared him. “Come here, Anne,” he said. Footsteps, tentative, then he saw her coming down the stairs.
 
“What’s in there?” There was a small clasp with an old lock that someone had forgotten to close.
 
“I d-don’t know.”
 
He swung open the cabinet doors with a quick gesture, as if to surprise whomever or whatever was inside the cabinet.
 
An ornate, carved ivory dreidl, brown with use, lay on its side on a center shelf. A polished brass mezuzah hung on the inside left of the door, with faded Hebrew lettering engraved on its cylindrical surface. A worn leather-bound copy of the Torah perched open on the shelf. An old shawl. An odd looking, circular hat woven from dyed wool. There was a Passover Haggadah on the shelf right in front of him. The cover had a dazzling, intricate design in black ink, like an expensive wrought-iron gate to a house.
 
He stepped back. A set of tefillin, the straps half-wound, lay toward the back of one shelf, as if just opened for daily prayer.
 
Anne walked up next to him, squinting. “What…?” A row of pictures faced them, balanced against the cabinet wall, arranged in simple frames on a chest-high shelf. She picked one up. A couple in their twenties standing in the street in front of some old buildings.
 
“My mother and father,” Anne gasped. The couple stood in front of an old wooden synagogue in a little town, the young Dr. Von Richler with a tallis around his neck and shoulders. He wore the curious-looking hat that now lay in front of Paul. A festive, multicolored yarmulke, the Eastern European variety. There was a picture of a little street surrounded by wooden buildings. One was marked, Bialystock 1939.
 
The Shtetl. I am looking at The Shtetl, Paul realized. Her mother looked young and quite beautiful in the picture, not the thin, nervous person he’d met upstairs, but a dark-haired, smiling woman with lustrous eyes, even in an old photograph. Her father had his arm around his bride-to-be, wearing a simple tie and ill-fitting jacket.
 
“My parents’ w-wedding day.” Anne stepped forward and picked up a long wooden box on a lower shelf, filled with papers.
 
They had no compunctions now. There was an exit visa from Norway, dated 1945, allowing entrance to the United States. Anne’s birth certificate from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. “M-mother was pregnant with m-me when they arrived in America. I re-m-member her telling me.”
 
“There’s no Von on the birth certificate, just Richler, “ Paul said. “It says you’re Anne Richler.”
 
Anne, still holding the box, looked at Paul.
 
“It also says you’re Jewish.”
 
She took the paper from his hands, stared at it. “How c-could that be?”
 
“Because we are Jewish,” a voice said from behind them. Anne’s mother stood at the base of the stairs. Her cold eyes bore into Paul’s. Behind her stood Anne’s father, tall and dignified, with a trim moustache.
 
“What are you two doing here?” her mother asked, in her accented English. “I thought I told you never to go into the basement.”
 
“I-I-I was curious,” Anne stuttered. “I’m sorry,” came out in a whisper..
 
Paul’s head was ringing, everyone speaking at once in angry German. Then Anne turned and stuttered coldly to him, “Y-y-y-ou leave now.” As he ran up the stairs and out of the house, he heard mother and daughter yelling and crying, mixed with soothing words from the father.
 
Huddled beside the overgrown hedge on walks back from the bus stop, Anne eventually told Paul what she discovered from her parents. The Von Richlers were indeed Jewish and they were just the Richlers—everyday Jews who’d managed just by luck and persistence to get out of Germany to Norway when the war began, and then, in return for certain favors from pretty Mrs. Richler to a Norwegian visa clerk at the end of the war—favors which nine months later resulted in blue-eyed, blond Anne born in New York City—safe transit to the United States for the doctor and his unknowingly pregnant wife. “It all went to dreck back there,” her mother had exclaimed. She wanted her daughter free of Judaism.
 
Anne never invited Paul over again. Things weren’t the same between them, though Paul never betrayed her secret.
 
 
 
What Paul did do the day after he ran from Anne’s basement was to call Rabbi Rosenberg, the man who’d taught him his bar mitzvah portion. That was Tuesday.
 
Wednesday he walked the half-mile from school to the Temple for the meeting he’d asked for, telling his mother that he had a backyard basketball game with the guys.
 
Thursday, Paul sat in history class when he heard Chopper, standing besides the Universal spring release map of Europe, ask who could point to each of the countries in the Soviet Empire. “Everything behind the Iron Curtain.”
 
Paul’s hand shot up, as did Chopper’s eyebrows.
 
“Go ahead, Gilverstein, give it a shot,” he sighed.
 
A thick black marker in his pocket, Paul walked past Anne, past Mitchell, past Jimmy. When he reached the map, Paul took out the marker. Before anyone could tackle him, he drew a thick black continuous line over the map extending through a big chunk of Poland and Western Russia, pretty far east and almost all the way down to the Black Sea, just as Rabbi Rosenberg had patiently shown him in his office the day before. They’d talked for over an hour.
 
“I’m sorry, Sir, this is not the Iron Curtain, but it is the Shtetl Lands. I think it deserves to be on our maps.”
 
Chopper stood with his arms spread, legs braced, feet planted, as if about to tackle Paul. He exploded at the “desecration of school property” and threw him out of class on the spot, sending him to the school office with a pile of pink slips. Paul sat in the busy office for an hour before the principal found time to see him. Looking across her desk, glasses pushed up into her hair, she asked what he thought he’d been doing. Paul explained about The Shtetl, where millions of Jews had lived, and millions had died. She nodded, and said that “The Shtetl” sounded like a perfectly good idea for a class report, but that didn’t excuse writing what was essentially “graffiti” on a school map. A week’s worth of detention sounded appropriate and his family would have to pay for the damage to school property.
 
It was worth it. Anne had understood; he’d seen it in her eyes as she looked at him leaving the classroom. He figured he’d walk home from school so his mother wouldn’t have to put aside whatever she was doing and pick him up after all those detentions. The bill for damages he’d have to pay himself. He’d get a job, lug crates of soda pop to restock the cooler at old man Kaiser’s deli in town, just like some of the older kids did. Earn some money. Be more on his own.
 

 

Maybe he’d even have some change left over for a cheeseburger at the Burger Barn in town.

  

 

Copyright © Sam Osherson 2016

Sam Osherson is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, MA, and the author of a number of books, including The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam War.



 

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