Escape to Shanghai
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Nina Vida
Kovno, Lithuania, July, 1940
The Soviets marched into Kovno, and Mama’s hair turned white. It used to be the color of used bricks. Now silken sprigs of hair as shiny white as salt burst from beneath her mouse-gray wig, which in the heat of the kitchen, with cooking pots full and steaming, sat like a dried bird’s nest on her head.
“Stir the kreplach, Lilli,” Mama said.
Lilli was hypnotized by the turbulence the spoon created. A person could learn a lot by studying the way kreplach struggled to keep afloat in boiling water, spinning and twirling like tiny rafts, then tipping sideways, ribbons of yellow fat staining the water as the meat-filled pockets were sucked into the vortex, sank to the bottom, then bobbed up again.
“Are you stirring, Lilli?” Mama said.
“I’m stirring, Mama.”
There was more cooking to be done now that there were five extra mouths to feed, yeshiva students who’d escaped Poland one step ahead of Hitler and arrived in Kovno with eyes like graven pits and clothes that looked as if they had been chewed on by wild animals. Mama had never been a meticulous housekeeper, but now even her superficial neatness was overwhelmed by too many bodies in too few rooms. Two of the students occupied Lilli’s room, and two others slept on the floor in her brother Aaron’s room. (Lilli slept with Mama in the feather bed that had been Grandma Chernofsky’s wedding present to Mama and Papa; Papa slept in a chair in his study.) Moses Zuckerman, at twenty-two der firer, the leader of the group, the one who led the students through the Polish forests to escape the Nazis, occupied the sagging couch in the parlor, long arms and legs hanging over the cushions and onto the floor like a toppled tree.
The house was upside down: teetering alps of books to be scaled, battered suitcases to be bumped into, Hebrew prayers chanted from early morning to late evening. The yeshiva students made no concession to the heat. They sat by the open window in threadbare suits and calf-length coats, black felt hats pulled all the way down to the tops of their ears, not even unbuttoning their shirts to let a slice of air tickle their necks. At night they sprawled on their mattresses, fully dressed in their torn suits and coats and cracked shoes, their black hats on the floor beside them so that if the house caught fire and they had to run outside, they wouldn’t be without a head covering to remind them that God was right above them.
“Moses says we have to leave Kovno,” Lilli murmured.
“He speaks to you?” Mama asked, her voice rising.
“You must be careful, Lilli. Papa will send him and his yeshiva buchers out of the house if he finds out.”
“He’s a Jewish boy, Mama.”
“He’s not a boy; he’s a man, a stranger. What do we know about him? He’s someone to be treated cautiously. Who knows what bad things he’s done in his life? He appears out of nowhere with his farloyrn menschen following after him like sheep. Maybe he’s a golem, a handful of dust kneaded into the shape of a man. Hitler is a madman, and I believe that Moses saw terrible things. But what can we do? Kovno isn’t Warsaw. No place is exactly like another place. Maybe Hitler will leave us alone now that Stalin is here.”
Before the Soviets invaded, it was Hitler that Mama worried about. She sent Lilli to stay with Papa’s sister, Rose Chernofsky, in Stuttgart. Tante Rose, Hitler’s favorite actress in the halcyon days of Jewish actors, had been reduced to performing obscure plays with the Stuttgart Repertory Theater in a half-timbered abandoned factory on a cobblestone street in the doll-like, thirteenth-century city of Stuttgart. In the four months Lilli was there with Tante Rose she turned seventeen, her body slimmed and lengthened, her baby cheeks sleekened, and the skin beneath its drizzle of cinnamon freckles turned as rosy as a summer flush. In those four months the Nazis closed the synagogues and began snatching Jews off the street and pulling them off the trams. Stuttgart, a gold-dipped, solemn city — the flowers blanketing the hills bleeding head-spinning perfume into the air — became an iron-hard city spitting its Jews out as smoothly as peanut shells.
When Milton Gorstein, the theater company’s manager, disappeared while walking from his apartment to the theater, Tante Rose sent Lilli home.
“Tell your mama it’s no safer here than it is in Kovno.”
