Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 3 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“You’re asking why, Abba?” He ate while she spoke and folded his napkin over and over. “We’re asking the same thing… I know that there are people for whom it is accepted that the parents of the couple pay for the first bris, but we’d never even thought about that. Then, a month before Miri had the baby, I went to a bris that the mechutanim made. Yaakov’s younger sister had a baby and they invited us.” Elisheva’s eyes stared almost blankly at the fish on her father’s plate.
“The mechuteiniste made me feel very good. She’s a very warm woman; I’m happy for Miri that she is her mother-in-law. As we were talking, she casually mentioned that they had ordered the hall and chosen the menu and made all the arrangements with the head waiter. And then she said, ‘Of course, if my Sarah would have wanted to decide about these things, I would have left it to her. But she said that if we’re paying, then we get the right to choose.’” Elisheva smiled. “The mechuteiniste quickly added that the other side had paid half, but because they live far away, she was left to arrange it all. And I’ve been worrying about it ever since.”
She filled Abba’s cup with seltzer. “Almost all of Miri’s salary goes to paying their mortgage on that tiny apartment. I really don’t think they can pay for a bris right now. But we can’t either! Part of my salary goes to the mortgage also, and to pay up debts from her wedding, not to mention what I have to give for Tzippy now… And even though people say that you can make a bris on a much smaller scale, something at home, it will still cost something. Where am I getting that money from? Another loan? What’s this expense going to come in place of? Devoiry’s root canal that we’ve waited nearly half a year to take care of? And anyway, where exactly am I supposed to make a bris in my house?”
An outsider listening to this conversation would have surely thought that this daughter was trying to play on her father’s heartstrings, to extract as much money as she could from him. But both Elisheva and her father knew that this was not the case. Abba didn’t even have a hundred shekel in cash to give her. The money that he received for renting out his one-room apartment went straight into the account of the assisted living facility. His tiny pension and senior citizen allocation went to pay for his medications and other vital necessities.
If he would have had what to give her, she would already have asked long ago. This bris was just a tiny drop in the huge ocean that was engulfing them. But it was this drop that felt like the last straw; it was making her windpipe contract to the point that she felt like she was choking. Literally.
Maybe it was because when the costs were necessities, things they had no choice but to pay for, it was easier to run around borrowing and repaying. But when it came to things that were only a matter of good will—why should she and Eliyahu have to choke more than they were already choking?
The Slovakian director of the “Lucius Jan Catholic Children’s Home” was an avowed anti-Semite. He’d never dreamed that there would be Jews among the young charges in his care, certainly not after the ruling party headed by Hlinka, his teacher and mentor, had managed to gain autonomy for Slovakia. But it was a fact, and the one responsible for it happening was his second-in-command, Theodore Heinke, a Slovak of German extraction. One morning, in March 1942, he appeared in the Home’s office and placed a frightened toddler on the rug. The child was at most three years old.
The director wrinkled his nose. “Zhid,” he spat.
“Could be,” Heinke said calmly, settling into an armchair. “But it’s all a matter of decision. If it bothers you to think about it, then you can also decide that he’s not.”
“Where did you find him?”
“Behind a gate.” He lit a cigarette and after a moment added, “In the name of fairness, I saw the Hlinka Brigades walking away from the street with a group of expellees. It’s likely his parents were among them.”
The child sucked his thumb avidly and looked at the two men.
“So why didn’t you run after them to return the child to them?” the director burst out. “Where is your Slovakian patriotism? We are paying the Germans five hundred marks for every Slovakian Jew they deport for us, and you’re trying to ruin it?”
“I’m trying to save the nation five hundred marks.” Theodore smiled crookedly. “It will be fine, Farash. Leave something to me.”
“I’m going to inform on your unfaithfulness to the party heads.”
“No, you won’t.” Theodore threw a cigarette at him. “Here, take one and calm down.”
The director caught the cigarette in two hands and rummaged in his pocket for a lighter, while Theodore continued. “I didn’t do anything terrible. At worst, in a year or two, the kid will convert to become a Catholic, and that will be the end of the story.”
“According to the racial doctrine, Jewish blood remains for eternity,” the director drawled.
“Do you believe in the German racial doctrine, or in the Catholic religion? Because according to Christianity, a Jew can be converted to a Christian. You don’t need me, your deputy, to tell you that minor detail, right?”
“Do you need me to tell you what every honest Slovakian priest who you will ask that to, will tell you?”
“You know what he’ll tell me? Whatever answer will be most profitable for him.” Theodore stuck out his long legs.
“Right.” The director took a long puff. “So, how do I get to profit from taking this Jew?”
“I’ll think of something nice.”
“We’ll see. It’s wartime now, Farash!”
“I’m ready to wait a little while. But only a little while.”
“Deal. As far as we are concerned, the child’s parents probably were killed in the recent bombings. The house was destroyed, and we have no documents for him. And the doors of this Home opened to him with love and compassion, like they are supposed to open before each and every person.” He stood up from the chair, not deigning his boss with another glance.
“Come, child,” he said. “And maybe take that thumb out of your mouth so that we can check if you’ve remembered your name?”
The child raised dry eyes to him and stuck his left thumb into his mouth, too.
“Forget it,” Farash said, looking at the child through slitted eyes. “It’s better that we shouldn’t know his name.”
“You’re right, as usual. So what will we call him? For the paperwork, you know.”
“Call him whatever you want. You’re in charge of arranging all his documents. I won’t risk my status in the party for…” And he spat out the end of the sentence in a fierce whisper.
“Of course, of course.” Heinke’s courteous smile remained unchanged. “It’s all on me, Farash. You can go back to your affairs.” He offered the boy his hand, and the child obediently went with him to the large, empty dining room. Without a word, he hungrily ate the bowl of soup that Theodore set before him.
“More,” he said when he’d finished.
“Your first word,” Theodore pointed out. “Not particularly polite, but at least I can understand it.” He filled another plate with thin potato soup. The child finished this portion to the last drop, as well.
“Now.” Theodore dragged over another chair to the huge table and glanced toward the kitchen. The cook seemed busy washing the heavy enamel pots, and the noise of the running water blocked out their conversation. “What’s your name?”
Theodore Heinke chuckled. “Your name is Mama?”
“And where do you live?”
“I think I get the idea. Your family name is Mama, your father was called Mama, and you are Mama’s son…” He rubbed his right eyebrow. “Alright, let’s find you a bed. Come, ‘Mama.’”
“Gustav is a better name for him.” The director was standing by the door, gnawing on the butt of the cigarette that Theodore had given him and pointing with his chin to the child. “At least this way you will remember at any given moment what the true reason that you brought him here is.”
“A different name would be better.”
“No,” the director said. “If I still have any word around here, this will be it. Gustav.”
“Fine,” Theodore said submissively. “Come along, Gustav.”
The director looked after them when they left the dining room. “I’m not to blame that he had a little one who died of tuberculosis, and he was called Gustav,” he whispered, loud enough for Theodore to hear. “And he shouldn’t think I don’t know about this soft spot of his.”
Over the next few days, Theodore tried to extract some identifying information from the boy, but without success. Aside from the word ‘Mama,’ he provided no information.
As the weeks passed, he loosened up and began speaking like the other children. But there wasn’t a word about himself. Fortunately, he spoke fluent German, which somewhat calmed the director’s tension about him.
“Maybe he’s German, like you,” he told Heinke. To himself Theodore thought that it was more likely that the child was Jewish and that the family had spoken Yiddish. Because of the area where they lived, their Yiddish had probably taken on the German dialect, which was very similar.