Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 6 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.
Bratislava – 5704/1944
The representatives of the occupying government who arrived at the orphanage turned out not to be soldiers. There were two members of the city council, one Russian policeman, and another person in uniform who introduced himself as “Anatoly Stachov, a member of the Communist Party,” but didn’t provide much detail about his exact position or rank. In any case, it didn’t interest the director much; he just kept scurrying around his guests like a starving mouse, trying to curry their favor, to the point where the older children exchanged small smiles at the sight. They had never seen the director grovel like this to anyone.
Gustav did not smile. He wasn’t old enough to understand the comical scene, and besides, the only thing he could think about was which of the guests he could ask questions to without being embarrassed.
He finally decided that the fat man from the city council, the guy who hardly spoke, would have time for him. The man was standing near the wall with a lit cigarette, and Gustav sidled up to him.
The man took the cigarette out of his mouth. “Go play, kid,” he said in a gruff voice.
“Did you see my mother?”
“My mother. Theodore said that maybe you saw her on your way here.”
The man narrowed his eyes, his eyebrows almost covering them completely. “Me?”
“Why? Do you not know where she is?”
“No, I don’t know. She traveled east, Theodore said, and that’s a place where people don’t come back from.”
“So if they don’t come back, they don’t come back,” the man said decisively.
“But you did come back,” the child insisted. “So maybe she also did. Did you see her?”
The man looked at him with a lopsided smile. “Go play,” he repeated.
“Don’t want to,” Gustav whispered quietly, so the man shouldn’t hear him.
A few minutes later, he heard the director’s familiar whistle. Once again, the boys lined up in orderly rows, gazing at the guests. Anoatoly Stachov delivered an endless speech; Gustav did not understand even a quarter of it. As he wrapped it up, and everyone thought he was finally finished, he suddenly said, “Just a small question I was asked to find out— are there any Jewish children here?”
A moment of silence ensued, and then the director replied, “What? Jewish children whose parents wanted to hide them here? No. Not even one.”
“I see,” the Party member said. He rubbed his hands together. “Fine, so next week, the new supervisor will be coming, and with this I think we have concluded our vis—”
“One minute.” The stocky man detached himself from the wall and approached the rows of children, who were already shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. “Comrade Stachov, I think you did not get accurate information. There is one Jewish child here.” His eyes scanned the room until he found Gustav. He waved in his direction with the butt of his burning cigarette. “That boy.”
“I’m telling you that it’s worrying.” Elishva cut the avocado in cubes as best she could, given its uneven form.
Everything worries you lately, Eliyahu wanted to say, but instead he asked, “Why? Why is it worrying?”
“Well, why should anyone be inquiring about a shidduch that happened already? I mean, the couple is engaged by now! And to inquire about their names? I’m afraid that something about this shidduch is problematic, and someone wants to check into it before letting us know that.”
“Speak quietly,” Eliyahu requested, taking the darkened slices of bread out of the toaster. It was 1:15 in the morning, a strange hour to be eating supper. But this was the regular time for their evening meal. They could find no other time for quiet conversation.
“Tell me, Elisheva. What did she say? That the caller told them he was planning to call us?”
“Yes, that’s what he told them. I don’t know if he was saying the truth or being sarcastic.” She put down the plate of salad and glanced at the kitchen door. “I feel like unplugging the phone.” She sighed and smiled at the same time, and then raised her hand in a “stop” motion. “You don’t have to tell me it’s foolish, because I won’t do it. I just said I feel like doing it.”
They washed their hands and began to eat in silence.
Eliyahu spoke first. “What was the man’s name?” he asked.
“Rosenblatt or Rosenblit, or something like that.”
“Doesn’t help us much.”
“Don’t tell me you want to go look for him!” she gasped.
“I don’t have who to look for,” Eliyahu said with a chuckle. “We have no information to even start a search. Besides, it’s possible that the man was just a curious someone doing some research on names.”
“Yes. You agree that names like Peretz and Genendel are a lot less common than Moshe and Sarah, right?”
“Then why did he ask about the date of the wedding?” She took a deep breath. “Look, you might be right, Eliyahu; it could be that it’s nothing. But I have this fear of excessive nosing around into family history.”
She didn’t reply. Instead, she stood up to boil water for coffee. In the past, when they’d eaten at “normal” hours, coffee was always off the menu, because it prevented her from falling asleep. But by now she knew that once she reached this state of exhaustion, coffee had little effect on her.