“Who dresses a child like a harlot?” Papa asked when Lilli got off the train wearing a silk shirtwaist and bow-toed pumps, her hair marcelled, eyes mascaraed, cheeks rouged.
Mama washed Lilli’s face, and Aaron said, “I knew Tante Rose would ruin her.”
The dress and shoes were now in a box in the closet, the makeup in a drawer, and Lilli wore the same puff-sleeved dirndls and laced shoes she’d worn before she went away, her behavior once again as circumscribed as the earth’s orbit, the same restrictions and forbiddances blooming like holy writ in every corner of the dusty house.
The sound of voices in the dining room plaited the heated dark of the house, strips of sound like shredded newsprint, mismatched, disconnected, Moses’ voice as spiked as a river’s rush, Aaron yapping like a hatchling in the nest. Lilli struggled to hear what was being said. It was no use. She might as well have tried to spear a fish with Papa’s silver Torah pointer.
“Take some honey cake to Papa,” Mama said.
“And a man must not sit when others are standing nor stand when others are sitting,” Papa was saying as Lilli opened the dining room door. The yeshiva students averted their eyes and pressed themselves tight against the backs of their chairs as Lilli set the plate of sliced honey cake in the center of the table amidst the papers, books and cold cups of tea sopping onto the pink roses in Mama’s embroidered tablecloth. They tried to pretend Lilli didn’t exist. They looked at the ceiling, examined their fingernails, bent to tie their shoes, murmured snatches of prayer. Their efforts to avoid her were as comical as the maneuverings of a troupe of mad monks. In rebellion she obstinately skirted their private space, limned the razor edge of their discomfort by standing close to the table, then reaching across it to smooth the cloth. If she had been certain it wouldn’t make Papa angry, she would have picked out one of the yeshiva students and squeezed his hand, just to prove to them that her touch wasn’t fatal.
Moses wasn’t afraid to look at her. The week before he had opened the door to Mama’s bedroom when Lilli was dressing. She was naked from the waist up, the chemise she was about to put on still in her hand. She didn’t cover herself. It was too late. She let him look.
Moses was extremely tall, taller than the lintel above the synagogue doors. His voice held inside it the timbrous rustle of someone who had crawled up out of the grave. Papa said that Moses’ escape from Poland was proof that the mashiach’s protective hand had crowned him with the force of a thousand suns. Aaron said that Moses was like the Moses of the Pentateuch, a wanderer in the wilderness. Rootless was the word Aaron used — only tied to the earth by the string of hapless yeshiva buchers he dragged along behind him.
Lilli hadn’t told anyone that Moses had seen her naked. Or that he had kissed her — once in the fallow yard behind the house, once in the kitchen, and once in the dark dining room when everyone was asleep. Surprise kisses that gathered Lilli in and held her fast. She had never been kissed by anyone before Moses, and she fell into the bower of his soft beard and kissed him back, their lips like the press of a moist flower between the pages of a book.
Lilli was fairly certain that romantic love was found only in books and plays. But could love be what she felt for Moses, this exotic man, this interpreter of the Talmud, who suborned poisonous thoughts in those around him, forcing them to canvass his actions for mistakes and omissions? It may not have been love, but the wantonness in his manner, his voluptuousness of will, dazzled Lilli. There were, of course, questions to be answered, such as how exactly he got out of Poland with the Nazis shooting people in the streets, or why the yeshiva buchers followed him so blindly and treated him with the obeisance due someone like Papa instead of like the homeless vagrant he was, shnorring lodgings from strangers.
Aaron was still reading from the Mishnah, his head down, the book gripped between thin fingers, his gnawed nails like nubbins of misshapen radishes.
“What’s this?” Papa asked.
“Cake,” Lilli replied.
Papa looked like the picture of Abraham hanging on the dining room wall, fierce-faced, his eyes two burnt holes in their creased beds. Unlike Abraham’s flowing white beard and uncovered head, Papa’s beard was a gray-flecked brown, and he always wore a hat, even in the house. When studying at the dining room table, he wore a small black satin yarmulke and a long silk morning coat. When visitors came, he put on his high-domed sable hat and a full-length black coat. In the synagogue he donned his rabbinical robes and embroidered silk tallit. Papa didn’t seem concerned that the Russians had smashed open the gates and, like a burglar, snatched the city up.
