Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 6 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
“Hello, I’m Diana, from England,” Diana said as she walked inside, realizing that no invitation would be forthcoming, and if she wouldn’t take the step herself, she would find herself facing a closed door. “I’m here on business. I passed by downstairs and came across a serious fight between a group of children on the street and this girl. I understand she lives here.”
The woman nodded solemnly and her eyes narrowed into two slits.
“If I wouldn’t have saved her in time, she would have become a victim of their violence,” Diana said respectfully, hoping that such a tone would penetrate the woman’s obvious disinterest.
“As usual, it’s always her,” the woman groused. “I’m sick and tired of these stories.”
“You have to watch her more closely!” Diana said. “She’s your responsibility!”
The woman laughed; it was a hollow sound that matched the hollow look in her eyes. “I really don’t know if she’s my responsibility. My brother joined the Underground during the war and he somehow got a hold of this girl and gave her to us to care for, in exchange for money. She was a two-year-old baby at the time. My brother was killed by the Germans right at the end of the war, and since the Nazis left, the Underground courier who used to come regularly with the money hasn’t come. I’ve only kept her here out of the goodness of my heart; otherwise, I would have long thrown her into the street.”
Diana gaped. “You have to give her back to Jews,” she finally said. “She belongs to them. I’m sure that there’s someone there who looks after the lost children!”
The woman began to protest tiredly. “I have no time to find out exactly where to take her. I’m busy enough taking care of my baby and my house. In any case, although I would want to get her out of here, I don’t want to give her to the Jews. I think that a good Christian institution would make something more worthwhile out of her.”
The British woman was stunned. “No! You mustn’t!” she cried. “If she’s a Jew, she must be returned to her people. You can’t do that!”
“If she’s so important to the Jews, let them find her. I won’t run after them. But I think that next week, I’m going to send her away from here. I have a friend who works at the La Mercion convent in Brussels. I believe that if I write to her about the child, they’ll come and take her within a few days, and I’ll probably even get a nice sum of money for her.”
“You won’t do it!” Diana grasped the girl’s wrist tightly. “I’m taking her with me now. There’s a Jewish institution not far from here, in the city center. I’m going to bring her there!”
“As you wish…” the woman murmured, not looking as though she had any intentions of bidding the girl any sort of farewell.
The British woman looked at her hostess with revulsion. “Just tell me—do you know any details about her?”
The woman disappeared into a doorway. Diana utilized the opportunity to take a closer look at the girl beside her. Her eyes were an icy pale blue and her small mouth was pressed closed. Her face was expressionless.
The woman returned, holding a lone sheet of paper that was folded in half. “Everything’s written here,” she said. “You can go. Bye, Lara.”
But Diana was not quite ready to leave. “Clothes,” she said in a quiet, pointed tone. “Her belongings. Doesn’t she have anything?”
The woman laughed again; this time her tone was clearly nasty. “She has nothing. Everything belongs to us. You can go now.”
Diana hesitated for another few seconds and then walked towards the door. The girl stayed close to her side.
The raucous group waited for them downstairs. “You’re back?” one boy asked, eager to start up again. In response, Lara bent down towards a stone on the ground. The boy retreated hastily.
“Wild girl! Stone thrower!”
“You mustn’t throw a stone at him,” Diana said in a firm tone that did not successfully veil the smile that tugged at the corners of her lips. The girl dropped the stone and proffered her hand to Diana with surprising obedience. They began to walk away, and Diana saw out of the corner of her left eye how the girl turned around to the group of ruffians and stuck out her little tongue.
The streets were dark and chilly, and the British woman saw the child’s shoulders shaking uncontrollably. “You’re cold,” she said.
“No,” the girl said with clenched, bluish lips. “I am not cold.”
Diana chose to believe her eyes over her ears. She removed her jacket and placed it around the girl, wrapping her well. “No,” the girl said again, trying to shrug it off.
“Don’t take it off. Soon we’ll be where we have to go and you’ll give me back my coat.”
The girl raised her eyes fleetingly and then quickly lowered them as she met Diana’s gray eyes.
Sarah’s bright kitchen was only moderately air-conditioned, but Menuchi felt waves of chills coursing through her. “I hope that I’m not coming down with some type of summer flu,” she said nervously to her sister Sarah as she nibbled on a chocolate chip cookie.
“Nonsense, you know it’s not the flu,” Sarah said and poured her some water from the glass pitcher on the table. “Drink; Ima told me you’ve hardly eaten a thing today.”
