Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 21 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.
Senica, Czechoslovakia – 5708/1948
Ulush struggled with the window, but was unable to close it.
“It’s a little bit broken.” Her hostess’s pleasant voice came from behind. The young woman turned around, slightly embarrassed at the sight of the tray that had been placed on the round table.
“Just some coffee,” said Tessa Lieber as she poured milk into a cup of boiling water. “You haven’t eaten a thing since you got here.”
“Thank you,” Ulush said, and tried not to inhale the odor of the cows that wafted into the room together with the darkness and the cold. “But…I can’t really drink right now.”
“You have to,” Tessa insisted. “You don’t plan to fast, do you? You mustn’t!”
“I’m worried.” Ulush took the cup of coffee with trembling hands. “And you are so nice, welcoming in two people who just knocked at your door with no advance notice…”
“The pleasure is ours. We love having guests.” Tessa sat down on the edge of the bed in the small room. “And the fact that my husband knows your husband from before the war gives us a very good feeling. Drink, Ulush.”
“I’m so worried. And the smell of the cows bothers me. And I miss Edo…” And suddenly, Ulush burst out crying, and put the full cup back on the tray. A few drops splattered onto the floor.
“Who is Edo?” Tessa asked, rising to draw the curtain. If the window didn’t close, at least the curtain could filter out some of the smell that bothered her guest.
“It’s the child who was with us for four days. I helped smuggle him out of a gentile institution. He’s so small…and alone…and now, after Gustav suddenly disappeared on him, we also did!”
“I imagine that you had no choice,” Tessa said, trying to make sense of what Ulush was saying, despite not understanding much of it.
“It’s true. The risk was too big after Gustav disappeared.”
“And who is Gustav?”
“The other boy who was with us. He disappeared today… What will be if he comes back?”
“To our apartment.”
Tessa had no idea what she was supposed to say.
“I left him a note,” Ulush said, taking a deep breath, “without writing where we were going, of course. But I don’t think he’ll come back.”
“What did you write?”
“That he should wait for us next to the store where Janek bought him the pen. It’s very close to the Agudas Yisrael building, and Janek asked them to keep checking over the next few days—and nights—to see if a boy is standing there. They can even see the store from the window of the building.”
“You’re very clever,” Tessa said admiringly. “What about Edo—where is he?”
“Someone from the Vaad took him to his house for now.” She took a meticulously folded handkerchief out of her pocket. “When we’ll see what will be with us, and if all is fine, maybe we’ll take him back.”
Tessa nodded and stood up. “The men will be back from Ma’ariv soon,” she said. “I want to get a blanket for the broken window and blankets for the two of you. It’s freezing here at night.” She walked out of the room, but almost immediately stuck her head back in. “I’m putting up some eggs,” she declared. “You must eat before you go to sleep.”
This time, Ulush didn’t object.
A few moments later, the men returned, and Janek and Ulush sat down to supper, which, besides for the eggs, consisted of fresh bread, a block of white cheese, and a hot noodle kugel.
Ulush was hardly able to eat.
“I met Shlomke Brein in shul,” Janek said as he carefully peeled his egg.
“There’s a real shul here? From before the war?”
“What was here before the war was destroyed, but they turned a little hut into a decent shul, and there’s almost always a minyan there. It’s in a relatively good location, near the main roads and the city, but it’s also pretty quiet.” He looked at the tray on the table. “There’s plenty of food here, Ulush, and it’s not too hard to get. Why aren’t you eating?”
“I have no appetite,” Ulush whispered, turning the slice of kugel in her plate over and over. “I keep thinking about Edo. And about Gustav.”
“Brein told me—you know, he’s also very involved in these things—that in Trnava there’s a rather large group of children who received certificates—entry passes to Eretz Yisrael. I’m not sure they are genuine; I didn’t ask. With these things, it’s best to know as little as possible. But they are scheduled to leave the country in less than a week.”
“Who do these children belong to?”
“I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s the Agudah.”
“You don’t mean to suggest that we try to get Edo into that group, do you?”
“That we should try?” He raised his eyes. “Ulush, he’s not ours.”
“He is ours,” Ulush insisted. “I’m the one who got him out of those gentile hands, and that makes him sort of mine, at least a little bit. And I won’t let him be sent now with the freethinkers.”
“I think they are from the Mizrachi.”
“Then the Mizrachi. That’s bad enough. There’s nothing to discuss! I don’t know what happened to Gustav. I didn’t watch him closely enough, and I don’t know where he is now. But I won’t let Edo be taken away.”
“I understand,” he said hastily. In the kitchen, on the other side of the house, their hosts were trying to be sensitive and give the couple their space. But Janek was sure that they could clearly hear them arguing and his wife now crying. “But I think you’re making a mistake, Ulush.”
“You would send him with the Mizrachi, Janek?”
“I wasn’t talking about that. I was talking about the fact that Gustav, after all is said and done,” he sighed, “is already a big boy. You weren’t supposed to watch him more than you already did, and you mustn’t feel guilty that he disappeared.”