“And a man must not sleep when others are awake, nor should he remain awake among those who sleep,” Aaron said. His face was dense with freckles above a beard suspended from his chin like a tomatoey mop. His small bay-colored eyes and severe expression gave him the appearance of an inquisitor. Lilli resembled him in the high yoke of cheekbone and constellation of freckles, but her hair was the color of soft-washed flax, her lips were plump and her nose was narrow, while his face had a wandering lumpiness.
“I dreamed that Hitler came to Kovno,” Lilli said. “Mr. Gorstein, the stage manager of the Stuttgart Repertory, was in my dream, Papa.”
“And what did Mr. Gorstein have to say in your dream?”
“He said we should leave Kovno. You always say that dreams are messages, Papa. Well, Mr. Gorstein sent me a message in my dream.”
“And where should we go, Lilli?”
“Spain would be a fine place.”
“You’re so dumb you probably don’t even know where Spain is,” Aaron said, looking up from the text.
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Moses said.
“When she becomes your sister you can talk to her the way you want. Meanwhile I’m her brother, and I’m talking to her. Besides, we have no passports, no transit visas, and the Soviets want two hundred American dollars for every exit visa. If you try to sell your belongings on the black market, they shoot you. Two men from Vilna were found dead in the street yesterday after trying to sell an overcoat for a sack of potatoes. Impossible.”
“Your head is uncovered,” Papa said, staring at Lilli’s headscarf, at the exposed crown where wheat-streaked wisps as fine as duck down had escaped the heavy twist of hair.
“The scarf is too small.”
“Here.” Aaron handed her his handkerchief, which was almost as big as the dishtowels that lay stacked in a drawer in the kitchen.
“You blew your nose in it.”
“I only wiped it.”
“Enough,” Papa said.
When Lilli was younger, Aaron had spoken gently to her, brought her squares of buttery mandelbroyt from the study hall and read Torah stories to her in the evenings, but, as though he were afraid that Tante Rose’s bohemian ways had tainted her, he now flayed her with snippiness and disdain.
Lilli took off her apron and opened the door to the side yard, a nubbly space full of sinkholes and rocks. When Lilli left for Stuttgart, the single tree in the corner of the yard had been alive, its winter drapes shed and green buds rippling along its branches. Now it was a seared-brown scarecrow. Aaron said that nothing grew in the yard because of the constant dampness where the water pipes had leaked onto the ground. Too much water robs plants of oxygen, he said. It was a mystery how Aaron knew so much about so many things, since he spent all his waking hours at Papa’s side, his body bent over the holy texts.
Lilli had lived in this house in this Jewish neighborhood most of her life. The streets were unpaved dirt, muddy except in the summer when the wind from the river blew up a choking silt that grayed the buildings and sifted through ill-fitting door frames and window sills. The wood-frame synagogue was across the street. The kosher meat and poultry market, the bakery and the fruit stand were a block away in a converted stable between the mikvah and the tailor shop. Two long meandering streets where Jews had lived for centuries. No medieval buildings, no cobblestone promenades for Sunday strolling, no cafés serving sliced pig ear and beer; just the common scrim of Jewish community life.
And now there was a cyclonic brew of unrest, a Stygian dark of death dimming the pellucid sky. The Soviet grip was a shadowband dulling the bright lights of Kovno as the city shriveled and fell in on itself. Jewish stores were closed, communal meetings forbidden, people taken away in the middle of the night. The few people on the streets hurried to their destinations with quick, fearful looks. Kovno had always been a happy place in the summertime. Now it was a place of reverberating sadness. A defeated, gray town hanging onto the edge of Europe, a child clutching its mother’s skirt while the forest burned and the earth shook. And for everything bad that happened, the Gentiles blamed the Jews.
At night in bed while Mama slept beside her, Lilli wove scenarios of escape, invented strategies and diagrammed exits. In daylight they seemed puny, inadequate. She worried about misjudgments that could lead to disaster, omissions that could leave someone behind.