“Right, I came home from school at two, and at 5:30 I was already on my way here with Abba.” She raised her eyes to the wall clock. “I just hope Abba gets back soon. I don’t have any patience to wait and be nervous that he won’t get here in time.”
“Calm down, Menuchi.” Sarah rose from her seat as a wail emerged from one of the other rooms. “It’s Shloimy.But listen—it’s only a quarter to seven. Abba said that he’ll be here by 7:30, im yirtzeh Hashem. The meeting isn’t scheduled until eight. Now you just have to wait patiently and calmly.”
“Wait patiently and calmly,” Menuchi echoed under her breath. “Just…”
Sarah returned to the kitchen a few minutes later carrying Shloimy wrapped in a blanket.
“Give him to me,” Menuchi said, stretching out her arms. “The best relaxation remedy you could give me is to hold this little one.”
The two-month-old clenched his little hands and yawned widely.
“Wish Menuchi hatzlachah!” his mother cooed to him. “She’s so nervous. Tell her!” She turned to her sister. “Okay, do you want to be by yourself a bit? I’ll take him. He has to go to sleep anyway.”
“No, no!” Menuchi hugged her nephew close to her. “I need him with me. The worst thing for me now is to be by myself. That’s when all the most depressing thoughts pop into my mind and that’s the last thing I need.”
Sarah laughed and sat down calmly on a wooden chair. “I understand you want to talk about other things now. Like what, school?”
Menuchi nodded enthusiastically. “That’s perfect. Today we came to school at eleven and split up into pairs to prepare the geography methods report. My partner was Sari Gross. We needed to choose a specific piece of learning material and write about its didactic difficulties and…” She paused and tittered nervously. “Okay, it’s not working. You know exactly where my thoughts are wandering.”
Sarah persisted. “Nu, and what else do you have left to do in school?”
“That’s it. This was the last thing. Next week we’ll get our report cards and two days after that, we graduate.”
“What’s going to be at the graduation?”
“I don’t know. Speeches, maybe a film presentation. A choir.”
“Don’t tell me your class is performing!”
Menuchi laughed again. “No, of course not; one of the younger classes, probably the one two years below us, will do the choir. They’re making the choir for their own performance and they must have agreed to appear for us as well…”
Shloimy let out a cry and kicked at the blanket.
“What’s the matter, sweetie? My tense muscles aren’t comfortable for you?” Menuchi murmured to him.
“Come, rock him in the cradle a bit if you’re looking for what to do,” Sarah suggested with a smile as she led her sister to the other room. “It’s a great way to keep your hands busy.”
Menuchi sighed, but followed. “Do you have a way to keep the mind busy?”
“Say some Tehillim,” Sarah said. “I’m sure it will help everything.”
“Right,” Menuchi agreed. “I will. I just hope I can concentrate. What time is it?”
“I wish Abba was here already!” Menuchi exclaimed.
“Menuchi, stop getting hysterical!” Sarah chided. “You know that Abba won’t be here before 7:30.”
“I’m afraid he’ll forget to come…” Menuchi murmured with a half-smile that drew a sharp look from her sister.
“Come on, don’t be such a baby! Instead of whining like that, sit and daven!”
“And who’s going to rock Shloimy?”
So Menuchi sat down to daven.
Antwerp, September, 1945
Diana started as she heard quick, loud barking. She tried to continue walking, afraid that the urchins had sent a dog after them. But the little hand encased in her own did not proceed. Diana lowered her gaze. The child was standing rooted in place, staring in all directions.
“Come, dear!” Diana urged.
“No!” the lips—no longer blue-tinged as before—mouthed. “He’s coming to me—he’s looking for me.”
“Who?” Diana asked, hoping that the child didn’t mean the barking dog. She detested dogs.
“I don’t know his name. He’s my friend.”
A huge black dog bounded out of one of the alleys. He was tremendous. Diana recoiled and stepped back, but was stunned to see the little girl running towards him. She kneeled on the dirty sidewalk, and the dog jumped into her arms enthusiastically, licking her face with his large pink tongue.
Diana averted her gaze. “Come. It’s late already. Tell him goodbye and we will go.”
The child rose with a submissive look, and the dog followed her. “He can come with us, can’t he?” she asked in a hopeful tone.
“Oh, no, he has to go back to his house and you have to come with me. Maybe you’ll still meet again.” The child returned to her quietly, and Diana kept an eye on the dog to make sure that he wasn’t coming after them.
