Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 5 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2011 by Israel Bookshop Publication
“Of course I know the family! My younger sister—you remember Dina’le, with the braids, don’t you? Today she doesn’t have braids, of course, and her married name is Zingerevitz, and she lives there, a few buildings away from Rambam Street. And the Ostfelds live next door to her!”
“Nu, so what can you tell me about them?” Out of the corner of her eye, Minna saw her husband’s car pull up a few feet from the bench, arriving a bit earlier than she had anticipated. “I mean, we’ve heard what kind of family they are, more or less. What I need to know is about the atmosphere at home, despite everything.”
“They say it’s not hereditary,” Chaya hurried to assert.
Minna laughed. “Sure, if they are bringing up their children in the ways of traditional Yiddishkeit, then it’s not hereditary at all. My question is how they are raising the children and if the past—and the present—don’t influence the atmosphere at home. After all, a father who is a university lecturer … you know what I mean …”
“Of course I understand,” Chaya said, nodding solemnly. “But you should know that the—how did you put it? The present and the past? What a nice way to say it. It doesn’t have a negative influence at all. My sister told me that that house has so much joie-de-vivre, such a positive energy. The mother is a special woman, and the father is also wonderful. So what if he’s a university lecturer? It doesn’t prevent him from dealing with life’s challenges. By the way, I think he is a regular member of the Daf Yomi shiur that my brother-in-law organizes. He is also a very refined person. I’ve seen him a few times walking with the girl.”
“The one in high school?”
“Come on! If I say the girl, then of course I mean the little one.”
“Yes, you’re right. You wouldn’t have called a high-schooler a girl,” Minna agreed with a smile, and motioned for her husband to wait a moment.
“…So I overheard what they were talking about. He was explaining a concept in the parshah, and he clarified it all so clearly and to the point. It was such a heartwarming scene.”
Minna rose to greet Shimon, who had gotten out of the car to open the trunk for the groceries. “Chaya, I have no words to thank you! You’ve been so helpful!”
“Should I help you with this as well?” Chaya asked as she bent over her friend’s bags.
“No thanks, my husband will help me with that.”
“Wonderful. So take care, Minna. If the boy is a good boy—take him. You have nothing to be afraid of as far as problems. The family has their emotional health and that’s what counts!” Chaya called as she walked off. Minna hurried to put the last bag into the trunk and then settled herself into the front seat.
“A friend of yours?” Shimon asked.
“Yes,” Minna replied, quickly scanning the street to ensure that she didn’t spot any familiar faces who could have heard Chaya’s last declaration. How embarrassing! “Well, she happens to know the Ostfelds; her sister is their neighbor. She says they are a wonderful family. We spoke mostly about the father—and he’s the one we had the biggest lack of information about. She says he’s a special person, and attends a Daf Yomi shiur every day. She once heard him talking to one of his daughters as they took a walk, and he was explaining to her something in the parshah. It seems to be that despite his profession, he’s established a Torah home, and my friend emphasized that throughout the conversation.”
That’s not what she emphasized throughout the whole conversation, but you really have no way of knowing that yet.
The zipper hummed along the track and then suddenly stopped. Dan sighed. “Mother, the duffel bag is too full. It just won’t close.”
“You just didn’t put things in the right order,” his mother replied and came over to take a look, drying her hand on a small napkin. “You know, it’s that huge package of marshmallows that’s preventing the bag from closing. Perhaps you should empty half of it into a plastic bag and leave it behind.”
Dan chuckled. “No need, Mother. I can just transfer all of it into a smaller bag. I still have a bit of space left there.
Now Lara Weingarten sighed. “I would think that it wouldn’t harm you to manage with a bit less, but as you like it. Are you ready?”
“Then let’s go. I’ll drive you to the campus. I’ll be ready in just a few minutes.”
She went up to her room. Dan remained on the main floor, sliding the zipper into its rightful place and snapping the straps of the duffel bag closed. He sat down on a chair near the wall but jumped right up when he realized he was sitting on something. That “something” turned out to be a stack of pages held together by a paper clip. His eyes scanned the text.
“Oh, boy, is this interesting, Mother!” he exclaimed, hearing his mother’s footsteps descending from the second floor. “I understand that the woman who wrote this is the one who took you in after the war, no?”
Lara nodded, the wrinkles on her cheeks suddenly becoming deeper. A wistful look came to her eyes.
“Yes, I received a letter from a lawyer in London telling me that she died some time ago and that in her will she asked that I be sent the memoirs she had written down about that time.” She rummaged around in one of the breakfront drawers and withdrew a sheet of paper that was folded into quarters. “This is the letter.”
Dan quickly read it. A spark began to dance in his eyes. “Diana Mollis? Was that her name?”
“Interesting; that’s really fascinating. Send me these memoirs when you have a chance; I’d like to read them in my free time.”
“Okay. I also want to send them to Ann and Betty. I’m sure they’ll be interested in them, too.”
The trip passed in utter silence, as Dan opted to doze most of the way. He opened his eyes as the car pulled into the huge campus. “I have no words to thank you for driving me, Mother,” he said, smiling at her. She smiled back at him, although her tension was obvious. She knew what he would do now. She had come to terms with it long ago, but she always harbored the hope that perhaps this time, he would skip this part.
But … no, he didn’t. His hand reached for the small knitted yarmulke that graced his head when he was at home. He opened the glove compartment of the car and placed the yarmulke inside. Then his eyes caught her gaze.
“This is totally needless here, Mother; you know that.” His voice held no note of apology.