Before Lilli went to Stuttgart, she had been an invisible person dreaming that ice storms, dark and cumbrous, would soon descend on Kovno and hollow out the skies. In her dreams she had tasted the salty flavor of flight and felt the swoop of spread wings as she flew away, but when she awoke there were only shards and shadows and the throb of her heart beating at the bars of its cage. In Stuttgart she had lost her smothering timidity and, for the first time, had felt the thrilling strike of independence, the first bud of self apart from family and tradition and ritual. Maybe that was the awakening of the mysterious soul that Papa was always talking about — a lightness without weight, the feeling that, if she were to stretch her arms out, she could fly.
But there was no soul. There was no God. Lilli left God behind in Stuttgart — just left him there, like a beggar on a park bench. It was hard to come home with these thoughts in her head. She kept them secret. Rampant spirits possessed her, ideas bloomed, cohered and formed connections. She was full of carefully controlled obstinacy. If there were no Stalin or Hitler in the world, she would have stayed in Stuttgart with Tante Rose and never have come back to Kovno except to visit. She might have become an actress like Tante Rose. (“She has my quickness and lack of fear,” Tante Rose had told Mr. Gorstein before he disappeared.) She might have sold books in a shop in the city center on subjects that no one in Kovno had ever heard of. Or maybe she would have opened a kinderheim and filled it with cast-off, unwanted children. When Mama’s sister died, her husband gave their five-year-old daughter Masha to Mama to raise because he said she reminded him of his dead wife, and he couldn’t stand it. Masha died of diphtheria a year later. Lilli was too young to remember her, but she had heard so much about her that sometimes she thought she remembered her: the chair she sat in, how she held a spoon, the way her hair lay in frothy wisps across her forehead. Mama always said that when Masha died, it was as if her own child had died. Masha wandered Lilli’s dreams, a ghost sister as real to Lilli as if she were still alive.
The small house felt shrunken, its walls grown trembly in the four short months that Lilli had been away. There was a definite sensation of its foundation having slipped away so that, when she closed her eyes, she imagined the tile-roofed house sailing unfettered across the sky, open doors like sails catching the wind. But the same pots bubbled on the iron stove. Gray wallpaper still peeled off the walls like a serpent shedding its skin.
Two days before the Soviets annexed Lithuania, Lilli heard Papa and Aaron arguing. Lilli had never heard Papa shout at Aaron the way he did that day. Aaron said he thought Moses was right, that they should leave Kovno, and Papa said Kovno was their home and a man doesn’t leave his home and go out into the wilderness for no reason. Aaron said that Moses had seen what the Nazis did to those who hadn’t left Warsaw.
Papa said, “This is Kovno; the Jews have always lived here; nothing will happen.”
Two days later, the Russians moved in, and the foreign consulates were shuttered, all escape closed. Aaron still read the Mishnah, but his murmured readings, once as smooth as birdsong, became a headlong clatter of ragged sounds. Moses, the stranger, the wanderer with no discernible patrimony, stayed on in the Chernofsky house with his retinue of followers, his dark face like a lowering cloud, his sonorous voice pummeling Aaron with importunings to take his family and leave Kovno — while his arms stretched out to catch Lilli in shadowed corners and clutch her to him in dangerous ways.
Meanwhile a story circulated among the Jewish refugees that the Dutch consul had agreed to stamp the words No visa is required to Curaçao onto any piece of paper, and that the Japanese consul was willing to grant twenty-one day transit visas through Japan to the holders of those Dutch visas.
“Through Japan?” Aaron argued. “Will we then be abandoned?”
“The Japanese control Shanghai,” Moses replied. “If we can get to Shanghai from Japan . . .”
“If,” Aaron moaned. “If.”
Moses and Lilli left the house at dawn, Moses carrying the Torah scroll, Lilli walking beside him through a Gentile neighborhood of frame houses and vegetable gardens, sidewalks and cobblestone streets. It was a dawn like any other summer dawn, warm beneath a faltering sky of winged clouds, the sun-ruddled linden trees kiting the breeze through their lacy leaves, dun-colored horses pulling milk wagons, the noisome clatter of their hooves shaking the morning sloth. A good day to be outside in the summer air walking, as though walking were the purpose, as though the echoing presence of foreign occupation — the sharp kick of Soviet boots and the distant rumble of trucks — didn’t exist.