She wouldn’t tell Eliyahu how her father’s unknown identity frightened her. True, it was a given that she was Jewish, because there were no questions about her mother. But that was only one side of her roots.
Eliyahu never understood why she was so perturbed about the second side, the empty, hollow side. The side that they knew nothing about.
Morning arrived too quickly, as always, and the regular tumult and noise banished the story of Sari Goodman from Elisheva’s mind. Only as she hurried down the street to work, with four-year-old Bentzy holding her right hand, and Chani and Esty skipping merrily on her left, did she suddenly remember the look in Tzippy’s eyes a moment before she’d left the house. Was the girl worried, perhaps?
“Bye, sweetie!” she called to Bentzy, waving to him as he walked up the path to his preschool, which was two buildings away from the daycare center where she worked. Then she bid Chani and Esty goodbye, and they continued on to school, while she entered the daycare building. Even before switching on the light in the small area she was in charge of, she took out her phone.
“I just got to work, Tzippy,” she said when her daughter picked up. “Um…I wanted to ask you to remind Devoiry about the appointment she has right after school, okay? Did she leave already?” Out of the corner of her eye she saw the father of the Dvir twins at the entrance, unstrapping them from their double carriage.
“No, she says she has a test today, and they are starting at nine.”
“And what about you?”
“I start today at ten.”
Tzippy didn’t say a word about the story with Sari. Elisheva had to admit to herself that it was very possible that she wasn’t worried about it at all. Who said the matter had bothered her?
When they had come home the night before, Tzippy had showed Eliyahu the sheitel she had chosen, and they had both told him about the funny call that the Goodmans had received. Only later that night, during supper, had Elisheva raised her suspicions about the story. But when Tzippy had been with her, she’d just made a big joke out of the whole thing.
Just like she joked about the mold stains in the sink and the bottom cabinets, and the way the crowding in the living room had became a family joke as soon as it had begun. The cheerful din in her home was just that—quite cheerful.
She didn’t lie. She wasn’t faking the cheer. Elisheva had always been the optimistic type, who liked to live life on the bright side, and to be happy and feel pleasure with everything she’d been blessed with.
But on occasion, a different Elisheva paid her a visit—on the inside, at least. This was an Elisheva that no one else knew, one that knew how to rebel and kick and scream, and to shout that, “Yes, I know that having thirteen children is a blessing, and of course I’m very grateful, but in a small three-room apartment, it’s not always simple or easy!” Or that, “The kids’ noise is lively and wonderful and happy, but sometimes, yes, I do get a headache from it, and I need some quiet and private space for myself!” Or that, “This ancient fridge might be very nostalgic, but when it starts leaking, or freezes things and ruins them, well, then I want a new fridge, something like the shiny model I saw yesterday in the magazine ad!”
And in the last year or two—was she just getting older?—these sentiments had begun to leak out a bit, although never around the children. And she hoped that wouldn’t ever happen; she wanted them to grow up in a calm and happy setting.
“Ima!” Chani welcomed her at lunchtime. “Ima, a Mr. Rosenblit called; he asked that you call him back urgently.”
Elisheva stared at the note written in Chani’s neat writing. “Rosenblit? Who is that?” She put down her bag, a bit confused. Then the name clicked in her mind, and with a gush of relief she silently thanked Hashem that Tzippy wasn’t home right now, and that she hadn’t heard the name.
“I don’t know. It was someone who spoke very fast, and I hardly understood a word. He asked for my mother or father, and when I said they are not home, he left this number and said you should please call him back.”
Last night Elisheva was sure that if she’d get such a call, she would not be able to do a thing, and if anything needed to be done, she would leave it to Eliyahu. But since then, morning had dawned, and last night’s fears had morphed several times over into different forms. Now, holding the piece of paper with the phone number, she felt more curious than anything else. Intensely curious, in fact. What did this Rosenblit want?
“I’ll call,” she said. “Thanks, Chani.”
Where could she find a quiet place to make the call? Her bedroom? Two-year-old Nati was lying on her bed, focused on his pacifier as he tried to fall asleep. On the floor, Shloimy and Bentzy were silently coloring together. She didn’t want to disturb the idyllic scene. The kitchen was out of the question, and so were the dining room, the girls’ closed-off porch, and the little bedroom.
She’d go outside.
So that was how she found herself standing behind the building, huddled between the garbage dumpster and the parking lot, calling the mysterious Mr. Rosenblit.