But he was.
“Tell him to go,” she told the girl with a tremor in her voice, suddenly forgetting the child’s name.
The little girl suddenly burst into laughter, revealing a set of small, yellow teeth. “Are you afraid of him? Don’t be afraid; he doesn’t bite.”
“I’m not afraid,” Diana stressed. “But I really don’t like dogs and don’t want him to come near me.”
The child waved a skinny hand. “Go on, now! Off!” she ordered the dog, who looked at her with pitifully sad eyes before moving off.
“What’s your name again, my dear?” the British woman asked as she looked over her shoulder.
“Lara,” the girl said as she continued walking, dragging her feet somewhat.
“Is that your dog, Lara?”
The girl shook her head from side to side. “No, he doesn’t belong to anyone, just like I don’t. He’s just my friend and we play. Everyone else just fights with me.”
Diana stopped a woman who looked like she was in a bit less of a hurry than most of the others. “Excuse me, do you know where there is a Jewish refugee center in the area?”
The woman lowered her eyes to the girl and asked, “Do you mean HISO?”
“If so, then you’re very close. Continue on this road and at the third corner, near the shoe store, make a left. There’s a building right at the beginning of the road with a large wooden gate and three steps at the entrance. There are Jews there.”
Diana wanted to confirm that she had understood right and repeated her question in English. The response, also in English, was the same. She and Lara continued on their way, and a mere two minutes later, they found themselves standing in front of a two-story building.
“No animals allowed in,” the guard standing at the gate informed them.
Diana turned around, noticing with horror that the dog was still behind them. “He’s not coming with us,” she told the watchman. “Tell him goodbye, Lara.”
The office was on the top floor. It was large, crowded, and filled with babbling voices. A clerk sat at a narrow desk whose ghastly shade of black reminded Diana of the dog. Diana took a few steps forward, the girl clutching tightly at her skirt.
“I’ve brought this girl to you,” she said to the clerk in English. “Here are her details. She was with a Belgian family until now. I met her and found out that if you don’t take her under your auspices, she will be taken to a Christian convent. You certainly don’t want that to happen.”
The clerk cast a quick glance at the girl and scanned the paper Diana had handed him. “Shmuel, add to the list!” he called. “Leah Fuchs, age seven, daughter of Shraga and Gittel Fuchs from Antwerp.” He paused for a moment. “And call Rosa to come and take care of her!” He turned back to Diana. “And who are you?” he asked.
“Diana Molis, from England. I’m not Jewish.”
A mature-looking girl suddenly appeared. “Is this the girl?”
The clerk nodded. “Take her, Rosa. Do you have a bed for her?”
“There will be one,” the girl said tiredly. “Come with me, honey.”
But the girl raised a pair of frozen eyes to Diana and remained standing in her place.
“Go on, Lara, dear. Go with her. She will take you to a place where it will be good for you.”
“You brought her here?” Rosa turned to Diana. The clerk interjected one or two sentences in Yiddish, and Rosa raised her eyes to Diana with clear admiration. “Thank you for your efforts.”
“It’s fine,” Diana answered placidly, suddenly feeling overcome with exhaustion and a deep desire to be in her bed at her hotel. “I just did my duty.”
“Not everyone in your place would consider it their duty…” the girl murmured.
“Are you responsible for the children that don’t have, er, a … family?”
“Just for the younger group,” Rosa replied. “Eight children, ages three to eight. Now, dear, what’s your name? Lara? Come, let me show you to our room. It’s a nice room with pictures and photos. It’s across the street. There are lots of toys there, and you’ll meet some friends and we’ll tell stories and play together.” In a lower voice she added to Diana, “The room is full of toys and games during the day. At night, it is filled with cries and nightmares.”
The three walked down the stairs.
“Be a good girl, Lara,” Mrs. Molis said as she looked into those light, pitiful eyes. “And I hope it will be good for you here.”
She took a few steps in the opposite direction when she suddenly heard a small voice behind her.
“It’s … it’s yours!”
Lara held Diana’s blue jacket in her hand. “I don’t need it anymore. I’m not cold.”
Diana took the jacket and placed it back over her own shoulders. “You’re so sweet for remembering,” she told the girl. “Even I forgot.”
She followed the two figures with her gaze as they disappeared into the house across the street. Then, her eyes burning with exhaustion, Diana turned to the hotel, not even noticing the large black dog that had remained on the street corner, padding slowly behind her.