Aaron had argued against Lilli being the one to sell the scroll.
“She’ll say something she shouldn’t. She’ll be caught. I should be the one to go.”
“You get too excited,” Moses objected. “You nearly fainted at the Dutch consulate.”
“Lilli will do it,” said Mama.
The iron fence of the Japanese consulate lay ahead, a press of people like a raised scar winding around the small house and spilling off the sidewalk into the street.
There had once been a time when Jewish lovers didn’t dare to touch on the street, but urgency promoted license, rules shifted and disobedience stole in. No one looked up at two young people stretching toward one another across an ancient Sephardic scroll, their embrace like the feverish clutch of haunted spirits. No one remarked on the fact that the man was a bearded Jew with the fire of a mystic in his gaze, or that the girl — obviously Jewish by the way she had arranged her bright blue scarf over her sheaf of oaten hair — was kissing his eyes and nose and lips with the immodesty of a peasant girl.
The scroll was in Lilli’s arms now.
“I’ll wait for you here,” Moses said.
It was a short walk to the end of the line. Lilli looked back. Moses was still standing where she had left him, his black-clad figure like some alien sculpture, beard and wild hair framing his face, large chest bending the light. He might not have come to Kovno. He could have gone somewhere else with his retinue of rescued yeshiva students, but he’d stopped at the Chernofsky house, as if that were the place he had been heading all along.
She waved at him, and he nodded his head.
It was hot. There were no trees here, no shade; merely an unruly line of shoving, shuffling, stumbling, benumbed people, some pushing baby carriages, some holding crying children in their arms, some lugging paper-wrapped parcels, boxes or suitcases, everyone with a sheet of paper or a passport stamped with the words No Visa is Required to Curaçao. There was exhaustion in everyone’s face. Those closest to the iron fence leaned on it, draped their arms over it. Some merely sat on the curb and stared at the white house with the brown door and narrow windows.
The Soviets had closed the Jewish schools, and the leaders of the Jewish community were vanishing. Exiled somewhere to the north, it was said. Refugees from Nazi-occupied Poland continued to pour into the city, bringing with them stories of attacks on Jews too wild, too preposterous, too horrific, to believe. The telegraph office was jammed with people waiting to send cables to American relatives, however distant, begging for dollars with which to buy exit visas. American dollars — not zlotys or rubles or litai — was the only currency the Soviets would accept, and yet Jews caught selling their belongings for dollars or found with dollars in their possession were executed.
There was a notice in the paper that the Japanese authorities had closed the consulate, and that there would be no more Japanese transit visas. There was no longer an official sign in front of the house and no longer a Japanese sentry at the door, but among all the other rumors was the rumor that Consul Sugihara would defy the authorities.
Wild stories erupted and bulleted through the anxious throng: the Soviets were filming everyone in front of the consulate; they will arrest you, take you away for interrogation and send you to Siberia. At every tick of the clock there was another tale spun: the Japanese had arrested Consul Sugihara; Consul Sugihara was lying dead in his office, shot by a German assassin; Consul Sugihara was still in his office, but he had been wounded (luckily in the left arm — he was still free to stamp transit visas with his right hand). The consulate and its human cordon were a small planet spinning through a mottled sky, ringed by rumors and fear and desperation.
Lilli measured her progress by landmarks. The end of the block, the corner, the start of the iron fence.
At mid-morning Consul Sugihara himself came out of the house and assured everyone in halting Lithuanian that he would hand out transit visas to everyone — that he would write and stamp visas as long as he could.
“You have my promise,” he said and went back inside.
A drenching summer storm came suddenly and shined the stone streets. Shirts, cotton dresses, bundles of paper, carried children and wobble-wheeled prams seemed to sink beneath cascading waves of water, and the house floated above them like a mountained mirage in a sea-green mist.