Antwerp, September 1945
Diana Mollis raised her head from her book as her husband, Bob, entered their hotel room and slowly closed the door. He raised his hands in a gesture of despair. “Almost everything is gone. Those thieves took most of the machines, not to mention the factory’s bank accounts. Nothing is left of them.”
“I hope you didn’t blame Matlis for the fact that he gave them access to everything.”
Bob emitted a bitter laugh that sounded more like a bark. “Of course not. I would have done the exact same thing had I been in his place.” He walked over toward the window and stood silently for several moments, gazing at the foreign scenery.
“Well,” Diana said in resignation, “at least we prepared ourselves for such news ahead of time, and we didn’t hope for much more. So what is left?”
“The building and a little bit of merchandise. When the Nazis were here, they nationalized more than seventy percent of the merchandise each month. So in essence, my factory worked for them!” His voice rose as he clenched his teeth.
“And what else?” his wife asked when she saw that he was retreating into his ominous thoughts.
“Ah, yes. Some of the machines remained, and the files in the archives also remained untouched. At least there I have copies of everything that was destroyed in London.”
Bob Mollis was a British citizen who had established a successful chemical company that had flourished before the war. He had factories in London and in Bristol, and in 1932, he established another plant in Antwerp with a Belgian partner. When the British declared war on Nazi Germany, and the ties between Belgium and Britain were severed, contact with the Antwerp branch was cut off as well, although Bob did receive the occasional regards through mysterious channels. The war caused Bob serious damage, and a large part of the London factory was destroyed in the German Blitz on London. Now, several months after the liberation in Belgium, Bob Mollis had come to see with his own eyes what was left of the Antwerp branch of his business.
“We’re going to have to get everything organized here again from scratch,” he said quietly. “And now, you’ll forgive me if I simply go to sleep.”
He threw himself onto the bedspread fully clothed and with his shoes on.
“Okay, sleep well,” Diana replied and put down her book. “I may go out a bit.” She didn’t know what to say to a man as large parts of his life came crashing down around him one after another.
She closed the door gently behind her and went down to the lobby, heading for the front entrance. The autumn chill made her draw her short jacket tighter around her shoulders. She walked through the streets of Antwerp, trying to discern the effects of the war on the area. It wasn’t hard to find them. Long lines filled the various stores; signs about different products that were scheduled to be delivered hung all around; and most prominently, the people in the streets all wore tense expressions.
This terrible war has drained people of the desire to smile, Diana thought dismally, and quickened her pace.
The streets were crowded with buildings that were dotted with narrow, tall windows. In one courtyard she saw a group of children. There were no whoops of joy or playfulness; rather the children were shouting, involved in a heated argument. Diana neared the gate, casually observing the scene. Suddenly, a small figure broke out from the group and ran towards the entrance of the courtyard. Two girls chased her, and the expression on their faces did not reflect any good intentions on their parts. Loud jeers and scornful shouting echoed through the courtyard.
The fleeing girl reached the entrance and leaped out straight into Diana, who wobbled for a moment, but then grabbed her strongly. The two pursuers came to a silent halt about three feet away.
“Why are you chasing her?” Diana admonished the two girls in a strident tone. They continued staring at her silently and she repeated the question in her weak Flemish, remembering that they did not understand her native English.
They tittered, but said nothing. The other children in the courtyard came over to the entrance, and Diana repeated her question, trying to ignore the inevitable mistakes in her dialect. The only opportunities she had to learn the local language were on her trips here with her husband. All the business correspondence she handled was in English.
One very blond child took a step forward. “She’s a thief!” he said menacingly. The thin arms enveloped by Diana’s own cringed. “She stole my sister’s doll!”
“Not true!” the little girl retorted, wiping her forehead with a grubby hand.
“Yes, it is! And who took my black stone?” a different child asked. The group seemed to suddenly regain its bluster.
“She always steals things from us!” one of the two pursuers sneered. “She’s like that. And she never returns anything!”
Diana did not fully understand every word, but she grasped the accusation. “Is that true?” she asked the little girl in her arms with a serious expression that concealed her amusement at her new self-imposed task. What would Bob say when he heard that his wife had become a peacemaker for a group of street urchins?
“No!” The girl stamped her foot. “They just don’t watch over their own things and then they say it’s me who took them! It’s because they hate me!”
“Of course we hate you!” the blond kid said haughtily. “Because you’re a thief, like all the Jews!”
“They’re all dirty!” another kid chimed in, holding his nose, although his clothes hardly suffered from an overdose of cleanliness.
“Your clothes also smell like the Jews’ smell!” a freckled little girl said, giggling.
“Enough! How can you speak like that?!” Diana’s gentle soul no longer had any desire to laugh. Her heart went out to the child who had to face such a wave of hate. “I am sure that she hasn’t stolen anything from you, and you mustn’t hurt her. Do you understand? You mustn’t!”
The children looked at her silently, and their eyes held no promise of any type.
“Come, I’ll take you home. Where do you live?” Diana asked the little girl.
To her utter surprise, one of the girls burst out laughing. “She lives in my house; she has no other home.”
“And is that how you treat your guest?” Diana reprimanded. “Now show me where your building is.”
The group of children led her to a building on the edge of the street, with a narrow staircase on the side. The British woman climbed the stairs, clutching the hand of the persecuted child. When the girl pointed to one of the doors, Diana knocked on it firmly.
The door opened a crack and a pair of suspicious eyes peered out.
“Her again? What did she do now?” the woman sighed loudly as she opened the door wide. The woman was large, wearing an apron that had a large hole in the left side, and she had a hollow look in her eyes.