She rubbed her eyes. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, gazing dumbly at the noodles mashed up on her plate. Had she just done that? Was she really the same person who, not that long ago, didn’t believe she would ever see noodles again? Certainly not clean ones. Or hot ones. And especially not ones that were sprinkled with chopped walnuts. “But we must not neglect Edo.”
“And if we leave him in Bratislava, and the people from the orphanage track him down? Will that be better than if he travels with the group from Trnava?”
“No,” Ulush said tightly. “But if we bring him here, it will be better.”
“Here? To this tiny room?”
“You said you’d find us a house.”
“B’ezras Hashem. But it might take a few days. What will happen in the meantime?”
She was quiet.
“You know what?” Janek said gently. “It’s foolish to argue over this. So far the directors of the group from Trnava haven’t sent the Agudah offers to include any of our children. They must have enough people of their own who want certificates, if they have any spare ones. So for now, Edo is in Bratislava, and we are here, and when I find us a house or a room to rent, we’ll discuss it again, alright?”
“What’s doing, Miri? How is it to get back to routine after all the partying?” It was nice to meet Dena, her father’s younger sister, in the middle of Chazon Ish Street. She leaned over Shmuelly’s carriage and cooed at him as he gazed at her, wide-eyed. “Wait, it hasn’t yet been fourteen weeks, has it?”
“Good, so you’re still on maternity leave… Do you visit your mother a lot? Do you see Tzippy?”
Miri rolled her eyes theatrically. “Who dares disturb a young couple?”
Dena chuckled. “They need to recover, huh? What a wedding they had…a real party that was! Not to mention the Shabbos sheva brachos. Believe me, your mother deserved that relaxing Shabbos on Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim. She must have worked so hard these past few weeks. It’s not easy to marry off a daughter in just four weeks!”
“Sure.” Miri cooperated by nodding vigorously. “Not easy at all.”
“Is it true that the couple is also getting a monthly stipend for the first year?” Dena asked, not aware that the drop in her tone lent her question a curious-gossipy tinge. “Your father didn’t really want to talk much about this grant, so I didn’t get the whole picture.”
Ahhh. But they don’t want to talk too much about this grant with me either, Auntie dear. So I don’t have the whole picture either.
Why don’t they talk to me about it? Probably so I shouldn’t be jealous. They don’t want my envy to harm my sweet, rich younger sister.
But it doesn’t help! I AM jealous!!
“If my father doesn’t want to talk about it, then I guess you shouldn’t be asking me…” she said with a smile.
“Of course, of course.” Dena retreated hastily. “So, what’s there to say? You really need special mazel to be named Tziporah Genendel and to get engaged to a boy named Peretz. I was beginning to think that it’s too bad I didn’t give my Shuli that name: Tziporah Genendel. After all, Tziporah was our grandmother on one side, and Genendel was the grandmother on the other side. None of my brothers or sisters thought about connecting the two names, except for your father…”
“And if you would have named her that, you would have also had to find her a chassan named Peretz,” Miri said, joining in the game.
“Peretz isn’t such an unusual name,” Dena insisted. “I’m sure that we could find one.” Suddenly she began to laugh. “Okay, I’m really too old for these ‘Let’s Pretend’ games… Hey, she lives pretty close to here, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, on Nechemiah. It’s not far from here.”
“But not near your house.”
“Right. I live in Pardes Katz.” In a tiny, dingy apartment.
“So what are you doing here now? On your way to your mother?”
“No, she’s at work now. I’m going to pop in to visit my grandfather. Since my mother started working, I try to go see him twice a week in the morning.”
“Good for you, devoted granddaughter! What about after you go back to work?”
“I only work three days a week,” Miri said. “I’m a rotating substitute preschool teacher in a few different preschools; I don’t have my own class. But baruch Hashem. It’s three full days, with the afternoon program, so it adds up.”
“Where are the preschools?”
“Two in Ramat Gan and one in Tel Aviv. They belong to the frum preschool network.”
“That’s great,” her aunt said, accompanying her down the street. “That’s how you start. I’m sure that the supervisors there will see how talented and capable you are, and they’ll give you more hours.”
“I hope so.” And while I’ll be working those extra hours, my sister will be resting in her pretty house as that monthly stipend glides into her bank account. And based on the amount of money that has been streaming in until now, she probably won’t be getting a measly thousand shekel a month, or even two thousand. What was it Dena had said? ‘You really need special mazel to be named Tziporah Genendel.’ Right. Extremely special mazel.
Aunt and niece parted, and two minutes later, Miri walked into the elevator in the old-age home. She hoped Saba would be in a good enough mood, because if he would only want to sleep like last Monday, she would just become more frustrated. Saba had never been a big talker, but even as a girl she always knew that she could tell him her secrets from kindergarten or school, and ask him questions that bothered her. Whenever she spoke to him, she felt like she was getting special treatment, saved only for oldest granddaughters.
The door to the room was open a bit, and Miri was taken aback to hear voices from inside.
“And look at this picture, where you are making the brachah under the chuppah. I want to frame it and hang it here in this room. It’s such a stunning picture, Saba, isn’t it?”
Miri pushed open the door to find Tzippy sitting at the round table with Saba, bent over a large photo album.