In moments the rain was gone, and the sun was brighter and hotter than before. Coils of steam spiraled up like cigarette smoke from scattered pools of rainwater, some no bigger than a baby’s fist, others as large as small ponds to be stepped in and sloshed through.
The line was moving — slowly, fitfully. Lilli was now close enough to the house to smell the flowers blooming beneath the windows. There was a line here, too. A Lithuanian woman in a print housedress, a hairnet on her gray hair, was letting people into the basement of the house, one at a time, to use the toilet.
Finally, Lilli moved past the iron gate and up the steps. The door opened, and a young Japanese woman in a gray skirt and white blouse, her black hair as straight as a wire brush, let Lilli in.
It was a house much like her own: a small entryway with a potted plant on a wooden stand, a living room furnished in timid colors, the walls bare, the beige curtains lined to protect against sunlight. Music filtered through a half-open door, a symphony of honeyed horns and gentle-tambered flutes. The young woman led the way through a sparely furnished dining room (a large table and four curved-back cushionless chairs) and past the kitchen where another Japanese woman (Consul Sugihara’s wife?) held a baby in her arms while a toddler crawled on the floor, and a child sat at the table tearing an orange into segments and arranging them in order of descending size. Lilli was momentarily stopped by the ordinariness of the scene, by the simplicity and calm. The woman holding the baby smiled at Lilli, a secret smile.
Then to the end of a short hall and into Consul Sugihara’s office.
The office was plain: an umbrella stand with a single umbrella in it, file cabinets, a typewriter on a small table next to Consul Sugihara’s desk. Sun shone through the single window, unimpeded by drapes, curtains or blinds. Walls were as white as boiled potatoes, their plainness interrupted by a single wood-block print of a Japanese landscape.
Consul Sugihara was seated behind a desk strewn with an assortment of papers, inkpots and stamp pads. He had an oval face, a flared nose, and ears that lay flush to the sides of his head. Lilli had thought he would be wearing a uniform and that his head would be shaved like the pictures of the Japanese in the newspapers, but his bristly hair, straining to free itself from its sleek layer of pomade, was an ordinary length. He could have been mistaken for a bank clerk with his ink-stained fingers, his rumpled gray suit and large striped tie.
Consul Sugihara picked up his pen. “What is your name?”
“Where are your parents?”
“Here in Kovno. Also my brother Aaron. Also five others. We have no passports. We’re all from Poland. Papa is a rabbi. He left Warsaw for Kovno when I was a baby. We have pieces of paper with a Dutch stamp for Curaçao.”
He filled out nine transit visas, stamped them and handed them to her.
Lilli put the Torah scroll on the floor in front of the desk.
“I have something to sell.”
“I am sorry, very sorry, everyone with something to sell, I’m sorry, so sorry. It’s not possible.”
“You will change your mind when you see it. I know how easy it is to say no before you even have a chance to look at something. I would do the same if I were in your place because I know everyone outside has something to sell, something to barter, and you’re tired of looking at old relics and broken treasures. But this is something that museums want, a rare object.”
“Please, please, there are others waiting.”
“You can buy it from me, and then you can sell it yourself. You can become rich because you have never seen anything like what I’m going to show you right now. It’s been in our family since 1862. It’s Papa’s most precious possession. Papa doesn’t want to emigrate. He doesn’t know that I’ve taken the scroll.”
“I have no time for this. I’m sorry.”
She felt faint, on the verge of tears. Words spun from her throat, but she couldn’t hear them, and Consul Sugihara gaze seemed unsteady, his head swiveling like a butter churn, one eye staring at her from the side, the other winking crazily.
“Great Uncle Samuel Chernofsky read in a book that there was a synagogue in Kaifeng, China, so he boarded a ship and went to China to look for Chinese Jews. The synagogue had been turned into a public urinal, but there were Chinese who claimed to be descended from Jewish traders who came from Baghdad in the twelfth century. They didn’t look like Jews — how could they when they only had Chinese to marry? Imagine — a Torah scroll in Hebrew and Chinese.”
She was on her knees now, unwrapping the raincoat Mama had wrapped around the scroll, her fingers picking like a surgeon at the feathery tears of the enveloping newspapers.
Consul Sugihara was leaning over her now.
“It is. Oh, it is. It’s terrible that we have to sell it, but we’re desperate for American dollars, and there is no other way.”
She laid the open scroll across his arms.
“I need money for Soviet exit visas. American dollars. Polish zlotys are no good. Two thousand American dollars and the scroll is yours.”
“I’m being sent to Germany. There’s no time. Surely someone else will want to buy it.”
“The Soviets will kill me first. Look at the parchment; there is no parchment in Europe to equal this. Look at the engraving in the breastplate, the bells and flowers. Only a great artist could have made a Torah case like this one. You see how it opens: the Sephardic way, on a hinge, two pieces and then the scroll.”
“Everyone in Kovno wants American dollars,” he said. “There aren’t enough American dollars in Kovno for everyone. You have to understand that I have sympathy, that I’m trying to do what I can, but —”
“The Hebrew script was written by stylus, and the Chinese was written with a Chinese brush pen. It dates from the year 1642 when the Yellow River dikes broke. The synagogue and nearly the whole city of Kaifeng were drowned in water. You can see the water stains on the paper. Minor stains. Nothing to ruin the beauty. Nothing at all. Minor stains.”
“I can’t buy everything that’s offered to me.”
Mama had prepared a bowl of boiled oats and milk for Lilli before she left the house. “You’ll need your strength,” Mama said. But Lilli hadn’t been able to eat. Each spoonful was like a blade scraping her insides. Now she felt the flag of an empty stomach in the shiver of her fingers and the tiny droplets of perspiration dampening the curls beneath her headscarf.
“Two thousand American dollars and the scroll is yours. In 1930 the English Historical Society offered Papa fifteen thousand pounds.”
“My currency transactions are watched.”
“You can make money on it; sell it wherever you want.”
“Can you leave it here?”
“Leave it here?”
The sun through the window was over bright; it arrowed into Lilli’s eyes and dazed her. She hadn’t thought Consul Sugihara would ask her to leave the scroll. Lancets of pain and grief at what might be lost were almost too much to bear.
“I take the morning train for Berlin tomorrow. Come to the station, and I’ll have your money for you.”
Aaron wouldn’t stop talking, explaining, interpreting, dissecting what had happened, and finally declaring with boundless certainty that everything was lost, hopeless, that a jagged continuum of despair and terror now faced them, that he should have been the one to take the scroll to Sugihara, that Lilli didn’t understand the seriousness of what she had done in leaving the scroll without money being paid, that Consul Sugihara was no different than a German or a Russian, and, no doubt, like them, had nothing but contempt for Jews.
Mama sat in Papa’s chair in the dining room and listened ashen-faced. Papa, who now knew that the scroll was gone, was in his study with the door closed. The yeshiva students were praying, the four of them facing the eastern wall of the house, their bodies rocking like palsied marionettes.
“I sold the scroll,” Lilli said calmly. “He didn’t want to buy it. He looked at it with greed, and I could see him thinking about what he should do, about whether it was worth what I was asking. In my head I heard his questioning, and I knew he would buy it. Consul Sugihara will bring the money to the train station. He told me he would, and he will.”
Moses listened, his fingers steepled, his face the settled mask of a general on the eve of battle.
There was barely room to move on the station platform. No one would give up an inch of hard-earned space. Steam from the train’s engines whitened the sky. The train slowly began to move. People on the platform clawed at the metal body, held papers up to the open window. They shrieked and shouted, some fell to the ground sobbing, some fainted. Consul Sugihara and the woman Lilli had seen in the consulate kitchen were together at the train window, hands outstretched. The speed of the train quickened. The very air was frantic as the consul and his wife struggled to sign and stamp passports, birth certificates, notepapers, letters, old lists, receipts, ledger sheets, tattered strips of newspaper, pages torn from books, covers of magazines, even matchboxes. Particles of paper floated through the air like rain, like snow, like rainbows. Specks, shreds, bits of paper fluttered onto the tracks.
Moses lifted Lilli up, her slender body fastened to him like a sapling in a woodsman’s arms. Consul Sugihara leaned out of the open window; his fingers touched Lilli’s. The envelope dropped into her hands.